Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Letter from a Reader

Hello Sergio,

I wanted to reach out to you and share how much I relate to the personal essays in Crossing Borders. I am currently an undergrad student at the University of California, Irvine studying Spanish with an emphasis in Education. Like the majority of immigrant families in California, my family is originally from Mexico. Del Norte del país, estado de Durango to be more specific, just like your family.

I truly admire how much involvement your parents had in your education growing up. Most importantly, I admire you for carrying those family values and raising Aaron and Isaac the way you did. Unfortunately I grew up with a single mom, who worked until late hours of the night to provide for my siblings and me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be grateful for the sacrifice she’s made for our family, but she had very little involvement in my educational path. And as I continue on this path, I see our relationship growing more distant. Like you and your mother, my mom and I always had a really good friendship, but being away from home has made it difficult to relate to each other’s lives.

I see myself growing apart from my mom, my comfort zone, and for what purpose? I am surrounded by Asian, Middle Eastern, and white students who walk around like they have their lives figured out. Upper-class students who pull up to the parking lot in their Audis, Mercedes, Lexus; they would never be able to relate to my family’s financial situation. They would never know what it’s like to sleep in the living room because their family of six can barely afford a two-room duplex located in what’s considered the “ghetto.” Yet here I am, reading over your personal essays and reflecting on my decision to cross this border. My decision to continue with my educational goals, even if it meant growing apart from my mom, and her contribution to my Mexican identity. So more than anything, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone.

I truly want to make a difference in our Mexican-American/Latino community. The families in our community need to make a change and be more college-oriented. We need more families like yours. More parents like Bertha and Rodolfo because a “Mexican accent” doesn’t stop them from getting involved in their children’s education. And for the parents who do not have the time to get involved like my mom, at least get them to understand the importance of a higher education.

Anyway, I hope you get to read this really long message. Even if you don’t respond, I just want you to see the impact your personal essays had on my personal life. Thank you and I am definitely interested in reading more of your work!

Alejandro Favela


Alejandro, I've read and re-read your letter several times. I write for readers just like you, and I can only say thank-you for writing such a wonderful, heartfelt letter to this writer. Every writer who toils alone for years deserves a letter like this, which gives him encouragement to keep writing. And yes, you are not alone. I am with you, if only from afar.

I think it's a difficult journey we are making, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be making the journey. I think you should be proud of your mother (as I am of my parents) for what they could teach you, about hard work, sacrifice, friendship. She may not understand everything you are doing now, but make an effort to get back into her community, to teach her about what you know now and why it matters to you.

I know you will find others who assume their position in life, who seem so much more sophisticated than you, who will never understand the poverty you grew up with. I know I did. Take it as an advantage, the advantage of being real, the advantage of knowing good people exist in all strata of life, the advantage of not being easily consumed by things. I have met so many people who assume they are right simply because they are rich. You show them otherwise. As a teacher once told me, "You show them that a Mexicano can beat them with his mind!"

Yes, you are right that I am trying to write about the great values we have in our community, through books like Crossing Borders, and how to translate those values in other settings beyond where we grew up. That's what will move our community forward, in my opinion. I believe we should also criticize those values that are not helpful to us, and leave them behind. I want this conversation to occur in our community, so that we can be self-reflective, so that we can improve ourselves, so that we can be proud of ourselves, yet without being idealistic or romantic about our community.

Thank you for reading my work. You made my day.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas 1963: Context and Questions

Dallas 1963 (Twelve, 2013), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, takes the reader back to the city of Dallas and to the years before that fateful day on November 22, 1963. In this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, this important book raises several fascinating questions.

To what extent was Dallas already the “City of Hate” before the assassination? What role did conservative figures play in creating this paranoid milieu? How does this environment in part mirror current conservative attacks against President Barack Obama? Did the hateful environment in Dallas contribute to, or encourage, or explain Kennedy’s assassination?

The Dallas of 1960 is a city where the Ku Klux Klan once had its national headquarters, the current mayor had once been an unabashed KKK member, and important statues celebrate Confederate heroes. The Dallas Morning News is led by publisher Ted Dealey, who refers to Washington, D.C. as “nigger town” and joins oilman H. L. Hunt in supporting the belief that the United Nations is creating a world socialist system. For them, JFK’s support of Medicare is tantamount to “sweeping dictatorial power over medicine” and will create government death panels. This is Obamacare’s déjà vu.

Joining these powerful citizens is Rev. W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who sermonizes that JFK’s Roman Catholicism is a “political tyranny” that threatens the very fabric of the U. S. of A. Meanwhile, General Edwin A. Walker resigns from the military, finds Dallas politically hospitable, and gives speeches to adoring local crowds where he exhorts unleashing nuclear holocaust on the Soviet Union, even at the price of millions of casualties stateside. Super-patriot Walker wants to overthrow the “totalitarian regime” of Kennedy, and files to run for Texas governor in February of 1962.

Stirring this toxic stew, and exploiting it, is Representative Bruce Alger from Dallas, the lone Republican in the Texas delegation, and an arch conservative. During a visit from Lyndon B. Johnson on the eve of the 1960 election, Alger leads a “mink coat mob” that attacks LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson. A sign in Alger’s hands reads “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.”

Later when U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson visits Dallas in October of 1963, Frank McGehee, the Dallas founder of the National Indignation Convention, adopts the tactics of conservative intimidation by leading a mob to disrupt Stevenson’s speech. One protester, a Dallas insurance executive, slams a placard on Stevenson’s forehead.

Oddly, Lee Harvey Oswald is a relatively minor figure in this book, a Socialist sympathizer who nearly assassinates General Walker in April of 1963 and later kills Kennedy. This is odd because Dallas 1963 repeatedly hints that the hateful conservative milieu in Dallas somehow portended JFK’s assassination. But how exactly? Was Oswald drawn to Dallas because of its conservative fanaticism, and so he decided to combat it there? Why did he turn the rifle instead on JFK? These questions and any others explicitly linking the right-wing hate in Dallas to what happened on November 22, 1963 (at least the official and most likely version of events) are not answered in this book. We are left to make these links somehow on faith.

Dallas 1963 is a meticulously researched book that brings you back to a place and time beset by a mass or even class psychosis, where innuendo and wild accusations gain currency, where zealots sound reasonable, and wild and murderous ideas are taken seriously, and acted upon. The dark side of democratic rule, too often, is the rule of the mob. When that mob has power, money, news media, and well-spoken leaders, then the most inhumane acts can be perpetuated by societies in the name of what is ‘right.’ Dallas 1963 will help readers gain a perspective that resonates with the caustic politics that have unfortunately become the norm today.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 3, 2013.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

First Week of College

I traveled 477 miles from New York City to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and back, to revisit Northern Essex Community College (NECC) last week. This time I was visiting the Bridge Program, a free primer for entering students to help them acclimate to college. These students, all Latino and mostly Dominicano, remind me of who I was over thirty years ago: a poor kid from the U.S.-Mexico border with no clue at Harvard. Coincidentally, this was the same week when my wife Laura and I dropped off our son Aaron at Yale, for the start of his freshman year.

One of the issues that stuck in my mind at NECC was this: how do we identify and help those poor kids who are driven to move up, who are ready to sacrifice for themselves and their families, and who are pulling themselves up by their boot straps, awkwardly, tentatively, but with an undeniable hunger? Because that’s how I was.

In the United States, we spend so much effort militarizing the border, throwing money at the border security industrial complex, and giving air-time to fear-mongers only too eager to bash poor people and their neighborhoods. Imagine if we spent the same billions of dollars on identifying those children of undocumented workers with stellar school records, with the right family values to succeed, with the framework to be the best of citizens. Imagine if we helped these young people become productive college graduates and taxpayers.

Imagine if we made the effort to know poor Mexicano neighborhoods like Ysleta, where I grew up, to understand which families had disciplined parents, which families refused food stamps, like my own family, because the parents thought it was shameful. Instead of vilifying poor families as the parasites of society, instead of attacking these convenient and awful abstractions in pseudo ‘arguments,’ imagine making careful distinctions. Imagine doing the hard work of practical thinking, and implementing this as policy.

In class at NECC, we discussed my novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, and then I went to lunch with the students, administrators, and teachers of the Bridge Program. I spoke to one young woman who made an impression on me. Kiara was focused and intelligent, she wanted to be a radiologist, her father was a taxi driver, and her sister had already graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, after attending NECC. I had a long conversation with Kiara, and I could tell she was going places.

I had made that leap too, from being poor to the middle class, with loving but tough Mexicano parents who taught me to work beyond exhaustion and avoid the drugs and gangs of our neighborhood. I went from being marginalized in society, ignored, and even laughed at (sometimes by other Mexicanos and Chicanos full of envidia, jealousy), to self-education through cultural sacrifice, financial savings through pain, and learning-on-the-fly through fear. I saw a younger version of myself in Kiara. Will others take the time to see this potential in individuals like Kiara? I always have that hope.

This same week I told my son Aaron, as we moved him into Yale’s Old Campus, that if he saw a poor student looking shell-shocked, as if Yale were a different planet from, say, the Chihuahuan Desert, to help that person, to give him or her advice, to be friendly. “Aaron, I was that freshman, I didn’t even know what the Ivy League was, I was too quiet in class, I ate alone in the dining hall, at least at the beginning, I wasn’t sure I belonged at Harvard. I thought they had made a mistake.”

Our son Aaron is a New York City kid, savvy beyond his years. Before this week, he had visited Yale often, as the head of the Model United Nations group at his high school. I would have been intimidated by a freshman like Aaron. I would have marveled at the ease with which he navigated this strange world of the Ivy League. I know Aaron will take my advice to heart and seek out those who need help and who want to help themselves but may not know how. For two years in New York, Aaron volunteered to tutor poor students who could not afford to pay for expensive private tutors. We are proud of both Aaron and Isaac, not only for their intellectual prowess, but also for the good citizens they have become.

What Laura and I have always taught our kids is that we are connected to each other. Even if we struggled and succeeded, that does not mean we should only look after ourselves. We should help those coming up, who want what we have achieved, who have that same drive and discipline to achieve it, who deserve a chance. By helping los de abajo, you improve your entire community. By seeing and understanding those different from you, you remember who you were, you sharpen your empathy, you decide to find out for yourself (and not accept what you are told). By seeking out that ‘other,’ whoever that other may be, you will learn from them too.

Readings and Appearances

Reading of excerpts: Crossing Borders: Personal Essays

Take a look at a recommended list of books for children and young adults, novels, nonfiction books, poetry, and short story collections at