Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pandemic Flu and Xenophobia: A History Lesson

The year 1918 was an exciting and terrible time for El Paso and the border: the Mexican Revolution was nearing its bloody end and an outbreak of Spanish influenza incited one of the most shameful and neglected episodes in American history: the decades-long delousing of Mexicans, with insecticides, gasoline, kerosene, and cyanide-based pesticides to make them ‘clean.’ David Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution recounts this remarkable story.

Today when we are facing another pandemic flu, it is useful to review the irrational decisions made back in 1918, by demagogues who already hated Mexicans and who used the fear in the populace to advance an agenda that didn’t in fact help to stop the spread of Spanish influenza. Delousing physically harmed and psychologically scarred thousands of Mexicans, including my grandfather Santiago Troncoso. Let’s not repeat this kind of American history, but learn from it.

First, facts. The ‘Spanish influenza’ began in Kansas. Why it was given this misnomer is probably another legacy of how easily it is to blame the poor and those not media savvy. Also, of course, gasoline and kerosene and pesticides did not kill the Spanish flu, but it did harm and shame many people who were forced to strip naked at the border as they were sprayed with ‘the solution.’ Finally, and most remarkably, Zyklon B was used in El Paso in 1929, the same chemical agent that in more concentrated form was subsequently employed by the Nazis in their death camps to exterminate the Jews. Romo even uncovers evidence to suggest that the use of Zyklon B in El Paso directly inspired German scientists to start looking into its properties for cleansing a country of its ‘pests.’

Today the possible pandemic is swine flu, and we should redouble our efforts to act on facts, rather than on fears or prejudices that end up hurting innocents, or worse. I am waiting for a weak politician, or media loudmouth, to exploit the swine flu fears to further a xenophobic agenda. I am waiting to see whether stereotypes of Mexicans are privately reinforced and maybe even publicly acted upon, with the same bloody results. I hope I will have to wait forever, but I am still wary.

I don’t know if we as a country have a mature-enough political discourse to resist such temptations. The glib media rule the airwaves, including Twitter, and passing along short bursts of fear, instead of thoughtful analysis, is our modern forte. Moreover, the groundwork for xenophobia against Mexicans has already been reinforced by the many years of attacks demonizing undocumented workers in the United States. Perhaps the saving grace of the current situation is that we have a new administration that I believe will be more sensitive to the abuse of public hysteria to further a xenophobic agenda.

Early reports, in the Wall Street Journal, for example, indicate that this swine flu outbreak did start in Mexico. But even here the picture is more complicated than we might think. One of the first swine-flu cases was that of a five-year-old boy from Veracruz who lived near a pig farm operated by Smithfield Foods Inc., an American company based in Virginia. The company denies any involvement in the swine flu outbreak.

All this tells me is that we are interconnected, whether we like it or not. We get our food from all over the world. We get our people from all over the world. This has been our world for a long time, and I don’t attempt to imagine some false pure state where I am island and if I return to this island I will somehow be safer, or better, or truer in some metaphysical sense. Reaching back, or forward, to false utopias, especially during crises in our communities, has always prevented us from solving the problems in the first place, and too often spawned horrific ‘solutions’ that expose our greatest human frailties and moral failures. Work the problem, people. Not the fear.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Putting a Price on Time

Often in this blog I write about the smallest events, sometimes in Connecticut, where we go to decompress from the thrill and headache that is New York City. In the Big Apple, time is money. Everyone’s butt is on fire to get somewhere, to be somebody.

I have been recently thinking how the television media in particular distorts careful thinking, whether it’s on Obama or the financial crisis or the burgeoning deficits. Pithy, three- or four-second comments replace complex thought and analysis. ‘We must entertain at all costs’ seems to be the mantra. Outlandish comments are entertaining. Quick put-downs are entertaining. Outrage, genuine or fake, is entertaining. Whether any of it is true is beside the point. Capture those eyeballs, keep them riveted on you, and you will win this game.

I have also been pondering the decline of literary books, the rise of publishers as cogs of conglomerates, the domination of celebrity books in publishing, the sad decline of reading as a serious pastime for many Americans. There are small enclaves of literary publishers and serious readers, and those enclaves will continue to exist. But I think there is little doubt that literature is not central to American culture. Movies are the ticket. Television is the nightly companion for the lonely and not-so-lonely.

It is a world I have shunned with more recent effort in part because I do not like how my ‘openness’ to this world affected me. It did not improve my thinking, but instead circumscribed it to self-satisfied, meaningless reactions. It did not encourage self-analysis and self-improvement that would be long-lasting, but abandoned me at spectacles.

I have turned off the TV, except for the occasional news. I have switched radio stations to those with minimal, or no commercials. I have ended subscriptions to idiotic magazines. On the Internet, I have stopped reading the trash to waste time, and focused on acquiring the information I specifically need, or sending the necessary email.

I feel I must create this island in me, to preserve and explore a truer self, to achieve something beyond the effluvium that is popular culture. Do others feel the same way? Have others taken up this internal call to avoid the awful noise that surrounds us?

In Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills, I can focus outside the mainstream, in the quiet of the trees, to read, to work on planting strawberries, to ride a bicycle for dozens of miles without seeing a soul on the country roads. Thoreau had the right idea in Concord: you can find yourself if you spend some time away from the city and the crowd.

Yet I do not live in isolation. I am not a Luddite. I focus on talking to my kids and Laura. I read good books. I exchange often lengthy e-mails with many fascinating people across the world. I am writing and editing stories. But I do not dive into this world anymore as if it all equally mattered. I know most of it doesn’t matter at all, and is just like the traffic outside, a nuisance. I have stopped rubber-necking. Even in New York City, after a ferocious thunderstorm, there is a quiet near midnight that lets you work and imagine.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter in El Paso

I am a few hours late with my blog today, because I have been having too much fun in El Paso, Texas, my hometown. Every morning my father, mother, brothers, Laura, Aaron, and Isaac have sampled my parents’ favorite breakfast joints, so far Elmer’s near Bassett Center and the Bronco Restaurant not far from Ysleta High, my alma mater, on Alameda.

Chilaquiles, chile rellenos, huevos rancheros, frijoles con queso, menudo (I prefer to pick out the panzas and just eat the pozole), enchiladas, gorditas. On our first night, my brother Oscar bought fresh, mouthwatering asaderos from Licon’s Dairy in San Elizario. It really is good to be back home.

My sons asked me, “Why is the food in El Paso so much better than the food in New York?” I tried to explain how there are no warm-fresh asaderos in New York, and how Manhattan’s Mexican food, except for Gabriela’s on Columbus and 95th Street, isn’t even close to the real deal. I tried to tell them there’s a world of difference between the tostadas from Las Cruces, and the prepackaged ones from New Jersey at Gristedes in our building on Broadway.

The pastel de tres leches my mother brought for my son Isaac’s birthday celebration was the coup de grâce. My kids adored it. I gave up trying to explain anything anymore, and I just told them, “It’s just better here. What can I say?” Aaron and Isaac glared at me for a second, as if I have been mistreating them for forcing them to live in NYC, and begged their abuelita for seconds of the pastel.

To work off this glorious gluttony, we went to Album Park near Yarbrough for Easter, to walk around, to run, to chat more about how beautiful the weather is this time of the year. The scene at Album brought back many memories and comparisons of how our family spent each Easter in El Paso, and how these get-togethers always brought us closer to each other.

For us, Easter meant, after church, a mega-barbecue. An all-day affair of eating, playing baseball and football with other families in the park, making new friends, searching for Easter eggs, which were painstakingly prepared weeks before, and ambushing everybody and anybody by smashing our confetti-filled ammo on their heads. By nightfall we were dirty and exhausted, and we didn’t want to say goodbye to this little community we had formed for one day in the park.

I noticed that at Album Park Easter today is the same and different than it was when I was a kid. Extended families, from abuelitos to niños, still gather together under the sun and trees. But now a few families had fancy Coleman tents and even gas-powered generators. I also saw many more volleyball nets and soccer games than in my time. All the dogs are on leashes too.

But this unofficial micro-history, what may seem trivial to many, is what we should savor. This history about what families did for Easter, how they stayed together on the Mexican-American border, what this togetherness meant not only for your bonds with your father and mother, but also for the bonds you try to recreate with your family in as far flung locales as New York City, this is what stays with you forever and becomes who you were and who you always will be.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Planting Apple Trees

I find the simplest things the most rewarding. Is that a sign I am becoming wise, or just getting old? This weekend Laura, the kids and I were in the Litchfield Hills. Laura was busy in her garden; she’s inherited her green thumb from her father. On rainy Saturday, we drove to the Kent True Value Hardware store to get eight bags of cedar mulch for Laura’s two flower gardens.

I wanted to take a look at apple trees, which we had thought about planting last year but didn’t because we were too busy. We drove down the road a few minutes to Kent Greenhouse & Gardens. It was almost closing time, but we managed to find Cortland and Royal Gala apple trees, which we liked, and you need at least two so they can pollinate each other. But we left without a purchase in part to get out of the rain.

The rest of that dark, wet Saturday we spent indoors. I read Salman Rushie’s Midnight's Children, and have particularly enjoyed the Padma character, whom the narrator interacts with as he tells the story of the birth and rise of free India. I also edited a novel I have been working on, despite fighting an awful cold/flu which seemed to get worse as the night progressed. By the time I collapsed on the bed, I couldn’t inhale even the slightest whiff from my nose, and I wondered if I would be able to get up the next morning. I dreamed of chasing an apple cart through my version of New Delhi (I’ve never been there), and was the last to rise out of bed the next morning, still exhausted and my head in a fog.

One thing was clear to me on Sunday: I wanted to plant those apple trees. Laura was reluctant because she was busy with other garden chores, but I got her to put fluorescent orange parking cones in spots we thought the apple trees might go. I have my ways. So throughout the day, we watched what spots received the most sun, which were shaded by trees in and around our property, and which still seemed to be ideal, after a few hours of imaging a plethora of apples on the trees and ground.

The hour was getting late on Sunday afternoon, but I enlisted my son Aaron, who also loves apples, and got Laura to drive him to Kent Greenhouse to pick the apple trees they liked while I started digging the holes. The first hole was almost done by the time they returned, and I had to pry out a few large mica rocks embedded in the soil. The Litchfield Hills was long ago a mining area and known as the arsenal of the American Revolution, providing the iron ore for General George Washington’s cannons.

As Aaron and I worked to finish the first hole, I pushed and shoved at one last rock at the bottom, and the old wooden shovel, which I had found in the forest three years ago, snapped in two. So this time, I returned to Kent True Value Hardware, but the store was closed. I drove to Kent Greenhouse (that’s three times in one weekend!), and bought their fancy, ergonomic stainless steel shovel. By the time I returned, Aaron had nearly finished the second hole with the small spade.

We finished planting the apple trees, mixing the planting soil from Kent Greenhouse with the soil we had dug up. Aaron went back to his homework. I cleaned up the area, and raked and shoveled away the excess soil, and watered our new apple trees. I realized I was sweaty and exhausted, my pants were filthy, and my fingernails were black with grime. But I could not have had a more satisfying weekend this early spring.