Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor, Empathy, and Intellect

I watched today as President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the United States Supreme Court. Official America, yes, is changing, and better reflecting what real America has been for years. I believe Judge Sotomayor is excellently qualified for the highest court, not because she’s Latina, not because she’s a woman, but because she possesses an intelligent, incisive legal mind. What struck me were the comments in the media that perhaps Sotomayor didn’t have the “intellectual gravitas” or “judicial temperament” to be a Supreme Court judge. When will accomplished Latinos get their due? Perhaps it’s time again to kick down these walls of prejudice, to expose glaring double standards for Latinos. Let me tell you some of my stories.

You can have a handful of Ivy League degrees, you can have books published by wonderful presses, and you can even be somebody’s boss, yet that somebody may still stereotype you, for their advantage. That’s what happened to me when I served on the board of directors of a literary organization for many years. A few tidbits. I pointed out financial mismanagement when other board members did not bother to study financial reports. I was labeled a troublemaker, a loose cannon. Or I questioned the cozy management practices of cronyism, practices that cost our organization valuable dollars needed for our survival. I was a hot-headed Latino.

After many years of struggle, I won this war, as my nemesis finally left and we hired a terrific, open-minded leader for our organization. But what struck me as I analyzed the many battles I had fought and the scars I lived with, was how often polite niceness, even if it was prejudiced, and the glad-handling of fake smiles won over passionate arguments and blunt, to-the-heart criticisms. My lesson: lie, speak in half-truths, and even stab people in the back, and you can get away with it for years as long as you don’t yell or ever frown. I instead wore my heart on my sleeve. If I saw something wrong, if I caught a contradiction, if I smelled a power play, I would say something about it. After board meetings, in whispers, this righteous attitude was too often turned against me.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve does not mean you are not thinking. Quite the contrary, what you are thinking is Aristotlean. That is to say, what you are thinking is that if you don’t do anything and you know it’s wrong, then you will denigrate what thinking is. Thinking is about doing. Thinking is assessing the situation and doing something about it. Thinking something is wrong, and doing nothing about it, is thinking as a cop-out, as an escape into the head (Plato), what polite society does every day. I am not polite.

When Sotomayor is criticized for not having the right judicial temperament, is she being criticized for being outraged when she sees someone being shafted? In the Bronx, I’m sure she learned to be Aristotlean. Being calm or even pleasant when you see an injustice is not a sign of a good temperament. It’s an indication of a coldness to humanity and human suffering. It’s a sign of using your intellect to escape from the world, to avoid changing it. The worst atrocities in the world have been justified with such a temperament.

When Sotomayor is criticized for not having intellectual gravitas, is she being criticized because she doesn’t argue calmly, because she’s blunt? Being serious, evasive, and mathematically abstract is not a sign of intellectual gravitas. It’s a sign of an intellectualism that lives by itself, that pleases itself, that thinks the human being as only an abstract idea. Our Founding Fathers knew better; that’s why they set up a series of checks and balances with the separation of powers in government.

A Puertoriqueña from the projects and the South Bronx. Summa cum laude at Princeton. Yale Law School. Editor of the Yale Law Journal. Appellate court judge for over a decade. That’s the kind of Aristotlean intellect-in-action we should have in the Supreme Court.

Monday, May 18, 2009

East Harlem Cafe and Hit List Reading

Last Thursday I read at a place I am still entranced by, the East Harlem Café owned by Michelle Cruz, at 104th and Lexington in El Barrio. Two other authors from Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, read with me, Carlos Hernandez and Richie Narvaez. A few hours before, Richie and I appeared on the Victor Cruz Show, a radio talkfest from Brooklyn. Man, did I have a good time. This is the thing about getting out there, reading and talking to people about your work. You meet new people who wow you, you get to discover what they have created, and you feel lucky. Let me count the ways.

After you read this blog, turn off your computer or Kindle, and visit the East Harlem Café. I walked in, a few minutes early to the reading, and I was in coffee heaven. The place has these stylish mosaics on the wall, comfortable seating, and a long bar to order your café and pastries. I wish we had a place on the Upper Westside as welcoming, as cool as the East Harlem Café. Starbucks is not in the same league. That a young, savvy Latina was la jefa was just icing on the cake for me. These entrepreneurs who take risks to make a difference in their neighborhood should be enthusiastically supported, especially when they’ve created something special.

Just before the reading, I had been roaming Brooklyn looking for Jay Street and the studio of the Victor Cruz Show. I stumbled over the cobblestone and was almost to the Hudson River when I found it, a warehouse-like building whose elevator led me to a floor of indie film offices and Victor Cruz. I was met by this red-headed Puerto Rican with hundreds of freckles who seemed at the brink of laughter. Victor, his friend Gil T, Aurora Anaya-Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore, and I had a freewheeling conversation about Latino Lit, Mexican-American border politics and history, Mariachi Plaza in the Boyle Heights district of LA, and fighting for the Latino voice in the arts. I kept thinking, as I listened to my new friends, we’ve got the brains, the talent, the drive, the laughter. We should be taking over the world.

On this special day, the two people I got to know the best were Richie Narvaez and Carlos Hernandez, the other authors in the Hit List anthology. Richie is this sharp Nuyorican who read from his story, “In the Kitchen with Johnny Albino,” about an “enterprising woman” named Iris. Carlos read “Los Simpáticos,” about the producer of a TV show “A Quien Quieres Matar?” I couldn’t stop laughing. Carlos, like his story, is mischievous and laugh-ready. I’ve always been too serious for my own good; it’s my nature. But I love it when people make me laugh.

Liz Martinez, one of the two editors of Hit List, also read a story, by Mario Acevedo. Thank you, Liz, for saying you loved my story, “A New York Chicano.” For a sourpuss like me who is all-too-ready to tear himself apart, kind words help get me out of my little world. This whole day got me out of my world, and I am happy I said yes and took the chance.

This Thursday, May 21st, Richie, Carlos, and I will be reading at the Mysterious Book Shop at 58 Warren Street in Tribeca. The reading will be from 6-8:00 PM. A free book to whomever makes me laugh so hard I pee in my pants. See you there.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bertha E. Troncoso

I should have written this on Mother’s Day, but I was traveling. I did phone my mother, Bertha E. Troncoso, the E for Estela, on the day, and my wife Laura and I did send her flowers. My kids, Aaron and Isaac, created cards for Laura, our tradition of preferring handmade drawings to anything store-bought, and our family had a delicious brunch at G.W. Tavern in Washington Depot, Connecticut, the GW for George Washington. My mother has been my family heroine for a long time. Here are snippets of her story.

She was born in a rancho near Chihuahua City, and anytime I whined in El Paso about throwing out the trash or hosing down the trash bins she would remind me of not having shoes until she was ten-years-old. She had a beloved dog named Sultán, and a mother, my abuelita, who was tough and sometimes cruel. Doña Lola was a single mother before she married the genial man I would know as my grandfather. She survived the Mexican Revolution, machos in el rancho, and grinding poverty, so maybe my abuelita had reasons to be la generala.

My mother’s family moved to Juárez when she was a teenager, and Bertha Estela was so beautiful that she began to model clothes for local department stores. I have seen pictures of my mother in her wedding dress, particularly a close up my father has enshrined in our living room in Ysleta. My mother looks like a Mexican Jane Russell.

As my mother recalls, she met my father at a plaza in Juárez, and when they married she had saved more money than him. My father Rodolfo was a poor student studying agronomy, and my mother had a steady job as a saleswoman. When my father is feeling nostalgic, he retrieves old newspaper clippings of my mother modeling the latest post-war fashions.

I remember my mother being the strictest mom on San Lorenzo Avenue. Doña Bertha, as the neighbors called her, definitely inherited the steel from her mother. Mamá would never allow us to play at neighbors’ houses; our friends had to play at our house, under her watchful eye. And on weekends and after school, boy, did we work! Polishing furniture. Cleaning up after our dogs. Painting the house. Pulling weeds from outside our fence next to the canal. I was head of Sanitation. Our neighborhood, a colonia next to the Mexican-American border, had gangs, Barraca contra Calavera, and drugs, so in retrospect perhaps my mother had a point. As my friends in New York have said, I grew up in an “at-risk neighborhood,” and how you gain the drive and discipline to succeed with that beginning is to have parents who are tougher than the dirt at their feet.

As I grew older, I began to notice how intelligent my mother was, yet how she confined herself to the role of dutiful wife. Mamá still has dozens upon dozens of her friends' phone numbers committed to memory. Once, before I left for Harvard, I tried an experiment with her. I said a friend’s name, and she would give me their phone number. We got up to 36 before we stopped. She made thousands of dollars as a manic Avon lady in Ysleta, enough to buy a sleek Buick station wagon with a tinted moon roof, which I used on hot dates. My mother was and still is a voracious reader of everything from Selecciones to the Bible. I buy her a yearly subscription to The El Paso Times, which she reads from front to back.

Yet she was happy to first take care of my abuelitos when they became infirm and had to live with my parents. My mother fed and bathed them until they died in an apartment my father built in our backyard. Now that my father can shuffle but a few feet without his walker, my mother is taking care of him. They are the same age, but my father is weak and insular while my mother is indefatigable, funny, and quick to ask when my next book will be published.

I don’t know how she does it. Bertha Estela could have done anything she wanted, but she chose to take care of her family; she chose love and sacrifice over personal accolades and accomplishments. Now you know why she is my heroine. I hope I will always follow in her footsteps.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cinco de Mayo: A Victory for the Underdog

One of the many hats I wear is that of an investor. For decades, I have invested in the stock market, beginning after college when I had saved a few thousand dollars. I enjoy the number-crunching of investment analysis, finding undiscovered small companies, and putting my money where my mouth is. It is always a challenge, and I have made mistakes, but I have also returned to my mistakes to learn from them. Serious investing is investigative and practical. It is also a recursive process in which you are constantly evaluating your premises for a particular investment, as well as your evolving skills and sensibilities as an investor.

One of the things I learned about myself, during this vicious bear market, is that I need to increase my allocation for bonds in my overall portfolio. There is nothing like a heart-thumping drop in the stock market, month after month, to force you to reevaluate your strategy. I did not sell any individual stocks or mutual funds, so I did not panic and I have benefited from this bounce back from recent lows.

But in March I did feel financially vulnerable, since in four short years my older son Aaron will attend college. Now that the S&P 500 is above 900 at least for a day, I won’t go back to my 80/20 split for stocks and bonds, but instead will keep adding new money primarily into my bond portfolio. I am focusing on short-term bonds, because I believe interest rates are at historic lows, and can only go higher. Short-term bonds will be hurt the least when this happens. Remember, bond prices go down when interest rates go up, and vice versa, and this relationship is more pronounced the longer the maturity of the bond.

I am a contrarian, and this belief in my head was indeed proven by what I did with my hands and feet. I did not panic as the Obama administration got a handle on the financial mess it inherited, and as credit markets froze and threatened to turn a deep recession into a depression. I did not panic as a few mega-banks teetered near insolvency, as deficits soared because of federal bailouts, as swine-flu hysteria gripped the nation. It is important to assess how you reacted in critical situations to get a sense of who you are. You don’t know what kind of soldier you are until the bullets whistle past your ears.

We are not out of the woods yet. Corporate earnings may turn more negative than they have been so far, or we may experience flat to weak economic growth for many years, or some unforeseen event, like a run on the dollar, may undermine financial stability. The second and third waves of past flu epidemics have often been deadlier than the initial wave. So I am still wary, but I have taken steps to take advantage of overreactions and to be better prepared for the next crisis.

I am a relentless cost-cutter, and this attitude has helped me to evaluate what we spend money on and whether it is worth it. This cost-cutting also helps me to be better prepared for crises: companies and individuals who are careful with their money and carry little debt are better able to weather downturns. That’s a truism we should live by as investors and as responsible parents.

Sometimes my writer friends, who are terrible at managing their own financial affairs, ask me why I worry so much about money. Invariably this happens a few days after they’ve asked for a loan. I tell them what I’ve always told them. Investing is not about getting rich, or having more toys, or impressing others. It’s about independence. It’s about doing what you want, when you want, and not having to ask an ornery friend or a boss for more money, and not getting it.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the underdog Mexico defeating powerful France at Puebla in 1862. The individual investor is the underdog in today’s investment world. Do your homework, know thyself, and think independently, and perhaps you will also reap an unlikely victory. Happy Cinco de Mayo.