Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Bookery in Socorro

After buying asaderos at Licon’s Dairy, I drove Laura, Aaron, and Isaac to one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Bookery in Socorro, on the east side of El Paso.  The Bookery is walking distance from the historic Socorro Mission, one of the three missions on the Mission Trail.

The Bookery is an adobe labyrinth stuffed with books on tables, books on the floor, books overflowing on bookshelves.  It is easily the best place for buying Latino literature in El Paso, but this bookstore has so much more: young adult books, history books on El Paso and the Southwest, hundreds of picture books for kids, a menagerie of stuffed animals, Mexican calacas, Christmas decorations, trinkets hanging from vigas on the ceiling.  After a dusty trek through the desert, I feel as if I’ve walked into a treasure room whenever I visit The Bookery.

But as I chatted with Margaret Barber, longtime owner, I worried.  She told me this has been her toughest year financially.  Of course, her bookstore has suffered as most of the book industry has suffered.  People are reading less.  Young adults, and others, prefer to download books electronically, rather than holding books in their hands.

To add to Margaret’s troubles, some in El Paso confused the closing of another wonderful bookstore, the Book Gallery, with The Bookery.  School districts and teachers stopped ordering from The Bookery, with the assumption that The Bookery had closed.  Yes, the Book Gallery in El Paso closed (alas), but The Bookery in Socorro is still open, and alive.  We need to support it.

Where else can you find an owner who has read hundreds of the books she sells?  Who will sit with you on her porch under the rough-hewn vigas, offer you coffee, and talk about books, and the famous writers who have visited her store, and the scuttlebutt of the neighborhood?  Margaret is unstintingly honest, and will pointedly let you know when an author, or his or her work, is not up to snuff in her estimation.  Isn’t that what everyone wants, an honest opinion?  Don’t you want to be introduced to a new author, or pointed in a new literary direction, by a book lover who possesses an uncanny memory?  Let me tell you, you don’t get a Margaret Barber on Amazon, and you don’t get her at Barnes and Noble.  You get her only at The Bookery.

I hope if you are shopping for the holidays, or if you are savoring warm asaderos from Licon’s Dairy, or if you yearn for an afternoon of intelligent, irreverent conversation about books, that you will hit the brakes at The Bookery on Socorro Road.  We need independent bookstores, we need independent voices, we need people thinking and arguing passionately about what should be in your brain, and why.  What we don’t need is more homogenization, or mass-market brainwashing.

To open up your mind, go to The Bookery on El Paso’s historic Mission Trail, at 10167 Socorro Road.  Margaret’s phone number is 915-859-6132.  From I-10, you get off at Americas Avenue, follow Americas (Loop 375) until you get to Socorro Road, and then head east.  As soon as you pass the Socorro Mission, The Bookery is on the left side.  It is one of those places worth fighting for.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Provinciality of the United States

Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices continues to be a provocative voice in culture, literature, and politics.  One of the best things about publishing your work in a magazine such as Literal (“How Has the Loss of Juárez Changed Border Culture?”) is to read who else is in the issue.  What fascinated me were two interviews, with the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Two quotes in particular resonated with me:

“What’s going on is that this country, the United States, has become very provincial. When I started out, my editors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, were publishing Francois Mauriac, Alberto Moravia, and ten or fifteen foreign novelists. Now there’s no one. Those of us who have been established for a long time, like Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, or myself, have kept on publishing, but almost out of condescendence. There is no interest in new writers, in the vast quantity and quality of writers we have in Hispanic America. This country has become very self- absorbed and preoccupied, and it still does not understand what is going on in the world.”  –Carlos Fuentes

“I still believe that a healthy democracy needs an education that focuses on (1) Socratic self-examination and critical thinking; (2) the capacity to think as a citizen of the whole world, not just some local region or group, in a way informed by adequate historical, economic, and religious knowledge; and (3) trained imaginative capacities, so that people can put themselves in the position of others whose ways of life are very different from their own.”  –Martha Nussbaum

For many reasons, what Fuentes and Nussbaum were saying hit home.  I have seen how little U. S. readers read in translation, or how rarely they seek out foreign writers in their own language, be it Spanish, Chinese or German, and so on.  American pundits and politicos have also narrowed their agendas and appeals, to forego fact-checking, to trumpet narrow-minded biases.  What is routinely ignored is a more expansive appeal to the public to appreciate working in someone else’s shoes, for example, particularly one who is dark-skinned and has an accent.

The United States suffers from a growing deficit of imagination.  Not just for humanism.  Not for embracing a Kumbaya moment of idealism.  But for the truth.  Even my thirteen-year-old knows that to better understand your position and your argument —he learned that in mock Supreme Court cases his class studied and debated— you need to ‘see’ the other side.  The critical thinking of Socrates is based on answering questions that unmoor you, and probing your opponent with similar questions, but all of this ‘education’ is based on souls being open to such give-and-take.  What happens when we as a society become more insular?  What happens when we stop reading to challenge ourselves?  When we don’t care enough to question our own thinking?

These questions mattered in a writing group in which I recently participated.  One story I submitted was set on the Mexican-American border, and although the story received many favorable, enthusiastic comments, two or three in the group pointedly had an issue with my use of Spanish phrases and sentences intermixed with my prose in English.  Didn’t I want to expand my readership? they asked.  Wasn’t I limiting myself as a writer by excluding people like them who didn’t understand Spanish?  (We were talking about four or five sentences in a story that was 28 pages long.)

I was blunt and unapologetic.  I told them New York readers were at the end of my line, in terms of the readers I was focusing on.  I wanted to be authentic to the setting, the Mexican-American border.  I asked them how many had read Vargas Llosa, or Paz, or García Márquez in Spanish?  How many of them had stepped outside their comfortable linguistic boxes, to seek truth in other worlds and other languages?  I mentioned how I had learned German to read Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Mann in the original.  Perhaps I was too harsh on my fellow writers.  But even among the educated in cosmopolitan Manhattan, our provincialism is growing.  But at what cost, and why?

What happens when a society stops caring about the hard work of imagination, self-criticism, and education?  Will this society even realize what it has lost?  This season, give a book in translation, or prose or poetry from a university press, to someone you care about.  Point them to other indie cultural favorites, in magazines or literary reviews.  Broaden their minds, and prompt their critical thinking.  Help our citizens earn their place in this democracy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Consumer Used and Abused

Why can’t corporations be more flexible?  Why can’t they put a dollar value on trust, which could be engendered by being more consumer-friendly?  Let me tell you about a few different experiences, frustrations, and one triumph in my little island of consumerism.  I know the Republicans are currently trumpeting how “the free market” can do everything better than government, how businesses are the solution, not the problem, for reviving the American economy.  Let me give you my more complex view.

I love my iPhone.  It has truly changed my life, and I owe it to my sons, who converted me to Macs a few years ago.  Our family, amazingly, has four iPhones, two MacBooks, a MacBook Pro, and an iMac.  We have become avid customers, but only after Aaron and Isaac were able to awake me from my PC-Dell hypnosis.  You can’t see this, but I’m shuddering, remembering the dozens of hours wasted with PC reps trying to solve the stupidest problems.

But today I texted one of my sons, and scolded him for going over his data limit.  In about a week, he zoomed past the measly 200 MB of monthly data, the cheapest data plan ($15) offered by AT&T for the iPhone.  I’ll be paying extra for the over-usage, that is, $15 for the next 200 MB of data.  Of course, if I had originally signed up for the next highest data plan, at $25 per month, I would have gotten 2 GB, or ten times the data usage.  But then I would be paying $25, instead of $15, per month.  The company is basically trying to force you to switch to the higher data plan.

Why can’t the cheapest data plan be $15 per month for, say, 1 GB?  It seems the cheapest plan, at 200 MB, is meant to be exceeded by even the casual data user, so you’ll be trapped into paying $15 for every extra 200 MB of over-usage.  What a rip!  I feel as if I’m being used and abused by AT&T, not a customer, but an easy mark.  And I haven’t even mentioned the two-year AT&T contract imprisonment I need to endure to use my iPhone.

Again, a credit card I have owned for decades, from a major credit card company that adores the color of money and metals on its plastic, has sneakily changed the amount of time I have to pay my bill every month.  From what used to be about 25 days, to now about 8 days!  Again, another trap.  Forget to pay this credit card for a few days, and they have you by the cojones, so to Sarah-speak.

Is it me, or do you also feel besieged as a consumer?  At every turn, instead of service, another trap.  Forget to read the fine print, or just act normally, and you will be forking over the fines.  I know, some Republican Tea-Partier will say, “Caveat Emptor!  The market is king!”  But I know many of them feel just as used and abused as I do.  I know because I’ve asked a few of them in private.  But in public, at social gatherings where the walls have ears, or web cams, they must repeat their holy mantras.

My question is this: have American consumer businesses become more predatory over time?  Is there a way to measure this?  If these are not just my experiences, but part of a broader trend, why?  Have we somehow lost a social contract with businesses, in which consumers should be willing to pay good money for products and services, but also should expect these products and services to be reasonable and reliable?  Why haven’t businesses more often put a value on trust?  Trust is hard to quantify, but it is real.  Because if I trust a business, believe you me, I will go back to it, even if it makes an occasional mistake.  That’s loyalty, and it’s worth something.

Let me tell you how my trust was recently restored.  Last week, on the black MacBook I use to type this blog, the screen froze as I opened my FireFox browser.  The rainbow Apple wheel spun without point or purpose for ten, fifteen minutes.  I turned the computer off, and turned it on, but now the dreaded question-mark folder appeared on the screen.  No half-bitten gray Apple.  Nada.

I took my three-and-a-half-year-old MacBook to an Apple store in Manhattan.  Apple Genius Nicoya —I will never forget her name— told me my hard drive had failed.  Kaput.  Dead as plastic.  I told her I had AppleCare, but she noted my AppleCare coverage had expired in May, after three years exactly.  There’s no renewal.  That’s it.  I was screwed.  I must have looked puppy-dog-died devastated, not because I lost the info on my drive —I didn’t, I had backed up everything— but because I truly loved working on this MacBook.  Nicoya stared at me for a moment, then declared, “You know, you never used your AppleCare once, and that’s a shame.  Why don’t I just give you a free hard drive?  Can you wait a few minutes while I install it?”

Steve Jobs, Apple Genius extraordinaire, if you ever read this blog, find this Nicoya, and give her a big fat raise and a nice kiss.  You know, nothing overtly sexual, just a thank-you peck.  My family and I will be buying Apple products for years because of her.  That’s what customer loyalty means.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Peculiar Journey

I go through spurts in writing.  This past summer I wrote, and rewrote, more than I have in years.  I got into a certain rhythm.  The ideas were flowing, and my skills, such as they were, produced work I did not throw away.  I experienced what I will only describe as a painful low, yet the summer ended with an unexpected bonanza.  Yes, I will have new work next year, but I won’t discuss the details until the dust settles.

That’s why I stopped writing Chico Lingo three, four times a month.  I had to focus on my paid gigs, so to speak, and this blog, which has strangely grown near and dear to my heart, was neglected.  Chico Lingo is my way to discuss and explore topical ideas, even philosophical points.  It is my way to be part of the cultural and political discourse of this country.  It’s a community newsletter, an alter ego, a peak into my brain on any given week, and even a platform to jump into a question I want to explore further, perhaps in more crafted writing.  I think it’s been a good discipline for me to write Chico Lingo.

After the flurry of writing and rewriting of the summer, I have taken a step back from my literary work this autumn.  Yes, I am working on shorter pieces.  Yes, I am in the middle of a few small projects that editors have asked me for.  So the writing work never quite goes away.  But the intensity is different, and I am also retooling.  I am questioning how I write, from the micro level of the line, to the possible structures of stories, to the architecture of novels in my head.  I always try to improve my skills, and I do like to experiment.  I hope all of this makes me a better writer.

I work hard, then I take a step back to see if I can find better ways to work.  It’s a recursive process, Hegelian, if you want to get philosophically fancy, or simply learning by doing, and then thinking about what you learned, and what you did.  I imagine myself a maker of a chair, who made lots of chairs —a whole dining room set!— in a concentrated time, and now I take a step back to see how I can learn to make different chairs, with different tools and technologies, with new knowledge about stains, lathes, and woods.  I might even try making a table.

One main focus of my retooling is to try capture and use a more poetic rhythm to my prose.  To take my written words from not just clear writing and good storytelling, but to sing that song with words that will be my own.

It has been a long literary trek for me.  Early on I think I wrote in a certain simple way because my native language was not English, but Spanish, or more precisely the Spanglish of El Paso.  Years ago I was simply trying to get my point across.  I was trying to survive, whether it was at Ysleta High, or Harvard and Yale.  Also, I believed first and foremost in ideas, not words.  Perhaps this is the curse of the philosophical mind, to know that what you write —its logic, argument, and import— is far more essential than how you write it.  I still believe this is true, in a way.  Heidegger, for example, was a terrible writer, but a great thinker.  What he wrote, once you more or less understood it, reoriented what the world could be.  Nietzsche was that great exception as a philosopher, a unique and important thinker for what he wrote, but also a gifted stylist by how he wrote in German.

So I needed to write simply, to get my point of across, to be heard.  I loved thinking about complex philosophical problems, and so that also lent itself to writing simply and directly.  When you read philosophical papers, the writing is often direct and relatively simple, but your head hurts trying to understand the argument and logic.

But the reason I left philosophy was because I found it too isolating.  I married philosophy with literature in my stories, to try to achieve this nexus of exploring difficult questions, but through stories, believable characters, many of them from the Mexican-American border.  Writing philosophy in literature was also a way to destroy stereotypes in Mexican-American literature.  Over decades of writing, I became better at it.  My English improved.  I became more of a native English speaker, even though I never left my Spanish behind.  After much struggle and self-education and self-reinvention, I again wanted more of myself and my writing.

That’s at the point I am now.  Where I want more from my work in English.  More poetry.  More language that cuts through the colloquial and the cliché.  Whereas early on in my writing career, I hardly read any poetry without being baffled or bored.  Now I am primarily reading poetry, and lustily so.  I gave a speech recently, which delved into my peculiar journey, “From Literacy to Literature.”  I hope you get the idea.  I still remember how Plato ridiculed the poets and warned against their influence, but now I happily inhabit that world in a poem, and it is that momentary beauty that nourishes me even as I try to take it apart.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Terror and Humanity

(On September 11, 2001, an editor from Newsday called me at home and asked me to write about what was happening in New York.  I didn't know what to write, or if I could write anything.  I was traumatized by what I saw on TV and what was happening a few miles from my apartment.  The next day the following article appeared in Newsday and many other newspapers.  I think the words still resonate today, amid the battles we are fighting with each other and within ourselves.)

This one is for the thousands of individuals who died yesterday. Those innocents. It's hard to write this, to write anything. The fathers and mothers. The children. Brothers and sisters. They died for somebody's idea of a just cause. But you were simply killing innocents, can't you understand that? The children visiting the top of the World Trade Center were simply looking at the view. The mothers who jumped out of these skyscrapers, in desperation, did not know about your just cause and did not care about politics. These innocents who died are America, and those who will mourn them today will rebuild our great city and our great country in their honor. We don't have a choice but to rebuild and try again to live in this sometimes nightmarish world. In these thousands who died amid an ordinary Tuesday morning that metamorphosed into terror, we have a representation of America. But that does not mean they bear any individual or collective responsibility for your hate.

You hated them simply because they were a disembodied 'America' in your mind, an abstract idea, something easy to hate because you had already categorized them into something distant, something you can't or won't touch, something far away you will not have any discourse with. A thing. For you, killing the Twin Towers was killing America. Killing buildings was equivalent to killing people, to killing a country. All these 'things' were the same, in your hate-filled mind, but you were wrong. You have killed innocents. You have killed individuals. You categorized us into this thing that you hate, you idealized us into something wretched, and you went about trying to kill this idea-thing with your horrible acts. But you were wrong, and this is why America, this unique and wonderful land of diversity, this expanse of individuals working together, cannot be defeated by your hateful acts. We will rebuild our country, and we will always remember those innocents who died yesterday.

What I believe this Tuesday should teach us, if we can still learn anything in our deepest grief and shock, is that our ideas, when we turn them into hateful things, when we categorize innocents into being disembodied entities, these ideas and the minds that latch onto these idea-things for the sake of a warped clarity, they are at the root of what is evil. To be human is to engage with, to care about. To be human is to love another. To be human is to communicate with someone, even if you are only shouting at them. The most human of all is discourse. With nature. With other human beings. Even with other ideas. But when you prefer an island of clarity in your mind, when you don't want to be contradicted, when you don't want to defend your actions, then you will turn human beings, innocents, into things. And then it so easy to kill these 'things' in your mind.

But even if America, that America of individuals working together, was deeply wounded on this black Tuesday, even if thousands of us died because someone turned us into a thing to hate in his mind, America will not be defeated. We will get up again. We will grieve. We may even hate for a while, too, because our anger has reached unimaginable levels. But we will fight against our hate, we will argue against it, in our own minds, and we will finally put it aside as something at the root of evil, where we do not want to go. And then we will win our fight to be human. One day in the distant future, one day perhaps far away, we will have a good day when we don't cry anymore for those thousands of innocents who died yesterday. We will never forget them, but we will go on with caring about, loving, and arguing with each other. And then, on another clear and sunny day, when we should be taking our children to the park or to visit a famous skyscraper or simply getting them ready for their first week of school, we will be wounded again by someone who has not bothered to escape the idea-things in his mind. And never shall we give up on ourselves. Never. This one is for the thousands of individuals who died yesterday. I wish I had known every single one of them.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

American Anima

Sometimes you need a break to regain your anima. That is what I needed after finishing a few projects, after a long hot summer, after trying to make sense of the American political scene where a large segment of the population lives in willful ignorance or willful opposition to the great values I thought this country stood for.

Yesterday I suggested to my thirteen-year-old son Isaac that he read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: freedom is slavery, Barack Obama is a Muslim, bigotry is tolerance.  Does the truth matter anymore?  I am not sure.  Everything is politics and spin.  Where do we stand?  Who cares.  It is only a matter of whether I win against you, whoever ‘you’ are, and whether I can convince enough people that lies are truths.  And if enough people act on these ‘lies,’ who is to say they do not become ‘truths’ anyway?  That is the head-spinning historical moment we are in.

I could rail against the specific lies swirling in the political and cultural scene, but plenty of other commentators are already doing that.  Instead, I feel I should be a philosophical conscience, someone who tries to understand what this moment might mean for our community.

As readers of Chico Lingo will note, sometimes I gain meaning from the specific, and sometimes I pull back to philosophize about my experiences.  The movement from specifics to generalities, and back, is a way to test what I think with what I see and experience, and to adjust my thinking with reality.  Perhaps somebody like Hegel would call this ‘dialectical,’ but I simply try to stay away from such fancy words.

I believe you can think profoundly without obfuscation, by using simplicity like a sword.  That is why I write philosophical stories.  Philosophy in literature is that unique nexus between specific characters --their situations and motivations-- and moral values.  Such stories can ‘show the way,’ so to speak, without being heavy-handed; they can encourage readers to experience truths they can appreciate in their own lives.  If you as a writer write a good story, it will be good most importantly because it will be believed.

So what are some of my preliminary conclusions from the strange and acerbic political scene of the United States?  The commonalities of our American experience have been undermined because of our economic problems.  Or to put it another way, we are losing our sense of community, of belonging to and with each other, in large part because we or family members have lost our jobs, we feel economically insecure, and we have experienced businesses and governments fleecing us, instead of representing our best interests.  This Great Recession has turned us against each other.  Whites against African-Americans and Latinos.  Christians against Muslims.  Even the old against the young.

When I sat in philosophical seminars as a Yale graduate student, it always seemed odd to me that abstract arguments about ‘the truth’ were precisely detailed and logically dissected, yet no one ever chose to point out that professors were gentle, encouraging, and even forgiving with their favorites, while being merciless and impatient with students outside the chosen circle.  What constituted ‘the circle’?  It was different for different professors.

But the point was that if you were in the circle, you could learn from your mistakes and be encouraged to take chances to progress as a philosophical thinker.  If you were outside the circle, you were ignored or dismissed.  The discussion of ‘the truth,’ and even accepting such-and-such arguments as legitimate for or against the topic at hand, depended on aspects that had nothing to do with ‘the truth.’  What often mattered underneath our discussions about the truth was how friendly you were with the professor, did he like you, or did he know you already.  When you were given the benefit of the doubt, you could go far.  When you weren’t, you were stopped dead in your tracks.

I think something similar is happening in the United States.  Our beliefs in religious freedom and protecting the rights of political minorities (enshrined in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution), our belief in welcoming immigrants to become enfranchised Americans, as long as they worked hard to succeed, even our beliefs in equality and fairness- all of these values depended on an economically prosperous America.  As long as we were dominant in the world economy and growing domestically and producing profits and jobs, then we could not only tolerate, but encourage, these traditional American values.

But the economic world has changed.  Although we are still the world’s largest economy, many countries have grown faster than we have, some of our companies did not adapt well to the multi-polar world, the dollar is under siege as a reserve currency, and too many of our citizens became fat and lazy, perhaps too entranced by an insipid materialism and celebrity culture.  We don’t read.  We eat too much.  We are not as good as we were in math and science.  The economic world beyond our borders is not only catching up, but in many respects is leaving America behind.

So we have begun to turn on each other.  We have begun to abandon cherished values.  We debase the Constitution, while proclaiming to protect it.  Bigotry is defended with a defiant wave of Old Glory.

I am left pondering a final interesting question: Is our declining relative prosperity in the world a cause or an effect of our frayed community?  Perhaps as we became more of a heterogeneous community, it also meant we worked less well together, we trusted each other less, and we could more easily take advantage of each other.  So our cultural, racial, and religious diversity in part caused our economic problems.  Perhaps it is not a matter of cause and effect at all, but of interrelation.  Our differences and our economic problems have fed on each other, in a vicious cycle.

In any case, we need to get ourselves out of this ditch so that we can recognize the best in ourselves.  Or, in our dire straits, we need to remember who we are, and so get ourselves out of this ditch.  For me it doesn’t matter which way we regain our anima, as long as we do it.  A good start would be to turn off the radio and television, and reconnect with the small and neglected spaces within our mind and within our community.  What you will find here is who you are.  In these spaces, nobody will tell you who you should be, nor how you should think.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Traveling Alone Together

I am toward the end of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, on my iPhone no less, and I have relished every second with this poet.  Just as with Emily Dickinson’s Collected Works, which I also read on my iPhone, I have longed to take a leisurely subway ride, or to have a free hour or so before I sleep, to reenter this portable world of words.

Whitman and Dickinson are so different.  I admire Dickinson’s almost mathematical precision and rhythm.  Her abstractions on poems often match my thinking in an uncanny way: as her song ends I understand, and yet the idea lingers in the air and adds depth where no words are written.

Whitman however unleashes the line from any certainty, and revels in nature’s details, as if ideas would only intrude in the world before our eyes.  I admire Whitman’s enthusiastic camaraderie, his openness to sex, immigrants, the offbeat, and the wonder of being alone.

Both poets in a way seem alone with their poetry.  They are to me deeply humanistic, yet this is not a humanism that values the chitchat of society, or the glib conclusions of casual and catty observers.  They seem alone to me because they travel within themselves.  To stop and remark politely would despoil their journey.  They hearken to ‘others’ --what writer does not want to be read?-- but these others are those like themselves.  They are traveling alone together.

I started Chico Lingo to communicate, debate, chronicle, and explore the days before me.  At times I write to you, the reader.  Sometimes I plead for understanding.  On other occasions, yes, I will pontificate and complain.  But I also write to myself.  It is one of the interesting and peculiar activities human beings can do: they can reflect on what they think, through writing in my case, in which my ‘thinking’ is arranged into words and paragraphs, through Chico Lingo.

I embarked on this journey into myself principally because this is how I have always been.  I want to be alone together with others who are not glib, who question what is given to them by authority or tradition, who wonder at thinking and understanding, the process, and who see what is in between the said, the concluded, and the promised.  When I have ignored this ‘searching self with an acute perspective,’ to give it a name, I ignore myself.  I do it when I am in a hurry, when I am in pain, and when I am weak-minded.  And I have always regretted it later.  It is as if I had temporarily lost who I truly am.

I have often imagined it is the soul reaching out, this thinking and writing alone together.  This soul is meant to be understood and read, and it is meant to reach someone, but that audience is whoever listens, and perhaps limited to those who already will not forget the quiet self that shadows them even within their family.  The audience for this soul, instead of being a target, grants itself into the company of those wanting to be alone together.

So I seek my audience with a vague hope to be heard, but even if I am not, if my words and strange musings remain unread and not understood, I would still reach into the darkness.  I don’t know why.  It is not for the audience.  Nor is it for a vain self.  It is --how can I explain it?-- at once to sanctify and upend life, to lift it from what it is, to focus thought into words and create a call to what was and what is when we live.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Illegal is Illegal

That stupid tautology is what passes nowadays for thinking in today’s debate on illegal immigration.  It’s stupid, because instead of explaining or justifying anything, that tautology glosses over the complex context of undocumented workers in the United States, and how many of us benefit from their work.  With such glibness, we wash our hands of understanding their plight.

It’s good to be a hypocrite in this country on illegal immigration.  It’s rare anybody calls you on it; it’s rare self-satisfied hypocrites do any reflection.  Illegal is illegal.  That’s it.  Case closed.  I’ve even seen that slogan trumpeted on political placards in upstate New York.

I was in Missouri last week, staying at a nice hotel, paid by the school which brings me in to conduct writing workshops.  As I was editing and grading stories and essays from my students, there was a knock on the door.  Two women with cleaning carts smiled sheepishly as I opened the door, and said in heavily accented English they would come back later.

I beckoned them in, saying it was okay.  As I worked, I heard them chat in Spanish about Mexico defeating France in the World Cup.  I introduced myself in Spanish, told them my parents were from Chihuahua, and saw their jaws drop.  Yes, we were all Mexicanos, the guy in the oxford shirt with the Macbook in front of him, and the ladies who were cleaning the toilets and vacuuming.

I spoke to ‘Julia’ for a while, from Guerrero.  She told me she desperately wanted to learn English, but had no time.  “Trabajo dos trabajos.  Diez y seis horas seguidas, y no me da tiempo.”  That is: “I work two jobs.  Sixteen hours back to back, and I don’t have the time.”  She smiled a toothy smile while she said this, and my heart wanted to break.  I asked her how they treated her at this hotel, and she said the manager was extremely nice to them.  Julia told me she sends money back home every month, to her family in Guerrero.

What is remarkable to me is how often this scene has been repeated in about every hotel I have stayed in America.  A few months ago, I was in Denver at an annual conference of writers.  At one of the fanciest hotels in the Mile High City, again an undocumented worker was cleaning my room.  I chatted with ‘Maria Teresa.’  As we spoke on the second day, she was almost teary when I handed her a signed copy of my first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.  I told her to have her children read her the stories.  I almost lost it myself when she responded, as we said goodbye at the door’s threshold, that she wanted her children to become like me.

These are the people who are the overwhelming majority of the undocumented workers vilified by the idiots in Arizona, and elsewhere, as illegal immigrants.  They are the salt of the earth.  Many of them are desperate to be Americanos.  But Americans already in power, many of Italian, German, Irish and Scandinavian descent, have forgotten how their grandfathers and great-grandmothers arrived in the New World.  We want our hotels clean, and cheaply, so we can profit from the labor of Latin American workers.

We want our strawberries and apples picked beautifully, without bruises, and cheaply.  But we turn the other way and somehow don’t hear when someone explains how this is possible at high-end markets like Fairway or Zabar’s in Manhattan, or across the country at Stop & Shops.  Who is in the fields picking our fruit, for hours under the merciless sun?  Who cares!  Illegal is illegal, they say happily, as they stuff another strawberry in their faces at the Marriott.

I instead talk to undocumented workers, especially if I see them working diligently to make our country better.  I ask them how they are.  I listen to their stories.  And I can only respect them in return.  That’s the decent thing to do.  That’s the right thing to do.  When did we become so callous?

Again, this week as I walked on Broadway, in front of giant photographs of voluptuous supermodels at a Victoria Secret mega-store, who was rebuilding the sidewalks?  With sweaty headbands, ripped-up jeans, and dust on their brown faces?  Their muscled hands quivered as they worked the jack-hammers, and lugged the concrete chunks into dump trucks.  Two men from Guanajuato.  Undocumented workers.  They both shook my hand vigorously, as if they were relieved I wasn’t an INS officer.

I imagined how much money Victoria Secret was making off these poor bastards.  I wondered why passersby didn’t see what was in front of their faces.  We use these workers.  We profit from them.  In the shadows, they work to the bone, for pennies.  And it’s so easy to blame them for everything and nothing simply because they are powerless, and dark-skinned, and speak with funny accents.  Illegal is illegal.  It is a phrase, shallow and cruel, that should prompt any decent American to burn with anger.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Literal: Latin American Voices

This spring I have an essay in a groundbreaking magazine I hope many of you will buy and read, Literal: Latin American Voices, edited by Rose Mary Salum.  My essay, “A Third Culture: Literature and Migration,” focuses on a topic I discussed at the Guadalajara International Book Fair last November, namely how my writing has been affected as an immigrant to the English language and American culture.

What is exciting about this bilingual issue (Spanish and English) of Literal is its mixture of literature and politics, art and photography, translated works from Latin America and Germany, poetry, fiction, and interviews.  Its nexus is Rose Mary Salum, an incessantly curious editor, who has created an intellectual cornucopia.  I have read about six other issues of Literal, and each is a surprise, a provocation, and a plea to look at the world anew.  I have C. M. Mayo to thank for introducing me to Rose Mary in Guadalajara, where over a long lunch the three of us had one of the best conversations I’ve had at any literary event.

In this issue of Literal, the highlight for me was an unpublished essay by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  The essay was a talk Paz gave at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, and is entitled, “Writers and artists in the history of Mexico.”  For anyone who cares about the role of the intellectual in society, in fomenting democracy or stifling it, for anyone who wants to understand the link between Mexican culture and its politics, this is an important work.

Paz focuses on the attitudes of Mexican intellectuals to modernity from the 16th Century to the 20th Century, inaugurated by the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the eventual rise of the PRI.  Clericals dominated intellectual life in Mexico in the 16th Century. Within a rigid orthodoxy, they struggled with uncertain attitudes toward modernity.  The revolutions of intimacy and reason, the critical cadre of intellectuals exemplified by Hume, Descartes, and Newton, catapulted Europe and the morals of its people to an intellectual ferment that was modern, particular, and pluralistic.

The positivism that arose in Mexico in the 1860s, however, was a global explanation for Mexican society, which instead should have been a philosophy particular to that country.  As Paz relates, the positivism of Porfirio Diaz and his cronies was simply the adoption of the “old theology” with a pseudo-scientific focus.  Before Juárez, intellectuals were part of the church.  After Juárez, intellectuals became part of the state, an unfortunate trend which continued even after the Revolution of 1910.

Paz asks the question: how can you modernize a nation and its morals if those responsible (namely intellectuals) are not completely modern?  He argues that Mexican intellectuals possessed a ‘pre-modern psyche’ with modern ideas.  Mexican intellectuals were not democratic, or interested in solving social issues; they adopted philanthropy, as a social action from above, given their uncertain status as statist elites.  Patrimonialismo, or corruption, became a social norm; a political-bureaucratic class and centralismo flourished.

What Paz says is missing from Mexico, and what he would have wanted Mexico to have, are a balance of power in politics, a critical and independent press, the autonomy of the legislature, and “authentic democracy.”  He longs for that “fraternity of man,” which he believes exists among average Mexicans, and which he sees spontaneously on display during an earthquake, where neighbor helped neighbor.

The role of the intellectual, according to Paz, is to help create this fraternity: “I am one of those who believes in gradual and peaceful changes.  That is why I speak: I believe in the word.  Gradual and peaceful changes are not attained without the intellectual class.  Not because this class is owner of the power to change something, but because this class exercises the power of persuasion that other classes do not possess.  From there, a change of consciousness must be fundamental.” (My translation)

There is no clearer explanation for why I started Chico Lingo.  To have an independent voice.  To persuade.  To change how people look at the world.  The word is not flimsy, even though it possesses no obvious power.  But sometimes the word reaches deeply into souls, particularly those who are still listening and looking, and that is where you may win a world.

Monday, May 24, 2010

King of the Chicanos

Today I finished reading a wonderful novel, King of the Chicanos (Wings Press), by Manuel Ramos, which was published a few weeks ago.  Ramos has written several crime fiction novels, and so the prose is tight and clean and the plot moves quickly.  But the importance of the novel is its focus, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the questions which arise about whether the movement continues today, in other forms, in other venues.

Most of the events described in King of the Chicanos take place before my time, when I was in grade school in El Paso.  But these events, and particularly the issues of the protagonist, Ramón Hidalgo, resonate today.  The unabashed support for racial and ethnic profiling of Arizona’s new immigration law and that state legislature’s attack against ethnic studies programs demonstrate that we are in a Back-to-the-Future moment.

The fight for respect, for being treated as equals, for pride that lifts us to become better citizens, was a fight fought by our predecessors, and a fight that needs organization, commitment, and passion again today.  Hidalgo is a natural leader who is animated by the police's brutality against Chicanos, by the establishment’s disenfranchisement of Mexican-Americans, from politics to literature.

Can we say we have progressed so far that these issues are not relevant today?  Of course not.  I would argue, in some cases like Arizona and the media’s stereotypical portrayal of undocumented workers and even American Latinos, that we have regressed to a worse state of affairs.

But what takes King of the Chicanos to a subtler, more complex level is Ramos’s unstinting portrayal of Ramón Hidalgo’s mistakes as a leader and flaws as a human being.  There is vicious infighting in the organization Hidalgo leads; personal conflicts trump organizational imperatives.  In one sense, this is the limitation of ‘familia,’ of not taking the organization beyond a personal level, to a more professional, perhaps politically powerful level.  Hidalgo is also self-destructive in a way, womanizing his way out of a marriage with an excellent partner whom he never ceases to love.

Lessons learned, I kept thinking, as I finished the novel.  Yes, there are important lessons learned in King of the Chicanos.  This work should be read by many young, and not-so-young, activists who are tired of being stomped on by the likes of Jan Brewer and Rush Limbaugh.  We need more than raw passion this time.  We need to be focused, and we need to be bigger than ourselves, and we need to be a political force that can translate our power to the ballot box, to legislatures, to the courts, and eventually to mainstream American culture.

I also want to point out, in my literary realm, how our struggle continues.  We need more books by and about Chicanos, and not just the version of ‘Mexican-Americans’ assumed in New York or Austin.  But to have that, to have more quality books published by small and large publishers about Chicanos, we need to buy more of our books, we need to educate our community about our stories, and we need to keep telling our stories, in every corner, in every town, until we are heard.  But first we need to listen to each other.  Only then will others turn around, and pay attention to the literary commotion and debate that is ours.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mr. Fixit

I have spent the past two weeks fixing broken things, or having them fixed by experts.  My son’s MacBook needed the RAM replaced at the new Apple Store near Lincoln Center.  I fixed the blinds on our window that were about to crash down on our heads.  I called the A/C repair guys, who came to oil and clean out the air conditioners in our apartment, but I wasn’t very impressed with them: I had to make sure they did the job right, and often they were sloppy.

Our electronic Yamaha piano had four keys that wouldn’t pop up anymore, in part because our fat cat Ocistar jumps on the piano to launch himself out the front door whenever I go to the trash room on our floor.  I found an electronic piano wizard, courtesy of the Sam Ash Music Store, who repaired it beautifully.  I’ll permanently fix the cat-piano-problem with the thick cover I ordered for our Yamaha.

A reliable handyman in our building fixed the kids’ toilet, which didn’t flush properly anymore, and replaced our tub faucet, which during a shower gushed water onto my feet but precious little on my head.  Another handyman re-caulked both bathrooms.

I fixed the navigation system on our Honda Pilot, and repaired the filter and cleaned out the pump that produces a nice waterfall for a small fish pond in our house in Connecticut.  Two dead trees are decaying in our side yard; they need to come down.  When will it end?  I wish I could repair the state of Arizona, or pay someone to do it, but even some problems are too big for me.

There comes a point when too many things are broken.  I reached that point two weeks ago.  Everybody was complaining, but not doing anything about it, and so I grabbed my Fixit flag and charged into the first problem first, and then the next, and the next.  But it really never ends.  Today the mop broke.

Of course, I’ve been ‘repairing’ my novel all throughout this Fixit frenzy, which means I’ve been rewriting it.  That also never ends, until it does, and how you know when the writing is ‘finished’ is an epiphany of sorts, a sense of judgment that this, what you have on the page, is what you always meant to write.  Whether someone will publish it is, again, another matter.

But I still do have a sense of tired accomplishment, that several of the things I fixed, or got fixed, will stay fixed, at least for a while.  This state of ‘fixedness,’ so to speak, is but a brief moment in time.  Soon enough something else will fall apart and need repair.  I don’t live for that stasis, but for the struggle to reach it and for what I learn by fixing things.  It’s really philosophical, and all that crap, but I’m exhausted.  So maybe that’s the point of the state of ‘fixedness,’ to rest.  I sorely need it.

“Dad, something’s wrong with the printer!”  I have to go.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Obama won the last presidential election, but Latinos are facing the political backlash from conservative whites, who see, more clearly than ever, that their days are numbered as the ethnic majority in this country.  That’s one conclusion I can draw from recent news and events.  I am felled by an awful spring flu, with a fever and an achy body and a nose that gushes as if it were the well of the Deepwater Horizon. But this is too important a day to be a bystander.

Arizona’s new law, SB1070, has been given an acceptable façade with the argument that it’s only against illegal immigrants and that it won’t result in racial profiling.  But what is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that someone is an illegal immigrant?  What does an illegal immigrant look like?  Like John McCain?  Sarah Palin?

It’s a law that the rogue cop who already hates all things Mexican, illegal or not, will easily abuse to jail a poor mother and father who don’t happen to be carrying their birth certificates in their back pockets.  I suspect that even if American Latinos have their birth certificates when they sleep, that the Arizona birthers will assume these documents are fraudulent.  They simply don’t like Mexicans, whether they are here illegally or not.

I conclude this not because I am paranoid, or because I see every political issue through an ethnic or racial lens.  I do not.  Read my blog, witness my marriage, see how I raise my children, examine my voting record.  What you will see, I hope, is a person who was given great opportunities in this country, who is conservative on some issues and liberal on others, who is proud of his Mexican heritage, yet still criticizes and tries to change practices within our community to make it more successful, more powerful, more open-minded.

But when I see that yesterday the Arizona state legislature also passed a bill that “prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” I know that this legislative majority in Arizona does not like Mexican-Americans.  Imagine, a Mexican-American studies program in Arizona is being compared to treason.  What kind of mentality makes that irrational link?  The Arizona Department of Education is also trying to fire teachers with accents who teach English classes.  What is happening in this crazy state?  This weekend, the ‘education’ bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

So I don’t draw my tough conclusions on anything but the evidence of idiocy that are the actions of the Arizona state legislature.  I can only wait for those legislative Caesars in Texas to also take up racist and xenophobic causes, or Oklahoma and Alabama.  Are we about to start a new Confederacy in the South?  What happened to giving opportunity to new strangers to this country, to helping them become Americans, which they so desperately want?  What happened to being open-minded about someone who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t sound like you?

For Latinos, we must organize.  We must protest.  We must register to vote in huge numbers, and then vote with our neighbors and friends at the ballot box.  We must get involved in politics locally, seek alliances with those who will help us.  We should never stay silent, and allow others to do the work of fighting for causes we care about.  That’s what this country is about: getting involved, gaining our voice, getting a chance to fulfill our highest potential.  These days should prompt a new grito for freedom, respect, and self-determination.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Financial Chess

Tomorrow I will make another financial chess move.  We are refinancing the mortgage on our house, to a super-low interest rate, at a shorter term. We close on the deal in the morning.  My father often criticizes me for “always worrying about money,” but discovering a financial advantage and having the guts to take advantage of it have been the ways in which I have gained my economic freedom.

During the nadir of the financial meltdown in March 2009, I was smart enough not to panic, even though I worried about my investments and what my wife and I had achieved, in stock gains, over many years.  As the market came back over the past year, I vowed to take into account that worry.  I sold stock, and Laura and I decided to use those gains to pay down our mortgage and so shorten the years of our mortgage debt.

When I was younger, I had almost 100 percent of my investment money in stocks, stock mutual funds, and only an emergency fund in bonds.  As I have gotten older, and with the experience of 2009 fresh in my mind, I have realized I want to preserve more of what I have, and not to focus only on growing it.  So I adapted.  Adapt or die, I say, to any would-be investor.

Yet the bonds I have purchased have been on the short-end of the yield curve, because I expect interest rates to go up.  They can hardly go down any further, so the best bet is that they will either stay stable for a while, or go up.  When interest rates go up, the prices of bonds go down: an inverse relationship.  So any bond that is long-term (i.e. greater than ten years) will be hurt more by a one percentage increase in interest rates, than a bond that is short-term (less than three years, or just one year).

Another financial chess move I have made over the past three years is to increase my foreign stock allocation.  When I teach an investment analysis course, I always give my class the current total stock market capitalization of the world, and what portion belongs to the United States.  Since the 1970s, the American share of world stock market capitalization has declined.  The world outside the U.S. is growing faster than the U.S.  Brazil, India, China, and South Korea are great growth stories.

Even individual American companies I purchase for my portfolio I examine in light of their foreign revenues: companies with their eyes on foreign markets will simply have less of their eggs in one (domestic) basket.  If you think our budget and trade deficits will have a negative effect on the dollar (I do), then you will benefit by having companies earning their revenues in Euros, Yuan, Won, and Yen.

I also expect taxes to go up.  Why?  We have these gigantic deficits and lack the political will to tackle spending on entitlements and the military nationally, and on state and city government budgets and bureaucracies locally.  I blame both Republicans and Democrats for this situation, and think they will come together when they are forced to come together.  Crony capitalism on Wall Street and dysfunctional politics in Washington have left us in a mess, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world.  I believe the Tea Party activists are overstating their case.  I see reported profits for S&P 500 companies higher than expected, and perhaps there is a chance we can grow out of this deficit hole.

Right now I would vote for Obama again.  Why?  He has been pragmatic when faced with the economic cleanup of the Bush mess.  Obama has forced consumer protections on credit-card companies and is actually regulating, as the government should, the practices of financial institutions which drove the American economy into a ditch.  The laissez-faire, I’m-a-deregulator philosophy of Bush allowed the powerful to take advantage of the weak and uninformed, and the well-connected to seek a public bailout when their crazy risks exploded in their faces.  And ours.  We can’t let that happen again.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Returning the Blood to Words

At almost every AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) there is a moment, a panel, a writer who reminds you of why you became a writer in the first place.  The annual conference is in Denver this year, and Martín Espada, the master poet, was the man for me this year.  Last year it was Marie Ponsot.

Espada: “Writers should return the blood to words.”

Espada said so many things on his panel, “Justice, Community, and the Republic of Poetry,” with Tara Betts and David Mura.  But that sentence encapsulates his ideas about writers fighting the deadness of language used by politicians and even the deadness of perspective given our busy and often compromised lives.

Espada read and sang in a way only poets do, to uplift the literary sprits, to call us to the social mission of writing, to dethrone the accepted, to criticize the unjust, to delve roughly and humorously into ourselves too, lest we forget that not only is the world the issue, but also the self.

Years ago I had a similar reaction the first time I heard Curbstone’s Alexander Taylor speak at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.  Sandy, who died in December of 2007, may he rest in peace, invigorated me and gave me purpose.  I write to change the world, to prod myself, to seek answers to questions often unasked, to lead the good life as Aristotle may have envisioned, which is hard and unrelenting.  And I try to do this with good stories that engage the reader.  Philosophy in literature, some have called it.  So hearing Sandy, just like hearing Martín, captured my soul.

I dropped everything, even the panels I am missing as I type this, to write this entry.  This is what great writers do: they cause you to act.  They don’t just entertain you (although they have to do that if they are storytellers), but they prompt you to do, to change your perspective, to ask yourself tough questions, to believe in a just republic and imagine the impossible.

Martín Espada and Sandy Taylor were great friends.  I also remember hearing Martín speak about reading poetry to Sandy as he lay in the hospital during his final hours.  I knew Sandy, since I had been briefly on the Curbstone Board.  But I do not know Martín except from afar.  I am lucky to have paid attention to their words.

I have been pondering why it is that poets, recently, have been the ones inspiring me.  It is their exceptional use of language, and their thinking beyond the norm and the staid.  This poetic thinking I believe is deeply philosophical.  These writers seem to pose the question of ‘seeing’ without assuming what it means, or what it has meant, or what it can mean.  ‘Seeing’ for these poets is a new act with every poem.

During breaks, I am finishing Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and have already received recommendations from poet-friends on what to read next.  It has been a great conference so far.  But now I need the solitude and quiet that beckon me even in a crowd.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Loss of Juárez

I am back in El Paso with Laura and the kids, having just been in El Paso two weeks ago for the Juntos Art and Literature Festival.  The kids have spring break at their schools, and we needed a break from New York City.

We visited the Centennial Museum at UTEP, which was closed for César Chávez Day, but the Chihuahuan Desert Garden, around the museum, was open.  We spent a leisurely hour or so marveling at the variety of cacti, giant carpenter bees, and yellow-and-black butterflies of the garden.  The peace of the garden’s nooks, El Fortin, and other hideouts amid the flowers and sun refreshed us unlike anything in recent memory.

But as we drove back to Ysleta on the Border Highway a sense of sadness overtook me.  My kids, for two years, have been clamoring to go to Mexico.  My wife and I have said no, because of the rampant violence in Juárez.  Today we settled for stopping on the shoulder of the freeway, just after the Bridge of the Americas and on top of the Yarbrough overpass, for pictures of Mexico and the infamous border fence my children have studied in school.

The violence and the wall have separated us; it is no compensation to look at Juárez from afar; I wish my children could know the Juárez I knew as child.  But I will never willingly put them in harm’s way.

What others who have not lived on the border may not understand is how close El Paso and Juárez were and are even today.  Close culturally.  Many with families in both cities.  Close in so many ways.  When I was in high school in El Paso, my family always --and I mean every Sunday-- had a family dinner in Juárez at one of my parents' favorite restaurants: Villa Del Mar, La Fogata, La Central, Tortas Nico, and Taqueria La Pila.

It was going back in time, to the city where my father and mother met and were married.  But it was also to experience another set of rules and values, to a mysterious country with more bookstores than I ever saw in El Paso, to tortas and open-air mercados, to primos who would drop everything to show me their horses, and even to my first funeral- the open casket is still vivid in my mind.  A young boy, the son of a friend of my parents, had been run over by a car.  Juárez for me was primal and vivid; it was my history.  I thought I understood it instinctually, even spiritually, and that’s just when it baffled me the most.  After graduating from Harvard, I spent a year in Mexico City to get my fill of this labyrinth of a country.

On Monday just before we came to El Paso, I was trying to explain this to friends in Boston, at a Passover seder.  How Juárez was closer to El Paso, than New York City was to New Jersey.  How people went to lunch in Juárez and were able to return to the United States in a couple of hours.  How we used to go to Waterfil over the Zaragoza International Bridge (on the outskirts of Juárez) for Easter picnics, clinking cases of sodas, or groceries we couldn’t find in Ysleta.  Yes, it was that close, in the most trivial and profound ways, and we took it for granted.

Two years ago that world changed.  Two years ago an unprecedented orgy of drug violence exploded in Juárez.  Two years ago we lost Juárez, as a place to show our kids where their abuelitos came from, and in so many other ways.  It is a deeply felt loss for many of us in El Paso.

I am tired of pointing out that the voracious drug habits of the United States and the millions of dollars of American guns illegally exported to Mexico are root causes of the drug violence.  Not to mention a corrupt local police force in Mexico, and an ineffective national government.  For the moment, the hypocrisy, the idiocy, and the cheapness of life are too much to bear.

I just miss Juárez.  It was never a joke for me, as it was for some of my Anglo friends and not a few of my Chicano friends from El Paso.  It was a portal to another world that felt at once deeply familiar and strangely fascinating.  When will this nightmare end?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Texas Board of Ignorance

I left Texas to educate myself.  At Harvard College, one of my greatest shocks was how little I knew about my heritage and Mexican history.  I was born and lived in Ysleta, less than half a mile from the Zaragoza International Bridge, yet I knew nothing about where I was from.  So I spent four years at Harvard College studying Latin America with visionary teachers like Peter Smith and Terry Karl; I learned Mexican history from John Womack.

I imagined one day life would be different for a young and eager high school student from Ysleta, one who was proud to be an American citizen yet who also wanted to know more about his roots.  But the recent vote on textbook standards from the Texas Board of Education shows that Texas is going backward, not forward.  Close-mindedness is winning.  Ignorance is trumpeted.  Isolation and indoctrination are the new watchwords for those afraid of a changing world.

To recap: last week, the Texas Board of Education, led by a conservative majority, voted to call into question concepts like the separation of church and state and the American Revolution as a secular revolt.  The majority voted to emphasize the political contributions of Phyllis Schlafly, while minimizing Thomas Jefferson, apparently too democratic for their tastes.  In fact, the United States, according to these conservative activists, should not be studied as a ‘democracy’ anymore, but as a ‘constitutionally-based republic.’  Guess who decides what’s in the Constitution?  Previously this conservative majority had attacked the historical contributions of César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

This is what happens when people hunker down.  When your state is becoming too Mexican-American and African-American, when you feel you are being left behind, when perhaps you see the day when you will not be the majority anymore, then you retrench and attempt to rewrite history.  But what happened to thinking?  What happened to understanding that many Latinos, including my mother, hold deeply conservative values, yet simply do not want to be mistreated or disrespected?  What happened to studying the fact that the Constitution counted a slave as two-thirds of a person, while also being a unique founding document that created checks and balances between branches of government to control their powers?  Why can’t we study the failures of our history as well as our triumphs, and still appreciate that we live in a great country?

One conservative board member, in an interview, said the majority’s vote was “the return of American exceptionalism.”  But sadly, the conservative vote of the Texas Board of Education shows exactly the opposite.  The United States was an exceptional, historically unique country because it was pluralistic, because you had freedom of speech and freedom from a state-imposed religion, because unlike hierarchical Europe you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve regardless of class, religion, and then later, race.  We have always been a work-in-progress; that's the root of our greatness.

The United States remains exceptional as long as we correct our mistakes, as long as we keep confronting our problems head on.  That’s what a democracy does, at least when it functions well.  The problems get aired out, confronted, and eventually fixed more or less.

But when you trumpet some weirdly nostalgic ‘America’ that never existed, without the messy conflicts, without the democratic debates, without the will of the people manifesting itself through blood and protest, what you are holding high is an ‘American absolutism.’  You are saying, in effect, stop thinking.  Stop including the newcomers, like Latinos, and stop turning them into Americans.  You are saying stop the potpourri of religions now in America; let’s all be Christians.

You are saying, without saying it, that we are not confident anymore.  We are not pluralistic anymore.  We must close shop.  We must bar the doors.  This scary new world is too much.  Let’s teach our children to hide.

The only saving grace is that I learned about the vote of the Texas Board of Education in El Paso.  At least El Paso is barely part of Texas.  I don’t have to explain myself in El Paso, and I don’t have to endure suspicious stares or seemingly polite comments about my accent in Ysleta.  As Texas becomes more like El Paso, maybe one of these days, before I die, I will feel at home in the rest of Texas too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I have really excellent parents.  The only problem is that they drive a new Toyota Camry, and I’m worried it will be a death trap for them.  Of course, I had them take it to the dealer, and the dealer in El Paso said their car wasn’t part of the recall.  But do I trust the dealer or Toyota?  Didn’t I just see a report of a runaway Toyota (which had been given a clean bill of health by a dealer) that had to be stopped with the help of a California highway patrolman?  The driver was so shaken up by the near catastrophe that he needed an ambulance.  I can only imagine what would happen to my elderly parents in that situation.

As our parents grow older, we worry more about them.  My father and mother are both 75-years-old.  My father Rodolfo, who has diabetes, can’t walk more than ten feet without needing to sit down or to lean on his wheeled walker.  He is still ‘there’ mentally, but his body is betraying him.  My mother Bertha has become the boss of the family, and has always possessed an incredible memory.  She is the one who drives, buys the groceries, and keeps my father’s doctor appointments, with him in tow.  Without her, I don’t know what we would do.

Luckily, my brothers live in El Paso, and so they help my parents whenever there is a true emergency.  But in reality, my parents love to be self-sufficient, are beyond intrepid, and will only ask for help as a last resort.  Having unlimited long distance on my home phone helps me keep in touch with my parents.  I am the one who alerted them to the Toyota recall during its initial weeks, who told them to get their H1N1 shots, and who helped them with their taxes.  I also invest their savings (extremely conservatively, given my parents’ preferences).

It is possible I am just bothering them, when I call them once a week.  Perhaps they would have gotten their flu shots anyway.  But I do have lengthy conversations with them about all sorts of topics, which I think sometimes changes their outlook, decisions, or practices.  It is not out of guilt that I call them, and it is not because I believe my way on such-and-such a topic is the only way.  I have a brother who generally listens to me financially, and another one who does not.  (I won’t mention who’s who.)

But this ‘family exchange of information,’ I believe, is the root of good neighborhoods and the root of strengthening communities to do better for themselves.  I think we, particularly Latinos, should do more of it.  I hear on the Upper Westside, mothers and fathers having conversations about which schools are better and why, what scholarships are available, what’s a good summer camp for kids and why, what’s a reliable money market fund, what’s the best kind of mortgage and with which bank,  and so on.

There is probably always a tendency to go it alone, to stay within yourself, to provide for your family, and not to waste time giving advice to others who might not do the same for you.  It’s true: I don’t have all the time in the world, and I’m often in a hurry with six tasks on my to-do-list for the morning.  But if I can help, if someone asks me, and if that day I can offer a practical suggestion, I’ll do it.  I’m certainly more likely to help a friend than a stranger.  And I’m certainly more likely to help someone who I think is a good character, rather than someone who seems to smile at me only when he or she wants something.

So from faraway I try to be a good son.  I simply want my parents to be safe and happy.  Today this is what my excellent parents did for me.  My publisher sent hundreds of flyers to my house, for a reading I’ll be doing in El Paso on Friday.  I won’t be arriving until late Thursday night, so my father and mother volunteered to take the package of flyers to downtown El Paso, to the El Paso Public Library, where they will be distributed by those running the Juntos Art and Literature Festival.

Of course, my parents drove to the other side of town in their Toyota Camry.  Of course, my mother found parking (miracles of miracles!) in the heavily congested area around the library.  Of course, I worried every single minute.  Until she called me on the phone (as they dodged traffic on I-10 on the way back to Ysleta!) and said the lady who picked up the flyers was very nice to them.  I need to tell them about the El Paso City Council's new ban on using cell phones while driving.

Friday, February 26, 2010

228 Miles

Tonight I drove 228 miles, from Lawrence, MA to New York City, through a monsoon for the first 194 miles, and after Greenwich, CT through a snow hurricane that still roars outside my apartment window at midnight.

It was the most treacherous driving I have done for a while; I witnessed the aftermath of at least six accidents.  On the Merritt Parkway, where on a normal night most ignore the 55-mph speed limit and cruise at 70-plus, every inch of the road surface glistened, the lane lines were invisible, and cars were sliding and hydroplaning even at 40 mph.  It was tense, let’s just say, for four and a half hours.

I was in Lawrence this morning to give the Daniel Appleton White Fund Lecture, created in 1852 by Judge White, who was a contemporary of Hawthorne and Emerson.  Judge White, whose memoir I discovered through Google Books, was the first president of the Salem Lyceum, and an advocate of democratizing knowledge through public lectures and discussions.

In the memoir, I noticed how open-minded he was, and truly, far-sighted: he believed deeply in his Protestant faith, yet castigated fellow Protestants who instead of possessing a culture of openness and inquiry were of an “opposite spirit” who “judging, censuring, avoiding, and reviling one another” undermined the right of others to be more, or even less devout, than them.  He admired the Puritan immigrants and their search for religious freedom in the new world.  Of course, in the spirit of Judge White, I talked about how Latinos can develop their voice and become full-fledged participants with cultural and political power in our American experiment.

The trip was worth every treacherous mile.  Before the lecture, I conducted a workshop with ESL students at Northern Essex Community College.  The stories the students told me about their lives as Dominicanos in Massachusetts, or immigrants from China and Bangladesh, were hilarious and poignant.  We talked about how we have often been put down for having accents, or why even family members or neighbors might make fun of our dreams to educate ourselves.

We exchanged stories about how to find the right mentors, how to focus on yourself even when the world is hostile, and how to build that sense of self-esteem that keeps you focused on your goals.  I took apart their oral stories, and showed them how naturally they were already excellent storytellers who could make an entire room break down with laughter.  I pointed out the plot climax they so easily crafted and the true-to-life dialogue they inserted into their stories about encounters with police and immigration officials.  The lecture was a great experience, but talking to these students, from twenty- to sixty-years-old, was the highlight of my trip.  They have so much to say, and they do indeed have great teachers in Lawrence helping them say it.

I like an exchange with the audience as much as I like giving a speech to focus on complex points about culture, philosophy, or how I survived throughout the years.  I learn as much from my audience as I feel they learn from me.  These trips, like the trip to Lawrence, energize you and make you believe again that storytelling can make an essential difference in creating a better self, inspiring group self-reflection, and building a community out of individuals.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Camino del Sol

This week a pleasant surprise was dropped into my mailbox: my contributor’s copy of the new anthology, Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, edited by Rigoberto González and published by the University of Arizona Press.  This is a masterful collection of contemporary writing, and I hope it will be used widely in schools.  I have two stories in this book, “Punching Chickens” and “The Snake.”

But what thrills me whenever I appear in an anthology is to read other writers I admire, or to discover new work I am not familiar with.  This collection includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published over fifteen years by the award-winning Camino del Sol series, which has been at the forefront of publishing quality American literature written by Latinos.

Virgil Suárez’s “Animalia,” the first poem in front of my eyes as I randomly opened the book, was nothing short of enthralling.  The animals, the casual violence of children against animals, humans killing, eating, pleading with animals- the words and images spurred my memory and arrested the present like a poetic cinema.  Diana Garcia’s “When living was a labor camp called Montgomery” took me back not to Califas, but to Socorro, Texas, to working on a chicken farm, to the dreams of workers amid an awful stench, to muscles that quivered in spasms with the sun, to the choices and accidents that led to an escape.

The personal essay “A Different Border” by Ray Gonzalez, the founder and first editor of the Camino del Sol series, brought me home to contemporary El Paso.  The sleepy, isolated town has a growing military presence, anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen lurk along the Texas-New Mexico border, and young, educated Chicanos buy into an often vapid, ahistorical existence.  And still, this country uses, abuses, underpays, profits from, and then attempts to deport and even destroy human beings from Mexico.  Not human beings, really.  But ‘cheap labor.’  Or worse, ‘illegal aliens.’  It’s a borderlands’ movie epic: “Be Blind, Rewind.”

But the most intriguing work in Camino del Sol was the introductory essay by Rigoberto González.  If you want to know, in a short read, about the history of Latino publishing in the United States, the authors, trends, sub-trends, categories, and publishers, the obscure as well as the well-known, the distant past as well as the future, then this is the essay for you.  It is a survey in the best sense of the word, which is to say it records, examines, and appraises the state of American literature written by Latinos.  You get the sense of a movement, perhaps gaining speed as of late, a flourishing through hard times and obscurity, that will not be denied anymore, that has become its own validation.

I became a writer to tell stories I had not before heard.  I became a writer not to aggrandize myself or my family, nor to provide a false, perhaps romanticized version of Ysleta or El Paso.  I became a writer because these stories, from my community, deserved to be heard.  They deserved to be heard after I read stories in German in Vienna.  They deserved to be heard after I studied Faulkner, O’Connor, Hemingway, and Conrad at Widener Library.

The panoply of stories and poems from the Latino community still deserve to be heard, and read.  I suspect many, if not most, of the writers in this anthology began with a similar motivation: a sense of pride mixed with a sense of strangulation, a belief that I am someone, that we are the people, that time is short, that our voices are just as often clear as faint, that today is the time to release a world.