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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Between Scylla and Charybdis

As I hunker down for this epic snowstorm that may or may not arrive tomorrow in the City, I have been working on my finances.  I do a few things at the beginning of the year, which I believe should help any investor remain disciplined and focused.

I would call myself an investor who is comfortable with risk, but over the years as I have amassed more capital I have shifted to preserving what I have as much as growing it.  The other issue is that I have always ignored Wall Street research, simply because much of it is momentum-based: if the stock goes up, then it’s a good stock, and if it goes down then it’s a bad one.

Of course, almost no one can tell the direction of a stock before-the-fact (unless you’re cheating).  You can be a lucky investor, but I want to be an intelligent one.  Moreover, not enough attention is paid to the business of a company and the trustworthiness of its management.  You want a company relentlessly focused on building shareholder value, cutting costs and overhead, deploying capital for the benefit of shareholders, not for fat-cat CEOs.  All in a marvelous business where the profit margins are high.  So the ethos of Wall Street, which seems to be “fleece the individual investor and even the taxpayer, if you can get away with it,” is what you want to avoid.

First, I re-balance my portfolios.  That is, if I want 40 percent in bonds, and 60 percent in stocks, if those are my targets, I check at the beginning of the year and move money to regain those targets.  What you are doing is moving money from your successes (say stocks, which climbed to 65 percent of your portfolio) to your failures (say bonds, which declined in relative value to your stocks, to 35 percent of your portfolio).  It’s systematic contrarian investing.  I recently read an article in the New York Times that showed how steadily saving for and re-balancing a diversified portfolio every year would have turned this past decade into an investing success, rather than the dismal failure it was for those who did nothing.

Second, I have been increasing my exposure to international stocks over the years, particularly emerging markets.  It’s simple.  The United States is a mature economy, with a dysfunctional political system which shows no sign of tackling our major problems.  The American share of worldwide stock-market wealth has relentlessly declined: in 1970, the U.S. stock market was 66 percent of world market capitalizations, in 2007 our share was 42 percent, in 2008, 29.9 percent.  It’s no secret that China, Brazil, India, South Korea, and so on are growing faster than we are.

So I invest in foreign-stock mutual funds, particularly index funds covering everything from developed economies to emerging markets.  Also, I make sure the mutual funds I own do not hedge the dollar.  Why?  I want the currency risk, for better or for worse.  That’s part of the diversification of international investing, and it’s also a bet against the dollar and our trade and budget deficits.  Our politicians will blame each other and vie for short-term power, until one day they will discover the mathematical oppression of our spending-beyond-our-means on unnecessary wars and gargantuan entitlements will have weakened us to a regional power, if that.

Third, I have diversified my portfolio to include things like raw land in Texas, where the demographics are excellent, and TIPS, or Treasury inflation-protected securities.  Although there is scant inflation now, and TIPS seem overbought because of the worries about the deficit, I believe you need a smattering of unconventional assets that will help you fight inflation when it rears its ugly head again, especially after we have printed truckloads of dollars.  There could also be a scenario in which interest rates are high, because of our weakened dollar and jittery creditors, and the American economy stagnant, our stand-of-living in a deleveraging decline.  Unconventional assets mean uncorrelated assets, and will mean less panic for you in whatever scary environment you find yourself in.

Over the past two years, I do feel something fundamental has changed.  The politicians in Washington have stopped working together; our democracy seems more ambush-demagogy than the voices of the people; the way we talk to each other, through TV and radio, in ten-second sound bytes, prevents us from understanding each other.  I just want my family to survive.