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In this issue of Literal, the highlight for me was an unpublished essay by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.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.