Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas 1963: Context and Questions

Dallas 1963 (Twelve, 2013), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, takes the reader back to the city of Dallas and to the years before that fateful day on November 22, 1963. In this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, this important book raises several fascinating questions.

To what extent was Dallas already the “City of Hate” before the assassination? What role did conservative figures play in creating this paranoid milieu? How does this environment in part mirror current conservative attacks against President Barack Obama? Did the hateful environment in Dallas contribute to, or encourage, or explain Kennedy’s assassination?

The Dallas of 1960 is a city where the Ku Klux Klan once had its national headquarters, the current mayor had once been an unabashed KKK member, and important statues celebrate Confederate heroes. The Dallas Morning News is led by publisher Ted Dealey, who refers to Washington, D.C. as “nigger town” and joins oilman H. L. Hunt in supporting the belief that the United Nations is creating a world socialist system. For them, JFK’s support of Medicare is tantamount to “sweeping dictatorial power over medicine” and will create government death panels. This is Obamacare’s déjà vu.

Joining these powerful citizens is Rev. W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who sermonizes that JFK’s Roman Catholicism is a “political tyranny” that threatens the very fabric of the U. S. of A. Meanwhile, General Edwin A. Walker resigns from the military, finds Dallas politically hospitable, and gives speeches to adoring local crowds where he exhorts unleashing nuclear holocaust on the Soviet Union, even at the price of millions of casualties stateside. Super-patriot Walker wants to overthrow the “totalitarian regime” of Kennedy, and files to run for Texas governor in February of 1962.

Stirring this toxic stew, and exploiting it, is Representative Bruce Alger from Dallas, the lone Republican in the Texas delegation, and an arch conservative. During a visit from Lyndon B. Johnson on the eve of the 1960 election, Alger leads a “mink coat mob” that attacks LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson. A sign in Alger’s hands reads “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.”

Later when U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson visits Dallas in October of 1963, Frank McGehee, the Dallas founder of the National Indignation Convention, adopts the tactics of conservative intimidation by leading a mob to disrupt Stevenson’s speech. One protester, a Dallas insurance executive, slams a placard on Stevenson’s forehead.

Oddly, Lee Harvey Oswald is a relatively minor figure in this book, a Socialist sympathizer who nearly assassinates General Walker in April of 1963 and later kills Kennedy. This is odd because Dallas 1963 repeatedly hints that the hateful conservative milieu in Dallas somehow portended JFK’s assassination. But how exactly? Was Oswald drawn to Dallas because of its conservative fanaticism, and so he decided to combat it there? Why did he turn the rifle instead on JFK? These questions and any others explicitly linking the right-wing hate in Dallas to what happened on November 22, 1963 (at least the official and most likely version of events) are not answered in this book. We are left to make these links somehow on faith.

Dallas 1963 is a meticulously researched book that brings you back to a place and time beset by a mass or even class psychosis, where innuendo and wild accusations gain currency, where zealots sound reasonable, and wild and murderous ideas are taken seriously, and acted upon. The dark side of democratic rule, too often, is the rule of the mob. When that mob has power, money, news media, and well-spoken leaders, then the most inhumane acts can be perpetuated by societies in the name of what is ‘right.’ Dallas 1963 will help readers gain a perspective that resonates with the caustic politics that have unfortunately become the norm today.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 3, 2013.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

First Week of College

I traveled 477 miles from New York City to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and back, to revisit Northern Essex Community College (NECC) last week. This time I was visiting the Bridge Program, a free primer for entering students to help them acclimate to college. These students, all Latino and mostly Dominicano, remind me of who I was over thirty years ago: a poor kid from the U.S.-Mexico border with no clue at Harvard. Coincidentally, this was the same week when my wife Laura and I dropped off our son Aaron at Yale, for the start of his freshman year.

One of the issues that stuck in my mind at NECC was this: how do we identify and help those poor kids who are driven to move up, who are ready to sacrifice for themselves and their families, and who are pulling themselves up by their boot straps, awkwardly, tentatively, but with an undeniable hunger? Because that’s how I was.

In the United States, we spend so much effort militarizing the border, throwing money at the border security industrial complex, and giving air-time to fear-mongers only too eager to bash poor people and their neighborhoods. Imagine if we spent the same billions of dollars on identifying those children of undocumented workers with stellar school records, with the right family values to succeed, with the framework to be the best of citizens. Imagine if we helped these young people become productive college graduates and taxpayers.

Imagine if we made the effort to know poor Mexicano neighborhoods like Ysleta, where I grew up, to understand which families had disciplined parents, which families refused food stamps, like my own family, because the parents thought it was shameful. Instead of vilifying poor families as the parasites of society, instead of attacking these convenient and awful abstractions in pseudo ‘arguments,’ imagine making careful distinctions. Imagine doing the hard work of practical thinking, and implementing this as policy.

In class at NECC, we discussed my novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, and then I went to lunch with the students, administrators, and teachers of the Bridge Program. I spoke to one young woman who made an impression on me. Kiara was focused and intelligent, she wanted to be a radiologist, her father was a taxi driver, and her sister had already graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, after attending NECC. I had a long conversation with Kiara, and I could tell she was going places.

I had made that leap too, from being poor to the middle class, with loving but tough Mexicano parents who taught me to work beyond exhaustion and avoid the drugs and gangs of our neighborhood. I went from being marginalized in society, ignored, and even laughed at (sometimes by other Mexicanos and Chicanos full of envidia, jealousy), to self-education through cultural sacrifice, financial savings through pain, and learning-on-the-fly through fear. I saw a younger version of myself in Kiara. Will others take the time to see this potential in individuals like Kiara? I always have that hope.

This same week I told my son Aaron, as we moved him into Yale’s Old Campus, that if he saw a poor student looking shell-shocked, as if Yale were a different planet from, say, the Chihuahuan Desert, to help that person, to give him or her advice, to be friendly. “Aaron, I was that freshman, I didn’t even know what the Ivy League was, I was too quiet in class, I ate alone in the dining hall, at least at the beginning, I wasn’t sure I belonged at Harvard. I thought they had made a mistake.”

Our son Aaron is a New York City kid, savvy beyond his years. Before this week, he had visited Yale often, as the head of the Model United Nations group at his high school. I would have been intimidated by a freshman like Aaron. I would have marveled at the ease with which he navigated this strange world of the Ivy League. I know Aaron will take my advice to heart and seek out those who need help and who want to help themselves but may not know how. For two years in New York, Aaron volunteered to tutor poor students who could not afford to pay for expensive private tutors. We are proud of both Aaron and Isaac, not only for their intellectual prowess, but also for the good citizens they have become.

What Laura and I have always taught our kids is that we are connected to each other. Even if we struggled and succeeded, that does not mean we should only look after ourselves. We should help those coming up, who want what we have achieved, who have that same drive and discipline to achieve it, who deserve a chance. By helping los de abajo, you improve your entire community. By seeing and understanding those different from you, you remember who you were, you sharpen your empathy, you decide to find out for yourself (and not accept what you are told). By seeking out that ‘other,’ whoever that other may be, you will learn from them too.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lost in a Labyrinth of Ideas: Hotel Juárez

Hotel Juárez (Arte Público Press), by Daniel Chacón, is a mesmerizing collection of stories fluctuating between the past and the present, imagination and reality. These 39 short-short stories are linked by details, memories, and obsessions. Certain questions permeate Hotel Juárez: Can imagination relieve childhood guilt and violence? What is the relationship between singularity and abstraction? Do drugs and alcohol stimulate creativity, or destroy it?

In “First Cold,” a boy explores several imaginative loops in his head, from visiting the Tarahumaras to racing through a galaxy of supernovas. The most poignant is imagining he comes back as a respectable man to his startled mother, to tell her everything will be okay in the future. Back in reality, the boy is but twelve-years-old, three years before she commits suicide.

The son of Zachary and Angélica, in “The Framer’s Apprentice,” retells their first meetings, somewhat romanticized.  Then the son remembers his mother screaming at him as a seven-year-old, “You’re the reason!  You’re the one!” that is, the reason she got married. This happens a year before she also kills herself. Meanwhile the young son escapes the present by making his own mathematical symbols, living in his mind.

This ‘living in the mind’ dwells on the messy relationship between singularity and abstraction. In “Green-eyed Girl on the Cover of National Geographic,” the narrator is a young American man studying art in Paris who falls for a Moroccan clerk. The out-of-place Chicano guards against over-thinking the details because this leads to a “singularity of meaning.” What we find out in a later story, “Centinela!  Centinela! What of the Night?” is that the father is telling this Parisian story to their daughter, Mari, but withholds details of their night dancing, because this would “limit the possibilities.”

The reverence for imagination and abstraction and the disdain for details come to a moral head in “The Puppy.” A lonely assassin buys a meek, somewhat frightened puppy, and goes about taking care of Snorkel. He plays with Snorkel, and loves him apparently, until he gets a call to do a job in Mexico City. The assassin then drowns Snorkel in the tub, knowing the dog is only “species first and then breed.” When the assassin is back in town, he’ll buy another dog.

The moral crisis, whether or not Chácon explicitly says it or realizes it, is that over-abstraction can easily lead to inhumane behavior, to not ‘seeing’ the individual in front of you. That is an old problem in Heidegger’s philosophy of being-towards-death, for example, the problem of fetishizing abstraction to such a degree that you start thinking of your death as the only thing that matters in your life. Of course, that’s crazy, or another, more philosophical way to put it is that human beings are more than just minds: they are bodies, they are individuals, they have particular characters. That’s what matters in the moral world.

These issues come to the fore in several stories where drugs or alcohol spur the imagination from a “dull life.” In “Mujeres Matadas,” a fifty-year-old El Paso man is listening to death metal music surrounded by twenty-somethings, when a young guitarist, Mari(a), invites him to see “something really evil” in Juárez, at an underground club. In an old maquila factory, the “viejo” is transported to another world. But was it the music and the spectacle, or the “red pills” they took before she steps on stage? Again, in the last section “Hotel Juárez,” a professor of literature buys crack cocaine and is pursued by his imagination and three boys. He ends up in a seedy hotel room, “his head expanded into a universe of voices and images.”

The literary and philosophical issues at the heart of Chacón’s excellent stories are how imagination can save us, but also condemn us, and how too much abstraction can encourage us to lose ourselves in the beautiful desert world at our feet.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on June 16, 2013.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Making of an Anthology: Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence has been an anthology long in the making, and I want to share the back story of its creation. I am gratified that our anthology—which I co-edited with Sarah Cortez—has received some wonderful early reviews.

Publishers Weekly called it "an eye-opening collection of essays." Kirkus Reviews said, "Nightly shootings, kidnappings, robberies and the discovery of mass graves—all these and more have put an end to a once-thriving tourist industry and a rich cultural exchange between those living on either side of the boundary. Where there were once bridges, there are now high walls."

The Monitor from McAllen, Texas said, "Two of the more impactful essays were by the editors themselves. Sarah Cortez, a former law-enforcement officer, powerfully proclaims herself part of a group of individuals 'who stand against the wholesale execution of decent human beings by thugs for illegal gain, sanctioned by a government too weak or too dirty to act.' Sergio Troncoso closes the collection with a poignant sentiment: 'It was a better life than what we have today, and we understand that fact mostly in retrospect, as we often do, when we lose what we value before we had a chance to appreciate what it meant.'"

But what readers may not appreciate is the story behind this anthology: the cooperative efforts between two editors different in many ways, the vision and struggle to carry it out with writers across the country and internationally, the unexpected headaches, and the last-minute dramas. The creation of every book has a story behind it, often unseen, with good lessons for any writer, and the opportunity for the reader to glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, where writers toil, argue, plan, adapt, and with a little luck, find solutions to create the work published.

In April of 2010—I checked my old emails!—I was on a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Denver. Sarah Cortez had included a story of mine in an anthology she had co-edited for Arte Público Press, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery. Later that June, she would accept another story of mine for another Arte Público anthology she was working on, You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.

The AWP panel was for the writers of Hit List, and when we got together for lunch I told Sarah that her next anthology should be on how the bi-national, bi-cultural life along the border had been so drastically changed by the drug violence. I told Sarah how I had spent so much time in "el otro lado" as a high school student in El Paso, how my parents had stopped crossing to Juárez, their hometown, because of the bloody orgy. A unique way of life, between two worlds, had been severed.

After accepting my story for You Don’t Have a Clue, Sarah proposed in June of 2010 that we work together on this new border anthology, which at that time we were thinking of calling ‘Border Cities Lost.’ I had never edited an anthology before, and I did not have a direct relationship with Arte Público yet, so I thought this was a great idea. We worked out the details of the book proposal that summer, and Sarah presented it to Arte Público in Houston late that year.

In the middle of the summer of 2010, I was also emboldened to contact directly Arte Público about a book of essays I had ready. This book became Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, which Arte Público published in September of 2011. I have had an excellent experience with Arte Público, and I think their staff has been consistently helpful, thoughtful, and even inspiring to me.

Sarah and I spent months conceiving this anthology, sending notices to ask for contributions from writers, reading the many personal essays we received for Our Lost Border, and then editing the accepted essays. It’s a long process, and you get to know your co-editor very well. We are at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Sarah is first a poet, and I am first a novelist. She lives in Houston; I am in New York City.

Despite these differences, we got along well, and I have only the deepest respect for her. We decided early on to check our egos at the door and to focus on the work on the page. That’s the way it should be, but I know from experience that it often doesn’t unfold that way. Emblematic of our working together was our editing of the final 300-page manuscript: after we had each separately edited the manuscript, and sent each other our respective edits, about ninety percent of our edits were identical! Instead of going mano-a-mano on the other ten percent, we talked about each issue practically, and easily resolved the matter. We get along, and that’s the mystery of chemistry when you put two (albeit different) editors together.

I was able to use my contacts in the Mexican literary scene to get Diego Osorno, Lolita Bosch, and Liliana Blum to contribute essential essays for Our Lost Border. In 2011, I had already appeared in an anthology edited by Lolita, Nuestra Aparente Rendición. Arte Público’s Nicolás Kanellos graciously translated Osorno’s and Blum’s essays into English, and we included all the essays from the Mexican authors in the original Spanish, as well as in the translated English.

I wanted Cecilia Balli to contribute an essay, but she had a work conflict and suggested an ex-student of hers, Maria Cristina Cigarroa. Later Cecilia would introduce Sarah and me at the debut of Our Lost Border at the Texas Book Festival in San Antonio on April 13, 2013. It was one of the most thoughtful introductions I have ever received. Good friends, and exceptional writers of the border, also contributed work: José Skinner contributed a marvelous piece of black humor, and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith the incisive introduction. Luis Rodríguez introduced me to José Antonio Rodríguez at another AWP conference (the serendipitous meetings are always as important as the panels), and I asked José Antonio to contribute an essay after we re-connected at an annual meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters.

A week before the final manuscript was due in 2012, we discovered that we had overlooked the translation of Lolita Bosch’s essay! That day my wife had returned from the hospital after a surgery, but I agreed to translate the essay. I took care of Laura during the day, and I translated Lolita’s important essay at night. And I finished on time. In fact, I had enough time to send Lolita the translated essay electronically to Barcelona, for her approval. I was exhausted, but I wanted this anthology done. I was determined to do anything, and everything, to get the final manuscript to Arte Público. Sometimes being a bit maniacal about your work helps.

What lessons did I learn from working on Our Lost Border? Many people help you to create a book, from the publisher to friends and many others you have never met. Work well with them, if they are trying to help you. Another lesson: a real and practical team working toward the same goal can be created from disparate characters. But you won’t know that until you try to work together and solve problems together. It could work, or it could flop, but don’t prejudge the possibility of a team because the potential members look like an odd mixture. One more lesson: never give up, and you can do more than you imagine. Just punch through the difficulties, focus on getting the work done, and you will get there. Final lesson: knowing Excel is invaluable when you put together eight separate glossaries of Spanish words into one mega-glossary. Hint: use the alphabetical ‘Sort’ feature, and keep your list columns aligned.

That’s the odyssey behind Our Lost Border, which brings to light how the drug violence has impacted cities along the border and beyond, families in Mexico and in the United States. This anthology gives voice to those asking why and how this has happened, and what we might do to change in a direction away from the violence, despair, corruption, and fear. For me, this anthology is an example of why I write: not necessarily or primarily to entertain, but to open minds, to offer a perspective beyond the superficial, and to cause thinking that might lead to good action. I hope you will read Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, and recommend it to your friends.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Rise of an Iron Mariposa

In Red-Inked Retablos (University of Arizona Press), Rigoberto González weaves his words to create a tapestry of literary activism and erudition, passion and precision, action with words. He successfully achieves a book of ‘mariposa consciousness’: that is, a primer for the gay Chicano writer and intellectual on how to move from family poverty and homophobia to self-education and self-realization, from not having a voice in a marginalized world to fighting with literary work to create your voice and change the world around you.

If individual and community freedom matter to you, then you should pick up this book and read it.

Red-inked Retablos is divided into three expressions (or ‘retablos’) of the memories, stories, people, books, and ideals that have inspired González to ‘spill blood on the page:’ self-portraits akin to memoir, studies of books and writers, and speeches.

The memoir essays, the strongest of these three sections, reveal González’s boyhood fascination with reading and his discovery of Truman Capote (“The Truman Capote Aria”) as an early model of sorts, a gay man on television who turns out to be a writer. Amid the poverty of a farmworker family in tiny Thermal, California, and with a father constantly disappointed with his sensitive, shy son (“Easter Rock: 1983”), González finds his way to books. He creates an interior life that keeps the meager, macho, and violent world around him from swallowing him whole.

As a teenager and young adult, González is self-aware enough to find answers to his questions, and courageous enough to take risks to change his life. González educates himself despite his mother’s death before he is a teenager (“Orphans in a Terrorist World”), and despite his father abandoning him with a cruel and controlling abuelo. At every turn, González remembers and makes sense of these traumas, as an adult, as a gay man, as a Chicano, as a student and later as a professor. He writes to find meaning in his world, he writes to overcome this world, and he writes with passion to change what he sees as its shortcomings.

The studies of the poet Andrés Montoya, Arturo Islas, John Rechy, Michael Nava, Richard Rodriguez, Francisco X. Alarcón, Gloria Anzaldúa and others show the rich vein of “beloved Jotoranos” who are González’s literary ancestors. But what these studies also display is that to achieve his ‘mariposa consciousness’ González has done, and continues to do, an enormous amount of work. The work to perfect his craft. The work of close reading. The work of criticism and thinking. The hard work of writing well. He has taken the work ethic of the farmworker, and transformed it, and transformed himself, into this hard-edged beauty.

The only quibble to this nonfiction collection is its cohesion. Some of the studies seem perfunctory, while others are more in-depth (“Lullaby from Thomas James”). One of the speeches is a must-read for any Chicano literary activist (“To the Writer, to the Activist, to the Citizen”), while the other is a polemical speech that makes the surprising claim that González’s book column for The El Paso Times was “shut down.” Whether or not that is true, I leave it for others to debate. But that speech doesn’t quite fit with the other one, and the whole collection is a loose fit at best between the memoir essays, studies, and speeches.

What matters, however, is this remarkable journey and transformation that González achieves in words and literary activism in Red-Inked Retablos. It is a roadmap for other gay Chicano writers who will follow him. His insistence on being proudly gay and on being proudly Chicano, his love of these two communities and antipodes in one self, the effort to bridge the two and create his world in words, the struggle to educate and elevate those around him– all of this work should make it a roadmap for all of us who care about living in a better world.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on March 31, 2013.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stories from the Heart of El Paso

Matt Méndez’s Twitching Heart (Floricanto Press) is an evocative collection of stories set in El Paso that challenges the reader to explore the dynamics of relationships, gender roles, politics, and faith. The prose is simple but true, and the stories are suspenseful often without easy conclusions, which encourage the reader to ponder the layers of meaning in Méndez’s prose.

The interlinked stories begin with the title story, with Chuy and Teresa, father and mother to eleven-year-old Oscar, in a frayed relationship. Chuy has cheated and has been thrown out of the house. Yet Chuy agrees to take care of Oscar while the mother is at work, and agrees again to take Oscar to a tile job at a neighbor’s house, where paralyzed Angélica supposedly performs miracles at the behest of her mother María. The parents’ struggle is partly about their son, what kind of man he should become, whether he should learn skills with his hands, or skills for college. The struggle is also within the father Chuy, his life “silent and a stuck way to be.”

In “Tacos Aztecas,” Israel tries to remember how to show Cristina that he loves her, after homophobic thugs killed their son Artemio behind Ben’s Grocery one year ago. Israel believes it is his fault Artemio died, because he encouraged his son “to change his mind about being a sissy.” A big family never happened for Israel and Cristina. Cristina’s mother worried the family would be cursed, because Artemio was conceived before marriage. History is a crushing burden rather than a fount of pride or possibilities. Cristina is also wracked with guilt, because she encouraged Artemio “to deny who he was,” to hide it from his father, instead of defending Artemio like a Matachin. Revealing their sins to each other, Israel and Cristina might create another chance for themselves.

“El Terrible” is a gem of a story for two reasons: the details are terrific—from the father-son relationship to the basic skills of boxing—and the message about what work should mean, not labor, not the 9-to-5 grind, but work as caring about what you do, that message is so important. Martín is cut from the basketball team, and attends a school of “bored looking teachers and students.” His father José, a bus driver, has other plans for his son: to fight The Deacon’s kid—a star quarterback and “the biggest Mexican” Martín had ever seen—and to teach his son the skills and discipline of boxing.

At school, the promise of the fight takes on a life of its own, and Martín can’t back out. At home, Martín thinks his father is crazy and doesn’t know anything about boxing. But among the highlights of their training, José shows his son how waiting is sometimes better than attacking, the crucial lesson of counter-punching. Martín learns something new about his father, and himself, and why seriousness of purpose transforms the meaning of all work.

The language in Twitching Heart brings the reader to an authentic El Paso: homes are “chantes” and deflowering a young woman is “taking her cherry.” Even the right way to prepare and use thinset for setting floor tile brings you to the ground. Not the literal ground, of course, but that ground of the Chicano working-class too often overlooked in literature. This is the stuff that brings you to a place, and that brings to life a people. This is also what we should never be ashamed to explore, to criticize, and to laugh about: our struggling lives, with their imperfections and idiosyncrasies, our mannerisms and concerns, whether philosophical or stupid.

When we can do that artfully, then we have taken steps to value these lives from El Paso, and simultaneously we have taken steps to understand them and even transcend them. Matt Méndez succeeds on these counts in his admirable debut of stories in Twitching Heart.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on February 17, 2013.)