Sunday, June 25, 2017

_All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the Borderlands_ -- Interview with Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Cover of All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands (July 10, 2017)
Amelia M.L. Montes:  Thank you so much, Stephanie, for joining us today on La Bloga!  Your book, All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands is an important and compelling perspective because we learn current issues occurring on the Texas southern border in tandem with what is happening along the Canadian border, an area not often discussed and much less talked about.  This border is situated as you say on page 148: “…north of the Hudson, north of the Catskills, north of the Adirondacks . . . the only thing it’s south of is Ottawa.”  You became acquainted with this area due to a year position at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.  Tell us how you came to decide on living in that area of the U.S. for a year.  Was it difficult to acclimate at first?

Stephanie Elizondo Griest preparing to cycle across the New York/Quebec border.  Average wait time in this isolated stretch: 3 minutes.  At nearby Akwesasne, crossing can take upward of 2 hours, due to regulations requiring motorists to check in with Canada before visiting certain parts of the Nation.  Photo by Betsy Kepes.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest:  Primero, mil gracias for the invitation, Amelia!  It is beautiful to be here. I am a native Tejana whose family has a 150-year history in the southern borderlands, but I didn’t know anything about the northern border until I landed a professorship eighteen miles from Canada.  It was quite a shock to the system, gravitating from one of the hottest regions of the United States to one of the coldest.  (The joke about having only two seasons there:  winter and July.)  But once I started exploring the nearby Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, I was struck by déja vu.  Just as my Tejano ancestors had preceded the U.S./Mexico borderline by centuries, the Mohawks had, too—by a millennia.  Many Tejanos no longer speak Spanish because our elders had it humiliated out of them in public schools; ditto with Mohawks during their century of Indian Residential Schools.  Our vaquero elders lost their traditional lifestyle because of corporate buyouts of ranches.  Mohawks can no longer support their families hunting, trapping, or fishing due to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Too many of our youth are imprisoned for smuggling; theirs, for trading.  In borders north and south, we must contend with the trafficking of firearms right through our neighborhoods.  We die in frightening numbers from diabetes caused by obesity wrought by poverty.  We grieve the loss of our land, the loss of our culture, the loss of our dignity.  Before long, I realized we were living a parallel existence.  And it didn’t feel like a coincidence. 

Border Patrol agents force migrants to leave behind their shoelaces, belts, and toothbrushes before boarding their vehicles, lest they be turned into weapons. Photo by SEG. 
Amelia M.L. Montes:  That explains how the Mohawk Nation became the focus of the second half of your book.  Yet, you write on page 159:

“While I have long been drawn to indigenous issues, guilt-ridden fear has kept me from researching them—fear of disrespecting a people still reeling from centuries of exploitation; fear of participating in the genre deemed “colonial literature,” by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer, Sherman Alexie; fear of spreading injustice while striving for its antithesis.” 

What steps did you take, first—overcoming your fears, and second, in “writing with respect” to  avoid spreading injustice? 

Mohawks marching in protest over the Three Nations Crossing bridge that purported "unites" Akwesasne with Canada and the United States, wearing traditional headdresses called kastowa. Photo by SEG.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest:  This was, without question, the hardest aspect of writing this book.  Having witnessed the egregious portrayal of our own Latinx community time and again in the media, I greatly feared perpetuating the stereotypes of another community—especially one that has withstood so much tragedy. But the more I learned about the Mohawk Nation, the more I realized we shared too many upsetting experiences to ignore.  So I proceeded with as much openness, respect, and diligence as I could muster.  In addition to reading dozens of books and hundreds of articles about Akwesasne, I visited the Nation several times a week for a year, interviewing anyone willing to talk with me—clan mothers, steelworkers, security guards at the casino, nutritionists, teachers, drug dealers, artists, faith keepers, newspaper editors, activists – for as long as they allowed, at truck stops, sushi bars, family homes, smoke shops, the senior center, the Longhouse.  People tended to be guarded when I first approached, but once I revealed my own border origins and pointed out our commonalities, many Mohawks took an interest in my project.  A few became close friends and graciously served as advisors throughout the researching and writing of the book.  This is not to suggest that All the Agents and Saints escaped the trappings of colonial literature.  Any time an Outsider writes about Native people, they are participating in that “othering “ tradition.  It just means that I made every attempt to be as conscientious as possible.

Amelia M.L. Montes:  The book is divided in half.  The first ten chapters are devoted to the Texas-Mexico Borderlands (your title for this section) and another ten chapters are your experiences from the New York-Canada Borderlands.  Was it ever a different configuration or did you know this is the way the book should be shaped? 

Stephanie Elizondo Griest:  My goal was to recreate the déja vu I myself experienced relocating from the southern borderland to the northern one.  Practically every story I’d heard growing up in South Texas was echoed at some point that year at Akwesasne.  To illustrate that, I split the book in two, with each chapter in the first half having a corresponding soul mate in the second half.  Together, these two halves form a testimonio, or document of witness, of life on the periphery. 

Amelia M.L. Montes:  It works very well.  I can see how reading two corresponding chapters can really clarify the struggles south and north. Did this new configuration make the writing of THIS book different from your previous books?  What is one thing you learned that you hadn’t realized before? 

Stephanie Elizondo Griest:  I was 23 years old when I started writing my first book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.  I had taken reams of notes while traveling because Journalism School trained me to do so, but I hadn’t asked the sorts of questions or conducted the kinds of research I would have if I had known a book was a possibility.  So writing that book was agonizing.  It ate up my entire twenties, and made me sick with worry that I was just wasting time. 

With the next book (Mexican Enough:  My Life Between the Borderlines), I had high hopes that my travels in Mexico could lend themselves to a book, so I conducted non-stop research.  Yet, I couldn’t shake the fear that Around the Bloc was a fluke and I was not just squandering my own time, but that of everyone I interviewed as well.

All the Agents and Saints was the first book where I managed to shake the fear of time.  I finally accepted that the kind of books I write take an obscene amount of work that lasts upward of a decade and induces the full expanse of human emotion with an over-abundance of the bleaker moods.  This realization has been liberating for me.  I finally trust my instincts.  I finally have patience with my process. 

Amelia M.L. Montes:  Wonderful!  I can see a progression in each of your books. They all bring  important experiences and perspectives to our understanding of identity and intersectionality along the border.  And in this third book, you bring us a broader outlook, inviting us to make connections across cultures and geographic spaces. Is there anything else you would like to share with La Bloga readers? 

Stephanie Elizondo Griest:  Let me first extend gratitude to everyone for creating such a supportive space for Latinx narratives.  And second: I’d love to see y’ all on the road!  I’ll be spending the rest of the year on book tour, with stops in Washington DC, Boston, Chapel Hill, New York City, the North Country, and all over Texas.  Check out my website for deets:  Gracias!

Stephanie Elizondo Griest along the border wall near Brownsville, Texas. Photo by Susan Harbage Page.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Boys of Summer

It’s summer in Denver, and not just because the calendar says so. We’ve going through a stretch of several days of 90 degrees-plus, interrupted by the occasional thunder storm. We don’t usually get this kind of weather until July but since climate change is fake science, I’m at a loss to explain what is going on.

Summer also means baseball and this year is a good year to be a fan of the Colorado Rockies, which I have been since they played their first game back in 1993. (Before the Rockies I cheered for the Denver Zephyrs; before that, the Denver Bears.) The weather is perfect for ball games, the home team is as hot as the weather, and the Rox just might weather the endurance test of a major league baseball season.

So I feel like talking (writing) some baseball.

The Rox are in first place (as I write this) in the Western Division of the National League, but only by a game over the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whether they can hang tough and be a contender the entire season is the number one question among many sports fans in the Mile High City. Those of us who have watched the team from the beginning are acutely aware of the history of rare (three) playoff appearances (one World Series visit – where they were swept in four games by the hated Boston Red Sox), and the not-so-rare June swoon of a team that is most famous for breaking fans’ hearts. We’re also nervous about the fact that a primary reason the team has won several games this year is the unlikely success of a squad of rookie pitchers who have defied the odds. How long can that last? When will the wear-and-tear of a major league season catch up to the young arms of the baby pitchers who are way over-achieving? It’s a long season filled with injury, stress, bad luck, and bad umpire calls. Can the Rox survive? (Los Lobos play in the background.)

Another train of thought about baseball – Latino (Latin Americans and U.S. born) ball players excel. Forget the NFL, NBA, NHL, MSL, whatever.  Major League Baseball (MLB) is where it's at for fame and fortune for international athletes.  Every team has several players from different countries such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Mexico, Cuba. A list of current superstars has names like Arenado, González, Altuve, Molina. According to MLB, 29.8% of players were born outside the 50 states, and the majority of them are Latinos. The Dominican Republic has more players in MLB than any other country, leading with 93 players. Venezuela is second with 77 players and Cuba is third with 23 players.

The Rockies have a bevy of talented Latino players including Nolan Arenado, Carlos González, Gerardo Parra, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Alexi Amarista, and Raimel Tapia. In this year’s World Baseball Classic (WBC), Arenado played for the eventual winner of the tournament, the United States (Arenado is from California), while Carlos González (the popular “Cargo”) played for his home country Venezuela. The WBC is watched around the world and the games in the tournament take place on ball fields thousands of miles apart. For example, this year’s first round was played in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Zapopan. The championship game’s venue was Los Angeles. The WBC truly is a world series. The U.S. victory in 2017 marked the first time that a U.S. team won the title. 

Arenado is having a stellar year. He recently hit for the cycle and concluded his historic day with a walk-off home run. I think only six players in the entire existence of major league baseball have done that. He’s one of the stat leaders in RBIs as well as for home runs. And his hot-corner fielding is beautiful, sometimes downright poetic. He ought to be the starting third baseman in this year’s All Star game but, most likely, he won’t start, although he will be voted on the team. The Rox historically get no respect from sports writers, other teams, even fans. Blame it on the altitude.

González has been mired in a slump since he played in the WBC, although he shows signs of breaking out. I believe the Rockies need Cargo at full speed to stay in the pennant race, especially when the pitching falters, as it surely will sometime during the season.

The game of baseball reminds me of many things.

I played on a team when I was a kid, and just like any other American kid who loved the sport (whether that America was in Florence, Colorado or Mexico City, or Santo Domingo), I imagined that I could be a star. It was easy to see myself as a slick-fielding skinny shortstop who hit above average but who banged the big one when the game was on the line. Truth be told: my coach couldn't be convinced that I was an infielder -- more like a catcher with a weak arm but enough smarts about the game to help our pitcher, a freckle-faced white kid who relied on a fast ball that bruised my hand when I caught it, and a curve that could easily hit the umpire in the mask as well as my catcher’s mitt. I wasn’t much of a player but I thoroughly enjoyed myself in those late afternoon and early evening games when the crowds were restless and noisy, the field was dusty and hard, and the opposing team looked like college drop-outs.

My memories of baseball include various Mexican stars who have made a good living in the major leagues. Fernando Valenzuela. Vinny Castilla. Ruben Amaro. Armando Reynoso. Jorge De La Rosa.  To name only a few.

Adrián González is a Mexican American from San Diego, currently playing for the Dodgers and putting up Hall of Fame numbers. I really like to watch this guy play. Smooth, all business.  Although born in the States, he has played for the Mexican team in several WBC tournaments. González and his wife created The Adrian and Betsy Gonzalez Foundation, which is focused on empowering underprivileged youth in areas of athletics, education and health. As one of his charitable endeavors, González paid for the refurbishing of the baseball field in the Tijuana sports complex where he played as a youth.

Martín Dihigo was a Cuban player in baseball's Negro leagues and Latin American leagues (1922-1950) who excelled at several positions, primarily as a pitcher and second baseman. Although he was famous world-wide and was often listed among the best two-way players, he never got the chance to play in the North American Major Leagues. Combining his Dominican, American, Cuban and Mexican statistics results in a lifetime .302 career batting average with 130 home runs (eleven seasons worth of home run totals are missing) and a 252-132 pitching record. After retiring, Dihigo became a radio announcer for the Cuban Winter League. He fled Cuba in 1952 to protest the rise of Fulgencio Batista. Dihigo returned to Cuba when Fidel Castro took power, and was appointed the minister of sports. He taught programs for amateur baseball players that the new government organized. Dihigo is one of two players to be inducted to the American, Cuban and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame, and is also in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela Halls of Fame.

I also think of Roberto Clemente. A few basics: Clemente was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined. Clemente was an All-Star for twelve seasons and fifteen All-Star Games. He was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1966, the NL batting leader in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967, and a Gold Glove winner for twelve consecutive seasons from 1961 through 1972. His batting average was over .300 for thirteen seasons and he had 3,000 major league hits during his career. He also played in two World Series championships. Clemente is the first Latin American and Caribbean player to help win a World Series as a starter (1960), to receive an NL MVP Award (1966), and to receive a World Series MVP Award (1971).  His awesome throws from right field to home plate were famous.  He cut down one foolish runner after another. They learned the hard way not to challenge his arm and accuracy. 

The most important fact about Roberto Clemente? He fully participated in charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the off-seasons, often delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need. On December 31, 1972, he died in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.  He was 38.

Some of the boys of summer turn out to be men for all seasons.

See you at the ballpark.


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in 2016 and is a finalist for the Shamus Award in the Original Paperback category sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Chicanonautica: Who Culturally Appropriated the Taco?

Folks are taking offense to people making and selling food that’s not of their ethnicity. White hipsters are reported to have stolen secret tortilla recipes. Lists of restaurants accused of cultural appropriation are being published with McCarthyistic suggestions to avoid them.

Personally, I don’t care about the ethnicity of the people making or serving my food, or taking my money for it. What matters here is the quality of said food. And not wanting to do business with people because of their skin color and/or accent seems a bit racist, doesn’t it?

Besides, here in my little corner of Aztlán, the overwhelming number of cooks in all kinds of restaurants are brown people who speak Spanish. I’m talking Asian, Italian, “American” . . . You gonna boycott them, too? Just who is culturally appropriating whom here? 

As for “secret tortilla recipes,” there ain’t no such animal. The ingredients for tortillas are simple and easy to find in the age of the Internet. What makes for good tortillas is the way the ingredients are put together and how they're cooked, which takes skill and practice. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who know how to make tortillas, the better! It should be taught in schools.

Put something in a tortilla, and it becomes a taco. There many ways to do this, and a lot of room to get creative.

I know this gets some people all: “That’s not the way my nana made them! That’s cultural appropriation, man!”

I actually enjoy that there are so many different kinds tacos, from different regions and ethnicities . It’s called diversity. Get used to it.

Here in the West side of the Phoenix Metro Area you can find exotic tacos in styles from all over Méjico and beyond. I haven’t had time to try them all. It’s a Mexican food utopia where a mannequin in a lucha libre mask advertises one-pound burritos.

You also find Navajo tacos--or Indian tacos, as many prefer to call them. They’re more like tostadas than tacos to me, served on Navajo--er, excuse me, Indian fry bread instead of a tortilla. Do I have to say that they’re delicious?
I ordered some on the Big Rez once:

"Two Navajo tacos, please."

"Two tacos!"

They don’t talk about those things from Mexico there.

And who invented the taco? The Aztec gods were said to have eaten human hearts sacrificed to them in tacos. They are traditional food all over Aztlán, which overlaps with “Navajo” taco territory.

It isn't clear what language it’s from. In Spanish it means “wad” or “plug”--and tampons are referred to as “tacos.” There’s also the Nahuatl word tlahco meaning “half” or “in the middle” where you put the meat in the tortilla. Who knows what lurks in other Uto-Aztecan languages.

We’ll probably never know for sure without a time machine or a serendipitous archeological discovery.

Besides, my fellow Latonoids, cultural appropriation is part of our heritage. The Aztecs were masters of the art. They did it all over Mexico. Burning the temples of the cities they conquered, they grabbed the things that they liked. Like the ingenious Mayan calendar that caused a ruckus a few years ago. The image that used of it was actually the Aztec Sun Stone. The Aztecs stole the calendar from the Maya, and the Maya probably stole it from the Olmecs. And have you heard the controversial theory that the Olmecs came from Africa?

Meanwhile, most people in this misinformation age can’t tell Aztec from Mayan, from Olmec, and never heard of the Mixtec, Zapotec, Tarascans, Otomí and other important cultures. Yet they think they know about who owns the taco.

All this bitching about cultural appropriation gets in the way of our creative recombocultural rasquache. We need to be free to create cultures that everyone else wants to steal. That’s when you know you’re really onto something.

ErnestHogan is busy culturally appropriating science fiction and taking it in bold new directions.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Owl in a Straw Hat: El Tecolote del sombrero de paja

Written by Rudolfo Anaya
Illustrated by El Moisés
Translated by Enrique R. Lamadrid

  • Age Range: 6 - 8 years
  • Hardcover: 44 pages
  • Publisher: Museum of New Mexico Press (September 15, 2017)
  • Language: English, Spanish
  • ISBN-10: 0890136300

This masterfully written children’s book by New Mexico’s favorite storyteller is a delightful tale about a young owl named Ollie who lives in an orchard with his parents in northern New Mexico. Ollie is supposed to attend school but prefers to hang out with his friends Raven and Crow instead. Ollie’s parents discover he cannot read and they send Ollie off to see his grandmother, Nana, a teacher and farmer in Chimayó. Along the way, Ollie’s illiteracy causes mischief as he meets up with some shady characters on the path including Gloria La Zorra (a fox), Trickster Coyote, and a hungry wolf named Luis Lobo who has sold some bad house plans to the Three Little Pigs. When Ollie finally arrives at Nana’s, his cousin Randy Roadrunner drives up in his lowrider and asks Ollie why he’s so blue. “I’m starting school, and there’s too much to learn, and I can’t read,” Ollie says. “I can’t do it.” Randy explains that he didn’t think he could learn to read either, but he persevered, earned a business degree, and now owns the best lowrider shop in Española! Ollie finally decides he is ready to learn to read. The characters and the northern New Mexico landscape in Owl in a Straw Hat come to life wonderfully in original illustrations by New Mexico artist El Moisés.

Rudolfo Anaya, considered the father of Chicano literature, is the author of the beloved classic Bless Me, Ultima, which was adapted into a major feature film in 2013. In 2016, Anaya received the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama. His children’s books include Rudolfo Anaya's The Farolitos of Christmas, The First Tortilla, Roadrunner’s Dance, The Santero’s Miracle, and Serafina’s Stories. Anaya is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico where he taught for thirty years. He lives in Albuquerque.

El Moisés is leaving his mark as a modern-day artist who brings the essence of urban culture and barrio flavor to mainstream fine art. His work is influenced by the Chicano, American, Native American, and Mexican cultures that are reflected in his arte, which has been exhibited or featured around the world.