"In 1925, in the town of Matehuala, on the main highway between Monterrey and Mexico City, the trade unions of the area unveiled in the Plaza de Chicago a monument to the Martyrs of Chicago. Each May Day, workers from surrounding towns come here on the Day of the Martyrs of Chicago, what May Day is called in Mexico. . ." -- photo and cite from May Day: Made in the USA by W. J. Adelman..
Not So Alien After All
Timely Novel Gives Human Face to Immigration
by Daniel Olivas
[This book review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
As the public discourse over undocumented immigration becomes more heated and, at times, outright ugly -- particularly in the blogosphere -- attacks on such immigrants are often made in broad strokes and with gross generalizations.
This should not be a surprise, because it is easier to denigrate and reject a group of people if you dehumanize them and make them faceless.
But that's where talented writers come in: With skillful prose, they can focus on a small group of undocumented immigrants and make their struggles and humanity real to the reader so that it becomes difficult to dismiss their plight with a bumper-sticker slogan or the waving of a flag.
Two years ago, Luis Alberto Urrea did exactly that with The Devil's Highway (Little, Brown), in which he brilliantly chronicled the plight of 26 Mexican men who, in 2001, crossed the border into an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil's Highway. Only 12 made it safely across. The book received wide acclaim and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
Now comes a fictionalized story of undocumented immigration in Reyna Grande's debut novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria Books, $23). Grande tells her story in evocative language that never falls into pathos.
In the nonlinear narrative, chapters alternate between her two female protagonists, Juana Garcia and Adelina Vasquez. First, we have Juana, a young girl who lives in a small Mexican village in extreme poverty. When a flood leads to yet another death in her family -- a death that Juana feels responsible for -- Juana's father believes that he must earn more money to house his family in safer quarters. He believes that there are abundant opportunities "en el otro lado," based on a letter from a friend: "Apá's friend wrote about riches unheard of, streets that never end, and buildings that nearly reach the sky. He wrote that there's so much money to be made, and so much food to eat, that people there don't know what hunger is."
With such dreams, Juana's father decides to leave his family and enter the United States by relying on a fast-talking coyote. He makes numerous promises to send money once he's found employment. But Juana and her mother hear nothing for years, leading to further poverty. Worse yet, Juana's father had to borrow money from Don Elias to pay the coyote's exorbitant fee. Once Juana's father embarks on his journey, Don Elias swoops down on Juana's beautiful mother with ideas as to how repayment can be made.
A few years later -- after no word from her father, and after her abused mother has fallen into alcoholism -- Juana decides to leave home to find her father.
Juana eventually crosses paths with a young prostitute, Adelina, in Tijuana. They make plans to join forces and sneak into the United States together. For Juana, there's a chance to find her long-lost father. For Adelina, there's hope to cast off the shackles of her abusive boyfriend-pimp. This friendship is perhaps one of the most affecting elements of Grande's narrative. And, after a twist reminiscent of Dickens, these brave young women end up insinuating themselves into each other's life more than one could imagine.
The publisher tells us that Grande was born in Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975, and that she entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant at age 9. Despite such obstacles, Grande earned her bachelors of art degree in creative writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz and was a 2003 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow. In other words, Grande is living the American dream and has offered a striking and moving story about people who have traveled the same dangerous journey that she did.
Across a Hundred Mountains is a beautifully rendered novel that maintains its power throughout because Reyna Grande keeps control over her language and does not feel a need to trumpet emotionally volatile scenes of alcohol and drug abuse, rape, poverty and infant mortality. This is a breathtaking debut.
by Manuel Ramos
In honor of this day of pride and political action, I present a short list of Latino Immigrant Literature. The written word has the power to change minds, lives, history. Here are a few books (in no particular order) filled with that power. [Note - I list the original publishers and publication dates - most of these books can be found in newer editions, often with different publishers.]
Rain of Gold, Victor Villaseñor (Arte Publico, 1991): Alex Haley said that this book "both enhances and enriches the American experience." Villaseñor passionately tells the story of three generations of his family from Mexico to California, from revolution to bootlegging to "the dream of hope, the dream of joy... ."
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989): The lyrical language in this Pulitzer Prize novel was described by Publishers Weekly as "wonderfully restrained, conveying with equal facility ribald comedy and heartfelt pathos." It's 1949 and two young musicians from Havana have made their way to New York where they soon become stars of the pulsing music scene that ruled the barrio.
Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, John Phillip Santos (Viking, 1999): This book was universally praised when it was first published and it has continued to gather respect and readers. John Rechy, in a review in the Los Angeles Times, said, "What a wonderful story he has told here, in a memoir that is a brave and beautiful attempt to redeem a people out of a limbo of forgetting." Just this month San Antonio announced the selection of Places left Unfinished at the Time of Creation as the book for the first 1 San Antonio, 1 Book celebration (see the April 29 La Bloga).
How The García Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez (Algonquin, 1991): The New York Times praised this book, saying that Alvarez "has beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant." And the Library Journal said: "This rollicking, highly original first novel tells the story (in reverse chronological order) of four sisters and their family, as they become Americanized after fleeing the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. ... Alvarez is a gifted, evocative storyteller... ."
When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago (Addison-Wesley, 1993): "A beguiling record of a tremendous journey, epic in its own way, from childhood in a vibrant Puerto Rican barrio to triumph at Harvard, with a defining pause in a drab Brooklyn along the way." Kirkus. "At once heart-wrenching and remarkably inspirational, this lyrical account depicts rural life in Puerto Rico amid the hardships and tensions of everyday life and Santiago's awakening as a young woman, who, although startled by culture shock, valiantly confronted New York head-on." Booklist. Now in English and Spanish editions.
The Devil's Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown, 2004): La Bloga has consistently joined in the praise and admiration of Urrea's books. The Hummingbird's Daughter is a favorite of ours. (See the review at this archive). However, I admit that The Devil's Highway is my personal choice if I have to pick only one of this author's books. With grace and vivid detail, Urrea tells the true, heart-wrenching tale of lost immigrants doomed in the Sonoran Desert. The book has received many honors; I recommend it to all politicians and others who think they have an opinion about immigrants and the border. One of the most important books published in the last ten years.
The Silver Cloud Café, Alfredo Véa, Jr. (Dutton, 1996): Described as a blend of García Marquez and Raymond Chandler, this amazing book is dedicated by the author "to the immigrants, whose vision of America is always the truest ... and to all migrant farmworkers past and present; above all, the manong and the braceros, protectors and messengers of my brown youth." Two short excerpts:
"You must seek out remembrance, for ours is a land of amnesiacs who pretend that there is no past; that America is a multicultural land when, in truth, it is an anticultural place that has ever been blessed with persistent and enduring cultures that have survived never-ending efforts to drag them out of sight; push them out of mind; to imprison them in the past."
And from another chapter:
"The entire bench roared with laughter. No one of color had ever been left alone for long in America. Color was all important in a country that was trying so hard to rid itself of its cultures. Without culture, color is all that is left."
That's my short list - now give us yours.
¡Que vivan los trabajadores!
May Day Memories de Mis Abuelos
by Rudy Ch. Garcia
My parents and I were born here. My grandparents on both sides were not; I don't know they ever got their papers. In bits and longer pieces I've gotten "the story" of how we wound up here, how I came to be deprived of a full Mexican heritage. Although Chicano family histories are often about economic plight and crossing the border in search of livelihood; mine's maybe not so.
My maternal grandfather, Juan Sauceda investigated, wrote, typeset, printed, and distributed his own newspaper at the turn of the 20th Century in northern Mexico, making him the pueblo intellectual.
One day Juan went to the village store for milk, carting along his three little kids barely of school age. He ran into the sheriff who pulled out a six-shooter to blow Juan away for a political piece he'd written. Only the quick thinking Sauceda males are infamous for saved Juan's newspaper career. Faced with the prospect of his paper going to press with his obituary as lead story, Juan asked the sheriff not to scar his children with the memory of watching their father die. It worked, or I wouldn't be here to tell.
Juan was given little time to pack his personal opinions, children and bags, and head north. Effectively political refugees, they wound up on the Texas border, often a haven for Mexico's political undesirables. It's probably there that Juan became our family's ancestral alcoholic, maybe searching the bottom of a bottle for answers to his estranged, crippled machismo. Over the next decades, Juan would often abandon his family, leaving it to my abuela Blasa to raise the nine to thirteen children, depending on whether you count kids like Uncle Alfonso who was left on the doorstep with the note "Aquí estoy" by parents who wanted him raised where it was "better" during the Depression.
More stories have been forgotten about our migration than can be remembered. About how Uncle Alfonso never missed a day of work in a Corpus Christi rubberstamp company because he thought mexicanos got fired for doing so. The Anglo owner did fire him when his daughter fell in love with Alfonso, a romance rarely allowed in those times. Or how Blasa washed and cut restaurants' discarded fruits and vegetables to feed and raise the family, when she wasn't midwifing.
Or how Juan became Latino petti-bourgeois when he hooked up with Longoria of San Antonio's La Prensa newspaper (at one time the largest in Texas with 300 employees that Juan helped keep from unionizing). The San Anto library archives have a front page photo of my Uncle Mario's birthday taken with the staff in downtown's Plaza Zacate, more in deference to Juan's position than Mario's newsworthiness.
Juan periodically returned to my abuela Blasa, and she kept taking him back; who knows why. The last time, it was to end his days, a victim of cirrhosis, no doubt. I remember his thin body framed in the casket; a fifth of bourbon should have been buried with him. I wonder now where he went all those times he wandered. Family lore assumes he ran off with different women, on drunken binges.
Some Chicano and Mexican authors, as noted above by Olivas and Ramos, have written wonderful accounts of the social, emotional gauntlet mexicanos endured in entering the U.S. Of course, it's never been only about money, anymore than it's ever been about wanting to become the scapegoats of American's own insecurities.
I like to think that maybe during Juan's disappearances, he returned to Mexico to reconnect with his motherland, where life in some ways had been easier than becoming an immigrant. Maybe he even went home to pay the sheriff a visit. I don't know if he would have taken a six-shooter or simply gone to thank the culo. But if Juan were alive today, I do like to think he might have joined those of us marching to protest the dehumanizing of so many peoples' very human stories.
A Day Without An Immigrant: Does The Cost Exceed the Price?
by Michael Sedano
Maria Martinez studied the talón. It was payday. Gross salary at $8.00 an hour for the previous 80 hours came to $640.00. The company took out taxes, leaving her with $499.20 take home. $11,681.28 a year for the three of them. Maria thought long and hard about next week’s “Day without an immigrant” manifestación. All week, the women on the line had argued back and forth about staying out that day. Maria had long ago used up all her sick days and vacation. If she stayed away from el jale on Monday, there would be no pay for those 8 hours. A day without an immigrant would be a day without a paycheck. Maria Martinez calculated her next check would take home $449.28. It would cost her fifty bolas to join la marcha.
Bob Smith heard the rumors. His Vice President of Manufacturing had predicted half the factory wouldn’t show up on Monday. One of the warehouse managers had said the same, maybe half the workers would be absent, and the HR guy was telling workers to request the day off. Bob looked at the HR guy and spat angrily, “I hear you’re telling people to ask for the day off. What the fuck are you trying to do?”
Ben Dejo had planned to take Monday as a vacation day to join the demonstrators. Ben, the HR guy and third generation Chicano, stared across at the company president. “No, Bob, I didn’t tell them anything of the sort. When Eliseo asked me if we should do something, I told him to advise his staff they’d better request the day off, or come back on Tuesday with a doctor’s note.” Ben thought for a moment, then added, “I don’t know why you’re always distorting the shit you hear about me.” Ben had already cancelled his vacation day and would be putting in at least ten hours Monday, May 1, training the ten new employees he’d just hired. All of them immigrants.
Manuelita Ponce felt her heart beating with excitement. She knew she would pass the drug test and would be asked to start her new job on Monday, May 1. The HR guy had pointedly advised her that he expected new employees to report every day, on time. One day late would be OK, but there could not be a second time; if she missed a single day of training, that would be her last day. Losing the job would be that quick. Manuelita had graduated high school almost a year ago and hadn’t found buen trabajo, as her father complained. And now she would be earning $9.00 an hour—a dollar more than her father—and would be able to start paying her share.
Maria Martinez picked at the dry spot on her arm. Doctora Saenz said it was “equis ima” and was made worse by worrying. But what could Maria do, but worry? Fifty dollars would buy four bags of groceries at la Super A. And Marta la Chola said the company couldn’t fire everyone for missing work Monday. But Marta was a citizen and didn’t have to worry about the annual memo from the payroll office asking Maria to verify her Social Security Number. The Chicano in charge of recursos humanos always smiled and told her in his awkward Spanish to make una cita con la Social para averiguar la situación. Same thing he said to everyone who asked about the memo.
“So, Bob, we can’t fire everyone for skipping Monday, can we.” Ben spoke declaratively, hoping the company owner wouldn’t contradict the logic. Ben kept his smile to himself when an exasperated Bob Smith agreed. But Bob kept the door open by saying, “But I’ll remember. We haven’t done anything to these people. Why do they want to harm us?”
“They don’t mean us any harm, Bob, but you know the kind of crap they have to put up with.” Bob grimaced disgustedly at this liberal claptrap. He paid almost a dollar over the minimum wage. And the state didn’t require the company to provide health insurance. But Bob Smith not only provided health insurance, he provided it at no cost to the employees. And he self-insured up to a million dollars. A million dollars a year off the bottom line to pay the health and dental bills his employees accrued. The bitterness welled up. He stared at the Chicano HR guy and shouted, “Do you know we have 253 questionable Social Security numbers? If any of these people don’t show up Monday, they’re fired!”
“Bob, we’ll refer them for clarification, we can’t just fire them.” Ben hoped he didn’t sound desperate. “It's the same thing!” Bob Smith replied.
Monday, May 1, 2006, Manuelita Ponce woke with eager anticipation of her new job. Then she remembered the hurt look on her father’s face when Manuelita informed him she would earn $9.00 an hour and have a raise in 30 days, and paid benefits in 90 days, and another raise. “Maybe,” Manuelita thought, “I should just go to the demonstration and forget about that pinche job?”
Maria Martinez heard El Cucuy de la Mañana remind his listeners that el Cardenal was asking gente to go to work today and come to the parque for the evening demonstration. Tuesday, la Chola would ride everyone who’d come to work Monday. “¡Nacas! Chúntaras!,” Marta the Merciless would rub their faces in it. “Maybe,” Maria thought, “I should take the bus and keep going into downtown. They can’t fire all of us, they wouldn’t. Sabes que, I’ll take along a big bag to collect cans. We’ll survive without the cinquenta bolas.”
Bob Smith stared into the mirror and said aloud, “If they disrupt traffic I’m going to fire all of them.”
Ben Dejo stared into his mirror and repeated the thought that had been recurring with unnerving regularity lately, “Maybe today’s the day I’ll decide to retire.”
I wrote in my journal yesterday
by Gina Ruiz
I woke up this morning at 4:30 a.m. wondering what was different and then my senses woke up a second later and I realized that my man was home from Iraq and I had (for once) slept the night through. I watch him sleeping and snoring as I'm ironing my traje de gala for tomorrow's protest and I almost start to cry.
I'm overwhelmed that he's home safe and sound once more after so long in Iraq. He's a Desert Storm veteran too, been in the Army since he was 17. He limps now, more lines on his face, more gray in his short cropped hair that he dreams of letting grow long one day. He may take another deployment. We don't know.
I cry as I carefully press the turquoise blue velvet, making sure I don't burn the gold appliqued symbols. My feathers are soaking in the tub so that they will be perfect for tomorrow morning. They were a little wilted from the last protest. My man is the son of immigrants as I am the granddaughter of brave people that came on foot during the Mexican revolution.
My son who is still in the Middle East on an aircraft carrier is Mexicano and proud - but a proud American too. My boy has missed his son's first birthday, he will miss his daughter's birth - he sacrifices as we all do for duty and for country. I stand against the war and he fights because he believes in a dream, an American dream. How many son's of immigrants and naturalized immigrants fight for this country? I wonder.
I know that this country was built on the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants. Did those people on the Mayflower have a green card, ask permission? What of Manifest Destiny?
I fight my battles my own way, dancing barefoot in the street with my danza group, bringing attention to protests - keeping our culture alive. I think about tomorrow - the "day without an immigrant" May 1st and how Latino businesses are closing. Hispanics aren't going to work but what about the rest? Shouldn't the whole country not go to work tomorrow? Isn't pretty much everyone here an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants?
I wrote this poem awhile back and it seems to fit my mood today, fits tomorrow:
Children of Tenochtitlan
Listening to Mana – Sabanas Frias
While thinking you so far way
In that land of sand, heat and war
Fear and death
That leaves my own sheets cold
With your absence from me
Because you are there
Is there a word that strikes more fear
These days in a mother's heart, a lovers, a wife's?
My beautiful Chicano man
With the big brown eyes and a peacock tattoo
And the work worn hands of a mechanic
Gone since February. No idea when he'll be back.
He loves his motorcycles, good food and import beer
My son tells me now he is going too
"In January Mom. I ship out in January
and all I want is a family Thanksgiving
here in San Diego before I leave my wife, my son."
And so I go, packing my bags, my boxes, my books
Quit the job, leave my beloved East L.A.
For a border town full of grieving mothers, wives and lovers.
My handsome Chicano son
Child of the sun and water,
Pale skin like the moon when it's fullest
His close cropped black hair that I love
To touch. Broad back my arm barely fits around
His proud Azteca stance, my warrior.
Will he come back? Will you?
I didn't carry my son in my womb for this
I didn't watch him grow for this
I didn't love him for this.
I didn't dream of this for him.
I don't dream it for you.
This is not my war, not ours.
We're Chicanos proud and strong.
Mexicanos al grito de guerra…
We're good enough to fight your wars, Cabron Bush
And clean your houses
Raise your neglected pale children
And prune your hedges.
We're good enough to die for oil.
Good enough to cry for our lost sons
The ones who feel forced into your war
Their only way to home ownership, college, a halfway decent life.
When they come back, if they come back
Will you see them for the men they are?
Will you pull the Minutemen from the borders?
Will you see them without thought for their brown skin?
And last names like Flores, Ruiz, Gonzalez, Camarillo?
Will you love them, the brown eyed children of Tenochtitlan?
(Daniel Olivas's regular post will resume next Monday.)