Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Being ignored and being not ignored, ignorance is still not bliss. But Chick Lat Lit has possibilities.
Payback is not sweet. Last week, after I'd gotten word that PBS has funded Ken Burns to ignore Chicano and other Latino soldiers in PBS/Burns' seven-part film essay on World War II, I got an email from MoveOn.org begging my support for PBS against some cretin in Congress who wants to cut off funding for PBS. I used to sign that petition in knee-jerk reaction time. I no longer find myself moved by MoveOn's plea. Not that I support the ignorant rightwing pendejos who want to foment culture war, but I figure if PBS intends to ignore me, I shall now ignore PBS and its supporters on grounds that the WWII series shows PBS' true colors. (I have word that a meeting of some sort will take place between raza activists and PBS representatives in Washington DC on March 6, to discuss the Burns series. I’ll update you if there’s anything to report.)
Paranoia strikes east. The Los Angeles Times has an irritating pattern of ignoring arts events that take place on the city's east side. Sounds like PBS all over again, but unlike TV, I read the Times every day. Reading the Sunday Times' gallery openings, one gets a sense that art stops at La Brea Avenue, no culture exists east of that dividing line. The Times seems to be moving easterly, however. But I worry about the implications. Sunday's Times (2/25/07) featured two, count 'em, two Chicano artists. In West magazine, Artemio Rodriguez gets five pages. Rodriguez creates in the spirit and mold of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He's an outstanding artist whose linocuts decorate the cover of Gilb's Woodcuts of Women, and several of my walls. In the Calendar section, Gronk (also on one of my walls) gets a below-the-fold page one feature. Given the Times' west side bias, these two pieces showing up on the same day make me wonder if maybe the Times reached its annual quota for east side coverage and the two pieces write finis to the Times' coverage of art on our side of town?
Dirty Girls Social Club Writer Takes Ambitious Third Step
Review: Make Him Look Good. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.
St. Martin's Press. April 2006. ISBN: 0312349661
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez' first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, made for an enjoyable romp through the trials of an assorted handful of Latinas. Each of las sucias faces commonplace issues like infidelity, abuse, stereotyping, bilingualism. In addition, Valdes-Rodriguez uses her characters' ethnicity to help draw parallels and distinctions between Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican latinhood. All in all, Dirty Girls filled a useful space in U.S. latina literature.
There's no good reason I missed Valdes-Rodriguez's second novel, 2005's Playing With Boys. However, because her first was enjoyable and well-written, when I happened across her third novel, Make Him Look Good, I opened it eagerly.
Then nearly put it back. The style–adolescent diarist replete with italics for emphasis-- just about gags me with a spoon, you know what I mean? Persistence offers some reward, however. As with Dirty Girls, the author finds resources in fluff to weave a solid enough fabric to make it worthwhile to read all the way to the 376th final page. This hidden value starts to reveal itself when the story introduces a Serbian teenager named Jasminka, who narrates the shelling and rape of her Bosnian village. In a refugee camp, her beauty and thin frame attracts the eye of a recruiter and she soon finds herself a runway model in Paris. Jasminka's, sadly, is the weakest voice in the story because the writer unsuccessfully mimics the clipped syntax of Jasminka's second language English. Internal monologues would take place in well-developed grammatical sentences. Fortunately, Valdes-Rodriguez can’t keep it up and Jasminka’s speeches become increasingly fluid and standard as the story weaves to its close.
Valdes-Rodriguez undertakes an ambitious task of fleshing out a myriad of distinctive characters, using first-person narration that grows a bit confusing after a while, and a standard third person voice to move along the story. In addition to Jasminka, the cast includes the two sisters of the Cuban well-to-do refugee Gotay family, the twenty-something live-at-home Milan, the central character who opens the novel, and her wildly successful, gorgeous and boyfriend-stealing sister Geneva, with their mother and father to add texture. Then there's Ricky Biscayne, Mexican-Cuban sex object Latin pop star making a cross-over to big market pop. Jasminka is Ricky's neglected wife, starved for food and starved for love, haunted by the ethnic cleansing of her village and Ricky's regular forays into other women's beds. Add to the mix the incredibly slimy Jill Sanchez, fading movie star cosmetics-clothing entrepreneur who's been using Ricky as a sex toy for many years.
Then there's Ricky's secret of success. Matthew Baker, a low self-esteem college pal, whom we initially meet as a mystery man playing the backgrounds at Ricky's Tonight Show performance. Ricky's gotten rich off Matthew's talent. Matthew writes the songs and his powerful voice sweetens Ricky’s vocals, carrying the load. Poor Matthew burns a candle for a beautiful woman who's dumped him three times already, coming back to Matthew's arms on the rebound from one or another fling. Now she’s married a musician and earns her living performing with her husband on cruise ships sailing out of Miami. Matthew knows he’s a loser, but admits he would take her back in a heartbeat. In fact, the songwriter has moved to Miami not to be near his job with Ricky Biscayne, but to be able to catch a glimpse of the bandsinger, when she hits port.
The Gotay girls’ mother, a noted Miami talk show radio host, sees the tension between her daughters and coerces the two of them to take a sisterly peacemaking cruise. Milan, Geneva, and mom arrive at the berth just as Matthew is there to catch a forlorn glimpse of his unavailable love. Milan and Matthew collide, the chanteuse notices the commotion and calls down to Matthew, “Loser!” Milan is on the phone, her bookgroup has selected a title that Milan shouts out, it’s a novel called Loser. Matthew thinks Milan directs that at him. This is the cute meet that eventually brings Milan and Matthew together to live happily ever after.
But Valdes-Rodriguez has a lot more up her sleeve than Milan and Matthew. There’s the story of Irene and Sophia. Irene’s a single mother of the beautiful, talented Sophia, who, it develops, is Ricky’s unacknowledged daughter. Then there’s Nestor, Irene’s co-worker and the only one who supports her when word gets out Irene will sue the fire department for gender discrimination.
Nestor’s story, although minor, offers the most delightful handful of pages in the book. Nestor lives alone, nurturing the memory of his dead wife and daughter. As Nestor’s love for Irene grows, his dead wife’s spirit recognizes he’ll finally release them. Nestor’s cats tell the story in conversation with the ghosts. “Why is he so nervous?” asks the cat. The woman strokes his shiny black fur. “He’s going on a date,” she says. Chester doesn’t know what a date is, and says so. “He’s found a woman he really likes,” says the woman. “They’re having dinner tonight, alone.” “We’re glad,” says the little girl. “Why are you glad?” asks Chester. . . . “Oh, Chester,” says the woman, “We have places to go. And we haven’t been able to go yet because Nestor has needed us.” This section, coming in the last 25 pages of the novel, is absolutely brilliant and earns Valdes-Rodriguez tons of tolerance in my book.
In the end, Make Him Look Good is a revenge comedy. Slimy Ricky and slimy Jill get their delicious comeuppances, the Gotay sisters become genuine friends, Irene and Nestor settle down, Sophia gets Ricky’s money and a sister, Jasminka’s daughter Danijela. Jill becomes a laughingstock, Ricky climbs on the born again wagon to rekindle his career—Jill told him to cut a religious album and that’s what he’s done. Those are not spoilers, by the way, they're reasons to turn the page and read on!
Jasminka gets one of the last speeches watching Ricky on television with all his phoney expressions shilling the new album. “I look at Alma. Alma looks at Irene. Irene looks at Sophia. Sophia looks at Milan. Milan looks at Matthew. Matthew looks at Geneva. Geneva looks at Violeta. And then, as everyone looks at everyone else, and as if guided by spirit greater than ourselves, we all begin to laugh.”
I remember reading Alisa Valdez-Rodriguez’ stories in the LA Times when their now-faded Latino Initiative was going great guns. She had a wicked insightfulness that skewered her subjects, but always with the restraints imposed by a big time newspaper editor. I miss some of that editorial oversight in Make Him Look Good, but it’s encouraging seeing her unleash that wit with almost total abandon. I don’t remember what Maureen Dowd complained about chick lit, and I don’t care. Judging by Make Him Look Good, I’m on the lookout for Valdez-Rodriguez’ number four. You go, woman.
Uau. Can you believe it’s already the end of February, 2007. A month like any other month, except we were there! See you next week.
Monday, February 26, 2007
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: EL JUGLAR DE LOS CAMINOS
An indigenous woman cursed and laughed as she boarded the van to Las Margaritas. She traveled with an older man, a mestizo with a thick mustache, wearing a straw hat, with several red handkerchiefs around his neck, a pack on his back, holding a guitar, and pulling a radio and speaker system on a small dolly. They sat with Martin and Paloma.
"Where are you going my friend?" asked Andres Contreras, famously known among los jodidos y los olvidados de Mexico as the Minstrel of the Roads.
"Las Margaritas," said Martin.
"What's there to do in Las Margaritas?" asked Andres.
"Just visiting," said Martin.
"On your way back make sure you go to Ocosingo, near there is the archeological zone of Tonina, it used to be a city, a Mayan necropolis, a collection of pyramids ninety-two meters high, seven levels, with internal galleries and passageways. After that you can have lunch at the edge of the Tulija river, then see the waterfalls of Misol-ha, then you can visit Palenque and sleep there so you can take a tour of the jungle the next day." Andres removed a worn handkerchief from his neck and polished his guitar.
"Thanks," said Martin.
"I've been all over this crazy planet called Mexico, from California and Texas, where I worked picking fruit and bussing tables, I worked for a lot of tyrants and assholes while I was on the other side, to Mexicali, where I was born, Tijuana, Juarez, Tamaulipas, all across this country to the very tip of Chiapas, to Tapachula to be precise. My name is Andres Contreras."
"Martin Saucedo and this is Paloma."
Martin shook hands with el Juglar de los Caminos.
"This is Bertha, but she's known in the highlands of Chiapas as la Chamulita."
Paloma and la Chamulita smiled at each other.
"Are you two from San Cristobalito?" asked la Chamulita.
"Oaxaca," said Martin.
"But you live on the other side, I knew it the moment I saw you," said Andres.
"You're right, I was born on the other side but I've been living in Chiapas for a while."
"And you?" asked la Chamulita, looking at Paloma.
"Near Tapachula, in the hills, it's a small village near the border."
"You have to be careful around here, Paloma. You sound a little like you're from Guatemala, which is normal since you are so close to the border, but there are many army checkpoints in Chiapas and they are always looking for young girls that cross the border to work in brothels." La Chamulita removed a long orange veil wrapped around her waist and placed it on Paloma's head. "There, now you look local, just cover up a little, you're showing too much skin."
"Thank you." Paloma obeyed and searched in her bags for a longer skirt and a long sleeve shirt.
"Here, take these so you can get an idea of what happens on this side of Mexico." Andres handed Martin three CD's of his music.
Martin reached into his pocket for money.
"No, we are friends, it is a gift." Andres held onto Martin's arm, not allowing him to reach for his money.
"Thanks." Martin looked at the CD's, then put them away in his backpack.
"Where on the other side were you born?" asked Andres.
"I have never been there. So you speak English," said Andres.
"Better than Spanish."
"Your Spanish is fine, your accent is not so bad." Andres tied the handkerchief around his neck and began tuning his guitar.
"I don't have an accent," said Martin.
"You do, you can't hear it yourself but it's there. It sounds like it has a little north and some south in it, like you haven't really lived in either and your accent fluctuates -- it goes from north to south and back. It's not bad but we can tell a Chicano when we hear one. And it also has much to do with your selection of words and sometimes your facial expressions...you make gringo expressions when you speak," said el Juglar.
The Chicano from Vegas frowned and Paloma from Tapachula placed her hand on his thigh.
"I don't want to offend you but you think in American first then translate into Mexican, right? And thinking in American is not the same as thinking in English because the English think European, just like thinking like a Spaniard has little to do with thinking Mexican...and the Mexican way of thinking has nothing to do with the way of thinking of the indigenous -- they are on a different level, a higher plane, another dimension, really. It's all very beautifully simple and complicated."
"What do you sing about?" asked Martin.
"Injustice." Andres tapped his guitar and studied Martin. "I've been looking for someone like you to translate a song of mine, El Mono de Alambre."
"Okay, let's do it," said Martin.
"Why not? We have two hours until we get to Las Margaritas."
"The way this conductor drives this van it will be three or four hours. Okay, let's get started," said Andres, then addressed the other passengers in the van, "If anyone is offended by the truth set to music, please speak now."
The passengers, mostly poor Chiapanecos and European tourists, kept silent.
"Okay, good. Ready?" said Andres.
"Ready." Martin opened his notebook to a clean page.
"The title would be translated to 'monkey of wire', correct?" asked Andres.
"Monkey of wire?" Martin looked up from his notebook.
"Mono de alambre," said Andres.
"No, monkey of wire won't work. In English the word is puppet."
"Yeah, like a puppet on a string, right? That's what you mean."
"Like the dirty politicians in Mexico, the ones at the bottom are handled by those at the top and the bigshots in Mexico are handled by the top dogs in the United States or druglords," said Andres.
"Okay, that's what I thought you meant. go ahead," said Martin.
"Buenos días señores, somos agraristas."
"Good morning people, we are farmworkers."
"Chinguen a su madre los latifundistas."
"Wait, 'fuck your mother' is kinda strong," said Martin.
"It is supposed to be strong."
"Yeah, but I think that in Mexico you can say that phrase much more casually, like saying 'oh shit', right? And in English 'fuck your mother' sounds too literal."
"I want it to mean what it says," said Andres.
"How about 'go to hell' instead?"
"Let's move on, write down 'fuck your mother' and next to it 'go to hell'." Andres strummed his guitar. "Por todo el país venimos cantando y a los vendé patrias la madre mentando, vamos a bailar, vamos a bailar el mono de alambre."
"Hold on, throughout the country we come singing and to all the traitors cursing their mothers, let's dance, let's dance the song of the puppet."
"Y los diputados y los senadores chinguen a su madre. Chinguen a su madre todos los priistas, chinguen a su madre también los panistas..."
"Wait, is that a chorus? How many times can we write 'fuck your mother' in one song?" asked Martin.
"As many times as is necessary, I haven't even started naming individuals yet, like Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, Televisa, Jacobo Zabludosky, Cardinal Geronimo Prigione..."
"Cardinal? You mean like a bishop?"
"Higher than a bishop, almost the pope. Can we continue?" Andres tapped his guitar three times.
"Okay." Martin shook his head and turned over to a clean page in his notebook.
"What we are doing with this song is pointing out the contrast between the good people and the oppressors, praising some and cursing others while showing there is a need to fight for change for the benefit of humanity, all that expressed in the most common vernacular. And the translation into English is for the Chicanos on the other side, so they will know their history and our struggle. But we need to change the people in the song, instead of Salinas and Zedillo we put in Bush and Cheney, and instead of Zapata and Villa we can use Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King."
"How about Cesar Chavez?" asked Martin.
"Or Reverend Jesse Jackson," said Andres.
"No, I think he's a millionaire. Malcolm X is better."
Large green trucks from the federal army appeared on the side of the road. Soldiers held rifles and stood at attention several feet from each other.
"We are going to be inspected," said Andres.
"We are all traveling together, sightseeing," said la Chamulita, then turned to Paloma and whispered, "Don't be afraid, they are only here to intimidate us."
"Is this going to be a problem?" asked Martin.
"Only if they recognize me," said Andres.
"Let me hold your guitar," said Martin.
"No, they may consider you my accomplice," said Andres.
"Accomplice? I'm a musician from Las Vegas."
"Can you play that thing?"
"Okay, let me hold your radio."
El Juglar laughed and looked ahead to the soldiers. The road through the Sierra of Chiapas was winding in a steep ascent and improvised speed bumps were frequent. Indigenous women and children carrying firewood wrapped in leather straps on their back and held against their foreheads walked past the soldiers, who held their rifles and stared ahead, oblivious to the presence of their brown sisters and brothers marching past with bundles of wood. Several vehicles formed a line, waiting to pass the federal army inspection.
"Who do you have inside?" asked a young soldier holding a rifle against the side of his leg.
"Tourists," said the driver of the van going to Las Margaritas.
"From where?" asked the soldier.
"Some are from Mexico, there is a couple from France and I think there is a man from Canada."
"And him?" The soldier pointed at El Juglar de los Caminos.
"The man with the guitar."
"I don't know, looks like he's from around here."
"You there! Next to the man with the guitar, come outside!" The soldier looked at Martin and motioned to other soldiers to open the side door of the van.
"Who me?" asked Martin.
"Stay here, I'll go," said Andres.
"No, I'll go, I'm a tourist from the United States, what can they do to me?" Martin climbed over his backpack on the floor and over Andres's radio and speaker system and stepped down from the van.
The soldiers were all young and indigenous.
"Where are you from?" asked the soldier in charge.
"Identification and passport."
Martin handed the soldier his U.S. passport and Nevada driver's license.
"What are you doing with that man with the guitar?"
"He's my friend," said Martin.
"Do you know his name?"
"Andres Contreras is a troublemaker."
"Has he been talking about the Zapatistas?"
"No, we were talking about Las Vegas. He wants to go."
"Where are you going?" The soldier pointed at Andres and yelled, “Get him out here!"
Two soldiers placed their rifles across their backs and pulled Andres out of the van.
"Wait my friends, I'm coming out, just let me put down this guitar," said Andres.
"I asked you where you are going," said the soldier.
"Las Margaritas, then Ocosingo, the archeological zone at Tonina, the waterfalls at Misol-Ha, then Palenque," said Martin.
"This van is not on a tour," said the soldier.
"He's taking me," said Martin, referring to Andres, who was standing next to him.
"Now you do tours?" The soldier turned to Andres.
"Well, you know how it is my friend, just trying to make a little extra for the tortillas and this young man said he didn't like the tours with all those damn foreigners so I told him I would give him a real Mexican tour -- not a European tour, or an Asiatic tour, or a tour from the Taliban, I said to him, "I have been up and down these beautiful sierras and deep in the Lacandon jungle' and I could show him our true and authentic Chiapas. Wouldn't you agree?"
The young soldier in charge stared at Andres, then turned to Martin and returned his ID and passport.
"Thank you," said Martin.
Andres and Martin boarded the van and the trek to Las Margaritas resumed. The road became more narrow and the Sierra of Chiapas swallowed the van. Martin listened to the jungle through an open window.
"You should roll up your window," said Andres.
"It's so big and green and it smells so clean," said Martin.
"A monkey could come flying through that window, they know tourists always carry delicious snacks."
Martin rolled up his window and stared into the vastness of the Lacandon Jungle.
"Why were you so friendly with those soldiers, like you knew them," asked Paloma.
"Underneath that green uniform they are men but they are trained to act like animals. If you talk to some of them the right way they will see that they are simply serving the oppressor while punishing the common decent citizen," said Andres.
"I was a little nervous." Paloma folded the orange veil and handed it to la Chamulita.
"I have been arrested over fifty times and slept many nights in jails all over Mexico," said Andres.
"For what?" asked Paloma.
"For singing my songs." He picked up his guitar and handed Martin his pen and notebook.
The van passed cornfields and rows of agave planted along hillsides. Homes made of cement blocks with laminated roofs appeared on the side of the road. A sign advised that they were entering the municipality of Las Margaritas. The van parked near a small market. Young men sat playing dominos in front of the store. They stared at Paloma as she got out of the van. Martin and Andres went into the store and bought drinks. La Chamulita went across the street to make a phone call.
"Hey Andres, Paloma and I are actually going into La Realidad," said Martin.
Andres took a long drink from his orange Fanta and smiled. "I knew there was more about you and Paloma than just sightseeing."
"I have a package to deliver for Subcomandante Marcos and Paloma would like to request some assistance from him."
"We also need to speak to Sup, I just wrote a song that requires his consent and la Chamulita has a message from a woman's collective in Guerrero. It won't be easy locating Marcos and it will be even harder to actually see him, but I'll see what I can do."
"So we can all go together," said Martin.
"Yeah, but Marcos is not in La Realidad," said Andres.
"But that's where I was an instructor for a Zapatista school and where Captain Hilario gave me my assignment."
"I went to Cuba to translate for some Irish insurgents."
"Nice job," said el Juglar.
La Chamulita crossed the street and said," We have a ride into the jungle."
Martin picked up his pack and Paloma's bags and followed la Chamulita and Andres down a dirt road. A lime Volkswagen bug was parked in front of a two-storey brick residence. Barefoot children kicked an old flat soccer ball in an empty dirt lot among chickens and pigs. Andres whistled at the brick home and made room for his equipment under the hood of the bug. A young man came out of the house and shook hands with Andres and La Chamulita. Paloma and Martin stopped playing with the kids and shared the backseat with la Chamulita.
The bug climbed deep into the jungle and handled dangerous curves without protective barriers. The impressive precipices took Martin's breath away. An hour later he saw huts and cornfields in a green valley and noticed a large sign along the road, which advised: "YOU ARE NOW IN ZAPATISTA REBEL TERRITORY; HERE THE PEOPLE RULE AND THE GOVERNMENT OBEYS."
"Where are we going?" asked Paloma.
"Where rain, mud, corn, tears and hope are abundant," said Andres.
Rain fell from the heavens and mud began to cover the road as Tzotzil and Tzeltzal children carrying bundles of corn ran past the lime bug.
◙ My review of Daniel Alarcón’s novel, Lost City Radio (HarperCollins), appeared in Sunday’s El Paso Times. I note, in part: “Alarcón's narrative has the ebb and flow of a dark dream. With a fluid chronology that curves upon itself and doubles back effortlessly, he allows the past to mingle and compete with the present. There are no false steps or strained sentences. Lost City Radio is, quite simply, a triumph. Alarcón has created a sublimely terrifying, war-ravaged world populated by unforgettable and fully realized characters. But at the novel's core is a story of hope, one that renders the resiliency of human nature in all its imperfect glory.”
Alarcón is also burning up the literary journal world. He has a short story in Swink and he edited a portfolio of Peruvian writing in the new issue of A Public Space.
◙ Alex Espinoza continues to collect praise for his debut novel, Still Water Saints (Random House) including Adam Hill’s review in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Hill notes, in part: “Most readers know a few of the common problems of first novels written by graduates of master's of fine arts programs. Some dazzle with ambition and ideas but are lacking in pure narrative pleasure, and some seem like formulaically fictionalized memoirs of people who haven't lived long enough to offer us much in the way of wisdom and a deeper understanding of life's continual complexity. Happily, Still Water Saints, the first novel by Alex Espinoza, who earned his degree from UC Irvine, suffers from none of those shortcomings. That doesn't mean it's a perfect book, but it certainly is an enchanting one.”
More news regarding Espinoza:
* The Spanish version of Still Water Saints is called Los Santos de Agua Mansa, California, translated by Liliana Valenzuela, has gone into its second printing. In fact, it went into a second print run even before it was released on January 30, 2007!
* Espinoza has an essay in the LIVES section of the New York Times Sunday magazine yesterday. Read it here.
* Espinoza will be in Texas this week then he has three Los Angeles area readings in March: Borders in Chino (March 4 at 3 p.m.), Skylight Books (March 10 at 5 p.m.), and Vromans in Pasadena (March 13 at 7 p.m.).
* Finally, Espinoza will be doing a live radio interview on AIRTALK with Larry Mantle on KPCC 89.3 that will run on March 13 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon.
◙ Mario Acevedo will be touring California for his new novel, X-Rated Blood Suckers (HarperCollins/Rayo), the sequel to last year’s wildly successful debut detective-vampire novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats (HarperCollins/Rayo). Here are some dates:
Friday, March 9, 2007:
7 p.m. Mysterious Galaxy
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92111
Saturday, March 10, 2007:
1 p.m. Dark Delicacies
4213 W Burbank Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91505
and later that day:
5 p.m. Mystery Bookstore
1036-C Broxton Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Sunday, March 11, 2007:
2 p.m., M is for Mystery
74 East Third Ave.
San Mateo, CA 94401
◙ News from UCLA’S Chicano Studies Research Center Press: The new issue of Aztlán is rolling off the presses and should be in subscribers’ mail boxes in the next two weeks.
If you are not a subscriber, you will miss the following wonderful articles: Paul Allatson on the poetry and prose of the late Chicano author Gil Cuadros; Steven S. Volk and Marian E. Schlotterbeck on three cultural responses to the femicide of women in Ciudad Juárez; Susan Rippberger and Kathleen Staudt on public schooling on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border; Robert Chao Romero on Chinese-Mexican intermarriage during the early twentieth century; and Tara J. Yosso and David G. García on a critical race theory framework for reading literature. The dossier section includes personal essays on the year 1972 and Patssi Valdez is the cover artist. If you would like to subscribe, you can go to the Center’s store to buy a current subscription or send them your postal address by email so that they can send you a subscription package. The Center is also selling full sets of the journal in hard copy for $100. Just email them.
◙ That’s all for now. Until next Monday, remember: ¡Lea un libro!
Saturday, February 24, 2007
René Colato Laínez
La lotería was my favorite game when I was growing. La loteria arrived all the way from Europe to Mexico more than two hundreds years ago. It was Don Clemente, a man from France, who created the images of the game using Mexican colors, flavors and traditions.Children and adults love to play lotería.
Enjoy this video,
Friday, February 23, 2007
These reviews were first aired on Denver radio station KUVO, 89.3 FM, back in 1993 (Drink Cultura) and 1997 (Woman Hollering Creek). Must be feeling nostalgic, but sometimes you just have to look over your shoulder to see what lies ahead. Some of the observations in my reviews may be dated, but the books remain essential reading and core items in the Chicano Literature canon.
At the end I have an announcement about an opportunity for a scholarship to a writers' conference this spring at the legendary Algonquin Hotel in New York City.
DRINK CULTURA: CHICANISMO
José Antonio Burciaga
Joshua Odell Editions, Capra Press, 1993
This book is a quick tour through Chicano history, mythology, politics and food. The chapter titles hint at the broad nature of the writing in this collection: The Joy of Jalapeños, All The Things I Learned in School Weren't Necessarily True, A Mixed Tex-Cal Marriage, Piñatas, and The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes. Each chapter is a concise treatise on its chosen topic. With personal observation, family stories, and humor, these essays are tidy snacks of Chicanismo laid out for the reader to breeze through quickly and then ponder for as much time as required.
Burciaga treats with respect even mundane elements of life in the Southwestern United States. By doing so he provides a valuable document on the attitudes of people who, as he says, fought the yoke of the gringo oppressor while aspiring for equal opportunities.
For example, his chapter on The Great Taco War is, at first glance, only a short and funny commentary on the plethora of fast food outlets that have turned to offering Mexican food. Burciaga is initially amazed that a Taco Bell would open in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Mission is an enclave of Mexican and Latino influence and the home of world-famous taquerias that offer exquisite tacos and burritos to hordes of customers who often wait in lines that twist out the door and around the corner. But, according to Burciaga, the Taco Bell is doing quite well. He is put off by the strange menu that was created exclusively for the restaurant chain -- Enchiritos, Mexican Pizza, and Cinnamon Crispas. But he also notices that there are a large number of poor and low income people enjoying the creations, including seniors on fixed incomes, young vato locos, a nursery school class, and immigrants who speak not a word of English. The food is cheap and, as he notes, different and tasty in a funny sort of way. There is something important about the fact that fast food chains have recognized the drawing power of Mexican food and that almost all of them now offer a burrito or taco item.
Burciaga compares the Chicano people to the Aztecs, who have a saying: The Spaniards conquered us, but our culture conquered them. He also observes that there is passive resistance to the loss of our mestizo culture at almost every level of Chicano life, even if it is something as benign as defending the Mexican national character at a time when it is clear that Chicanos are no longer Mexicans. Burciaga concludes in one of his stories that to live on the border is to inhabit two worlds, two cultures, and to accept both without diminishing the integrity of either. He goes so far with this idea that he states, without embarrassment, that, culturally, he has as much of the gringo in him as he does of the Mexicano.
Drink Cultura is a friendly, funny, literate reflection of Chicano life in North America. I found it informative and educational, as well as authentic. I believe that any one, of any race or culture or generation, can enjoy this book. It provides insight and, in a curious twist that I doubt Burciaga intended, it also sheds much-needed light on the commonalities of human nature, rather than the differences that too many of us dwell on when we become embroiled in discussions or race, culture or nationalism.
WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK
Random House, 1991
Sandra Cisneros's first collection of short stories, The House on Mango Street, was published in 1984 and immediately secured her place as an important writer. Her lyrical prose and intensely personal voice captured the very human qualities of her colorful characters, especially those of Esperanza, the young girl modeled after Cisneros and her childhood in Chicago and on annual family treks to Mexico City.
Cisneros has a sense of irony and a wonder about life that fill her pages with emotion, melancholy or joy that rings true in the heart of her readers. Her stories are imbued with cultural references but they are accessible to all readers, simply because they are so well-written.
Woman Hollering Creek was published in 1991, more than seven years after her first collected effort at short fiction. She has said that her writing takes a long time, and that if it were easy, then she must be repeating herself, something she struggles to avoid. I try with every book, she says, to push myself to new heights, which also means that I've got to stumble and fumble and learn, knock my head against the wall doing it. For readers, the result of all this stumbling and fumbling is an exciting short story mix that stirs up the right feelings.
Cisneros excels at character sketches drawn with an exquisitely fine line and soft touch. Her characters dwell in the world of the mundane and routine until her prose turns them into symbols for all that is basic in us, all that is real.
There is, for example, in the story entitled Mericans, Micaela, the young girl who waits with her brothers for their grandmother outside an old church in an ancient Mexican village. The grandmother, the awful grandmother as she is known to the children, painstakingly prays for everyone in the family, including those who long ago gave up on religion. Meanwhile, the children have a little fun with some North American tourists who mistakenly think the children are Mexicans, only to be abruptly surprised when they hear the children speak English.
And then there is the tragic Cleofilas, the heroine of the story Woman Hollering Creek. Cleo is a woman from Mexico who was transported to Texas by her new husband, where she quickly became a victim of an abusive marriage. Cleo escapes only when a young Chicana givers her a helping hand and who, along the way, redefines the myth of La Llorona, the woman who for centuries has cried for her murdered children. In this story, Cisneros has given us a new image and posited an entirely new question that twists the old myth until it is almost unrecognizable: What if La Llorona isn't crying, but hollering for joy? The story asks why it is that for so many Latina women the only choices seem to be pain or suffering? Cisneros answers that question with with and pathos. She refuses to accept old and stale versions of life and, instead, offers her own unique vision. She reveals to us our own humanity in terms that we have not always been willing to accept.
Woman Hollering Creek is not a replay of House on Mango Street, nor is it the longer novel many of her readers were eagerly anticipating. Woman Hollering Creek stands on its own as an excellent collection by one of the best short story writers in North America.
BACKSPACE WRITERS CONFERENCE
Thanks to an extremely generous anonymous donor, two full-tuition scholarships to the 2007 Backspace Writers Conference will be awarded to writers whose work shows exceptional promise, and who have completed a novel and are actively seeking an agent to represent their work.
Tuition scholarships cover the conference registration fee, travel expenses to and from New York City, and hotel accommodations (May 30 - June 1).
Applications must be received between January 15 and March 1, 2007. Winners will be notified by April 15, 2007.
Applications will be accepted via email only. Get all the details on this page.
Next week, something new.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Confessions of Berlitz Tape Chicana
by Demetria Martínez
University of Oklahoma Press, 2005
“We’re everywhere, and it’s time to come out of the closet: I speak of the tongue-tied generation, buyers of books with titles like Master Spanish in Ten Minutes a Day while You Nap. . . . We grew up listening to the language—usually in the kitchens of extended family—but we answered back mostly in English.”
Demetria Martínez wields her trademark blend of humor and irony to give voice to her own “tongue-tied generation” in this notable series of essays, revealing her deeply personal views of the world. Martínez breaks down the barriers between prayer and action, between the border denizen and the citizen of the world, and between patriarchal religion and the Divine Mother. She explores her identity as a woman who has within her the “blood of the conquered and the conqueror,” and who must daily contend with yet a third world—white America. (from the publisher)
This is a deceptively thin volume, but don't let the size mislead you. Martínez demonstrates both a depth of feeling and a fine mind at work. Why I mention this at all is that very often, women's writing is described as 'heart-felt,' ignoring the intellectual foundation at work. Confessions
Early in the book, in an essay entitled, Lines in the Sand, on the real meaning of never finding the right shade of makeup, Martínez deftly lays bare the insidious everyday way in which Latinas find themselves forced to look in a distorted mirror; how much the world needs us to embrace the beauty already there, to shift our energy away from the beauty trap in order to remake the world.
In A Call To Arms, Martínez writes about the fantasy of owning a gun, of knowing and agreeing with all the anti-gun politics, but owning that deep and naked need to feel impervious in a world where women's physical safety is always in question.
Martinez speaks truth to power, and her essay, Night, shows us the inner workings of her psyche and spirit, as she challenges the reader to take a long, raw look at the Iraqi invasion, and the cost of silence in the face of the war.
In Birth Day, Martínez also is forthcoming about her manic depression, about its tolls on her life, but also its blessings. In a critique of the 'romance' of mental illness, she writes that she takes her meds, choosing a place of more balance, instead of dis-ease. But she also has this to say:
"...I realize that my calling--the human calling, is to embody the light in my life, especially when I cannot see it. And to to try to embody it my my writing as well."
Such light, such light indeed.
Demetria Martinez is an author, activist, lecturer and columnist. Her autobiographical essays, Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana (Univ. of Oklahoma Press), winner of the 2006 International Latino Book Award in the category of Best Biography, is now out. Her books include the widely translated novel, Mother Tongue (Ballantine), winner of a Western States Book Award for Fiction, and two books of poetry, Breathing Between the Lines and The Devil’s Workshop (Univ. of Arizona Press). (Martinez reads a sampling of poems from Breathing Between the Lines on her new CD, with music by Devon Hall.) She writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent progressive newsweekly. She currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
I am not a television watcher so it came as a surprise to me that the Public Broadcasting System has sponsored a documentary series on World War II that will ignore the role Chicanos served in what one writer calls, with unintended but bitter irony, "the greatest generation."
Ignored. As in, a seven part television series and not a reference to the guys like my father who left Redlands, California in 1944, to train at Ft. Knox, then ship over to England, then drive a tank in George Patton's armored corps from France to Leipzig. My dad's stories bring him nightmares, sadness, and names. Many of them raza. Ignored by PBS. Ignored by Ken Burns.
Ignored. As in the Chicano Felix Longoria, who died in the Philippines. His remains recovered and returned to the United States in 1948, his family was forbidden burial of their son's body in his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas. The soldier was, in life, a Mexican, all the reason needed to deny the family access to their hometown funeral chapel. Through the intercession of the American GI Forum and Lyndon Johnson, Longoria's final resting place is Arlington National Cemetery. But not his hometown. Ignored by PBS. Ignored by Ken Burns.
Ignored. As in the bloody crossing of the Rapido River in Italy, 1944. German artillery and machinegunners enjoyed the killing. Wave after wave of Texas National Guardsmen paddled their rubber boats into the river, to be cut to pieces. 2100 GIs died. Ignored by PBS. Ignored by Ken Burns.
So this Ash Wednesday, as I read again T.S. Eliot's poem for the day, I think about the hubris of PBS and film maker Ken Burns and wonder why they do not hope to turn again, to tell the world some of our story, too, and not just their chosen few?
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Does Eliot want me to be so hopeless? I refuse. I don't want Ken Burns' conscience. I sure would like to see my dad's generation of aged eagles stretch their wings with pride and joy that their contribution has been acknowledged, remembered. But not ignored. Yes, I'd love to see the usual reign of PBS and the selective memory of Ken Burns vanish. Let him construct something we can all rejoice in.
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
I share two poems with you. I hope you'll read these and think about writing PBS and Ken Burns a letter, asking them why, with all their media power, couldn't they make a greater effort?
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
is in town
by the river
or so the people
and if we catch any
of you drunk Mexicans
on the street
we’ll drive you out of Town.
Mother, why do they look
at us like
We’ll go to
at San Antonio
has a Congressional
wouldn’t serve him
We’ll go to
at San Antonio
Is the Catholic
Church in Robstown.
In Voices of Aztlan. Chicano Literature of Today. Ed by Dorothy E. Harth and Lewis M. Baldwin. NY: New American Library, 1974. 188-189
To brothers dead crossing the rapido river…194?
in a day
in an afternoon
in a night
in years of fury
alone and far from home
away from familiar sounds
you fell on the earth of italy
blood of mexico
blood of the northern
blood of the bitter border
spilled on earth of italy
on the earth of italy
hope of america
the vain hope of america
never realized hope of america
against a wall of teuton steel
you waded the chilling river
waters tasting of death
far from home
tasting of sudden death
left your dead on the river banks
tears of mothers on the river banks
hopes of sweethearts on the river banks
left tomorrows on the river banks
bitter yesterdays on the river banks
for a hope
Anonymous pp 42-43 in Antonia Castañeda Shular, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Joseph Sommers. Literatura Chicana. Texto y Contexto. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972.
Monday, February 19, 2007
I am writing to extend warm wishes for the New Year and on behalf of Con Tinta, an organization in support of the Chicano/Latino literary community. Con Tinta is hosting an event during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Atlanta, Georgia on March 2, 2007. This annual event provides a critical opportunity for our writing community to share time with colleagues and supporters. In addition to celebrating of our growing community, Con Tinta sponsors this get-together during the conference as a way to introduce our organization to a community at large.
La Mitra, a restaurant located nearby the conference hotels, has agreed to host our event from 6:30 to 8:30 pm on Friday, March 2. For more details about this space, please visit their web site: http://www.mitrarestaurant.com/.
This celebration will feature an award presentation, readings, and a tapas buffet/cash bar. This year’s recipient of Con Tinta award will be Judith Ortiz Cofer. A longtime resident in Georgia, Judith Ortiz Cofer is being recognized in her home state for her remarkable and prolific contribution to Latino literature in all genres and her tireless support and advocacy of emerging writers. The event will include a celebration to mark the publication of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry—a new Camino del Sol title from the University of Arizona Press. Brenda Cárdenas, a contributor to the anthology and Con Tinta Advisory Circle member, will MC a collective reading featuring a number of the twenty-five poets in the anthology—poets who, at the time of selection, had no more than one book in print.
At this time, Con Tinta is accepting donations to offset costs for this event. We ask your help in fundraising. While your private donations are welcome, we are also looking to approach others who would be able to lend their financial support. Please feel free to circulate the details of this event to potential donors or send me their information. Rich Yañez is collecting funds on behalf of Con Tinta. His contact information follows.
Please consider yourself invited to the second of what we hope are many Con Tinta celebrations. We look forward to sharing this special evening with you.
Prospero año nuevo,
Lorraine M. López
P.O. Box 1025
Santa Teresa, New Mexico
Phone #: 915-831-2630
CON TINTA is a coalition of cultural activists (Chicano/Latino poets and writers) who believe in affirming a positive and pro-active presence in American literature. We come together in the spirit of intellectual exchange, of creating dialogue with our communities and beyond, of recognizing our literary and social histories, and of establishing alliances with other cultural and political organizations. Our mission is to create awareness through the cultivation of emerging talent, through the promotion and presentation of artistic expression, and through the collective voice of support to our members, our communities, and our allies.
Daniel A. Olivas
◙ Alex Espinoza continues to get some great ink for his beautiful and potent debut novel, Still Water Saints (Random House). Rigoberto González profiles Espinoza in the latest issue of Poets & Writers (sadly, the article itself is not online but you can pick it up at most bookstores). And in the Daily News, Richard Irwin offers his take on Espinoza in a piece that begins:
ALEX ESPINOZA never planned on becoming a writer. He sort of fell into it because of some very special teachers. Espinoza is the youngest in a family of 11 children who grew up in La Puente. He was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and moved to the San Gabriel Valley suburb when he was 2 years old. The 35-year-old author recently had his first novel, "Still Water Saints," published by Random House. And Espinoza is already working on a second book.
Read the entire Irwin article here. Espinoza will discuss and sign his book at 7:00 p.m. this Thursday at Borders, 8852 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera. (562) 942-9919.
◙ An essay of mine was published online with CaliforniaAuthors concerning my leap from short story writer to (attempted) novelist. Take a peek.
◙ It’s a short post today…trying to catch up with life. Hasta. --DAO
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Due to high demand for Spanish literature in the United States, many books written originally in English have been translated into Spanish. However, translating a book into another language is not an easy task. Problems with names, idioms, rhyming text, and too literal word for word translation complicate the process. What does a translator need to take into consideration? What are the necessary elements to do a great translation and make everyone happy? Let’s look at the English and the Spanish versions of AMELIA BEDELIA by Peggy Parish.
AMELIA BEDELIA is a classic in children’s literature. Amelia Bedelia is a housekeeper who takes her instructions quite literally. She works with Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. The Rogers make a list of chores and tell Amelia to just do what the list says. She does everything she is told but the wrong way.
This is a difficult book to translate because it uses idioms that are very hard to translate from English into Spanish. The editors picked the well-recognized translator Yanitzia Canetti. Because Yanitzia had to change entire phrases in the Spanish version, the editors also hired a new illustrator, Barbara Siebel Thomas.
Yanitzia begins her changes on the first page. She changes the names of Amelia Bedelia employers. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are now Señor and Señora López. This make sense, López is a very common last name in Spanish, just like “Smith” in English. Children will relate more to López than Rogers. However, Amelia Bedelia remains the same, because Amelia is a name used in Spanish. Yanitzia keeps Bedelia because it rhymes with Amelia. The combination of both names Amelia Bedelia sounds good in Spanish as well as in English.
The text at the beginning of the story is very similar in both versions. There is only a change in the illustration. In the English version Mr. and Mrs. Rogers get into the car and drive away but they are not alone, they take their dog with them. In the Spanish version the dog is missing. This does not make sense at first. The new illustrator has to eliminate the dog from the car because the dog will appear later in the story.
The text is similar in both versions until Amelia Bedelia reads the first thing on the to-do list. In the English version, Amelia Bedelia reads, “Change the towels in the green bathroom” . Amelia changes the towels by cutting them with scissors. It would be very easy to translate the original text “Change the towels” to “Cambia las toallas,” but in Spanish there is no confusion with this phrase. It only means, “take the towels and put new ones”. Yanitzia changes the text to “Cambia la cama” . This phrase can have two meanings, “Change the blankets” or “Move the bed to another location.” Amelia Bedelia moves the bed next to the door.
The same happens with the second item in the list, “Dust the furniture”. In Spanish it is used to say “desempolva los muebles”. An employer would never say “empolva los muebles,” because it means literally “dust the furniture.” Amelia Bedelia can make the mistake in English of dusting the furniture with dusting powder but in a Spanish it will not work at all. Instead, Yanitzia writes “Busca el periódico”. Amelia looks for the newspaper everywhere in the house and makes a mess. This phrase does not work very well in the Spanish version because it does not have a double meaning, but it works better than “Dust the furniture.”
Yanitzia does a great job with the next item in the list. Perry Parish writes, “Put the lights out when you finish in the living room”. You cannot translate this literally in Spanish. The best you can do is “Apaga las luces cuando termines en la sala”. The confusion in Spanish does not exist. In the Spanish version the dog comes back into the story. Amelia Bedelia reads “Dale una vuelta al perro” . This phrase can mean two things, “Take the dog for a walk” or “Flip the dog around.” Amelia Bedelia gets the dog that is sleeping in a sofa and flips him upside down.
For the last item on the list, the illustrator does not create a new illustration; she just alters the existing illustration. “And please dress the chicken” will have no meaning in Spanish. “Rellena el pollo,” does not have a double meaning. Instead Yanitzia writes, “Y ten listo el pollo para la cena de gala de esta noche”. Amelia Bedelia prepares the chicken by dressing him with an elegant tuxedo, a bow tie, and black shoes.
AMELIA BEDELIA was very hard to translate. Luckily this will not happen with every book. If the book in English is written without wordplay or rhymes, it will not have to go through all this process. The translator only needs to use the right words because a word that is funny in English is not necessarily funny in another language. Sometimes an innocent word in English can be a bad word in another language.
I had the opportunity to translated my picture books from English to Spanish. I started WAITING FOR PAPA with “I wish Papá could be here with me.” I translated it literally to, “Deseo que Papá esté aquí conmigo”. I showed it to the bilingual children’s literature author Alma Flor Ada. She told me that it did not sound so good in Spanish. She suggested changing it to “Como quisiera que Papá estuviera aquí conmigo.” Both sentences in Spanish are very similar. The first one is closer to the English version but the second one has more child’s language. “Deseo” (I wish) is a word for an older child. Instead small children say “como quisiera”. Also, “como quisiera” has a more emotional impact in Spanish and it works better as the first line of the story.
Alma Flor Ada told me, “The best translation is the one not similar to the original text.” I understand this to mean that when you translate something you have to have a clear understanding of both languages. You cannot translate word for word because you change or lose the meaning of the text. There are syntactical rules in languages that have to be followed, and you have to be sure that you are honoring those rules in both languages.
Parish, Peggy. Amelia Bedelia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963.
- - -. Amelia Bedelia. Trans. Yanitzia Canetti. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Friday, February 16, 2007
This week La Bloga turned into Love Bloga -- in that spirit, here's un cuento de amor.
THE SCENT OF TERRIFIED ANIMALS
by Manuel Ramos
First appeared in Saguaro (University of Arizona), 1990
All rights reserved.
“I hate the mountains." Her back rested against a faded, splintered corral fence.
The smell of burning pine clung to the tourist ranch. Smoke floated across the sky, hiding the scenery and corrupting the air.
Irritation slipped into his voice. “How can you say that? You told me you loved the outdoors, hiking. Christ! If I'd known ... if you had said anything before ... damn, we could have gone to L.A., Vegas, any place. You hate the mountains? Good God, you hate the mountains!”
He stepped back from her and rushed away to their cabin.
She could only stare after him. She should have said something. That was easy to see.
She should have told him many things and she wondered when she would. The bank, her friends, the party, the wedding -- it all happened so fast and, she had to admit, she had been swept up in the flow of events and the energy of her office romance -- the famous affair. She could not resist Philip. And now she was in the mountains, surrounded by smoke and fire and she had no idea what she was doing.
The ranch's owner invited them to his cabin for drinks the night they were the last remaining guests. They sat on rickety wooden chairs the old man spread among the weeds and cacti.
“This is a shame, folks, what with you on your honeymoon and all. 'Course, young people like you got a lot of other things to do 'sides hiking around these hills, eh?” He chuckled, amused with his brashness. Mary and Philip ignored his remark. He shrugged and poured more drinks.
“The forest won't recover, least not for me to ever see it. Have to pack it in, try to sell. Don't see how, though, not with the park burned out.”
“I had hoped we could come back next year,” Philip said. “But I guess there won't be much to see. Not much point.”
Mary groaned. “Oh, Philip. Don't be an idiot. Of course there won't be much around here, the whole miserable place is burning down! Can't you see what's happening? Can't you smell it?”
Calhoun clucked his teeth. He waited for the man to respond.
Mary kept at it. “There might be some fish in the ranch pond. They're put there every year just for the tourists -- right Calhoun? You said you always wanted to catch a fish, Philip. Won't your man, what's his name ...”
Calhoun answered, "Montoya."
“Yes. Montoya. Won't he stock up your little lake so that Philip can catch his fish? You can do that next year, even without trees, without anything else around here. Just you and your fish, Philip, you and your fish.” She presented her empty glass to Calhoun and he filled it with whiskey.
The smoke carried the scent of terrified animals. The fire's dull roar served as background for all other sounds. They drank without speaking, watching the moon appear for a few minutes and then succumb to the smoke. The mountains were dim, weak silhouettes.
The old man spit in a rusted bucket. “This is the worst one I've ever seen, and I've been in mountains and woods and forests most of my sixty years. A careless tourist did this. What a waste.” He might have been giving a tour of the ranch, pointing out the sights.
Mary tilted her glass to her lips and the liquor rolled down her throat. “Yes, Calhoun, a waste -- a lousy, goddamned waste. Good night. I'm going to bed. Philip?”
“Go ahead. Don't wait up.”
She stood and knocked back her chair, and it lay on its side in the dirt.
“I apologize for my wife, Mr. Calhoun. The fire ruined the trip for us. She needs to do something. She gets bored easily. Women? What can you do? Guess we'll go on into the city. She'll be all right as soon as we get away from the smoke.”
Many years earlier Calhoun would have told Philip what he thought. But now he was a good businessman and he offered Philip only more whiskey.
They finished the bottle and started a second one. It was too much for Philip. He passed out and Calhoun left him slumped in his chair. His thin jacket flapped with the night wind. His hair and skin soaked up the smoke. Mary did not come looking for him.
Calhoun sat on the steps to his cabin. The hazy, gray sky had slowed him and he had slept later than usual. His throat was parched from the smoky air that surrounded his land. He heard Mary and Philip shouting until one of them slammed against the cabin's wall.
Philip slowly emerged from the cabin. For a minute he stood motionless, undecided about his next act, lost as surely as if he had been dropped from the sky into the most desolate area of the park. He saw the crude, hand painted sign with the word Fishing hanging over the shed where Montoya drank coffee and read the newspaper.
“I want to fish. I'll rent equipment, buy a can of worms. Whatever I need.”
Montoya had been taught by Calhoun to overlook the quirks of the tourists. He needed the job and he learned quickly. He grunted in the direction of Philip. “Any fish you catch will cost you a dollar an inch.”
Mary strode from the cabin a half hour later, her eyes musky and red, her skin as clouded as the smoke-ringed sun. She wore shorts and a halter top in the coolness of the overcast day. She stood near the corral and watched the horses.
The breeze picked up dust from the corral and blew it across her face and into her eyes. She closed her eyes suddenly and hard, to make them water, but the dirt held fast. She frantically rubbed her eyes, her face, the skin on her arms. She was caught in the panic of the dust.
A rough hand grabbed her. She smelled the horses. The hand pulled her fingers away from her face.
“Here, let me help. You could scratch an eyeball, rubbing like that.” He held her face and she was locked in his grip. He said, “Open your eyes, slowly. I'll hold your eyelid open, you move your eye, slowly, up and down, side to side.”
He held her thin eyelid with the tips of his fingers. The delicate touch surprised her. She followed his instructions and the dirt moved then fell out of her eye. Her eyes watered again and tears flowed down her face.
“That was horrible. Thanks.” She twisted her face away from him and he dropped his hands, awkwardly, away from her body.
She was almost as tall as Montoya. His black eyes and hair blended with the sunburnt darkness of his skin and she thought he was nearly as dark as the Puerto Rican teller who helped her close up the bank.
“It'll be sore for a few minutes. You'll be okay.”
His Mexican accent was different from the teller's. Slower, she thought.
“I'd like to go for a ride on one of the animals. If you're letting the horses out?”
“I can give you one of the older ones, but you can't go far. The horses are spooked by the smoke. They won't go in the direction of the fire. They smell the smoke, hear it burning. Around the ranch, on the path, that's fine.” She nodded agreement.
He climbed the fence and jumped into the corral. He inched his way to the four horses huddled against the far end and talked gently and softly to them. They were unsure. The year was too young for the gray sky. They shied away from Montoya and he had trouble catching one. He lunged at them until he managed to grab a tail. He patted the horse and rubbed her flanks to calm her.
Mary watched him ready the horse. He was steady and deliberate. The horse grudgingly permitted the saddle and bridle. Montoya led the horse through the corral gate.
“Lady will take you around the ranch. She could do it blindfolded. Just let her have her way. Don't make her run, she's too old, and she doesn't like kicks or shouts. You'll have an easy ride.” He handed the reins to Mary.
“Won't you ride, too? I could use the company.” She climbed on the saddle.
“No. Calhoun's rules. When you're back, find me and I'll cool her down and put her with the others. I'll be around.” He slapped the neck of the horse to start her trotting along the deeply rutted path.
Philip had caught more than a dozen fish. The overstocked pond rippled with fish as they struggled for food. His catch lay twisted on the shore, a cord strung through their gills, their bodies half covered with water. The bundle of fish squirmed in the water as they slowly died.
Mary rode by on the plodding horse. She didn't look at him. He waved at her and pointed at his fish and started to lift them for her to see but she rode over the small rise that separated the pond from the cabins. She kicked the horse to make her run. Philip threw his line back in the water.
Montoya found Lady outside the couple's cabin, saddled and hot, standing alone, her flanks wet with foam. He led her to the corral where he did his best to cool her. Philip strolled up to him, dragging his line of fish, uncleaned, stiff from death.
“Son-of-a-bitch! Man, you got to gut those fish. And that's a hundred bucks, easy, maybe one and a half. Haven't you ever fished?” Before Philip answered, Montoya blurted out, his voice high and tight, “And your wife! She almost killed this horse, running her into the ground, and then leaving her hot. I told her to find me. What's wrong with you?”
Philip's eyes glanced away. “She knows about horses. She's been around them. Maybe you better tell her how she screwed up.” His words came slowly, wrenched from him with an effort he had trouble finishing. “I'm going to fish again, try for two hundred dollars.” He walked back to the pond.
Montoya turned to the horse. He brushed and patted her and listened to Philip walking out of sight. The hired hand finished with the horse and then he returned to the cabin. He stood by the door for a few seconds, opened it and walked in.
Calhoun watched from the steps. He spit in the bucket. He did not want to have the talk with Montoya but it had to be done. Montoya had to go. The only question for Calhoun was whether Montoya would leave the cabin before Philip reappeared.
The smoke billowed over the mountains and rolled into the valley and Calhoun's eyes stung from the smell of dead, burning earth.
Middle photo by John McColgan.
Bottom photo by Ben Northcutt of the International Erosion Control Association.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Here are three of the best love poems I've read.
Yeats' "When you are old", already holds a place in most readers' repertoires. I like the contrast in his second, coming as it does a decade later, a decade wiser. Had Maud gone? The third, Ina Cumpiano's "Metonymies" will be new to many readers. The first time I read it, I was electrified, especially in the final stanza. I hope you'll relax and let the intensity of this lover's emotions rule the moment of its reading and afterglow of contemplation.
I'm sure you have your favorites, too. Share them with people you love! And maybe, just maybe, you'll click on the Comment link and share your favorite Valentine-appropriate poems with La Bloga. Maybe next year, I can share four.
Gracias de antemano, or is that antecorazon?
WHEN YOU ARE OLD
WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
--William Butler Yeats, 1893
SWEETHEART, do not love too long,
I loved long and long,
And grew to be out of fashion
Like an old song.
All through the years of our youth
Neither could have known
Their own thought from the other's,
We were so much at one.
But O, in a minute she changed-
O do not love too long,
Or you will grow out of fashion
Like an old song.
--William Butler Yeats, 1904
Metonymies / Ina Cumpiano
LAST JULY, they loosened their grip, let go--
plum, sweet plum--until the grass
was bloody with the warm flesh. Months later
the finches, purple fruit, hide in what's left of leaves
so that only when they fly off,
when the branches bounce back to true
is their presence known. They will not outstay
the leaves, the thin white light disclosing
those empty hands, the tree, against the sky.
This trip south, the egret questions the lagoon:
the white curl of its own back is the answer.
No matter how many times I return, this shallow inlet
to the sea will be here; and the egret, long gone,
will grace it with presence.
In "The Blind Samurai" the camera zooms
to the old man's clever ear: a double metonymy
that links our deafness to his danger. By the time
we catch on--snap, snap, footsteps
in the underbrush--
he has done battle and
bandits litter the forest like cordwood.
The camellia loses its head
all at once; it does not diminish
petal by petal
so for weeks the severed blossom lingers
as moist as pain, at the foot of the bush.
If the police ordered me to evacuate,
what would I take with me?
Baby pictures, computer disks, the silver,
proofs of birth? The sun
would hang like old fruit until the smoke
gathered it in. Then: night in day, sirens,
and knowing that whatever I took
would hold in its small cup
everything I had ever lost.
So if the police ordered me to evacuate during a firestorm,
I would write your name on a slip of paper,
light it, and--
in those few hurried moments allowed me--
watch it burn, brush the ashes into an envelope
which I would seal and keep with me, always.
The Floating Borderlands, Twenty-five Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature. Ed. Lauro Flores. Seattle: UofW Press, 1998, pp. 390-391
Blogmeister's note: Click here, or on the title, to view this page with a special musical accompaniment.
Monday, February 12, 2007
GUEST WRITER: Jorge Corral, born in Los Angeles, attended Loyola University for both his undergraduate and law degrees. He is an attorney in private practice in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Corral attended the MFA International Program in Creative Writing at UNLV until his son, Gabriel el huracan, was born. He is currently working on a novel about the zapatistas, the 2001 Zapatour, Cuba, and jumping the Tijuana border. Corral participated in the 2001 Zapatour, and provides translation for escuelasparachiapas.org – and of himself, he says: “Soy adherente a la Sexta.” Corral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve been treated before to an excerpt from his novel-in-progress, Zapata Vive, Dude! Below is another excerpt. Enjoy.
CHAPTER SEVEN: LA HABANA
Yanelis Ferrer was born in Centro Habana, where she lived with her lovely grandmother, Flora Cortes. After Fidel's Revolution, Flora was assigned a narrow two-storey unit on Avenida Infanta, a wide, busy avenue. Her front door opened to a bus stop, a natural point of loitering for chulos, guapos and jineteros, all eager to separate dollars from tourists.
Yanelis slept through her grandmother's gentle coaxing from downstairs. Flora no longer climbed the winding, unsteady stairwell and no one had ever bothered to build a rail for her support. For many years, she'd slept on her antique Spanish couch; sturdy, elegant and dusty from the constant foot and car traffic on Infanta.
The roar of a bus encouraged Flora to pull herself from the couch. She put water to boil for tea and began toasting a piece of bread over the stove. Her steel pan hissed and an egg broke over it. It was Monday, December 17th; Yanelis's 18th birthday. Flora dabbed extra oil on the bread.
Yanelis worked as a dancer for the Havana Night Dance Company and was a student at the Escuela Tropicana. Soon she'd decide between Havana Night and the world-famous Cabaret Tropicana. Havana Night was new, managed by a German woman, and traveled often, while the Tropicana was more prestigious. Yanelis was also a member of her neighborhood's Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion and the Union de Jovenes Comunistas.
Flora stirred chocolate powder and milk powder in a tall plastic glass filled with water, then returned the silver can of chocolate to its secret place in her kitchen. The fried egg was pushed off the steel pan and onto the center of a small blue dish. Flora banged her pan against the concrete kitchen counter. Roaches flinched, then scrambled, most up to the three rows of wooden shelves above the sink, while others retreated inside the portable gas stovetop, defying the pot of boiling water above them.
Flora's couch was two small steps from her kitchen and four long steps from the bathroom. She very seldom walked out of her home. She was often heard talking to herself, disillusioned, that there was nothing outside worth watching anymore. She did, however, spend her days on her couch, her gaze oscillating between the television and the sinners outside. At least once a day, she stepped into her kitchen and performed a small delicious miracle. Her cinammon skin, long delicate nose, and coarse straight hair revealed some Taino ancestry. She had haunting, beautiful gray-blue eyes, and bore Spanish and French surnames -- but insisted she was una negra.
Her bad temperament had worsened over the years, similar to the deterioration of her home. Her six sons had failed to perform their duties of bleaching her walls and fumigating her rooms. Now, the walls held gray handprints and roaches roamed, mostly unimpeded, from the kitchen to Avenida Infanta.
Upstairs was a large room with a concrete floor and brick walls. A bed occupied each corner, and an old brown bureau and two short tables stacked with empty shoe boxes, old school books, and neglected photo albums acted as barriers in the middle of the room, simulating privacy.
Most nights, Yanelis slept with her little sister, Yayi. Their older half-brother, Vladimir Inocencio, and his girlfriend, Isvel, stayed over whenever. Their mother, Malena, usually lived with her husbands, but spent a lot of time at Flora's home. This morning it was quiet, just Yayi, Flora and Yanelis.
Malena was not good with words, so she beat her children. She raised her son to be a hustler and to aspire to marry a tourist. At night, he and Isvel patrolled the Malecon, the long seawall and boulevard running along the ocean, satisfying needs of tourists. Resolviendo.
Yayi was fourteen years old and wiry, almost invisible sometimes. She had long black hair, usually in ponytails because of the dust, and she was several shades darker than Yanelis but insisted she was una tremenda mulata.
Yayi was up first and dressed in a red plaid skirt and white school shirt. She pulled Yanelis out of bed. Yayi knew Yanelis worked until midnight, then took a bus home, but she liked being walked to school by her big sister.
Yanelis kept her clothes in a large suitcase, which had a tiny lock for security, as her things occasionally disappeared. She put on yesterday's white capri pants and a mint green top, which she rolled up, exposing ripped abs and a perfect navel over a faint trail of peach fuzz.
Downstairs, Flora had prepared bread with oil for them, and a fried egg, chocolate milk and a birthday song for Yanelis, sung softly and with love. Yanelis made Yayi eat the egg and they shared the chocolate milk. Moments later, the Ferrer sisters bounced out onto Infanta, out of Flora's sight, and melted into La Habana.
"Why do you look so pretty today?" Yayi noticed Yanelis wore her white Nikes with the red swoosh, which were reserved for Fidel's marches and anti-imperialist demonstrations.
"I have a meeting this morning," said Yanelis.
"At the Tropicana?"
"No." Yanelis turned to the heavy traffic on Infanta, found a gap between cars, and pulled Yayi across the street.
"Your skirt is too high," said Yanelis.
"Where is your meeting?"
"At the University."
"With the Young Communists? Malena will beat you," said Yayi.
"Nobody is beating me anymore and Malena won't know about it."
"She hears everything, you know someone will see you near San Lazaro and nine or ten people later, the crazy old woman that sells bird seeds on the corner will be telling Malena that someone saw you near the University and she will beat you and I don't want her to beat you." Yayi fought back tears. "Can't you just dance? Sometimes I think you go to meetings and marches just to make Malena angry. Why do you want to fight with her?"
Yanelis looked at her watch and accelerated along 23rd, past E street. She put her arm around Yayi and wiped away her tears. Yayi had her sister's features, a high forehead, long face, strong pout, sad eyes, and a reluctant smile, but many said she was prettier than Yanelis.
"Can you spend the night at aunt Mayra's tonight?" asked Yanelis.
"Why! What happened?"
"Stop asking questions."
"What are you going to tell Malena? You're quitting Havana Night! A woman who has a neighbor with a nephew that works as a waiter at 1830 Restaurant told Malena that Havana Night is going to Las Vegas soon."
"That is just a rumor." Yanelis squeezed her fingers into a pocket of her capri pants and pulled out a dollar for her sister.
"It doesn't matter, Malena heard it," said Yayi.
They were in front of Escuela Saul Delgado. Yayi accepted the faded bill, hugged her sister with all her strength and reached up to kiss her.
"I will be home this afternoon, I have the night off and Livan is coming by to take me out for my birthday."
"Livan the mulatto?" asked Yayi.
"He can't come over!"
"You know why! Because he's Cuban and he's Black. Do you want to start a war with Malena?" Yayi placed her hands on her hip with authority.
Yanelis spanked Yayi, smiled, pushed her into the schoolyard, and waited until her little sister walked inside. Yanelis wandered through Vedado, her favorite neighborhood, and sat on a bench in Don Quijote de La Mancha park. Across from her were three elderly gentlemen in fedora hats, clean ironed wife-beaters, suspenders, and smoking thick cigars. Old men's cigars seemed to burn especially long. Yanelis hated the smell of cigars but liked old people.
Tonight she had a date. Everyone knew Malena was violent and chased away local admirers but Livan Campoverde was a man and said he wasn't afraid of her. He had been modeling for several years, dressed like a star, and had invited Yanelis to the Habana Libre Hotel for dinner. Yanelis had walked by the Habana Libre's restaurant a million times and the idea of dining there had never occurred to her.
A bead of sweat ran down her honey-colored face and long muscular neck, and disappeared into her light-brown cleavage. Yanelis was lost in thought: Havana NIght or Tropicana? Havana Night paid better and worked less. Cabaret Tropicana was a dream since childhood.
Yanelis had to choose carefully because her mother made bad decisions for her. At age four, Malena made her a gymnast. By nine, Yanelis nearly qualified for an international gymnastics competition. Malena accused her of sabotage and beat her accordingly. Later Yanelis enrolled at Escuela Antonio Guiteras, an accounting school, forging her mother's signature because Malena prohibited careers that paid in national currency. Halfway into the semester, Malena discovered the fraud while waiting in line for bread, then promptly pulled her daughter out of Marxism class and beat her all the way home.
The wind shifted and cigar smoke blew in her direction. She smiled at the old men and walked out of Don Quijote park under a sun that had begun to punish the young mulatta. It was almost 9:00 a.m., an hour and a half to kill. Yanelis walked toward the Universidad de La Habana, anyway.
The university sat on a hill in Vedado, overlooking Centro Habana, along a street named San Lazaro. Her gait was quick and boyish as she crossed busy streets, dodging vehicles like a rodeo clown. She was an easy mark in a crowd -- tall and lean, strong thighs, thick buttocks, the kind that made the Tropicana famous.
As a dancer under the lights with full make-up, hair extensions, high heels, and inviting smile, she was, as the Italian spectators would say, Magnifica! This morning, her hair in a bun, a clean face, wearing old Nikes scrubbed white to its core, she was simply spectacular.
Yanelis walked past the long clean rows of steps leading to the university, thinking about strawberry ice cream. Down the hill, just a few streets away, Coppelia's opened at 10:00 a.m.; even at that hour there would be a line.
Yanelis noticed a man lift himself from the steps as she walked by, then felt him behind her. His steps sounded heavy, like wood being chopped, then faded. It was Martin Saucedo. She looked back, identified him as a tourist, and instantly increased her speed; it had been her experience that foreigners did not like to work so hard. American vintage cars slowed next to her, offering rides, but Yanelis ignored them. Would-be passengers, women of all ages and colors, scattered along edges of sidewalks and corners, waited for a botella, a
gratuitous ride, and stared at the proud mulatta.
An old bus, too full to stop, was ambushed by young boys in tattered school uniforms. Many of them climbed through open windows, while others held tight grips, supported from inside by good citizens. A space opened on San Lazaro so Yanelis stepped into a hole between vehicles and moved along the faded median like a ballerina on a tightrope. Martin watched her negotiate the loud hot vehicles with the skill and timing of a matador. They walked almost parallel on opposite sides of San Lazaro. After a block and a half uphill, near the entrance to the Habana Libre Hotel, her long strides turned into a trot, then a gallop across Rampa on a yellow light. Martin stood at the intersection of 23rd and L, famously known as la Rampa, his favorite corner in the world. Five young women, dressed provocatively and communicating in sign language, came up behind Martin and stood next to him, waiting for a green light. They checked out his blue Dodger cap and black cowboy boots. One, a blonde in a turquoise mini-skirt, laughed and fanned herself. On the green light they all walked across the street. He tried keeping the sexy deaf-mute girls in front of him, but they meandered.
Coppelia's wasn't open yet, but Yanelis stood in line.
"Hola," it began.
"Hola." Yanelis refused to turn around.
Her taut slender frame was wrapped tightly in her arms and she tapped her white Nike against the pavement.
"Hola," repeated Martin.
She ignored him.
"I'm from Mexico and ..."
Yanelis left the line.
"I'd like to ask you something."
She walked across the street, through teens congregated in front of Cine Yara, and into Dino's Pizza. A slice of pizza was better for breakfast, anyway.
Three girls, two peroxide blondes and a true redhead, sat a table with a half-eaten cheese pizza. They were from around the way, Infanta y San Rafael, and knew Yanelis but ignored her. Most neighbors and loiterers on Infanta hated Yanelis for her job, because she was too poor to be so arrogant, and she was a good communist.
A hot slice of pizza with ham was served on a paper plate. No napkins. Yanelis took it to go.
At 23rd and L, officers of the peace occupied three of the corners of the intersection. Despite police presence, illicit commerce on Rampa was good. She stepped off the curb, wiped grease from the pizza and smeared it on the paper plate.
"Excuse me, could I ask you a question?" Martin stood on the curb behind her.
"What!" Yanelis turned to face him.
"Where did you purchase that pizza?"
She pointed back at Dino's and continued downhill. She did not look back.
At the corner of San Lazaro and San Miguel, Yanelis considered visiting her aunt Odalys, who lived nearby on the fifth floor of an elegant, deteriorated colonial building. Every floor was partitioned into several dwellings and the doorway leading to the stairwell was where Nana, Centro Habana's premier dopeman, did business; one U.S. dollar per Cuban joint. Yanelis slowed her pace, looked at the yellow cheese detaching from the crust of her pizza, then at Nana's customers going in and out of the doorway like conscientious ants. Grease dripped from her pizza and the tomato paste looked more orange than usual. A layer of sweat covered her neck and back and she felt dizzy. Her pizza had wilted under the magnificence of the sun. She looked back at San Lazaro. No Mexicans. Yanelis handed off her slice to a small child running by. She entered the dark stairwell and took three steps at a time, as she'd done since the age of six, always stepping on the corners, the sturdiest part of the rotting stairs. Today the stairwell seemed more like a tunnel. She intensified her march to the fifth floor and pushed the door without knocking, anxious to stand in the balcony.
Yanelis interrupted a spiritual mass. Odalys was also her godmother and a popular santera. Several santeros and godchildren sat in a circle in the living room, around a short wooden table with seven goblets of clear water. Nobody looked up as Yanelis walked to the balcony. Her godmother was in a trance, chanelling the dead. A client had sought the services of Odalys for the removal of a harmful spirit, allegedly cast upon her by her estranged common-law husband. The distraught woman sat at the end of the table, near a goblet with bits of white rock resting at the bottom. Underneath the table was a bowl of holy water.
Two years earlier, Malena and Odalys had decided Yanelis was much too thin, sickly and sad, and would therefore never find a tourist boyfriend, and was thus similarly cleansed of malevolent beings. Shortly after, she was admitted to Escuela Tropicana, then hired at the Havana Night Dance Company.
The balcony was narrow and had a view of Infanta falling into the sea, a strip of the Malecon, a piece of Rampa, the steps leading to the University -- the Mexican. Yanelis turned toward the ocean, contemplated its vastness, and said a prayer to Yemaya, the maternal force residing in the sea. Her prayer included, as it often did, a wish that she could disappear.
A voluptuous black woman dipped the tips of her fingers in the bowl of holy water, then swung her hand around her head, like a cowboy with his lariat, and brought it down like a whip, snapping her fingers at the end of it. She made a cross with alcohol on the floor near the front door. Participants mumbled "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys," sang in Yoruba, urging Odalys's orisha to mount her, eliciting the aid of Chango. Odalys's tall thin frame was covered in a long flowing white dress and her mellifluous jet-black hair was tied in a bun atop her head, which was always held high and back, so that her chin pointed at visitors. She began breathing deeply, tilting her head, shaking and swinging her shoulders, and her speech became gutteral in broken archaic Spanish, interspersed with African words. The black woman lit a cigar, then touched the cross of alcohol on the floor with it and handed Odalys a bottle of rum and the burning cigar. The cross of fire came to life as Odalys became possessed by her santo. The rum went down like water and the fire on the floor grew higher and higher, almost touching the celing. Odalys sucked on the cigar and was handed another bottle of rum.
Yanelis focused on the part of the horizon where the blue sky touched the bluer ocean. She thought she could hear the crackle of the fire amid the praying, singing, and screaming. In a voice not her own, Odalys shouted repeatedly, "You! You! You!" and looked to the balcony.
Yanelis stepped back, trying to move from her godmother's line of sight.
"You! Daughter of Oshun! You will leave us soon, you will fly away and go to many worlds, a green world from the past, a distant island with millions of light, a world of the future, and you will witness grand marvels and a man will take you there..."
Odalys smoked, drank and distributed prophecies around the room. The front door was three or four steps from the balcony. Odalys tipped back the bottle of rum and Yanelis was gone. In a moment or two, Odalys would be her usual self -- sober and mean.
A salty wind came up from San Miguel and traveled west on San Lazaro, sweeping over Yanelis as she came out of the tunnel of stairs. She was really hungry now. She sprinted across San Lazaro with minimal effort. Martin stood near a wall along the steps in dark shades, holding two heavy slices of pizza, like a sandwich, over a greasy paper plate. He held the slices, squeezed some grease off, and paused to watch Yanelis climb the long white steps in a flurry of sharp elbows and knees pumping high.
Yanelis reached the top of the stairs at 10:15 a.m., per instructions, and waited for fellow Young Communist and best friend, Kenia Portuondo. They'd been told to make contact with Irish nationals at the top of the stairs of the university.
"Hola." Martin wiped his hand on his blue jeans, preparing for a handshake.
Yanelis crossed her arms.
"I'm supposed to meet people from the Union of Young Communists today at the top of the stairs and you're the only person here," he said.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"My name is Martin and I came from Chiapas, that's in Mexico."
"But I was born in Las Vegas, that's on the other side."
"I know, the empire."
"The empire, the United States."
"I've never heard anyone call it 'the empire.'" Martin smiled and stepped closer to her.
"Maybe you've only been associating with worms and prostitutes."
"Traitors." She uncrossed her arms and looked for back-up.
"Oh, okay...prostitute is such an ugly word," he said.
"What do you call them?"
"And you like the company of sex workers?"
"No, not me...not that there's anything wrong with it," he said.
Yanelis elevated on the tips of her toes, showing off years of ballet training, trying to look over him. A young woman walked up behind Martin, gave Yanelis a kiss, and turned to take in the foreigner, who didn't look Irish.
"Kenia, this is Martin, he's from the empire," said Yanelis.
"I was born in the United States but my mother is from Oaaa--"
"Where in the empire do you live?" asked Kenia.
Kenia looked him over, then at Yanelis and raised an eyebrow. Yanelis rolled her eyes.
"He says he's here to meet with the Union of Young Communists. Were you told anything about an American from Mexico or a Mexican from the empire?" asked Yanelis.
Kenia didn't answer, she was still observing Martin. Yanelis grabbed Kenia's wrist and pulled her away.
"I was sent here by the zapatistas to help translate between the Irish and the Cubans," he said, in pursuit.
"Some Cubans speak English very well," said Yanelis without turning around.
"What are zapatistas?" Kenia yanked Yanelis to a stop.
"The Zapatista Army of National Liberation," he said.
The pretty young communists looked blankly at him.
"The indigenous movement in Chiapas...led by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos," he said.
Kenia and Yanelis looked at each other.
"The guy with the mask and the pipe," he said.
"Oh, Marcos! Yes, we know about Marcos," said Yanelis.
"Well, he sent me here to facilitate the meeting between the Irish and the --"
"You know Marcos? And what makes you think we can't speak English?" asked Yanelis.
"What? I don't know..."
"You don't know Marcos?" Yanelis took Kenia's arm and turned to walk away.
"Well yes - no, not personally - but a captain from the Zapatista Army told me that the Irish asked Marcos to send an interpreter to Cuba and I'm an instructor in English in the rebel zone in Chiapas and I had asked for more work within the operations of the zapatistas so a lieutenant in La Realidad - where I teach - told this captain, a friend of mine, that I had been to Cuba and that I was interested in working as an intepreter so I was selected to come here to work with you."
"That all sounds very strange," said Yanelis.
"It does?" Martin began to perspire.
"Maybe you should talk to one of our leaders, wait here." Yanelis dragged Kenia. "And if you see some Irish that look lost, tell them we will return shortly."
Martin sighed deeply, and for the first time in a long time it was not about Lupita.