Monday, March 31, 2008

Migrating to El Norte

By Álvaro Huerta, La Bloga guest essayist

When things go bad, many Americans commonly blame someone else for their problems. Historically, immigrants have been convenient scapegoats: They not only “take away” jobs from “hard-working” American citizens and deplete the country’s resources, the argument goes, they are criminals who have entered this country illegally and must be punished with jail or deportation.

There is nothing like a presidential election to raise the volume on this xenophobic rhetoric. Television talk-show hosts and politicians quickly jump at the opportunity to bash Mexican immigrants like a piñata at a kid’s birthday party, especially in a time of political and economic crisis. These same voices suffer from selective amnesia, purposely forgetting the contributions Mexican immigrants have made to this country, both historically and in the present, and focusing instead on the “costs” associated with our presence here.

As a son of Mexican immigrants, I commonly ask myself, “What about the costs that immigrants incur to come here?” I find myself pondering this basic question even more frequently lately, since I recently migrated to Berkeley to pursue my doctoral studies in the Department of City and Regional Planning, temporarily leaving my wife, Antonia, and 8-year-old son, Joaquin, behind in Los Angeles. While such arrangements are made regularly by graduate students everywhere, regardless of their ethnicity or citizenship status, I can’t help but feel as though, in a meaningful way, I’m following in the footsteps of my immigrant father, who came to El Norte more than half a century ago to pick fruits and vegetables as part of the U.S.-Mexico guest-worker plan, the Bracero Program.

Although being a doctoral student at a prestigious university cannot compare to being a farm worker (or a domestic worker, like my mother), it gives me some idea of how my father felt when he, like many other Mexican immigrants, left his community and family to work in El Norte. The sacrifices I’m now making, while temporary, seem very real to me: I worry about how my wife will manage to keep her teaching job and attend graduate school herself while caring for our son. Will she be able to take him to his chess tournaments? What about baseball season? Can she volunteer at the snack stand and see him hit a home run at the same time? Will I be able to make his third-grade parent conference? How can I focus on Foucault while my son cries himself to sleep because I’m not there to kiss him goodnight?

And yet I want to be careful not to overstate the similarities, for those immigrants faced much harsher challenges than I face today. Between 1942 and 1964, the Bracero Program provided the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers as a way to meet the labor shortages of World War II and beyond. By 1945, more than 62,000 Mexican immigrants were working in the railroad industry while another 58,000 toiled as agricultural laborers — among them my grandfather, father, and uncles. These workers, for the most part, lived in substandard housing, worked long hours under terrible conditions for poor wages, and experienced racism and abuse from American employers and local citizens.

Things haven’t changed much in a half-century for many Mexican immigrants in this country. Too often they continue to live in substandard conditions, occupy the most difficult jobs, work long hours, and experience employer harassment on a regular basis. The predicament of undocumented immigrants is even more precarious, since many do not report work-related cases of abuse. In many cases, undocumented immigrants do not go to the police or a hospital during an emergency because they fear they may face deportation. This is hardly fair compensation for the many sacrifices many Mexican immigrants make to come to this country, beginning with their efforts to save or borrow enough money to cross the treacherous U.S.-Mexico border.

When I think about the challenges that millions of undocumented workers make to get by in this country, I realize that I’m in a privileged situation: I’m giving up an office job to return to graduate school, not bidding my family goodbye for months or years while I struggle to make enough money to send back to them. Whereas the undocumented come north with only the desperate hope of a better life, I know that my own sacrifices will almost certainly pay off in the future, as I and my wife both secure positions in academia, giving my son more opportunities than I had growing up in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project.

In short, my dilemma represents a minuscule sacrifice compared to the plight of many Mexican immigrants who leave their families behind without knowing when they’ll see them again. It’s amazing what many of them will tolerate in order to survive in such a hostile environment, confronted for the most part by only the bleakest opportunities. What will it take for their offspring to attend a prestigious university like Berkeley? Based on my own experiences at both UCLA and Berkeley, I must say that only rarely do I come into contact with others who look like me or come from a similar socio-economic background.

ABOUT THE AUTOR: Álvaro Huerta is a writer, social activist and doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Dept. of City and Regional Planning. In 2007, among numerous other awards, Huerta received the first-ever Thomas I. Yamashita Prize, a $2,500 award given annually to a scholar-activist by the campus Institute for the Study of Social Change. His essay, “La Pistola,” appears in the most recent issue of ZYZZYVA. Huerta's short story, "Los Dos Smileys," is featured in the forthcoming Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press). He is married to Antonia Montes and they have an 8-year-old son, Joaquin.

[This essay is reprinted with permission from the Berkeleyan, the faculty/staff newspaper at UC Berkeley.]

◙ A special message from Andrew Tonkovich, host of KPFK’s book show, Bibliocracy, which airs today at noon (and perfect for César Chávez Day):

Today a special program memorializing my recent visit to Libreria Martinez, or Martinez Books, a singular independent bookstore and cultural center in the heart of Orange County. We’ll start with my brief conversation with its founder and owner, visionary former barber Rueben Martinez, whose efforts at selling books and boostering for literacy in his community have garnered awards and tributes, including receipt of a so-called MacArthur genius grant. It’s hard to overstate Rueben Martinez’s commitment and enthusiasm, as you will hear.

Next I’ll play a short reading by a recent guest of Martinez Books, writer Dagoberto Gilb, whose appearance at the store marked his Orange County stop on a tour in support of the release of his newest novel, The Flowers. Dagoberto Gilb was born in Los Angeles, his mother a Mexican who crossed the border illegally and his father a Spanish-speaking Anglo raised in East LA. He studied philosophy and religion, then began work as a construction work, a union carpenter, he is quick to point out, where he worked on high-rise buildings. His first publication, a small press chapbook titled Winners on the Pass Line, resulted from winning the James D. Phelan Award. His subsequent collections of short stories and novels, including The Magic of Blood, Woodcuts of Women and The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, all translated into dozens of languages, have won him national prizes and recognition as a singular voice of working-class literature and of the Chicano experience. He edited a collection Hecho en Tejas, and published an essay collection, Gritos. He read the essay “Pride” and the first chapter from his newest novel to an audience gathered at Martinez Books in February.

Past shows archived at KPFK website and you can listen to Bibliocracy stream online at noon. Listen at 90.7 FM in Los Angeles or 98.7 FM in Santa Barbara.

◙ My review of John Rechy’s new memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman, appeared in yesterday’s El Paso Times. I state, in part:

As one reads this book, Rechy's warning that his memoir "is not what happened; it is what is remembered" often comes to mind. Whether each word is the unvarnished truth is of no matter: Rechy's life has been remarkable by any standard.

With 45 years of publishing both fiction and nonfiction under his belt, Rechy continues to create memorable and vital works of literature that honestly explore the importance of creating one's own destiny.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Guest Columnist: Juanita Salazar Lamb

Today, La Bloga is happy to welcome Juanita Salazar Lamb sharing her experience reading and writing chicana mystery fiction. Great having you with us, Juanita!

One thing about me: I love reading mysteries, and as importantly, I form a bond with the main characters in the story. I’m in love—or maybe it’s just lust—with Jim Chee in Tony Hillerman’s books; I cast myself as the beautiful, rich, but oh-so-lonely female characters in the stories by Mary Higgins Clark. I’m as independent and resourceful as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone; and I dream of the day I can eat as many doughnuts and blow up as many cars as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Over the years I’ve read hundreds of mysteries featuring Native Americans, Polish American nurses-turned investigators, Hungarian-Italian bounty hunters, WASP girls whose only connection with ethnicity is belonging to a Greek sorority, and even the occasional Latino investigator. Kudos to Rick Riordan for bringing us Tres Navarre, and to Rudolfo Anaya for Sonny Baca.

Another thing about me: I’m a Tejana. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. My family went to visit the shrine of La Virgen de San Juan del Valle to pay our respects, and marveled at the bright costumes and soul-stirring beat of the drums as los matachines danced in homage of La Virgen. We made tamales for Kreesmas and ate buñuelos as we sipped té de canela on new year’s. On Easter Sunday everybody went to the park for a picnic and broke cascarones on each other’s heads. At the end of the day everybody—even my grandmother—would have a chipote on our heads and our hair was full of confete, harina and bits of broken colored eggshell. Growing up Tejana, I also ate pan de dulce (not pan dulce), crossed the bridge to Mexico for a day of shopping, and still know that Mexican Cokes taste better than Cokes bottled in the US.

So it’s only natural that when I started to write my own mystery series my main character would be a Tejana: Sara Garcia. Unlike Kinsey Milhone who was orphaned as a child and is now a loner by choice, Sara has strong family ties and a strong need to stay connected to her Mamá, Ernesta; and with her friend since high school, Sofía. Though Sara’s family is small—her father died a few years ago, and her sister lives in San Antonio—her familial ties extend beyond blood, which is how familias expand in the Latino community. Sara’s extended family includes Sofía and her husband Frank, and their daughter Mia. Sara’s downstairs neighbor, Annie, fills the role of older sister. Sara’s boyfriend, Bill, a fourth-generation Irish-American whose family still speaks with a brogue, provides Ernesta with hope that Sara will get married and give her muchos nietos.

But other things besides a Spanish last name set Sara García apart from all the other sleuths in the mystery genre, and this is one that I have trouble explaining to non-Hispanic editors and agents. Sara’s motivation for solving murder mysteries is not based on financial compensation or job responsibilities; after all as she is quick to point out she’s “an auditor, not an investigator.” Her commitment comes from her deep Latina roots. We Latinos are raised to help our family—and extension—friends of family. This training starts when we are very small children and our mothers remind us take our younger brother’s hand as we cross the street: “Agárrense de la manita,” my mother would call out to us. We are urged to walk together, not leaving anyone behind, because our mamás know there is strength in unity. When we have a party or family gathering, everyone is invited, not only the little school friend of the birthday boy, but the school friend’s entire familia. As we grow older those lessons learned so many years ago are transferred, and now we are the ones taking the hands of our abuelitos and abuelitas as they struggle with canes and walkers.

I live in Arkansas now, and I recently witnessed something I will never forget: On my way home from work, I drive past the rodeo arena. On a hot Friday evening in July, the rodeo was due to begin within the hour and traffic was heavy on the east-bound street. People attending the rodeo had to park their cars blocks away, cross a busy intersection and walk to the arena. One woman was walking with her mother...and I use the term “with” loosely. The younger woman was in her fifties, and her mother was in her seventies and using a walker. The older lady was struggling to maneuver the rough, uneven sidewalk as her daughter walked five to ten feet ahead of her. The noise of traffic and music coming from the arena would have drowned out the older lady’s voice if she’d fallen and cried to her daughter for help. I probably don’t have to add that they were not Hispanic.

It is with this sense of family and a need to help those in the family that Sara pursues her murder mysteries to conclusion. In the first book, Death at the Rock, Sara’s best friend, Sofía, asks her to solve the murder of her cousin’s girlfriend. Sara has met the cousin before, but remembers him slightly. It is Sara’s sense of duty and responsibility to family that drive her to find the real killer. As Sara sees it, if she does nothing and an innocent man is convicted can she forgive herself?

The relationship between Sara and her mother is not unlike most mother/daughter relationships, but with a Latina twist. The twist being that no matter how old a Latina daughter is, how many children of her own she might have, or how many college degrees she are on her office wall, her mamá will always be her mamá. She is the one Sara goes to when she needs someone to pray for her; when she needs caldo on a cold winter day, and when she needs some té to ease what ails her. Sara will dance with her mamá at Mia’s quinceañera, and will give her a heart full of chocolates for Valentine’s day, knowing her mother will insist on sharing.

In The Corpse Wore Red Lipstick, her second foray into solving murders, it is once again Sara’s sense of family responsibility and devotion to her mother that outweigh her arguments for not getting involved in another murder. When the granddaughter of her mother’s best friend is found murdered and the police have decided it’s the work of a serial killer, Sara’s mother Ernesta brings her in to find the real killer. To the non-Hispanic reader, Sara has no stake in this case. She met the granddaughter at a girls’ night out a few months earlier, but there had been no time to bond with the much-younger woman. But viewing the situation through the lens of Latino family relationships, Sara has a very high stake: her mother’s sense of duty to her friend; her mother’s pride in her daughter’s ability; and the family’s reputation that is firmly established in the barrio: if Sara refuses to help her mother’s friend, word will get around that Sara thinks she is too good for the old neighborhood.

In the third book of the series, Twisted Sister, Sara’s motivation is as old as humans themselves: self-preservation. When Sara is accused of being an accomplice in the armed robbery of a convenience store in her neighborhood, she must go underground until she can find the real perpetrator. In this story of twisted family relationships that reach back into Sara’s family’s past, she also confronts the discrimination and stereotyping that many Latinas face even today. Would Sara even be suspected of holding up a convenience store if she was blond, blue-eyed and her name was Tiffany or Barbie? Would the only eye-witness be so quick to claim that “you all look alike” if Sara were not Latina?

Through my writing, as well as through my own life, I confront the trials and tribulations of a successful, educated Latina living and working in a white, male-dominated world. But take some time out from your world and join Sara Garcia in hers, where it isn’t the guys with the white hats who win, but los nuestros.

Biographical information:
Juanita Salazar Lamb lives in Northwest Arkansas, where she still works as an auditor by day, and writes the Sara Garcia Mystery Series at every other time. She writes under the pen name Teresa Avila.

Click here to read Chapters 1, 2, 3 of Teresa Avila’s Sara Garcia mystery novel, Death at the Rock.

Blogmeister's Note: La Bloga welcomes your own contributions. Please click here, or leave a comment when the inspiration strikes, you catch fire, or something one of us writes moves you to seek an invitation to be our guest. La Bloga welcomes guests, as you note today.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Books, Movies and Music

Helena María Viramontes has two reading and signing events scheduled this weekend. The first is at Imix Bookstore, 5052 Eagle Rock Boulevard, Los Angeles, on March 29th at 5:00 p.m. She will discuss her latest novel, Their Dogs Came With Them (Atria 2007).
Call 323-257-2512 for more information.

On March 30th, Ms. Viramontes will appear at Libros Revolucíon,
312 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, 213-488-1303, at 2:00 p.m., also reading from and signing Their Dogs Came With Them.

Patricia Santana will be at Warwick's on April 10 at 7:30pm to discuss and sign her new novel, The Ghosts of El Grullo, (University of New Mexico Press, 2008), the sequel to her bestselling, Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility (University of New Mexico Press, 2004). Here’s the press blurb for the new book:

“Having left her much-loved San Diego barrio, Yolanda is now living in the university dorms when a series of events - her mother dies and her father sells their home - forces her to re-examine her life. Yolanda visits her parents' hometown of El Grullo, Mexico, struggling to understand the ghosts in her life — her mother, her father, and her seemingly idyllic childhood. She fears losing herself in the disintegration of the family. For Yolanda, her father is her enemy (or so she thinks), and in the course of the novel we see him at his best and worst, and we see Yolanda at her best and worst. This is a story of Yolanda's initiation into womanhood and about her fierce struggle to make sure her family does not dissolve. Family and sexual politics; love, death, and abandonment; the struggle to resolve a personal identity in the context of a shattered, first-generation immigrant American family - these are the hugely painful obstructions Yolanda must surmount or incorporate into her own being as she makes her life's journey.”

Warwick's - 7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA, Tel: 858-454-0347

El Centro Su Teatro proudly presents XicanIndie FilmFest 10: Latino World Cinema, April 3 – 6, 2008 at the Starz FilmCenter, 900 Auraria Parkway in Denver.

What began as a small celebration of independent Chicano filmmaking has, in a decade’s time, become the premier Latino film festival in the region. This year’s XicanIndie will feature an Academy Award nominated film, two Sundance hits, several intriguing shorts, powerful documentaries, a rare Cantinflas reel, an homage to Crusade of Justice leader Corky Gonzales, and a special tribute to Chicano music legend Lalo Guerrero.

Two shorts, La Corona and Lapsus, garnered praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. La Corona, a fascinating documentary about a beauty pageant in a Colubmian women’s prison, was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject. Both films will be featured in Thursday’s special student screenings as well as Saturday’s run of chones (shorts).

The festival will open with a newly remastered Mexican classic, Ahí Está el Detalle, starring renowned actor, Cantinflas, who Charlie Chaplin called “the greatest comedian in the world.” Ahí Está el Detalle launched Cantinflas’s long and esteemed career, which included a foray into mainstream Hollywood.

Friday night’s Corky Gonzales homage will feature two films: After Joaquin: The Crusade For Justice by local filmmaker and XicanIndie FilmFest Director Daniel Salazar and Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales: Living the Legacy, a special tribute documentary by Rafaela Castellanos.

Saturday’s Awards ceremony will precede the screening of the 2006 documentary Lalo Guerrero: Original Chicano, which celebrates the career of this musical pioneer who documented the contemporary history of Mexican Americans through song. The screening will be followed by a special musical tribute.

Other films of note are JC Chavez, a documentary about the Mexican boxing champion; Dos Miradas, a beautiful Chilean lesbian love/hate story; and Macario, a classic of Mexico’s golden age of film, based on the short story by B. Traven (Treasure of the Sierra Madre). For more information about Xicanindie FilmFest 10 programming, or for interviews and advanced screening opportunities, please contact John at (303) 296-0219 or, and visit

The Mile Hi Chapter American GI Forum will host a book signing of Richard Gould's book, The Life and Times of Richard Castro: Bridging the Cultural Divide (University Press of Colorado, 2007) on April 18, 2008, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. The program is free and will include readings from the book and tributes to Richard Castro. The book signing will be at 1717 Federal Boulevard, Denver. Call 303-455-3304 for information.

Those of you unfamiliar with Castro can find out more about this community and political leader on the Metropolitan State College website. Castro was an early instructor in the Chicano/a Studies Department at Metro, and the college has honored him with the Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professorship, which has featured Cherrie Moraga, Carlos Fuentes, Carmen Lomas Garza, Ana Castillo, Dolores Huerta, Lourdes Portillo, and Richard “Cheech” Marin.

The Center for Independent Media announced 8-10 New Journalist Fellowships available to New Mexico journalists and bloggers. Fellows are provided with funding, support, training, and mentoring designed to further their journalistic pursuits.

The program aims to show how citizen-driven media can make a powerful impact on public debate. Further, a goal is to better understand how effective citizen journalism can be organized and produced in a sustainable way. Fellows produce original material for the program's flagship New Mexico news web site. The term of a fellowship is three (3) months with the possibility of renewal.

Fellowships offer:

a stipend of $4,500 to be paid over 3 months;

investigative journalism training;

editorial mentorship from experts in the field of blogging and/or journalism;

research tools and access to information databases;

legal information, advice, and access to legal representation;

technical help and consulting;

networking opportunities with other journalists, bloggers, and news makers in the state; and

possible media training/booking and other promotion of the work produced.

In exchange, fellows are expected to:

produce 4 - 7 original blog posts per week on average;

fulfill goals in original reporting, to be set on an individual basis;

adhere to a set of ethical and journalistic standards;

participate in all trainings, meetings, and conferences; and

regularly submit a status report on their work.

Candidates must be New Mexico residents who can bring a fresh voice to state and local news, issues, and events.

Visit for the fellowship application and submission instructions. All applications must sent in ASAP. Interviews of the finalists for the Fellowships start next week (March 31st).

The New Journalist Program does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, age, lifestyle, religion, ethnic origin, disability or veteran status. To be eligible for the fellowship, individuals must be U.S. nationals or permanent residents.

If you have any questions about the fellowship, please feel free to contact

A note to mark the passing of the Father of the Mambo, Israel "Cachao" López, who died on March 22, in Miami. The music pioneer was 89. This innovative musician and composer had a significant impact on all Latin music. As they say, como su ritmo, no hay dos.


Thursday, March 27, 2008


Exhibition Dates: March 29, 2008 - May 10, 2008

Artist Reception: Saturday, March 29, 2008, 5:00 - 8:00 PM

Patricia Correia Gallery
2525 Michigan Ave., E-2, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Telephone: 310.264.1760
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 11am - 6pm

Patricia Correia Gallery is proud to present, in association with the Arizona State University Hispanic Research Center (HRC), Chicano Triumph, twenty works on paper, primarily serigraphs and lithographs, from the collection of the HRC. Artists represented are:

Cristina Cárdenas • Daniel Martín Díaz • Xavier Garza • Ester Hernández • Celina Hinojosa • Luis Jiménez • Alma López • Felix López • Joe L. López • Laura López Cano • Mónica Aíssa Martínez • Malaquías Montoya • Ann-Michelle Morales • Martín Moreno • Santiago Pérez • Carlos Santiestevan • Larry Yañez

The works in this exhibit treat themes common in Chicana/o art such as family, community, immigration, biculture, spirituality, and cultural symbols. While the artworks have themes in common, a major feature of Chicana/o art is diversity. The artists in this exhibit represent five of the states in the Southwestern United States with large and growing Latina/o populations and vibrant arts communities. Their styles are diverse -from primitive to highly realistic to abstract- and their backgrounds are as diverse as their art. Many of the works in this exhibition have been featured in various museum exhibitions and can be found in permanent collections.

The Arizona State University Hispanic Research Center (HRC) archives the largest collection of artwork and images by U.S. Latinos. Growing out of this archive, the HRC has created four award-winning art books, a DVD-ROM, an interview series with Chicana/o artists, and an international arts Latina/o festival. The HRC is an interdisciplinary unit dedicated to research and creative activities on a broad range of topics related to Hispanic populations. It disseminates research findings to the academic community and the public, engages in creative activities and makes them available generally, and provides public service in areas of importance to Hispanics.

Amelia Jones, Body Art and the Body of Knowledge

"The significance of Amelia Jones's Body Art/Performing the Subject cannot be overstated. Body Art is a book that is long overdue, and one that I suspect will drastically change the field of feminist art history, particularly as it concerns the performative art production of seventies artists." —Performing Arts Journal
"If art history traditionally has been a male-dominated enterprise, O'Dell and Jones renegotiate its gender. The stories these two writers tell, and the images they reproduce, suggest that their revisionary critical practices are not justified but revelatory." —Henry Sayre in Art Journal

"Insightfully self-reflexive and critical re-reading of modernism and postmodernism." —Saul Ostrow, Bomb

"In her latest book, Body Art/Performing the Subject, Amelia Jones locates her critical project with particular reference to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, and thus joins the increasing number of feminist philosophers, film theorists and art historians exploring notions of performativity, embodied subjectivity, situated knowledges and the phenemenological intersubjectivity of the interpretive act. Jones's book represents a particularly powerful enunciation of the reconception of the subjectivity of the artist and the historian calling into question both the production and interpretation of art as moments of active negotiation of 'body/self' boundaries and limits." —Art History

This book is a scholarly exploration of the use of the body in performance art. Although the author’s style was incredibly dry, the work profiled was fascinating. The most compelling and representative essay for me was, ‘The Rhetoric of Pose: Hannah Wilke.'
In this essay, Jones profiles an artist who explores physicality, identity, and decay. Wilke kept a photo diary of her battle with cancer, and in a series of photos, she details all the aspects of chemotherapy, including the loss of her hair.

In a photo entitled Brush Strokes, the viewer sees clumps of hair arranged as objets d’art. I found this last image particularly evocative and moving. So much of popular ideas of female beauty and femaleness itself, is associated with hair. Wilke deftly suggests loss, mortality and devastation with the scattering of a few items.
It triggered for me ways in which I might want to tight shot of my own body parts in a photo collage about aging. It also resonated with others ideas I've encountered of artists claiming sexuality beyond airbrushed ideas of femaleness and "perfection."

On a critical note, despite the book's tremendous strengths, Jones’ essays are limited in their global appeal due to a very dense, almost inaccessible style of writing. I realize that this is an ongoing criticism of mine, but it’s one that, sadly, I’m forced to make time and time again. Form and style continue to be a major way in which those who nominally control the art community exclude the general public. Class and cultural biases continue segregate artists of color and working class artists by exactly the language used in the book and the audience the author assumes is reading it. This is a self-defeating practice on the part of those who claim to be progressive artists, more understandable coming from the old guard which art critics like Jones claim to be reacting against.

Lastly, there is very little to be found in the way of emotional content in the book. I kept wanting to ask: “But how did viewing this piece make you feel?”

Still, Jones provides the reader a provocative opportunity to explore the work of artists pushing the envelope, who use their bodies to explore identity, culture, gender and race. I was challenged to think how I can continue use my body sparely and truthfully to look at the same themes.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 A new way to look at Picture Books

By René Colato Laínez

I want to share with all the amigos of la bloga a great site to read picture books on line. Visit and you will find many books to read just by clicking your mouse. It was great to find two books by Yuyi Morales JUST A MINUTE and LITTLE NIGHT. There is a section for Hispanic American books. The selection is short but lookybook is looking for more picture books to add to their lists. Publishers please send your books to to have more selection on the Hispanic American section. There will be cool to add a section for bilingual books.

This is what lookybook says:

Picture books are for looking at- so we’ve made it possible to view entire books from cover to back, in all their splendor.

We’ll never replace an actual book in your hands, but we hope to show you new books and help you make informed choices for you and your kids.

Every book can be reviewed, rated, shared, put on your bookshelf, and purchased by the regular reviews and ratings of our viewers.

And now una probadita, a little taste. Click and read Just a Minute written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales and Fiesta Fiasco by Ann Whitford Paul. Illustrated by Ethan Long.

Click on the eyeballs to view a larger version on lookybook.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: Calligraphy of the Witch

Alicia Gaspar de Alba. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2007.
ISBN: 0-312-36641-8

Michael Sedano

Alicia Gaspar de Alba has done it again, created an incredibly arresting novel, Calligraphy of the Witch. It’s a deeply emotional story with some of the same flavor as Gaspar de Alba’s important 1999 novel, Sor Juana’s Second Dream. In Calligraphy of the Witch, a character from Sor Juana’s convent—the nun’s scribe, in fact—frees a slave from the sadistic Mother Superior and they flee hopefully to freedom they seek in a black colony near Vera Cruz. But Aléndula, the slave, and Concepción Benavídez, the amanuensis, are captured by a Dutch slaver and carried into rape and captivity, up to Boston.

The pirate captain’s surname, de Graaf, is too much for the British tongue, so he’s been christened Seagraves by the Boston merchants. When he sells Concepción as a slave, her given name is irrelevant and the Greenwoods name her Thankful Seagraves, in honor of her freedom to be their slave.

Gaspar de Alba partitions Concepción’s story into manageable parts. An introduction in a daughter’s voice. The brutal voyage from New Spain, her earliest years in Boston, a middle passage when Thankful Seagraves is married to the old man Tobias Webb--Goody Greenwood’s father-- Concepción’s trial and imprisonment as a witch, and the end story. Several passages are typeset in script in the manner of a scribe. Fortunately, the script font is entirely legible, thus adding to the reading experience.

The voyage to New England for the twenty-something Concepción is one rape after another followed by beating and all manner of brutality. Unknown to the dark-skinned de Graaf, he’s impregnated the girl with his blonde genes. That’s what Concepción’s daughter looks like, far more resembling Rebecca Greenwood’s blonde blue-eyedness than the mestiza birth mother’s brown skin and bi-colored eyes.

The merchant Greenwoods have been unable to sire another offspring, so Rebecca starts a devious program to steal the child and raise the girl as her own daughter. This entails turning the child against the mother in truly horrific ways. The culture of the Visible Saints breeds hatred into the child, and when the mother Thankful Seagraves is arrested for witchery, her Popery, the devilish Spanish tongue the mother speaks provide persuasive evidence of guilt. Even more persuasive is the brainswashed daughter has provided the most damning evidence, such as the devil’s own creed embroidered on a cloth the mother lovingly insisted the child memorize:

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis:

si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?

Forced to translate, Concepcíon recognizes how Sor Juana’s satire could turn itself into evidence before the clouded evil of Cotton Mather and his ilk:

Whose is the greater fault
In an errant passion?
She who falls for pleading,
Oh he who, fallen, pleads?
Who is more to blame,
Although both be guilty of transgression,
She who sins for a commission,
Or he who for sin will pay?

Hence with much logic do I unravel
That men’s arrogance wins the battle
For in ways direct or subtle
Men are the sum of world and flesh and devil.

With Concepción’s differences with her world viewed therein as not mere deficits but signs of evil, the reader is not surprised at the tragic consequences that befall the Mexican slave. Yet, the author keeps the reader hanging on every incident and development. Despite foreshadowing the story’s most tragic elements—the novel’s introduction in the estranged daughter’s voice, the seer’s vision that daughter would be stolen by the barren merchant’s wife and turned against mother, Concepción’s education at Sor Juana’s hand plopped in the middle of superstitious Puritans—Gaspar de Alba keeps a reader in thrall through every incident and stomach-turning violation.

Against these fearful pressures, Alicia Gaspar de Alba builds an almost unbearable tension. Will the innocent woman be hanged as were others? Will the daughter discover the truth, and if discovered, accept it? What could possibly save Concepción from the inevitable? So intense does the author build the tension that the reader keeps turning pages repeating the incantation, “it’s only fiction, it’s only a story”.

An excellent story, and, as one would expect, more than a mere historical exercise. There’s a strong contemporaneity in Concepcíon Benavídes’ Thankful Seagraves story that reflects our times or echoes themes of earlier literatura chicana. An uneven struggle for identity caught in the conflict between the weaker Spanish-speaking culture and the dominant English-speaking world creates strength in the parent but a burning desire of the daughter not to be seen as her mother’s child. As the witch hysteria begins to cool, the validity of confessions won through torture takes on a clarity for some that others refuse to accept. An underlying greed and covetousness masked by the guise of righteousness infects the rise and ebb of injustice.

Concepcíon is one of those flies to wanton gods who bounces helplessly from powerful enemy to powerful enemy until the abuse grows too great. Much of the tension in Calligraphy of the Witch grows from the seemingly total helplessness of women and the evil of men. What’s a woman to do? When Greenwood’s lust turns to rape, in a blind rage Thankful Seagraves wraps a rope around her former owner’s neck and throttles him good. The reader’s heart leaps with joy, so completely evil a character Gaspar de Alba has crafted, then sinks in dread. Had she killed him, there could be no possibility of reprieve. But what of hope? When a woman is battered so much that her only recourse seems to be murder, what should she, what can she do?

Among Concepcíon’s practices is writing letters to Sor Juana, Aléndula, and Concepcíon’s mother, only to burn them later, in the woods. This deviltry becomes evidence against her in her witchery trial. But in one such letter, the scribe offers a lesson she hopes her daughter might one day profit from:

“Aléndula once told me that there are always four choices to every decision: the wise choice, the foolish choice, the safe choice, and the choice that someone else makes for you. “

In the end, Hanna Jeremiah Greenwood, née Juana Jerónima Benavídez, is faced with this logic. It is 1704. Her mother has been gone a decade, and Mama Becca has died, too. Hanna Jerónima, la bebita de Concepcíon is a mother of twins whom she’s named in English after herself and her unknown Mexican grandmother. Daughter comes to a point in her life when she can finally shed herself of all that heritage and go on with her English life. She will make one of those four choices, either leaving the reader frustrated, or completely frustrated, either a little joyful or fully relieved. In that welter of emotions will be a bit of sadness accepting that the story did have finally to end.

La Bloga welcomes your comments and observations and this or any column. Equally welcome are guest columnists. Please express your interest in being our guest by clicking here, or leaving a comment during the week.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Aaron Michael Morales was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, and is a graduate of Purdue University’s MFA program. He has taught Creative Writing, Latin American Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Rhetoric & Composition at a number of colleges, including Columbia College of Chicago, Richard J. Daley College, Robert Morris College, and Purdue University. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University where he teaches Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature.

His fiction has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Passages North, and MAKE Magazine, among other places. His first short collection of fiction, titled From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, is the latest publication from Momotombo Press at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. Morales is the author of one novel, Drowning Tucson, and is currently at work on his second novel, Eat Your Children.

Morales kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions about his new chapbook and writing in general:

OLIVAS: A strong thread of violence runs through the three stories in your chapbook, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, but the violence manifests itself in three different ways. Were you experimenting with violence as a theme?

MORALES: Certainly violence plays an important role in my writing, but it’s not violence for the sake of violence, or the ever-dreaded “glorification of violence” that gives violent art such a stigma in the eyes of people who don’t dig deeper than their visceral reaction to people hurting one another. Instead, what I seek to address are cycles of violence, as well as what is at the root of violence and humanity’s disturbing violent tendencies. Naturally, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I do think that understanding the motivation from each violent character or characters might help shed light on why some people turn to violence as a solution to problems beyond their control (or, worse, problems they can control). Of course, these stories actually deal more with the outcome of violence, or the lasting affect violence has on its victims and others directly affected by it. However, I attempt to allow the reader not only to experience violence alongside the victim(s), but also to begin to understand the psychology behind the characters inflicting violence. It’s easy enough to say, “violence is bad,” and leave it at that. It’s not so easy to try to get into the mind of a violent person and understand why he or she opts for violence in place of a more rational response. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of humans who lash out at others irrationally.

All the characters in these stories who have been hurt in one way or another are so influenced by the violence that they begin to identify themselves in relation to it—whether consciously or unconsciously. This is what I hope people take away from the stories. How our actions affect others, and how we shouldn’t internalize others’ actions toward us so much that we identify ourselves by them. That is the greatest danger of being in an environment where violence is commonplace.

I also grew up in a violent neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, where violence was just a fact of life. And this leads to the other purpose of violence in my writing—a critique of the definitions of masculinity, especially the way in which violence and the ability to inflict violence are directly correlated with a man’s “manliness.” Where I lived—and of course there are tougher, poorer places—it was pretty much a rite of passage to be introduced to violence fairly early on. Guns weren’t as prevalent as they are now, but there were no shortage of stabbings, beatings, and deaths. Of course, when guns did enter the picture quickly—and I remember it getting exponentially worse after the movie Colors came out in the mid ‘80s, since all the gangsters needed to emulate the “real” gangs of L.A. to be legitimate—the violence escalated and there was a palpable fear in the city. It was honestly tangible. In every person’s eyes. Well, at least in the tougher neighborhoods. So, as I was saying, the whole thing in our neighborhood was that the toughest men were the manliest, and therefore reaped the rewards of being manly—respect, women, free reign to come and go and pick on whoever he pleased—and everyone knew these codes and adhered to them. As far as I know, this is very much still the standard. It’s just that the sheer quantity of weapons and the easy access to them has now leveled the playing field a bit. Where once you had to actually be tough and able to beat the hell out of someone for respect, you now just have to be crazy (foolish) enough to pick up a gun and pull the trigger. So, this is what these stories address, in a roundabout way that allows the readers to approach the subject and dwell on violence, its causes, and their own participation in these cycles and codes.

OLIVAS: All of your protagonists are physically abused in one way or another: one by a husband, one by a father, and the last by bigoted teenage boys. Why did you choose abuse as center of these protagonists' lives?

MORALES: Well, it just so happens that I have probably seen more abuse in my short lifetime than I can stomach. And it doesn’t seem to be letting up. But, as I said earlier, I’m not interested in showcasing abuse, per se, as much as trying to dig deeper and try to figure out the reasons why people abuse one another. Also, to illustrate the fallout from abuse—whether it is emotional, physical, spiritual, or whatever. So, if you observe the abused character in each story, you’ll see that all three react to the abuse in a different way. One succumbs to it and internalizes it to the point that he doesn’t realize he’s now an abuser. One takes drastic measure to avoid further abuse and seek a sort of revenge for it. And one goes in search of an escape from potential abusers. And so it becomes important for us as readers to look at these three lives and wonder what would’ve been had they not been subjected to the various abuses they suffered.

Still, abuse and violence aside, I’m also interested in cycles in general. Cycles of poverty, violence, drug abuse, racism, internal racism, sexual deviance, misogyny. All of these things intrigue me as a writer because from an objective perspective it would seem fairly simple to break, or break out of, any of these cycles. And yet, sometimes those most negatively affected by these cycles are the very same people who perpetuate them. It’s intriguing to me. But rather than just observe them—as with violence and abuse—I seek to understand them, from the perspective of those who are actually in a cycle and continuing it, and those who are affected by it.

OLIVAS: Are these stories the building blocks for a novel?

MORALES: Yes. They are selections from a much larger novel titled Drowning Tucson. Francisco Aragón, the editor for Momotombo Press, read the entire novel and culled these selections as a sampling of my fiction to aid in getting my work out to a larger audience. It’s safe to say that’s happening already, and I’m grateful for his help. But, back to the novel. It’s roughly 400 pages set in Tucson, Arizona in the late 1980s, at a time where culturally some dramatic shifts were occurring in inner-city neighborhoods like the one where the novel is set. Some of it was the shift of gang activity from what would today be considered pretty mild and even petty, to the more hardcore stuff that has inundated almost every larger city in the U.S. Growing up in that environment at the time of the shift, well, as I said before, I think I can nail it down to around the time the movie Colors came out, which was also when hip-hop and that whole lifestyle first began to go mainstream. Acts like N.W.A., Ice T, DJ Quick, Too Short, and many others paved the way for the dissemination of “gangsta” life in places that already had their own traditions of street warfare, etc. Anyway, the book is what I’d like to call “urban literary fiction,” as it is very serious writing, with very serious topics, but it doesn’t attempt to sugar coat or merely gloss over these lives during this time. It’s a desperate book set in a desperate place and time. And I tamper with some of the traditions of narration, especially by employing a sort of hyper-realism to the scenes that are both physically and emotionally overwhelming.

As for the content, it’s eleven separate chapters that each focus on one character, all of whose lives are inextricably interwoven, though most of the characters are entirely unaware of this fact. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t only a book about gangsters. In fact, the total page count they get is less than a quarter of the book, but that is the world this book is settled in. Still, the characters the novel focuses on are parents, lovers, lonely and lost people. They’re impoverished, desperate people who want what everyone wants in the US: an opportunity to pursue the American Dream. Other books that it could be compared to are Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Carlos Fuentes’s The Crystal Frontier, and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People. There seems to be a great interest in this type of storytelling lately—with the success of movies like Crash, City of God, Babel, 21 Grams, and others—so I think the novel’s coming along at a nice time.

OLIVAS: Do you have a writing routine?

MORALES: Because I’m a creative writing professor, I’ll be honest, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I did in grad school or earlier. Still, I make a concerted effort to sit down a bare minimum of two hours a day. When breaks come, then I try to work at a more extended schedule. It varies. Right now I’m trying to tie up the loose ends on my second novel, Eat Your Children, and I hope to have it finished by this summer.

As for other routines, I’d say I’m in the habit of creating these characters, getting the basics of their lives down on the page, and then I stop writing and let the characters marinate—if I can say that. Yeah. They marinate in my mind for a while, and then when it comes time to tell their stories, not just illustrate them as people, well that’s when I return to the page. After I determine who they are and what they do in a given situation. It’s kind of like dating or something. But they’re not real. I also read when I can’t write. Reading, to me, is writing. It’s just as important as writing every day, if not more so. I always tell my students (especially the ones who complain because we have to read in a writing class), “how can you be a chef if you don’t eat? If you don’t try to taste everything, you’ll never know what can be done.” The same goes for writing, or snowboarding, or filmmaking.

OLIVAS: What authors have influenced your writing?

MORALES: Too many to name. But I suspect readers familiar with some of my influences will enjoy my writing. I’d have to say the two most influential writers I’ve read have been Hubert Selby Jr. and Gabriel García Márquez. But who hasn’t been influenced by him? As for the brutally honest writing, the stuff almost too painful to read, it’s probably most affected by writers like Irvine Welsh, Harry Crews, Bret Easton Ellis, Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Heim, and writers like that. The more emotional and intellectual writers I enjoy are people like Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, Javier Marías, Carlos Fuentes, Luis Alberto Urrea, Ken Kesey, Günter Grass, and I have a particular affinity toward contemporary Russian writers.

OLIVAS: What are the more common mistakes made by beginning writers?

MORALES: Not reading enough. And certainly misunderstanding the vastly important difference between revision and editing. Plus, it’s hard when you first start to remove something or start over. It’s like cutting off your arm or throwing your child out in the trash. That’s almost how it feels. It’s like, “I created that, so there can’t be anything wrong with it. It’s you who is wrong.” Then, the more they read, and the more honest and unflinching they become with their own writing, the easier it becomes to revise.

OLIVAS: Are you the first writer in your family?

MORALES: I don’t know. I think so. But rumor has it that there was a writer on my mother’s side, a great-uncle or great-great uncle, who wrote western novels. I feel like I’m telling my family’s stories though. While none of the stories I tell directly match any of my family members, certainly it’s a large enough family that I can extract characteristics and apply them to fictional characters. I think a lot of writers do that. It’s how we, say, understand how a middle-aged woman might respond to or see a situation, when we’re 20 years removed and the opposite sex. It’s what makes writing good.

My daughter dabbles a little. Maybe she’ll go on to do it for the rest of her life. You never know.

OLIVAS: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

The Chicano Studies Research Center of UCLA has appointed Miguel Juárez as the Center’s new librarian on April 1. Juárez brings nine years of professional academic library and special collections experience to the CSRC. He was Hispanic Resources Librarian and Curator at Texas A&M University and a Fine Arts Librarian at the University of Arizona. He is a graduate of State University of New York at Buffalo, where he earned a Masters of Arts in library science. Juárez has an extensive knowledge of Chicana/o studies and an active commitment to research and curriculum development. Visit the library’s site to learn more about what it has to offer and how you can help keep it strong.

Rigoberto González, writing for the El Paso Times yesterday, reviewed Patricia Quintana's new novel, Ghosts of El Grullo (University of New Mexico Press), which, he says, “offers a rich conversation between tradition and revolution in American culture.” Also, check out Rigoberto’s new weekly column at CRITICAL MASS, the NBCC blog which includes this interesting interview with Stella Pope Duarte, author most recently of If I Die in Juárez (University of Arizona Press).

◙ Acclaimed novelist Michael Nava tells us that he is on the board of directors of the GLBT Historical Society. Tomorrow, March 25, the Society is launching a literary series that Nava and another board member, Nic Weinstein, have organized called Passing on the Pen. It features different generations of GLBT writers reading and talking about their work and their lives. The opening session features two fantastic writers, Ann Bannon and Victor J. Banis, who are pioneers of gay and lesbian pulp fiction.

If you’re in San Francisco tomorrow, feel free to join them at 657 Mission St., Suite 300 (right around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art), from 6:30-8:30. Admission is free. Modern Times is providing books for sale if you want autographed copies. Please feel free to invite any friends of yours who might want to come. The series continues through December. They have a great line-up of writers including such well-known GLBT writers as Jewelle Gomez, Carla Trujillo, Dorothy Allison, Robert Gluck and Michael Nava himself. You can see check out the schedule at

Occidental College will be hosting two wonderful author events:

Dagoberto Gilb
Date: Thursday, March 27, 2008
Time: 12:00 Noon
Location: Lower Herrick

Sponsor: Remsen Bird funds, the Education, ECLS, English Writing, Sociology, Spanish and French Literary Studies Departments.

Contact: Desiree Zamorano,, phone: 323-259-2948.

Description: Dagoberto Gilb, the PEN/Hemingway Award winning author, will discuss his work and read from his recent novel The Flowers. His works will be available for purchase at the bookstore and the event.

Helena María Viramontes
Date: Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: Johnson 200

Sponsor: Women's HERstory Month is sponsored by Remsen Bird, the Women's Center, Emmons Health and Counseling Center, the Intercultural community Center, and the International Programs Office.

Contact: Michelle Saldana,

Description: In her recent novel, Their Dogs Came with Them, Helena María Viramontes offers a profoundly gritty portrait of everyday life in Los Angeles. In the barrio of East L.A., a group of unbreakable young women struggle to find their way through the turbulent urban landscape of the 1960s.

◙ The January 2008 issue of OCHO is guest edited by Francisco Aragón. The featured poets are Lisa Alvarado, Oscar Bermeo, Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Diana Marie Delgado, Jose B. Gonzalez, Octavio R. Gonzalez, Raina J. León, elena minor, John Murillo, Kristin Naca, Emily Pérez, Ruben Quesada, Peter Ramos, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Rich Villar. Cover design by April Carter-Grant. Artwork is by Didi Menendez. You may order OCHO on Check it out!

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter eggs on snow

On this, my 16th Easter in Vermont, I find myself driving around in the blinding snow as I rush around to buy last minute candy for my eleven year old son’s basket. No, he no longer believes in the Easter bunny, but I will continue to make up a basket for him, probably until he’s 45. There’s something about the ritual beyond the religious implications, or the commercial ones, something that harkens back to a simpler time for me, one of the few from the short time when we were a complete family of seven before my father’s death.

My childhood memories of Easter in our small 1960’s New Jersey town are so vivid they are in Technicolor. My mother would spend weeks sewing a holiday outfit for me. The coordinated outfit was completed with a straw hat, a pair of white gloves and shiny patent leather mary-janes. I would endure church with my parents and four older siblings, restless throughout because after mass we would participate in the community Easter egg hunt. I can still see the green field now, with the brightly colored eggs peeking out from behind the trees and shrubs. It was always a sunny day with blue skies and moderate temperatures. Then we would return home and the sugar bacchanalia would commence. I would spend the rest of the afternoon trying to protect my chocolate bunny from my three greedy brothers. Usually my father would be the one to bite its head off. Despite the gluttony of the men in my family, the warmth of those Easter Sundays is what I recall first.

Years later, with these pleasant memories of my childhood in mind I looked forward to sharing these rituals with my own child one day. A year after my arrival in Vermont I married a native Vermonter and settled down in this great state, two years later our son Carlos was born. On Carlos’ second Easter I dragged my husband away from his Sunday coffee and loaded our son into the car for his first Easter egg hunt. I focused on the rare sunshine, ignoring the bitter cold wind and straw-like frozen fields, and threw a cute beribboned basket into the back seat for him to collect candy and eggs in. As we drove up to the Trapp Family Lodge, my husband grumbled about the cold weather as I cheerfully reminded him that this was Carlos’ first Easter egg hunt and I wanted it to be special. We stepped out of the car and were walking toward the field when Carlos let out a blood-curdling scream. I looked down at him certain that his life was in danger when I noticed him pointing ahead with a look of abject terror on his face. I followed the line of his chubby finger to see a young woman in an Easter bunny costume. I knew right then and there that it was not going to go as I had pictured. I scooped him up and made a wide turn around the evil Easter bunny woman and we gathered with the rest of the parents. You could tell the experienced ones as they had a look on their faces similar to my husband’s. The look said, “Let this be over quickly so I can go back to my warm bed!”

As the hunt commenced I felt the first drops of precipitation. In that moment I realized just how cold it was. Soon the sleet started to come down in earnest. There was a quick grabbing of eggs and candy (with the parents helping out in a hurry to get it the hell over with). My husband returned with Carlos on his shoulders and they were both shoving candy in their mouths in an attempt to derive some pleasure from the experience. At that point our hosts began serving the free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with polar fleece gloves on. As we stood there in 30-degree weather with sleet pounding on our heads and shoveling ice cream in our mouths with gloved hands, Carlos began to cry. In my disappointment and disillusionment I suggested we head for the car and on to home. That was the first time I saw my husband smile that day.

After so many years of holidays spent in the great white north, I’ve finally accepted the weather piece of it. The days of green, sunny egg hunts are probably behind me now: they just don’t seem to come that way here. (I should have known when during my first spring here I heard about the sunrise Easter Sunday service on Mount Mansfield where the congregation skis down the mountain at its completion). But I’ve never stopped enjoying putting together the Easter basket, and the egg hunts (only now they are often on a white background instead of green). For some reason it is on this day that I miss my father the most, gone 37 years now. Easter was important to him, I don’t know why. Maybe because unlike me, he was a religious person, but perhaps, like me, the day represents a return to a childlike joy. That’s why we looked the other way when he raided our candy. It was fun to see him shoveling chocolate in his mouth and searching for brightly colored eggs in the bushes. It was indeed, joyous. And though right now Carlos’ favorite part is that it is one of two days a year I allow him to eat candy in the morning, I hope there is more he will remember. A day of bright colors and sweet tastes. A day of rebirth and new promise. And the gift of another day our little family can celebrate together. And perhaps in loving memory of my father, I will bite the head off of Carlos’ chocolate Easter bunny.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Five Years And Counting


I'm an American boy
raised on promises ...*

The eternal war based on a lie continues. Five years and counting. We round off the carnage to make it somehow more easy to take. Four thousand dead American soldiers. Ninety thousand dead civilians. More than a million Iraqi deaths caused by the American invasion. Every month, according to some estimates, more than twelve billion dollars are wrenched from us to pay for the demolition of the Iraqi country and people. At current rates, the Iraq War adds $120 billion a year to the national debt. Somehow, the War in Afghanistan is forgotten.

To "celebrate" the ongoing war, the President repeats what war mongers have always said about war: "The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage the battle in Iraq will end in victory." His audience was made up of Pentagon brass, soldiers and diplomats. They applauded the hollow words.

But the war is no longer the politicians' topic of choice. It's the economy, stupid. And, surprise, surprise, race is a hot button when a black man runs for office. Or we are urged to ponder who we want to answer the White House phone at 3:00 a.m. How does one prepare to answer a call that could lead to Armageddon? I don't think speeches and banquets and meetings and focus groups and polls provide the training for such a call, but what do I know.

The Iraq War rumbles in the distance, occasionally making us raise our heads, curse under our breaths, spit in disgust. Our country appears willing to challenge history in the upcoming election, and even long time cynics are buoyed by the significance of this challenge, yet we cannot escape the black hole of shame created by the war President and his henchmen. They refuse to acknowledge their mistakes and they lack the courage to correct their decision, to take a stand for peace and, therefore, any grace from the historic election will slip away on an oily stream of blood. The country reaches out for a shining moment, offered for nothing more than ignoring a candidate's race or gender, for only accepting Jefferson's simple words that we all are created equal. But even that basic, tardy gesture will shrivel in the glare of the truth about this war and the motivation for it. Five years and counting.

*apologies to Tom Petty

Abraham Rodriguez
Akashic Books (April 2008)

Akashic sent La Bloga the following announcement about Rodriguez's much-anticipated new novel:

"When Puerto Rican ladies' man Alex awakes one morning to find a mysterious woman in his bed, he assumes he's suffered another embarrassing blackout. He soon learns, however, that Ava is no one-night stand -- in fact, he's never met her before. As her story unfolds, and her reason for appearing in his bed emerges, it is not just Alex's life that she risks, nor her own, but the entire character of the South Bronx."

Abraham Rodriguez was born and raised in the South Bronx. His first book, Boy Without a Flag (Milkweed, 1993), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His novel Spidertown (Penguin, 1994) won a 1995 American Book Award and was optioned by Columbia Pictures. The Buddha Book was published in 2001 (Picador). He currently lives in Berlin, Germany. Rodriguez's national book tour to promote Bronx by South Bronx begins April 19 in Olympia, Washington, at the Olympia Timberland Library, and ends May 7 in the Bronx, Longwood Gallery (Bronx Council of the Arts). More info on the website.

Houses on the Moon Theater Company and the National Lawyers Guild present De Novo Part 1: Lil' Silent, a new documentary play that tells the stories of undocumented youth in U.S. immigration custody. April 2, 6:30 p.m. CU Law School, Wittemyer Courtroom, Boulder, Colorado.

In 2002, a fourteen-year-old boy named Edgar Chocoy fled his barrio in Guatemala City, when MS-13, the largest gang in Central America, put a hit on his life. He traveled over 3,000 miles through the desert and across the borders of three countries in search for his mother, who had left him at the age of six months to work in the United States. Detained by the Department of Homeland Security in Alamosa, Colorado, Edgar, whose nickname was Lil' Silent because of his timid demeanor, spoke clearly and loudly about his fear of being deported: "I'm afraid to go back. They'll kill me." A pro bono immigration lawyer helped Edgar argue his asylum case in front of a federal judge in Denver but the judge was not persuaded and ordered Edgar to be returned to his country. He was murdered seventeen days later. In De Novo, Part 1: Lil' Silent, Houses on the Moon Theater Company chronicles the true story of Edgar and other undocumented youth, many thousands of whom make the harrowing journey across the border and through the U.S. system of justice each year. Admission is free. Reserve your seat at

Acentos, the Bronx Poetry Showcase, announced a Fifth Anniversary Celebration, March 25, 7:00 p.m., at the The Bruckner Bar and Grill, One Bruckner Boulevard (corner of Third Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard), Bronx, NY. Here's the rap:

"Acentos' Fifth Anniversary show is happening this coming Tuesday, March 25th. If past history is any indicator, the craziness will ensue very early, and you should get there early too.

"Our featured poet for the evening is none other than the director of NYU's Spanish-language writing program, Lila Zemborain... and she has a fantastic, brandspankingnew book that will be available for sale that night.

"Familia, if you've been a part of this series in the last five years, you know what shenanigans we have in store for Year Six. We are moving ever forward in our mission to shine the spotlight on Latinos and Latinas in American poetry, and as always, there are big plans simmering on all four burners. Come help us
celebrate, reminisce, plan, and throw down the fiesta as only the Acentos crew can! The open mic signup is promptly at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 7:30 SHARP, y'all...."


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Storming Heaven's Gate/What Women Can Do

STORMING HEAVEN'S GATE -- photo by Graciela Iturbide

This is a multicultural anthology of spiritual writings by women. In rediscovering spirituality in a female context, this is ideal source material. By ‘source’ I mean personal soul food to feed my own yearnings, ground water for the wellspring of my daily life.
Storming Heaven’s Gate skillfully bridges the everyday with the divine, featuring the writing of Pat Mora, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde. I would like to comment specifically on the work of these women and its impact on my creative life.

Pat Mora’s contribution is a list poem, in which she invokes the Goddess through her many Aztec names. In a cry for wholeness and renewal she calls on Coatlicue, Tlaliyolo, and the Virgin de Tepayac/Guadalupe. Coatlicue is the serpent mother, representing all and nothingness from whence all emerges. Tlaliyolo is the creator/destroyer of worlds, and the Virgin of Tepeyac/Guadalupe is the eternal maiden, ever able to renew herself across the ages. The world springs forth, eats itself, springs forth again, dissolves itself in velvet blackness, and rises again, as one, as many, divine and common. These facets of the divine reflect exactly the kind of sensual, radiant cycle of spirituality that are the hallmark of
Storming Heaven’s Gate.

Creatively and personally, I needed to engage the Goddess in a Latin context. In doing so, I found freedom from restrictive ideas of female identity that have been Catholicism's and colonialism's legacy. It is precisely the idea of sin, of the inherent pollution of women’s bodies, that had to be broken through for me to fully claim my creative energy and direct it.

As I continue to try to make new work, I have to reach out for connection in an ever-deepening way. My personal spirituality is being plumbed for imagery, for language, for a way to connect with something larger than myself.

Ironically, and in a way I can only begin to comprehend, this spiritual connection is plumbing me as well. What I mean here is that I can't forget that writing is my tether to something divine. Personal success, critical or audience acceptance needs to remain a secondary consideration, as much as care about those things. ‘What is being worked though me?’ is the question that I have to ask myself, the question that demands an answer at the end of the day.

In 'brothers, part 6,' Lucille Clifton cries out to a silent God who turns a deaf ear to suffering. She asks:

    tell me why
    in the confusion of a mountain
    of babies stacked like cordwood...
    tell me why You neither raised your hand
    nor turned away...why You said nothing. (p.28)

I can feel my own tears lodge in my throat as I write this. What a terrible beauty exists in her description of both a personal and global apocalypse. Her wound, her grief, the abandoned bodies of nameless children, unsaved, unprotected.

Clifton asks the eternal question of a God she desperately wants connection with but does not understand.
I remember my own rage at what I saw at the time as God's silence in the face of my own childhood abuse. I see now that what happened was part of my story unfolding, the catalyst for who I've become. It was a singular gift, a defining moment, in which I had to choose to live and to transform. In my case, that moment is where I encountered a God/Goddess.

Lastly, Audre Lorde illustrates the kind of language and imagery I can only hope to achieve someday. She was poet, theorist, theologian, lover, survivor, and griot - someone who once tore down the Master's house and built a temple to the New/Old Mother. One poem in particular kept speaking to me, even in dreams after I read it for the first time.
In it, Lorde writes:

    Attend me, hold me in you muscular arms, protect me
    from throwing any part of myself away. (p.67)

How perfect this quote is, to its vision of encountering the very dark and moving into the light. How moving it is to hear a call to restoration and rebirth in a woman’s voice, shaped by She-Who-Is.

  • ISBN-10: 0452276217
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452276215
Lisa Alvarado