Monday, August 31, 2009


A novel by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Curbstone Press
270 pp. $16.95 hardcover

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the editor of the MultiCultural Review. For her new novel Gringolandia, she received a work-in-progress award for a Contemporary Young Adult Novel, given by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives in Albany, New York, where she is active in organizations for peace, human rights, and a sustainable environment. You may read an excellent interview with Miller-Lachmann over at Latino Books Examiner.

Synopsis of Gringolandia: Daniel’s father used to play soccer, dance the cueca, and drive his kids to school in a beat-up taxi…while publishing an underground newspaper that exposed Chile’s military regime. After Papá’s arrest in 1980, Daniel’s family fled to Wisconsin. Now Daniel has a new life, playing lead guitar in a rock band and dating Courtney, a minister’s daughter. When his father is released and rejoins the family, Daniel sees what five years of prison and torture in a brutal police state have done. Papá is partially paralyzed, haunted by nightmares, and bitter about exile in “Gringolandia.” Daniel worries that Courtney’s scheme to start a human rights newspaper could bring back Papá’s past and drive him further into alcohol abuse and self-destruction. Daniel dreams of a real father-son relationship, but he may have to give up everything to save his papá’s life.

Praise for Gringolandia:

"[An] impressive novel...Miller-Lachmann skillfully incorporates elements of family drama, teen romance, and political thriller into this story of a father and son reknitting themselves into each other's lives...From the stark cover image of an empty pool used to torture victims to the intensely poignant essay that concludes the novel, this is a rare reading experience that both touches the heart and opens the mind." —School Library Journal

"This poignant, often surprising and essential novel illuminates too-often ignored political aspects of many South Americans' migration to the United States." —Kirkus Reviews

"This novel covers crucial historical events that have been too long ignored. Most compelling are the teens' non-reverential narratives about living with a survivor." —Booklist

We have a special treat for La Bloga readers. The following is the first chapter from Gringolandia published here with permission. Enjoy!

October 23, 1980
Santiago, Chile

A crash, followed by a scream, jarred him from a deep sleep.

It was his mother’s scream. Daniel threw back the covers and sat up straight.

She screamed again. Now fully awake, he heard strange voices. And footsteps that were neither hers nor his father’s.

“Where is he?” the stranger demanded.

Where is who?

“He’s not here,” she said. “Please don’t wake the children.”

“Liar!” the man shouted. The sound of a slap made Daniel tremble. He didn’t know whether to bury himself under the covers or get out of bed to defend his mother.

Muffled sobbing rose from the living room. In the apartment on the other side of his bedroom wall, a baby began to wail.

Hugging himself to stop his shaking, he tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack. The room seemed filled with soldiers, men dressed in khaki uniforms with black ski masks covering their faces. He counted four. Each wore a holster on his belt and carried a machine gun. A real gun, the kind that could kill. The men surrounded his mother, small and scared in her nightgown. Her cheek was bright red.

“Search the place,” the tallest one commanded.

A fat soldier came toward Daniel’s room. Daniel shrank against the wall behind the door. In an instant the door came apart, and a wood panel smacked his forehead. He yelped in pain.

“I got him!” the soldier shouted.

Rough hands seized Daniel by his pajamas and dragged him into the light.

“Damn! It’s his kid!”

Daniel blinked rapidly and tried to cover his eyes with his right hand, but the tall soldier grabbed both his wrists and jerked them behind his back. His feet were kicked out, and he landed on the rug with a dull thud that knocked the breath from him. Wool bristles scraped his cheek. A small, cold, hard object pressed against the side of his head. He smelled grease mixed with garlic.

“You tell us where he is, or we blow the brat away.”

For a long moment his mother said nothing.

Mamá, are they really going to kill me?

The baby wasn’t crying anymore. In the total silence, Daniel heard a click.

“The…the window,” she stammered.

The soldier removed the pistol from the side of Daniel’s head and stood. Daniel lay on the floor, struggling to catch his breath. Without his glasses, he could not read the insignia on the man’s shoulder patch, but he guessed CNI, the secret police. The man lifted his walkie-talkie from his belt and gave a rapid-fire command. “Close up all the exits to the courtyard. He climbed out the back window.”

Daniel imagined the soldiers running swiftly and silently to their posts, just like in the police shows on TV.

But they were after his father. And his father wasn’t a criminal.

His father drove a taxi. That was all Daniel knew about his work. He took Daniel and his sister, Cristina, to school in the beat-up green colectivo every morning and came home every night by suppertime.

Lying on the living room rug, he visualized his father. Tall, with gold wire-rim glasses, wavy red-brown hair, and a mustache and beard. Large gentle hands and strong arms. Even now that Daniel was eleven, almost twelve, his father could still lift him onto his shoulders to watch a fútbol game.

Maybe he can get away from them. If I hadn’t made noise…If I hadn’t gotten out of bed… Tears filled Daniel’s eyes, and he squeezed them shut.

The shattered door to the apartment swung open and slammed against the wall.

“He’s ours, boss.”

Daniel pulled himself up. In the seconds before one of the other soldiers pushed him down again, he saw three men with helmets and no masks drag his father inside. His father wore a rumpled white shirt and black pants. It looked as if he had put them on in a hurry.

“Marcelo!” Daniel’s mother screamed.

Daniel heard the thud of a fist against a body, followed by a harsh grunt.

Someone grabbed Daniel by the hair and jerked his head back. He looked up into the covered face of the tall one. The boss. The man’s eyes were black and terrifying in the shadow, and his mouth, a little round hole cut out of the mask, moved like the mouth of a robot.

“Boy, you watch this,” he snarled. “This is what happens to communists.”

The helmeted soldiers left. The tall man crouched and ground his knee into Daniel’s shoulder blades. Rough hands in his hair twisted his head back. The other three masked men pounced on Daniel’s father, aiming blows at his head and body. His glasses flew off and were crushed beneath a black boot. He fell to his knees. Blood ran down his face into his beard.

Daniel closed his eyes and tried to shut out the sound of his father coughing and choking, horrible gasps. They’re beating the life out of Papá. Someone…make them stop. When Daniel opened his eyes again, his father was on his hands and knees. A soldier’s boot struck the side of his head. He flopped onto his back and lay motionless.

“Let’s get him out of here.”

They had brought a giant canvas sack, like the equipment bag for the fútbol team, only bigger. Two soldiers rolled Daniel’s father into a ball, and a third pushed him in.

Their hands bloody, the three soldiers hoisted the bag and carried it through the door. Daniel strained to see if there was any movement in the bag, or if his father was already dead. The leader stood, grabbed Daniel by the front of his pajama shirt, and dragged him to his knees.

“You learn your lesson, boy?”

Daniel said nothing.

The man shook him and shouted, “You answer me, you little bastard!”

Daniel nodded quickly.

“Good,” the man said. “Because we live in a great country. To keep it that way, we have to get rid of subversives. Or they’ll take over and create chaos. Or another Cuba.” He paused, lips pressed together in the hole cut out of the black mask. His arm dropped to his side. “Oh, what the hell. You’re just some commie’s stupid kid.” He spat onto the carpet, shouldered his rifle, and followed the others out of the apartment.

Daniel thought he would never get up from the floor, but he found himself standing as soon as the soldiers were gone. He picked up the twisted wire frames of his father’s glasses. His mother hugged him.

“I’m sorry, Mamá,” he mumbled over and over.

“It wasn’t you. They would have found him anyway.”

“Will they kill him?”

“No, Danielito. They’re just taking him to the police station to answer some questions. He’ll be home soon.”

Daniel knew she was lying. “Did he commit some kind of crime?”

She shook her head and answered, her voice steady, “No, he didn’t. He wasn’t the one who committed the crimes.”

Daniel heard a whimper from his sister’s bedroom. His mother went inside and came out clutching seven-year-old Cristina’s hand. Tina sucked her other thumb, a ragged doll pressed to her chest.

Salty tears had dried on his mother’s cheeks. She held him and his sister tightly. Her hair was rumpled, and her face seemed suddenly older.

Daniel thought as hard as he could. If he thought about it hard enough, maybe he could make the day go away. His father would be back with them as if nothing had happened.

Take this day away, he implored God. His father had told him there was no God, but he couldn’t think of anyone else who had the authority to take back a day.

Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer living in New York City, reviews C.M. Mayo's new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books). He observes, in part:

The brief and ill-fated reign of Emperor Maximiliano and Empress Carlota in Mexico is common historical knowledge. But C.M. Mayo's detailed chronicle of that 13-month period in [her] novel "The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire" (Unbridled Books, $26.95 hardcover) sheds incredible light on the day-to-day happenings in a royal court that was doomed, from the hour of coronation, to fail.... [Mayo’s novel] is a stunning achievement, an inspired novel that steers clear of boring history lessons and instead zeroes in on the smallest epicenter -- Principe Agustin de Iturbide y Green -- to spiral out into a wondrous period, 1860s Mexico, a time of political possibility and unrest in which "persons who do not appear to share even a footprint's worth of common ground turn out to have destinies bound together in painful knots."

You may read the entire review here. We at La Bloga have one word for Catherine Mayo: ¡Brava! Remember: she blogs at Madam Mayo. Drop in and enjoy her pieces on writing and literature.

◙ The new issue of Somos Primos is now live online. Edited by Mimi Lozano, Somos Primos is "Dedicated to Hispanic Heritage and Diversity Issues" and is published by the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research. This edition is packed with interesting pieces and leads with an essay by Mercy Bautista-Olvera on the recent confirmation of the Hon. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The editor also makes this request to her readers: “We all have a book in us. Let's start preparing the chapters. If you would like me to hold on to your writing/essay for the January 2010 issue, just let me know.”

◙ Just a reminder that you can sign up for Reyna Grande’s Creative Writing Workshop.

START: Monday, August 31; Five Mondays (no class on Labor Day)

WHERE: Brooklyn & Boyle Gallery (right next to Casa 0101 on First Street)

TIME: 7:00 to 9:15 Fee: $125, with a $25 discount to Boyle Heights residents.

CONTACT: to sign up or for more info. Note: Reyna is a remarkable novelist and wonderful teacher. I strongly recommend her workshop!

◙ Please forgive me if I share some wonderful news with you. I am delighted to announce that my new short story collection will be hitting the shelves soon:

Anywhere But L.A.: Stories

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published by Bilingual Press
ISBN: 978-1-931010-69-6
157 pp. paper $16.00
Release: Fall 2009

It’s now available for pre-order from Bilingual Press, your favorite bookstore, or online.

The cover is by José Ramírez, an award-winning Los Angeles artist who received a BFA (1990) and an MFA (1993) in art from UC Berkeley. Ramírez has taught in LAUSD for many years and is currently teaching 3rd grade at Esperanza Elementary in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. I am honored to have his painting, "Quinto Sol," grace my cover.

Some kind words about my new book:

"Like the cities they describe, the stories in Anywhere But L.A. shift and slide and refuse to be pinned down. Daniel Olivas is an exciting writer, whose prose rings with humor, insight, and power." -- Daniel Alarcón, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight

"In this collection of short stories, Olivas gives us a vivid and honest portrait of modern Latinos as they search for their place in the world. Funny yet touching, these skillfully rendered characters remind us of our own vulnerability. Individually, the stories are punchy and sharp; collectively, the stories create a colorful mural of a thriving Latino community." -- Kathleen de Azevedo, author of
Samba Dreamers

"Daniel Olivas has mastered the knack of telling intricate tales that are natural, never labored, and a genuine pleasure to read. His clever, subtle stories in Anywhere But L.A. reveal puzzling secrets and closely-kept anxieties of people who on the surface appear to be rather ordinary, simple and uncomplicated. Olivas’s impressive talent gives readers a glimpse, often uncomfortable, inside the hearts and minds of characters who are trapped, hopeful, afraid, or falling in or out of love; that glimpse drives readers to the exasperating and, ultimately, very human core of Olivas’s excellent stories." -- Manuel Ramos, author of
The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz

Anwhere But L.A. will be "launched" on November 13, 2009, 8:00 p.m., by The New Short Fiction Series (produced by Sally Shore with actors reading selections) at the Beverly Hills Public Library, 444 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. Performance begins at 8:00 p.m. Box Office opens at 7:30 p.m. Admission: $10.00. Other readings are being planned including at ChimMaya.

◙ That’s all for now. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dear Mother Earth: Reconnecting with the Munay-Ki Rites

By tatiana de la tierra

There was a time when I was one with the universe. I ate dirt, rolled on the ground, talked to the flowers, hung out with the trees, became entranced with the clouds. Inhaled the crisp oxygenated air of the Colombian Andes. I was all earth and sky. I was safe, living in beauty, connected to the primal source of life. Mother earth had a hold of me. Her vibrant colors and textures were the raw material of my soul. Everything was beautiful, and anything was possible.

I was nine months old.

Fast forward several decades and I find myself living in a metropolitan city where I’ve practically lost my connection to nature. The hills and mountains of Los Angeles exist in the distance, on postcards, far from me. My reality takes place 80 mph on the freeway. I live in Long Beach, just a mile from the Pacific ocean, right by the Los Angeles Harbor. When I hit the 710 freeway, my miniscule Yaris is a little flea on the back of one of the loaded eighteen wheelers heading off to Somewhere, USA. Downwind of the cargo ships and the industrial waste of the bay, and with a picturesque oil refinery just off the shore, going for a walk on the beach is a touch scary.

I don’t want to be scared. I don’t want to focus on the stained sidewalks, trash, or flies swarming on fresh dog feces that I encounter on my morning walks. Yet this is my landscape, an urban etching of concrete paths with people trying to survive, boxed up in homes and apartments, many of us, myself included, without a swath of grass to call our own.

Dear Mother Earth: I miss you. I remember you. I yearn for you. And I promise to watch out for you and to be with you once again.

Earlier this year I joined a few dozen spiritual adventurers and received the Munay-Ki rites. Alberto Villoldo, a visionary who was taken in and trained by Laika shamans of Peru for 25 years describes the Munay-Ki as “nine rites of initiation to become a person of wisdom and power who has accepted the stewardship for all of creation.” It’s probably a good thing I hadn’t read the fine print before going forth with the installation of the rites, as this is a daunting responsibility.

I just went with the flow and said “Yes” to Melinda Allec, a modern medicine woman who studied with Villoldo, Marcela Lobos and others. I invited her into my psyche some time last year and participated in a workshop that involved trance dancing, mythic mapping, metaphorically dying, and stomping out fire with my bare feet. In my first private session with her, she invoked sacred space outside, in nature, beneath black bamboo trees and blue skies. She rattled me into another plane, cleansed my energy field with scented Florida water, did a “decoupling” that sent my internal jaguar back to the jungle, and retrieved pieces of my scattered soul and brought them back to me. After all that, the installation of the Munay-Ki rites was the natural thing to do.

My friend Mario and I went together to receive the Foundation Rites from Melinda Allec at the Goddess Temple of Orange County . While I didn’t know anyone else there, it was special to be a part of this group of people. We took the time to reserve a day to ritually align ourselves with luminous beings, the Earthkeepers that will guide us into our future. We received the Bands of Power into our luminous energy field, the Healer’s rite that connects us to the Earthkeepers, the Harmony rite that transmits seven archetypes into the chakras (my favorite is the hummingbird of the third chakra), and the Seer’s rite to activate the ability to “see” the invisible. Those who had previously received the Foundation Rites received the Master Angels and Archangel Rites.

There’s a lot of buzz about December 21, 2012, the date that the Mayan calendar ends. The Hopi, Maya and Inka all prophesize that this is indeed a magical moment, a time of deep change. While some people interpret this to refer to the end of the world, others are sensing a new one. According to Alberto Villoldo, the Munay-Ki rites are codes for the next evolution of our species, which, in time, will transform us into “Homo luminous” beings with the ability to “perceive the vibration and light that make up the physical world at a much higher level.” Now that sounds pretty cool to me.

But as Melinda relentlessly reminds me, the rites are seeds that we have to grow. And in shaman-speak, that means that the seeds are nourished with fire ceremonies and breath of fire meditations. We have to work for our luminous bodies.

I’ve come to really dig the shamanic ways of viewing the world. It is a complex view that encompasses various layers of existence all at once. I like the ideas of rainbow bodies, luminous energy fields, and connecting to an ancient healing lineage. I’m particularly enamored with the wiracocha above my head that connects me directly to source energy. It’s like I’m in this world yet simultaneously in another world. That makes being “here” a bit more palatable.

As I go out for my morning walk here in my neighborhood in Long Beach, I take in the whole picture, Styrofoam and all. For sure, it’s not all pretty. Yet I have to acknowledge that despite the drops of dried blood splattered on sidewalks there are trees and little patches of grass here and there. Some of the people with yards have planted flowers and ferns. If I listen, I can hear the birds among the urban clatter. I connect with the cats on the streets and in the windows. Say hello to the people who walk their dogs in the early morning. Walk right into the rising sun, toward the fire. Acknowledge the Pachamama beneath my feet and all around me.

Maybe someday I can roll in the dirt again, and hang out with the clouds. As it is, I’m heading back to being a child of the universe.


For more information on the Munay-Ki rites, and to find someone in your area who can transmit the rites, click into the “Resource List” tab of the Munay-Ki Web site. For those in southern California, Melinda Allec is installing the rites September 11th and 12th. You can find more information about shamanic healing from the Four Winds Society, and you can also order a DVD about the rites from them.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Up the mt. - 3

[Third installment of what I call a quasi-vision quest. Read first installment here and the previous one here.]

Except for Manchas's taking a crap on the way back down to the trailhead, our descent's uneventful. I wonder how he managed to take one, since he'd barfed up a stomach-full earlier. At least whatever he might have gotten from the pump water hasn't plugged him up. I assume he's tougher than me and certainly don't want our adventure cut short because of my dog's possibly daintier constitution; friends might say I used him as an excuse.

Repeatedly, as we retraced our steps down the trail, in the back and sometimes the front of my mind is one thing: bears. I'd been told they and the rarer cougar had been sighted in the area, but some of that might have been tourist-luring hearsay. Yes, bears make it even into Denver suburbs, and every few years a cougar wanders down our I-70 greenbelt, but we're to blame for pushing them out of their native habitat, which is where Manchas and I now walk. So, they probably won't be mauling us cause they've left to go malling.

I don't know if others "suffer" similarly, if it's just "racial memory" homo sapiens carries that surfaces in our bear-dreams, but over the years bear dreams always disturb my sleep more than my falling-dreams, no matter I've never seen one outside a zoo or circus, the kinds of places I no longer frequent. In any event, as we enter a heavily canopied trail sector, I find myself looking into the forest depths for bear. During the remainder of the trip, I'll continue doing this.

Park literature and my readings swear that bears are not aggressive unless provoked or accompanied by cubs, I assure myself, so I only need worry about the latter case, right? But in fact what worries me is that I keep reassuring myself. Where's that come from? As a sapient--and a relatively emotionally stable one--I should be capable of setting worry aside, given I've at least read considerable amounts about bear. I'm not ignorant. However, my head fails to function accordingly.

When I'm not searching forest shadow for momma and baby bear, I scan for scat, even though I can't differentiate between bear, cougar or velociraptor poop, other than possibly by size. More "racial memory" from millions of years prior to evolving into the sapiens species? Or do bears from past dreams represent more than introspection about my emotions, my personality? These cute questions keep entering my head, keep pushing other thoughts aside, making me question whether I can guide my thinking toward revelations that will indeed lead to, if not a real vision, at least considerable relief from my muddled, too familiar ways of thinking. When I ask Manchas if he's afraid of bears, I realize I ask the ridiculous; bears normally fear and avoid his type.

On the other hand, cougars don't; Manchas's type is traditional cougar cuisine. They're known to lure a dog away from others to where they ambush them. A friend of mine from Boulder raises Australian cattle dogs, and earlier this year the rest of his hounds brought him all that was left of one a cougar had cornered: its rolling head came to a stop at his feet. This is why I keep Manchas leashed all our time here. Despite his high intelligence--for a dog--he would run off after a big cat, thinking nothing about the difference in size from our pet felines back home. And I don't want him winding up like my friend's dog. After all, it was Manchas's mom.

Blogger Alice left a comment on my first installment of this venture: "Make sure your location is known." I take her advice and write a note I leave on the truck floorboard concerning where we're headed. I can't help leaving a potential last joke, though not my best ever: "If anything happens to me, I assume the dog will drag back my remains."

As prepared as we can get, the two of us veer off the trail, making our way up. Passersby below, peer up, possibly wondering what the hell we're doing. I try not to think the same. Despite not being as steep as a direct climb, the hill's pitch promises to be a challenge. The backpack's relatively light, the heaviest contents, the quart and a half of water. Crackers don't weigh much. Manchas's food does, which reminds me of La Bloga readers who advised not to put him on restricted intake; they're not here to carry it. It's mostly soil underfoot here and pine needles galore, but navigable, nevertheless. At least for the first few hundred feet and first half hour. Until it steepens.

We're not quite alone yet. Chatter from the trail below fades, with an occasional barking dog or revving truck motor dimly reaching us. Manchas's paws point uphill, and he manages it easily. I have to switch to stepping diagonally to keep solid footing and not slide from loose soil and ground rock underfoot.

Perhaps an hour later we've got into a rhythm, if you want to call twenty-minute stretches of climb separated by five-minute rests a rhythm. Real climbers, nonsmokers and fit, young people could do it better, but we don't care because they're not here. Our hearts beat strong, or maybe are being beaten, and I nearly forget the bears. I do forget about the lower level of oxygen we're taking in.

Manchas's tongue hangs low enough to lap at the pine needles, so we stop for a drink; he wipes his up, I take a swallow, which will be my regular portion throughout. The word stamina pops into my head, something to get us to the top, I think. I assume the dog's got it, and I need to somehow magically find it in myself. It's there, it's what always gets me through my day, my job, larger home-maintenance I take on. I will not forget that word.

Another hour later our goal appears no closer than when we began. We've been in the midst of thin forest. My walking stick serves like someone stronger alongside to assist old me through trickier parts of the path. Actually, the paths I expected we'd follow never appear. Nothing large like deer have left markings about, at least that I can see. No matter we're only a few hundred feet from where thousands of tourists tread, the dog and I are the disturbers of nature here, the space between the pines untrammeled until we mar its pristineness.

One other evidence of disruption is a cave-niche where fires charred three large rocks to warm the rare visitor. The soot makes me realize we've passed many blackened trees bare of leaves. Lightening, I finally realize. We're high up the type of terrain where Colorado's electrical storms leave loving evidence of their might. Might they while we're here? Right now it's cloudless above. Wind's constant, though never howling or rocking us.

In our third hour, a different word pops up: deprivation, though I don't know why. The climb hasn't been so demanding as to consider quitting. And I don't feel "deprived." So whence the thought? We don't deprive ourselves of rest; if anything, we stop more frequently and longer each time. I'm not tempted to crack open the crackers; going without food for even twenty-four hours is no biggie. Workaholics, of which I am one, do it often, simply out of negligence. Deprivation. Will have to think about that more.

We're high enough that we begin to see the tops of other mountains, even though the pinnacle of ours still lies distant. Breathtaking--at least when I can manage to draw one. Panoramic--though Manchas might be unimpressed. Solitude--turns out there are no cabins or homes visible from here. A great quiet--what I least expect--no sound of teeming wildlife, except for one or two small birds at a time.

I don't know if it's the fourth hour or what. Have no watch. Wife Carmen "made me" bring her cell, to keep her apprised of our safety. I'd tried it below, but no service. I'll use it at the top because she "made me" promise. She didn't realize how the out-of-touch factor heightens one's sense of . . . danger? Word doesn't fit. But something like that. Anyway, the phone likely can tell me the time, but I don't want to know; would mar the "primitiveness" of our walkabout.

Trees thin even more. Now they make their hold between large and larger rocks that increase in numbers, sometimes blocking our way. Ten feet, fifteen in size, they become obstructions that make travel harder and harder. Again, unexpected. Our pace slackens, sometimes having to backtrack to find better route.

Manchas's short four legs no longer rate superior to my longer two. And where before he helped pull me, I now lead, although it's futile to tow him. Eighty pounds of him don't come up easily, especially where a step of rock measures a couple of feet. He's starting to enjoy this less, I can see.

No hawks, though one soars in the distance, few flying insects, just some really big ants that I'll need to make sure don't nest under our spot come nightfall. Gotta keep away from ticks as well, for his sake.

Whatever time it is, however long we've gone, the boulders wear at my stamina. They're almost all we walk on and over; dirt, gravel and needles have become more dangerous, when we do cross them. Manchas likes this even less. A couple of times he resists following or jumps when I'm not ready, and I barely save myself from falling by ramming my forearms against or over a rock. Both are soon well scratched and painful, though not enough to matter. Pain is our word here. Muscles ache, head's throbbing somewhat. Maybe it's the altitude, too.

My brain's superior to his in finding passable trail. His vision seeks paths within a few feet in front of him. Mine peers further, anticipating, calculating, better planning which to take. We two have been this for tens of thousands of years. I do better at it; it's one reason I don't wear the leash.

Twice, Manchas gives me a "no" look, determined. He will not attempt to climb this rock or that path I'm trying to convince him is the best available. I'm tempted to give in to picking him up, but know he does too well at learning new routines. If I do it once, I'm dead; he will make me do it even when not required. Both times I'm forced to invent a totally different path or tweak one into finer and finer increments that he'll accept.

When we reach the edge of a rise that's drained us for I don't know how long, the relief from seeing there's only one mountain above us--ours--feels as if we've emerged from hours in a lightless cavern. We're beat. The top of our mt. is almost in sight, just a few more hundred feet. But the boulders in front of us will definitely not let Manchas pass. The two of us have come as far as we'll get, today or any day, unless I carry him, somehow. Fat chance.

There's service here, so I call the wife to let her know we're here, and exclude any negative information, like about my forearms. We probably have a couple of hours to prepare for nightfall.

The dog eats, wipes out the water I give him. A good swallow for me; the larger canteen's half empty. Maybe we don't have enough. But at least stamina's no longer required; we simply have to sit. Danger seems irrelevant; nothing about. Deprivation remains a possibility.

The crags we came for aren't visible unless we reach the top. That may have to wait for another time. Their majesty below almost frightened, and I admit relief at not having to learn if I can stand watch with them for an entire night. That might test more than a vision suddenly facing me.

We gaze, we stare, and breathe. The opposing mountain's nearly covered with pine. Essentially, we stand above tree line. It's too quiet to believe. Questing for a vision will start in a while, I suppose. For now, some rest, a smoke, a break.


[This series ends in the next installment.]

Friday, August 28, 2009

To Boldly Go Where No Juan Has Gone Before

Spaced-out Chicanos

The following press release recently showed up in my inbox. Two Chicanos in space, on the same spaceship - juan giant step for raza. What a movie this could be. Is the solar system ready for a pair of fast-talking pachucos lowriding through outer space? Houston, no hay problema. George Lopez and Paul Rodriguez in the starring roles.

And who knew that our blogging comrade also has an exciting double life as an astronaut?

The space shuttle is scheduled for lift-off on August 28 at 11:59 PM.

HOUSTON - NASA astronaut José Hernández, set to fly aboard space shuttle Discovery on STS-128, is providing insights about his mission on Twitter in both English and Spanish. He is the agency's first bilingual Twitterer.

Hernández, whose Twitter account is astro_jose, can be followed at:

Hernández, who considers Stockton, Calif., his hometown, grew up in a migrant farming family, traveling each year between Mexico and California. He did not learn English until the age of 12.

It will be the first shuttle mission to feature two Latino astronauts. Danny Olivas, who also is of Mexican descent, is among Hernández's six crew mates.

For Hernández's complete biography, visit:

Olivas's biography is here:

For more information about the STS-128 mission, visit:

More spacey news -- the official location of Aztlán has finally been mapped. Turns out that Aztlán is on one of Saturn's moons, Titan. At least according to NASA, that's where you can find it. More about this at this link, or here.

From NASA - original caption released with image: The Cassini spacecraft charts a quartet of dark albedo features on the moon Titan. From upper left to lower right of the image are Fenzal, Aztlan, Aaru and Senkyo.

Su Teatro 2009-2010 Season Kicks Off with José Torres-Tama

The Cone of Uncertainty:
New Orleans After Katrina

Four years after Ka
trina, José Torres-Tama utilizes various performance mediums, including satirical reenactments, socio-political commentary, movement, and sound in his acclaimed solo piece The Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans After Katrina--a deep, first-hand exploration of the rich cultural history of the Big Easy and a wry analysis of the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by a native son.

Please join us as we kick off a season full of American Masterpieces.

The Cone of Uncertain
ty plays
Friday, Septembe
r 4 at 7pm
Saturday, September 5 at 7pm
at the Denver School of the Arts (7111 Montview Blvd--just off Quebec, a couple blocks north of Colfax).

Tickets are $18, $15 students/seniors, $12 each for groups of 12 or more. Call to purchase: 303.296.0219, and ask about our special student group discount

Or, purchase an all-inclus
ive Su Teatro Season VIP, and see The Cone of Uncertainty plus four other theater performances, and receive a full festival pass to the XicanIndie FilmFest, Neruda Poetry Festival, and 14th Annual Chicano Music Festival and Auction, all for just $145! Call now: 303.296.0219.

Poetry y Más
The Colorado Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC) presents the monthly Poetry y Más on September 12, 2:00 - 4:00 pm. This month features celebrated guest poets Giovanni Lopez and Ara Cruz with his new book A Journey in Red & Black Ink.

Peruse the full lineup of CHAC events at the website.

772 Santa Fe Drive Denver, CO 80204 [ view map ]
phone: 303-571-0440
HOURS: Wednesday & Thursday 10 AM - 4 PM
Friday 12 - 10 PM & Saturday 12 - 4 PM

A Dozen on Denver in Book Form

A Dozen on Denver: Stories
Fulcrum Publishing
November 15, 2009

From the publisher:

In this original tribute, twelve talented authors celebrate Denver’s 150th anniversary, each creating a unique story based on a different decade in the city’s colorful history. Ranging from the pioneer days to WWII aftermath to a haunting vision of the future, this lively volume offers an eclectic mix of exceptional storytelling, each complemented by contemporary illustrations. Edited by the the Rocky Mountain News and featuring twelve Colorado authors: Margaret Coel, Pam Houston, Sandra Dallas, Nick Arvin, Joanne Greenberg, Connie Willis, Manuel Ramos, Arnold Grossman, Robert Greer, Diane Mott Davidson, Laura Pritchett, and Robert Pogue Ziegler. Illustrated by Charles Chamberlin.

You can learn how this project came about here, and here. It was probably the last great idea from the late Rocky Mountain News.

Remember the 3 L's -- Lopez, Late Night, 'Leven.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


How does one prepare for silence? Should one practice for a few hours in the weeks leading up to a retreat? Or is it best to go cold turkey? Will there be withdrawal symptoms? An ensuing case of logorrhea?

I'm an old hand at silence, I tell myself. I beat the sun almost every morning so I can bask in the silence of the pre-dawn hours. Yet I long for this retreat . . . I want to get away from the proximity of technology, from living under the flightpath of a suburban airport, from neighbors mowing the lawn before the school bus shows up, from a voice so sweet and persistent that even writing about wanting to get away from it makes me feel guilty, I want to get away from guilt, from fear, from words.

It feels odd to pack a bag for a retreat. I think that if I just show up, it would be enough. But
I still pack a change of clothes, walking shoes, a shawl and a notebook . . . (So much for wanting to get away from words!)

It's an easy drive to the abbey. Just a couple of hours from Denver, yet a universe away. The nuns gave precise directions because the sign for the abbey seems to mysteriously appear and disappear from the main road. But it's there. Left at the dirt road . . . A sign warns of "gentle cows" on the road. A llama looks up; no cows around.

The abbey is a masterpiece of restraint and simplicity. It is one with the landscape, its walls, the color of dust. The retreat house is almost a mile up the road. There are lots of hiking trails we're told, and lots of rattlesnakes too. I'll be sticking to the dirt road.

At the entrance of the retreat house there's a table with brochures about "Living with Wildlife" and order forms for "Abbey Beef". There's a bowl with bottles of sunscreen, mosquito repellent and badges that read "Keeping silence". All the rooms have names. I choose "Throne of Wisdom" because the linens are yellow and it has two windows. There's a small bed, a desk with a Bible, a closet, and a mirror. I look out the window and see two nuns on an ATV headed for the fields, their white veils flying high, surrendering to nature. It's perfect.

I don't even need to wear the "Keeping silence" badge. There are only three of us here. We know we're not talking. But still, dinnertime is awkward. We sit at a small table where our meal is served. We pass the food to each other, the water, the bread. But we look at the food. To look at each other in silence would've been too weird. I can't stand it and leave early. Silence is much easier when you're alone.

The next morning, at 7am, I get ready for lauds. And so do they. We walk in silence down the dirt road and it feels good. Our feet, such strangers to silence, hush the mind... In the chapel, the prayers are chanted, back and forth, left and right. Sometimes the sisters stand up and bow deeply from the waist, straighten up and sit back down. The rhythm seems to spill into their day. And day into night. It's all so simple, so reassuring. I treasure my time here. Every second of it.

In the end, no rattlesnakes crossed my path. Neither did I see a bear or a coyote, although they're known to roam in the vicinity. There were no great visions or realizations, no epiphanies or apparitions. Yet, I left with a peaceful feeling.

How odd. Looking for silence, I found a rhythm.


Written by Carolina De Robertis

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Knopf (August 25, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307271633
ISBN-13: 978-0307271631


From the verdant hills of Rio de Janeiro to Evita Perón’s glittering Buenos Aires, from the haven of a corner butcher shop to the halls of the United States Embassy in Montevideo, this gripping novel—at once expansive and lush with detail—examines the intertwined fates of a continent and a family in upheaval. The Invisible Mountain is a deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of the small, tenacious nation of Uruguay, shaken by the gales of the twentieth century.

On the first day of the year 1900, a small town deep in the Uruguayan countryside gathers to witness a miracle—the mysterious reappearance of a lost infant, Pajarita—and unravel its portents for the century. Later, as a young woman in the capital city—Montevideo, brimming with growth and promise—Pajarita begins a lineage of fiercely independent women with her enamored husband, Ignazio, a young immigrant from Italy and the inheritor of both a talent for boat making and a latent, more sinister family trait. Their daughter, Eva, a fragile yet ferociously stubborn beauty intent on becoming a poet, overcomes an early, shattering betrayal to embark on a most unconventional path toward personal and artistic fulfillment. And Eva’s daughter, Salomé, awakening to both her sensuality and political convictions amid the violent turmoil of the late 1960s, finds herself dangerously attracted to a cadre of urban guerrilla rebels, despite the terrible consequences of such principled fearlessness.

Provocative, heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming, The Invisible Mountain is a poignant celebration of the potency of familial love, the will to survive in the most hopeless of circumstances, and, above all, the fierce, fortifying connection between mother and daughter.

Carolina De Robertis grew up in an Uruguayan family that immigrated to England, Switzerland, and California. The Invisible Mountain, her first novel, will be published in the U.S. in August 2009, and is also forthcoming in fifteen other countries and eleven languages. Her fiction and literary translations have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, ColorLines, and Zoetrope: Allstory, among others. Her translation of the contemporary Chilean novella Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra, was named one of the Ten Best Translated Books of 2008 by the journal Three Percent. Prior to completing her first book, she worked in women’s rights organizations for ten years, on issues ranging from rape to immigration. She currently lives in Oakland, California, where she is at work on her second novel, about a young Argentinian woman who discovers an explosive secret linking her origins to the disappearances of the 1970s.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: The Last War. Pixels 'n Bits.

Ana Menéndez. The Last War. NY: Harper Collins, 2009.
ISBN: 9780061724763; ISBN10: 0061724769

Michael Sedano

Can this marriage last?

She is "Flash", so-called because on a photographic assignment years before, in Afghanistan, she incessantly fires off her flash unit when the other war photogs shoot available light. It's a faux pas she'll never live down, carrying the memory in the name all her friends call her, affectionately, "Flash."

He is Wonderboy. That's what she calls her husband. Everyone else calls him by name, Brando. The nickname, a fulsome compliment dating from early in his career, gets dragged out at parties and bull sessions. To her, "Wonderboy" fills her thoughts and rolls off her tongue with venomous resentment.

No, the marriage is dissolving before our eyes as Ana Menéndez narrates the story of an alienated wife, stuck in Istanbul while her reporter husband is in Iraq, embedded with U.S. forces, coming under fire, dealing with mindless deaths brought by the mindless invasion. A three year old, dropped by a sniper, for example.

Brando professes his desperate love for the wife in phone calls from the war. In the satellite phone, however, the wife discerns in the technology's echoes an emotional distance that feeds into her own distance and unhappiness. The deck is stacked against this couple.

It takes two to tango, and two to muck up a marriage. But in this case, Brando might be the innocent party. Unhappy and isolated by language and culture, Flash opens an anonymous letter from "Mira," informing Flash that Wonderboy is shacking up with a woman in Iraq, another correspondent. Flash proceeds to remember earlier suspicious behavior with other women, unexplained absences, odd coincidences. A violently arguing couple in the upstairs apartment feeds into her burdensome perception of marriage in general.

Into this ambiente of misery, Menéndez introduces a mysterious westerner, Alexandra, who dresses in black muslim garb and follows Flash through the city. Alexandra, Flash observes, appears to be always running from something. Despite Alexandra's mode of dress and apparent language skill, she doesn't really fit, any more than Flash fits in. There's a funny example of this when, just after Alexandra brags of her Turkish lessons and belittles Flash's failure to study the language, Alexandra talks to some men who cannot understand a word she says.

Deeply unhappy herself, Alexandra acts as Flash's confessor, tormentor, analyst, friend in need. It's the blind leading the blind, but Flash doesn't see that in the fog of migraine headaches and her own depression. Because Alexandra had been on the Afghanistan trip, she feeds Flash's paranoia at the same time Alexandra helps Flash seek out solid ground from which to take a sensible decision about either going home to Miami or getting that visa and trekking to Baghdad to be with her husband.

The novel can be a bit misleading--should we empathize with Flash?--until the reader gets more deeply into the story and discovers that Flash is really an unsympathetic woman, regardless of what Wonderboy may have done, or not. Menéndez does a great job without being heavy-handed of delving into the psychology of Flash's gradual descent into chaos. Menéndez illustrates the longevity of Flash's illness in alternating chapters between Istanbul and the Afghanistan trip where the photographer suffers Post Traumatic Shock Disorder after attending Taliban public executions, observing a translator shoot a wounded camel, crashing against the senselessness of male domination in Muslim culture. Are these causal factors in Flash's dissolution, or do such experiences hasten an already deteriorated emotional structure? Can we care?

I was attracted to the novel by the title of Menéndez' earlier work, including Loving Che and In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. I have come across precious few Chicana or Latina novels lately, so my hopes were high.

Here, the author escapes the confines of Cubana-oriented plots to put a "woman of color"--an expression Flash has difficulty dealing with--into a confusing, hostile foreign landscape that keeps a reader slightly on edge along with the characters. A lot of this edginess comes of the frequent appearance of Turkish phrases and spelling, untranslated. We understand these no better than Flash, and like her, we must move through the landscape to the next desperate moment. Readers will find The Last War an engaging and serious novel to recommend to friends and spur vigorous discussions about love, relationships, foreignness, and blame. That's a lot packed into a short--240 pages--book.

Mitos Y Realidades - Colorist Exhibition at East Los' ChimMaya

Pola Lopez and Isabel Martinez share a couple of characteristics. Both are colorist painters, sparkling conversationalists and photogenic. Their artistic styles, color aside, as represented in their ChimMaya show, separate them.

Martinez' canvases feature botanical subjects, lots of texture. Softly saturated, the matte finish mutes her colors, giving them the look of pastel work instead of acrylic and brush. The canvases could be easily be seen as damask wall coverings woven with intricately patterned abstractions. Their complexity requires lengthy interaction to allow the imagery to penetrate one's emotions.

Lopez shows a pair of approaches. One favors figurative compositions peopled by unambiguous forms, and in the other familiar iconography like el arbol de vida decorated with milagro-like icons. She elects a high gloss finish that gathers all the available light so that her impressive canvases take over the tight spaces of ChimMaya's north gallery. A centerpiece triptych takes the form of such cultural icons as Ugly Betty placed into nichos familiar in the architecture of Lopez' native New Mexico. The grey background contains highly detailed decoration echoing Toledano steel or damascene work. A large portrait, part of a series, features a floral background that continues onto the skin of the figure, as if a tattoo, or the female figure were transparent. It's a complicated idea that requires the visitor to spend long minutes studying every element of the canvas (seen over Pola's left shoulder in the central image of the photo).
A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend the "16 x 20," "Duality," and Frida shows at ChimMaya. This visit I made it a point to talk to the owners, Steven Acevedo and Daniel Gonzalez. Gracious hosts, they took time out from the frantic activity surrounding them to give me a tour of the art hanging throughout the store and gallery space. In the course of our conversation, Steven mentioned he heard La Bloga's Monday columnist, Daniel Olivas, has a new novel coming soon, and expressed interest in hosting a reading at ChimMaya when the book comes out. What a happy confluence of events. I get some photos and experience beautiful arte, Daniel gets a marketing contact from one of the hottest arts locales on the East Side of El Lay.

ChimMaya is an easy drive from anywhere in Southern California. South of the Pomona Freeway (60) near Atlantic on Beverly, at 5283 E Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, 90022

Bits and Pieces

In upcoming Fall events, La Bloga friend, author C.M. Mayo, promotes her novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Venues include Virginia's Fall for the Book Festival in September. In October she heads for Washington DC for the Historical Society of Washington DC, and in November, The Texas Book Festival. Find details both on the novel and the promotional events at Mayo's English language site or su sitio hispanoparlante.

Mayo Trailer Project

"Madam Mayo" seeks links to author book trailers. She notes, " I'm interested in video 'trailers' for books as a genre and am preparing some more detailed notes for the blog, so if any of the writers reading La Bloga would like to send me the URL for their own trailers, I invite them to do so via my website."

Reyna Grande - New Novel, Organizing Latino Book Fair, Panel

La Bloga friend and author of Across a Hundred Mountains Reyna Grande's latest novel, Dancing with Butterflies is
about to reach bookshelves near you. Publisher's Weekly gives it a starred review, promising active interest from booksellers.

La Bloga will be reviewing the work in an upcoming column. In the meantime, you can ask your local bookseller about plans to stock the novel for ready local accessibility.

Reyna is a chief organizer in Los Angeles of the upcoming Edward James Olmos and Latino Literacy Now sponsored Latino Book Fair, Saturday and Sunday, October 10 and 11 on the campus of California State University Los Angeles. For the geographically challenged, this is not the Westwood campus of UCLA, it's the El Sereno Campus of CSULA.

With over 65 great Latina Latino authors, 24 panels, and 12 workshops in Spanish, a main stage and a children's stage, this festival is shaping up to be filled with excitement and insight. This is history in the making. The Latino Book Fair has been a recurring and stellar event for a dozen years across the Southwest. This one promises to be the best ever!

A week before the Latino Book Festival at CSULA, Reyna is chairing a fascinating-sounding panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair. Titled "Chicas, Chicanas, & Latinas: Women in Action", the panel features authors Josefina Lopez, Mary Castillo, Margo Candela and Graciela Limon.

Hit List Hits Pasadena This Week, August 29!

Here is wonderful afternoon news. Some of us older gente have a tough time enduring the late night routines of book release events and author readings. Thank you indie bookseller and Pasadena Califas institution Vroman's Books!

Sat, 08/29/2009 - 3:00pm
Location: Vroman's Bookstore
695 E. Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, California 91101

Group event for Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery - featuring: Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Linda Quinn, and S. Ramos O'Briant

A gripping anthology of short fiction by Latino authors that features an intriguing and unpredictable cast of sleuths, murderers and crime victims.

Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery
ISBN-13: 9781558855434
Published: Arte Publico Press, 03/01/2009

There we have it, the ultimate Tuesday of August, the last Tuesday I can claim 63 years and 40 years of marriage. Imagine that, the Beatles wrote me a song that I've had to wait all this time to make meaningful. No Vera, no Chuck, no Dave. But altogether the way it is, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


La Bloga welcomes your comments or inquiries on this or any daily column. Click the comments counter below to open a discussion. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. When you have a review of a book, arts, or cultural event, or something of interest to writers from your writer's notebook, click here to learn about being our guest.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Dreamer

A children's story by Álvaro Huerta

Mayto is full of big dreams.

While most of us kids in East Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project want to be firemen or play for the Dodgers when we grow up, Mayto wants to work for NASA to build the next Martian robot explorers.

When Mayto talked about his plans in our 6th-grade class at Murchison Elementary, the entire class laughed. Even the teacher giggled.

"But, Mayto, you don't even like math," the teacher says. Ms. Cher is a great teacher who is usually very serious. She has red hair like Ronald McDonald.

"That's not a problem, Ms. Cher, I like to build things, just like my father. He's an engineer."

"You don't even got a father," a kid from the back of the class yells out.

"That's not true," Mayto says. "My father is a big time engineer in Mexico and he will be back once he finishes a ginormous project for the government." Since Mayto has a tendency to exaggerate, most kids roll their eyes in disbelief -- except me. I know that he can do whatever he puts his mind to.

One day, while we are playing baseball after school, Mayto is talking to Tony the Janitor about a big, broken-down vacuum cleaner he used to clean the playground.

"What are you going to do with this old machine?" Tony asks.

"I have plans for it," Mayto says.

"Well, I guess you can keep it, but you need to ask your dad to fix the engine," Tony replies.

"I don't need help," Mayto says.

"OK, Mayto, whatever you say."

Mayto pushes the humongous machine all the way home. The kids yell at him.

"Hey, Mayto," Jazmin says, "are you going to build a space machine?"

"Yeah," says Joaquin, "can I be the first Chicano astronaut to go to the moon?"

Not responding, Mayto hurries home to get to work on his mystery project. While the rest of us play Ms. Pac-Man at La Paloma Market or watch Nickelodeon TV programs, Mayto works day and night on his mechanical contraption.

One day, after disappearing for a month, Mayto shows up at the soccer field in a gas-powered go-cart.

It wasn't your typical wooden go-cart. It was a customized, low-rider go-cart -- cherry red, with velvet seat covers, a leather steering wheel and small whitewall tires with chrome-plated spoke rims. The engine was positioned in the back, like a VW bug. It was a gem.

"Where did you get that?" Joaquin asks with envy.

"I made it myself," Mayto says without boasting.

"That's the coolest go-cart ever," says Antonia.

"Yeah, that's very cool," concurs Gabriela.

"Can I have a ride?" Tomás, the local bully, pleads.

"Who helped you build it?" Xochitl inquires.

"Did your father return from Mexico?" Adam asks.

"I built it myself," Mayto responds.

It turns out he rebuilt the engine from the broken-down vacuum cleaner. He assembled the frame from an old Schwinn bike and the body from metal sheets he got from the local junkyard on Soto Boulevard. For a seat, he used a milk crate from La Paloma Market. He got the Chevy logo from an abandoned truck and steering wheel from a '76 Cadillac. Finally, he went to a local car painter, Richard, who provided the finishing touch: the word "Spirit" on the front hood.

"What does Spirit mean?" I ask.

"That's the name of NASA's rover on Mars," he responds.

"I didn't think you could pull it off," Fat Ritchie intervenes.

"I told you guys that when I grow up, I'm going to be an engineer just like my dad," Mayto says, as he drives away in his customized, low-rider go-cart.


Álvaro Huerta is the author of "Los Dos Smileys" in the anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008). Special thanks to Andrew Huerta for the illustration. This story first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.



Today at noon (PST) on KPFK, 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, Andrew Tonkovich, host of Bibliocracy, will have as his guest renowned author Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother. He is an award-winning poet and essayist, author of 11 books. The Devil's Highway, his non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize. A national bestseller, The Devil's Highway was also named a best book of the year by the Los Angeles Times and many other publications. He’s also author of Across the Wire, a memoir, Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life, and a book of short stories, Six Kinds of Sky. His most recent novel was The Hummingbird's Daughter and now he’s out with a new book, Into the Beautiful North, a story that is part social satire and part genuine, if cheerfully irreverent historical revisionism. Inspired by the film “The Magnificent Seven,” an unlikely group from the small Mexican village of Tres Camarones embarks on a journey to find their own seven protectors, to save the town from drug dealers who have moved in after all the men in town have gone to the “beautiful north” for work. Urrea’s writing always challenges the hegemony of perspective and point of view, and this laugh-out-loud funny, political adventure story about three attractive teenage girls and a gay man takes on stereotypes and embraces pop culture in a story that will charm readers with its ensemble characters and its reconsideration of place and borders and its ironic take on idiom. Luis Alberto Urrea is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who's that Woman in the Zoot Suit?

Olga Garcia Echeverria

The Woman in The Zoot Suit.
Catherine Ramirez.
Duke University Press

This past week, I was smitten by The Woman in the Zoot Suit. I carried her around in my plastic book bag like a secret treasure. She rode shotgun in my car, spoke to me in Calo. We shared Vietnamese coffee and sandwiches over lunch. And of course, she was my bed buddy in the early mornings, late nights, or whenever time allowed.

When I wasn't highlighting passages in Catherine Ramirez' book, I found myself staring at the cover. The featured picture, printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1942, is both intriguing and haunting. It captures three young Chicana women being taken into police custody for allegedly being members of a pachuca gang, the Black Widows. One woman is gazing directly into the camera. I can't look at her without wondering who she is and what she's thinking. In fact, she inspires a litany of questions...

Who are these young women in baggy pants and huaraches entering a police car? What are their stories? Why have they and other women like them of the World War II era been so largely ignored by scholars and historians? And how is it that el pachuco (once demonized as a social menace, effeminate dresser and clueless pocho) got re-envisioned into history as an icon of masculinity, resistance, and cultural pride, whereas his female counterpart, la pachuca, dwindled into erasure?

These are some of the questions that Ramirez tackles in The Woman in the Zoot Suit. Her book, which focuses on Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, re-examines the Zoot Suit Riots, the Sleepy Lagoon incident, World War II, and parts of the Chicano Movement. Drawing from a variety of sources, such as literature, film, interviews, pictures, trial transcripts, and newspaper articles, Ramirez locates la pachuca and reinserts her into the historical and cultural narrative.

There are many engaging elements in Ramirez' work. One of her most interesting arguments is that the zoot suit and those who wore them (both female and male) destablized race, class, and gender categories. Whereas men in zoot suits were orginally thought of as excessive and feminine, pachucas were seen as transgressing into the domain of men and masculinity. In this way, Ramirez argues that pachucas and pachucos queered American and Mexican American culture.

This, however, changed for el pachuco during the Chicano movement. Chicano cultural nationalists, such as Luis Valdez and Alurista, "unqueered" el pachucho and redefined him and zoot suit subculture as primarily masculine. In addition, they elevated el pachuco to the status of rebel and cultural icon. Meanwhile, the pachuca continued to be overlooked.

Pachuca Sketch by Sergio Magallanes

We're reinserting her here in a sketch to honor her a bit and to summarize her attire and look, which Ramirez discusses in detail. This particular pachuca is very cool in her huarache sandals, although more feminine pachucas might have worn short skirts and heels. Her hair is styled into a pompadour. This was also known as a razor blade hairdo, as la pachuca's big hair was supposed to serve as a perfect hiding place for razor blades. Myth or reality? Perhaps in la pachuca's world you never knew when you were going to have to throw down. Also emblematic were her thinly plucked eyebrows and her dark lips, traits later visible in cholas and cha cha girls. Some pachucas donned the zoot suit jacket with a skirt that fell above the knees, scandolous attire at the time. Others, like the sketch here, wore the entire tacuche or zoot suit, taking on a masculine or butch persona, and therefore signaling gender and sexual transgression. According to Ramirez, it was this transgression that challenged heteronormative views of nationalism, like La Familia, and that ultimately relegated la pachuca to status of "other" and "outcast."

Ramirez points out that la pachuca was shafted and othered within American nationalism as well. She did not, for example, meet the racial or gender norms of mainstream WW II figures, such as Rosie the Riveter, the housewife, mother, and servicewoman, all of which were featured in wartime American propoganda and were exalted as legitimate citizens and women.

So much more can be said about The Woman in the Zoot Suit, but I will stop here and encourage you all to pick up a copy of Ramirez' book and read for yourself. This is definitely an important body of work that sheds light on la pachuca and how the history of erasure impacts cultural movements and thought. Here is la pachuca academic, Catherine Ramirez, answering a few questions about her work.

What drew you to the pachuca or the woman in the suit zoot?

The pachuca attracted me because, quite frankly, I thought she was cool. In the late 1990s, when I began doing research for my dissertation (the seed for my book), I found her mysterious and transgressive. Like many other students of Chicana and Chicano history, I didn’t know much about pachucas, in great part because they had received so little attention from scholars. I perceived them as transgressive because they appeared to challenge rigid, particularly middle-class and heteronormative, definitions of feminine comportment and beauty. And I liked their clothes, hair, and makeup.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, my friends and I wore our hair big and high. We also favored black liquid eyeliner and dark lipstick. When my father told me that we looked like pachucas, the girls he used to fear when he was growing up in East L.A. in the 1930s and ‘40s, he piqued my curiosity. Yet, as the project unfolded, I was surprised to see how unenigmatic and ordinary many female zooters were. All of my interviewees, for example, were students, workers, mothers, daughters, and/or wives. Despite the generation gap, they weren’t very different from many of my friends and me. Once I saw their mundaneness, I was struck by the discrepancy between la pachuca as icon and the real, flesh-and-blood zooterinas who have shaped and been shaped by history. I decided to probe this inconsistency further in The Woman in the Zoot Suit.

Can you speak briefly to the void that your book fills in Chican@ and American history?

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a response to previous stories about the Mexican-American zoot subculture, many of which have focused on men and masculinity and have privileged race as a category of analysis over those of gender and sexuality. While I do not dismiss the roles of race, ethnicity, or class in our understandings of this subculture or the events associated with it, such as the Sleepy Lagoon incident of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, I believe that there’s more to learn from other social identities and relationships. In short, the story and its meanings change when gender and sexuality are brought to the fore.

What initial challenges did you face in researching la pachuca?

When one of the professors with whom I worked as a graduate student warned me that there was insufficient material for a dissertation on pachucas, he didn’t discourage me from pursuing this project. Rather, he motivated me (although this was probably not his intention). My initial reaction to his comment was, Whatever, dude. I will prove you wrong. Then I asked myself, Why the denial? Why the dearth of material? What counts as “material” anyway? Those questions ended up driving my project.

How did you proceed with your project after that initial interaction with your professor?

Because of my professor’s warning, I believed that I needed to create material, so I launched into my research by interviewing Mexican-American women who came of age in Los Angeles during the 1930s and ‘40s, the peak of the zoot suit’s popularity. In other words, my dissertation started off as an ethnography. I began by interviewing family members, mostly aunts. Then I posted flyers in and around East L.A. at places that attracted elderly Mexican Americans, like senior citizen centers. If I recall correctly, the flyer read, “Do you remember the zoot suit? Did you wear one or did you know anyone who did? Were you living in L.A. in the 1930s and 1940s? Do you remember the Sleepy Lagoon incident or Zoot Suit Riots?” Dee Chávez, one of my most interesting interviewees, contacted me after she saw a flyer at a recreation center in Monterey Park. At first, she claimed that she didn’t remember much and she was concerned that she wouldn’t be very helpful to me. She turned out to be a trove of information.

What were you expecting to discover about the women you interviewed and what did you find?

I wasn’t sure what I would learn from the women I interviewed, but I can say that I was hoping they’d simply shed light on the zoot subculture in L.A. in the 1930s and ‘40s. I wanted to know what they did for fun when they were young, where they hung out, how they wore their clothes, hair, and makeup, how and where they acquired their zoot suits, and why they wore them in the first place.

I wasn’t expecting so many of my interviewees to reject the label pachuca, or to show discomfort or disapproval when I used it. When this happened, I feared that I might have to abandon this project. However, rather than ignore their resistance or give up altogether, I decided to explore it. Why was the pachuca so scary to some of my interviewees? What did this figure signify to them and to a later generation of Chicana and Chicano cultural workers?

So, why was la pachuca so scary to some of these women you interviewed?

I believe many of my interviewees had a vexed relationship to the pachuca because she embodies a dissident, highly racialized femininity. While my interviewees wore or borrowed from the zoot look and considered themselves respectable, they told me stories about pachucas who continued to speak Spanish in school even when they were forbidden to do so, who talked back to teachers (and were disciplined as a consequence), who smoked cigarettes in public, who showed more leg and cleavage and wore more makeup than any of their peers, who cut up the dance floor, who refused to step aside when someone attempted to walk past them on a sidewalk, and who weren’t afraid to throw down.

In regards to Chicano history and cultural production, why has the pachuca been so threatening and so greatly ignored?

I found that the pachuca was threatening precisely because she was simultaneously too feminine and not feminine enough—too masculine, in other words. She frightened her contemporaries (e.g., many of my interviewees) and a later generation of Chicano cultural workers, particularly those with an investment in patriarchy and heteronormativity. For this reason, many writers, artists, scholars, and activists have ignored her. However, movement-era Chicana feminist writers and artists, such as Judith Baca, Inés Hernández, Carmen Lomas Garza, and Cherríe Moraga, recognized the pachuca’s dissident femininity and ran with it. Indeed, Moraga’s character, La Pachuca, in her 1984 play Giving Up the Ghost is a butch lesbian.

You use a variety of sources in your book. Can you comment on this?

The Woman in the Zoot Suit is a recovery project. That is, it seeks to bring to light that which has been buried or ignored. Based on its methods (e.g., oral history, textual analysis) and questions, it’s a combination of history and literary criticism. I drew on an eclectic array of sources out of necessity. Narrating a story about la pachuca is a bit like doing a puzzle: each source—for example, an interview, a photograph, a poem, or a newspaper story—represents a piece of that puzzle. I don’t think this puzzle can ever be completed, but scholars who are resourceful and flexible can help to clarify the picture.

Was there resistance within academia to the diverse types of sources you used?

In many ways, sources define academic disciplines. Literary critics often study “texts,” which are generally understood as poems, stories, or novels—fiction, in other words. Historians, in contrast, are supposed to work with non-fiction “documents,” like letters or court records. Irrespective of discipline, these sources are supposed to reveal something about truth and knowledge. To scholars with very conservative ideas about disciplinary boundaries, sources from multiple disciplines should not be mixed. However, I wanted and needed to see what sort of story they would tell when put together.

What have the responses to your book been thus far?

By and large, the responses to The Woman in the Zoot Suit both within and beyond academia have been very positive so far. My parents and old friends have told me that they’re very proud of me. Likewise, colleagues at universities and colleges across the U.S. have let me know that they like the book. Now all I need is for some of them to publish their praise in a book review or two.

What current or future projects are you working on?

My new project, on democracy and difference in the United States and Western Europe, was inspired by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1996 assertion that Muslims and Mexicans pose a “problem” to Europe and the United States respectively. Huntington argues that both groups are unassimilable and that, ultimately, we threaten the democratic societies we inhabit. I’ve been studying immigration and assimilation in the U.S., France, and Spain. I’ve also been brushing up on my French for the past couple of years. Although I’m still unsure how this project will develop, I’m interested in learning more about Europe and am excited to move into new disciplines and fields of inquiry, like sociology and political theory.