Sunday, August 28, 2016

Xicana Nebraska: "Taking With Me The Land"

Chile Rellenos:  all ingredients from my Nebraska garden or locally grown in Lincoln, Nebraska 
This La Bloga entry offers a reflection about the recognition of "place"-- the importance of taking the time to look around, mindfully existing in the space where you find yourself--demanding the books/the education you need to conocer y contemplar quien eres/quien somos.  In this entry, I'm contemplating "place" that has often been constructed as "empty" and "white"-- yet first and foremost, a space that was and is Indigenous:  Lakota and Dakota, Ponca, Omaha, Pawnee, Otoe, Winnebago, and also continues to be a space where inmigrantes reside: Nebraska.  

Nosotras:  Chicanas y Chicanos write about land:  the land we left behind, the land we desire, the land we imagine, the land that defines us, the land that created or destroyed us.  I think of Tomás Rivera's . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra ( . . . and the earth did not devour him), a novella of inmigrantes, of struggle and survival.  I also think of Arturo Islas' Rain God which attends to the theme of identity so eloquently and painfully within and outside of familia and land; and Gloria Anzaldúa who wrote, "I was the first in six generations to leave the Valley, the only one in my family to ever leave home.  But I didn't leave all the parts of me:  I kept the ground of my own being. On it, I walked away, taking with me the land, the Valley, Texas," (from Borderlands/La Frontera).  

"[T]aking with me the land" resonates within me, although I continually add the phrase, "and merging it with another land."  Here's how it goes-- aqui te va:

Some of my experiences on this Great Plains land of Nebraska have been what I consider more Mexican, mestiza, Xicana, more "raza" to me than living in Los Angeles ever was (and the opposite is true as well, but I'm more surprised with the former). For example, I never planted, never grew or harvested chile or maize, tomate or ajo until I came here to Nebraska.  In Los Angeles, our backyard had two kinds of fig trees (white and black); grapefruit, lemon, peach, quince trees, chayote, and cactus.  My memories of our Los Angeles jardin stay with me.  Yet, the wonders I have seen on this Nebraska land (lightning bugs, thunder snow, cicada melodies, the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes from Mexico no less!) only emphasize what Professor and writer, Norma Cantú told me when I first considered "migrating" to Nebraska to teach at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln:  "There is magic here, if you can see it."  

Maize from my garden: Lincoln, Nebraska

red maize from my backyard garden (Lincoln, Nebraska)
I've lived on the edge of the sea (California) and now here.  Nebraska writer, Willa Cather, describes the Nebraska land in her novel My Antonia like this:  "As I looked about me, I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are washed up.  And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running." (click here for the Willa Cather Archive)

The Plains of Nebraska
I read My Antonia in California long before I ever thought about moving here.  I was in San Francisco, at a friend's house.  It was raining. I was sitting next to the window reading and intermittently watching the rain create uneven trails down the pane of glass.  While reading one of Cather's descriptions much like the one I quoted above, I remember looking up and saying, "I must go there."  I never meant to say, "I must live there."  Pero aqui estoy--and I find myself constantly surprised at the connections, the familiarity of "place."  

The prairie is like a tide pool.  From far away, a tide pool looks like rocks and water--that is all.  One could call it "empty."  But if you immerse yourself within the tide pool, if you bend down, if you use your fingers to reach in toward the greens, reds, and orange colors, you will discover sea stars, mussels, sea anemones, sea palms, urchins, sponges, surf grass.  The anemone reminds you (when it grabs at your finger and holds on) of the powerful life forces within.  John Steinbeck wrote:  "It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again."  Where from a distance, the tide pool may look like rock and water (nothingness to some), it is teeming. The earth and sky are teeming if you seek to observe with passion.  

In Nebraska, winter snowstorms encourage hidden communities.  Shoveling snow, one may think that nothing, absolutely nothing is underneath all that snow.  Yet, like the tide pool, here you have what's called the subnivian zone where it can be 50 degrees warmer than where the person above is shoveling snow.  If we were small enough (like a mouse, vole, grouse, or bunny) we could go down to that zone and be quite comfortable.  

The Subnivian Zone
This subnivian zone and its inhabitants remind me of California's drywood termites in East L.A.  One day my uncle Frank gave me a memorable gift.  He had called me into the garage to give me a bottle, its mouth wide enough to have probably been a peanut butter container.  At first I only saw pieces of small spindly wood through the glass.  It took a bit of time, but finally I could see the almost see-through segmented bodies (two of them) of termites, with fine shiny wings.  I sat there, transfixed, watching their mandibles have at the wood.  

The subnivian zone in Nebraska, the California termites remind me also of Mexico and the flying cockroaches en Torreon, Coahuila with my tia Panchita--swatting them on a hot August night, which then reminds me of the time that my cousin Angelina and I found opals imbedded in rocks when we were playing in a cave outside Guadalajara (perhaps near Tonalá). On that particular day, not only did we find opals, after walking out of the cave, we observed a truck down the road (filled to the brim with mangos) suddenly jackknife and turn over on its side.  Thousands of red orange (some greenish) mangoes covered the side of the road.  The truck driver, who didn't seem hurt--only quite upset--pleaded with us to take as many as we could.  And we did--creating pouches with our shirts, grabbing at any pockmarked plastic bags we could find, filling them up, laughing and intermittently stopping just to look at this red orange road this "mango spilling" had created.  So many discoveries just by being open to mindful observations.

The Bison Trail in Lincoln, Nebraska
During the spring, summer, and fall, I ride my bike and take a route that sends me out of Lincoln. I ride past fields of family farms, of bike and foot paths, of streams and trails where, at times, herons or hawks have flown so close I can hear their whoosh of wings.  I can almost feel the soft downy of feathers in the sound.  One morning, I saw what looked like a surreal drapery of black curtains ahead of me on the bike path, only to realize that a flock of turkeys were hurrying down the road and taking to flight in a mighty awkward effort.  I never knew turkeys could take to flight at all-- and here they were raising their black wings, lifting their heavy bellies up a few feet, then back down in such an interestingly odd, almost helpless way.  This happened near the home of a Mexican family from Sonora who have a number of chickens and a rooster that often calls as I bike past their place.

I mention this Mexican family's "Sonoran" home in Nebraska because it is exactly during this part of my ride where I swear I'm in Mexico--en Guadalajara or en Torreón, Coahuila hearing the tunas vendor going down the street, pushing his tunas cart, shaking the bells attached to the side, and calling, "tunas, tunas."  

"Tunas" in western Nebraska:  Scotts Bluff donde tambien viven muchas Latinas y Latinos
In some ways, I am doing what Anzaldúa describes as "taking with me the land."  Another explanation is what geographer Doreen Massey calls, "different experiences of time-space compression."  She writes:  "Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether that be a street, or a region or even a continent.  And this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and local."  Given what Massey says, this "Mexican Nebraska" description (my description) functions as a way to disrupt fixed constructions of place.  

Once, during a reception (hosted by The University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department)  for fiction writers and poets from out of town, the conversation turned to living in Nebraska.  One of the writers turned to me and asked how I could live in such a barren geographic region.  "There is nothing here on the Plains," he said with an authoritative tone.  I agreed that there was nothing--for him.  He wasn't looking.  "Nothing" registered for him because he had always been told, he explained, that there is nothing here.  He reminded me of the main character Clithero in the 1799 novel, Edgar Huntly: or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker by Charles Brockden Brown, a gothic novel illustrating what has been described as the white man's fear and desire to control nature, to maintain rationality and harness the imagination because of the horrors an active conscience can conjure or encounter.  Clithero seeks not to cross the line between what is defined as "civilization" and what is considered "wild."  He is constantly fearful of nothingness, of what is beyond what he knows. And I too was fearful when I arrived here in Lincoln--thinking as well there was "nothing" because of the overwhelming stereotypes this country has constructed regarding all of its regions. For example, Nebraska is part of the region often considered as "the fly over zone."  

Near the Bison Trail, Lincoln, Nebraska
Yet, from the moment I arrived in Lincoln, so many connections to what I knew registered for me.  The Nebraska State Capitol architect (Bertram Goodhue) is the same architect who designed The Los Angeles Public Library.  As soon as I saw the building, the facade, the type of calligraphy font carved into the stone, it felt familiar. I remember thinking, "I recognize this place."  The land outside of Lincoln (Nine Mile Prairie, for example), the tall grasses that Cather described-- red and sea-like in its movements (big and little Bluestem grasses, switch grass, etc.) are present south on the Gulf of Mexico (as well as in Latin America:  the Gran Chaco of Bolivia y Argentina). 

The Los Angeles Public Library
The Nebraska State Capitol
However, I also question the use of "taking with me the land" even though it is in the title of this blog entry.  I often hear myself say, "My Mexican Nebraska," "My Los Angeles," "My Califas."  Nothing . . . nothing is ever mine.  Nothing is ever ours, and in thinking this way, I may be more appreciative, more respectful to see "land" and "people" as they are without assuming how "a people" or  "a place" should be, without fear, without judgement.  I like thinking of the term, "constant migrancy:" from the tide pools to the subnivian zone and everything in between.  "Mestizas," "Xicanas," are everywhere-- and we carry with us our books, our history, our experiences, our complex perspectives which illustrate our deeply rich and complex raza.

When I moved here, I was afraid some of my Califas friends would be right when they told me, "You'll lose your Xicana roots."  Pues what has happened es que I've planted Xicana roots here "taking with me the land de alla."  When I was little (five or six years old), I remember my parents constantly instructing me: "If someone asks who you are, you tell them you are an American."  They would tell me this with worry imbedded within the inflection of each word.  They were recent immigrants.  Perhaps my mother worried they would somehow take me away or take all of us.  This worry is still alive and real today in Nebraska and many other states (Texas, Arizona, etc.).  My parents wanted me to say I was American not knowing I would make the term "American" a life-long pursuit of study.  And throughout my life, I've read how the Puritans, and later nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century writers have defined the term "American."  Waves of immigrant writing throughout the years have described personal journeys regarding identity, a multitude of legislators have forced their opinion on what "American" is in order to have license to deport, license to ban individuals, multicultural teaching, license to ban diverse literary perspectives, license to ban Ethnic Studies curricula, license to take away books or change what has been written by raza to promote a definition of "American" that is narrow and excludes certain voices.  

Raza continues to bring books to students whose classrooms lack a rich variety of literature, las palabras de tantas culturas, de tantas voces from where we live,  from where we came, from where we walk "taking with us our land." 


Linda Garcia Merchant said...

Thank you for sharing "your land" with the rest of us. As a native of another "fly over" state (Illinois), I can appreciate how you have taken the time to really see the beautiful and varied expanse that is both Great and never Plain. I'm also going to look at some of those books mentioned--thanks for the heads up, Profa!
Linda Garcia Merchant, University of Nebraska, 2nd year PhD student, Chicana/Latina Literature

Cristina Herrera said...

Gracias, Amelia, for your wise and beautiful words! Although I've stayed in Califas, I moved several hours north to Fresno, a city a lot of Southern Californians, especially in my family, have dismissed as a "cow town." It's up to us to see the beauty surrounding us and to carve space wherever we land. Abrazos!

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Beautiful, Amelia. You always make me wanna go to Nebraska.

liz gonzalez said...

This is breathtaking, Amelia. I was going to scan it and read it later but couldn't stop. You make Nebraska come alive on a deep level.

I have a connection to NE and will be traveling there sometime this year to conduct research. My maternal grandfather came to the midwest from Mexico in 1911; he was seven. He spent most of his childhood in Omaha, attended high school there, and was in the band, orchestra, and on the debate team. Your essay makes me look forward to my trip even more.

Thank you! liz gonzalez