Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: Now You Know Them. Gluten-free Chicano's Caldo de Pescado. Anaya on Aztlán. Transponders. On-line Floricanto

Review: Cristina Henríquez. The Book of Unknown Americans. 

Cristina Henríquez. The Book of Unknown Americans. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. ISBN 9780385350846

Michael Sedano

Oh my gosh, I hope she doesn’t kill the kids. Ever since Maribel’s mother confesses things might have turned out differently, had she told Arturo about the skateboarder fondling their immobile daughter, I felt the author’s hand pointing her plot toward inevitable tragedy.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez builds a plot out of the twists and turns that pull people away from their homes, sending them into the unknown reaches of a new home. Once they land, life goes on, offering its own twists and turns. Skilled novelist Cristina Henríquez takes those turns and twists them into a surprisingly tense narrative that has a reader pulling for fictional people as if we knew them, hoping against hope that all will turn out for the best.

Mayor awakens desire and consciousness in the brain-damaged Maribel. Friendless chismosa Quisqueya tells the protective mother that Mayor’s pants were wet when he and Maribel were making out in the car. The kids are forbidden to see each other. Mayor steals the car, and Maribel, and the kids go off driving into the snow. Enchanted at the sight of snow falling on ocean, they fall into one another’s arms and intense passion. They begin to drive home in the storm. The snow falls heavier and heavier. Mayor points the headlights into the whiteout and darkness in the mounting blizzard.

2014 was a tough year for me, and there are a lot of books released then I didn’t get around to, including the wildly popular The Book of Unknown Americans. No time like the present for a good book. This one is both timeless and timely.

It’s no wonder The Book of Unknown Americans won its popularity and became a “one city one book” choice across North America. It’s a reaffirming, endearing look at gente from the Americas—Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicarauga,Venezuela, Puerto Rico—who live in an apartment building in Delaware, near the Pennsylvania state line.

Henríquez gives her characters their own voice in chapters of various lengths. Some have lots to say, others terse and close to the vest. None is a bad person. There’s the guy fleeing coyotes and a drug-dealing past. A woman with theatre in her veins. A man who gives the book its title. The star-crossed lovers. Their stories help build the narrative around the central voices of Alma and Mayor.

These are reluctant travelers. Alma’s daughter, Maribel, brain damaged falling off a ladder in Mexico, forces the parents to bring her to Delaware to have a chance at special education and cognitive recovery. Mayor’s family fled Panama during the U.S. invasion.

Maribel’s mother worries that her daughter won’t get better, and has deep guilt thinking her daughter’s accident was Alma’s fault. The family, reluctantly in the U.S., suffers ongoing culture shock while trapped in elements of their own cultura—Arturo forbids Alma to get a job. Alma stumbles into an English class, “the words were merely sounds in the air, broken like shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle and jagged from another.” Maribel’s state of perpetual shock is exacerbated when she interrupts a hateful skateboarder’s sexual assault on an unresisting Maribel. She goes to the police, is patronized, and then for most of the novel, keeps the secret from Arturo.

Mayor is captivated by Maribel’s beauty. Determined but almost stumbling into courtship, he and Maribel become friends then their mutual attraction pulls them into teenage exploration. Guilty of his own deception toward his soccer-adoring father, Mayor is grounded. Driven by hormones, Mayor leads Maribel to the parking lot where Quisqueya spies on them. When she busts the pair to Alma, the kids are separated. That never works, not in Panama, not in Mexico, not in Delaware.

Don’t kill them, I plead silently, anxiously turning pages and thinking that Cristina Henríquez doesn’t write with such a mean hand, she wouldn’t create these beautiful children just to kill them. One character will die, but readers will have to find out for themselves, and struggle with an unasked question, “is it Alma’s fault?”

Christina Henríquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans brings a deeply sympathetic portrait of immigrants to life, seasoned with a heavy dose of bitter irony in the final chapter, Arturo’s only appearance in his own voice, about how he loves living in the United States, the joy of the gente in the apartments, despite unemployment, despite communicative aphasia of monolingualism, despite people like the vile skateboarder and his murderous father. It’s a moving final chapter and fitting end to a book about “unknown Americans.” You know them now.

The Gluten-free Chicano Cooks Caldo de Pescado

Skies darken earlier as Fall wanes into Winter, and with dropping temperatures, a steaming bowl of caldo de pescado hits all the right spots for dinner or lunch. In fact, if you make a big pot, you can have dinner and lunch, maybe even breakfast of this richly seasoned hearty preparation.

Red potatoes
Garlic - 3 dientes
Bell pepper
Hatch chile
Helotes or corn kernels
Canned tomatoes
Tomato juice
Frozen cod filets
Salt, pepper, powdered coriander, bay leaves, olive oil, water.

Most kitchens stock the ingredients in partially used quantities. I had the nub end of a celery, half a cabbage, most of a big red onion, and half a red bell pepper. I used another whole bell pepper because half isn't enough.

The Gluten-free Chicano finds value in keeping COSTCO frozen cod in the freezer. One filet per person, let it defrost for a couple hours until soft enough to cut into spoon-size chunks.

I like the cabbage cocido style, so slice half a head into four wedges.

If using fresh corn, clean and break in half. For this preparation I had a jar of Niblets Corn (half a can) in the icebox and used that to good advantage.

Get an edge on your knife with a steel then carefully chop everything except the cabbage into spoon-size pieces. Add the root of the celery, the top of carrots, the tops of bell peppers. After cooking their flavor into the broth, pull them out and feed to the hens. La Chickenada loves them.

Pour a scant helping of olive oil into your soup pot and get it hot. Add the chopped vegetables and cook on medium heat for a few minutes. Add the fish and stir it into the cooking vegetables.

This year’s hatch chiles from the Lascano La Pelada were extremely hot, so I added a quarter cup of chopped rajas. You can add powdered cayenne or any good and chiloso chile, or some chopped huero or arbol from the garden. You want the soup to be lip-smacking picoso but not so much that those of a different palate won’t enjoy the meal. You can serve the chopped fresh or roasted chiles as a garnish if you're not sure of their bite.

I had half a mason jar of whole peeled tomatoes, so I added them—the equivalent of 3/4 of a 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes. I rinsed the jar and added the water. Add a cup and a half of tomato juice. Add more water to fill the pot ¾ full. The vegetables exude liquid, too, so leave room.

Add the dry spices and cilantro. I didn't have fresh cilantro so used some dried coriander. Stir in three small bay leaves, scantly generous salt, several pinches of coarsely ground black peppercorns.

Place the cabbage and helotes on top, bring to a happy boil, then cover and lower the flame to small simmer. Leave it on the fire for an hour or until the cabbage is soft enough to pierce easily with a fork.

As this caldo slowly simmers your entire home fills with the aroma of puro love. Preparing this caldo is a lot of work, and all those ingredients combine to form a lusciously enticing perfume that reflects your labor.

Speaking of love, The Gluten-free Chicano is using his mother's cocido/menudo pot.

Scoop heaping mounds of the vegetable and fish into a bowl, add as much liquid as you want. In the fotos below, I doubled the liquid before serving.

Serve with fresh lime or lemon halves to squeeze into the savory broth. This is excitingly filling and doesn’t need tortillas, but one is useful to push the food onto the soup spoon.


Rudolfo Anaya on Aztlán

La Bloga's friends over at Latinopia share elements from a recorded inverview with recent National Humanities Medal honoree Rudolfo Anaya.

Latin American Transponder This Saturday Night

Latin American Poetry by Los Angeles-based Poets is a FREE program brought to you by the International Languages Department of the Los Angeles Public Library and Hinchas de Poesia (www.hinchasdepoesia.com), the online literary journal of writing from the Américas.

Poets include: Adolfo Guzman Lopez, Gloria Enedina Alvarez, Richard Modiano, Abel Salas, Skira Martinez, Luivette Resto, Jessica Ceballos Campbell, Neelanjana Banerjee, Claudia D. Hernandez, and Billy Burgos.

This promises to be among the most interesting readings of the year. Poets will read a piece selected from a notable Latin American woman, then respond with a poem of their own, inspired by the Latin Americana's work.

The DTLA LAPublic Library's Mark Taper Auditorium is a wonderfully intimate setting for the event.

On-line Floricanto
Ramon Piñero, Paul Aponte, Norma Smith, By Suha Hassen, Barbara Peña

“When I Write” by Ramon Piñero
“Natural Disasters” By Paul Aponte
“This Year as Usual” by Norma Smith
“A Womb for Dinner” By Suha Hassen
“I’m From “Here” By Barbara Peña

When I Write
By Ramon Piñero

every time
I sit to
write a poem
about the
of clouds
the feel of
rain on
my face
the touching
of kittens
playing with
a ball of
some kid
is shot
or even
made to
kill someone
a friend
a cousin
or perhaps,
who knows?

every time
I sit to
write a poem
about the
of the
the majesty
of mountaintops
the floors
of heaven
some guy
or even
some child
has forgotten
what food
tastes like
what a warm
meal feels like
when a loving
kiss goodnight
promises a
bright tomorrow

it seems that
when I begin
to write about
the joys of
some kid is
which father
is coming
through the
front door;
daddy or
Mr. Hyde

sometimes when
I'm ready to write
and transformation
someone's daughter
is found to have
from descendent to
at the
hands of
who has morphed
from human
to monster.

when I hear
the sounds
of hooves
behind me
I want them
to be
or zebras;
I fear
they are
the Four
come to
a debt
by all

© Ramón Piñero

Natural Disasters
By Paul Aponte

The beauty we love never safe.
Shocking revelations
- the mind, the body
pain beyond belief,
of fractions of moments
changing burdens forever
creating mayhem
in brain patterns
and permanence in loss.
Shoulders as shelters,
arms of solace,
tears blur memories.

This Year as Usual — Passover
By Norma Smith

As a secular Jew, I often find myself irritated by religiosity at the same time as I’m grateful for the cultural and historical specificity I carry with me. I have joined a synagogue whose members are engaged politically as much as spiritually. Even so, when I sit down to a seder (the Jewish spring holiday’s elaborate dinner-service of remembering bondage and liberation), with all its Promised Land rhetoric, I find myself nauseated by how this ritualized history tastelessly conspires to forget the people we found there:

1) the continuing travesty being visited upon indigenous Palestinians in their land today by my contemporaries who call themselves Jews, and 2) the fact that I am sitting down to table on Ohlone land, where my gold-digging predecessors murdered the people and, eventually and to this very day, where the invaders who laid the ground for my sojourn here destroy the land, air, and water —the milk and honey— that the earth has so generously produced.

At the same time, work my congregation does in solidarity with new immigrants to this country is informed by our Jewish heritage, which includes a passion for justice and the beauty of the seder’s admonishment to welcome strangers, and feed them. This justice work (Tikkun Olam—“repairing the world” whose perfection has been broken… another story) includes participating in a monthly interfaith vigil at a nearby county detention center where randomly arrested dark-skinned immigrants are held for possible deportation.

This year as usual, during Passover, I attended a seder where there were people I didn’t know. There was also, as there frequently is, a guest —an adult non-Jew— who did not know the story of the holiday or the rituals and meanings of the meal. I was seated next to her and began whispering in her ear a translation of the symbolic foods and words. Soon, the others around the table took up the challenge of explaining. We argued and interpreted and enthusiastically corrected one another through the meal. In this way, we fulfilled the central commandment/obligation of the holiday: to tell the story of liberation—escape, and the journey out of Egypt and toward a promising new land— in a way that is relevant to the current and coming generations. The ritual includes teaching our children to ask important questions.

The stories we told this year, as we got to know each other, included the family immigration stories of some survivors of the European genocide of the middle years of the last century, how they got to America, how they suffered before and after their arrival. What the welcome was like— or lack of welcome. What they did to survive.

This poem, which arrived early the next morning, is a composite of those stories. It is a meditation on the damage done to our families and communities by oppression, and by silence.

Today, oppression in the United States is manifest in national and local policies of incarceration as a response to every societal problem, including poverty and homelessness, including addiction, including violence and mental suffering. And immigration is among these realities seen as problems. All of these social complications are created or exacerbated by our unjust social structures and processes and the ideologies that flow from them and that, in turn, see imprisonment of the most vulnerable members of society as a solution to these challenges.

This poem is about family and community and the healing/liberating power of story-telling. It tells us that no healing takes place without story. The circle we form in front of the stark gray walls of the West County Detention Center in Richmond, California, every first Saturday of the month in solidarity with unjustly detained immigrants holds us together. Telling our stories and hearing one another’s —holding each other in this manner— is one way we build the country we want to live in.

L’Shalom/To Peace
Spring 2013

We sit down again at the family table
to tell and retell
the story of how we got here,

The grandfather
who might have died in the camps,
how he hung on to the dark thread
that furnished him—and us— with a living, later,
How he held that against us,
against himself.
For who, he asked,
was with him?
For a pattern-maker, alone
on the prairie, dust fills

The mother, stunned
by this grief, the silence,
and what she learned,
in her American kitchen,
about raising children
above the fray
of garments in a closed factory;

An old-world sister, sheltering us,
sings us lullabies when
we should be waking up;

A husband who knows how
to look back in English
from afar and tries to comfort us
without memory, without
a way to heal
our children;

Our children
need to know
what enslavement means,
how traveling light
can be a burden—
too heavy to carry with us—
or a weight that tests our shoulders,
strengthens us, relates us—

Stories to hold the newcomer in us,
the stranger, the one who brings us

New tales, even now
to laugh as one
at shared pain and shed new light
on an old song
to sing, beyond
pogrom, matanza, field and sweatshop, fábrica,

Crossing over, moving,
asking questions of each other,
here, and whole.

A Womb for Dinner
By Suha Hassen

The wolves schmoozed together
Decided to devour my womb for dinner
Quaffed my blood in the cold weather
Crushed my bones to ashes with their hummer
The wolves schmoozed together again
licked my body with their saliva and
made my soul naked forever
However, the animals forget
that I am a goddess from the ancient land lovers
and “Mesopotamia” is my mother
that will send her winds
to wash my body in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers

I'm from here
By Barbara Peña

This ground is the holy ground of the Coahuiltecan and the Apache and
those who walked before them

Colonized by the Spanish and later the French

Criollo bloodlines shifting like the limestone beneath our feet and the
six flags over our heads

Terrorized by violence, vengeance, plagues and the Texas Rangers

Limpieza de sangre thinning out the branches of a family tree whose roots
go back to the beginning

When this river was a creek that sprang up after a deluge

Before the aqueducts and other tributaries found their way to the sea

Before the mission was named in honor of the patron saint of lost keys and
lost lovers

Before the Alamo
before Reconstruction
before the Pledge of Allegiance
before the cattle barons
before the summer of lynchings
before the braceros
before LBJ
before the oil bust
before Military City, USA
before the spring breakers
insurance conventioneers and tourists from Minnesota
before y'all and bless your heart

This ground you're standing on asking me where I come from because you
think I don't belong here, implying that I am somehow foreign to this land,
and insinuating that I am trespassing beyond a border I shouldn't have
crossed when, in fact, you're the one who doesn't belong here –

So I simply say, between clenched teeth –

"Here. I'm from here."

“When I Write” by Ramon Piñero
“Natural Disasters” By Paul Aponte
“This Year as Usual” by Norma Smith
“A Womb for Dinner” By Suha Hassen
“I’m From “Here” By Barbara Peña

Ramon Piñero is a former Bay Area Poet exiled to Central Florida

Paul Aponte is a Chicano poet from Sacramento, California.   Paul is a member of Escritores del Nuevo Sol (Francisco X. Alarcón - one of the original founders), and Círculo (a  group of poets and writers bringing workshops & performances to the west coast who's members include Lucha Corpi and many other well respected writers, & poets), and can be seen performing at various venues throughout the SF Bay and Sacramento areas. He is the author of the book of poetry "Expression Obsession", and has been published in "WTF" a publication from Rattlesnake Press, "La Bloga" - an L.A. based online publication & review, "El Tecolote Press" - from San Francisco, "Poetry Now" - Sacramento Poetry Center's quarterly, and "Un Canto De Amor A Gabriel Garcia Márquez" a publication from the country of Chile containing poems from around the world with 31 countries represented.

Norma Smith was born in Detroit, grew up in Fresno, California,  and has lived and worked in Oakland since the late 1960s. She has worked in hospitals, as a radio producer (Pacifica), as an educator, and as a translator in an international news agency in Central America. She has organized events, conferences, and reading and writing groups in a wide range of settings. Her writing has been published in literary, political, and scholarly journals. Norma has worked recently with the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition and the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity ( http://im4humanintegrity.org/)

Suha Hassen is an American-Iraqi scholar, writer and poet. She is a first year PhD student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. With a PhD degree from an Iraqi university, she recently graduated with a master’s degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Oregon State University with minor in Graduate Teaching Certificate. For her master’s thesis, she travelled to Iraq and worked in the field to investigate how the Islamic State (ISIS) employed sexual violence and systemic rape as a weapon of war and a tool of genocide against women and children from minority groups in Iraq. Suha herself is a war survivor and had experienced a kidnapping attempt by Al-Qaeda in 2003. Her personal experience of terror, and subsequent displacement, diaspora and immigration to the US in 2010 had motivated her to devote her academic research, work and poetry to the women and children who survived from ethnic and religious wars and armed conflicts.  Suha is currently working on writing her first book about the living experience of women and children in Nineveh (ISIS’s stronghold).

Barbara Peña is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio with a degree in English and a minor in Art History. She's passionate about social justice issues and the healing of trauma through writing and the creative arts. Her current project focuses on the practice of folk magic and the study of the official and unofficial Saints of the borderlands. Barbara currently resides in Selma, TX, with her niece, Sophia, and their dog, Marley. You can follow her on Instagram @barbierella09 or via her tumblr page ay-que-barbara.

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