Friday, February 26, 2021

More Than Memoir


This week we present a trio of recent or upcoming memoirs that offer the reader not only the life stories of the authors, but also provocative insights and valuable lessons that come from hard-earned experience, and that are more timely than ever.  Words of wisdom from wise people.

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Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America
Maria Hinojosa
Atria Books - September, 2020

[from the publisher]
Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning journalist who has collaborated with the most respected networks and is known for bringing humanity to her reporting. In this beautifully-rendered memoir, she relates the history of US immigration policy that has brought us to where we are today, as she shares her deeply personal story. For thirty years, Maria Hinojosa has reported on stories and communities in America that often go ignored by the mainstream media. Bestselling author Julia Alvarez has called her “one of the most important, respected, and beloved cultural leaders in the Latinx community.”

In Once I Was You, Maria shares her intimate experience growing up Mexican American on the south side of Chicago and documenting the existential wasteland of immigration detention camps for news outlets that often challenged her work. In these pages, she offers a personal and eye-opening account of how the rhetoric around immigration has not only long informed American attitudes toward outsiders, but also enabled willful negligence and profiteering at the expense of our country’s most vulnerable populations—charging us with the broken system we have today.

This honest and heartrending memoir paints a vivid portrait of how we got here and what it means to be a survivor, a feminist, a citizen, and a journalist who owns her voice while striving for the truth. Once I Was You is an urgent call to fellow Americans to open their eyes to the immigration crisis and understand that it affects us all.


Also available in Spanish as Una vez fui tú.

Maria Hinojosa’s nearly thirty-year career as a journalist includes reporting for PBS, CBS, WGBH, WNBC, CNN, NPR, and anchoring and executive producing the Peabody Award–winning show Latino USA, distributed by NPR. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC, and has won several awards, including four Emmys, the Studs Terkel Community Media Award, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club. In 2010, she founded Futuro Media, an independent nonprofit organization with the mission of producing multimedia content from a POC perspective. Through the breadth of her work and as the founding co-anchor of the political podcast In the Thick, Hinojosa has informed millions about the changing cultural and political landscape in America and abroad. She lives with her family in Harlem in New York City.

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Quiara Alegría Hudes
One World - April 6, 2021

[from the publisher]
A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright tells her lyrical story of coming of age against the backdrop of an ailing Philadelphia barrio, with her sprawling Puerto Rican family as a collective muse.

Quiara Alegría Hudes is in her own league. Her sentences will take your breath away. How lucky we are to have her telling our stories.”—Lin-Manuel Miranda, award-winning creator of Hamilton.

Quiara Alegría Hudes was the sharp-eyed girl on the stairs while her family danced in her grandmother’s tight North Philly kitchen. She was awed by her aunts and uncles and cousins, but haunted by the secrets of the family and the unspoken, untold stories of the barrio—even as she tried to find her own voice in the sea of language around her, written and spoken, English and Spanish, bodies and books, Western art and sacred altars. Her family became her private pantheon, a gathering circle of powerful orisha-like women with tragic real-world wounds, and she vowed to tell their stories—but first she’d have to get off the stairs and join the dance. She’d have to find her language.

Weaving together Hudes’s love of books with the stories of her family, the lessons of North Philly with those of Yale, this is an inspired exploration of home, memory, and belonging—narrated by an obsessed girl who fought to become an artist so she could capture the world she loved in all its wild and delicate beauty.


Quiara Alegría Hudes is a playwright, wife and mother of two, barrio feminist and native of West Philly, U.S.A. Hailed for her work’s exuberance, intellectual rigor, and rich imagination, her plays and musicals have been performed around the world. Hudes is a playwright in residence at Signature Theater in New York, and Profile Theatre in Portland, Oregon, dedicated its 2017 season to producing her work. She recently founded a crowd-sourced testimonial project, Emancipated Stories, that seeks to put a personal face on mass incarceration by having inmates share one page of their life story with the world.


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Trejo:  My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood
Danny Trejo and Donal Logue
Atria Books - July 6, 2021 

[from the publisher's press release]
Danny Trejo, known for his starring roles in films such as Machete, Heat, From Dusk Till Dawn and Con Air, will publish his memoir on July 6, 2021. Trejo follows Danny’s unforgettable and inspirational journey through crime, prison, addiction, loss, and unexpected fame as Hollywood's favorite bad guy with a heart of gold.

The actor Danny Trejo, who has played a baddie in more than 300 films and, at the age of 76, still books between ten and twenty film and television roles a year, may be one of the most familiar faces in Hollywood. But if you ask Danny, as popular as he is, no one has ever really captured the gritty, emotional journey that brought him to where he is today.

Danny Trejo first used heroin at twelve years old, learning that loyalty only came through violence, and peace was found in oblivion. For a period of time, he did stints in some of America’s most notorious prisons, including San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad. Then he was offered a part as a boxer in Runaway Train, giving him the opportunity to choose a new path. In Trejo, he describes how the difficult lessons he learned in childhood both saved his professional life and hindered his personal one, offering an inspirational and brutally honest look at his fascinating life. He shares how he rebuilt his life after finding sobriety and spirituality in solitary confinement and went on to become a success, hobnobbing with A-list celebrities and using his memories of his adrenaline-fueled robbing heists to inspire him as an actor.

“Danny Trejo is more than an actor for the millions of Mexican Americans, like me, who love him,” says Michelle Herrera Mulligan, senior editor, Atria Books. “He is a legend. A role model. The first Chicano action star. Someone we can always hold up as a hero who made it. One of my proudest acquisitions to date, this book shows us the difficult path it took to get him there, in unforgettable, literary detail.”

In this startlingly honest and intimate memoir, for the first time, Danny explores his journey from an abusive childhood, a life in prison, a struggle with addiction, and a redemptive journey from recovery to love and loss, in a the warm, funny, brutal, gritty voice everyone has come to love.

“At seventy-six, this memoir was an opportunity for me to be fearlessly honest for the first time about the terrifying brutality of my experiences in the hardest prisons in the world, the family secrets that tore lives apart, my personal bottom while I was in the hole in Soledad facing a possible death penalty charge, the role God played in turning my life around, my acting career that started at the age of forty by simply showing up to a set to help another addict in need, and how all of it shaped the person I am” says Danny. “I hope by sharing my experiences they can somehow be of benefit to others and let them know that where you start doesn’t matter, it’s how you finish. I’d especially like to thank Michelle Herrera Mulligan at Atria Books and Simon & Schuster for thinking my story had more value than even I thought it had and for always pushing me to go deeper and deeper in the telling.” 

Trejo will be published in English and Spanish and will later be adapted for a young readers edition.

Later.

____________________________


Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. His latest novel, Angels in the Wind, will be published by Arte Público Press April 30.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Chicanonautica: Creating Pablo Cortez

 

by Ernest Hogan

 


I’m an artist as well as a writer. I started out wanting to be a cartoonist as a kid. People say my writing is very visual, cinematic.


I draw a lot. I’ve even painted. Recently, my mom texted me some pictures she took of one of my paintings. They illustrate this post.


It’s a big one. The biggest I've ever done. It’s not a great painting but has a helluva story behind it.


It was after the great Vietnam/Watergate crash. Gerald Ford was president. America was in deep funk. I was trying to find my way in world that didn’t seem to have a use for me.


I fell into the community college thing. Me and school never got along so good, but I was trying to make the student thing work because people kept telling me that education was the answer to everything. If I tried really hard I could get good grades, and it threw me into depression. I was a sad zombie student.


My art classes helped save my sanity. I got paint and ink all over my clothes, face and hair. Instead of dragging my easel into a corner to hide like everybody else, I would set up in the middle of the studio and make a spectacle of myself.


I was an artist. There was no doubt about that. But what could I do with it?



In a painting class the teacher gave us an assignment of doing a totally abstract painting. The teachers were all staunch modernists, who liked it when your art didn’t look like anything, and thought “storytelling” was a dirty word. I always “got” abstract art, and would even dabble in it as a kid, so I dove in.


The result is the painting in the photos.


First, I threw up a bunch of bright colors, knowing that my teachers didn’t like them. Then I splashed turpentine on the oil paint because they told me that it would just wash it off—note that the canvas still has paint on it. 


Then I dribbled paint mixed with turpentine and let it drip. The problem was it always dripped in one direction—down. How monotonous. In my frustration, I turned the canvas on its side, and kept turning it. The problem with that is that ended up creating a vertical/horizontal, architectonic grid.


The problem was the canvas itself. The rectangular shape. Those four corners. And gravity.



I had to come to limits of abstract expression.


If only I could paint in orbit . . . yeah, Jackson Pollock in space! That would be something!


Of course, I couldn’t do that, but I could write about it.


And why not make the artist a Chicano? No one had done that before. Why not test the limits of science fiction while I was at it?


It was another long, hard struggle, but eventually I came up my first published novel, Cortez on Jupiter.


My teachers weren’t that impressed with the painting, which was okay, because I wasn’t very impressed with them, or the fine art world. I don’t “get” these people who buy art, and don’t quite believe that they’re real. To me they’re like UFOs, Bigfoot, or El Chupacabras.


The question is now, what should I do with it? Maybe its connection to the novel will make someone want to buy it . . . My wife suggested we put it in the bigger house we may buy someday.


Maybe I should sign all four corners and scrawl instructions on the back to turn it regularly. Or it could be mounted on slow motor that would turn it . . .


There I go, testing the limits again.



Ernest Hogan, the Father of Chicano Science Fiction is working on novel that he in composing like mural.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Furia


 

By Yamile Saied Méndez

 

 

Publisher : Algonquin Young Readers

Language : English

Hardcover : 368 pages

ISBN-10 : 1616209917

ISBN-13 : 978-1616209919

 

 

A REESE WITHERSPOON x HELLO SUNSHINE BOOK CLUB YA PICK

Recipient of the 2021 Pura Belpré Young Adult Author Medal

 

One of BuzzFeed's Must-Read YA Books of 2020

A Best Book of the Year: Cosmopolitan * Kirkus Reviews * SheReads * New York Public Library

 

 

A powerful contemporary YA for fans of The Poet X and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter set in Argentina, about a rising soccer star who must put everything on the line—even her blooming love story—to follow her dreams.

 

In Rosario, Argentina, Camila Hassan lives a double life.

 

At home, she is a careful daughter, living within her mother’s narrow expectations, in her rising-soccer-star brother’s shadow, and under the abusive rule of her short-tempered father.

 

On the field, she is La Furia, a powerhouse of skill and talent. When her team qualifies for the South American tournament, Camila gets the chance to see just how far those talents can take her. In her wildest dreams, she’d get an athletic scholarship to a North American university.

 

But the path ahead isn’t easy. Her parents don’t know about her passion. They wouldn’t allow a girl to play fútbol—and she needs their permission to go any farther. And the boy she once loved is back in town. Since he left, Diego has become an international star, playing in Italy for the renowned team Juventus. Camila doesn’t have time to be distracted by her feelings for him. Things aren’t the same as when he left: she has her own passions and ambitions now, and La Furia cannot be denied. As her life becomes more complicated, Camila is forced to face her secrets and make her way in a world with no place for the dreams and ambition of a girl like her.

 

Filled with authentic details and the textures of day-to-day life in Argentina, heart-soaring romance, and breathless action on the pitch, Furia is the story of a girl’s journey to make her life her own.

 

 

Review

 

 

"A riveting coming-of-age story.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

 

"Weaving rich cultural specifics and electric energy into her prose, Méndez crafts a dynamic, feminist narrative that commands attention from the very first line. At its core, this novel is a full-hearted love letter to Argentina and “incorrigible girls” everywhere, emboldening readers to stand up for themselves and chase the dreams they hold dear." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

  

"With a mix of Spanish words, vivid dialogue, and rich description, Mendez paints a realistic image of a young woman battling to become herself against the odds . . . A powerful and realistic novel.”

—School Library Journal

 





Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Gus Corral Reaches His Stride

Review: Manuel Ramos. Angels In The Wind: A Mile High Noir. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2021. ISBN:  978-1-55885-920-3 Publication Date:  April 30, 2021

Michael Sedano

 

There is no frigate like a book, and there is no anchor like an e-book. 

 

I’ve been struggling for a couple months with books on my computer screen. Maybe it’s age, or impatience with technology, but my eyes cannot abide the rasterized page. I lose my place on the screen page, then can’t find my way back again and have to start reading from the top again like a teevee re-run until I find my place.

 


I like the screen page of my iPhone, curiously. I read Moby Dick and the Odyssey waiting for medical procedures last year on my phone. The big computer screen doesn’t serve except locational.

 

I plug my computer next to a heater vent so my spavined limbs get a bit of comfort when it’s cold all day despite the brilliant California sunshine. If I have a fire going I can’t go sit next to it without uncoupling the device to weigh anchor. If I want to sit near a sunny window in a different room and read, the anchor fixes me in that warm chair, scrolling the page and getting lost.

 

Today, I thank the Post Office and Arte Público Press for the manuscript I hold in my hands. I sit in the bright sunlight in the warming day, angle the book just right out of the glare that would totally defeat a laptop screen. Making my reading experience more complete, the manuscript is Manuel Ramos’ upcoming Gus Corral mystery, Angels In The Wind: A Mile High Noir (link), and it’s a genuine page-turner. 

 

Ramos hits his stride with his Gus Corral character in this novel of teenage runaways, small town culture, ugly bad guys, and if you pretend it’s not a murder mystery, the reveal near the end of the novel works delightfully. Readers of the earlier Gus Corral novels will be happy to meet this introspective, no-nonsense problem-solver who doesn't get himself into deep caca by rushing into stuff.

 

Corral’s introspection comes with a sentimental, nostalgic ring to it. As an authorial nostalgia, Ramos delivers a farewell to his Luis Montez character. At the same time, Ramos bids authorial farewell to Rudy Anaya, ¡Presente!, when Corral says he’s no Sonny Baca.

 

Ramos drives the plot with Gus’ observations as he thinks out loud, connecting dots. A lot of dots: The habitual runaway; Desperate familia; The hometown love affair; Teenage angst; Anti-raza racism; Mysterious outsider; Human trafficking; Good, decent cops who for once don’t want to kick Gus’ ass for him; Our badly damaged hero.

 

Recuperating from a beating with a baseball bat, the novel begins with Gus working at keeping his mind organized. Ramos presents a great lesson for writers in not wasting any details. When Gus meets the missing boy’s family, he doesn’t object when he notices the grandmother’s dismissive relationship in her home. Gus also notes a rifle and ammunition within reach of one another. Out in the country, Gus reasons, people have different standards. 

 

In a world of contrasts, the story of a missing teen gets its deus ex machina from the oldest character, a nice plot twist. More, featuring elders in prime roles comes straight out of a Sonny Baca novel, whose elderly sidekicks play key roles.

 

Privacy looms as a highly valued standard in this small Colorado town. Gus the investigator raises hackles by invading even his primo prima’s private thoughts. Yet, everyone in town knows Gus, his purpose, his truck, his questions. And they want him to go away.

 

Privacy, of course, comes as the controlling trope of mystery novels. Criminals don’t want to get caught. Gus peels away the veneer of privacy to expose not just the murder readers expect all along, but petty small town corruption motivated by redemption. One is redeemed, another is discovered to be a rapist.

 

Even though murder mysteries revolve around taking lives, detective novels should have happy endings at their center. Here we have several: the boy located; the real crime discovered; evil men killed; uppity Anglos get a come-uppence; familia whole; a broken father's justice.


Much of Angels In The Wind: A Mile High Noir takes place in the underworld of teenage runaways and exploitative adults. This is not the stuff of happy endings, even with dead bad guys. For homeless kids, there are no happy endings, and in this story, no happy ending-- not for the runaway primo, not Jeannie, the waif whose story evaporates in the denoument, not even an afterthought.That's a homeless girl's end. So it goes.

 

Is that noir, setting an underworld where there’s no hope? It’s reality. Gus can’t solve anyone’s problem on the streets. Ramos uses the setting to underline the intractable problem. The author minimizes tear-jerking narrative, offering the ethos of the passionate shelter director who refuses to divulge any morsel of what she knows. Runaway kids are an urban fact, deserving, lovely people like the girl called Jeannie, live out there on their own, no one’s solving anything. That’s noir, que no?

 

And in the end, this boy of such potential who was too bright a light for his small town, he was murdered over the most tawdry of motives. Puro noir.



 

 

 

 

 

Monday, February 22, 2021

La Bloga’s interview with Estella González regarding her debut short-story collection, “Chola Salvation”

By Daniel A. Olivas

I first read a short story by Estella González in 2005. I had sent out a call for submissions for what would become the 2008 anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), which was my response to the complete lack of anthologies of Los Angeles Latinx fiction. Estella submitted “Act of Faith” which established in my mind that this new writer had a distinctive voice that was filled with great humor and humanity. She was born and raised in East Los Angeles which inspires her writing including her submission to the Latinos in Lotusland anthology. It took only one reading for me to snatch it up.

Over the years, Estella continued to write, publish, as well as teach. Her fiction has appeared widely in such venues as Kweli JournalThe Acentos ReviewHuizache, and right here on La Bloga. Her work has also appeared in Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (Lost Horse Press), and she received a Pushcart Prize “Special Mention” and was selected a “Reading Notable” for The Best American Non-Required Reading.

So, when I learned that Estella’s debut short-story collection, Chola Salvation, was forthcoming from Arte Público Press, I was delighted and anxious to find out more. Praise is already coming in including this from Publishers Weekly: “González’s debut collection delivers a layered portrait of Mexican American life rooted in 1980s East Los Angeles. An inviting tapestry.”

In anticipation of her book’s April 30 release date, Estella kindly agreed to give us a sneak peek by answering a few questions for La Bloga.


Estella González (photo credit: Kathleen Dreier)

DANIEL OLIVAS: How would you describe your debut collection to those who might not know your writing?

Estella González: I call it “East Los real,” a mixture of harsh, even brutal situations mixed with dashes of playfulness and dark humor. Growing up in a working-class Mexican/Chicanx family sometimes means developing a thick skin and a sharp tongue to maintain hope and set boundaries. In my collection, working class characters and their children struggle with stereotypes placed on them in American cities and educational institutions. Some protagonists succumb to their circumstances while others transcend them through wit and creativity.

The distinctive sounds of East L.A. and its people figure in the stories. Of course, Spanish, Caló, and Spanglish accentuate most if not all of the narratives. Besides language, the stories reference 80s music, especially British New Wave, to highlight the heartbreak, defiance, and hope the protagonists experience. Rancheras, cumbias and boleros also flavor the soundscape of East L.A. which is ever evolving.

Thematically, the stories address surviving abuse, oppression and betrayal while upholding one’s dignity. Some stories are about surviving family and some are about surviving with the help of family. Of course, East L.A. prominently plays a role in each of the stories, as setting, memory or lingering influence.

DO: Which is your favorite story in the collection and why?

EG: The titular story, “Chola Salvation,” is one of my favorites since it reflects the empowerment I longed for when I was Isabela’s age, 15. That year was a watershed year for me. I struggled with expectation of being a Mexican daughter and an American teenager. I struggled with the double standards inherent in patriarchal cultures, both American and Mexican. I longed for some “superhero” friends to help me get out of East L.A. and all that it represented to me at the time.

I also love the bold voice in the story. I had just finished reading The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas apasionadas (Chronicle Books) compiled by Martha Zamora while I was writing Chola. Kahlo’s voice busts through those letters with her Mexican idioms, slang and just overall vibrant style. I wanted that same vibrancy to come through in my stories. At the time, the most audacious persona in East Los was the chola, the defiant malcriada the women in my family warned me about. But she became the superhero in my story because she was bold and unapologetic. I didn’t see it when I was younger, but as an adult I could see that she was also an empowered woman. In real life, the concept of the chola is more complex, but for a 15-year-old fictional character who feels disempowered, the chola can become a superhero. I combined the chola persona with the Virgen de Guadalupe, who was the ideal woman I’d known throughout my childhood and adolescence. Murals depicting her image were and still are everywhere, from housing projects, car dealerships, to liquor stores. Combining the Virgen with an outspoken chola created the supreme chingona Isabela needs to push her out of her oppressive family. I couldn’t imagine a more likely superduo than a bad ass Chola Virgen who joins forces with a bold artist to rescue a teen Chicana.

DO: Can you share the process of finding and placing your book with your publisher?

EG: I entered the short-story manuscript in various contests and would receive finalist honors but could never clinch the publication award. With each loss, I would return to the stories, revising, expanding and including new stories. Some stories were published in literary websites and journals like La BlogaKweli Journal and Huizache. Those publications buoyed me while I continued to send out the collection.

One day last year, after another rejection, I decided to take my chances and submit to one of my dream publishers, Arte Público Press. But I hesitated because the possibility of being rejected by one of the premiere Latinx publishers scared the hell out of me. Then came the Dignidad Literaria movement sparked by writer Myriam Gurba. Their crusade against the discriminatory gatekeeping practices of the white literary establishment inspired me to overcome my fear and take my chances with Arte Público. If they rejected it, then so be it. Like life, rejection will happen but sometimes someone will say “yes” and Nicolas Kanellos, the director and publisher, did.

DO: Mil gracias, Estella, for spending time with La Bloga. And I am so happy for your success.

***

BOOK REVIEWS WITH DANIEL OLIVAS

Join me for this free workshop sponsored by LibroMobile on Saturday, March 6, at 1:00 PM PST. RSVP now! LibroMobile’s Voices editor, Erin Rubin, will moderate our discussion and we hope you will have some questions of your own. We will discuss how to write powerful, effective book reviews. This event is free, and perfect for any age. Visit this Facebook link for details.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Santa Barbara’s Vaccine: a County Failure

 Melinda Palacio 



The Santa Barbara Independent reported that a 92-year-old undocumented woman was turned away from receiving a vaccine because she couldn’t produce a photo ID. Could they really not tell that this poor abuelita is over the age of 75? And who cares? She took the effort to get herself to a facility in Santa Maria where they were giving vaccinations to people 75 and older. Her granddaughter explained that her purse had been stolen and that she hasn’t left the house in almost a year for fear of getting the virus that has taken friends and relatives. 

I don’t know who’s in charge or who figures out how much vaccine to send to Santa Barbara county, but obviously not enough has been sent. The middle of February and they are just now finishing with the age group of 75 and older, with the exception of this lady and anyone who cannot produce documentation. Can we trust that this situation has been remedied? 

Sansum Clinic sent out an email two days ago saying that people over age 65 are now eligible to receive the vaccine, however only a small fraction of the more than 40, 000 residents over 65 will get get vaccinated because of the county’s short supply. According to Sansum’s newsletter, they still have many patients over age 75 who are already on a waiting list. Santa Barbara residents continue to wait for vaccinations as businesses, schools, and restaurants navigate a new normal. Let’s hope that the people in charge will allow teachers to jump ahead and receive vaccines, schools are set to open later this month. 

In the meantime, florists and psychoanalysts continue to thrive. Wash your hands, wear your masks, do something nice for a stranger. Good luck in getting through year two of the pandemic. 


*update freezes and bad weather has added additional wait times for those already on the list, while many alarmists and some military are refusing the vaccine. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Little Dignity Goes a Long Way

                                                                                 

                             From Jalisco to Santa Monica, Gloria, Candida, and Esther Gonzalez  

                                                                                       xxxx

     After spending nearly 30 years in education, I came to the conclusion most Americans don’t give a hoot about history, whether it’s U.S. history or even their own family history. I’m not saying Americans don’t like reading or watching good stories about history, character-driven narratives, rip-roaring tales, blockbuster books and novels, like Hamilton, or Ken Burns’ Civil War series. I think these stories engage us because, well, they’re good stories, but not because we see ourselves in them.  

    Maybe it’s that the earliest English settlers came here as refugees, escaping poverty, malnutrition, and exploitation. Nobody wants a relationship with those at the bottom. So, our education system taught us they came to these shores to flee religious persecution: the pilgrims, the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock and all that. Sounds romantic, heroic, but is that the true history?

     Defense of religion is stuff of myth. It turns the poor and landless into saints and cultural icons, gets them into history books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying religious persecution wasn’t part of the English migrant equation. I’m just saying, personally, I don’t believe founding of the colonies was “all” that early American historians made it out to be.

     Even if we slip a few thousand miles to the south and look at the Spanish "discovery" and conquest of the Americas (and I don’t need to rehash all the romantic myths about it) but I know, from studying in Spain, most of the Spanish and Portuguese who arrived in the so-called New World were men at the bottom of the heap, soldiers and the clergy, two professions that drew from the poorest part of society and kept young men from starving. Unfortunately, women didn’t have those options to flee dire circumstances. They stayed behind and starved. The majority of Europeans to the Americas were fleeing poverty and starvation, no matter what the history books say. They were looking for work.

     So, if my premises are even partly true, American history is the history of “poor” people who, without the knowledge and culture of indigenous societies, would not have lasted on these lands more than a few winters.  When Cortez had his crews burn their boats to stop his men from mutiny and returning to Europe, he knew he could not survive without help from his Nahuatl-speaking allies in the Americas.

     Once the land was tamed, then came the tradesmen and the rulers, who created their own histories. Unlike monarchs and aristocrats who painstakingly trace their family lineage and history to pass down their legacies (another word for land, money, and the power to keep it) to posterity, the poor, and today’s working-class, have no such inheritances, no such legacies, and little to hand down to their descendants, except maybe a few good stories about grandma and grandpa. I’d guess most Americans don’t even know their great-grandparents’ names.

      We could argue, today, many baby-boomers inherit homes and savings from their hard-working, thrifty WWII-era parents, maybe even as much as a million dollars in property, but consider, a million dollars today in Los Angeles, if you’re lucky, can get you a small, two-bedroom, one-bath stucco home in the suburbs out towards the beach.

     No matter how you cut it, these folks who have inherited from their parents, are still the working-class, and are but a medical calamity, or a natural disaster away from financial ruin, as many found out during the pandemic.

     How do most Americans today compare to the monarchs and aristocrats, whose names, today, are hidden behind names like Citi-bank, Google, Microsoft, Exon, Shell, Yahoo, Amazon, Walmart, Chase Bank, names we once recognized as Doheny, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Bezos, Gates, etc.

     Now, I’m not talking about rich versus poor, or about the accumulation of wealth. That’s a whole other topic. I’m just thinking about how history plays into all of this. For example, once a family reaches a certain societal position, history matters. It’s always mattered. When I talk about influence and power, I’m not talking about the people who work 50-60 hours a week and pull down have a million-dollars a-year. In my book, that’s not rich. That’s just well-off. When I think of today’s monarchs and aristocrats, I think of names like Jobs and Coke. You get my drift.

     As a teacher of American literature, coming from a working-class background, I always wondered, when I researched historical books or novels, why, it seemed, the powerful always seemed to marry first-and- second cousins, but they condemned the poor and working-class to hell for even thinking about doing the same thing.

     Then, I remember reading about John Jay and other American political elite. They married within the family for one reason, to keep land and money in the family. That’s why so many of the same names keep popping up when talking about Europe’s kingdoms, like the Hapsburgs, or in many cases a last name wasn’t even needed. It was enough, to say, marry a James, Edward, Louis, Carlos, Felipe, and Isabel, their daughters and sons being passed around from one throne to another, the family legacy protected, along with the riches. The silver-lining was it also gave the families dignity.

     In fact, I’d stick my neck out to say, monarchs, aristocrats, and anyone who had a large stable of peasants, or employees, benefited from keeping their workers ignorant of family history. To learn you descended from una familia buena, or you were a product of good-breeding, bien educado, would give you a certain pride, the last thing a duke, lord, or hacendado needed in his subjects. Often, it was just the opposite; many peasants were told they came from peasant stock, and they could never rise above their ranks, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and create a caste system to keep a strong work force intact.

     In my own family, I recall a hesitation to reveal anything about the past. Who knows what it might uncover? If anything, we heard about ancestors who didn’t always live the best lives. Maybe there was crime and punishment back there some place, or children out of wedlock, and loose men and women, for sure, a lot of boozers, as if the aristocracy didn’t carry its own blasphemous baggage. They had the power to keep it out of the books.

     For many working-class people in the U.S., ignorance of one’s history is a badge of honor. It allows one to start over, create a new persona, and a new path forward, to bring out that independent, cowboy spirit, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, don’t whine when life throws you a curveball. The past is dead and gone. But, are they just fooling themselves?

     From my experience, nobody succeeds on his own or her own, no matter how much we deny our past. Everybody has gotten help, whether it’s an encouraging word from a parent or teacher, a job-lead from a friend, a loan from a college financial aid department, or a grade from a teacher you know you didn’t really deserve. No matter how much we tell ourselves that hard-work and a can-do attitude will get us through anything, “No man is an island," and it really does "take a village."

     That’s why monarchs and aristocrats knew their history and were cognizant of legacies, to pass their stories, no matter how fictionalized, down to the descendants, even as they made sure to keep their subjects blind of their own histories.

     Now, we can dig as deeply as we want into the past, and sure, we might discover dirt clods, but there will be plenty of diamonds right there alongside them. As a friend once told me when he learned he’d descended from the first families to settle California, “As kid, I thought I was just another Mexican, like teachers and kids had told me. When I learned about my family history, it changed the way I saw myself and my family. I had pride in myself.”           

     As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” same for those who don’t know their country’s or their own history. A little dignity goes a long way.