Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Confluences, Coincidences, Conferences

Michael Sedano

Ex Mex. Jorge G. Castañeda. NY: The New Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978-1-59558-163-1

Mexican Enough. Stephanie Elizondo Griest. NY: Washington Square Press, 2008.
ISBN-10: 1-4165-4017-2 ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-4017-5

In one of those serendipitous events that I wish on everyone, I am browsing the nonfiction new books shelves at the main branch of the Pasadena Public Library when Jorge Castañeda's name jumps out at me. Ex Mex, the spine proclaims. "Has Castañeda moved to the EUA?" I wonder. I'd read a number of useful Castañeda Op-Ed pieces in the LA Times, and know him as a Mexicano diplomat. The subtitle on the cover offers an explanation, From Migrants to Immigrants. Ah. A Mexicano perspective on U.S. immigration issues. Bién, bién, let's see what the former Mexican foreign minister contributes to our national dialog.
As I stride away toward the check-out desk, another spine catches my eye. Xican Enough. "Oddly nationalistic--in a good way--" I think, but pulling it down, I see the actual title reads Mexican Enough, My Life Between the Borderlines. The library has stuck a "NEW" label on the spine covering the "Me" in "Mexican." Which is ironic, given that Stephanie Elizondo Griest's early pages confess to her abandonment of her Mexicritude in high school, until she learns she'll qualify for college scholarships and numerouse ethnic-centered bennies by admitting her mother's heritage.

As one might expect, although the two titles weigh about one pound, Castañeda's is the heavier work. On the other hand, Griest's travelogue is more fun. The foreign minister builds upon statistical and scholarly reports while Griest builds upon her first-hand experience gleaned from a year in Guanajuato learning Spanish and getting in touch with her other cultura. The two make excellent companion pieces. When the Mexican's analysis begins to slow, a quick detour with the Mexican Unitedstatesian to the lucha libre gym provides a nice breather and the warm touch of human interest absent from the heavier work.

Castañeda's overview holds that U.S. politics, less than a growing Mexican economy, influenced the changes he sees in the Mexicano diaspora. Prior to Clinton's launching the TLC--NAFTA--Mexican immigration followed a circularity pattern. Agricultural workers, for example, followed the crops from Spring to Summer to Fall, and when the picking and weeding slowed, the workers would go back home for Winter. Next year, they're back, "bumerangas que la mano de diós por este mundo tiró" writes Abelardo.

Come NAFTA and the tightening of the border, circularity becomes more problematic. U.S. immigration law, historically more a breach than observance phenomenon, becomes more severe. Immigrants have a disincentive to flow in the tightening gyre of circularity--they can't come back--so large numbers settle down in the states and send for their families instead.

Griest is fascinated with emigration, too. Whole neighborhoods stand empty of men. In a domino effect, when one neighbor heads north and starts sending money back, others follow. The newer homes, the shiny pickup trucks, the stepladder kids, evince a year or two up north. Castañeda evokes a once-common view among Mexicans that only the weak and afraid left la Republica for el norte. That resentment is far from what Griest experiences.

The scholarly Castañeda starts spinning his conclusion, noting "Nothing on the immigration front ever is devoid of costs, pain, and tough decisions, and nothing ever happens quickly....Mexican migration's multicausal, multifactor origins and persistence suggest that caution and skepticism are in order. The sum of elements that have driven migration for more than a century cannot be boiled down to one single, economic consideration."

Tourist Griest experiences a different reality, at the grass roots, free from footnotes and bibliography. In a visit to an elementary school, the teacher quizzes the kids. Hands shoot up when she asks who wants to be a doctor? ¡Me! ¡me! A teacher? ¡Me! ¡me! Who wants to be this, that. ¡Me! ¡me! "'So none of you want to go to El Norte?' 'I DO, I DO!' they scream....But if you go to El Norte, you won't be a doctor or a teacher...You won't be anything. You'll just be a mojado. Too late: they are brimming with plans. One kid says he wants to go to Los Estados Unidos to buy a truck so he can drive it home and be a chauffeur. Another wants to go so he can build Mamá a house because Papá never will. Alma looks at me and shrugs. My stomach shrivels."

Castañeda deserves the last word. "Unauthorized worker." OK, two words. Some gente, Castañeda names these "American" and "conservative," like to call immigrants "illegal alien" to emphasize the law issue. Mexicans, Castañeda avers (and Chicanas Chicanos, he could have added), use "undocumented worker" to highlight the immigrants' limbo of being neither legal nor illegal. A term used by U.S. liberals and Mexican realists, he claims, "seeks to incorporate both the fact there is an issue of legality, but not only of legality." Given the ambiguity of migrant status against history's ever-shifting enforcement or not, the term--it'll never catch on--is "unauthorized worker."

A final confluence and coincidence. Like so many Mexicans, Castañeda gives up on the continent-not-a-country debate and refers to Unitedstatesians as "Americans." That is probably a global malapropism people like me will one day come to tolerate. The usage has pretty well permeated my consciousness, I noticed Sunday, when I looked at my program for the L.A. Philharmonic's Disney Hall concert. A British composer-conductor named Thomas Adès was performing his millenium piece, "America: A Prophecy." Melodies from Charles Ives, maybe Gershwin, or something spiritually jazzy, I was thinking. Nope. It's the Maya. The prophecy of the beginning of European migration to America--the original Unauthorized Residents, if you will. A most interesting piece. As the program notes declare, One of the ironies of the piece is that there is no real Maya music to be quoted – not only because the Spanish did everything they could to obliterate everything Mayan but because there was no musical notation before they came. Words, though, did survive, passed down and copied through the centuries, and these, from the books of the chilam balam (jaguar seers), provide Adès with the text for his mezzo-soprano’s prophecy-lament.

I recommend finding Adès' piece and giving it a spin. Ditto these two interestingly contrapuntal works on Mexico and Mexicans in America. All of it.

News from the National Hispanic Cultural Center
Spring lies ready to pounce upon us sooner than we might expect. And Springtime--May, in fact--brings the National Latino Writers Conference. This intensive workshop event brings writers and writing teachers from across the nation together for half a week to explore literary skill, hear the views of accomplished writers, and share in the camaraderie of our literary culture.

Applications to attend the Conference are now open. Send an inquiry to the Director, Carlos Vásquez, or visit the Center's website for details.

Among the highlights of the National Latino Writers Conference is the presentation of El Premio Aztlán Literary Award. Here's the preliminary news release. Presses and individuals may nominate candidates for consideration.

Premio Aztlán Literary Award

The Premio Aztlán Literary Award is a national literary award, established to encourage and reward emerging Chicana and Chicano authors. Renowned author, Rudolfo Anaya and his wife, Patricia, founded Premio Aztlán in 1993. This year’s award and lecture will be given at the National Latino Writers Conference, May 21-23, 09.

• Literary prize is for a work of fiction (novels and collections of short stories) published within the calendar year.
• Authors must have published not more than two books.
• Entries must be the work of living authors.
• Edited works, self-published books or manuscripts in process are not accepted.

• No poetry, children or young adult literature will be considered.

• Recipient must be present to receive the award and is expected to give a lecture.

• Deadline for submission is January 30, 2009.

Past prize recipients include:
Veronica Gonzalez
Reyna Grande
Gene Guerín
Mary Helen Lagasse
Sergio Troncoso
Ronald Ruíz
Wendell Mayo
Norma Cantú
Alicia Gaspar de Alba

Photo courtesy NHCC: Los Anaya celebrate Reyna Grande's Premio Aztlán.

That's the penultimate Tuesday of the year's penultimate month. Can you believe how tempus fugit? Thanksgiving just around the corner. Helpful Indians. Starving Pilgrims (the original illegals). Turkey. Stuffiing. Desserts, just or just dessert.

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Hasta next week. Les wachamos.


1 comment:

Corina said...

What an interesting coincidence to find the two books at the same time and be able to pose one against the other. Life creates fortunate coincidences at times.