Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chicano plots for your blockbuster

by Rudy Ch. Garcia
If you've got writer's block about your next novel, short story or lit piece to win that Pulitzer, read on.

On long-distance calls with my mom this year, one of her regular reports was about how the trees in her yard were dying in the Texas drought. No matter how much she watered, she still lost about half of them on her quarter-acre property on the outskirts of San Antonio, even her hardy mesquites. She, and her trees, are just another example of collateral damage from global warming. Mom's in her 80s and I'm in my 60s, so neither one of us will suffer long from this. However, a child of six will likely have a long thirsty future, maybe one with not very many trees.

Six-year-olds, Chicano and otherwise, dying trees, drought, an arid American Southwest (and northern Mexico), global warming--what's any of this got to do with a lit blog? Nothing more than the Occupy movement, Greenpeace and election politics have to do with latino lit. If we don't see connections to us, then we will make none.

This July's 60mph dust storms in the Phoenix area seem a reincarnation of the 50s Dust Bowl's immense storms, called "Black Blizzards" and "Black Rollers." Those eventually affected one hundred million acres, centered in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.

Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. Many "Okies" families moved to California where economic conditions were little better than what they'd left. They affected author John Steinbeck enough to write about in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, [wherein many of these "Hispanics" were portrayed as lazy shiftless drunks]. Those droughts began in the Southwestern United States, New Mexico and Texas during 1950 and '51; the drought spread through the Central Plains, Midwest and certain Rocky Mountain States, particularly between 1953 and 1957, and into Nebraska. Texas experienced the most severe drought in recorded history. 244 of Texas’ 254 counties were declared federal disaster areas.

Before I share the background of hard data that might kick-start or revive your lit career, here're some themes that sound like science fiction but could eventually qualify as nonfiction:

1. Epic war story: Drought-stricken Mexican peasants move across the border in the tens of thousands to avoid starvation, and successfully overcome thousands of troops stationed along the border. The forced-migration results in genocidal slaughter, but also overcrowding in homes far from the border. Oh, wait--that's already nonfiction.

2. Neohistorical fiction: An Irish-American-Chicano descendant of Billy the Kid finds safe harbor in those overcrowded homes because of his love for a mexicana and his Spanish poetry lamenting the loss of the few verdant patches in Aztlán. He's on the run from Homeland Security who used a security wand on him at the Denver airport, a violation he returned by taking out several with his Azteco-karate.

3. A thriller: New Mexican and southern Colorado descendants of the Spanish land-grant families unite with Greenpeace activists to put a stop to Las Vegas water theft in a plot reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang, except it's got more than all-Anglo protagonists.

4. A comedy about the daily trials of four urban Denver Chicano families having to take in their NM and Texas permanently unemployed relatives who only know how to pick pecans and shear sheep.

5. A tragic epic about how one anciana in her 90s struggles to keep her mesquite trees alive, despite a limited income and the exorbitant cost of watering her lawn. The antagonists are played by her prosperous sons who wrestle each month whether to send her money to support her manic love for dying trees.

6. Fantasy/sci-fi: A long-thought-dead Anasazi deity is freed by 2012 SW dust storms from where his previous believers had incarcerated him to prevent future droughts. He wreaks havoc by leading megastorms into burying Scottsdale, then uses fractures in the Earth precipitated by energy company hydraulic fracting to level most of the Rocky Mt. Front Range, until some mexicanito first graders learn to sing one of the ancient songs, sapping his powers and taking them into themselves to become new superheroes--Los Seis Valientes de Globeville.

7. You've got the idea by now; you don't even have to let your imagination work that hard. There's much lit material from what will become "The Age of Thirst," as author deBuys describes it in excerpts that follow. Save these bullets and take one PRN, whenever you're wondering where your future plots--and your future--will take you.

This data is liberally taken from a longer piece by William deBuys [12/4/11] entitled "The Age of Thirst in the American West: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization", posted at Tomgram, a site I've previously recommended. My comments are [bracketed].
  • 2010 tied for the warmest year on record. And 2011? According to the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it is likely to come in 10th, once November and December temperatures are tallied.
  • With 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.
  • A recent study indicates Arctic ice is now melting at rates unprecedented in the last 1,450 years, as far back as reasonably accurate reconstructions of an environment can be modeled.
  • According to science journal Nature, the melting permafrost of the tundra may soon begin releasing global-warming gases in massive quantities.
  • Recently, Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, suggested that by century’s end Earth’s temperature could rise by a staggering 6º Celsius (almost 11º Fahrenheit).
  • International climate-change negotiators had been trying to keep that rise to a “mere” 2º C. “Everybody, even schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” was the way Birol summed the situation up. If only it were so, but here in the U.S., none of the above news was even considered front-page worthy.
  • In 2010, the 1%'s superprofit/consumer economies pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than at any time since the industrial revolution began: 564 million tons more than in 2009. Our changes to more extreme weather this year all come from just less than 1 degree of the six degrees still to come.
  • Texas daily temperatures averaged 86.7° in June–August, 2011--a staggering 5.4°F above normal," according to the WMO, the highest average “ever recorded for any American state.” How much more above normal will they be when the other 5 degrees come into play?
  • This year is but the precursor to our children's, grandchildren's, [nephews', nieces', etc.] future. New records:
  • Biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres)
  • Biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres)
  • All-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres)
  • 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of recordkeeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.
  • Hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.
  • Virtually every urban center in Aztlán experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix leading the march toward unlivability this summer with a new record of 33 days of shoe-melting 110º F or higher. [Imagine not being able to finish a beer out on the patio before it got too hot to drink, for a whole month.]
  • If you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, possibly the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.
  • The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico. In 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days. “We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply,” she says. “By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done.”
  • In 2000, the lake began to fall -- like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than seven feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries.
  • The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River -- California, Arizona, and Nevada -- have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for those states. Even worse is surely on the way.
  • Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”
  • The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.
  • Droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly [in Aztlán]. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and the period from 1998-2004 did not last a full decade.
  • By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast, lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was dubbed a “megadrought.”
  • Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, relates that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than ones of the past.”
  • Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a “new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of the Dust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths -- the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts -- will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”
  • After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.
  • Archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, [maybe} helped end that culture.
  • We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost.
William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the just published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.

Copyright 2011 William deBuys is for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of our post-9/11 world and a clear sense of how our imperial globe actually works. Read more about the site's founder and editor Tom Engelhardt and his guest authors.



Ideas, they're everywhere.

While visiting ruins in the Southwest/Aztlán, I'v noticed that they tend to near dry river beds.

And one I've never used: After 9/11/2001, a Chicano who doesn't speak Spanish or recognize his ancestral connections finds out that most of the people he knows think he's an Arab . . .

Unknown said...

I busted up laughing through your scenarios, then I sobered up with the grim but necessary statistics. Great article.

Anonymous said...

Rudy, I got a kick out of it... loved your various possible pieces of fiction. I've sent it on to William deBuys... I have no doubt he'll be delighted...
Tom (of TomDispatch)

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

You do a fine job showing how many fiction-inviting scenarios we can find even as we give voice to under-recognized circumstances.

My forthcoming novel, THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY, is inspired by an actual event, as is the novel I'm working on now. The list of facts made me think about some of the research for the new novel, which deals in part with the segregation of Mexican-American students in some Texas schools.

Brittany said...

Such a great article Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. Many Okies families moved to California where economic conditions were little better than what they'd left. In which hey affected author John Steinbeck enough to write about in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Thanks for sharing this article.