Sunday, February 05, 2012

"Taking With Me The Land:" Xicana Nebraska by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Chiles Rellenos: all ingredients from my
Nebraska garden or locally grown in Nebraska gardens/farms

In honor of the Libro Traficante Caravan that will be leaving on a banned books “traficante” journey Monday, March 12 from Houston, Texas heading to Tucson, Arizona (planned arrival is Saturday, March 17th), I dedicate this bloga entry to their efforts by offering a reflection about “recognizing" and "speaking place” -- the importance of looking around and understanding every aspect about where you are, placing yourself meaningfully 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 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 often talk about land: the land we lost, 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; Arturo Islas’ Rain God which grapples so eloquently and painfully with identity 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 lately I’ve been adding 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. The wonders I have seen on this 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 contemplated “migrating” to Nebraska to teach at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “There is magic here, if you can see it.”

maize from Nebraska garden

I’ve lived on the edge of the sea (Califas) 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 colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

The Plains of Nebraska

I read My Antonia en Califas long before I ever thought about moving here. I was in San Francisco, at a friend’s house. It was raining and I was sitting next to the window reading and intermittently watching the rain create uneven trails down the pane of glass. During one of Cather’s descriptions much like the one 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 the "place."

The prairie is like a tidepool. From far away, a tide pool looks like rocks and water—that is all. One could call it "empty." But if you get closer, if you bend down, if you use your fingers to reach in toward the greens and 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), it is teeming. The earth and sky are teeming if you seek to observe with passion.

For example, yesterday we had a heavy snowstorm. I shoveled a foot of snow. One may think that nothing, absolutely nothing is underneath all that snow. Yet like the tidepool, 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 Califas and termites in East L.A. One day my uncle Frank gave me a memorable gift. He had called me into the garage and gave me a bottle, wide enough to have probably been a peanut butter glass container. There were pieces of wood in the bottle—that’s all I saw at first. 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, watching for a long time—watching their pincers have at the wood.

The subnivian zone here, the Califas termites remind me of Mexico and the flying cockroaches en Torreon con mi 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, Mexico (perhaps near Tonalá). On that particular day, not only did we find opals, we observed a truck (filled to the brim with mangos) suddenly jack knife and turn over on its side. Thousands of red orange (some green) mangos covered the side of the road, rolling mangos everywhere. 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 sweaters, grabbing at an old empty plastic bag on the side of the road, filling them up, laughing and amazed at the red orange road.

The Bison Trail in Lincoln, Nebraska

During the 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 always calls as I head 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--hay 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” title functions as a way to disrupt fixed constructions of place.

A few days ago, I was at a reception for fiction writers and poets from out of town. One of them approached me and asked how I could live in a geographic region where there is nothing. “There is nothing here on the Plains” he said. I agreed that there was nothing – for him. He wasn’t looking. "Nothing" registered for him because he has always been told, as 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 that illustrates 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 the "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.

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 façade, 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 describes--red and sea-like in its movements (big and little Bluestem grasses, switch grass, etc.) are present south on the Gulf of Mexico (and Latin America: the Gran Chaco of Bolivia y Argentina).

The Los Angeles Public Library

The Nebraska State Capitol

However, I 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 "land" and "a people" 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. "Mestizos" "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 in saying, "You'll lose your Xicana roots over there." Pues what has happened es que I've planted Xicana roots here "taking with me the land de alla." When I was little, I remember my parents constantly telling me: "If anyone asks who you are, you tell them you are an American." They would tell me this with a worry I didn't understand at the time. They were recent immigrants. Perhaps my mother worried they would deport me, they would somehow take me away or take all of us. This worry is still alive and real today in Nebraska, Alabama, in Arizona--just to name a few states. (click on this link to view the latest on immigration raids) 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 what the Puritans and later nineteenth-century and contemporary writers have defined as "American"-- waves of immigrant writing throughout the years grappling with this identity, legislators forcing their opinion on what "American" is in order to have license to deport, license to ban multicultural teaching, license to ban Ethnic Studies, license to take away books or change what has been written by raza to promote a definition of "American" that is narrow and excludes all voices.

You go Libro Traficante Banned Book Caravan—you go and take Arizona all those books they banned. Cross that state line and bestow on those hungry young students, on all of the state—las palabras de tantas culturas, de tantas voces from where we live, from where we came, from where we walk taking our land with us.


Norma Cantu said...

beautiful, amelia. and it remains true that there is magic in that midwest land of the sioux and of our ancestors.

John said...

I like your notion of,"constant migrancy". I think you speak to the central issue of being when you use this locution. The land changes us, in spite of our best efforts to be otherwise engaged. We are always involved in the action of self becoming, regardless of geography and politics. The poet who told you that there is nothing to be had where you were going reveals only his own emptiness and impoverished imagination. Only a poetaster would say anything so absurd.
The prarie has always terrified me. The sky is too big and it is altogether much too easy to fall off the edge of the earth in such a space.


Melinda Palacio said...

Breathtaking post.

Olga said...

Amelia, I loved this. I found the journey from the self to the plains of Nebraska, to the tidepools to the subnivian zone all very poetic, insightful, and thought provoking. Beautifully written. Gracias!

Deborah A. Miranda said...

Amelia, my grandmother was born in a tiny town in Nebraska (Elwood) and went to two years of college at U of Nebraska, Kearney. She couldn't wait to get out of Nebraska, and ended up moving to Southern California in her 20's (around 1920), when it was still very beautiful and relatively unpopulated. "We thought we'd found paradise," she said. But in her old age, all she ever talked about was Nebraska. "Oh, the air on those mornings," she'd say. and the sunflowers. She loved the sunflowers "even though everyone else thought they were trash." It was the wide open spaces she missed most, the family farm, the solitude and sand hills and wide flat rivers. Thanks for bringing that all back to me. I so often forget that I'm not just a child of California, but of Nebraska as well. Thanks for the Anzaldua quote - and for this lovely piece.

Librotraficante said...

Beautiful! Powerful. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing your vision and doing all the work you do for our community.

We will share this on our radio show, on the bus, and in Tucson.

Only Art Can Save Us!

Warmest regards,

Tony Diaz