Saturday, December 30, 2017

Los Reyes Magos in the Blizzard of 47 By Antonio SolisGomez, © Copyright 2004 Illustrations by Sergio Hernandez


 Part I (Part II January 6 2018)

Chupón fell backwards, tumbling off the wooden box where he was standing. His assailant, the moppy haired lad who went by the name of Chorrito, because he always finished last in the peeing contests, had scored with a snowball from twenty feet. It was pure luck and everyone said it was a sapo shot. Chorrito was claiming it wasn’t when a snowball hit him square in the face and he ran home crying, ending his momentary fame.

It had been snowing off and on since Thanksgiving and a week after Christmas the biggest snowfall ever recorded in El Paso dumped thirty inches, making all the streets impassable and bringing everything to a standstill. School was canceled, mothers and fathers stayed home from work, city services were closed and the streetcars stopped running.

The white cover of snow was an awesome sight to us children, obscuring all the defects and imperfections of our barrio that we knew by heart. The potholes in the streets were no longer. Tonia’s house, charred by fire three years ago, looked perfect. The tumbleweed infested field next to the school looked like a picture post card from some winter vacation spot. Even the red brick tenement on the corner, with the dilapidated wooden porch, looked inviting. Best of all the snow had erased all the boundaries that kept the children from Overland Street, where I lived, from playing with children from Durango or León. The snow magically nullified old conflicts, erased fears, and created new perceptions. It was hard to tell where the sidewalk ended and the street began. The López house no longer had front steps where Señor López would sit and chase the kids who dared to play in front. The pit bull that used to be tied to the tree in Maclovia’s yard, next to the ally that we used as a shortcut to get to school, was taken inside and for the first time we could walk by without fear.

The snowball fight was held at the infamous hoyo, the site of the Hix Building that had burned to the ground three years before, leaving a large steep sided gapping hole that was formerly the basement and now our play area. It was also the unofficial neighborhood dump, where people unloaded large unwieldy household items such as mattresses, too urine stained or too full of bedbugs to be of any further use, or automobile tires too bald and slick to prevent thorns from puncturing them. The tires became walls for our forts, the mattresses trampolines. Any items of real value were quickly taken by old Tomás, the local ragman, to be sold across the border in Juárez. The hoyo was also prized by the derelicts, providing shelter directly beneath the sidewalk where once an elevator moved merchandize to and from the curb. The hobos had long departed for warmer climes and only their frozen turds were left to remind us that they had been there.

The hoyo in disputed territory belonged to no one and the unwritten rule was that it was to be used by whoever arrived first. León Street being closest they were often in possession and we the Overland boys inevitably left out. The snow was a special opportunity and no one objected when the rule in place was ignored and boys from all the surrounding area assembled at the top of the slopes to ride the old car fenders down like sleds. 

The snowball fight began spontaneously and crossed the established street boundaries, Leon boys mixing with Overland and Durango boys and the only way to distinguish opponents was based on where in the hoyo one happened to be when the fight broke out.

Chupón, whose nickname came from a childhood dependence on the nipple of his baby bottle, an early pacifier and which in that day and age was still a taboo, was the reigning bad boy, got up after he was knocked down and began throwing wildly from his stash of snowballs. He was throwing at Chorrito but it was Lupe, the girl everyone knew as La Negra, preferring the company of boys to that of girls and tolerated by the boys because she allowed herself to be kissed, who threw the snowball that sent Chorrito home crying. That exchange of snowballs was the stuff of legends and would be talked about for months to come when snow was but a memory.

We played until the sun was below the rooftops, the snow and cold long ago having penetrated through the old socks that we had used as gloves and through the canvas of our tennis shoes. But it had been a terrific day we all thought, even those of us who had to go home and face the consequences of staying out so long and returning shivering and wet.

My older brother and I had talked about our entrance as we walked home. It was the first thought we had given home since we had started playing that morning and we couldn’t tell if we were trembling more from cold or fear. The heated room felt delicious as we walked in with baited breath. The gas heater on the kitchen floor of our two-room apartment was burning; its filigreed ceramic inserts glowing yellow like molten lava. The stove oven was on also, as were all four burners. The kitchen table was cleared, telling us that dinner had been served and put away.

Thankfully the punishment was swift, my stepfather whipping out his belt as we walked in and strapping our backside, some landing on our buttocks and some on our legs. Defiantly we no longer cried, independently arriving at this strategy just to spite him, even when we were in the wrong. Our punishment meted, mother got us to take off our wet clothing and hung them on the back of a chair and we were sent to bed without supper.

The next day, Friday, was New Year’s Eve and El Paso was getting more snow. As expected, my brother and I were grounded and we worked on a large jigsaw puzzle until Uncle Frank and Aunt Gina, who lived in the next apartment, came over that evening to celebrate. We had planned to hop into my stepfather’s 39 Chevy and cross the border into Juárez to celebrate with my godparents but the snow had laid those plans to rest. In the Mexican kinship system my godparents were my ninos and the ties that bound us were as strong as blood family. I was sorry not to be going to their house but in the end it turned out for the best.

About the time that Uncle Frank was starting to loosen up after drinking half the bottle of José Cuervo Tequila by himself, Doña Lupita came knocking at our door. She was the senior ranking tenant and served as the unofficial manager, making sure that tenants abided by the rules, handling tenants complaints, cleaning the lone bathroom and sweeping up the feces smeared pieces of newspaper that we used to clean ourselves and that we were prohibited from flushing down the toilet. She did everything around there except collect the rent, that was left to Mr. Murrillo, an old geezer with a prosthetic hand that he covered in a tight leather black glove and that he used to pound us on the head whenever he was able to sneak up on us. But tonight she had come over just to wish us a Happy New Year and to encourage us to participate in the pageant of the three wise men held every year at the neighborhood Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church and of which she was in charge.

 Doña Lupita was a large jovial take charge kind of person, the kind of leader found in many small communities and whose public service and personal life are so intertwined that they are indistinguishable. She was married once and had a grown son and a grandson but she had been a widow for many years and her life now revolved around the Church and its calendar of activities. She had a pleasant face but her rasping voice and hips, as big as the horse that pulled the cart that the ragman, Tomás, used to haul away the junk that he pulled from the neighborhood and drove into Juárez, probably kept any suitors at bay.

Her mission that night was to recruit men to play the part of the Three Wise men. She didn’t have much time since the pageant was but a few days away, on the day of the Epiphany, traditionally the day of gift giving in our family. My stepfather said flat out no, but uncle Frank was wavering, maybe because he was already tipsy and the inhibitions that normally prevented him from even talking to anyone outside the family were put to rest by the tequila shots that he was downing since early evening.

Uncle Frank was a cook at the same hotel where both my mother and grandmother worked as chambermaids. Ordinarily he would have worked that night, as had my grandmother, New Years Eve being one of the busiest nights at the hotel. But tonight he had uncharacteristically decided that he deserved a night off with his wife, a woman that he had brought from Italy right after the war. He had met her at the hospital of a small town when he was injured in a battle. She was his nurse and they fell quickly in love. Her name was really Georgina and she was the most beautiful woman that anyone in our family had ever seen. She spoke Spanish, our language at home, with a halting lilt, which I thought was one of her most endearing qualities until I found out that all Italians normally talked that way. I was a little disappointed but I still thought that she was beautiful. 

Aunt Gina was encouraging Uncle frank to accept Doña Lupita’s invitation and he bent to her will, saying that he would do it. Doña Lupita was thrilled and accepted Uncle Frank’s invitation to join them in downing a tequilaso, to seal the deal. Doña Lupita left an hour and five tequilasos later, walking more like Tomás’ horse then when she arrived.

Doña Lupita’s troubles began to manifest the next day when Uncle Frank was cleared headed enough to realize what he had done and backed out as did the other men in other apartments whom she had convinced the previous night while under the influence of the New Year’s celebration.

That’s how my brother and I were told by Doña Lupita that if we found three adults to play the parts in the pageant she would give us three dollars. My brother and I began to calculate all the stuff that we could buy with our share of the money, it being much more than the five or ten cents that we normally earned finding boxes for a local shoe maker and for which we roamed the streets and alleys of downtown El Paso.

Doña Lupita invited my brother and me to the rehearsal the following day and instructed us on what to tell a potential wise man, the most important being that he would have to be at the church promptly at 6:00 pm on the day on the of the performance for a dress rehearsal. The other cast members were already rehearsing and the lines of the three wise men had been given to one of the angels to alleviate the problem of filling the roles. The angel, whose role had been expanded to that of narrator, was none other than the local corner grocer Don Basilio, a robust man with a handlebar moustache that he refused to shave for the part in the pageant and Doña Lupita, hard pressed for actors, had allowed him to keep it. 

The rest of that day my brother and I tried to convince Uncle Frank and the two other men in the apartment house that reneged, to reconsider. Having seen that morning’s rehearsal we were able to make a pretty good pitch, a gift for lying already an asset that we both had cultivated and often used to our advantage. Alas no amount of embellishing could dissuade any of them, the cold sobering daylight having dissipated the enthusiasm of the previous night.

One of the other men we knew well not only because he was Chupón’s father but because we saw him regularly during our afternoon jaunts when we were looking for boxes. He worked for the city and he walked along the curbs pushing a fifty-gallon cardboard drum mounted on a dolly, sweeping up with his broom and dustpan to make sure that the streets were nice and clean. We always asked him if he had seen any boxes and sometimes he would give us a good lead.

The other man was a newer tenant and nobody knew much about him other than that he was hen pecked by his wife. I had overheard my mother telling Gina that she had seen him hanging laundry and assumed that he was doing his wife a favor but when the wife had come out and berated the way he had washed one of her sweaters, my mother knew that he was solely responsible for the wash. This was unheard of, a man with a perfectly healthy wife, doing the laundry.

My brother and I made our presentation and we could tell that he wanted to participate but he looked over at his wife and saw the look of disapproval on her face and said that he couldn’t do it. We knocked on a few other doors of the apartment house but were left at the end of that first day with a big zero and totally disheartened.

On Sunday my mother got us up early for Mass and we walked along the same shoulder high path cleared through the snow that we had used when we visited the pageant rehearsal. Going to church was the one rule that my mother never relaxed. On others, she could be persuaded but going to mass was sacrosanct and inviolable. She had grown up in a home that was Catholic in name only, my grandmother being what she described as a free thinker and never thinking very highly of priests, knowing that in her village they had fathered children with local women. But mother had a religious experience when she was young, a vision of the Holy Mother appearing before her in a soap bubble as she was washing her hair. She told only her best friend and confidant Evangelina who was so impressed with the story of the apparition that mother got her to promise to attend church with her from that day forward. Now, it was hard to tell which of the two had the vision, they both being devote and unfailing in their Catholic duties.

My mother’s friend, Evangelina, was tall and slender, with a strong laughing voice that made one feel happy immediately when she walked into a room and started speaking. Nothing seemed to ever get her down either. Every problem had a solution, every obstacle a way to overcome. It was she that had asked me why I was so down in the mouth and when I explained she infused both my brother and me with optimism. And that’s how we came upon the two obvious choices.

One of them was the barrio drunk; a grenade mangled war hero that in anger captured over twenty Japanese soldiers after his arm was blown apart. My brother and I had first met him one Sunday as we were walking home from the local cinema. He was staggering out of a bar, struggling to strap on his wooden arm and offered us a quarter if we would help him. We strapped it incorrectly to his stump but he was so drunk that he didn’t care that the fake arm was raised as if he was hailing a cab. We helped him get home, a one room apartment with an entrance right off the sidewalk and one of several in a building that took up half the block on the same street where we lived. At the corner was the other small grocery store where we shopped once our credit was tapped out at Don Basilio’s. The ex soldier, before the war was known as guapo, because of his good looks, but now most people just called him Roberto or referred to him as El Borrachito, the little drunk.

The other man we thought of asking was old Tomás the rag picker and local storyteller. We were his most avid listeners and most summer evenings would find us outside his doorstep, along with some of the other neighborhood children, in rapt attention. He had a prodigious memory and brought to life all the familiar tales of beautiful princesses and evil witches as well as more contemporary characters such as the picaresque Don Cacahuate and the adventurer Juan Sin Miedo. We thought he would make an ideal wise man, the only trouble being that he hated the Catholic Church. He liked Christ but getting him to agree was not going to be easy. But we didn’t have to worry about that until we saw him on Monday.

It was mid morning on Monday by the time we finished our chores and were allowed to go outside. Our stepfather was home again. The snow making his carpentry trade impossible to ply, he had put us to clean and oil each and every one of his tools, hammers, chisels, saws, plumbs, squares, even the chalk boxes. Stuff in his toolbox that was made of wood such as his rulers and tool handles, we also cleaned and applied a protective oil.

It was a cold gray day, with the wind having blown some of the snow into drifts that were taller than we were. We felt like little rats in a maze as we made our way through the paths carved out by men using common shovels. Even our stepfather, who was not very sociable, had pitched in to clear a portion of the path in front of our apartment building. Of course it had been Doña Lupita that had organized the project, going up and down the street knocking on doors to solicit help. In the end a path was cleared, allowing us to get to the two stores, the church and the school, although the school path was not to be used until the following week.

We decided to visit old Tomás first since El Borrachito was never about before noon. Old Tomás lived by the railroad tracks several blocks away and we were hopeful that the sidewalks on other streets had pathways. Unfortunately this was not always the case. At best portions of sidewalk had been cleared by civic-minded individuals directly in front of their homes but much of what we found were paths where people had simply walked on the snow. Still it was better than having to make our own path, as we had to do when we neared the tracks. We had to look for Tomás’ place among the other homes that piled with snow looked indistinguishable. Tomás’ house normally was impossible to miss, the roof with several colors of roofing paper all just sort of tacked on to whatever was underneath. And a fence too that was an assortment of bedsprings and headboards, metal crates, pieces of corrugated roofing, wooden doors and a section of old tires covered in chicken wire and all of it now was covered in white. Thankfully we could still see the patches of plywood and boards and the large Coca Cola sign with a smiling woman holding the familiar bottle, that he had used to cover holes in the walls.

We could see a path from his front door to the makeshift stable but couldn’t see Diablo, his horse. We didn’t have to ask him where Diablo was, his neighing at our approach from within the house making it very clear.
“Come in muchachos,” he said cheerfully, always glad for company. “What brings you here on such a cold day?”

“We were just remembering the story you told us once about the three kings having come from India and we wanted to hear it again,” Ruly sort of lied.

“Well that’s a rather long story. Are you sure you have enough time?”

“We do if you do,” I said enthusiastically.

And it was a long story. He went into some detail about how Jesus had been in India during the years that are not accounted for in the Bible, between the time he was twelve and thirty. And how in India he had been given help to prepare him for His mission, being taught the advanced meditation and healing techniques that he used in His ministry.

It was already growing dark by the time Tomás was finishing the story, telling us that the Three Kings that visited Christ at His birth were from India, having come to honor the appearance of such an advanced and Divine Being and that it was they that Jesus visited during those missing years.

Now it was our turn and we told Tomás about the pageant and how much good and happiness it would give people to see it and then the part that we needed him to play the part of one of the Kings. More than once during his story he had rallied against the Catholic Church, making my brother and me cringe but in the end he agreed after we told him that Diablo could also be in the pageant.

By the time we got home it was late and we weren’t allowed out again. El Borrachito would have to wait until the following day. That night more snow fell, a full four inches, covering everything in a pristine mantle of white. The next day we were anxious to visit with El Borrachito but our stepfather made us run over to the store several times and gave us more chores. We had to polish his work boots, sweep and mop the floor of the two room apartment and he wanted one of us around to be a go-fer while he fixed an old motor. It landed on me and I had to find him his screwdriver, get him the wrench, shine a flashlight inside the motor. Finally we finished and he reluctantly let us go.

We found El Borrachito, whom we called by his first name Roberto, at the corner store talking with Don Basilio. It made our job easier because the grocer had already partially convinced him to take the part of one of the Kings. The clincher was telling him that there would be a cast party with refreshments. He was already tipsy but he promised that he would be sober on the day of the performance.

We were happy that we had two of the three wise men cast but we were still missing a third person. We were desperate and asked several of the men we met at the store but all refused, citing commitments of one kind or another or simply just shaking their heads. It was my brother Ruly, that first mentioned the name of Gordo Chávez, the barrio drug dealer who had already done time at the infamous Federal prison on the outskirts of town known as ‘la tuna’, the prickly pear. Gordo Chávez was Maclovia’s son and it was his pit bull that menaced all the children as they passed by on the way to school. He actually owed us a favor from a time that he had given Ruly a tin of pipe tobacco for safe keeping when he was being chased by the police. Ruly just put it in his pocket and we continued playing marbles on our knees as if nothing had transpired. After the police had searched Gordo Chávez and found nothing he came back and retrieved his stash. He wanted to give us some money but we knew better than to accept it.

The only reason Ruly was now suggesting his name was that Maclovia was a Guadalupana, a member of the church service group named after the Virgin of Guadalupe. She was a very pious woman who always wore a black dress with a black shawl over her head and shoulders. When we had first noticed her attire and asked our mother why she never wore anything else, mother said that she was in ‘luto’ mourning the death of her husband some fifteen years back. We knew that she now prayed constantly for the redemption of Gordo Chávez and every week placed the tallest candle possible in front of the altar, an enticement for God to grant her this boon. This last part our grandmother had told us because being a free thinker she thought it was all a bunch of baloney. But now we were thinking that maybe Gordo Chávez would want to please his mother by taking part in the pageant and at the same time please his probation officer that visited him every week to make sure that he was not up to his old tricks. We thought it was a win win situation and that encouraged us to attempt going up to Maclovia’s front door.

The brown pit bull’s name was Tarzan and he had thick muscular shoulders and a big head with massive teeth. It was rumored that he had once snatched a roasting pig from a neighbor’s party and chowed it down as the neighbor and his guests stood by, afraid to challenge him. That’s when the necessity of the chain that now held him was first recognized and placed on his collar. He guarded the entrance to the house, his chain being just the right length to accost any intruders or guests on the walkway but not long enough to get onto the porch. We had to somehow distract him to be able to run up to the porch to knock on the door. We stared at the door for a long time from across the street and finally mustered enough courage to walk to the corner, cross and make our way through the cleared snow path to stand in front of Maclovia’s house. Tarzan had been curious but not barking, just watching warily from his crouched position, his massive head still lying on his paws. Once we reached the front of his house he became enraged, barking and pulling with all his strength at the thick chain. We couldn’t do it. We were both petrified with fear and we resorted to throwing small snowballs on the door and calling Gordo Chávez’ name. Finally he came out to investigate why the dog was in such an uproar and he saw us standing meekly.

“Orale chavos,” he said to us in his heavy voice. “What you all want?”      

 “We wanted to ask you something,” my brother said, barely audibly above the dog’s barking.

“Shut up Tarzan,” Gordo Chávez called out and the dog was immediately quiet and he walked back to his former position, not seeming to mind the cold.

“Come on in,” he said. “It’s too damn cold out here.”

The front room had a large corner fireplace and flames sprouting from a couple of small logs. We instinctively walked across the carpet to stand by the warmth of the fire.

“We came to ask if you would be in the Christmas pageant,” Ruly said, encouraged by his friendliness. 

“What! You gotta be kidding right?” he said, his voice sounding louder and his large body looking bigger inside the house. They called him Gordo because he was chubby as a child but now he was just big, standing over six feet and weighing more than two hundred pounds.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Bargain Banter (and I'm Not Talking about Shopping)

Melinda Palacio           
All I Want for Christmas Is an End to the Fires!
Melinda and Santa Claus
Bargaining season came early, or late, depending on how you look at it. Usually the first of the year is the season for new year's resolutions and deals struck for self improvement. And, for some, this bargaining continues through lent or until I can forget that I even need self improvement, or until beach weather rolls around and it's time to think about fitting into two pieces of cloth for days spent on a tropical beach.
            When fire struck Santa Barbara and threatened our house in San Roque, I started praying like a football player in the Superbowl, hoping for that Hail Mary thrown with eyes closed to reach just the player to deliver a win for the Saints of New Orleans. The Thomas Fire broke out December 4 and burned Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for nearly a month and is now the worst fire in California's history. After two weeks of nonstop ash raining down on the town, I queued in line with small children to ask Santa for the best Christmas present that would benefit not only myself, but entire communities of children of all ages. I prayed to all saints and vowed to light a candle for Saint Barbara at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, where I awaited news about the fire.
Thank you Jesus! 

            My California neighborhood of San Roque had been under mandatory evacuation since the second week of the fire. I thought about all the possessions, including my old silver Chevy Camaro convertible, I had to be ready to give up to the fire from long distance Louisiana. When my friend, Susan, left her Mission Canyon home to evacuate at her son's house, she thought she was closing the door to her home for the last time.
            Steve, had perspective much quicker than I did, 'they're just things,' he said. True, they're just things.
            I am lucky and grateful for all that I have and every extra minute I breathe on this planet. When your mother dies young (mine at age 44), you feel like you are living on borrowed or extra time. Every minute is a gift and for that and the opportunity to share my art and words with the world, I am grateful. I am also besides myself happy that the fire is finally 90 percent contained and that my house and car survived. Thank you firefighters, thank you Santa Claus, thank you Jesus!

            I don't need a resolution to make 2018 better than last year (a change in the White House wouldn't hurt either, psst, Jesus, Santa Claus, Three Kings, anybody out there listening). I have a new book coming out in the new year and I have been given the gift that keeps on giving, music. Steve gave me a gorgeous guitar for my birthday last month and I've already learned several new songs. I think everyone should give the gift of music, even if you are a professed shower singer, like myself. Here's to being grateful for another minute, another day, another year. Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!
Go forth and make music!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Auto Repair Shops, Broken Bottles, and Tolstoy

Daniel Cano                                        


     I live in a neighborhood where a  ratty 1940s two-bedroom, one-bath home, about 1000 square feet, sells for $900.000, give-or-take. Fix it up, like add a third bedroom and bathroom, and you are well into the million dollar-plus category. Still, chances are if you sell the house, the new owner will demolish it and build a modern 2,000-3,000 square foot, multi-layered monstrosity, like the house up the street. That's just the way it is if you live anywhere in the Westside near the 405 or what the old timers called the Santa Diego Fwy.

     Now, for those prices, one might think that the location would be Brady Bunch pristine--tree-lined streets, sparkling sidewalks, and little traffic. Not so. Two blocks away from my house, at the corner of Venice Blvd. are two grease-stained auto-repair shops, tattoo and massage businesses, a Cuban-Mexican fused panaderia and marketa (forgive my Chicanismo), two hipster bars, a Vietnamese noodles place, two hair salons, a soccer-only sporting goods, a fingernail specialist, and a number of Thai, Nepalese, and Middle Eastern restaurants.

     Each morning I leave the house to walk my two small dogs, I wonder what new discovery I'll stumble upon. It's like a journey into the unknown, Jules Verne in the city. A block down, I cross a pot-holed alley and see the results of the fun some kids had last might. There are broken bottles on a weed-strewn parkway. I pull my dogs close to avoid the shards. (I won't describe the spot where homeless folks use the sidewalk for a bathroom.)

     Except for people in a hurry or on their phones, everyone I pass is friendly enough. Mostly, they all say good morning or nod. Sometimes, I stop for conversations, like with Jeff, a Mongrel club motorcycle rider, who spent $7,000 on vet bills to treat a dog that wasn't even his. "It's my dog now," he told me, emphatically.

     As I walk my dogs, I need to keep their noses out of the high weeds where people throw trash out of their cars. My dogs are game for eating anything that resembles food.

     I recently read D.K. Suzuki's essays on Zen Buddhism, more an academic treatise than a how-to book. So, I try to find beauty in the world surrounding me. In the early morning light, and as the sun sets in the evening, most things, I find, are beautiful: the trees, the dirt, the grass, hedges, the sky, and even the reflections off the broken glass. I am conscious of my breathing and thankful that my body still functions, if not perfectly, at least effectively. I use fire hydrants to do stretching exercises and low fences for pushups.

     About a month ago, I discovered a box of dusty books in a cardboard box out in front of a house a few blocks from my house. Of course, whenever I see anyone tossing books, I always look at a title or two, and I usually keep moving when I see cheesy romance and mystery novels. This time, there were books on philosophy and biology, and classic novels I'd already read. I reached town to pick up a thick tome--Leo Tolstoy's biography. The cover was torn, and though dirt-smudged, the book seemed to be in good shape. Naw, I thought to myself, I don't need to start bringing home stray books.

     As I continued walking my dogs, I kept thinking about the book. I mean, I've always found Tolstoy's writing provocative and profound, like his short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" It's about greed and how a man is promised all the land he can cover on horseback in a day's ride. There is a devil in there somewhere at whose urging the man pushes himself and his horse hard, trying to cover more land than he needs. At the end of the story, the man dies from exhaustion. He is buried in a grave six-feet by six-feet, and the narrator tells us that truly is all the land a man needs. It's been a long time since I read the story, and I might have confused some facts, but, after all these years, it's impact still resonates, especially now, at a time, when I see so many becoming slaves to credit cards and possessions, as well as huge house expenses.
     Back around 2010, I decided to read War and Peace, all thousand, or so, pages of it. It was so large, I mean, literally big. I needed two copies, one to carry in my car and one to keep at home. I read it every chance I got, and it still took nearly six months to get through it. Tolstoy threw everything into that novel, personal stories, historical documents, newspapers accounts, and even anthropological studies.

     I really made headway on a vacation to Puerto Rico, where I read for hours each day as I sat on the beach or in cafes. Now, when I see the pictures of Puerto Rico's devastation after this last hurricane, I think of the place fondly, and how Leo Tolstoy accompanied me as I walked San Juan's streets and found solace on its beaches.

     How could I leave Tolstoy's life cramped in a dirty box to be thrown out next trash day? So, I reversed course, pulled my dogs back, away from home. They didn't come without a fight. When I found the house with the books, I saw the biography was still there, as if it had been waiting for me, like it knew I was returning. I reached down and snagged it. It is about 700 pages, so it's a commitment, and I've been plowing my way through Tolstoy's life for a month now.
     For me, reading writers' biographies has always given me, not only inspiration to write, but many practical tips, as well. I read that Steinbeck would write in a journal before beginning each day's writing, describing how he'd approach the story that day. He also said he could only write after sharpening a certain number of pencils each morning. He viewed writing like a skilled tradesman views his craft, punching in and out at the same time each day, six days a week. For me, one of his more engaging lines was, "I don't know what an author does, but I can tell you what a writer does," or something to that effect.

     I've found that Russian writers are excellent models for writers from working class backgrounds. Their language, unlike some British and French writers, is more accessible, direct. When I read Chekov, I could see my friends and relatives in his characters, and in the situations he placed them. Though Tolstoy wrote about the upper classes, he did so not by glamorizing and romanticizing them, but by showing they foibles, insecurities and weaknesses, the rich as commoners.

     Unlike many writers who supported themselves by their work, Tolstoy didn't have that problem. He was a count and fairly rich. He wrote because he wanted to write. His friends and his wife were often angry at him because he spent more time with the peasants than on his next novel. He spent time in the fields chopping wood, carrying water from the well, and hauling hay. He was interested in creating an ideal society. He struggled mentally because of the poverty around him. He started schools for the peasant children, and he wrote books on education, religion, and life. To his wife, Sonya, this was all just an excuse to avoid writing his next novel, a waste of his genius, she thought. After all, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilich were viewed by many as masterpieces.
     Why do some good writers stop writing? I have friends, wonderful writers, who published one or two books and stopped. The great Mexican writer Juan Rulfo wrote only two books in his lifetime, Pedro Paramo and Al Filo del Agua, both considered masterpieces in world literature. He spent years on a third book he refused to publish, thinking it was never good enough. So, two books was his life time's production, not bad, like batting only twice in the major leagues and hitting grand slams both times. Then there are writers who write ten, twenty, thirty books, an astonishing production, but no masterpieces, not even close.

     Tolstoy suggested that he didn't write more fiction because he viewed it as frivolous when society had so many other important problems to confront. Yet, is it as simple as that?

     I know that each time I sit to a new novel, I must first overcome my fear. For artists, especially writers, whose words have direct meaning, fear is a constant: the fear of losing oneself, of failing, of insulting others, of getting it wrong, but mostly, for me, of entering the unknown.

     I understand how Tolstoy, after writing--no, struggling and suffering during the creation of War and Peace, including years of meticulous research, writing, and re-writing, was, then, terrified to have to do it again. This man, tortured by his wealth, knew that money, property, and possessions were an albatross around his neck. He tried to find ways to do as Christ told him to give it all away to the poor and come follow him. How could he do this and yet not hurt his wife and children, people who didn't want to be a saint like him? At the same time, Tolstoy turned his back on the State and the Church, seeing both of those institutions as the cause of man's suffering. Yet, he still attempted to live by the spirit of Christ's words. What must he have thought when asked, "When can we expect your next novel?"
     To Tolstoy, like all great writers, literature wasn't only entertainment, written for his audiences' joy of reading. Literature was life itself. When the masters create, it is only their creation that matters at the time. They must put aside family, friends, and obligations. Everything else becomes secondary. They must enter into a world where they are like gods whose creations wait each day for instructions to continue with their lives. When a writer's character dies, a little piece of the writer dies. When a character finds love, a piece of the writer experiences the same love. Is it real or only imagined? When a writer returns from his or her imagined world, how does he or she act after being so disassociated with anything outside that world? It's like living inside a paradox or an irony.

     There is no doubt in my mind why artists often seek refuge in alcohol, drugs, or even suicide. What must Ernest Hemingway have experienced when he knew he would never produce another For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, or A Farewell to Arms? Some might say that it is only pride and vanity. But those who create know that the truth lies much deeper.

     So maybe, for me, there is something to be said for the sound of the noise coming from the auto repair shop at the corner, the voices of homeless gathered around a bus bench, the sheen from pieces of a broken bottle, or even box of books tossed to the curb, for one never knows what miracles might arise from the detritus around us.




Wednesday, December 27, 2017

End of Year Traditions in Latin America

Feliz año nuevo to all blogueros. Here are some end of the year traditions from Latin American countries. For this end of the year celebration, you can follow one or more of these traditions to have a wonderful feliz año viejo 2017 while you wait for el año nuevo 2018. 

In Argentina, the entire family gathers together around 11:00 at night to partake of a good table of traditional dishes. Just before midnight, people hurry out in the streets to enjoy fireworks. The first day of January is celebrated at zero hours with cider or champagne, wishing each other a happy new year, sometimes sharing a toast with the neighbors. People go to parties and celebrate until dawn. 

The Ano Novo (New Year in Portuguese) celebration, also known in Brazilian Portuguese by the French word Reveillon, is one of the country's main holidays, and officially marks the beginning of the summer holidays, that usually end by Carnival (analogous to Memorial Day and Labor Day in the United States).
The beach of Copacabana (in Portuguese: Praia de Copacabana) is considered by many to be the location of the best fireworks show in the world. Brazilians traditionally have a copious meal with family or friends at home, in restaurants or private clubs, and consume alcoholic beverages. They usually dress in white, to bring good luck into the new year. Fireworks, offerings to African-Brazilian deities, eating grapes or lentils are some of the customs associated with the holiday.
The city of São Paulo also has a famous worldwide event: the Saint Silvester Marathon (Corrida de São Silvestre), which traverses streets between Paulista Avenue and the downtown area. In other regions, different events also take place. At Fortaleza (Ceará) there is a big party by the yacht area. People gather together for dinner and for a show of one band/group that usually plays during Salvador´s Carnaval. 

Ecuador celebrates a unique tradition on the last day of the year. Elaborate effigies, called Años Viejos (Old Years) are created to represent people and events from the past year. Often these include political characters or leaders that the creator of the effigy may have disagreed with. The dummies are made of straw, newspaper, and old clothes, with papier-mâché masks. Often they are also stuffed with fire crackers. At midnight the effigies are lit on fire to symbolize burning away of the past year and welcoming of the New Year. The origin of the tradition has its roots in pagan Roman and pre-Roman Spanish traditions still celebrated in Europe and which were brought to many countries of Latin-America in colonial times. Other rituals are performed for the health, wealth, prosperity and protection. For example, traditionally each person eats twelve grapes before midnight, making a wish with each grape. Popularly, yellow underwear is said to attract positive energies for the New Year. Finally, walking around the block with one's suitcase will bring the person the journey of their dreams. 

In the town of Antigua, Guatemala, people usually get together at the Santa Catalina Clock Arch to celebrate Fin del Año (New Year's Eve). The celebrations are centered around Guatemala City's Plaza Mayor. Banks close on New Year’s Eve, and businesses close at noon on New Year’s Eve. Starting at sundown, firecrackers are lit, continuing without interruption into the night. Guatemalans wear new clothes for good fortune and down a grape with each of the twelve chimes of the bell during the New Year countdown, while making a wish with each one. The celebrations include religious themes which may be either Mayan or Catholic. 

Mexicans down a grape with each of the twelve chimes of the bell during the New Year countdown, while making a wish with each one. Mexican families decorate homes and parties, during New Year's, with colors such as red, to encourage an overall improvement of lifestyle and love, yellow to encourage blessings of improved employment conditions, green to improve financial circumstances and white to improved health. Mexican sweet bread is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, the recipient whose slice contains the coin or charm is believed to be blessed with good luck in the new year. Another tradition is making a list of all the bad or unhappy events from the current year; before midnight, this list is thrown into a fire, symbolizing the removal of negative energy from the new year. At the same time, thanks is expressed for all the good things had during the year that is coming to its end so that they will continue to be had in the new year. The celebration in Mexico City is centered around Zocalo, the city's main square.

In Venezuela, those who want to find love in the New Year are supposed to wear red underwear on New Year's Eve; those who want money must have a bill of high value when toast, those who want to travel must go out home while carrying some luggage, and so on. Yellow underwear is worn to bring happiness in the New Year. Usually, people listen to radio specials, which give a countdown and announce the New Year according to the legal hour in Venezuela, and, in Caracas, following the twelve bells from the Cathedral of Caracas. During these special programs is a tradition to broadcast songs about the sadness on the end of the year, being popular favorites "El año viejo", "Cinco pa' las 12" and "Año nuevo, vida nueva".

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

No Happily Ever Aftering in SanTana. 2017's Closing On-line Floricanto.

Review: Sarah Rafael Garcia. SanTana's Fairy Tales. Austin, TX : Raspa Magazine, 2017.
ISBN 9780692860304

Michael Sedano

Fairy tales come in many shapes, colors, and degrees of dramatic intensity, from treacly-sweet Disney  Beauty and the Beast to Jean Cocteau's masterful La Belle et la Bête. If there’s a truism about many fairy tales it’s a story whose fantasy characters live happily ever after, and there’s a moral to the story. If there’s another truism about fairy tales it’s that there’s nothing simple about many of them. Sarah Rafael Garcia’s Santana’s Fairy Tales illustrates both, and much more.

Certain readers will automatically read Santana’s Fairy Tales twice, while others will look at the second half of the book—or the first--longingly. The volume comes with seven stories and an author biography, in English, followed with the same material translated into Spanish by Julieta Corpus. This dual-language feature alone makes SanTana’s Fairy Tales a classroom teacher’s fantasy, a classroom set.

No one lives happily ever after, not in gentrifying Santa Ana,  California, where no one is entitled to being happy. Perhaps happiness is a fairy tale, is there a lesson to be learned here?

The fairy tale for these characters is that they live at all. Lived. Could have lived. These people have been disappearing from their town, their neighborhoods, for a hundred years, the narrator laments in the story of the ghost carousel of the new promenade. A couple of the personae, in fact, are dead and narrate their tale from a transitory place.

Sarah Rafael Garcia gives voice to men and women. Setting the scene for the intertwined stories, a male voice lays out the urban landscape haunted by the greedy spirit of the anglo founder of the city. Jingling coins in Señor Billy’s pocket in other fairy tales might be the smell of sulphur and the cloven foot. Those coins will be jingling in other SanTana tales, a motif Garcia employs effectively to keep the overarching narrative in focus.

Zoraida narrates the next story, “Zoraida/Marisol.” She is enchanted, and dead. Hers is the voice of a Spirit cycling through a perpetuity of alternation between giver of death and madriña to life. In life, Zoraida’s spirit filled the corpus of a boy named Gabriel. For transgender gente there aren’t many happy endings.

Grim fairy tales welcome comic relief, even when it’s at the expense of helpless renters and homeowner whose adamant belief in eviction-defying signs echoes the fairy tale belief in Indulgences protecting one against evil. Jingle jingle.

Selling Indulgences was a Sin. Buying them was a sucker's move. Is there an alternative for the renter or the homeowner standing the path of condos and strip malls?

To some readers, Garcia’s stories will evoke familiar childhood stories, just retold in the setting of the final days of a once puro raza pueblo. I think I recognize Hansel and Gretel. Readers who weren’t raised with a lot of fairy tale books will nonetheless believe the title and take the stories as fitting some moral or propaedeutic purpose.

The book is easy on readers with ample white space and an easy-to-read sans serif typeface. The publisher, the editor, the author, will profit from closer attention to spelling. Sadly, numerous errors pepper the pages, distracting even the most forgiving reader. Cathy Arellano writes the introduction, "Fairy Tales For Truth and Justice," but isn't credited in the translation.

Readers will enjoy the tales for themselves. Communities wanting to stop or slow their erasure can begin with awareness and empathy for others. Here is where SanTana’s Fairy Tales can inform an effort by defining terms and evoking souls who merit better.

In her final chapter, Garcia the writer steps out from behind her keyboard to offer her version of Prospero’s speech. She gazes out her second-story window in Santa Ana’s urban redeveloping Artist Colony, looks across the promenade to the fountain where the carousel stood, and sees such stuff as dreams are made on. She doesn’t want them to vanish into thin air.

2017’s Final On-line Floricanto
Andrea Hernandez Holm, Raul Sanchez, Marion L. Lipshutz, Sonia Gutiérrez with Francisco J. Bustos, Sharon Elliott

“Vulnerability” By Andrea Hernandez Holm
“Open letter to the people of this world.” By Raul Sanchez
“Seven Words” By Marion L. Lipshutz
“Study Skills / Técnicas de estudio” By Sonia Gutiérrez with Spanish Translation and Spanglish Mashup by Francisco J. Bustos
“Hibernation” by Sharon Elliott

By Andrea Hernandez Holm

We see the
stumbling stampeding
Ideologues who tip toe
Like t-Rex
Through sacred lands.
We see they have forgotten
Words are sacred
Words are power
Words are free;
And we can and we will
Collect them in our mouths
In our hearts
In an expansive arsenal
To arm us in the revolution.

Open letter to the people of this world
By Raul Sanchez

This is NOT an apology
this is not an excuse
this is not, this is not!
what you think.

This is just to tell you
That the actions, words
Verbal offenses by the man "acting"
As the president of this country
Belong to him alone.

His actions are NOT! the reflection
Of the TRUE American people
Who inhabit this land.

This land was taken from the native people whose ancestry remains and will never vanish.

Yet, the current status of this society is one where open discrimination is allowed.

This country was erected with the sweat of many many Immigrants.
However the clown in office has no clue about nothing because he never experienced poverty, necessity, desire to overcome and provide for his loved ones.

There is no people of color in his family or friends. According to him everyone else is "Undesirable".

So, please remember,
Rest of the World that you are always welcomed here, always!

This nightmare will pass and we will survive despite the atrocious nonsense!

Seven Words
By Marion I. Lipshutz

I am feeling
so vulnerable
because of all of the racist
fetus fetishists
who don't care
about ending toxic
white entitlements,
who have contempt
for diversity, who fail
to see the humanity
of transgender people,
whose perspective
on climate change
is ignorance based
not science based, and
whose voting decisions
are never evidence based
but racism based.

Study Skills
By Sonia Gutiérrez

Study what they do
between the nights and days—
the bold yeas and nays
with their hidden smirks.
And then—rise.

Técnicas de estudio

Estudia lo que hacen
entre las noches y los días—
los sí y los no audaces
con sus sonrisas escondidas.
Y después—levántate.

Skills de Studying

Estudia lo que hacen
entre las nights y los days—
los audaces bold-yeas-and-nays
con sus hidden smirks.
Y después—rise.
Spanish Translation and Spanglish mashup by Francisco J. Bustos

By Sharon Elliott

guides are ready
cedar kin
heirs to oak and hazel
in the midnight frozen river

seep beyond the edges
glass worn thin
like tree bark
water writes days
of quickening and sorrow
in turquoise ink
on a bloodshot sky

dawn a late comer
gloaming walks an early road
northern winter
follow chitchat crows
in the narrow light

more hours
spent in
than consciousness

old women
tie their shoes
with deer sinew
and cat gut
in the early dark
from grace
into knowing

“Vulnerability” By Andrea Hernandez Holm
“Open letter to the people of this world.” By Raul Sanchez
“Seven Words” By Marion L. Lipshutz
“Study Skills / Técnicas de estudio” By Sonia Gutiérrez with Spanish Translation and Spanglish Mashup by Francisco J. Bustos
“Hibernation” by Sharon Elliott

Andrea Hernandez Holm. Born and raised in the desert of central Arizona, Andrea is a writer of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and scholarly works. She is a keeper of stories and a teller of stories, most of her writing focusing on the exploration of identity. She lives in Tucson with her husband and sons, and is blessed to be near family and friends.

Andrea is a published poet with works appearing in Generations Literary Journal, La Bloga, The Blue Guitar, La Sagrada. Her poem “Not Enough-Too Much” was featured in the “Best of 2012” edition of La Bloga. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction essays have appeared in the anthology Poetry as Resistance, Yellow Medicine Review, Wisdom of our Mothers, and Our Spirits, Our Realities. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry.

RaúlSanchez is the author of "All Our Brown-Skinned Angels", a bilingual poet, an interpreter, translator, a 2014 Jack Straw Fellow, Poetry on Buses judge, a TEDx participant, human rights advocate and a mentor for the PONGO Teen Writing program in the Seattle Juvenile Detention Center as well as poetry mentor for the Program Writers In The Schools.

Marion I. Lipshutz is a Jewish feminist, democratic socialist and aspiring writer who has been centering her anti-Trump activism in progressive New York Jewish organizations. In 1981, she earned her MA in anthropology from the New School for Social Research, and in 1988, her MSLIS from Pratt Institute. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. She would like to thank Odilia Galvan-Rodriguez for seeing the poetic potential in what started as a single sentence.

Sonia Gutiérrez’s bilingual poems have appeared in the San Diego Poetry Annual, Konch Magazine, and Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Change. Her fiction has appeared in the London Journal of Fiction, Huizache, and AlternaCtive PublicaCtions. Sonia’s bilingual poetry collection, Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña, is her debut publication. She is a contributing editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016).

Currently, she is moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, working on her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, and completing her novel, Kissing Dreams from a Distance. Her libro artesano for children, El Lugar de los Alebrijes / The Place of Alebrijes (Nódulo Ediciones and *Asterisco Editora de Poesía) is forthcoming. Her poem, “Study Skills” / "Técnicas de estudios" / "Skills de Studying" appear in her manuscript, Legacy / Herencia. Francisco J. Bustos and Sonia Gutiérrez participated in Ilan Stavans's Don Quixote en Spanglish reading at the CECUT in Tijuana, Baja California.

Francisco J. Bustos es poeta, traductor, y músico. Creció en Tijuana y San Ysidro y ahora vive en el Sur de San Dieg. Es profesor de “English Composition”, literatura y escritura creativa en Southwestern College (Chula Vista, CA, EU) donde también coordina la serie literaria “SWC Guest Writers Series”. En el 2009, creo el grupo de poesía y música Frontera Drum Fusion donde integra música digital, instrumentos eléctricos, percusiones precolombinas y presenta poesía en Ingleñol y Spanglish. FDF Web profile/links:

Francisco J. Bustos is a bilingual poet, translator, and musician who grew up in Tijuana and San Ysidro and now lives in South San Diego. He is a Professor of English Composition at Southwestern Community College (Chula Vista, CA, ) where he also coordinates the literary series "SWC Guest Writer Series.” In 2009, he founded Frontera Drum Fusion where he plays guitar, bass, Pre-Colombian and world percussion, digital music and performs bilingual poetry in mainly Spanglish and/or Ingleñol.

Sharon Elliott has been a writer and poet activist over several decades beginning in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s and 70s, and four years in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Ecuador, especially in multicultural women’s issues. She is a Moderator of Poets Responding to SB1070, and has featured in poetry readings in the San Francisco Bay area. Her work has been published in several anthologies and her poem “Border Crossing” appears in the anthology entitled Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodriguez, eds. She has read it in Los Angeles at AWP and La Pachanga 2016 book launch, in the San Francisco book launch and at the Féis Seattle Céiliedh in Port Townsend, WA. Her book, Jaguar Unfinished, was published by Prickly Pear Press, 2012.