Monday, April 29, 2019

Poets Facing the Wall

Poets Facing the Wall
by Hector Luis Alamo

"Good fences make good neighbours," goes the line by our national poet. But the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, probing the source of social inequality, blamed the first person to invent walls and other boundaries as the true creator of society. "From how many crimes, wars and murders," he writes in 1754, "from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.' "
            Before the United States drew its line in the sand between it and Mexico and said "This is mine," what United Statesians obsessively refer to as the border was mostly desert, sectioned off by mountains, and carved across by two untamed rivers surging toward separate seas. The land was far from lifeless, however. When the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado set out across the future states of Arizona and New Mexico in 1540, rather than the cities of gold he had hoped to find, he met a chain of villages populated by indigenous peoples--the Zuni, the Hopi, the Apache, and, most likely, the Navajo--who had learned to adapt to this unforgiving yet bountiful terrain. A decade earlier, a Spanish hidalgo by the name of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, having survived a shipwreck off the western coast of La Florida, stumbled across the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan peoples of East Texas, immediately becoming their slave, and later their supposed healer. In 1680, in the New Spain province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, Pueblo Indians launched a rebellion against the Spanish colonizers, managing to regain control of their native lands (for a little while).

            History is clear: The people were there before the border.
            Napoleon's sale of Louisiana to the United States in 1803 marked the young empire's first border with what would soon become a newly independent Mexico. Both nations considered the land on either side of the Sabine River a backcountry, largely unexplored, still dominated by a few militant Indian tribes fiercely protecting their lands against any intrusion. Only the most freewheeling, intrepid Mexicans and United Statesians attempted to make their lives here, risking what little they had for a chance at bigger fortunes, or at least greater freedoms, than those available in the bustling commercial centers of Mexico City, Veracruz, New York City, and Charleston. Many were rancheros: retired soldiers and moneyed men granted plots of land by the Mexican government in its effort to settle the territory and finally bring the native peoples under control. But the frontiersmen living along the banks of the Rio Grande--still known then as the Río Bravo--felt themselves as separate from Mexico City as the people of New Spain had been from Madrid. So they adopted a new identity, calling themselves tejanos.
            The border on the Sabine was replaced by one further southwest in 1836, when the state of Tejas seceded from Mexico and declared itself an independent, Anglo-dominated republic. A fiery debate ensued between Mexico City and Austin over the question of where Mexico ended and Texas began, with Texians and Tejanos arguing their new republic stretched all the way to the Río Bravo, while Mexicans insisted the Nueces River had always marked the boundary between old Tejas and the rest of Mexico. At the time, much of the area, including what would become eastern New Mexico and West Texas, was home to the Comanche, an unruly tribe of horsemen who displayed their hostility to Texian and Tejano colonizers alike by raiding settlements in and around a vast territory decidedly named the Comancheria.
            Farther west, Mexico continued Spain’s effort to keep the Russian Empire from venturing any further south than the Russian colonial settlement at Fort Ross, in present-day Sonoma County. (Russia eventually abandoned its claims south of Alaska to the British and United States, with the two empires arguing over the territory north of Mexico’s Alta California for decades afterward.) Meanwhile, the age of the Spanish missions in Alta California was coming to a close. Beginning in the 1830s, the Mexican government instituted a program of secularization, hoping to rein in the power of the Catholic Church. Presidios and missions were gradually eclipsed by the pueblos that had formed around them, places like Monterrey, San Diego, and El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, whose name would eventually be shortened. As in Texas, the area outside these burgeoning towns was still effectively controlled by native tribes--the Pomo north of San Francisco, the Chumash around San Luis Obispo, the Tvonga near Pasadena, and many others--who had been enslaved and nearly Hispanicized under the regime of the Spanish missionaries; now they were forced to contend with increasing colonization from settlers who didn’t consider themselves Mexicans either, but Californios. And, in what would become the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico, the Mexican army waged a hundred years of war against various Apache tribes well into the twentieth century.

            The border dispute between the Mexicans and the Anglos was settled, in a way, when the United States annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845 and declared war on Mexico only a few months later, looking to fulfill the empire’s self-imposed destiny to extend its western border to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, or, as President Polk promised in his inaugural address, "to extend the dominions of peace over additional territories and increasing millions." The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, saw Mexico lose the northern half of its pre-1836 territory, and set the Rio Grande as the natural boundary between the state of Texas and Mexico; the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, which settled the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico, saw Mexico give up even more land. Yet for all intents and purposes, the newly acquired Southwest was still greatly uncharted, with Apaches lurking up in the Chiricahua Mountains, Navajos sheltering in Canyon de Chelly, and Comanches dominating the Texas plains. Only after a series of onslaughts--against the Navajo in the 1860s, against the Comanche in the 1870s, and against the Apache in the 1880s--did the U.S. and Mexican governments feel secure enough to form a commission charged with defining the boundary between their two countries once and for all.
            If the first half of the border’s history was dominated by disputes over land, then the second half has centered on conflicts over people. The Mexican Revolution marked the beginning of United Statesians’ long-held preoccupation with who or what might be traveling across their southern border. At the time, Pancho Villa and other banditos were the enemy border-crossers; in the 1930s, and then again in the 1950s, migrant workers were said to be streaming over the border and stealing jobs away from actual Americans (though the people of Mexico, along with the rest of Latin America, are actually Americans too). Since President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, it has been the Mexican drug smuggler whom we must keep out; the attacks on September, 2001, added terrorists to the growing number of foreign threatens; and now, following the economic collapse of 2008, job-stealing Mexicans once again top the list of reasons to secure the border with Mexico.
            This story--the story of the border and its people--is the subject of the present anthology. As its title suggests, Poets Facing the Wall comes as a direct response to the latest attack on borderlands society: President Trump’s proposed border wall. (“I would build a great wall,” Trump said when he announced his bid for the White House in June 2015. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”) The purpose of the wall, according to him, would be to keep people living south of the border from crossing north and “bringing drugs [and] crime” (and “rapists”), but this, of course, is pure rhetoric--immigrants are no more dangerous than the rest of the general public, and statistically even less so. The wall’s true raison d'être is as a sop to the nativists and xenophobes in the Republican base, who voted for Trump in 2016 hoping he would help preserve the United States as a Anglo-Christian domain and, so long as millions of Anglo-Christians are out of work or otherwise struggling to make ends meet, keep decent-paying jobs out of the hands of non-whites--which, for this rabble, includes Latinos of any color. And, as it did in China and in Britain, and as it continues to in Palestine and Northern Ireland, the wall, even the mere talk of building one, is meant as an affront to those living on the other side, and as a warning: Keep out!... No vacancy... No soliciting... Trespassers will be shot!
            The wall itself would be a five-billion-dollar boondoggle. “Because a river that cuts between countries is not enough,” Kristin Barendsen writes ironically in Poets Facing the Wall. Anyone who has traveled along the border, and gazed over its seemingly monolithic landscape, may echo Teri Garcia-Ruiz, who asks in her single-sentence poem, “Wide Open,” “Where is the checkpoint/ For the breeze blowing over/ The river today?” “Clouds,notes Robbi Nester, “easily evade barbed wire.” For her part, the poet and educator Xánath Caraza wonders, “What is a border?” before offering her own sense: “Created limits/ cultures forced/ to turn their back.” Sandra Anfang uses every letter in the alphabet to describe the wall--“fence/ garrison/ hoosegow/ impediment/ jacket/ kennel”--none of her terms suggesting safety.
            A great deal of the poems dwell on the human toll wrought by the United States’s increasing militarization of its southern border. “The Wall is not Safety,” Miranda Rocha insists, “it’s a blow to the heart/ I must ask, why can’t we just come together?/ Let’s eat good food and make art.” (Hear, hear!) Catherine Lee compares two kinds of being held: “Held in your parent’s arms, with love/ secured by a same-blood bond against fear,” on the one hand, and on the other, “Held against your will, by force of arms/ ripped from your parent’s arms sobbing.” The very first line of a blues song by Laurie Jurs puts it plainly: "There's bloodstains at the border."
            Other poems speak to the cost that U.S. border policies have had on the once heralded American Dream--the dream being that a free and diverse country could actually exist and succeed. In “Song for America XXV,” Flores describes the United States as “a land where freedom rings/ From a fenced in lot/ Promoting a plastic posterity.” “America,” Richard Nester assures us, “has always existed/ better in the minds of its immigrants than anywhere else”; and in “Lament for Emma Lazarus,” he writes frankly, “I miss/ America, or/ what I thought/ it was.” Sharon Lundy contrasts the “bittersweet goodbye[s]” portrayed in “Tinseltown” to the family separations carried out by Border Patrol--“Children are ripped/ From their mother’s arms/ To be put in cages/ Screaming”--while Rocha's "Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" ends with a sad realization: "They told us America is the land of the Free/ But The Wall clearly states, you must buy Liberty." Sunayna Pal sums it all up in "Myopia of belonging" by saying, "there are many lies that we learn/ but nothing beats patriotism."
            The rest of the poems in this anthology are mixture of wrath and grief, heartache and contempt--much of it aimed at President Trump and his cohort. C. R. Resetarits labels Trump’s wall “a monument to furtive demagoguery," while Flores, in "Song for America XXVIII," renames the White House "the outhouse" and says of our national motto, "E pluribus unum united in one hate." "Look at my hands," cries Vanessa Caraveo, embodying a bracera speaking her mind to the anti-immigrant crowd; "Do you really think I crossed the border for this?" Roger Sippl wishes we could "Go back ... to what we now know was safe, even though it was scary enough./ The people were the people/ we knew, and trusted, or knew/ not to trust." ("But," he realizes a couple lines later, "they're the same/ as they always were.") Anfang, prefacing another poem with a quote from Mussolini, wants to "build a ten-foot wall around him [Trump]/ to procure his safety/ from the sweat of labor/ the bane of blackness and Latin fever/ shield him from the blood/ that feeds the onion field/ and greases the wheels of commerce." Jill Evans regrets how our "stubborn grudges/ cling to us like fumes," and "this speechless rage/ that floats upon us/ in such easy reach/ that it eclipses reason." But then again, Evans affirms, "it is our time": "Here, hold tight to the bravery of/ the word, the song, even the sob, as if it were a helping hand."
            Evans' words, along with the others in this anthology, remind me of the real power that poetry wields. Poets can compel the oppressed to "rise like lions," or, as Auden put, and as these poets have done, "make a vineyard of the curse." Auden, in the same poem, eulogizing the recently deceased Yeats in 1939, infamously stated that "poetry makes nothing happen," and while I, as a boy coming up in an illiterate milieu, once thought the same, I don't for a moment believe it now (and judging by his polemical poems, neither did Auden--not really.) I'm much more inclined to side with Shelley, who, in his "Defence of Poetry," calls poets "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets," he declares, "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This is true--but if only it were more true.
            After reading the beautiful verses published here, we are still left with a border and, possibly, a wall. What to do? What can we do? We can rally, we can march, we can call our senators and congresspeople, we can donate our time and money to worthy organizations, we can call for the demilitarization of the border, we can study the border, its history, and its people--we can and should do all of those things. But what we cannot do, what must not do, is turn our backs on the issues. We must exercise what Orwell called the "power of facing unpleasant facts," and the U.S.-designed humanitarian crisis at the border--plus Trump's promised wall--are unpleasant facts, very and truly.
            Let this anthology stand as a message to the enemies of peace in the borderlands, on both sides: We stand united, against you. And let it serve as a rallying cry to our allied brothers and sisters: We offer you these soaring words--but, should words not be enough, we will fight off any injustice with "our gathering fists."

Friday, April 26, 2019

Broken Crayons Still Color

April is Parkinson's Disease Awareness Month.  For help, resources, information -- hope, start with these sites:

Parkinson's Association of the Rockies (PAR)

National Parkinson's Foundation

The Davis Phinney Foundation

The Michael J. Fox Foundation

If you or someone you know is dealing directly with Parkinson's, I have one word of advice.


There are classes designed specifically for this disease.  Check out the PAR website for one list of such classes in the Denver metro area.  If you want to talk about these classes or Parkinson's in general, you can contact me. I don't necessarily have answers, but I know some of the questions that should be asked.


Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction.  His latest is The Golden Havana Night (Arte Público Press.)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Chicanonautica: Soul Saving Like It’s 2099

I started writing this review the day after the day that Notre Dame burned down--the day after the Day of the Burning Gargoyles. There was no plan, SoulSaver: A Novel of the Second Coming by James Stevens-Arce, just happened to be next on my scribbled list of books to review. Coincidence.

There are those who say that there is no such thing as coincidence. They scare me.

I had reviewed SoulSaver when it first came out back in 2000 on a website that is long gone. Now that I've read it again I realize that so much has changed, and I really do need to write about it again.
Back in 2000, the religious culture wars were raging, and that was a collective global hangover from the Y2K scare. I was working at Borders, a series of novels about the world after the Rapture called Left Behind were popular, and a lot of the readers considered them to be “semi-documentary, because they're based on the Bible.” I thought my writing career was over, even though I managed to wrangle an online book reviewing gig.

I saw SoulSaver as satire of what was happening. I was running into people who went around saying things like, “I don't believe in planets or dinosaurs”or “Curse you in the name of Jesus!” And I had recently worked for a woman who kept playing a musical version of the Book of Revelations.

I was afraid for James Stevens-Acre. How these people react to SoulSaver?

Fast forward to 2019. The culture wars are still raging. Blood is being spilled in the name of religion. Notice how we spend right past September 11, 2001? It’s a different world, a new millennium.

I also can’t find that old review.

So I re-read SoulSaver. It was a pleasure. Stevens-Arce’s futuristic Puerto Rico is a wonderful science fiction creation. I enjoyed revisiting it, especially, after the island’s recent troubles.

When I first read it, I saw the speculations on religious developments triggered by the collision of Latino culture with Evangelical Christianity, fueled by new technology as a cautionary fable. After all, I'm the heathen devil who wrote High Aztech. I also find religion carried to bizarre extremes fascinating (it’s Semana Santa--better watch out for interesting blood-spattered videos . . .), so how could I resist? 

This time I was more sympathetic to the believers in the novel. The strange development are even more plausible. Some have already come true. Evangelist masked wrestlers are a thing. Technology is not destroying religion, but giving it new worlds to conquer. So wouldn’t be surprised to read a news story about a high tech method being developed to save the souls of people who commit suicide, or a plan to bring a programmed messiah into the world.

I’m still afraid for James Stevens-Acre. Since yesterday’s satire is tomorrow’s business plan, who knows what the reaction to SoulSaver will be? Will they want to silence him, or hire him as a consultant?

That scares me, too.

Ernest Hogan really is a heathen devil, an unbeliever, and a skeptic. He practices creative blasphemy, and sometimes gets paid for it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Soy Bilingüe Festival

Saturday 9:00 am to 1:00 pm

303 Loma Dr
Los Angeles
CA 90017

Raising awareness on Bilingualism!

The Soy Bilingüe Festival is designed to promote and celebrate being bilingual, and to raise awareness on the benefits of speaking more than one language. Speakers, dance and music performances, food, children activities, and more!... Join NEW Academy of Science and Arts!

Their Story:

Encompassing our values and showcasing who we are at NEW Academy of Science and Arts, the annual Soy Bilingüe Festival (SBF) was proposed and inaugurated in 2017, with the following main objectives:  Celebrate and promote bilingualism, raise awareness as to its benefits for the academic success of students, and address NEW Academy’s commitment to prepare students with the global skills they need for success in the 21st century global economy. 

Featured in this culminating event are reading activities, student work exhibitions, student artistic performances, parent workshops, expert panels, traditional music and dance groups, speeches from prominent educators and community leaders, and informational booths on the topics of education and community involvement/resources. 

We believe that the Soy Bilingüe Festival is an important piece to our educational program, as it benefits the school AND broader community.  Most importantly, it instills in our students a love of learning, a sense of community, pride in who they are, and a vision for who they will become. 

Join NEW Academy of Science and Arts on April 27th, 2019 for its 3rd annual SBF!  Open to all!

Resumiendo nuestros valores y recalcando quienes somos en NEW Academy of Science and Arts, el Soy Bilingüe Festival (SBF) se inauguró en el 2017 con los siguientes propósitos:  Celebrar y promover el bilingüismo, crear conciencia sobre sus beneficios en el rendimiento académico de los estudiantes y recalcar el compromiso de NEW Academy de preparar a sus estudiantes con habilidades globales necesarias para tener éxito en la actual economía del siglo XXI. 

Este evento culminante incluirá: Discursos, talleres informativos, música y bailables tradicionales, panel de expertos, actividades de lectura, juegos, mesas informativas... ¡y más!  

Creemos que el Soy Bilingüe Festival es una pieza importante de nuestro programa educativo ya que beneficia a nuestra escuela tanto como a la comunidad en general.  Ante todo, este evento busca inculcarles a nuestros estudiantes el amor por el aprendizaje, un fuerte sentido de comunidad, orgullo de sus raíces, y una visión de cuan lejos llegarán.

¡Acompañe a NEW Academy of Science and Arts el 27 de abril en su tercer evento anual  Todos son bienvenidos.