¡Ban This!: An Evening of Mass Education

About a year ago, frustration over the banning of Chicana/o writings by the state of Arizona, and the hate of all things Latino that seemed to be spreading across the country became a topic of conversation on Twitter and in essays written by some of us for Aztlán Reads. This might have been the end of it were it not for the energy and organization of Santino Rivera of Broken Sword Publications.  Santino put out a call for writing, welcoming both poetry and prose and encouraging all of us to contribute.  We brought the call to NACCS, making an appeal for Chicana/o scholars to contribute.

I have to admit, even at this point, I didn’t think the anthology would happen.  There’s so much to publishing and editing and I’ve seen too many projects die from the complications of life intervening.  I did send a contribution — something theoretical on the mythology of Aztlán.  I don’t think it was what Santino was imagining, but he wrote me back encouraging me to expand the autobiographical section of my essay.  I happily did so, watching via Twitter as Santino edited the collection, got artwork for the cover and, sooner than I could have imagined, announced that the anthology was going to press.

As exciting as it was to get my copy and read through the diverse contributions, what Art Meza has organized for tonight at Cypress Park Library is even more exciting.  Tonight a number of us will do readings from the anthology and sign copies of the book for the public.

I’m nervous, but can’t wait.


Wondering About This Bridge Called My Back

In the midst of Christmas celebration, I was forwarded an email from South End Press with the subject line Imagine Your World Without South End Press asking for donations to keep the press running. If you can, donate, they need and are worthy of our help.

The plea for funds included the following paragraph

Regretfully, we don’t have to imagine a world without one of our most important movement presses; Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press shuttered in 1996.Kitchen Table was cofounded in Boston by, among others, veteran activist and movement intellectual Barbara Smith—three years after South End Press’s 1977 launch in the same city. The founding spark was a suggestion by Audre Lorde, who said to Smith, “We really need to do something about publishing.” Kitchen Table was among our first movement presses, “an activist and advocacy organization devoted to the liberation struggles of all oppressed people.” And now it’s gone, the press itself and yes, even some of its most beloved books: In 1986, they published Audre Lorde’s groundbreaking work I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities, now out of print. As is their landmark publication This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Unimaginable as it might seem, This Bridge will likely never be published again; even used copies are extremely difficult to obtain.

That last sentence leapt out at me because, getting ready to teach a course next semester on Chicana feminism, I’ve been trying to figure out ways for my students to read This Bridge. I’ve been focused on the inconvenience of having the anthology out of print right now, listening to rumors that it was about to be taken up by another press.  What I’ve felt at This Bridge being out of print was largely frustration. But when I read this email I started to imagine the world without This Bridge ever being in print again, the already rare used copies becoming ever more expensive and other women unable to have the first read experience I did.

Like so many others, I first read This Bridge Called My Back in a women’s literature class as an undergraduate.  At the time I felt isolated, as a Chicana on a mid-western college campus trying to make sense of Chicano/a literature and feminism.  This Bridge didn’t just feel like a text, it felt like a community and a safe space where, though reading the words of other women of color, I could articulate my frustrations and loneliness. It changed the way I thought about feminism, race and where and how I could fit in.  Even more, it allowed me the space to imagine myself as an intellectual, something which I’d never been able to consider myself. I read my copy over and over. The binding broke, my annotations overlapped colors (including pink highlighter) and writing styles.  Last month, as I searched for and made PDF versions of my copy, I worried about my students reading margin comments that included “YES!” “This!” and “Ha!”. While I want to convey my enthusiasm about This Bridge, I covered those over.  After all, I want them to be able to read the text and related to it on their own.

My first realization how much This Bridge meant to me, how important it was to how I saw myself and my space in the university, was during my first year of graduate school. I took a course on feminist activism — “The Personal as Political” and This Bridge was one of the assigned texts.  I was excited at the thought of discussing the anthology on a graduate level, only to  be deflated to the point of tears when the first comment was one by a second year white student that to her the book seemed “intellectually naive.”  With those two words I was silenced, feeling hot in my inability to articulate what This Bridge meant to me, its wisdom and bravery.  While I didn’t have the courage to speak out, concerned about revealing that I was intellectually naive, one of the two Asian American students in the seminar (the three of us were the only minority students in a class of 20) stood up for This Bridge and made the case for its intellectual sophistication. The white student backtracked quickly, giving me both a rush of shame for not standing up for the text, but also a lesson in the power of confronting those who would dismiss third world feminism.

On some level I’ve always felt I needed to make up for the moment I didn’t defend the book and what it meant, as though the text were a soul who could be betrayed.  I’ve spent the last decade studying the anthology as a textual community, making it the center of my dissertation.  When I read South End’s assessment that This Bridge is  likely to remain out of print I feel it like a personal loss. Thirty some years since its publication, its message about the intersection of race, gender and sexuality remains timely.  I’m not sure what can be done to keep the prediction of This Bridge from being true, what can be done to bring it back into print, but I can’t let it go gently or silently.  This book has changed countless lives and deserves to keep doing so.


Reading Today: What You See in the Dark

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz is a noir thriller set in 1950s Bakersfield. The fictional story of Mexican-American Teresa Garza’s romance with and murder by Anglo Dan Watson, is set against a re-imagining of the location scouting and filming of the shocking motel scenes in Hitchcock’s Psycho.  The story itself is told in the harsh lights and darks of desert life — for whatever reason as I read and saw the story in my mind’s eye, the novel was in black and white, sunlight harsh and brilliant while the nighttime shadows were dark.

The novel has an interesting structure, counterpointing the romance of Dan and Teresa, with the location experiences Janet Leigh (referred to only as The Actress), cast as Hitchcock’s (who is only named as The Director) initial victim.  What You See in the Dark is told from multiple points of view by the story’s different characters, switching between second and third person, which has jarring quality, yet also makes it feel richer and longer.  The use of second person, naming the reader as “you” made me feel implicated in the story, at times longing to turn away and deny what was a voyeuristic point of view, watching through the windows at the local drive-in or peering at the couple through the windows of the shop:

If you had been across the street, pretending to investigate the local summer roses outside Holliday’s Flower Shop, you could have seen them through the café’s plate glass, the two sitting in a booth by the window, eating lunch. You could have seen them even if you had been inside the shop, peering from behind the window display of native Bakersfield succulents, wide-faced California sunflowers, blue flax in hanging pots.

While this is a great novel by a Chicano author, at first I wasn’t ready to call it a “Chicano novel” in quite the same way as some of the other books I’ve reviewed recently are — it seems more about the conventions of 1950s small town life as contrasted with the Hollywood / Los Angeles of the Actress.  Yet that said, the discussion on race and racial tension underpins and haunts the story. Dan’s romance with Teresa defies Bakersfield conventions (and upsets his mother Arlene) while also disrupting her own romantic trajectory with Mexican day laborer.  Because it’s told as a noir tale we’re primed for a tragic ending, yet the violence is nonetheless a shock — as a reader I hoped for a romantic end even knowing Teresa’s death was inevitable.

This is a novel of dark moments. The darkest of them, for me, was when Dan rushes home to pack to flee town after Teresa’s death (we’re never explicitly told he murdered her, but there’s literally blood on his hands) and his mother fears he’s about to run off and marry her.  Recommend book and author highly.

A fun YouTube novel preview.

Book Review: The Immigrant Advantage

In her new book, The Immigrant Advantage, Texas journalist Claudia Kolker writes against the too common stereotype of immigrants as disadvantaged burdens on society who need to either be assimilated or pushed out as quickly as possible. Instead she looks at individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds — Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, West Indian, African and South Asian — to discover the social, financial, academic and health advantages conferred from their native cultures.

I enjoyed this book, reading through it over five hours in fewer than four sittings, despite stopping to share interesting bits with others. Kolker’s style is engaging and her passion and research for her subject is real and is clearly influenced by her own Latina Jewish background Her enthusiasm for the people and customs she’s writing about shine through. I was fascinated and cheered by her confident willingness to try diverse customs to solve problems in her own life.

While I found the trust and relationships implied by the Money Clubs a bit daunting, I also was intrigued and by the end wanted to try it myself. Like so many of the customs Kolker writes about, this method of loaning and saving connects people, allowing them to share their financial goals and aspirations with each other. It also involves significant social connection and breaks the age-old taboo of mixing money and friendship. I felt a pang when reading about it, not sure I had enough friends that I would trust and who would trust me enough to try this. But I definitely would like to.

Kolker is honest with her feelings and trepidations about customs.  In no place is this more clear than in Chapter 3 where she discusses South Asian “Assisted Marriage” which involves parents (usually mothers) scouting out and making lists of prospective spouses for their adult children. At first I was a bit floored by the idea, but then I considered my own background. On both sides of my family, marriage was “assisted” if not overtly arranged as recently as my great-grandparents times. By all accounts, these were long and happy marriages between people who loved each other deeply and lived long lives together. It left me thinking a great deal about what romance means in the twenty-first century and how we construct and define family.

Although I found every chapter –no, every page– interesting and enjoyable, I was most fascinated by Chapter 4 — Kolker’s accounts of Chinese and Korean afterschools. Going to Catholic schools in Los Angeles, I remembered that a number of my Japanese classmates had gone to Japanese school on the weekends to both to learn the Japanese language and to receive extra tutoring in preparation for various standardized tests. When I commented to a good friend at how hard it seemed — that she had all our school work plus extra — I remember her telling me that it was fun, that she’d befen going since she was five and had good friends there.  Further, during the years I was in Graduate School I had many friends who earned extra money working as tutors at in Asian after school programs.  I admit though, it never occurred to me this was tutoring not to help students who were struggling with their classes but rather enrichment to help them excel.

I recommend this book highly. It’s well written with a clear argument and engaged prose. I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to use it in a freshman writing course to encourage students to think critically about their own customs and traditions and what they might learn or adopt from each other.

Disclosure: I was given an advance review copy of this book. The words and thoughts about it are my own.

Listening Today: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. – Opening page from Bless Me, Ultima

This is a slightly different sort of review.  Although I read the book years ago, I wanted to review the novel. At the same time, I’ve gotten back into calligraphy and so wanted an audio book.  There are sadly few works of Latino/a literature on Audible.com but Bless Me, Ultima is one of them.  Listening to the wonderful reading by Robert Ramirez brought me a different and deeper appreciation of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel.  I would highly recommend discovering or rediscovering this text through its audio form.

Published in 1972, the Bildungsroman novel Bless Me, Ultima is a Chicano literature classic. The basic story is narrated by Antonio Márez, who is only six years old at the novel’s beginning.  He is a child torn between ways — between the Lunas –his mother’s Catholic farmer family and his father’s wild vaquero background; between Spanish, the language of home and English, the language of education; between the Catholic religion and the traditional earth religions of the curandera and his native ancestors.  Though Ultima, the curandera who comes to live with the family at the story’s beginning, Tony becomes entangled in a series of battles between good and evil, personified in the struggle between Ultima and three evil witches and their father.  He is also witness to three deaths which change him and cause him to question all he has faith in (except for Ultima) and realize he must define his own faith.

The story of Bless Me, Ultima is well known, but it takes on added dimension through Ramirez’s reading.  I normally tend to read quickly, but listening to to audiobook forced me to slow down and appreciate the quiet beauty of text and its evocative depiction of the New Mexican landscape. I listened to the book as though the adult Tony were telling me this story of his childhood.  There is reverence in Ramirez’s voice as reads Anaya’s words about the wisdom and magic of Ultima. It was like being in a dream and I was sorry when the novel ended and I had to awaken.

Reading Today: What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo

What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo, who edited the ground-breaking anthology Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mother Warned Us About, is the story of the life of eleven year old Marci Cruz, growing up in California in the 1960s. Marci tells us, the reader her secrets.  She has two prayers: the first is that her violently abusive father will go away; the second that God will physically change her from a girl into a boy.

The reason for her first prayer is obvious. What night brings is a father who, while at times loving and affectionate, can explode in fits of violence, beating Marci and her sister Corin with his belt and fists. Marci prays because her mother is so crazy with love for this man she ignores the escalating abuse of her daughters. One of the ways this story is unique is that Marci and her sister, for the most part, don’t romanticize their father, instead disowning him and calling him “Eddie” rather than dad.

Marci tells the reader she’s not praying for her father to die, just that he’ll go away. Her reason for not wishing him dead is she’s afraid that if she does God won’t answer her other bigger prayer, to be turned from a girl into a boy. This desire for a male body is intense, forming the basis of her dreams and sexual fantasies. Her reason for wanting a boy’s body is that she’s attracted to other girls and believes the only way she can have relationships with them is by becoming a boy.

Two traditional Chicano institutions are subtly criticized in the novel. Marci’s extended family knows about the father’s abuse of the girls and tries to moderate it, but ultimately can’t seem to step in and stop it. The Catholic Church is prayed to, with wishing taking the place of action for Marci. When, in the midst of the climax where her father begins beating her mother causing Corin to shoot Eddie, Marci stops wishing and praying and instead takes control. She gets her sister and herself out of the house, away from their mother whose only concern was her abuser, getting them from California to their grandmother in New Mexico, saving them both.

The book reminded me of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, in that the violence doesn’t detract from the beauty of the story, while also still being a graphic depiction of a child growing up abused.  As a Chicana text, it both questions the traditional family and religion, while also offering insight into the confusion of a girl growing into her lesbian desires. I would definitely recommend this book an important and engaging novel.

Reading Today: Caramelo

Reading Caramelo was an odd experience. I used a library copy, but the only one my library had was the large print edition. The large type gave the odd impression of being shouted at. At first, I thought the larger print was the reason it was taking me a long time (several days) to read through this deceptively simple text.

But that’s the thing. Cisnero’s novel, like her earlier work The House on Mango Street, is not a simple narrative. In fact, it’s not really plot driven. It’s a series of interconnected moments, told with rich detail and, at times, overwhelming emotion. The narrator, Lala or Celaya Reyes, tells the story of three generations of her family’s history in Mexico City, Chicago and San Antonio. Yet we’re constantly reminded throughout the text that this isn’t entirely a fiction as Cisneros weave her own family’s, U.S. and Mexican histories into the book’s footnotes, using the device of the novel to fill in gaps in the historical record.

The narrative device is a candy colored (caramelo) rebozo, left unfinished by the too-young death of Celaya’s great grandmother, the Awful Grandmother’s mother. It fascinates Lala from the time she is a small child until she inherits it as a young teenager.  Like her grandmother, for whom she has little affection, she braids and unbraids the unfinished threads of the scarf. Likewise the narrative feels incomplete as Lala tries to piece together her family’s stories from what they tell her, what they haven’t told her and from her own creative imaginings.

Reading some of the reviews on Amazon, you would think that the book is written in Spanish as much as English.  This isn’t the case — there’s no Spanish in the text that can’t be translated by context. However, in a sense those reviews are right. The English names “Aunty Light Skin” or “Uncle Baby,” “The Little Grandfather” are badly or literally translated Spanish, highlighting the impossibility of translating an endearment from Spanish into English without loss.  It is, I believe, a clever way of the author joking with the bilingual reader, pointing out that something will always be lost in the move from Mexico to the United States.

[Passing note: I don’t see this book working for the class on the Chicana/o Gothic I’m constructing.  Mores the pity because it is a lovely novel.]

For Aztlán Reads: Gazing East: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

[This text was written for the new blog, Aztlán Reads, to which I’m excited to have been asked to contribute. The blog post is here. Go ahead, leave a comment.]

Just as there is a presumption that United States history begins in the east and moves to the west against a savage frontier, so is there a presumption that this expansion was an inevitable and ultimate good. Even now, to connect western expansion with race slavery and Native American genocide is to write against the “official” versions of Californian and southwestern history. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s nineteenth century novel Who Would Have Thought It? writes against these assumptions and makes the connection between United States imperialism and issues of race clear, as her novel’s trajectory connects the U.S. west to the east, and the north to the south.

Published in Philadelphia in 1872, Ruiz de Burton’s work is the first known novel by a Mexican American. Yet the claiming of Who Would Have Thought It? as an early Chicana/o novel lays bare more than one history of racism and resistance to the existing United States black / white binary. Writing this satirical novel, Ruiz de Burton attempts to reclaim whiteness for her own class of Californios by exposing the racist hypocrisy of the northeastern white elite. In doing so, she expresses sympathy with southern slave holding, seems to agree with the stereotypes of crudeness and vulgarity expressed about the Irish in the northeast, reinforces racist stereotypes about African and Native Americans and ridicules the position of abolitionists as little more than hypocrites. Spanish colonial Mexico becomes, in the process, a utopian space of cosmopolitan civility set against the provincialism of the northeastern bourgeois capitalism.

In her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, as well as her later work The Squatter and the Don, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton writes against this presumed east to west historical trajectory, locating the home space in the southwest (and, in The Squatter and the Don, specifically in California) rather than the New England east. She also names as a cultural point of origin the Mexican south rather than the New England north. Similar to Ruiz de Burton’s own life, the history of the novel’s heroine, the idealized Lola Medina, begins in Mexico at the time of the United States / Mexican War, then migrates to the the United States’ western frontier — first outside then inside of the “civilized” United States — before she finally moves to the supposedly tolerant and civilized northeast. Read as early Chicana novels,6 Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s works offer an insight into nineteenth century perspectives of Anglo Northerners by the early California Chicanos / Mexican Americans. Continue reading

The #aztlanreads Hashtag Is Everything

[Note, this blog title was shamelessly stolen from a tweet by @laura_luna who has her own blog, creativexicana. I only steal from the best.]

Over on Twitter Chicano MA student @xicano007, who has a library anyone would envy, started posting images of his Chicana/o books along with titles and authors. Ever the busybody I suggested he start a hashtag so we could search them more easily and maybe join in. The result was #aztlanreads and it’s glorious with an explosion of tweets of Chicana/o and Latina/o books (poetry, novels, academic writing and histories). If you read Twitter, participate. If you don’t, follow the link and look anyway. Seriously, I promise it will make your day.

There have been so many books I remembered and even more that I hadn’t heard about. I seriously have to find a job so I can afford the book habit this hashtag is creating. I hope it lasts forever. It’s the best use of Twitter I’ve ever seen.

There’s more about #aztlanreads’ wonderfulness over on the excellent blog Lotería Chicana. She points out the power that the shear volume and quality of the Chicana/o texts listed have in combating the notion that there’s a shortage of books and materials out there.

Rumor has it that there’ll be hashtags for #aztlansongs and #aztlanfilm next. I can’t wait.

UPDATE: Aztlán Reads is now a blog!