In recognition of 2018 National Hispanic Heritage Month we are pleased to share with our readers selected and diverse works by Jeremy Paden: a poem, an essay, and a book review. * Thank you, Jeremy for enlightening and blessing us with your words!
How to Peel an Orange
by Jeremy Paden
My Puerto Rican
a clamp that held
in place with rods
on which the orb
while a blade
around the globe
& a long fine ribbon
to the floor
them into bows
turn them into winding
in the ways
used his large
blade & thumb
the peel away
fruit & palm
to keep the oils
with the dirt & grease
of his mechanic’s
He would toss
on the ground
wipe his hands
& walk away
as he whistled
some gospel tune
uses his teeth
though they are set
though he cannot taste
of the first few
for the bitter oils
on his tongue
he bites too deeply
& his mouth
with juice & oil
& he eats
that orange like an apple
peel, pith & pulp
I use my nails
though they have always
like my mother’s
though the peel lodges
between nail plate
though the oils
my hands stained
On Borders and Neighbors and the American Dream
by Jeremy Paden
On September 17, 1968—forty-nine years ago to the day that I am sitting down to write this— Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Hispanic Heritage Week bill into law. Twenty years later, in August 1988, Ronald Reagan signed National Hispanic Heritage Month into law. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois sponsored the 1988 bill. This bill, however, was a version of a House Resolution proposed by Representative Esteban Torres from California—a bill that died in committee. Torres, one of the nation’s pioneering Hispanic legislators, was born in Arizona in 1930 but grew up fatherless in California during the Roosevelt and Truman years. His own father had been caught up in the “Mexican repatriation” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/americas-brutal-forgotten-history-of-illegal-deportations/517971/) purges of the 1930s—a series of dragnet-type raids that forcibly removed undocumented Mexicans and returned them south of the border. Countless Chicano families throughout the Southwest were torn apart because of these xenophobic measures. And, while a good number of those sent to Mexico were undocumented, at least 60 percent were American citizens. Indeed, they had been American citizens ever since the border switched on them following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.
This is to say, immigration isn’t the only reason Latinxs find themselves within the borders of the United States. And, though immigration is the current topic, I think it’s important to remember that a considerable number of this nation’s Latinx citizens—the Chicanos and Hispanics of the Southwest and the Puerto Ricans currently trying to rebuild their island—are American citizens, not because they chose to come to the United States but because the United States took over their territories. It’s important because remembering this complicates White notions of American history and White notions of who gets to be counted as American by birthright—in ways that should unsettle White xenophobia. Latinxs, after all, are not strangers to this country, but fellow citizens born and raised here.
With the advent of World War II and the labor shortage caused by men going off to war, the US government and American industry turned to Mexico for labor and the Bracero Program was born in the early 1940s and lasted until the early 1960s. The 1950s saw both an extension of the program and deportations. Throughout the Bracero Program, which sought legal means to provide work visas for Mexicans to fill in needed jobs, American agro-industry still found ways to smuggle in undocumented workers. This led to a strengthening of border controls in the ’40s and ’50s and to the forced removals of Operation Wetback, which began in 1954.
This is to say, when it comes to Latinx immigration, we bless and we curse, we bar and we entice, we turn a blind eye and we punish with a vengeance, to make up for our own inconsistencies.
Economic instability, though, isn’t the only reason people from Central America and Mexico, South America and the Caribbean come to the United States. Another major motivator is political instability. With some immigrants, Cubans, for example, American law has historically made it easy for them to get their footing and be here legally, regardless of how they arrive. For others, including Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans, entrance into the United States as legal citizens has been much more difficult. Yet, the political instability of Guatemala is intimately connected to American military intervention in 1954 and the decades-long civil war that ensued. Likewise, the political instabilities of Nicaragua and El Salvador can be traced to the US military interventions, dictators, and civil wars in which the United States backed one of the warring sides. This much-too-brief overview, of course, does not get into the minutia. Blame cannot all be laid on the United States. With local corruption and an oligarchy that cares more about its own wealth and power than the well-being of the nation and its citizens, and with gangs and crime syndicates, there are many non-US factors at play that lead to political unrest and the crime that forces caring parents to come north.
Though I said earlier that labor isn’t the only motivating factor causing immigrants to leave their country, work and stability and a better life due to better pay is why people come and stay. American industry, in turn, has been more than willing to accommodate this new source of labor. And, truth be told, when the border more porous and less protected, migrant workers were more prone to return home rather than set down roots.
In 2007 the Peruvian-American journalist Paul Cuadros wrote a book called A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America. Cuadros, realizing that Latinxs were moving to chicken-processing plants in the South, moved to Siler City, NC, to research his story. Along the way, he became a soccer coach and led the high school team to the state championship—a good American sports story that he deftly narrates. Early on in the book, he tells of visiting an anti-immigrant rally led by David Duke in downtown Siler City that took aim at the Latinx workers and the poultry industry. After the rally, Duke went with a group of his followers to the local Golden Corral and feasted on fried chicken.
I didn’t have to see anymore. Duke had said it all with what he put on his plate. He had said it all for everyone in America who views the migration of Latinos the way he does. They didn’t want the workers or their families living in their towns but they sure wanted their chicken. And that was all that mattered. America spoke with its stomach and wanted its tomatoes picked, its cucumbers gathered, its oranges harvested, its blueberries busheled, its hamburger ground, its pork processed, its Thanksgiving Day turkeys slaughtered, its Christmas trees cut, and its chicken butchered, and it didn’t care how that was done as long as the people who brought its food were kept invisible and cheap. (55‒56)
While my neighbor only recently might’ve begun to pay attention to the Latinx population in the Bluegrass—it is after all, a rather recent phenomenon here—Latinx immigration to the United States is not. And, while much harvesting and slaughtering seems to be low-skill, it turns out that it’s not. This was a lesson learned by the state of Georgia in the wake of its anti-immigration law, HB 87 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/05/17/the-law-of-unintended-consequences-georgias-immigration-law-backfires/#56132935492a).
I don’t bring up my neighbor just as an example of all the people who don’t see Latinx contributions. I bring him up because of his realization that the Latinx community is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary American labor. I bring him up also because of his change of heart. There is in his change hope, I hope.
In 2005 Héctor Tobar, the son of Guatemalan immigrants and a Pulitzer Prize‒winning Los Angeles Times reporter, published Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States. The book covers the breadth of Latinx presence in the United States, from the Southwest to the Southeast, from Miami to the slaughterhouses of Kansas, from Idaho to Texas and from various Latin American countries. Tobar’s book is a comedy. It strikes a hopeful note as it looks at how the United States of America is changing, becoming browner—but not losing its identity because of this browning. In fact, he organizes the book as a conversation with grand American myths—Pilgrims and Pioneers, E Pluribus Unum, to name two of the overarching themes. He shows how the aspirations of Central Americans and Mexicans and Cubans and Dominicans are the aspirations that all Americans have had. It’s impossible to read Translation Nation and not come away with the realization that the Latinx presence in the United States is multifaceted, complicated, diverse, and ultimately enriching.
Both Cuadros’s story and Tobar’s interwoven essays are comedies. They note the hardships and struggles. They record the racism and xenophobia. They also highlight positive contributions and note how lives are changed and communities strengthened. There are ways in which it seems that twelve years ago it might’ve been easier to write the immigrant story as comedy. Yet Tobar’s book was conceived, researched, and written in the wake of California’s Proposition 187, legislation designed to prevent certain immigrants from receiving non-emergency healthcare, public education, and other services. And, not long after Translation Nation was published, there were large national protests against H.R. 4437, also known as the “Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.”
It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month. The Latinx community is large, wide, and varied. Some are Afro-Latin, some are Native American-Latin, some are Jewish-Latin. Some are here because the border moved on them. Some because they chose to come. Some are here, not because they chose to come, but because their parents came. The Latinx community is documented and undocumented. And they have as many stories to tell as there are countries and people. I challenge you to pick up something written by a Latinx author.
If you like poetry, check out the Dominican-American poet and novelist Julia Álvarez, or the Californian Juan Felipe Herrera who served as poet laureate from 2015‒2017, or the New Mexican Jimmy Santiago Baca of Apache and Chicano origins, or the Nuyorican Martín Espada, or Lexington’s own Ada Limón—we will forgive her her California birth.
If fiction is what you read, explore the work of Rudolfo Anaya, one of the founders of the Chicano canon, or Sandra Cisneros, who will color in the Chicago Mexican story, or Luís Alberto Urrea, who was born on the border, or Francisco Goldman, of Guatemalan Jewish descent.
You’ll be surprised by the varied nature of their writing and their lives. And you’ll understand these United States a little better.
Immigrant Nation: On Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado and the need to tell the stories of our newest citizens
by Jeremy Paden
Much of the rhetoric coming out of the White House regarding the crisis at our border dehumanizes the people who have trekked countless miles through violent and godforsaken lands to come to the United States. Their request for sanctuary is written off as a tactic employed by bad actors trying to game the system in order to gain access to a country that does not need their work or their kind. The point of this brief essay is not to engage in an argument about the economics of immigration. It is a difficult and fraught subject, and fully out of my field. Instead, after a much too brief history of Central America and the account of a family friend from Nicaragua who came to the U.S.A. illegally in the 1980s, I would like to review the book Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado, a multi-vocal memoir in verse by four Salvadoran immigrants and the social worker that worked with them to create art as a means to preserve their memories.
My family moved to Nicaragua in the early 1980s. The Sandinista uprising that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship (the complicated history of the Somoza family and the relationship this forty-plus year dictatorship had with the U.S. is well-told in Michael Gobat’s Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua Under U.S. Imperial Rule (Duke University Press Books, 2005)) had happened two or three years before we arrived and the Reagan Administration was searching about for a response. The result, as we know from the nightly news footage during those years and from the Iran-Contra Affair that came to light later that decade, was an infusion of weapons into an already politically unstable region.
Central American political instability has a long history. Shortly after independence in the nineteenth-century the deep distrust local oligarchs had for one another led to civil war and to the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Central America, also known as the United Provinces of Central America, (after a mere twenty years of existence) and the formation of the various nation states that now make up the isthmus. Power struggles between Conservatives and Liberals, and between landowners and tenant farmers, and also the cultural tensions between Creole elites and native communities are central to the political problems of nineteenth-century Central America. These, in turn, lay the foundation for many of the problems of the twentieth-century. Local issues, however, have not been the only problem, a major factor in Central American instability has been various sorts of interventionism: William Walker’s filibustering in the 1850s, the police actions of the U.S. Marines during the Banana Wars of the early twentieth-century, and the 1954 coup in Guatemala of the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, to name just a few. While this much too schematic overview notes the role American military power played, it doesn’t highlight how American foreign policy propped up the various dictatorships that have controlled Central America and the Caribbean from the late nineteenth-century on. I write this because we need to remember that the violence of Central America is not simply the violence of states that have failed due to the corruption of their own political class, but that the U.S. has had an active and destabilizing role in the failure of these nations. And, in turn, in the desire of poor and powerless families to seek out places where they can live in peace.
Shortly after we moved to Nicaragua, Dad made friends with a meat salesman. He was a kind, gregarious man who showed Dad around the country. He was a man whose only interests were providing for his family and practicing his religious faith, a man who, so long as he could do this and those around him could do the same, would not have cared who was in power. Yet, for various reasons, not the least of which was his independent streak and his belief that swearing allegiance to the Communist state went against his conscience and his faith, he found himself marginalized by the meat-sellers’ union. Despite his success as a salesman over the year and a half that we were there, he was given inferior cuts of meat that were increasingly less fit for market. Right before he decided to travel north and cross the border illegally in to the U.S., he was selling bones. By 1986, when he received amnesty as part of Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, he was living in the Washington, DC area and had brought his family to the States legally. There are ways, possibly, in which this story of my father’s friend makes him a sympathetic character to Anglo-American readers, despite his illegal border crossing. After all, he was fleeing a Communist state and all he wanted was the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness for his family. However, given that certain sectors have redefined the unlawfulness of his border crossing as a form of criminality in and of itself rather than as a simple breach of contract, it could be that his flight from a Communist state in search of religious freedom does not redeem him in their eyes. Regardless, his story is very similar to that of most immigrants caught at the border—he and they are all seeking economic, political, and domestic stability. And, while here, they build our houses, cities, and roads, clean our houses and cut our grass, harvest and cook our food, even watch our children.
The problem with how we tell immigration and border stories is that we simplify them. We simplify these stories due to our own ignorance of history and the role our nation has played in creating the political and economic instability Central American immigrants are fleeing. We simplify them by lumping together various national and ethnic groups, by erasing the historical particularities of the various immigration waves, and by stripping these refugees and immigrants of their individuality, even of their humanity. Part of the complexity of the immigration problem is that it sits at the intersection of macro processes—like, among other things, a foreign policy that favors dictators over the rights of citizens to be self-determining because dictators have greased the wheel for U.S. political and economic concerns, or like the economic changes brought about by trade agreements that leave poor and middle class families among the global losers—and micro concerns—like the ability of a family to make a living, or of a parent to protect children, or of a woman to escape domestic violence.
This brings me around to the lovely book Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado, published in 2018 by Thick Press, a new, independent, small press. The story is a collaboration among immigrant narrators Angela Celaya, Sergio Guzmán, José Lovos, and Gloria Revelo, social worker Erin Segal, who worked with them to record, translate, and arrange the stories, and graphic artist Julie Cho, who designed the book.
The four narrators are all senior citizens and know each other through the Bernice Fonteneau Senior Wellness Center that is managed by Mary’s Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC and Maryland that began as a way of providing medical, educational, and social services to the Latinx migrant community and now works with persons and families in need regardless of origin. They were all born in the 1930s, shortly after the 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre—a right-wing repression of a Communist-led insurrection of peasants against the abuses of the landowners that ended in an ethnocide. And, from what I gather, all came to the U.S.A. in response to the political unrest during the 1970s and early ’80s. A period of state violence during which the U.S. helped the Salvadoran military government. Each, also, came in different ways: one crossed the border illegally, another sought political asylum after having crossed the border, another came to the United States on a diplomatic visa meant for someone else, and the fourth does not say how he came, but that he found himself working as an intermediary for a Los Angeles factory.
The story is divided into nine sections; each section is further subdivided into four voices. A two-page graphic and a roman numeral signals these divisions. The first graphic is a round, white circle against a dark gray background speckled with white, as if it were the full moon against a starry sky. As the book advances, the graphic element separating the sections uses collage to call up images from the other dividing sections. Always, though, there is the circle in the middle of page—half on the verso, half on the recto. At times two circles are superimposed one on the other, as if an eclipse; at times only half a circle is present, as if a moon moving through its phases. The other images that make up the collage are of corn, of plants, of rock, of the haunches of a predatory animal. These collages set a mood for each section, and, as I have mentioned, establish relationships between the various sections. In the middle of the book, there is a photo album. The portion of the book that normally makes up the notes and the colophon is set in a different font type and on a paper of a different type and color. It also contains Erin’s account of how the book came into existence. In their comments, both Erin and Julie stress the process of composition and they turn all attention to the stories told by Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria.
Erin, as she recounts her involvement with the project, came to the Bernice Fonteneau Senior Wellness Center hoping to mobilize the seniors through a Monday morning memory and story-telling group. The consistent members of this group were the four narrators. They, however, did not want to mobilize for action, but to relax, to visit. The stories they shared over four months formed the germ of a memoir project. The exact shape of the project, however, was not fully determined until the four said that they preferred a book over a performance and that they wanted this book to be in English. Their decision that it be a book and that it be in English rather than in Spanish reminds me of a story Luís Alberto Urrea tells of a garbage picker he met in Baja California, Mexico when he used to work there in the late ’80s with a missionary group. According to Urrea the old man asked him why he carried around a journal, what it was that he wrote in that book. When Urrea explained to him the use and function of dairy and told the garbage picker that he had written about him in his journal, the old man replied that it was good that Urrea write about him, that he wanted people to know that he, too, had lived.
The life stories recounted in this book are told in a verse very reminiscent of late twentieth-century free-verse. There is good control of the line, a colloquial—but not monotonous rhythm—and strong images. There is nothing pyrotechnic in Erin’s writing, but there shouldn’t be. This is verse in service of these lives and stories, not verse trying to draw attention to itself.
As previously noted, the four life stories collected in Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasadoare, in keeping with the wishes of the narrators, are presented in English, rather than Spanish. The process of composition unfolded over four months of group conversation, an extended thirty-minute personal interview with each of them that was translated by a professional, and then— after several fitful starts—a drafting process that, rather than attempting to arrange the translated material, rewrote it trying to stay true to the voice of each person. These drafts were then revised and corrected by the four narrators. As a poet who does not deal with IRB, I cannot speak to the ethics of this mode, though it all seems very conscientious, collaborative, respectful, and attune to the lives and the wishes of the subjects. I can, though, speak to the art of the story, the arrangement, the craft. This is a lovely testament to the lives of Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria. It is well-told, well-presented, and it is a necessary corrective to the current rhetoric surrounding immigration.
As an object, the book Julie has designed is beautiful. Measuring 10 ¼ by 6 ½ inches, it’s slightly larger than most modern books. It’s tall, slender shape calls up the royal octavo format. The green hardbound cover has in the upper right corner a collage of photos of the four Salvadorans whose story the book tells. Though the picture of Sergio is largely in blues and grays, the picture of the other three narrators have considerable red, purple, and orange tones in them, either from colors in each picture itself or from fading. The title is in yellow. The use of an analogous color for the title works nicely given the predominance of complimentary colors in the collage. The yellow is carried over in the end flaps. The color scheme creates a nice harmonious book.
I have spent more of my time in providing background to Central America and in praise of the beauty of the book than in recounting the story of the four immigrants, now citizens. I have done this, in part, because I do not want to spoil their story. You should read it for yourself. I have also done this because the effort of Erin and Julie should be noted. They have honored, and honored well, the lives of these elderly Salvadorans.
Story telling is a political act. Giving voice to marginalized, ignored, erased, and dehumanized individuals is a deeply affirming act. While Erin might have originally been disappointed in the reticence of Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria to mobilize toward some sort of community action within the Washington DC-Central American community, honoring their lives and their stories through this gorgeous book not only affirms them as individuals but also provides the immigrant community in the U.S.A. a voice. Let us listen to the stories of these immigrants. Let us see and hear their goodness and say thank you.
Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado is available for purchase from Thick Press.
*Shadelandhouse Modern Press previously published each of these selections as an individual post on The Bookrow blog.