Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thinking about my father ... Hope is the thing with feathers

May 7, 2014: I've been watching the movie "Missing," the Costa-Gavras' film rendition of Charles Horman's death during the Pinochet coup in Chile. The last time I watched the movie was with my father, not long before he died from pancreatic cancer. We didn't talk much during his lifetime about his experience being kidnapped and held and hurt during Guatemala's armed internal conflict, but we did that day and on subsequent days. 

I remember telling him I thought he was brave, but now I wish I had told him every day. Because these kinds of experiences ... they are relived and refought every day. At a recent Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma workshop I attended, I heard about the long term effects of immigration and refugee trauma (including, but not limited to, those who have been tortured) so the analogy I made in this post isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.

I wrote this post in 2008, four years after my father died. I'm startled now by how little has changed for immigrants in the U.S. (although all the links in the original post were dead and I had to remove them). The rest of the post is unchanged — even though the line about Guatemala was far too naive and optimistic, and written before a former military man from an earlier repressive regime, Otto Perez Molina, was elected president.
“You must have been so scared when you were kidnapped.”

It is a few months before my father’s death in 2004, and I’m riding home with him from an appointment with his oncologist. He is driving because he still can – and because it is one of the few routines he has been able to retain from his pre-cancer days. No matter that all of the family actually likes driving more than he does, it is a way of taking care of us so ingrained that wresting the steering wheel from him would be viewed as an act of high treason.

He doesn’t answer me immediately, concentrates on guiding the hulking Land Rover through the twisty Chester County back roads on which he’s chosen to drive home. This is another idiosyncrasy of my father’s – never choose the easier road, go for the one that requires attention to navigate.

“Scared? No,” he finally answers. “Not exactly.”

He rarely talked about the experience. We lived in Guatemala when it happened. He was driving home from work one afternoon when three cars boxed his in – you’ve seen the maneuver in movies. The men dragged him out of his car, hooded him, shoved him to the floor of one of their cars and drove around to disorient him before taking him to a room. There, they alternately abandoned him to hooded isolation, or harangued him with the details of my mother’s whereabouts, and ours, and how easily we, too, could be where he was.

In those days in Guatemala we lived on tenterhooks – no family got through without some brush with terror. Cars were pulled over, houses were forcibly entered, schools and workplaces were raided. Neighbors denounced one another, and people were picked up for interrogation on the slightest suspicion of malfeasance, or misfeasance, or nonfeasance. Torture, disappearances, assassinations and all manner of the collateral damages associated with an undeclared war were commonplace.

Kidnappings funded arms purchases, and despite ransoms paid, most of the kidnapped were never seen again. Or, their bodies turned up much later.

So how could my father not be soaked in fear, not be paralyzed by the impossibility of his circumstance?

"I was too busy for fear,” he tells me as we traverse the bucolic Pennsylvania landscape where he found a home a few years after his kidnapping. “I had to figure out how to stay alive. I had to convince them to let me go, so I could get back to you kids and your Mami. To make sure you were safe.”

I look over at my dad that day in 2004, and see a man much diminished by the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation. He had always been too short to cut an imposing figure, but he had the presence that comes from years of obligations met, of words held as bond, of a fire banked so deep that no circumstance – no matter how dreadful – could extinguish it.

Don’t you hate the people who put you through that?”’ I ask him.

“How can I hate?” he answers after a moment. “I’m here.”

Years after we moved to the United States, my dad met the father of one of my brother’s friends. The man – roughly my dad’s age – had been detained by Pinochet’s henchmen after Allende was overthrown in Chile. He was an impressive person – a man of deep intellect and erudition. His twisted hands and wrists were the result of torture. He conversed quietly about his experience – about the grotesque things human beings are willing to do to each other in the name of politics, or for fear of what that other person represents.

My dad wasn’t a man of many words – so he had to be prompted to tell his own story. He never described it as a form of torture – it hadn’t left a physical trace on his body after all – but it was clear to all of us listening that torture, indeed, was what it had been.

Listening to both of them talking that day, I felt a little pity for their captors. (Okay, not much pity, but still, some.) They had sought, by inhuman treatment, to make these men less than human. To make their lives unlivable. To make them forget to hope.

They had failed.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.”

As much as I miss him, I am grateful my father didn’t live to see the country he loved embroiled in the sordidness of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or the debate about whether waterboarding truly qualifies as torture. I’m relieved he wasn’t alive for the revelations about extraordinary rendition, nor to see the Patriot Act enacted.

Mostly, I’m glad he – a proud U.S. citizen – didn’t live to see the fear we are visiting on undocumented immigrants in this country. It would have sounded alarmingly familiar: Cars pulled over at random. Workplaces raided. Neighbors denouncing each other and people picked up for interrogation on the slightest provocation.

If you are recoiling at the analogy, you are not alone. So did I the first time I heard it drawn for me by a priest friend who works with the undocumented. Even more, his analogy for the way we treat and deport the undocumented uses the word torture.

Told you – recoil.

But then I think back on my father’s experience and I see troubling parallels. He was plucked suddenly from his life. He was taken somewhere he didn’t know by people who held power over him. He was isolated. His family was threatened with the same treatment. Read my blog post of Oct. 23, “Disappeared in Philadelphia,” and you’ll see that Beto’s experience is not far removed from my father’s.

A number of people with voices in the immigration debate have claimed that whatever treatment undocumented immigrants get it is no more than what they deserve. That they’ve broken laws. That they negatively impact the economy. Even, as Pat Buchanan says in his book “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America,” that they are threatening the very nature and ideals of the nation.

The same arguments were made in Chile under Pinochet. And in Guatemala during its slow slide into genocide. Thankfully, both those countries have since come out of their long, fearful darkness.

We, on the other hand, stand poised on the edge of a feather.

Originally posted December 14, 2008.


Jason Vourvoulias ¡presente!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why I love/hate my name (and therefore Audrey Hepburn)

My Aunt Norma tells the story that when they were teenagers in Mexico City, she and my mother went to see the movie Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. As they came out of the movie theater, my mother turned to her and said: "When I have a daughter, I'm going to name her Sabrina."

Norma, some years younger than my mother and not a sister but what in Latin America is known as a "prima-hermana" (sister-cousin), was both impressed and doubtful. There was not a whit of vacillation in my mother's voice and a teenager who doesn't doubt is an awe-inspiring thing. But they were both crazy about movies —golden age Hollywood and golden age Mexican cinema — so Norma reasonably figured some other movie role (and star) would depose Audrey's Sabrina in my mother's affections in the years remaining before either of them contemplated marriage, no less children.

As you know if you're reading this, my mother wasn't fooling around when she made that proclamation.

I can't help wondering, sometimes, why my mother couldn't fall in love with Dolores del Rio instead, or María Félix, or even Silvia Pinal — or any of their characters with culturally appropriate names.

But no. My mother had to name me something so culturally foreign (in those days) that most of the people I grew up with in Guatemala thought the name was "Sobrina," the word for niece.

In those days, even in Anglo culture Sabrina was a bit of a rarity. I searched far and wide for Sabrinas in my English-language childhood reading, and came up with two: John Milton's poem Sabrina Fair; and a character in the Archie comic books, Sabrina the Teenage Witch — a character so white they didn't ink any color in her hair or the freckles over her nose.

Just  as I have a love/hate relationship with my name, I have a love/hate relationship with the actress who embodied the person of Sabrina. Audrey was a quite capable actor with surprisingly good comedic timing; she projected charm, style and intelligence in a distinctive and particular way, impossible for any actor then, or now, to emulate.

For my mother — a born artist whose mother had made her decline a scholarship to study with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and instead forced her to attend secretarial school — Audrey was a gently subversive role model. Many of her roles carried the whiff of the artist even within narratives of ultimate respectability.

And her look: one part student of Allen Ginsburg and Jean-Paul Sartre; three parts consumer of Givenchy and Mary Quant ....

My mother found her irresistible. She watched — and loved — every movie Hepburn ever made.

I, on the other hand, fixated on Hepburn's tiny 22-inch waist and her gloriously willowy dancer's body, and despaired of ever living up to what my mother had, in my name, wished me to be.

I suppose I might have been equally unhappy if my mother named me Jo (after Hepburn's initially bookish character in Funny Face) or Holly (the definition of whimsical in Breakfast at Tiffany's) — also cultural mismatches from roles with equally impossible style standards — but Sabrina is undeniably the worst. And as a movie? Anything that misuses Humphrey Bogart's talents so egregiously doesn't deserve tribute, much less naming after.

So what was it about the movie Sabrina that made it resonate so deeply with my mother?

Oddly, I think it's a cultural thing — tied essentially to the time period when my mother lived in Mexico City (her family split her childhood and adolescent years between Mexico City; Boca del Rio, Veracruz; and Guatemala City).

My mother's Mexico City was a heady, exciting place. It drew world artists like Luis Buñuel, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, and had its own well-known radical aesthetes in Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Churubusco studios produced both beloved populist films starring Cantinflas and more sophisticated fare starring María Félix. Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska were all developing their writing voices in the same Mexican crucible of class, race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, politics and religion as my mother.

Sabrina is, for all intents and purposes, a Hollywood rendition of a beloved and enduring Mexican melodrama and telenovela trope: the daughter of the serving class who falls in love with the master's son, is done wrong, proves her worthiness in some way or another, and ends up in an improbable happily ever after with him (or his better, but also ruling class, brother).

Some of Sabrina's narrative choices had elements that would particularly appeal to my mother: the fact that Sabrina finds her voice and style in Paris — where Mexican artists from Kahlo to Paz found validation for their very Mexican but also iconoclastic artistic visions.

And it was set in New York, the most dynamic of U.S. cities for both artist and social climber alike.

Like all rom-coms, Sabrina is a fantasy of desire and idealized circumstance. For my mother, I think the hope it best spoke to was that someday she'd be able to shake-off the yoke of middle class, Latin American convention, and that she'd create a style — and a life — of her own choosing.

And she did.

My mother became the artist my grandmother never wanted her to be. She developed her unique style in a different way than the character Sabrina did — for one thing, she was already married and a mother — but with the same single-minded focus.

When my mother wanted to produce her sculptures in reflective metal, for example, she went to work as an unpaid employee at a bicycle factory in Guatemala in exchange for unlimited use of the facility's chroming vats after hours. She learned to weld at that factory, and she learned how to survive as the only woman on the production line.

She didn't get a moment of double take, like Hepburn's character does when she comes back from Paris and the William Holden character she's been infatuated with since adolescence spots the newly glamorous and sophisticated Sabrina waiting at the train station. Instead, the many moments of double take my mother experienced were from Guatemala's ruling and middle class art patrons and gallery habitués, stunned when her exhibit openings would fill with her working class factory coworkers, there to support her. 

When my mother left Guatemala, it was with a "sculpture" her coworkers had proudly produced for her — a chromed bicycle wheel mounted upright on a base and signed by every member of the factory's production line.

But, back to Sabrina.

I still sometimes wish I had a name better suited to my ethnic and cultural identity. The other day at a journalism workshop someone jumped to the conclusion — and then tried to argue with me — that no real Latina bears my name.


But I have grown fonder of my name.

It defies expectation, just like the woman who gave it to me.

And maybe, just maybe, that's the point.