Sunday, May 31, 2009

Silence and voice

A number of my regular readers know that for three or so years I lived off the electrical grid in a log cabin surrounded by 80 or so acres of woods.

My husband, daughter and I chopped wood, carried water and kept company with wild things. A band of coyotes, a nursery of raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, even an elusive grey fox and those strange, nocturnal flying squirrels (with the coincidentally appropriate species name sabrinus) made their homes right outside our door.

We knew where the wild morel and oyster mushrooms grew, and where the trilliums and trout lilies would, year after year, poke through the last snows of spring. And though woodlands are hardly quiet, we reveled in the silence of our lives.


You don’t really understand silence until you live without electricity. Even when nothing else is “on,” appliances powered by electricity hum. We are so used to it we don’t even hear it. But in our cabin, without that constant soft electrical filler, the stillness yawned and created space for more than just us.

Contemplatives and mystics of all stripes have written about what emerges from silence. The psalm tells us: Be still, and know that I am God. And truly, there is no way to emerge from a period of chosen stillness and silence without the sense of having been touched (deeply transformed, actually) by what is numinous and holy.

The Catholic Standard & Times’ columnist Michelle Francl-Donnay wrote in January and February of this year about her 30-day silent retreat to make St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (read about it on her blogs and

She writes evocatively not only about the silence she kept during that time, but about her nocturnal schedule of prayer: “In the burst of the dawn there is no mistaking God’s hand at work. In the more subtle beauties of the night, God is teaching me anew to hear His voice, as did Elijah, in the softest of murmurs, to wait patiently for the moments when His glory arcs in all clarity across the heavens — to live and move and have my being entirely within Him.”

Then, at the end of the retreat, her writing about coming out of the silence is equally compelling: delight in the noise of a life restored to fullness; a wistful parting from the intense silence that opens to God’s voice.

We, too, left our silent enclave in the woods to return to the noise of a more conventionally lived life. My father was alone after my mother’s death, and the potent Greek-Latina filial sense of duty kicked me right out my haven and back into din and bustle. When we moved to be with my father I had no idea that I’d come to see silence as an antagonist.

Turns out there is a difference between a silence elected and one exacted.

Where one heals, the other one breaks. Where one admits God, the other denies redemption.

I’ve been asked often why I focus this blog on immigrants and immigration issues when I myself have been an American citizen since birth. The question always seems strange to me, but it’s been asked enough times that I’ve had to think about the answer. There is the fact that I’m a person of faith, enjoined to welcome the stranger, charged with loving neighbors irrespective of familiarity or “alienness.” But there is a more mundane reason as well.

As a writer, I live by stories. I live to hear the voices – the particular cadences and the lived experience – in each person quoted in a story. But it turns out that although we’ve been talking about immigration for a number of years now, we’ve read few quotes, heard few voices, of those we’ve been talking about.


It would be a comfort to think that the silence of the undocumented among us is chosen. But from my own interactions with them I know this is not the case. In every instance, the undocumented immigrants I have interviewed have yearned to tell their stories. They have been waiting, patiently, to add their voices to the larger immigration story being crafted in print, over the airwaves and in cyberspace. In this they are no different than the rest of us – we all want to be heard, we all want to tell our own stories.

The silence, I believe, is exacted by fear. Not theirs, ours.

With best intentions – or not – we don’t want to be confronted by lives so vastly different from our own. By experiences that don’t mesh with what we understand America to be. By different hopes, or different ways of being, or different forms of expression. We are heirs to a grand tradition of egalitarianism, but we too often confuse it with homogeneity, and give authority of voice mostly to those whose lives resemble our own.

It is Pentecost Sunday today, perhaps the most visually exciting of all feast days – what with the tongues of fire dancing over the apostles’ heads and the rushing wind sweeping through the room where they are gathered. And in the raucous scene Acts 2:1-11 sets for us, I find answer to some of what I have been writing about. Under the same roof, the apostles proclaim in different tongues, in different ways, so that all will hear their own voices in the story raised by the Spirit.

And later, in the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, I hear what my writing – in every voice I quote or when I give voice to my own experiences – wants to be about: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

There is much of the song of elected silence from my years in the woods that lingers even amid the noise of living here and now.

I remember one night opening the cabin door onto the glade out front. There, not four steps away, a coyote – bleached white by the moonlight – sat facing me. We stared at each other. I saw his muscles bunch, unsure of whether peace could be found with this alien creature that had taken up residence in his woods.

There was a moment when I considered going back inside, so the ghostly canid before me would forget my presence, forget my disruption of his routines.

But I held where I was, and after a few minutes, started speaking to him as if he could understand my assurances that I meant no harm and that the woods were big enough for us to coexist. Several assurances in, he threw his head back and gave a short yipping yowl before trotting off.

Different voices. No fear.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gov. Rendell asks DOJ to pursue civil charges for beating death of Mexican immigrant in Shenandoah, Pa.

From PRNewswire-USNewswire:

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Governor Edward G. Rendell has recommended that the Department of Justice pursue civil rights charges against two Schuylkill County individuals involved in the beating of Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez in Pottsville on July 12, 2008.
"The evidence suggests that Mr. Ramirez was targeted, beaten and killed because he was Mexican," wrote Governor Rendell in the letter.

Read the full story here:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


OK -- I confess that I stole the title of this post from a college friend, Rafael Pizarro, who as a Bronx native and long-time community organizer has probably earned the right to call Sonia Sotomayor -- President Obama's nominee for Supreme Court Justice -- by a nickname that admixes pride and affection and familiarity.

But truth is, even those of us who had before only heard of Sotomayor in passing are feeling proud that a Hispanic -- the first -- has been nominated to to the U.S. Supreme Court. I am sure that in the weeks until her confirmation hearings we will hear much about her -- good and bad, maybe even really good or really bad. But for today, I'm leaving you with a link to a video exclusive from the newspaper El Diario/La Prensa in N.Y., which honored Sotomayor as a distinguished Latina a few days before her nomination was made public.

It is a charming Sotomayor, passing from English to Spanish and back again like so many of us Latinas do. Reminiscing about family, and food, and cooking together -- again, like so many of us Latinas are in the habit of doing. And acknowledging the support and the prayers that have brought her to where she is now -- poised to make history:


Monday, May 25, 2009

Band of fathers – A Memorial Day remembrance

As has become tradition in our household, my husband and I spent most of yesterday – the Sunday before Memorial Day – watching a marathon of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It is always either “Band of Brothers” or “Saving Private Ryan” in our household for Memorial Day – because it is my husband’s belief that nothing better conveys the service and sacrifice we honor on this day.
It also helps, I suppose, that my husband is fascinated by the people and stories in “Band of Brothers.” He waited patiently for the Catholic Standard & Times to run a piece – a year and a half in the making – about two of the Philadelphia members of Easy Company, “Wild Bill” Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron. He wasn’t disappointed when Lou Baldwin’s story about the men finally saw print (read it at It merely confirmed what he already believed true – that the generation we’ve come to call “the Greatest Generation” exemplified a quality his father and mine had in abundance: you do what you have to and you don’t complain about it.
One of my brothers (I can’t remember which, since they are both equally brilliant and insightful) calls it the “Walk the Line” generation – after the Johnny Cash song – because that is what they exactly what they did, walked the line regardless of what that might entail.
My father served in two wars (that's him, on the right, in the photo at the top of this blog post, with his brother Alkis). He was U.S. Navy at the tail end of World War II, and U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a pretty modest person, and not given to seeing himself painted in heroic strokes. He would have been uncomfortable reading about his kidnapping experience as I wrote about it in this blog, for example, or about his struggle with pancreatic cancer as I wrote about it in the print version of the CS&T years ago. All of what made my father heroic to me (and there is much, much more than what I’ve written about) would have elicited a particular look from him – puzzlement and skepticism combined – because to him his actions weren’t particularly praiseworthy, they just were.
His Korean War stories – the few he entrusted us with – were mostly matter-of-fact. That he taught himself to drive where he was stationed – in front of the front lines – and under fire. That his belief that you judge people by their actions not their race, social class or level of education was born in the war zone. In front of the front lines he served side by side with African Americans, Latinos and first-generation American sons of immigrants (as he was) and truly believed that a brotherhood of shared experience was forged there; a brotherhood that transcended the mores and prejudices of the day.
And then there were the not-so-matter-of-fact stories. The only thing that could reliably break my stoic father up was a recounting of how he had seen his best friend blown to bits beside him in Korea. He didn’t tell that story often.
My husband’s father, Frank Eugene Saunders – “Sandy” to those who knew him – never served in a war. He wanted desperately to enlist but his father refused to let him. Sandy was the only child and service in the armed forces would have meant that production at his parents’ farm would cease.
I never met my husband’s father (in the photo below with his wife and three sons), but my guess is that he didn’t feel particularly heroic acquiescing to this demand to stay stateside while war was waged overseas. But I read it differently – unselfishness is one of the defining characteristics of heroism, as is fortitude. Both qualities my future father-in-law had in spades. I remember reading through one his mother’s daily diaries and stumbling upon an entry in which she noted that Sandy’s father had come down with double pneumonia. She went on to write that the running of the farm (livestock, milking, every last chore and need) now fell to Sandy alone to perform – for however long his father was laid up. He was 12 at the time.
As I said – fortitude.
I admit to having mixed emotions about honoring war – I am of the Dorothy Day brand of Catholics who thinks the Biblical injunction against killing carries no asterisks to indicate exception – but have no such mixed feelings about honoring those who have served. In war zones and at home. In good wars and bad. Whether they have little American flags flying at their gravesites today – or not.
I have nothing to offer in honor but words:

For quiet heroism – heroism that hid in love and obligation and everyday sacrifice;
For heroic experience that I will never – hope never to have to – understand, writ big in blood and wounds that never truly heal;
For lives lived with honor that will never make it up to the big screen;

Thanks for walking the line.

Happy Memorial Day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

This is who we are

Images of the Latino Community in the Philadelphia Archdiocese first published on the bilingual page of the Catholic Standard & Times. Go to for weekly coverage of Latino Catholics in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.

Photos are by Sarah Webb and Joanna Lightner for the CS&T.

Music is from Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"

And a nod goes to my daughter -- who only rolled her eyes a few times while teaching me to use iMovie.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother’s Day — sweet and salt

Some weekends are full: a wedding, a birthday, a reminder of both my life’s greatest gift and its first profound loss.

Lines from a Denise Levertov poem – read once years ago, and strangely enough, remembered – surface in my thoughts:

There is no savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be

what, woman,

and who, myself,

I am, a shadow
that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.

Nine years ago, on Feb. 13, my mother walked out of the antiques co-op where she had several booths, waited for my father to open the car door for her, and within the time it might have taken a small bird to flap its wing, was felled by a brain aneurysm.

I don’t think it took very long to realize that the bodies orbiting in our familial solar system had just lost their sun — and that sun’s gravitational pull on each of us.

Words that should have found their way to her were left unmoored and drifting. Promises went astray. Memories were hoarded, then floated away and swung back to slap us in the face when we least expected it.

I still remember how it felt to hug her small, round body (she was one of the few people I’ve ever towered over – though to hear her tell it, we were exactly, exactly, the same height) and still recognize the perfume she favored from half a room away. There is an advertisement on TV that reminds me of her. In it, each time Diane von Furstenberg tilts her head just so – there it is, the line of my mother’s jowl, the way she lifted the hair off the back of her neck. Exactly.

Going through her things in the weeks after her death, I found a Mother’s Day card I had given her the year before. Though I like words, I have a difficult time writing inscriptions in books or notes in cards, and really only have three variant forms: saccharin, clinical or goofy.

This one was, quite literally, a clinical one: “Every grandmother carries not only her daughter in pregnancy, but her granddaughter as well (as her daughter’s egg),” the card read. “So, Happy Mother’s Day from both girls you held tucked beneath your heart.”

For some reason I could never fathom, this is the card out of the hundreds I had given her over the years that she had loved most.

No savor more sweet, more salt.

Because I don’t remember the next lines in the Levertov poem, I have to look them up:

If I bear burdens
they begin to be remembered

as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts

my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. I eat

as I go.*

My nephew Octavio turned seven today. Tomorrow we will join my older brother and his family in Brooklyn for the party celebrating the life of this serious and beautiful little boy.

And on Sunday – Mother’s Day – we will gather again, this time to rejoice in my younger brother’s marriage to Anna. It is the bonding of the third family in this solar system of ours. While we no longer revolve around a mother star, we are drawn out anyway, on a thread of wonder.

Sometime in the next two days, my daughter – who is fabulous and 14 and would much rather be texting her friends and cosplaying than spending time with her embarrassing and positively ancient mother – will come up to me, and unbidden, give me hug.

Children do that, you see. How else would we know if that space we’ve owned since birth – the one tucked conveniently near our mother’s beating heart and encircled by her arms – still fits us?

By some sort of mother’s magic, it always does.

Happy Mother’s Day.

*from the poem Stepping Westward by Denise Levertov
Image of the solar system is from NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

SB 850 – the unkindest cuts

The Pa. Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed budget for 2009-2010 is in.

If you aren’t affluent, say goodbye to access.

To the arts.
(SB 850 zero funds arts and culture grants made through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Which means many of the small arts organizations across the Commonwealth that produce and present dance, music, film, visual and performing arts in neighborhoods and communities will be shuttered.)

To funded civil legal services.
(SB 850 eliminates all of the state appropriations that ensure that the poorest among us have access to justice.)

To Pre-K and Head Start.
(SB 850 slashes Pre-K counts by 55 percent and Head Start funding by 50 percent.)

To low cost insurance for children.
(SB 850 cuts CHIP funding, as well as funds for child care, county child welfare and basic education.)

The list is extensive and alarming.

In proposing SB 850 as an alternative to Gov. Rendell’s more moderate proposed budget, the Senate Appropriations Committee has ensured that those most impacted by the current economic recession will find life in the Commonwealth even more difficult – if not impossible – after July 1.

If you value any of what is being cut by SB 850, call your state legislators immediately. Rumor has it the vote on SB 850 will be tomorrow – May 6.

• • •

The image at the top of this post is a public artwork by my mother, Joyce de Guatemala, on Howard and East Huntingdon Streets in Philadelphia. The image to the right of this paragraph, is another of her public sculptures -- this one in front of the Elkins Park Library ( And that's my mom in the inset photo.

From my mom I inherited my love for art, and my belief that access to any and all of the arts should be open to all – not restricted only to those who can afford it. While you might be tempted to dismiss arts organizations as less important than the other organizations/programs mentioned above, I urge you to think of a what the world would be like without music, paintings, poetry .... To protect the arts, go to

Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money.
Ernst Levy, composer

Friday, May 1, 2009

Of swine and flu

It was inevitable I suppose.

As soon as the media started barraging us with information about the swine flu pandemic, anti-immigrant commentators and talk radio hosts started in on their favorite targets.

And I don't mean pigs.

Neal Boortz, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, ALI PAC's William Gheen, CCIR's Barbara Coe have all weighed in on the airwaves or through mass e-mails. There is no doubt in their minds who is to blame for the flu -- Mexican immigrants.

But wait, there's another.

You might want to think of what follows as stage 5 in the anti-immigrant epidemic of the past few days:

Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended indefinitely from his afternoon drive-time show on WTKK-FM radio for, as The Boston Globe reported, 'calling Mexican immigrants "criminaliens," "primitives," "leeches, and exporters of "women with mustaches and VD," among other incendiary comments.'

Here are those comments, in full context:

“So now, in addition to venereal disease and the other leading exports of Mexico — women with mustaches and VD — now we have swine flu.”

“We are the magnet for primitives around the world — and it’s not the primitives’ fault by the way, I’m not blaming them for being primitives — I’m merely observing they’re primitive.”

“It’s millions of leeches from a primitive country come here to leech off you and, with it, they are ruining the schools, the hospitals, and a lot of life in America.”

“We should be, if anything, surprised that Mexico has not visited upon us poxes of more various and serious types already, considering the number of criminaliens already here.”

(Thanks to El Diario/La Prensa for alerting me to the story in the first place and to the Southern Poverty Law Center blog for including the unexpurgated comments in their post.)

We've all gotten plenty of advice from broadcast news, both local and national; the CDC; the NIH; WHO; President Obama; even the U.S. Catholic Bishops, on how to best protect ourselves from the swine flu -- wash our hands often, cover our coughs and sneezes, stay home if we're sick.

But how do we protect ourselves, our nation, from the outbreak of virulent anti-immigrant flu?

I don't have the answers but I know it's not by washing our hands.

A few possibilities:

  • Advocate. If you live in Pennsylvania, join your voice to those of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. They will be gathering at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday, May 5, from 10:30 p.m. until 5 lobby lawmakers to ensure that immigrants' rights are protected and their dignity respected in the Commonwealth. (For more information, call 215-459-2456.)
  • Stand up and be counted. Join the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Stand Strong Against Hate" campaign (
  • Unite in community. Download NCLR's tool kit for community engagement (
  • Vote with your dial. When the hatemongers take to the airwaves, turn them off.

(Pig photo is from Wikimedia Commons' public domain images.)