Saturday, November 19, 2011

Unabashed fat

Adipose, from Doctor Who
Early in 2011, the bloggers’ site published a screed about fat people.

It was shortly after I had been approved to blog for the site, but hadn’t written a post yet and I was hitting it often to gauge the type of writers with whom I’d be keeping company. To be fair, the anti-fat-person post wasn’t written by one of their bylined writers -- it was posted in a subsection of the site called “Smartly Anonymous” and the writer -- regular? administrator? guest? who knows? -- was uncredited.

It was a pretty awful post -- prejudiced, intolerant, offensive (want to read it? go here) -- but I understood exactly what it was: bait. Provocative posts drive web traffic, and I’m sure the Smartly folks anticipated an upswing from whatever buzz the post would create. It’s not called Smartly for nothing.

I held back from commenting when I originally read it because I anticipated a firestorm of comments calling out the anonymous writer for the nastiness. But the comments were subdued. Some even sort of agreed. While most took umbrage with the word hate to describe the blogger's sentiment toward fat people, the commenters voiced disgust with the physicality of fat; implied a certain moral turpitude; described laziness, lack of discipline and a whole host of pejoratives as the imagined failures of their fatter brothers and sisters.

After posting two very long-winded comments, I decided I didn’t want to be associated with a site that hosted this sort of content. I haven’t been back, even as a reader, until today when I went there to retrieve the link to the post. 

In the ensuing year I’ve noticed stories about celebrities tossed off of airplanes because they were thought too fat to fit in one seat (read it here); parents who starved their infant because they didn’t want her to grow into an obese child (read it here); how fat trumps race, gender, social or academic skills as a reason kids get bullied (read it here).

What is it about obesity that unleashes the vicious in so many of us?

Images of beauty and ideas about worth are formed by families and peers, cultural norms and societal pressures. Centuries of fine art (and, indeed, ancient and folk art) tell us that the large, fleshy body can be both beautiful and powerful, but since the middle of the 20th century neither perception nor societal norm has favored the corpulent. (For this post I’m going to write only about body size, not the other tyrannies of image society imposes. Read my “You might be a cult member if…” post for an earlier take on some of those.) There are probably academic treatises tracing the whys and wherefores of the shift from fat being okay to anathema, but I’m more interested in noting how we -- consciously and unconsciously -- shore up and entrench this thinking. And how, by doing so, we enable blog posts like the one that drove me away from Smartly.

I should probably stop to disclose that I was a fat child, and a fat adolescent, and although I haven’t been really fat for nearly half of my life now, I’m no slip of a woman either. I inherited a compact, endomorphic solidity from grandmothers on both sides of my family and mostly I’m pretty happy with what that means. But then, I was lucky enough to grow up in Latin America at a time when it was okay, even desirable, to be gordita. I watched my mother and her middle-aged (or older) tías and primas-hermanas and friends out on the dance floor -- all curvy overweight and jiggly parts -- executing killer moves I still can’t quite replicate. They weren’t a bit abashed by their bodies. They were confident and sexy and having fun.

You have to have some hips to shake them, baby.

I’m not an heir to the deep puritanism that underpins the I-hate-fat blog post and hides in some of the comments. Both my Greek and Guatemalan-Mexican sides hold with joyful eating, joyful dancing, joyful celebration and connection to an earth that itself is fat, round and celebratory. Embrace, not renounce, is the motto my ancestral blood pulses.

Still, it wasn’t lost on me that the books I read so voraciously had precious few fat protagonists. In the magazines I leafed through, the movies I watched, the music I listened to -- most aspects of pop culture, in fact -- the fat people were invisible. Nice irony, huh? The embodiment of presence and nowhere to be seen.

Which is more or less the way we want it to be at this moment in history. Think not? Read that blog and its comments again. A surprising number find the sight of a fat person an offense worth excoriation. And underpinning the healthful intentions of our current efforts to eradicate “the epidemic of obesity?” The same desire to erase the obese from our sight.

Understand, I’m not denying the health toll of extreme obesity, only pointing out that we speak of this differently than we do other health trends we’ve obsessed about. I remember when it seemed anorexia and bulimia were on everyone’s lips -- but we spoke about anorexics and bulimics in a much different way than we do the obese. Overachievers as opposed to underachievers. Steely with control as opposed to mushy with lack of it. Intensely intellectual in the sense of choosing mind over body, rather than animalistic. Wouldn’t you rather be thought the first in all of those than the second? How about if someone were using those words to describe your daughter or son? 

I can’t imagine, in those anorexia/bulimia “epidemic” years, that anyone could have written a blog post like the "I might hate you" one at Smartly Anonymous and thought to get away with it, much less elicit the "I hear you" embedded in some of the comments. And yet here we are -- the fat are fair game.

 A number of months ago Kay Holt, one of the editor-publishers of Crossed Genres, asked me to submit a story for an anthology she was planning. The catch, if you want to call it that, was that the protagonist had to be a fat girl or woman. And the fact that she was fat couldn’t be just a passing mention, it had to be integral to -- or at least integrated into -- the story as a whole. I ran through all my banked and half-finished short stories (there are rather a lot of them) and realized I had never written a story with a fat protagonist. Not one.

And I remembered being a fat little girl who read and read and read and never once came across a protagonist who looked even remotely like me.

Invisibility. Even from those who have felt it en carne propria (in their own flesh).

So I sat down and wrote a story.

Fortunately Kay (and Bart Leib, the other editor-publisher of Crossed Genres) liked “La Gorda and the City of Silver” enough to include it in their anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land, which will be released Feb. 17, 2012. I can’t wait to read all the other stories in the anthology. The little kid in me is pretty much dancing around impatiently, a bit petulant at having to wait.

Is it going to change the way we perceive fat people? Probably not. It is a single small step in a journey that’ll take steps beyond counting. But tell you what, if even one young overweight girl sits down with the book and sees herself represented by one of the protagonists of the 14 stories included in the anthology, it will be enough. 

And then I’ll celebrate -- so very unpuritan of me, don’t you know-- by making all my real, round and uninvisible flesh jiggle in a dance of pure joy.

Update: Ebook advanced review copies of Fat Girl in a Strange Land are available for reviewers! Email if interested.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I want to see you dance again

For Nancy --

Because I lost count of the times I played this on the jukebox at the Hourglass and we danced around to it.

I'm thinking of you, my friend.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Of Latinos, social media and talking about what matters

Dolores Huerta at the Latism 11 awards gala.

Thanks to Ana Roca Castro (@AnaRC), Elianne Ramos (@ergeekgoddess), Reina Valenzuela (@SOYLAMAR) and Elma Placeres Dieppa (@mzelma) I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the Latinos in Social Media (Latism) conference in Chicago this past Wednesday through Friday.

In addition to the obvious but somehow startling revelation that, yes, there are real people behind those twitter avatars with which I’ve become familiar by attending Latism twitter parties on Thursday nights (9 p.m., use #latism to participate) what was most interesting to note was breadth and range of this group of digitally engaged Latino professionals.

One of the interesting sessions I attended was a White House town hall on educational excellence for Hispanics. The brainstorming session brought together Latino bloggers and online journalists to voice their views on which existing educational initiatives are working, which challenges are being addressed and which aren’t, and the role social media has in meeting some of these challenges.

One of the strongest voices in this conversation was Vince Leung, whose uses crowdsourcing to form an information portal and streamlines the process of accessing authoritative research online. Another was Carlos Macias (@PorColombia) who spoke of the need to ease social media and access restrictions in schools in order to incorporate social media in enrichment of curricula. “Mommy” bloggers from Miami and Los Angeles approached the questions posed by José Rico (@HispanicEd) at the town hall event from deeply personal perspectives about parental engagement. The level of engagement during the two-hour session was remarkable, and the ideas flying around were both incisive and wide-ranging.

But in this conversation I missed the voices of those facing the educational challenges of neighborhoods such as Kensington in Philadelphia or parts of Coatesville in Pennsylvania -- those for whom digital access isn’t at all certain or regular, and for whom traditional forms of parental engagement in education are circumscribed by the actualities of multiple jobs, work shifts that proscribe participation and inability to pay for what would allow their children equal educational advantages.

While all of us participating in the town hall were cognizant of this sort of challenge to educational attainment for Latinos, we were all speaking from privilege. We were at a social media summit, after all, and most of us are deeply engaged in digital discourse in ways that many of the working poor members of the extended Latino community cannot even imagine, much less experience. In my opinion those are the voices the White House most needs to hear at town halls of this sort.

By their nature conferences attract those who have the means and ability to incur the costs to attend -- and that’s just the reality even the most high-minded organizers have to contend with. The Latism organizers, strongly focused as they are on social media’s ability to do social good, organized a number of panel presentations to try and address some of the realities born of income disparity, including one on the digital divide within the Latino community, which I imagine dovetailed with some of the educational excellence summit’s concerns (I could not attend it, so I can’t speak authoritatively on whether it did).

Predictably, for a conference informed and formed by social media, the days were rife with workshops and panels on optimizing use of Facebook, Google+, Linked-in, Twitter, Wordpress, and building traffic to web sites and blogs. Tony Vargas (@TonyTorero and, a self-described technology evangelist, earned rave reviews for his presentation at the conference and spoke of sharing some of his tips and insights on his web site.

I enjoyed a workshop on the use of Spanglish in marketing and blogging, led by Juan Alanis (@juanofwords) and with the participation of Spanglish Baby blog’s Ana Flores, Pamela Diaz of General Mills, and Manuel Delgado, the CEO of the Agua marketing group. I engaged in some intriguing discussions about the challenges of multiracial Latino experience with Kiki Lightbourn (@kiki_liki); the healing power of writing with Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi (@ezzylanguzzi); whether unfocused sensitivity to discrimination leads to victim mentality with Jean Manuel Jimenez (@jeanmanolo) and Berenice Arzate-Marsh (@BereMar3); and touched on a number of newspaper/journalism questions with Hernán Guaracao (@ALDIACEO) and Vanessa Smith (@ImpactoLN).

One of the surprises of the conference, and consequent abiding sadness, is two-fold. While people like Julio Varela (@julito77) and ImmigrantArchive Project founder Tony Hernandez (@TonyHTonyH) tweet regularly about issues of concern to those of us deeply involved in advocacy for immigrants (and both of them were at the conference) there was only one panel that addressed the ways social media can counteract the worsening immigration debate and its impact on all Latinos, regardless of documentation status.

That panel (“Social Media for Social Change”) was slated for Friday afternoon, when many participants were already headed to the airport to catch flights back home (including me) so regrettably I can’t tell you much about it. Except that the moderator Cheryl Aguilar (@cheryl_aguilar) is, at a good 20-years my junior, the person I want to be when I grow up. The two panelists I had heard about, Tony Hernandez, and Pennsylvania Dream Activist María Marroquin (@MGM1987, read my earlier interview with her here) are strong voices for good in the immigration debate. I hope attendance for this panel was stellar, I hope more Latino/a bloggers came away from it with the commitment to shine a light in this dark place of our nation’s psyche.

That is certainly what the keynote speaker at the awards gala on Thursday night urged. Dolores Huerta (, already a hero to some of us through her historic advocacy for farm workers along with the legendary César Chávez, devoted a good portion of her keynote to highlighting the importance of the fight for justice for immigrants. 
The second part to the abiding sadness I mentioned is that I met precious few registrants from religious organizations whose work is tied to Latino communities. I was actually in the position to note this because I worked the registration desk almost all of the first day and a good bit of the second. I also realized in conversations with bloggers that though I’m aware of how involved churches are active both nationally and at the grassroots level in immigration advocacy, most people haven’t a clue about that heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking commitment by people of faith.

Like any conference, much of the enjoyment comes from meeting and getting to know people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. For me, one of those people was María Castrejon. Like me she’s been involved in journalism for most of her adult life, though she was in broadcast rather than print journalism. She knows, from the inside, how lopsided media coverage of immigration issues and its depiction of immigrants has tended to be.

I -- uncharacterically enough -- took part in a “30-second pitch” event in which I spoke about immigration advocacy -- its urgency, its primacy in safeguarding human dignity -- and how it can permeate every aspect of our creative and intellectual lives. I spoke specifically in terms of my work with Catholic advocates, my blog and my novel, Ink, which Crossed Genres ( will be publishing and releasing Sept. 2012. Afterward María sought me out. She understood exactly what I was speaking of. She wants to begin to make documentaries about the lives of the undocumented immigrants she’s met over her many years as a journalist. She wants to tell the stories she never hears or sees in the mainstream media.

And she will, I’m sure of it. Because the one thing I can say with certainty about all the Latism 11 participants I met is that they are passionate. And devoted. And determined. Overall, a rather amazing bunch of people.

The other certainty? Boy, they can tweet fast and often and never once miss a beat.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Guatemala elects new president - a reflection on memory and forgetting


Otto Perez Molina, a former general, won Guatemala's election Sunday. It is the first time since Vinizio Cerezo's election in 1986 that Guatemalan citizens have elected a member of the military to rule them. And there's a reason for that - the 30 years prior to the 1986 election had been years of repressive military rule in Guatemala - regimes with death squads, torturers and architects of genocide in their ranks.

Perez Molina was part of that military that waged undeclared war on its own people. And despite extensive documentation (see the Archdiocese of Guatemala's massive report with eyewitness accounts of massacres and government-led genocide of indigenous peoples here ) the new Guatemalan president denies that the massacres and genocide ever occurred.

An Associated Press report about the election (read it here) makes the point that most Guatemalans are young and don't remember the genocide years. What's more, the culturally rich but otherwise impoverished nation has been wracked by drug cartel and gang violence and, the report states, people voted in someone they hope can curb that violence.

And he probably can - after all, he's a representative of the most insidious gang that beleaguered nation has ever known, and the most pernicious and entrenched of cartels.

No one outside a country - no matter how much they remember and love it, or how many family ties they have to it - has the right to tell the people who live there how, or for whom, to vote.  But I worry this outcome.

See, unlike those young Guatemalans the AP report mentions, I do remember just exactly what it was like to live in the Guatemala of brutal military dictatorship. I do remember how a word - critical or compassionate - had the power to drive you and yours into exile, or worse, had the power to disappear you. I do remember people who lived in some of those indigenous villages where only a handful survived the massacres. Those were the years when people tried to avoid rivers and creeks because so many of them carried the body parts of the tortured and dismembered downstream. Those were the years when journalists and editors who dared print the truth of what was happening died, or were tortured, or were so grievously injured they'd never walk or write again. Those were the years when the first peoples of the nation came close to being wiped from its future.

I remember.

I was going through some of my mother's most treasured things today, thinking about the strange ways of memory. My mother was Guatemalan, and she owned many indigenous huipiles she wore even after we moved to the U.S. Those photos at the top of this blog post are traditional huipiles from a village called Nebaj. During the worst of the genocide and undeclared war in Guatemala, wearing the traditional garb in Nebaj was tantamount to wearing a bullseye. Paramilitary groups and a government-led scorched earth campaign turned Nebaj into a village of widows and orphans. Many of the Guatemalans who fled to refugee camps Mexico in the early 1980s were from Nebaj - and although the village still exists (a better fate than other villages completely erased by the genocide) it is probably impossible to tally the real human cost of those years.

Not so long ago I was discussing the undeclared civil war and genocide on Facebook with some of my classmates from Guatemala. I mentioned some of the people we had known who were killed in the violence and some of the incidents that had taken place before our eyes, just beyond the schoolyard. Some of my classmates have forgotten, others have vague recollections, but none have memories near as vivid and present as I have.

And that makes me wonder - are some of us born to be memory-keepers? To worry the shreds of history? To want to remember even when it is painful to do so?

In the 1980s the GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo) marched through Guatemala with the photos of their loved ones who had been disappeared. They placed humanitarian calls - with photos and descriptions - in the newspapers. Most of them understood their loved ones had probably died in extrajudicial killings, in massacres, at the hands of torturers. But they kept their names and faces present and in doing so they took part, to use poet writer Milan Kundera's words, in the struggle of memory against forgetting.

That struggle is clearly still taking place. Genocide is an ugly thing to remember, but it cannot be denied and its memory must be kept. I pray Guatemalans do so - because their new president has made it clear he will not - and forgetting is a dangerous invitation.

I pray for Guatemala, really, because I cannot stop loving it. And remembering it.


I wrote the following poem in the 1980s, shortly after hearing that one of the founders of GAM was killed under suspicious circumstances. She had long asked for an accounting of her husband's disappearance some years before and, by some odd quirk of fate, I had clipped and kept one of the humanitarian calls she had placed in the Guatemalan newspapers asking for his safe return. I suppose if I were to write it today it'd be a different poem, and perhaps I'd choose to make it less graphic. But the circumstance would be the same, and just as undeniable.

The poem first appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Graham House Review.

Suite for Rosario Godoy de Cuevas

For this disappearance:
25 cents per line - minimum
two by two inches. Last three pages
of the dailies; last five
of the weekly. Humanitarian Call
to those holding Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina
that they respect his physical integrity
and that they set him free, so that he
can join his young son and distressed wife
Maria del Rosario Godoy de Cuevas
5th Avenue 2-30 Zone 13
Telephone #62188, Guatemala City
June 27, 1982.

One believes time alone kills them.
But for us, waiting real news
time breaks to bated breath of days,
hours, minutes. My child forgets
his father's face - only glimpses
offered by grainy black-and-white photographs
in El Grafico or Prensa Libre,
or marched with a dozen similar faces
on placards of the GAM. If any
of them reappeared my child would likely
avalanche himself on the returning dead
proclaiming him a parent. Know this:
he was tall, handsome, fond of plaid
flannel shirts, endlessly dancing
to the Alma Tuneca marimba.
I tire of marching, of leading
this band of gathered hopeless.
Each body that makes an appearance
dragging its weight through river
or sprouting from beneath undergrowth
in fields, precipitates
the rush of all these familiar faces.
We meet in morgues, trash dumps,
communal graves. It comes down to this:
they have stripped us of memories
and we are willing to claim all as our own.

Xibalba is the underworld of Mayan legend -
a person and a place -
peopled with 20,000 unburied voices,
built on a ground threaded with bodies.
The mythology is as follows:
at night, cars with no headlights
crawl through the city searching
for the marks of the furies. The white
hand-print that indicates no house
should be passed over. Doors open,
families are rewritten. In DIT centers
men perform reconstructive surgery
without scalpels or anaesthesia.
In our myths, none of the heroes survive.
The truth is as follows:
Zipacna was a legendary villain.
He carried one hundred men and a mountain
on his back, for the pleasure
in feats of strength. We invoke
him through the years, to cover
our crust of fossils. Yes,
even we admit it is archaeology
when the farmer plows his field
and arranges the rows into ribs,
or a spine.

Female, 29 years old.
Olive skin, brown hair and eyes.
Third degree burns over 50% of body.
Ribcage crushed. Mutiple
contusions. Human bitemarks
on breasts. Evidence of rape.
Victim was pulled from burning
wreckage of automobile:
Honda, 4-door, 1981, no license plates.

A primer for children.
Set the table in the following way:
salad fork, then dinner fork, on the left.
Knife (blade inward) tablespoon, soup spoon
on right. Teaspoon, dessert fork
above, arranged.

Do not serve yourself too much food,
or more than once. Balance your
implements delicately: the knife
between the fingers on the breath
of a feather. No coarse grasping
to indicate desperation or lack
of understanding for cutting edges.

Contemplate the ironed table linen:
a rectangular patch of material swished
ceremoniously onto the lap.
Knotting the cloth in anxious substitution
for speech. Each knot a thought,
each thought a disappeared person.
When you finish, show me the results -
I'll teach you to count.