Sunday, December 29, 2013

Are deportations an intentional strategy to destroy the Latino family unit?

File photo from Al Día
We've heard over and over how deportations are intended to target criminal elements of the undocumented population. But the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse (TRAC) released a report in October of this year that indicated that only 38 percent of those put in deportation proceedings by ICE in the first six months of the year had any record of criminal activity, a definition that encompassed traffic violations by the way.

In a November release, TRAC stated that 2013 was a record year for immigration prosecutions, with 97,384 cases filed against new defendants. It represents a 5.9 percent increase from the 2012 deportation rate, and a 22.6 percent increase in the past five years.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to every public statement the administration (under Janet Napolitano's direction of DHS) has made about narrowing and refining the scope of deportations. (It is hard to predict what Jeh Johnson will do in her stead since he is so recently confirmed to the post.) 

According to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network — which participated in a number of actions to block deportation buses this past year — the enforcement of deportations orders continues to tear families apart. 

It is not the only organization to say so. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long maintained that the impact of existing immigration policies has been borne by families, and organizations formed by the undocumented themselves — like Dream Activist — regularly make public the stories of families torn asunder by detention and imminent deportation. Many of the family impacted are "mixed" families, with U.S. citizen children and undocumented parents and/or siblings.

The result is utterly devastating to both the individuals involved and to cultural communities built around the importance — primacy, really — of family. We are seeding a generation of children ripped forcibly from their parents' sides by the state. A generation left behind, and lost to themselves and their ancestral culture.  

File photo from Al Día
A 2011 study of the Applied Research Center revealed that, at that time, more than 5,100 children of detained or deported immigrants were in foster care in 22 states. Some, like Encarnation Bail Romero's son or Amelia Reyes Jimenez's four children were adopted away from biological parents deemed to have abandoned them because they were deported or in detention. Others, like Cesia and Ronald Soza Jr., are in foster care after coming home from school to find their single parent detained, and subsequently deported, even though his children say he tried to comply with the requirements imposed by the state that should have permitted him to stay at least until they were of age.

The long-term effects of such forcible separations are not sufficiently studied, but many of the experts speaking about the mental health stressors of immigration at a recent Dart Center Workshop factor the fear of deportation and the effects of separation into their assessments of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders that can, and do, affect the undocumented in the U.S.

There is some similarity to the forcible separation of Native American children from their families and cultures in our nation's history — though, of course, that was far more widespread and even more virulent and systemic than this. It is a cultural trauma that still impacts many Native American bands, nations and individuals, and it is not too tremendous a stretch to imagine a similarly lasting impact on the generations of young Latinos stranded here without their families and cultural anchors. (Moreover, it is impossible to ignore that the majority of those deported, by ICE's own statistics for 2013, are from four countries — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and are likely to include many with indigenous ancestry.)

Family separation is a huge concern for all immigrants. In fact, Asian immigration advocates have taken a strong stand against the switch from a family-reunification-centered visa allocation in the Senate bill in part because of the violence it will do to cultural norms centered on family.  

Still, I have long maintained that the debate about immigration policy took a turn a while ago from focusing primarily on lack of documentation to broader xenophobic "invasion" fears tied to the rapid demographic growth of Latinos — documented and citizen included — across the nation. 

Public excoriation of Latinos performing at sporting events; removal of Mexican American history and literature from Arizona schools; housing discrimination against Latinos; efforts to curtail Latino business and growth within municipalities under the aegis of immigration relief;  efforts to pit Latinos in a zero sum game against African-Americans  (which has only recently started to be counter-disputed with statistics from the 2010 Census) and many other increasingly visible manifestations of anti-Latino proposed public policy and raw sentiment have done nothing to dissuade me from my thinking. 

What better, then, to slow a population growth that is viewed as "undesirable" than to destroy Latino families through unprecedented deportation rates justified by the state's desire to restore order and safeguard sovereignty? 

I know many will bristle at this interpretation, and still I cannot shake it as I consider the deportation rate and the way it has utterly failed —time and again — at distinguishing between criminality and family need, between those who want to imperil security and those whose whole journey has been toward finding security for themselves and their loved ones.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Arguing while American -- E.L. Doctorow, my mother, and arrogance

Last year, as the genocide trial of former General Efraín Rios Montt unfolded in Guatemala, I was glued to the proceedings. I live streamed enough hours of the trial that the witness of the indigenous Ixil and K’iche’ people who testified will be seared in my consciousness probably for the rest of my life. When I wasn’t watching live stream, I was reading analysis of the trial written by observers from across the world; following the tweets about it from the dozens of Guatemalans I followed even before the trial started, and adding another dozen or so Guatemalan tweeple after #sihubogenocidio became my default hashtag search. I reached out to have a Guatemalan journalist write an opinion piece in AL DÍA, and gave one of our staff reporters some contacts of Guatemalans in diaspora, in Philadelphia and nationally, for her to interview for the cover story we ran.

When Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years, I cried. When the trial was retroactively deemed unconstitutional and annulled, I cried again. Different tears, same heart filled with the country I’ve always loved, that I’ve lost and will never be able to fully reclaim again.

I shared much of this with my friends and family on Facebook, as is my wont. One of my cousins, who lives in Guatemala, commented — in a caring way — that I was completely and utterly wrong. About the trial, the witnesses, the meaning I was attributing to actions and counteractions. I argued. She argued. We went back and forth for bit, and then eventually dropped it and went back to sharing photos of our loved ones and updates about the work that we each feel passionately about.

But before I post anything about Guatemala these days, I think about her.

The thing is, I haven’t changed my mind, nor my politics, nor one sentiment or belief about the fundamental injustice, ruthless repression and endemic racism that drove 30+ years of horrific undeclared civil war into an even more unbearable and horrific genocide. But the country that haunts my memories and my dreams and my stories, doesn’t haunt my days — and it hasn’t for almost 40 years now.

My cousin, on the other hand, lives there. Always has. That’s where her children were born, and recently, a grandchild. It’s where her mother and grandmother are buried. Her life is there — during the worst days and the best — in what is still one of the most violent countries of the western hemisphere.

And I live in the country whose policy toward Guatemala historically included deposing a popularly-elected president, shoring up a series of dictators and repressive military governments with arms and counterinsurgency experts that, as documents released through the freedom of information act show, came this close to participation in the genocide. Guatemala’s current violence is in large part the result of narcotraffic and organized crime but grew directly from the history of impunity for crimes our American government facilitated from the mid 1950s through the early 1990s.

No matter how just the cause we Americans espouse when raising our individual voices about international issues these days, we need to keep our arrogance in check. Too often when we have these conversations (informally or formally) we accord ultimate authority to organizations and voices from outside the country in question, instead of those working to draw attention to the matter from within. We too often adopt strategies for activism that seem brave and audacious in our own cultural context but that bulldoze the far more complicated activism of those in whose name we’re presumably advocating. Femen is a good example of this, with their topless marches that insult and trivialize homegrown women’s rights activism in Muslim countries.

It’s not that we don’t do it with the best of intentions, but it is also an aspect of our American exceptionalism (and the European Union equivalent) that we believe we are “ripping the blinders off” those who are actually living through whatever we’re protesting. We need — really need — to understand how arrogant this seems to those who have more than just metaphoric skin in the game.

Years and years ago, at my college graduation, E. L. Doctorow spoke to the commencement crowd about the undeclared civil wars raging at that very moment in El Salvador and Guatemala. I remember being glad he was doing so, because I hated Ronald Reagan and hoped enough people would get riled and vote him out of office before a second term. But as Doctorow’s speech wore on my mother became more and more agitated.

My mother was Guatemalan. She had lost some  friends to the violent armed internal conflict, and seen others turned paraplegic or chased into exile because of it. In truth, she had lost her country to it as well, because it was the rampant, uncontrollable violence of that era that prompted us to leave. She spent much of her time in the United States discussing with other Guatemalans in diaspora what needed to happen for real change to take place in their country. She would, several years after Doctorow’s commencement speech, host a then-candidate for the presidency (the first civilian in 30 years to try to wrest the post away from military strongmen) in our home, and contribute to his campaign, in an effort to do something concrete from here. (That candidate was popularly elected and despite initial efforts to end human rights abuses, ended up in a test of wills against the military that culminated in his becoming a strawman — but that’s the topic for another blog post).

Anyway, back to Doctorow and my mom ... after commencement was over, I remember asking her why she was upset — after all I had heard her go on and on about the brutality of what was happening in Guatemala in much more specific and heartfelt ways than Doctorow had.

“What time would you guess he’s actually spent in Central America?” she asked me, each word hard and clipped even as her eyes glittered with tears. “A week? Two? His speech was pure arrogance.”

And she was right. It was a white savior speech: easier to swallow, certainly, than the white savior propaganda that had “justified” the U.S meddling in Guatemala in the first place, but at heart it was the very same narrative. We — Americans — would fix it. We’d decry and hector and lecture and politic, and because of our focus on it the dysfunction would disappear ... because now we saw it.

Honestly, I don’t intend to stop advocating for human and civil rights anytime soon, but thinking about this has made me realize how readily I — not even really “white” nor wholly American culturally — put on the cape of savior when I write about the world's injustices in tweet, comment section, blog, column, editorial. I realize how often I choose to speak instead of listening to the homegrown voices that are already raised in discussion about it.

Some of those are voices I like hearing, others not. But all of them have earned their opinions by living in their own country, and nothing I say from the outside — no matter how righteous I think it — should carry the same weight.

Time for a little humility.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work - Yvette Marquez

Editor's note: this is the 14th in a monthly (sometimes twice-monthly) series of guest blog posts in which emerging Latina writers talk about their work, their process and what inspires them.

Yvette Marquez draws culinary inspiration from her grandmother's old-world northern Mexican recipes and her mother's comforting south of the border home-style dishes. Though she writes primarily about her culinary adventures on her blog,, she also contributes recipes to Betty Crocker and Her cookbook Muy Bueno: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor (Hippocrene Books), written with her sister Veronica and mother Evangelina, was published in October 2012. Besides her blog, Yvette has also been featured in Latina Magazine, and the websites of The Pioneer Woman, SAVEUR, Siempre Mujer, and Gourmet, among others. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. You can follow her on Twitter @muybuenocooking.

Words about food

I was a fulltime graphic designer and mother – always creative, but always working for someone else. I loved to entertain and I loved to cook for anyone who visited.

One summer my mother was visiting me and we cooked a lot of the recipes I grew up eating. Recipes my late grandma would make for us, favorite recipes my mom would make, and it inspired me to develop my own Latin-inspired recipes. I started writing down every recipe and I took lots of photos (not professional by any means). Then my 8-year-old daughter gave us the idea to write a cookbook. At first we were going to self-publish, but luckily got the nerve to send a proposal and our manuscript to a publisher. They loved our three-generation Mexican cookbook idea and especially loved the photos that were captured by my friend Jeanine who is a professional photographer.

Fast forward a couple of years later and we have a published cookbook and now I am self employed. I still love graphic design and even designed our cookbook and blog. I also am a full-time food writer for Parade Magazine and develop recipes for Betty Crocker, KitchenAid, and Clabber Girl just to name a few.

When my grandmother passed away in 2004 I was afraid her recipes would die too – thankfully my mother knew how to make every one of her recipes. And together, with my sister, we co-wrote a beautiful cookbook that not only shares recipes but the memories and stories that go along with them. It is a delicious family love story that I am so proud to leave behind for my children and future generations.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work - Lisa Bradley

Editor's note: this is the 13th in a monthly (sometimes twice-monthly) series of guest blog posts in which emerging Latina writers talk about their work, their process and what inspires them. 

Lisa M. Bradley writes speculative fiction and poetry. She has work forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, and Mythic Delirium. Originally from South Texas, she now lives in Iowa with her spouse, child, and two cats. Her latest project is a weekly blog series, "Writing Latin@ Characters Well." She listened to "Why We Build the Wall" (from Anaïs Mitchell's album Hadestown) nonstop as she wrote the following essay.


I think about borders. A lot.

It's probably natural, considering I grew up in South Texas, just minutes away from the international border. Once when I was young and living with my grandparents, a couple of men came to our door. Wet, ragged. Exhausted, wary. I fetched Gram and after speaking with them for a few minutes, she went to the kitchen and put together leftovers in aluminum foil for them, then tersely sent them on their way. I remember being surprised that my grouchy grandmother was giving food to apparent strangers. She didn't even like it when I served myself too large a glass of milk. I asked her who those men were, and she said they'd just crossed the river. She was pensive the rest of the day.

"The river" was, of course, the Rio Grande. I was amazed that the men had crossed a river without a boat, that they were on the run. I tried to imagine how scared and excited they were to be in another country, to be doing something illegal. I hoped they got away.

Another time, I went to Bentsen State Park with my family. The river runs right alongside the park, and when I looked across the sunny water, I saw sparse trees, some happy, relaxed goats, some people. I remember thinking, "That's Mexico. Those are Mexican goats. Those are Mexican people." I had to tell myself, because otherwise I wouldn't believe. The land over there looked exactly the same as on the American side. So did the goats. So did the people. We waved to each other. "That's Mexico" I told myself, trying to make it real. Trying to believe.

Living in Iowa hasn't diminished my interest in borders. If anything, the physical distance has brought the concept of borders into sharper focus. The novel I'm revising now is set in a west Texas town that's been quarantined after an industrial accident. The town is surrounded by watchtowers, an electrified fence, and a trench. The residents trapped inside protect themselves from violent neighbors by building barricades and booby-traps. Before long, it's impossible to tell who is fenced off and who is trapped inside, who the walls protect and who they keep out.

Even when I'm not writing about physical or geographic borders, I'm thinking about the hazy lines that divide one community from the next, one cause from another, one persona from the multiple voices inside our heads. I like to find chinks in the fences. My blog series "Writing Latin@ Characters Well" is an attempt to help non-Latin@ writers nudge under the fence of Thou Shalt Nots that discourages them from writing the Other.

A friend asked me to write specifically about the differences between what (conversations) the Latin@ community shares among themselves and what it shares with outsiders. This is the kind of question I love, but perhaps I am the wrong person to answer it. After all, I am so fond of transgressing. Is there anything I keep solely to mis compadres? Or even mis comadres? And if I can't keep private matters private, am I likely to be trusted by the community I seek to represent?

In How to Tame a Wild Tongue, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, "being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul — not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither eagle nor serpent, but both. And like the ocean, neither animal respects borders."

By this definition, I am Mexican through and through, from one liminal "end" to an infinite number of other quasi-endpoints. My fascination with gaps in the walls, with crossing rivers fences laws, is not a barrier to but an illustration of my belonging to this group.

So maybe I'm a fine person to ask "what is shared and what kept hidden in Latin@ communities?" I'll poke at the question the same way I do all the fences blocking my view. I may not find an answer, but man…

It'll be fun tearing down the wall.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Some thoughts about ageism, fear, failed posts and even more failed imaginations

Looking at the world through sepia-colored glasses
This is a failed post.

I originally wanted to write about age and ageism as it manifests in the Speculative fiction world, where protagonists skip from mid-30s to mid-80s with no in-between, and where writers like to pretend their older peers are the source of all evil in the genre.

I like to believe I had some zingers in the original post, particularly as regards complimenting the old by saying we're "young for our years" and the part where you tell us that after we die off the genre will be free of sexism, racism and everything else that is wrong with it.

HECF. Hazme el chingado favor.

The post-that-was very quickly turned into a competently phrased j'accuse that let all and sundry know it is as easy to be snarky and supercilious at 53 as it is at 23. But then I got tired.

It's tiring to repeatedly call out bias (overt or covert), and as it happens I do that a lot in my tweets, in my editorials & columns for Al Día News, in my fiction and often enough, here. And in my tiredness I realized that my sentiments about the extent of ageism in SFF could be summed up better by a meme of seven words than a blog post of 700.

The meme, as it happens, is one that I had snagged for the initial post because it contained the only character my co-participants in a panel discussion on Aging in SFF * could reliably come up with when challenged to name an interesting older woman main protagonist in SFF.

Preach it, Granny.

But enough about SFF. Let's talk about one of the root causes of ageism as we experience it here, in the U.S.: We're terrified of death.

Every grey hair, every sagging jowl, every age spot confirms that we are all slouching toward the same end. Which is probably why plastic surgery, hair dye and pop culture erasure of those who don't pass for young are so prevalent.

My mother, a Latina who could have given Granny Weatherwax a run for her money when it comes to formidable, used to say the reason there are so many old-folks homes in the United States is because Anglos don't want to live with reminders. Obviously this isn't the whole of it, nor even the main of it (nor is it restricted to Anglos) but it is part of it.

It isn't this way in all cultures.

Sugar skulls photo by Samantha Madera
A lot has been written about the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, much of it rubbish but some of it profound. All of it keys into the proliferation of skulls and skeletons — many of them dressed to resemble the living, others bearing our own frosted names on their bony foreheads. The home ofrendas for Day of the Dead are colorful and alive with photos, food stuffs and mementos associated with our beloved departed (as are the grave sites themselves) but the altars are as much about us as they are about our ancestors and those who have passed on. We're all represented.

My comadre's ofrenda in Mexico City
Anglos sometimes tell me they find this tradition a bit creepy,  which I find interesting given it shares Halloween's timing and some of its iconography. I think it's the real life stuff that bothers them — the names of the living on the sugar skulls; the whisky bottle my comadre includes in her ofrenda because her uncle liked that particular kind; the little stone my mother hand painted as a skull placed on my own ofrenda table from a few years back; the way the skeletons are clothed and bear the accoutrements of living (my Catrina has a cigarette held between her bony fingers).

But it is precisely the combination of living and dead, of what we do and what our departed did, that makes putting together an ofrenda such a great antidote to fear of dying. And fear of aging.

I have started to gather the items for my ofrenda this year. Selecting flowers (I'm doing safflowers and sunflowers); hunting down photos and items; dusting off my gaudily dressed Catrina from Guadalajara (purchased when I was there with my father a few years before his death) and the folk-art painted paper coffins my mother collected — all of these will sweep away the moments this year when people intimated I should cover up the grey in my hair, or rethink the way I wear my age. I've passed into that moment in which I am closer to death than to my birth — I've earned my grey hair and saggy jowls and the memories, both sweet and salt, that will crowd my ofrenda on Nov. 1.

"Death is still the terrible yet amusing entity that establishes a compromise between memory and a sense of humor," writes Carlos Monsiváis, a Mexican journalist, critic and political activist, "and between the sense of humor and the irremediable."

My ofrenda from several years ago
Memory. Sense of humor. The irremediable. Monsiváis may be explaining the persistence of Death as a motif in Mexican tradition and art, but he's also managed to articulate the components of the liminal  space we find ourselves in during our latter years. Which is why — getting back to my original failed post — it is so hard to believe SFF does so badly by aging.

Liminal spaces are beloved by SFF writers and readers: there have to be hundreds of stories that hinge on that moment on the borderland between faery and mundane world; the ritual that transforms child to adult; the step into the time machine. But not aging.

It is a failure of imagination of fantastical (pun intended) proportions. Because if SFF writers can't imagine this certain future, why would I trust them with any other?

• • •

*Kudos to Arisia for having a panel on Aging and SFF at all — they're light years ahead of other SFF conventions in this.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A woman's work is never done: The personal is political, and the political is art

The mainstream will be discomfited, but women have long responded to social injustice with art ... in particular folk art, born of the everyday: thread, fabric, wood, paint, words....

Margarita Azurdia's sculpture "The Warriors" was created during the height of the 30+ year armed internal conflict in Guatemala that evolved into genocide and left 200,000 dead and some 50,000 disappeared.

Read my story: Collateral Memory

La superviviente 

Me habita un cementerio 
me he ido haciendo vieja 
al lado de mis muertos. 
no necesito amigos 
me da miedo querer porque he querido a muchos 
y a todos los perdí en la guerra. 

Me basta con mi pena. 
Ella me ayuda a vivir estos amaneceres blancos 
estas noches desiertas 
esta cuenta incesante de las pérdidas.

Feminist Cuban artist Ana Mendieta made art that blurred the boundaries of the self, often using her own body as the integral but temporary artistic image itself (as in the pictured "Incantation to Olokun-Yemayá" and "Untitled, Silueta Series.") Critic B. Ruby Rich says: "Her body was her art and she placed it in the ground. In doing so, she was trying to ground herself in the earth but also reconnect with the earth that she was standing on even if it was not Cuba."

Read: Nisi Shawl's Pataki

Listen: Celia Cruz's Ochún con Changó

Jesse Telfair's 1983 quilt was created when she lost her job. It strongly references Civil War era quilts patterned with abolitionist slogans, and pays tribute to the long tradition of African-American quilt making.

Nikki Giovanni

Like a fading piece of cloth

I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter

My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able

To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days

When just woven I could keep water

From seeping through

Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave

Dazzled the sunlight with my


I grow old though pleased with my memories

The tasks I can no longer complete

Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology

only this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end

Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt

That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to

Will hear my whispers

And cuddle


Bordamos por la paz is a collective of extraordinary ordinary women (which started in Guadalajara, Mexico but now has chapters throughout the nation), who embroider a handkerchief for each death that occurs as a result of the brutal "War on Drugs" that has left more than 60,000 dead.

Stitchwork as a surprisingly popular form of protest:
During Pinochet's Chile
Get Knitted

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work - Teresa Jusino

Editor's note: this is the 12th in a monthly (sometimes twice-monthly) series of guest blog posts in which emerging Latina writers talk about their work, their process and what inspires them.

Teresa Jusino is a New Yorker who  lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her pop culture criticism has been featured on websites like,, Al Dia,,, Newsarama, and 2012 saw Teresa’s work appear in two Doctor Who anthologies: Chicks Unravel Time (Mad Norwegian Press) and Outside In (ATB Publishing), and she was also published in Mad Norwegian’s Whedonistas. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, and she is currently writing a webseries based on the short film, Incredible Girl, by Celia Aurora de Blas, which is coming in 2014.

Writing as escape

I got my first, and only, detention in the eighth grade. In English class. For writing too much.

I was working on some story the way I always did in every class — furtively, with a notebook hidden underneath whatever book we were supposed to be looking at, taking passes at writing words during a lull in class discussion, or when my teacher wasn’t looking, or when someone was asking a question…

I was good at listening to what the teacher was talking about and writing short fiction at the same time. I got straight “A’s” in English. Lay off.

In any case, I was working on some story or other and one of my best friends was sitting next to me and wanted to read it. So, I passed it to her at the exact moment my teacher decided to look in our direction. Thinking we were passing trivial schoolgirl notes as opposed to the literary genius that was actually taking place, Ms. Lind gave us both detentions.

Even honor students get in trouble sometimes. Still, it’s pretty funny that the one time I did get in trouble at school was for sharing writing in English class. That’s how big a nerd I was. I wrote so much that I got in trouble for it.

But that moment captures just how important writing has always been to me. It’s not something I can stop. It’s something I’ll willingly get in trouble for, because the alternative is worse. It’s either write or go crazy. It’s either write, or die.

However, there’s a huge difference in how I approached writing before and after I made the decision to do it professionally. I’ve been a writer since I could pick up a pen, but when I was about 10 or 11, I decided that I wanted to be an actress. I was a huge fan of Beverly Hills 90210 (the original, not the stupid new one), and I loved reading articles like “A Day in the Life on the Set!” I thought to myself, That’s a job?! Hell yeah! I like pretending to be other people! I like dressing up! I wanna do that! And I did, I joined drama club in junior high, and continued in it all through high school, eventually becoming the club’s president. I went to NYU and got a BFA in Drama from the Tisch School of the Arts. I spent a good six years after college trying to make a life as an actor.

But the writing was always there. During all my free time (and even time that wasn’t so free, as illustrated by my detention story) you would find me with a notebook and a pen, scribbling for dear life. In fifth grade, I wrote reams of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Alien Nation fan fiction, and friends would accost me during recess to read the latest “episodes.” In Junior High, I created a world of cartoon characters I called “bug people,” which eventually led to the comic strip, Cutsie-Wootsie and Friends, which told the story of Cutsie-Wootsie, her boyfriend, Hungry Boy (never w/out a hot dog in his hand to show you how hungry he was), her best friend, Maggie, and a cast of characters that lived surprisingly soap-operaesque lives for people who looked like little bugs. I drew that comic on looseleaf and passed it around to friends during French class. One of those friends STILL has them. Throughout high school, I was writing short stories and a “novel,” I submitted pieces to our literary magazine, and during my Junior and Senior years, I was the editor of the school newspaper. I was the girl who secretly cheered when teachers assigned essays, when all the other students were going “Awww, man!” In college, I was primarily there for an acting degree, but I double-majored in English Literature, because I just couldn’t let writing go.

This continued after college. I would write during auditions and play rehearsals. I would write in line for movies and museum exhibits. I would write on my commute to and from work. I would write at work the same way I did when I was at school - furtively, when I was supposed to be engaging in other things.

Writing was the best way I knew how to express myself. Despite my acting ability, I was never more clear, or more honest, than when I wrote, even when I wrote fiction, so I always sought it out and craved it.

Then I got older, and I decided to try to make writing my living.

Fiction doesn’t pay right away, so I decided to go the non-fiction route, and built a name for myself in geek pop culture journalism. For a while, I was passionate about that, as I got to write about things and people that excited me. It was thrilling, too, to chase interviews, and come up with new angles through which I could examine the sci-fi and fantasy that I loved.

But after several years of that, I was burnt out on trying to come up with new ways to talk about the same limited sphere of interests. I’d written myself into a box, and what’s worse, that writing sapped my energy from the writing I wanted to be doing.

I missed telling stories.

And yet, even now, as I work two part-time day jobs that allow me the flexible schedule I wanted so that I’d have more time to write, the writing doesn’t come as furiously as it used to. It used to be that I couldn’t contain my writing. It was how I spent all my free time. I had boxes and boxes of notebooks of things I’d written. I had several stories constantly going on at once.

Now, I wrestle with finishing one at a time.  

Writing was my way of escaping other parts of my life. Now, though, there’s less that I want to escape. When I was younger, I did a lot less participating in the world around me, and when I did I was always on the periphery, never wanting to get too involved. I was afraid, insecure. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown into myself, and become the kind of person that wants to experience everything. To me, it’s more important to tend to my relationships or try new things than it is to have a successful writing career. Don’t get me wrong, a successful writing career is my biggest goal - but not if it comes at the expense of the rest of my life. And maybe that means that success will come more slowly for me, if at all. But I can live with that.

Yet writing continues to be my truest, most long-lasting love. It’s just that our relationship has evolved. It’s not only the way I best express myself, but the way I best process my thoughts and feelings. For example, I’d never really thought about my writing in these terms before I was asked to write this guest post and talk about my writing. Suddenly, as I started to put words on a page, my feelings started making sense. More than talking, or drowning my sorrows in food and drink, writing is how I best understand myself and the world, which is strange considering that it used to allow me to hide from those things.

I don’t feel the physical need to write that I used to. It isn’t compulsive anymore. But perhaps that’s a good thing if it means I’m happier with the rest of my life. I have a balanced, healthy, adult relationship with both my life and my writing at the moment, and I’m very grateful.

Must read from Alberto Vourvoulias - Undocumented Journalism: "The Mediterranean is a graveyard."

Undocumented Journalism: "The Mediterranean is a graveyard.": Ruined watchtowers dot the easternmost point of mainland Italy.  A crippled ship weighed down with over 500 refugees caught fire and...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

NPR's Code Switch forgets (or ignores) Latinas

con safos

In my work as the managing editor at Al Día News I spend a lot of time asking questions about the Latina experience in the United States. It is not an academic exercise. I’m intimately and professionally invested in examining the way we exist within a culture that sometimes erases, criminalizes or fetishizes us, and routinely overlooks our accomplishments.

I’ve heard many Latina stories, many Latina voices.. Each of those Latinas — cis and trans; immigrant and native-born; established and emergent; young and old — has something to say about what it means to be a Latina in the United States at this particular moment in time.

But that panoply of Latina voices has a hard time getting heard outside of specifically Latin@ circles. Sometimes, not even one Latina voice is heard.

NPR’s Code Switch, for example, picked up on the activity prompted by the #solidarityisforwhitewomen twitter hashtag created by writer Mikki Kendall, and generated a roundtable discussion that would explore the intersection of digital feminism and race in more depth than twitter’s 140-character limit permitted. They then asked Roxanne GayJill Filipovic, and Kendall herself, to write posts for the site. The final two writers invited to the roundtable were Lindsey Yoo and Jamilah Lemieux (her piece is not posted yet, as I write this).

Three African-American writers (including the originator of the hashtag), one white blogger and one Korean-American. No Latinas.

It’s not that Latinas didn’t participate when the hashtag was trending, because we did. If memory serves, Aura Bogado, the news editor of and a contributor to the Nation, was especially active. Even if I hadn't been following the hashtag, I would have seen this because she tops my "always read" list on twitter for her substantive, engaged take on the world.

So, then?

Maybe NPR's Code Switch thought the problematic intersection of race and feminism was not a consideration for the 25 million mestizas, afrolatinas, indigenous and white Latinas who live in the United States. Or maybe they thought we had nothing to contribute that couldn’t be said better by others.

One of the most pernicious and pervasive biases about Latinas is the belief that we are intellectual lightweights.

According to the American Association of University Professors, Latina tenured or tenure-track female faculty members frequently find themselves facing stereotypes centered on intellectual capacity. “Some are told by colleagues that they are particularly articulate, or that they speak English well, implying that this is atypical,” a 2012 AAUP article states. “Others have described instances where students, other faculty members, or staff members have assumed that they are service workers or anything but professors.”

The opposition to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was also couched in terms of intellectual ability. Jeffrey Rosen’s profile in the New Republic, which served as her introduction to the public, was chock-full of quotes about the future Justice’s middling intelligence and lack of “intellectual gravitas.” When Salon’s Rebecca Traister analyzed this sentiment, she posited that the emphasis on lack of intellect showed just how difficult it was for a woman to be judged on par with male colleagues. But not too terribly long after Sotomayor became Justice, Elena Kagan, a white woman, went through her own confirmation hearing, during which she was characterized as talented and “scary smart.”

In popular imagination, we’re all sassy but vacuous Devious Maids; dopey and unintelligible Sofia Vergaras; or variants of Lupe Ontiveros' goodhearted, but undereducated, domestic worker (a role the talented actress played 150 times in Hollywood movies). There is no other Latina image, no matter how brilliant its exemplar, that approaches the amount of face time given to the stereotype of the intellectually challenged Latina.

Being dismissed as second-rank isn’t limited to Latinas of course, it is something that every woman of color faces, to lesser or greater degree, across almost every field of endeavor. The original hashtag of #solidarityisforwhitewomen was born precisely because this weaponized dismissal of credibility and authority is used so frequently against African-American women.

But, I’m a journalist as well as a Latina, and it’s galling to see my mainstream colleagues at NPR leaving Latinas wholly out of a serious discussion of the intersectionality of race and feminism. It indicates that they have closed their ears to the Latina voices so richly in evidence on the same platform where they noticed #solidarityisforwhitewomen trending.

Here are some Latina voices, in addition to Aura Bogado, that the folks at Code Switch should pause to hear:
  • Veronica Arreola, who explores exactly the intersection of feminism and “Latinidad” on her web site Viva la Feminista 
  • The collective MalintZINE — “radical mujeres, some of color and some queer, based in Tucson, Arizona” — who use twitter, tumblr, facebook and their web site to call attention to disparities of power and to decry the silencing of Chicana voices in feminism and within male-centered Chicano activism through art and commentary. 
  • Afrolatina Rosa Clemente is a Hip Hop activist and journo with political cred, who is outspoken about race, feminism and dozens of other issues. 
  • Trans woman and mujerista Voz who has long spoken and blogged — unequivocally and unapologetically — about the way cis feminism excludes and endangers trans women of color. Her insights are sometimes hard to hear, but are invaluable for cis women who too often shut their trans sisters out of the conversation.

There are many others, of course. So many varied, intelligent and thoroughly engaged Latina voices out there, speaking about all manner of issues. I invite NPR’S Code Switch to — as labor activist Dolores Huerta once said — get off the sidewalk and walk with us into history

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work - Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi

Editor's note: this is the 11th in a monthly (sometimes twice-monthly) series of guest blog posts in which emerging Latina writers talk about their work, their process and what inspires them.

Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi  received her B.S from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is currently completing her MEd in School Guidance at Cambridge College, and plans to pursue a CAGS in Trauma Studies. She believes in the curative effects of bibliotherapy. She is a writer who is strongly influenced by the sciences, and is currently working on a YA novel with the working title, Where Hazard Meets New Hope. She also blogs at Sincerely, Ezzy. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, son, dog, and two chickens.

Writing authentically

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. A doctor, nurse, biologist, or astronomer, maybe, but a writer? Never. In fact, the thought didn’t occur to me until 2008, when I enrolled in an online grammar course through the Writer’s Digest. Something came alive in me during that grammar course ... a compulsion to continue enrolling in workshops. One class led to another, until I’d taken courses in the essentials: voice and viewpoint, dialogue, creativity and expression, plot and structure, and 12 weeks to a novel’s first draft —yeah, right— twice.
It’s also around then that I started to read books written by diverse authors, not necessarily ones you’d immediately find on the bestseller’s tables at Barnes and Noble. Imagine at my age, reading in print for the first time, thoughts I’d never shared with anyone, thinking that as the daughter of immigrant parents my feelings were unique. I’ve discovered voices I wish I’d read 20 years ago.

With each book I’ve read, I’ve also, realized how much I have yet to learn about storytelling. Certainly the workshops helped me hone my writing skills, but no workshop could teach me how to write authentically. This probably explains why, when friends ask about my work in progress, I change the subject and ask them what books they’re reading. First, because I love to talk about books, but second, because I’m superstitious. They remain unfinished.

Some (un)writerly quirks about me …

• I spend more time thinking about my story than I do actually writing it.

• My WIP is a cloud that follows me everywhere I go.

• For every four hundred pages I read, I’ll write maybe four.

• The best ideas come to me at the worst times.

• The main character in my current novel is who I wish I could’ve been.

• I’m structured about most everything, except for my writing.

• I both love and hate to write – simultaneously.

• Being focused on the journey, rather than the finished product, helps me keep my sanity.

My current novel’s narrator is a 13-year-old Mexican-American girl, who attends private school on a scholarship with her two younger sisters. The story is set in Southern California and takes place during her spring break, when a series of events and tragedies change her life. Sibling rivalry, family secrets, and cultural drama are a few of the topics I tackle, sometime, with a bit of dry humor. 

Here’s a glimpse into one of the novel's scene:
A tricked-out, neon purple car crawled low to the ground toward us, like a cat ready to pounce. Had it not been for the synthesized music turned low I might not have heard it until it was too late. It wasn’t until the car pulled up under the street lamp that I made out the silhouette of El Flaco sitting in the back seat of the car. Amber flecks lit up behind him like fireflies. Somebody smoked in the seat next to him.  
Fear ran through me, covered me like a sheet of ice. I couldn’t move and sensed Celeste had taken a step back.
El Flaco leaned out of the open back window, looking like he did every day, without a care in the world. The hazy street lamp barely illuminated his dark features. “You ladies wanna party?” 
Somehow I knew that my kind of party, the kind with balloons, a cake, and piñata, was not the kind of party this gangbanger had in mind. 
“You better get out of here before my papi comes out,” I said with an uneven voice. Then the words just spilled out. “Can I ask you something?” I might as well have started digging my own grave. 
El Flaco laughed and motioned to me with his chin. “Shoot.” I could barely make out his black eyes under the bandana he wore. He’d rested his arm on the side of the car. That’s when I saw for the first time that he had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary running the entire length of his upper arm, from his elbow to his shoulder. He wasn’t all that flaco, either, had some meat on those bones after all. 
“Why’d you have to burn my parents’ shop?” 
“That wasn’t us, morenita.” 
“You’re a liar. I don’t believe you. You did it to get back at my father.” 
“I don’t care what you believe,” he said, settling back inside the dark vehicle. “Maybe you should check with your old man." 

© Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi, 9/3/2013. No part of this excerpt may be used for any purpose without Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi's express, written permission.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hago la lucha: La Gorda and the City of Silver

Vintage poster for one of Rafael Lanuza's "Superzán" luchador movies
This past July, at Readercon, I participated in a Latino SFF writers reading with two masterful readers: Daniel José Older and Julia Rios. Since I was doing a solo reading from my novel INK later, I chose to read one of my short stories La Gorda and the City of Silver, which appeared in the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land early in 2012. The story has been one of the best received of any of my short stories, and I had never read it publicly before, so I threw myself into it and tried to match the exuberance and skill of my co-readers.

Like so many of my stories, La Gorda has a political underpinning. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in Latin America and I knew the fictional luchadora I had created was going make protecting the women and girls of her neighborhood her mission.

The odd thing about La Gorda is that her family life — she is the daughter of a lucha libre filmmaker, and goddaughter to his stable of luchadores — is based on reality. My grandmother actually lived in Ciudad de Plata (City of Silver), the Zone 7 neighborhood in Guatemala I describe in the story, and her next door neighbor was a man called Rafael Lanuza.

Still from Superzán & the boy from space
If you look at the photo at the top of this blog post you will see a poster of one of Lanuza's most popular early films, Superzán y el niño del espacio —Superzan and the boy from space — which, like others of his lucha libre films, was partially filmed in his backyard in City of Silver. I watched, over my grandmother's fence, as scenes from some of Lanuza's luchador short films were being shot, and remember my grandmother introducing the filmmaker to me once. He wore a suit, and a hat, and looked so staid to me — but out of his mind came these wild movies that combined a popular luchador hero and pulpy Sci Fi elements....

While Lanuza went on to earn his fame as Guatemala's leading filmmaker with a non-lucha libre film called Terremoto (Earthquake), the luchador films are the ones my grandmother took us to a Zone 7 movie theater to see.

Still from Superzán & the boy from space
They were super low-budget films (many of Lanuza's actors were his relatives), tacky and over the top, and called forth audience participation on par with that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the height of its popularity. But, unlike Rocky Horror, the interaction, the jeers and cheers, were completely unstudied. Just the community reacting to good and evil playing out in black and white on the screen in front of them.

I loved the experience even as I was embarrassed by it.

By the way, my story hinges on La Gorda not being able to become an official luchadora because she is a woman, and while that accurately reflects the world of lucha libre in Guatemala during the 1970s of Lanuza's filmic heyday — it is no longer true. There are luchadoras in Mexican lucha libre these days (though at least one article I've read argues there are still too few of them, and that they are poorly paid compared to their male counterparts).

"The cautionary tale of numero cinco." episode of Angel.
It is interesting to note that as more Mexicans and Central Americans have immigrated to the United States, lucha libre has immigrated with us. So much so, in fact, that the luchadores with their iconographic masks have found their way into more mainstream pop culture. There is a Hellboy as luchador series of books, and even the TV show, Angel, featured an episode with a luchador character.

At their heart, luchadores are populist folk heroes, the defenders of good and of the people. In Lanuza's Superzán movie, the boy from space bears a message of peace, love and goodwill. It is up to the luchador Superzán, along with a couple of indigenous Maya allies, to save the boy from those who would silence him and use his telepathic ability to nefarious purpose.

My stories are often resolved in bittersweet ways. But not La Gorda. Hers is a triumph of community, of ordinary people putting a stop to the predation and evil that takes place in the streets around them.

Because everyone — mask or not — can stand as a hero.

Ándele pues. Haga la lucha.