Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a poet, novelist, artist and writer of children’s books. He has studied at the University of Louvain, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow. He has published seven novels, five collections of poetry, and four children’s books. His work is translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, and German. Among his awards are the American Book Award, the Tomas Rivera Award, and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship.
NB: Along with Daniel Chacón, you recently started up a radio program (Words on a Wire on KTEP in El Paso, Texas) that focuses on the process and product of writing. The focus is mainly, yet not solely, on border and border-inspired writers. How did the idea for the show come about, and what purpose do you hope it will serve for the wider literary arts community?
BS: The idea began with a conversation with Daniel, as we were having dinner one night. Really, it was Daniel’s idea, and he was very excited about the whole venture. We both felt that most books which are talked about in the mainstream media are bestsellers and non-fiction books that center around politics or current events. We wanted to provide a forum for writers who are creating serious literature.
NB: Simon and Schuster released your latest book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, in February. Recently, you’ve invested your talents into crafting young voices and creating characters who develop in the multicultural borderlands milieu. Why young adult fiction? How does this interest in young/new voices relate to your work as a professor of creative writing?
BS: I consider my young adult novels to be serious literature. I take my YA books as seriously as I take my other writing. In a way, you could say I write YA books for adults. In some ways, it’s a question of marketing. The only difference between my YA fiction and my “Adult” fiction is that, in my YA novels, the protagonists are always young men in turmoil who tell their stories in the first person. I’ve never written my other novels in the first person. There is also the question of a shrinking literary market for serious literary novelists. The YA market, on the other hand, has a larger market. I’m also happy that my YA novels are taken quite seriously in and out of the YA market.
As far as it relating to my work as a professor of Creative Writing, I think all my writing is related to my teaching. A novel is a novel.
NB: Speaking of Aristotle and Dante…, I recently came across a quote in which you refer to the novel as an example of mariposa fiction. Could you clarify this genre and your book’s place within it?
BS: Mariposa fiction is a term used by Writers and Critics to describe novels whose protagonists are Latino and gay and/or deals with gay Latino themes. From that perspective, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe certainly fits into this category. That said, I don’t think of Aristotle and Dante as simply being a “gay novel” anymore than I think of my poetry and other novels as being “Latino novels.”
I write about characters who live on the border and I explore the difficult situations they find themselves in. And while my characters are always Mexican Americans, I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with issues of Latino identity. I am obsessed with the way that people come to terms with meaning in their lives, particularly on the border.
In Aristotle and Dante, the two boys discover their sexuality, each character coming to terms in different ways. But the story is also about secrets, about two families and how these two families differ from each other. The parents are a big part of the novel and the roles they play in their sons’ lives.
NB: Can you talk a bit about your experiences with novice/student writers? What do you like most about teaching creative writing at the collegiate level? What sorts of themes, characters, etc. are students writing about these days?
BS: I have always liked teaching and I have always enjoyed being around young people. Undergraduates are hungry to learn, and I feel privileged to be in the classroom as their teacher. My experience has taught me that there are a lot of talented young writers out there, but most of them won’t ever be writers. And there’s a reason for that: most student writers don’t have the discipline and the desire to convert their talent into a career. But the thing is, I teach more than creative writing. I’d like to think that I teach students the importance of critical thinking. I’d like to believe that students writers take something with them when they leave, something they can use in all the areas of their lives.
It’s interesting that after twenty years of teaching, I don’t think that what students write about has changed very much. Young people are using their writing to explore the world they live in just like they were doing twenty years ago.
NB: What challenges do you see programs such as UTEP’s Creative Writing Program facing over the next twenty years?
BS: I don’t think I can answer that question. I think our on-line MFA is the wave of the future. I also think our bi-lingual MFA is ahead of the curve. In some ways, UTEP’s creative writing program already looks like the future.
NB: What comes next for the great Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
BS: I’m correcting the galleys for my next book of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends With the Kentucky Club. The collection of stories is my first in eighteen years.
I thought I’d forgotten how to write a short story and I suppose I was hungry to jump into those waters again. I was glad to discover that I could still swim. I’m also re-working a new book of poems, Night Disappearing Into a Perfect Sky.
NB: What does the future hold for Chican@, Latin@, etc. fiction in general, and for El Paso in particular?
BS: Why do you have to ask such hard questions? I think El Paso holds a very special place in Chican@ letters. I like to call El Paso “Chicano Nirvana.” It’s a complicated borderlands, a mystery that we can never unravel or solve. I don’t know what the future holds for us. I do know that we have to continue writing and there are a lot of young people behind me that give me a lot of hope. I am already becoming the past. It is my great hope that young Latino writers will create something beautiful and lasting.
Calendar of Dust. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1991.
Flowers for the Broken. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1992.
Carry Me like Water. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Dark and Perfect Angels. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos, 1995.
In Perfect Light. New York: Rayo, 2005.
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. New York: HarperTempest, 2006.
The Book of What Remains. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Interview conducted by NewBorder’s fiction editor, Paul Pedroza.
For those who know my family in Harlingen, it is not unusual for them to be aware of the width and breadth of our farewells. Of their intimacy. People refer to them as singularly “Serda” because although they are strongly reminiscent of most Chicano goodbyes occurring simultaneously in our south Texas borderlands, astute spectators tell us ours are super-sized.
It is because in addition to el Chicanismo, we have my father’s thread to Mexico and my mother’s to Lebanon stoking our blood.
Love each other, my father used to demand of us. Quieranse, he’d say sternly when as children he’d catch us fighting.
We learned the alternative was undesirable. That our own kind—our siblings, our family—mattered most, and in turn, as payment and as proof that we understood, at the center of that universe, we placed him and her: my father and my mother, who stood ready to cradle us.
I do not deny that often others have found our kind of familial loyalty to be overwhelming, intimidating, or absurd. I do not deny that I would not live my life in any other way.
The Serda farewells are ritualistic in large part because we are superstitiously, obsessive compulsive. As a standard, we begin hours before the actual departure, and it is certainly not rare to at first see my mother’s eyes welling up, the rims turning pink, her bottom lip quivering beyond her control. We’ll watch as abruptly she’ll seek my father’s arms having gone from solid to fluid in a matter of seconds; she’ll rest there in my father’s embrace: melting, writhing; she’ll finally cry—silently—having not had the ability to nip the tears before they stream down her face and we—her children who are about to leave her—reach out with our fingertips, our own lips now feeling the downward pull of our own quiver, we stroke her cheeks, kiss the velvet of her eyelids, and tell her that soon we will return though we know that to return to the Valley will take much longer than we need or want.
We are theatrical, lyrical, and unapologetically unpoetic in our sentimentality.
We feel the separation somewhere in our marrow. We kiss each other’s faces and tightly embrace with both arms again and again. When we finally board our cars and drive away, we do so with the windows rolled down, with our free hand waving vigorously in the wind, with the other honking four times in quick succession once we round the corner and find ourselves no longer able to see.
It is deep inside these roots that we express our gratitude, our disappointment, our love.
We Serdas react viscerally to being apart, and I’ve been brought up to always come back.
It is precisely the inability to grant myself this that I hate about the way I travel. I feel too much, see too much, know too much. I weave myself too far inside. And at thirty-three, I know myself well enough to know that most often, I cannot return, I cannot rekindle the past, I cannot recreate what I leave behind.
I cannot live out all the lives I initiate.
I cannot be everywhere at once.
I cannot always love the way I want to love.
I do not sleep the night before the final day at Sanata. The night is quiet save for the mosquitos working to creep inside the net and the periodic, not-so-distant barking of wild dogs roaming the countryside outside my host mums’ Mary and Catherine’s home in Gilgil of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
I do not sleep; I fantasize:
Kevin holds my hand as I walk down the street of some nondescript American suburb. We head to school for his first day. I introduce him to his teacher who is young, pretty, understanding in her lavender cardigan. She reaches out to him and puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He reacts only with a tentative smile, with a slight sliver of ivory where usually I see up to his gums. She then introduces him to his classmates whose interest is collectively piqued at the mention of the word “Africa.” I put my hand on his chest as he stands in front of me, and below the delicate ridges of his ribcage, I feel the rush of his heart against the palm of my hand. He is nervous, feels ill-prepared for this ambush, and I attempt to calm him by whispering in his ear, telling him he’ll be fine, nudging him gently forward, increasing the pressure of my hand against his skin.
But his feet are cemented to the floor beneath him; he refuses to leave me.
“He has family here,” Sanata’s staff tells me when I ask if I can adopt Kevin, and they tell me that somewhere his aunt exists; thus, Kenya refuses to allow Kevin to become my son.
“It’s impossible,” they add at this point unnecessarily.
Then: “Why don’t you instead just come back?”
At twenty, I walked away from a nameless child Lorca’s poetry inspired me to call Preciosa. We met in a revolution-era, bullet-pocked park of Old Havana in Cuba. Her hair fell in loose curls around her face down to her shoulders. I remember she felt light in my arms when we hugged, and I pulled her near my face. I remember her thin fingers were tipped in pink lacquer, and she wore an unbecoming pale, gray dress. We spoke of ballet and of her dream of becoming a dancer. I envisioned her as one of Russian-taught Cuban ballerinas pirouetting across a well-worn studio like the one where I danced as a child in Texas.
Preciosa reminded me of me. Of some former innocence.
The image of her waving to me as I walked away—the image of the tears on her eight-year old face—haunted me for a decade after, and I had to write story after story and poem after poem about her in order to immortalize her for myself.
In order to put away the regret of having left her.
But like Kevin, she had family: A mother who Preciosa told me was a prostitute. A mother who didn’t know that Preciosa preferred to walk to that particular park because it was there that no one knew her mother.
“I will sponsor Kevin,” I tell my mother in an email. “I will send money. I will send him to school, to college, feed and clothe him. He will not go without.” She tells me that I am good but I do not feel good. It is not enough for Kevin. Nor for myself. Nor for the sixty-six other children at Sanata.
And money is a derivative form of love.
And walking away is a wound.
In the last few moments, Kevin refuses to accept my arms when I reach out to him. I search his face and cannot see him. In his place stands a boy who has said goodbye too many times. Who has heard the words I will miss you! too many times, who has seen their cadaverous nature too many times, who has said Come back to me! and has learned that most often, people like me do not.
Like the Serda I am, I persist.
Like a scavenger, I persist.
I steal him away from himself. I draw him to me against his will. I pull his body off the ground like I once did Preciosa’s, like my father did when I was a child, and enclose my arms around him while he pours like string against me.
I feel the strong thud of his heart against me. The ripples of ribs glued to his skin. I smell the dirt and wind on this unwashed child. I hold him against me for as long as I can: He doesn’t give in. He refuses my embrace. Refuses to cave into me. Refuses to do anything other than hang.
When I let go, he walks away without looking back.
It is dark when I leave Sanata. I cannot stop my tears nor can I suck in enough air.
In the shadows where no one can see me, I stop and look back. I see Kevin’s sillouette on the porch standing in a corner near the dining room door; for moments he does not move and I do not breathe. But the stillness does not last; he breaks it by tentatively raising his hand to his face; he wipes at it quickly then more assuredly walks inside, leaving me, joining the rest of the boys at Sanata.
Joining his family of children at Sanata.
And I walk away. I leave Gilgil. I leave Kenya. I inch closer to my return home to the south Texas Valley where my own family patiently, persistently awaits.
From where I sit on the dining carriage of this train to Mombasa, a solitary acacia tree looks expansive against the crystalline azure of the Kenyan sunrise. Its pterodactyl wings stretch greedily and widely—eastward, westward, skyward—thirsty for amplification.
When I meet Ng’ang’a, I notice he is the only boy at Sanata who wears glasses; he shares that detail with my twin brother back home in Texas who’s worn glasses since he was two years old, and because it’s been long since I’ve seen my brother, and because Ng’ang’a makes me miss him, I linger unexpectedly. It’s my first day at the center, a Saturday afternoon, and everyone is slowly making his or her way back after the school day. Ng’ang’a rests his hands on the railing the same way I do. He is a little shorter than me but built lithely which gives him the air of a teenaged Maasai warrior without his traditional attire.
He is not yet a man, and standing next to him, I sense the dim remnants of his childhood fragility.
Together, we stare out into the courtyard and watch the much younger Sanata residents playing football, kicking at dirt with bare feet, wiping their faces with the backs of their hands, leaving streaks of powdery brown on their glistening brows.
I hear the pause that comes after a breath but precedes a question.
He asks, What do you do?
I tell him, I teach, and he nods his approval.
When I ask him what he does, he tells me he’s a poet.
On Diani beach near Mombasa, a red-clad Maasai warrior becomes a temporary merchant in an effort to raise money for a better life at home in the Maasai Mara. He sells me the beaded cuff off his wrist after I stop him as he walks along the shoreline. I admire it and ask if he’d consider selling it. He wears his machete at his waist and holds his eng’udi, a staff the Maasai use to herd their cattle, at his side; it is as tall as I am: on anyone else, these two items would trigger my wariness; in this case, his possession of them instills in me security.
He towers over me, and I’m awestruck by the serenity of his smile, and the richness of color hanging off his ears, chest, forearms, and ankles. As I place the shillings in his open palm, his English-speaking brother who has since approached us tells me his wife will purchase a goat with the money I just gave him. This will bring them happiness, he tells me.
The lips of the Indian Ocean brush its sands and straddle the space under and around my warrior; he looks celestial surrounded in liquid turquoise and white.
When I glance back, I trace the trail my bare feet have made on the sand—it leads straight back to him, where he stands waving.
The Maasai warrior protects his own.
His machete does not always shed blood.
While I’m in Kenya, his Maasai brothers hunt and kill seven lions because they, in turn, killed part of their flock of sheep. They clean their blades on the pale yellow of their victims’ fur.
Nature’s survival of the fittest.
Nature’s chain of command.
Maasai trumps lion.
King trumps king.
The Maasai warrior protects his own.
His machete is not always free of blood.
From this distance, the acacia is delicate; it’s an African bonsai; its calligraphy-brushed leaves are a collection of olive-tinted strokes etched into windless air.
It waits for me to pass it by; it waits for me; expects me to watch it disappear into the evaporating horizon.
It expects me to forget the inch-long thorns I know it wears under those deceiving pockets of green. It expects me to forget that like the Maasai, the acacia is also an African warrior that wounds deeply when I reach out and caress it thinking it needs me.
Recite for me, I say. Ng’ang’a closes his eyes and performs:
Wings To Fly, he says.
Morning comes, morning goes
Sun rises, sun sets
Still no signs of recognition
Why? Why? Why me.
Am none in a million
Like wheat in the desert,
Some suggest I belonged to the dead,
Some think I was born by mistake,
But I know my voice will be heard,
But who has time to listen?
To a madman’s child.
Why? Why? Why me.
Drought, famine, and civil conflicts,
All perpetuated my afflictions,
Fatal disease having taken my relatives,
Parents being mentally challenged,
And I living a living hell
Why? Why? Why me.
Suffering all my life all without future.
Future according to nature,
Nature of my culture,
Dear friends, was I really born by
Mistep the way they say?
No! No! I am not.
My guardian angel developed interest in me
And wanted to know my situation,
He fed me, clothed me, educated me and
Gave all the comfort I ever longed for
Now I have a vision, a vision of hope
Am learned, educated and believe in
Perfection, now I am recognized in the
Society: thank you.
I have a future now. I can see it, Ng’ang’a says on the last day I see him. We sit inside the nursery classroom deconstructing his poetry. He tells me his life will be one dedicated to literature, and I applaud the nobility of his pursuit.
We stand, walk outdoors, and resume our place by the railing. We watch the children of Sanata kick at the ground and run from fence to fence under the spare shade of the acacia trees lining the courtyard. Next to me, Ng’ang’a recites his poetry by heart.
I smile and rub the tiny scar of the acacia’s thorn prick on the pad of my index finger—I exacerbate it, pushing myself to remember it, to keep it alive, to remember both sides of Kenya: its vulnerable beauty, its will to fight, to survive.
I thumb the beads of a warrior around my arm and listen to Ng’ang’a telling me the stories of his life.
NB: First of all, thank you again for agreeing to this interview for NewBorder; we are honored to have you be a part of this inaugural season. You are helping us set the tone and standard for what we might accomplish here on NewBorder. We hope to engage in rich dialogue with writers, readers, thinkers, activists, and passersby who are both residents and non-residents
of our figurative and literal borderlands.
Now, let me go on by providing you with interview questions: I’m looking for a side of you that isn’t yet present on the Internet though, of course, the more complex textures of who you are as a multi-faceted woman are present in the long tradition of your written, oral, and activist work. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to pursue those as of late untapped crevices
that make you you.
Congratulations on your recent induction into the Texas Institute of Letters; can you give us insight into what this means for you, for your work, and for those Chicanas longing to follow in your footsteps?
NEC: It is indubitably an honor. I know I had been nominated before by Pat Mora, years ago, and I must say I am honored to be inducted along with other Chicana/o writers this year. I am particularly thrilled because by being at the table, as it were, I hope to make it possible for others to be recognized for their work. Tejan@ writers have had to struggle to be admitted into such spaces. And we still have a long ways to go. It’s the same for artists; Tejana and Tejano artists don’t necessarily have their work in the major museums in the state, for example.
NB: Shifting gears dramatically, I have interpreted spirituality as an influence in your written work and on your emotional and intellectual worldview; can you speak to the accuracy of this assessment?
NEC: Certainly. You are not the first to note the spiritual influence in my work and on my worldview, but you are one of the few who asks me about it, and I thank you for it gives me an opportunity to explore a topic that is rarely mentioned in academia. I feel very strongly grounded spiritually. What I mean by this is that I have experienced significant events that have impelled me to believe in a higher force—you might call it God. In fact, I am certain that this force exists and some day we will have the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to really understand it. I imagine it’s like any other force, like gravity—no one understood it and no one could explain it until the scientists gave us the words for it and the experiments that made it possible to ascertain its properties. But, in some way, I digress. Let me tell you a story that illustrates why I believe my work is guided and protected by forces beyond my logical understanding. When I was working on the page proofs for Canícula, I was returning from a trip to Mexico and my flight got delayed so I arrived at Washington National Airport—at that time it was not Reagan yet—and I took a cab home. I lived in the northeast, on 7th and D, near Eastern Market. Well, as soon as the cab sped off, a tall man came at me and demanded I give him my purse, suitcase, jewelry, everything! At first I was startled, but not scared and tried to “fight,” that is, I said something to the effect of “go away, I’m not giving you anything.” Totally contrary to all the training I had had that instructs one to just give them what they ask for and NOT fight. Then just like in a movie, I heard a voice in my head that said, “Give him all your stuff.” And I was doubly stunned and proceeded to obey the voice. I took off my Seiko watch—that’s important because watches stop on me. I didn’t get another one until this past Christmas when a nephew gave me the Timex I am wearing and that doesn’t stop on me—anyways, I took off my rings, a gold Virgen de Guadalupe metal, everything—I handed over my suitcase, purse and satchel with the manuscript I had finished proofing on the flight home. I pleaded with him to let me keep the satchel with my book, or at least just the manuscript. I said something like, “not my book, let me keep it.” But he just repeated “Everything.” In less than a minute, he sprinted away with all my stuff. I stood there angry and not knowing what to do. It was October. A crisp chilly night. I had my house keys in my coat pocket, and I remember thinking, well, at least he didn’t have the keys to the house.
Naturally, I was mortified and in shock. I knocked on my landlord’s door, downstairs. I finally broke down in tears as I recounted what had just happened—I didn’t mention the voice. The police came and took the report and again I didn’t mention the voice. It was such a common crime that they treated it as routine and instead of giving me hopes of recuperating my lost luggage and purse, they assured me nothing would come of it.
After a sleepless night, the next morning, I called my workplace—I was working as a senior arts specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts at the time—to tell them I would not be in that morning but would come in that afternoon after I had taken care of all the details of canceling my checking account, credit cards, seeing about getting a new drivers’ license, etc. I had just hung up when the phone rang again. It was the apartment manager from a building about a block away, who had come in that morning and seen stuff strewn all over the parking lot. She had picked up my wallet with my checkbook that listed my phone number, and so she had called suspecting that indeed I had been mugged. I rushed over and sure enough there were my things all over the parking lot. I retrieved what I could, including a pot made of that very distinctive clay from Tonala and, you guessed it, my manuscript. It was neatly stacked against the wall of the building with a rock as a paperweight guarding it. I burst into tears! In my thoughts, I thanked the young man for his thoughtfulness—a thief who listened!
The voice that instructed me that night perplexed me for a long time. Was it my guardian angel that I had prayed to as a child? Or my own higher self that drew from the lessons of self-defense that instruct to give the mugger whatever is being requested? Was it my imagination? I questioned whether there had been a voice at all, although I was certain that I had heard it loud and clear. There are many other incidents such as this one, but this one is the most dramatic and they all affirm my belief in something that guides me. But I do believe at some point in the future we will have the tools to explain what we are not yet prepared to explain.
I was raised Catholic by a very devout father—we prayed the rosary every night after dinner and never missed Sunday mass. But that is my religious upbringing and while it influenced my spiritual path, it is but one aspect of it. I have also read widely in Buddhism and have practiced meditation and yoga on and off for years. Most recently I became a master Reiki healer—after my walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage in northern Spain, I was drawn to take the classes for Reiki. So, I guess that yes, spirituality has influenced me and my work.
NB: Do you see spirituality as an integral part of la Chicana? What does spirituality mean for Chicanas, Chicanos, and/or our Tejano/a culture?
NEC: Quite a number of years ago, I organized a conference on Chicana Spirituality in Laredo when we had the group Las Mujeres ; it was the theme of our annual conference, Primavera. That was in the late 80s early 90s. So, I guess I have do feel that spirituality is an integral part of La Chicana, of our culture and of our literary work. But, I don’t think every Chicana acknowledges this aspect of their work.
What it means is difficult to discern for it means many things to many people. There’s a wonderful new book by Theresa Delgadillo, Spiritual Mestizaje, where she explores spirituality in literary production; another Tejana scholar, Brenda Sendejo’s work also focuses on the spiritual practices of Chicanas. In some ways these scholars are mapping the terrain that some of the writers have been working in for years. About time, no? So thank you for the questions; you allowed me to talk about the subject.
NB: The terms “Chicana,” “Chicanos,” and “Chicanismo” became politicized during and after the Chicano Movement of the 60s; do you feel the conscious awareness of the movement is vital when staking claim to the name?
NEC: Yes and no. In some ways, the term is synonymous with political activism, with an ideology of social change; yet, I recall my mother’s cousins coming from Chicago, back in the 50s, to visit us in Laredo and talking about La chicanada and using the term without its political connotation; back then it just meant “raza,” a generic term for Mexican and Mexican-Americans. So, for me personally yes, it is a loaded term that connotes political consciousness, but not so for everyone.
NB: I’ve recently been an educator in Houston area classrooms where teens and twenty-somethings of Latino/a descent responded with blank stares when I uttered the words “Chicano” or “Chicana.” Is it important that young people across our state of Texas or across the span of our country understand the concept of being Chicana or Chicano? What does it mean for a young person to claim Chicana or Chicano nowadays when so many of us have opportunities our parents and grandparents perhaps didn’t? Or when the Chicano Movement is perhaps losing its grasp on young people’s current cultural understanding?
Unfortunately, that was the case even when I was in high school in the 60s. So some things change and some don’t. Few of us knew about the movement back then and in South Texas in particular it took a while for the term to become more common, if it ever did. I know for many of my students in Laredo it was too threatening to use it for themselves and much easier to use it in reference to the Movement in California. In the 80s when I began teaching in Laredo at the University, I had to defend the use of the term as even the administration and my colleagues didn’t get that it could be a cultural signifier, as in Chicano folklore or Chicano Children’s literature—in fact the textbook I was using in the Children’s Literature class used the term. In almost all my classes it takes about 3 weeks before the students start accepting the term.
Your students in Houston are the norm as we become even more distant from that earlier use of the term. My hope would be that good teachers would show the films Chicano! and Walk Out and would ask students to read Chicana/o literature to educate our young people about our history and instill in them a pride, a knowledge of our history; how else will we have a knowledgeable community? I see it with my college students as well. My Mexican American literature class becomes a way for many students to “find” themselves in the literature of this country. Often they have not read any literature by Chicana or Chicano authors and I am the first Chicana professor in their whole academic careers. I came to San Antonio to work at UTSA and to develop the PhD program precisely to make a difference and change this state of affairs, by preparing the professoriate for this next phase of our academic and scholarly work.
NB: How important are Chicano/a Literature or Chicano/a Studies for institutions such as open enrollment universities or community colleges across our nation?
NEC: They are critical. That is why I am so upset about the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona. It is totally incomprehensible to me that censorship, banning certain books or areas of study can be thought to be for the good of the students, the state or the nation. I could go on and on about this subject…let me just say that especially for open enrollment universities and community colleges that are HSIs these programs are critical. I applaud the efforts of institutions in the Valley where South Texas College and UTPA are leading the state in institutionalizing Chicano Studies at the community college level and in smaller universities. When it is a program of study, the data shows that the Chicanas and Chicanos who participate have a higher success rate in higher education than those who don’t, in other words, the drop-out rates drop and the graduation rate improves. The research and policy organization, Excelencia in Education out of Washington DC has focused on Latino student success and has gathered important data on how these programs help institutions meet their goals. So I believe it is imperative that we increase the number of such programs and that all students, but especially Chicana/o students know our history and our literature.
NB: You were named a juror for the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature: In your perspective, what does this mean for you on a personal level and for your career and national and international reputation? What responsibilities do you figure come with this and other such titles and prestigious nominations and awards?
NEC: On a personal level, I felt somewhat validated as a writer. I knew about the Neustadt and thought only top writers with national reputations served as judges, so when I was asked I was thrilled, but also humbled. The responsibility to “represent” and to also do the right thing challenged me. It was an incredible experience to participate with my fellow-jurors. As to other titles and nominations and awards, I feel somewhat incredulous and always surprised. I always think of others who deserve the award more than I. For example, when I received the American Folklore Society’s Américo Paredes award, I thought, “why me? There are so many others who have been doing the work far longer than I.”
NB: You’ve called yourself “definitely not an assimilationist”; can you give us a better idea of what you mean by this?
NEC: What I mean by that is that I am Chicana “hasta las cachas”; that is, to the bone! I tear up when I hear a mariachi play La Negra, and I find cooking Mexican food, actually making tortillas de harina from scratch, to be therapeutic. So, I can say that I resist assimilation although I recognize that as a participant member of any society I am obviously already implicated into that culture. So, when I am in Spain, I unconsciously “assimilate” if you will, by eating the food, listening to the music, speaking more Spanish, etc. But, I will never be Spanish culturally or otherwise. Also, while there, I miss my own Tejana culture immensely. In similar fashion, although I live in the United States and obviously share quite a bit of the mores and values of the mainstream culture, I resist the assimilationist push to homogenize culture. I maintain my Spanish, although at times it has been difficult; so, I try to read at least one book in Spanish a month to keep my Spanish fluent. I do feel I am pretty fluent and can switch to either language easily and fluently, even in academic settings; undoubtedly in South Texas I also use Spanglish sparingly; it’s my home language. In other words from all the perspectives of culture, I am definitely not an assimilationist.
NB: Please give us a glimpse into your geo-political perspective concerning the many atrocities currently taking place on our border: What are your intellectual, emotional, and physical reactions?
NEC: The current chaos and violence on the border have had a tremendous impact on me intellectually, emotionally and physically, and I would add spiritually, as well as socially. During the past three or four years, for example, I have held the Catedra Laboris in Humanities at the Universidad de Monterrey which means that every year I would deliver a lecture and teach a class during a short-term residency, usually three days in the spring semester. I also have been invited by the Tecnológico de Monterrey to an annual conference on the border, and in the past I have enjoyed participating in it. Additionally, the Centro de Cultura de Nuevo León has invited me to conduct workshops with community members. Well, due to the violence, the UT system has made it harder for faculty to participate in such activities, and I have had to stop traveling to Monterrey to engage in such activities.
But aside from the academic and professional impact, the state of affairs has impacted my social life as I have not visited my extended family in over two years. It pains me to have my beloved borderlands be the site of such violence and such horrendous atrocities, although I keep reminding folks that it is not the first time this land has witnessed such madness. I remember reading somewhere of the devastation the Spanish wreaked on the indigenous population of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then during the period of the US-Mexico War and even after, residents of the border suffered at the hands of the norteamericanos; numerous lynchings and outright criminal and military violence drove many to leave their homes and relocate. We will survive this latest episode of killings and terrorism on the border, but we won’t be the same. The number of families that have fled the violence and relocated north of the border have changed the culture of south Texas already. I’ll give you one example. In the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s if you listened to local radio stations that played Tejano music, you would more than likely hear a lot more Spanglish than you do now. Why? Well, because the advertisers now ask for ads to be either all English or all Spanish. I am basing this on anecdotal and observable evidence; I have not conducted any formal study of this but I can tell you I hear the difference every time I go down to Laredo.
NB: And finally, what words of advice do you have for young Chicanas and Chicanos, for Mexicanas y Mexicanos, for pochos y pochas? for gringos y gringas? for Latinas y Latinos or for every other young person who holds this country’s future in their hands?
NEC: Wow! That’s a tall order. But, I can rise to the challenge with a reference to Gloria Anzaldúa who said, “I change myself, I change the world.” So, we need to begin with ourselves and if everyone of us does our own work to make this a better place, then it will be so. And secondly, do as she urged in the last published essay, that is, “we must do work that matters, vale la pena.” It is the work of each one of us that contributes to the betterment of all of us. We are all connected as in a spider web and we must work with that in mind, that we are all connected not just now but to the past and to the future. Our literature is for the future but it is also tied to the past. My advice for anyone, not just Tejan@s or Chican@s, is to listen to the past and be part of creating the future. We cannot dwell on the past but must be forward looking. Our country, indeed our world, demands that we consider the well-being of the whole of humanity, not just our own or our family’s. I wish I knew how to make all hearts beat as one with the same compassion and joy. Young people have the potential to make that happen.
NB: The icing on the kay-ke: Tell us about projects that have most recently both invigorated and challenged you.
NEC: Walking the Camino de Santiago, the 500 mile pilgrimage in northern Spain, did both—invigorate and challenge me. But so did getting together with other poets and starting CantoMundo, the Latino poetry workshop modeled on CaveCanem, the African American poetry group that has been around for a quarter of a century. Why, we asked didn’t we have something similar. So we, Pablo Martinez, Celeste Mendoza, Deborah Paredez and Carmen Tafoya, we started the group and it is going very well. We will hold our third annual workshop this summer at UT Austin. Of course, my writing projects are very dear to my heart and are both challenging and invigorating as well. I have several book projects including an anthology on Tejanidad and another on MeXicana Fashion. Plus, I am working on two novels that I hope to finish this year, and a collection of poetry tentatively titled “Elemental Odes.” And all these projects are challenging and at the same time they inspire me and give me the “ganas” to continue writing, to continue getting up in the morning and feeling as if my work matters. The PhD program I came to start at UTSA is off and running and I am retiring from UTSA at the end of August. So, I am waiting to see what el destino has in store for me. I am waiting to hear that voice guide me to the next challenge, the next mission, as it were, where I can do the most to change this world for the best.
Norma Elia Cantú, daughter of the borderlands, has taught at Texas A&M International University and the University of Texas at San Antonio for over thirty years. She has published on the cultural and literary production of the region in a number of venues. Her award winning Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera chronicles her coming of age in the area of Laredo, Texas/Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas in the 1950s and 60s. She has edited and co-edited several books including, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios; Paths to Discovery: Autobiographies of Chicanas with Careers in Mathematics, Science and Engineerin; Dancing Across Borders: danzas y bailes mejicanos; and Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change.
Each evening, at the midway point on the walk home from Sanata Restart Centre in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley’s provincial town of Gilgil, there is a boy of about twelve who leaves the shadows to approach me in the darkening light.
“Aunty,” he whispers; I am always taken aback when I hear the coarseness of his voice and think that he too must be afflicted by Gilgil’s polluted air. “Aunty,” he says again if at first I do not turn my attention to him; “Aunty, do you have any food for me?” he asks when I finally face him. His eyes are a combination of red and sulfur-tinted almonds resting against a face where I see traces of a mischievous altar boy—he’s halfway proven both his good boy and bad boy sides: I’ve seen him roll mud in his thumb and forefinger then throw that along with stones at a mzungu friend of mine for absolutely no reason other than he could outrun her, but he’s also looked me directly in the eyes and said, “God Bless You,” each time he approaches me whether or not I give him anything.
Que Dios te bendiga. That is what it’d be in Spanish, but no street child in Matamoros or Reynosa or Progreso or Mexico City has ever blessed me, and I find myself wishing this blessing is sincere.
When I know I have a banana or a few English biscuits, I dig through my canvas bag for them. He waits patiently, standing shirtlessly in his over-sized, army-green coat—a man’s coat, too wide and long for his frail frame. His feet, like the feet of all other street children, are roughened by the rubbish, glass, dirt, mud, asphalt, plastic, and brush he traverses daily. I’ve had time during the three weeks here to see him enough and spend enough time with him to analyze this part of him, this broken skin at his foundation. To protect itself, the skin on his soles has visibly thickened with callouses that run under and up along his feet’s perimeters. The upper-sides and tops of his feet are covered in cut, scratched, dry, scaly skin.
Like the circular rings of an ancient tree trunk, his skin tells the tale of survival.
The children I’ve grown to increasingly love and see as integral components of my own well-being, the children of Sanata, were once all in exactly the same place this street boy is currently living. His world was once theirs. As his streets were. They once held out their hands the same way he holds out his. They sought the kindness of passersby the way he seeks it. His desperation was theirs. His hope. His lack of it.
And yet, there is one viable distinction: They chose the shelter Sanata offers the children of Gilgil while he opts to semi-permanently rummage the streets.
James, a Sanata boy of about four who stands the shortest among his peers, holds two of my fingers as we parade down Gilgil’s main street on African Children’s Day. We are heading to the stadium for hours of children’s performances. When we pass the makeshift bus station where all the matatu or minivan drivers hawk seats for local trips to the three nearest big cities: Nairobi, Naivasha, and Nakuru, we hear roars of “Jame-o! Jame-o! Hey, Jame-o!”
Sanata is not for everyone. The staff discusses how difficult it is for children who come to them from the streets at least at first. “Many of them run away; they are in bed at night and where they were at night is an empty space at dawn,” they tell me. “They do not take well to the rules we have here, to the chores we require, to communal living.” I nod when one of these runaways is pointed out to me later that day. “He is one of ours,” I’m told about a boy sitting near us on the lawn of Gilgil’s rustic football stadium; his feet share the characteristics of my own street boy. “And we let them run away. We let them come back to us when and if they wish. It takes a while for a few of them to figure out the streets are least desirable of places.”
“When we first met James, he was nothing but a little, black thing,” one Sanata staff member tells me. “You couldn’t imagine it.”
“Jame-o!” the matatu men call out.
These drivers once knew James; he was once their James. They were the men who watched him beg, who at times acquiesced by giving him whatever scraps they didn’t want, who swatted him away when he burdened their customers or obstructed a sale, who at night, reluctantly let him sleep under one of the market stalls lining the station.
“They are happy for him,” the staff tells me. “They see him in clean clothes; he looks content and well-fed…” I look down at James; he’s tiny, no taller than my mid-thigh, thin, with the zipper on his little-girl jeans broken and unzipped; the embroidered hot pink daisies on his back pockets sit in stark contrast to the embroidered-like scars on his sharp-featured face. He looks happy smiling at the men at the matatu station. I meet the eyes of a man who nods at me as he repeats “Jame-o” and waves. I grip James’ hand tighter and feel the same tightening at my chest. A few steps later, it’s his fingers that tighten their grip on mine.
I ask, and they say that no, James never ran away. That once his mother came looking for him at Sanata and James ran and hid under the covers of his bed. Once he arrived, he stayed.
For more of Dalel’s Kenya Chronicles, please follow the link: THE KENYA CHRONICLES