Luis Urrea and the Serendipity of Inspiration–With a Side of Humor and Grace

Have you ever experienced one of those wonderful moments of confluence, when suddenly all the trickling aspects of your life seem to be pouring into the same inspiring river?

Consider these trickles, seemingly unrelated:

  1. I’m teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.
  2. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been listening to podcasts of On Being, with Krista Tippett, on a semi-regular basis, to give me inspiration.
  3. I’ve been contemplating opportunities to bridge our national divide on a local level–whatever that means.
  4. Ursula LeGuin, a writer who felt like more of a teacher than an author to me, died this year.
  5. A friend recommended Luis Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Last week I tuned into my favorite podcast, and found, to my surprise, an interview with Mr. Urrea himself. The topic: “What Borders Are Really About, And What We Do With Them.” I also discovered that Ursula LeGuin had been Urrea’s mentor. She called him Luisito.

Luis Urrea at the Texas Book Festival, 2015 (courtesy Wikipedia)

Urrea knows about borders. He is the son of a woman from Philadelphia and a man from Tijuana. On his website, he sums up, in eerily tidy prose, how he lost his father when he, Luis, was 20:

I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already.  But some of it is central to the Ursula story.  In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift.  And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora.  He died awfully in their care.  And then they sold me his corpse.  He cost me $750.

The details of those days are ugly.  Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English.  My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house.  He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding.  Because I was always kidding.  But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.

As I listened to Urrea and Tippett talk–hey, is it cool if I call them Luis & Krista? Yeah? great–the streams of inspiration just kept building. Luis is a teacher, like I was, and here’s what he has to say about bridging divides in his classroom:

As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.

So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.

Yes, please! I want that infection. Don’t we all?

Luis’s book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is itself inspiring, being the fictionalized story of Teresa Urrea, “the Mexican Joan of Arc,” “Saint Teresita”–who happened to have been his real-life, great-great aunt. It’s full of humor, and pathos, and faith, and Spanish. Gaps are bridged all over the place, between races, between theists and non-theists, between men and women. I could not have found a more apt book for this moment in my life, and the life of our nation, if I’d done research.

Speaking of our nation’s moment, Luis also gives the background of his nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway, a look at the path traveled by people crossing the desert to enter the U.S. without papers. That story hit me harder than anything else he said. While researching the Border Patrol–and being essentially hazed by its agents, he had a moment of epiphany:

...the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”

And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.

And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see…

And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.

And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”

I could go on and on with quotes from the interview, not to mention quotes from the novel. (Can’t quote Luis’s other books ’cause I haven’t read ’em yet, but believe me, I’m going to.) But I think I’ve made my point.

Borders. Bridging. Grace. Hope. 

Any questions?

 

 

O Say Can You See…The Beloved Community?

This past week, several friends of mine in different parts of the country voiced ambivalence about celebrating America. Their common refrain: “Our current government seems to be all about turning people against each other. What’s to celebrate? Make America Hate Again?”

But as Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote (and as President Obama loves to remind us, even if he quotes it incorrectly), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m trying to keep that in mind these days, keep my eyes on the prize: the Beloved Community.

The Huffington Post’s Dr. Jeff Ritterman published this blog a while ago, defining the Beloved Community and breaking down its real-world implications:

As explained by The King Center, the memorial institution founded by Coretta Scott King to further the goals of Martin Luther King,

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood .

Now, that sounds mighty high-falutin’ to me. But here’s what the Beloved Community looks like to me, here on my little island: everyone can talk to everyone else. People feel bad if someone in the community is suffering, even if they themselves are untouched. We are islanders together, maybe even more than we are Americans together.

Is this true now? Of course not. But this vision draws me eagerly to our amazing community parade, and our even more amazing fireworks display. This vision fuels my conversations with fellow islanders I’m pretty sure vote differently from me.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Kabir Bakie, Blue Ash Fireworks Display, July 4 2005

Would I have those conversations with similar folks on the mainland? Not sure. That’s a pretty daunting thought. But here? It’s a start, at least.

What is your own version of the Beloved Community? Can you sum it up in one sentence? 

That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

Hate Phone-calling? Me Too. But Let’s Not Let the DACA Dream Die.

I hate calling politicians. I’d much rather go for a walk with them and rant and rave lecture them ask them what the hell they were thinking explain my point of view–and, of course, politely listen to theirs.

But today I called a whole bunch of them about DACA. [That’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era act which has granted permission to stay and work to about 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. originally by their parents.] 

DACA’s the kind of act that makes me feel proud to be an American. Stay, you fine, hardworking kids, you Dreamers–stay and prosper! (And while you’re at it, teach some of our native-born kids what it means to be an American.)

And DACA being under threat makes my stomach turn heavy and cold. This is what last year’s election boded. Now it’s happening. Or it might.

From the May 2006 Immigration rally in Los Angeles (courtesy Jonathan McIntosh, Wikimedia Commons): No Human Being is Illegal!

Hence the phone calls. The president is on the fence so far. As the New York Times explains,

 

Since attacking DACA on the campaign trail, President Trump has pledged to keep the program alive, calling recipients, also known as Dreamers, “absolutely incredible kids” who deserve compassion. But in recent days, key players in his administration have advised Mr. Trump to wind down the program, and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has informed him he considers it unconstitutional and cannot defend it in court, according to people familiar with the discussions who insisted on anonymity to describe private deliberations. While the White House has declined to comment on the fate of DACA, several officials and people briefed on the discussions now say the president is on the brink of ending it, although they note that Mr. Trump often changes his mind.

Mr. Trump has been pondering — and publicly agonizing over — what to do about the program since he took office. But discussions about it inside the White House took on new urgency after a group of conservative state attorneys general threatened to sue the Trump administration in federal court unless it begins to dismantle the program by Sept. 5.

Maybe I’m naive. But I see a slim bit of hope here. If you do too, here are some people to call to register your opinion:

White House Comment Line: 202-456-6213

Jeff Sessions, U.S. Dept. of Justice Comment Line: 202-353-1555

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan: (213) 335-2244

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (855) 336-0788 (Note: these last two numbers will begin with a brief message about the threat to DACA–very useful info)

And if you prefer to talk to (and thank) someone standing up for immigrants, Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson is leading a coalition of 15 other attorneys general to support the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) against a separate legal challenge.  Is your state’s AG on this list? Call Bob’s office to find out: (360) 753-6200.

You know what? I still hate calling politicians. But I feel better knowing that maybe a few of you guys are now joining me.

A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

The Importance of Names

I’m an old folkie from my deepest roots. I was raised on Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers, and Joan Baez. I consider Pete Seeger to be an honorary uncle. (Also Walter Cronkite, for what it’s worth–any Walter fans out there? “And that’s the way it is…” still chokes me up.)

So I can’t remember how long I’ve known the Woody Guthrie song that goes by the name, “Deportee.” It’s actually titled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” but no one calls it that. Probably because of the haunting chorus, which goes like this:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita

Adios, mis amigos Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane

All they will call you will be deportee.

Woody wrote the song after a 1948 plane crash in California, which killed 28 people. The passengers were all Mexican nationals being returned to Mexico. The crew were Americans. News accounts of the time named the dead crew members, but referred to the remaining men, women and children only as “deportees.”

But that’s all I knew about the story behind the song. No, I’m lying–I knew even less. I didn’t know the date of the crash, or the number of people who died, or even that the Los Gatos in the song isn’t the suburb near San Jose, but a desolate area in the Fresno County hills.

Then a music pal of mine, visiting LA, sent me this article from the front page of the LA Times, which not only filled in all the missing information I never knew about the crash and Woody Guthrie’s reaction to it, but the really important part: the NAMES of those poor people, lost to anonymity for 65 years.  

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-deportees-guthrie-20130710-dto,0,2642231.htmlstory

I really hope you click on this link and read the article; it will probably move you to tears as it moved me. But in case you’re in a hurry, I’ll cut to the chase. A descendant of some of the men killed, and a writer, both searching independently for records that would confirm exactly who was on that plane, found each other, and together they found that information. This September, those folks will be honored with a ceremony and a plaque dedicated to their memory…a memory that had been all but wiped out for 65 years.

Why does this matter? The families of those poor folks whose plane, witnesses said, exploded in mid-air, have long since known they were gone. They won’t get them back; they won’t get money, or even an apology from any authority figure.

But their loved ones can now be remembered as PEOPLE, not as a vague, pathetic lump. The naming of names is an honor in any human culture I can think of. The removal of names is a dehumanization. Think of any event in history where people’s names were converted to numbers, or to tribal groups. The removal of names makes people into the “other.” When that happens, empathy dies, human connection is broken, and all bets are off.

I, for one, am proud of, and thankful for, the people in this article who tracked down the names of those lost and brought them back to life. Now, whenever I sing Woody’s haunting song, I will remember that some kind of miniature resurrection occurred, and feel a little less haunted.

And, speaking of that song, here it is, as sung (many years ago) by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris:

What about you? When you think of the importance of names, what comes to mind? What other thoughts did this article or this song bring out in you? Please share!