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It’s been one of those weeks when, uncharacteristically, I’m affected by the negativity of the media. Yes, it’s an election year, so the political pandering to communities that I don’t (and can’t) relate to is on overdrive. When politicians seeking office recognize hate groups disguised as patriots, it only invites distasteful language and perspectives into the public sphere. That’s when I turn to literature, and poetry especially, to remind myself that as a species we are creatures of imagination, creativity and thought.
I know people (including a few Harriet poets) have already touched on the pros and cons of National Poetry Month, but for me it’s also the month I go through a kind of reconciliation with social networking. Last year I wrote (scoffed, actually) about how I didn’t do Facebook or Twitter. Truth is, I didn’t understand them for the tools they were. (I said to poet Tina Chang at a fundraiser in Manhattan last week, “Oh, I don’t do Twitter because I don’t have an iPhone.” Enough said.) But this time around I’d like to acknowledge how perfect poetry is for these types of outlets—I enjoy when poets Tweet favorite lines of poems and links to poetry readings. On FB, I love when poets display some generosity and write about how they enjoyed so-and-so’s poem in this journal or that e-zine (link included!). I am pleased when a poet uses his/her blog space to post a review of a poetry book, not their own. These exchanges remind me that there is indeed an audience for poetry, that people do care enough about the written word—that carefully-selected word.
What a blessing, then, that the same spread-the-word-by-hypertext strategy is being used with resolve by activist writers.
Language is activism, and political position. And these last few weeks I’ve been seeing how the language from, specifically, the Chicano/Mexicano community is both threatening and threatened. Language articulates our identity, and our identity is frightening, isn’t it, Arizona? I’d like to give a shout-out to activist writer Tony Diaz for his brainchild, Librotraficante—the old-fashioned bus tour with voices and books to counter the rage against Mexican American and Native American literature. I’d also like to give a shout-out to the DREAM Walkers, spreading the message on foot. Two of these inspiring young men, UnDocuQueers (“I’m Undocumented and Unafraid, Queer and Unashamed”), Nico González and Julio Salgado, have also written heartfelt essays about their experiences as undocumented gay men supporting the DREAM Act. Yes, the written word, a method to keep our identities visible, viable. !Ánimo, raza!
Words, language, books, education, this string of nourishment so necessary. Its denial so damaging, so cruel. A First World nation taking food away from the hungry.
I’m turning to former Harriet blogger Javier O. Huerta’s recent book American Copia: An Immigrant Epic. The phrase “Today I’m going to the grocery store” launches a series of observations about class, politics, economics and culture. Think visits to the discount aisle, coupons, food stamps, the deceitful language on labels, the illusion of a bountiful sustenance, the coping mechanism in sugar: “I often wonder if I would have grown up thin had my family stayed and bought groceries in Mexico…. Many studies have found a relationship between poverty and obesity.”
I’m remembering my own early years as an immigrant in California, our family’s poverty, my grandmother declaring, “I want you to get really fat and healthy!” During high school, I witnessed my cohorts talking up their summer jobs—at malls, summer camps, their family businesses—and I kept mum, embarrassed by the knowledge that my only choice was picking grapes with all the members of the household. Once an opportunity opened up: the possibility of working at a fancy hotel. It was grunt labor, but I understood this was going to be less painful (and less stressful) than working in the fields beneath the scorching sun. When I was called in for an interview, I knew I had to wear something decent, which didn’t apply to any of the clothes I owned. So I did the unthinkable: I walked around the neighborhood one evening in search of a shirt. No, I wasn’t going to borrow it. I was going to steal it from one of the clotheslines. I knew exactly what I was looking for: a Polo shirt. The funny little insignia of a man on a horse and swinging a golf club-looking thing over his shoulder—I had seen the math teacher wear one and he looked so sophisticated, intelligent, refined. I wanted such a shirt.
Imagine my disappointment and sudden burst of consciousness at the knowledge that there was no such shirt hanging on any clothesline in the neighborhood. The shirts in various stages of dampness resembled the ones I had in my closet, as threadbare, as hungry. At the same time, I made peace with the place I was inhabiting, its citizens. And then another thought came to me: there had to be more young people like me. We must number in the dozens among these hundreds of units at the housing project. I pictured their faces as they turned to the streetlight just outside their windows at night. There was not a moon or even stars to dream under, but that artificial light would do. We had been settling for second-best or not good at all most of our lives. As they slept on the sofa, just like I did, because there weren’t enough beds, they strengthened their purpose to find a way to feed themselves.