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We Must Act But How? A Conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera (Part 3 of 3)


Continued from Part 2.

[Transcribed and edited by David Lau.]

Part III: Aztlán Against Surveillance Culture

DL: I then wonder what you think about what’s going on politically today. Your colleague Mike Davis has great hope that Chicano and Latino community can transform US politics, yet we live in a time in which the Dreamers have been held up, deportations have been alarmingly high, even under Obama. So it can be hard to see how we get from this present to a different future. It is happening. I agree with you that it is happening at the community level. But you know when you see these immigration sweeps happening it can also feel like our communities are under siege.

JFH: Those are very good observations. We were just talking about the cultural currents—explosive and alive, multiplying in many ways—and yet at the same time we have what you’re talking about. We have the community tsunami, which are these amazing waves of migration into the United States from Mexico and Latin America. And everywhere we go… I can go to an Italian restaurant, what used to be a hardcore Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and you peak through to the curtain to the chef’s room and their all Mexicanos. [Laughs.] “Yes, I’d like to have some linguini vongole.” And then it’s delicious, it’s amazing, but you peak behind the curtain and it’s Mexicanos from Jalisco or Michoacán. I went to the Caffe Sport on Green Street in North Beach, one of my favorite cool old school places, and I got scampi with garlic, a garlic bud as big as your hand and… Mexicanos and Salvadoreños, cooks and waiters. Before they were Sicilian old school waiters. They would tear your arm off if you didn’t order what they wanted you to order. Which was interesting because I used to have fun with those waiters. They would say we’re going to give you eggplant. And I would say, I’ll take the eggplant… But now they’re Latino, cooks, chefs, and waiters, and at Caffe Sport, the Sicilian Restaurant in North Beach. So that’s kind of an example of the tsunami. And if you go to Michigan, New York City… I used to lament. I’d say there are Puerto Ricans in New York City, yeah, right on! And then I ran into this big old parade a few years ago, and I said, “Hey, what is this?” I saw a big old sign and it said, Viva Ecuador, and then I turned to my right and a sign said, Viva Peru, and I said all right. And then I turned all the way down this big giant street near Central Park, full of floats and colors and banners. It was Día de la Raza. And I thought what was this? When did this happen? And I felt like I was in Fresno. Is this Fresno in New York City?

So these amazing communities have moved all across from the Southwest to the East Coast and the Midwest. I went back to Iowa City. And I drove—this must be in 2004—and went back to West Liberty, this little town I used to go to in the late 80s when I lived there. I just liked to go; it was like going out to see James Dean. There was a 50s theater called the Strand, and you know just 50s. And I love the 50s because I was a kid in those years. But there’s was not one Latino there. There would be one Vietnamese restaurant, but that was radical, revolutionary. And I went back in 2004 because I wanted to go back to a James Dean-ish environment and just go hang out where I used to hang out. It was all Mexicano. And there were two panaderias and there was a grocery store and another grocery store. And I go, Wow! West Liberty, Mexican!

But now you say what are we going to do now? The dreamers are being stalled and people are being deported in large numbers? We have the people, we have the organizations, like Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional—a Oaxaqueño, powerful, extremely big community network in Fresno and throughout California— Oaxaqueño peoples organizing themselves. We’ve got that. And we’ve got the large Michoacán community organization in California and LA. They’re big and they can call out thousands of people like that, with a snap of the fingers.

DL: They’re powerful back home too.

JFH: They’re powerful back home too, right. But then why haven’t we got any feedback out of this. So you’re right, that’s a big question. And I want to be hopeful like Mike Davis. My sense, and I am hopeful, is also that there’s kind of a first tier. To me this is second tier. We’re all in society, and this isn’t a conspiratorial vision, it’s just that sometime I feel kind of like there’s a secret society and a society where you and I operate. The secret society is kind of like a non-cultural society. It’s one where culture does not exist, it’s not discussed, it’s not important. Like our students who say, Chicano? So what? I don’t care about any of that, I’m just here, I’m a human being, I’m here to get my degree, and I’m moving on. I want my job, I want my degree. I might take your Chicano Lit class, Viva la Raza! But I’m gone, I’m out. I got my AA, thank you very much, I’m going to my finance class right now.

The whole issue of surveillance, not culture, but the culture of surveillance. I’ve kind of been thinking about that. Surveillance is heavy. And we’re all being surveilled. And this doesn’t mean it’s evil, just means that things have changed, and culture, what culture is, is different. And surveillance culture is not interested in history, I don’t think, at least it’s not central, like in people-culture, or movement culture. Movement culture and organizational culture is also interested in history. But surveillance culture I don’t think is interested in history. It’s not as interested in people’s voices. It’s not interested in people’s writing, expressive production. It’s not interested in any of that. It’s interested in numbers, numbers, numbers. Literally, numbers in sequences. It’s interested in letter sequences. And it’s interested in patterns of social movement, so that if you and I and five other people are positioned in an interesting grouping in what is seen as a zone of suspicion… we’re walking in a place that’s under suspicion. It could be a street, a store, or just in social space and we happen to be there. And if our physical movement is suspect, then we may be called upon. Or targeted because of the pattern of our movement. Not who we are, where we come from, what we’re writing, what we’re saying, what we call ourselves, our battle against what we call ourselves. Our history. That’s not important to surveillance culture.

Another one is telephone numbers and all numbers that we use and are linked to our numbers. Our identity numbers. It’s number identity. So numbers, letters, numbers in sequences, letters in sequences, and patterns and movement. That’s for me key to surveillance culture. And that has nothing to do with humanity’s culture, what we’ve been talking about. Stories, writing, vision, history, myths, Mesoamerica, nationhood, community building—that’s not surveillance culture at all. So one tier is surveillance culture. The other is humanity’s culture, or… I don’t know what to call it yet. And the other tier is where you and I operate, which is history, voice, community, diversity, our stories, our expressive creativity, and political movement, migration, immigration, empowerment. That’s this tier, and the other tier is surveillance culture, non-culture. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, and I haven’t really figured it out. And those are antagonistic, or one kind of cancels out the other. And the other one doesn’t know how to address the other one. Because we’re over here believing in change, and committed to the things we’ve been doing: stories, organizational empowerment, and working through the levers and pulleys of political representation. And the other tier is just coming out of a whole different thing. [Laughs.] There’s just cameras and sensors and drones. This is a little one-dimensional, the way I’m describing it’s very one-dimensional. So it’s bad and so much changed after September 11th. Before that I think we were groovy in a way. But after September 11th, we took a big old detour.

We can entertain ourselves with writing, and it’s very powerful, but something else is going on and I don’t know if we know how to deal with it in our writing. Or if it can be dealt with in our writing. Or if it’s important to deal with it in our writing. It’s not that we don’t want to be secure. It’s not a good and evil thing. But it’s definitely a new thing and culture—the kind of culture you and I have been talking about—it’s not a key element in it. In a way, that young student who said what’s Chicano?—that makes a lot of sense in this new time. What’s culture? Why would I be interested in culture? Everything is smart, everything is fast, and everything is surveillance? So why would culture come in? Culture is slow. It’s so different. Literary production is very different from the smart phone. Even though you can do it on a smart phone, but not really. Maybe you can?  But there’s a new language going on, there’s a new language being introduced. We’re playing with it, but it’s very different than a book. And it’s very different from everything we’ve done. So all that’s kind of clashing and crashing and sucking itself out of existence, into little white dwarfs and black holes, fissions, and cosmic streams. All of a sudden we’re into a Borges world, Borges Chicanismo. [Laughs.] Labyrinths and infinite staircases. Escher and Borges, something like that. It’s strange. It’s very strange. And lethal.

Maybe we just need to get human again, maybe that’s what it is. I like it when the Dalai Lama speaks to audiences around the world. Very simple, very real, and very good. I like it when he does that. He goes to India and he talks to the people about Ghandi’s anniversary and thousands are there. I find that to be a model for something we can do. It’s very different from information culture and surveillance culture. Crossing the line. We have to cross the line from Chicano, whatever, into each other’s communities. If we stay in our communities we may shrivel up and die because it’s not that kind of world anymore. So I think we need to learn each other’s language, go into each other’s homes, have each other’s foods, and hang out. Stop the Honda and get out. [Laughs.] Or the Chevy or whatever… That’s a big question, a big open question.

DL: Yeah, a big open question. Yeah that’s good.

[Read part 1 of the interview here. Part 2 can be found here.]

Originally Published: May 4th, 2014

Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...