Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing About Other Cultures--Talk Given at SinC Into Great Writing 2016 in New Orleans (long)

I'm just recently back from Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans, and the day before B'con began, Sisters in Crime presented its SinC Into Great Writing workshop, as usual. This year as part of SinC's emphasis on diversity that began with their Report for Change, it was "Doing Diversity Right." Walter Mosley gave a masterful keynote speech, and was followed by four presentations by Frankie Bailey (dialogue), Cindy Brown (characters), Greg Herren (plot), and mine about setting or culture. After all of us finished, we made a panel for Q&A with Terri Bischoff, acquisitions editor for Midnight Ink, representing publishing.

I promised several people to post my entire talk when I made it back home, so here it is, along with the resource list I handed out at the conference.

Writing About Other Cultures

This piece of our workshop is called Writing about Setting, but in my view, setting implies environment, background, and culture. It's much more than simply a case of painting backdrops of landscape or buildings for each scene, more than picking out a few exotic and colorful places and fascinating ceremonies to make strange and beautiful set-pieces of spectacle. So we'll be looking at how you learn how to write about the whole thing—environment, background, and culture, most of which is covered by the term culture.

On the resource handout, you'll find the best book possible on writing the Other, as academics call anyone who's not of your own gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, or ability status. This book is small and inexpensive, and it was written for science fiction/fantasy writers, but almost everything in it is equally applicable to crime fiction. It contains hands-on exercises and all kinds of helpful goodies. It covers character and culture. I can't recommend it enough.

You'll also find two blogs written by children's literature librarians that hold writers' and publishers' feet to the fire on writing about other cultures—because it's so important to write about the Other in kid's lit, but even more important to do it right. Read them, holding your writer's indignation in suspension. They're pretty unrelenting on those who didn't do that important work, especially if those writers double down on their mistakes once they're pointed out. After reading a while, though, you'll see that they also praise those who do the hard work to get it right and those who got something wrong, were called on it, and agreed to correct it in the next printing/edition.

I included these two blogs, so you'll see what you're facing when you try to write other cultures. These are the extremes because of the perceived importance in developing self-esteem and shaping world-views of children's books, but you will face folks doing a similar kind of judging on adult books, just usually not as important or well-publicized (librarians all over the country pay attention to these kid-lit blogs).

I believe strongly that it's important for writers to honestly portray cultures other than the mainstream, and the next blog listed is one I wrote after the Charleston Mother Emanuel Church massacre, talking about how dishonest and lazy portrayals of Black people had played a role in reinforcing the bigotry that caused that shooting, how these bad portrayals happens to other peoples and cultures, as well, and how vital it is that they stop. Writers must learn to portray cultures other than the mainstream. An artist must paint a true portrait of the world, not whitewash it.

The internet is awash in blog posts and articles on how to write about other cultures. Some of them are excellent, some mediocre, and some downright wrong. (Hint: while empathy and imagination are vital, they alone will not help you write authentically about a culture you've not experienced.) I've combed through most of these (new ones pop up almost daily) and listed the best ones.

As you can see, I strongly encourage you to write the Other. But at the same time, I don't want you to be blindsided by criticism you weren't expecting and decide you'll never make that attempt again. I want you to go into the arena aware of the dangers and armed against them.

For there are dangers in writing about a culture that's not your own, and those dangers are especially fierce if you're a middle-class-or-above, white, heterosexual, able-bodied writer.

First of all, simply by writing about that Other, you may well be keeping a member of that culture from being able to publish their book set authentically in their own culture. It's not your fault, but publishing is a very white, often dumb business. A publisher who publishes your book about XYZ culture will then say to everyone else who submits, “We have our XYZ book already.” And other publishers will often say, “That publisher does XYZ books, so we can't.” The mindset of mainstream publishing is that the world needs an infinity of books about the world of middle-class or rich heterosexual able-bodied white people, but the number of books it can handle about people of color, of varying genders, of the “lower” classes, of varying physical and mental abilities is extremely limited. And because of this limited experience and worldview, a publisher is much more likely to buy a book by a white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual writer about XYZ culture instead of a book by someone from XYZ culture—simply because they will share the same assumptions and perspectives, and it will feel less foreign and uncomfortable to the publisher.

Tony Hillerman is usually set up as an example of a good way to write about another culture—I've said so myself. Hillerman loved Navajo culture and people and had many Navajo friends—he really worked hard to get the culture right. But how many Navajo novels have been published by Navajo people since Hillerman's books? There are lots of fine Navajo writers, many of them friends of mine, but usually they only get published as poets or literary short fiction writers, because there are so many little literary magazines for those genres, and not many readers or any money or recognition. The niche for trade or commercial fiction about Navajo people has been filled by Hillerman, as far as publishing is concerned. I don't think he'd be happy about that, if he were still alive, but it's still the case. So the people who get angry about someone from the mainstream writing about their culture and keeping their own voices from being heard have a real point. There's your first danger: People may be angry with you, even if you get things right, because they see your book as preventing a person of that culture from writing and publishing—and they may not be entirely wrong.

Tony Hillerman is a good example of the second big danger, as well. As I said, he worked hard to get Navajo culture right. He had many Navajo friends and ran things past them and went to them for information and answers to questions he developed. Big hint—this is what you should do when writing about the Other—check it with someone you've developed a relationship with who belongs to that culture. Hillerman's problem was that most of his friends were fairly assimilated and didn't still follow the most traditional teachings, so they told him about religious things that were supposed to be kept secret, and Hillerman put them into his books, telling the world. In traditional Navajo religious beliefs that tampered dangerously with powerful essences and may have allowed them access to the world. Also, because his friends were no longer still highly traditional, their understanding of some of these more religious things was a little off. None of this was Hillerman's fault, and the Navajo Nation awarded him Friend of the Navajo Nation status, but a number of traditional Navajo were very unhappy with him and still are.

As a part of this second danger, one thing you must remember about doing research on other cultures in books, libraries, on the internet, is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because journalists, anthropologists, other scholars, and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the white man was providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually white men, who had an agenda that placed wealthy white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your second caveat: You can do your research and still get it wrong in some way.

Still, as I pointed out, Hillerman was named Friend of the Navajo Nation by the culture about which he wrote, and even though there are some naysayers, he's counted successful at his attempts to portray Navajo characters and culture in some depth. If you can manage that, you'll have done very well, indeed.

How do we go about the process then? The beginning is always research—keeping in mind the caveats above about mistakes and agendas in the work of scholars. You can learn some basic history, etc., from these, but remember they're written from another culture's viewpoint and therefore are tales with unreliable narrators.

Look in particular for any primary sources you can find, work written by members of the culture as memoir, other nonfiction, or even fiction or poetry. There are magazines, often online, that focus on the writing of women, LGBTQIA people, Latinos, Natives, Asian Americans, African Americans, Muslims, working-class and poor people, and people with disabilities. In these, you'll not only find primary literary work you can read and learn from, but you'll often find references to books written by people of this Other culture.

Next, you must find and meet people of this Other culture. Do that basic research first, though, so you have some foundation. Nothing is more insulting to anyone than to say, essentially, “I know nothing about you and your culture, and I couldn't be bothered to do even the most minimal research on it, so please do it all for me and make me an expert overnight.”

If you already know some people from this community, now is the time to follow up on those relationships and deepen them. If you're someone who lives in a segregated community—and this is the case for most people now, congregating in suburbs and neighborhoods that are filled with people just like themselves—and you don't have any friends or acquaintances from work or an earlier time in your life who belong to this Other culture, this is the trickiest part—you will have to make friends. And people from marginalized communities can be quite wary of strangers who come in to their areas wanting to exploit them for some reason and then drop them. They've usually been there before. If you don't have any acquaintances in that community, ask among your friends and their friends and see if someone you do know has any. If they do, they can arrange an introduction for you. This can be extremely helpful.

Take your informant to lunch or dinner. Treat this person with respect. When researching another culture or anything—say, life as a policeman or the way City Hall works behind the scenes—please remember that common courtesy and respect are your best friends. If you've been recommended by a friend of theirs and you treat them well, they should relax in your presence. It's like making friends with anyone else new. You want to spend plenty of time getting to know each other with a huge emphasis on real listening on your part. (All the while you're listening, you're learning.) If you can show that you're really interested in them and what they have to say, that you're receptive and truly paying attention to them and truly listening, they will be much more likely to help you. Tell them what you're trying to write and that you want to give an honest portrayal, and ask if they'd be willing to answer some questions for you. You can take a list of specific questions with you, but you may well want to reserve your first meeting for getting to know and trust each other and set a second meeting to go over the questions.

It's a matter of building a relationship. If that's simply not something you can see yourself doing—many writers are extreme introverts—it's also possible to find paid “diversity readers” online, who will read your work to point out flawed areas and problem portrayals. Some of them are excellent writers from those communities, and their help is worth the money paid. Some of them are self-styled diversity experts who may not actually be of the cultures they purport to know. As with anything on the internet, you must do your own research on people before hiring them to make sure they're actually what they present themselves to be. Ask for references.

Once you've finished your first draft, you will want to have a reading by someone from the culture you're trying to bring alive on the page. And if that someone points out a problem with representation that needs to be fixed, don't argue with them. Go fix it. Even if it's a lot of extra work.

In the front or back matter of your book (wherever you put your acknowledgments page), acknowledge the help you received from the people you consulted on the cultural environment, and see to it that they each get a free book.

And remember, you can do it all right and still have someone upset that you published the book because there will be less room for a writer from that community now—and they won't be wrong. Do whatever you can to help writers from that culture to reach success—signal boost, give blurbs, mentor, recommend, whatever you can do. And continue to do this. Your book may be out there in the marketplace for a long time. Make sure you're helping people from that community be heard for at least as long. Aside from being the right thing to do, it's good karma.

Above all, know that what you're doing in trying to diversify your writing is absolutely important. Many of the problems we have with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, classism, and all kinds of xenophobia stem from the damaging stereotypes that are continually presented about other cultures and the people living in them. You are changing the world for the better when you change that.

Resources For Writing About Other Cultures

Best book around about it—Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

Blogs/online articles – a blog about good and bad representation in children's books – a blog about good and bad representation in children's books – a blog post I wrote about the need for accurate representation by writers, etc., and what terrible effects the lack of it produces

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tecumseh's Dream, Part II

Tecumseh was the great Shawnee leader of the early 19th century, who had grown up in a time of constant warfare and continuing displacement of Indigenous nations from their lands by violent white settlers. He had a vision of uniting as many Native tribes as possible to stand against the flood of white settlers and save the traditional lands of the Shawnee and other nations. He had to convince other nations to join his confederation of nations, and we still have his prescient words to Pushmataha of the Choctaws when he worked to convince them to join, words that resonate with the history between his time and ours—and even with the actions of a pipeline corporation in North Dakota just last weekend.

"Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man... Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws... Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?"

Tecumseh was a man ahead of his time. He came close to achieving his dream, however. He united several of the northern tribes, including the Delaware, Potawatomie, Kickapoo, and Osage, but had little luck with the Southern tribes, except for a band of the Creek Nation that came to be called the Red Sticks. Had his brother, Tenskwatawa (also known as the Prophet) who was no warrior, not led a failed sneak attack on the American soldiers, and had Tecumseh not been drawn into the War of 1812 to be betrayed by the cowardly British general he was forced to fight with, I've often wondered if Tecumseh might not have been able to lead a united band of Indigenous nations to force the settlers back beyond the Appalachians and change the entire history of Native America.

Recent events have left me thinking of Tecumseh and his dream of uniting the tribes in dealing with the settlers. Since April, a movement that began with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe offering peaceful but determined opposition to a potentially dangerous pipeline has increasingly drawn members of over a hundred other tribes and the formal endorsement and physical and financial support of over two hundred other tribes. The understanding of the sacredness and importance of water to all of us has led them to become Water Protectors, standing up to a powerful corporation and saying, “We will not allow you to endanger our water and the water on which millions of others depend, as well.”

The two camps of Water Protectors at the Cannonball River, Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp, now contain over 5,000 people who have come from tribes all over the United States and Canada to join the Standing Rock Sioux in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recently, this situation had gone to court, and the court had said it would rule the next week. The Standing Rock Sioux delivered materials to the court, identifying an important burial site and other sacred lands lying in the proposed path of the pipeline, another reason its construction should be halted. The corporation sent out workmen over the Labor Day weekend to destroy those sites, in order to make them irrelevant to the case. When the protectors tried to stop them, private security employees assaulted them with pepper spray and attack dogs. The workers and security agents left, probably because of a news program and its video cameras, which recorded what they did, but the site was torn up and destroyed. As Tecumseh said so long ago, Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?"

Still, the federal government has called a temporary halt to construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. The fight is hardly over. The protectors are not leaving the camps. They are preparing for winter on the prairie. The gathering of tribes that they have built, however, is unprecedented, and I can't help thinking when I see so many relatives from so many different sovereign Indigenous nations gathered together, the flags of the more than 200 nations supporting this action waving above them, that, finally, Tecumseh's dream is coming true.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

An Old, Old Story—Dealing Illegally and in Bad Faith with America's Indigenous People

Near the Cannonball River in North Dakota just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, over 3,000 people are gathered from Indigenous nations all over the United States to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (a kind of stealth or back-door Keystone XL Pipeline approved under a “fast track” option that didn't require the scrutiny Keystone had undergone) from destroying tribal burial grounds and sacred sites and from crossing the Missouri River, endangering the source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and for millions of other Americans downstream.

The land the pipeline is scheduled to cross is ancestral land of the Standing Rock Sioux, taken from them in the 20th century in violation of U.S. treaties with the Standing Rock nation. When they went to federal court in 1980 over this and other land depredations, the judge said, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” President Obama, when questioned about the DAPL situation at a university in Laos this week, said, “...the way that Native Americans were treated was tragic. … This issue of ancestral lands and helping them preserve their way of life is something that we have worked very hard on.” He did not, unfortunately, answer the question he was asked about the situation of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The elders, who are the leaders of the Standing Stone camp in resistance to the DAPL (as is customary among most Native nations), issued this statement:

With over 200 river crossings the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline puts the drinking water supply of a large part of the country at risk. Our prayer is to keep the waters pure for all tribal peoples and all Americans.

We pray for the waters used by farmers in Iowa and Illinois, the water consumed by schoolchildren in South Dakota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

Millions of Americans get their drinking water from this system.

We are Protectors not Protesters. Our camp is a prayer, for our children, our elders and ancestors, and for the creatures, and the land and habitat they depend on, who cannot speak for themselves.

We wish the Army Corps had done their job in protecting federally administered lands, unceded Indian lands, and Tribal lands, relying on science and judgement in protecting Indian culture from construction. Whether by intention or omission, the Army Corps broke federal laws, and didn’t do their job.”

The pipeline was originally slated to run past Bismarck, North Dakota, at a distance of 15 miles from the city, but there was outcry that the state capitol's drinking water might be endangered by a leak or break in the 1,100-mile pipeline. Thus, it was shifted to run within half a mile of the Standing Rock reservation. As Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, told CNN, whenever the United States wants to make sacrifices for economic purposes, it tends to do so on the backs of its Indigenous people, and this longstanding history of economic decision-making at the expense of Natives must stop.

After a federal court injunction to stop construction until the matter could be litigated and the day after the tribe's lawyers filed additional papers in court with information of sacred sites and burial sites along the pipeline path, DAPL sent work crews on a holiday weekend with three bulldozers to dig up those sites and destroy them in order to make them irrelevant to the case. As the gathered Natives tried to block them from digging up and destroying their relatives' graves, a private security company hired by DAPL blocked all cell phone reception to keep word from getting out and then assaulted them with pepper spray and attack dogs. Several protesters were bitten, including a pregnant woman, and one was hospitalized with facial dog bites. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now were in the camp interviewing its members and caught the entire event on camera (see link below), including dogs with bloody mouths after biting Natives, which is probably the only reason the security guards finally left and didn't cause even more injuries. It becomes apparent from this and from the sheriff's statement afterward that the camp attacked the security guards and dogs, injuring them, (when the sheriff was not on the scene at the time) that neither DAPL nor the local authorities are dealing in good faith or legality.

This is national news of great importance, but until the past two days, this defense of sacred lands and waters, which has lasted for months, was paid no attention by the national news media, although multiple major international media outlets stayed on top of it and broadcast/wrote about it for their audiences around the world. It's an old, old story, however—U.S. government and private corporations deal in bad faith and illegally with Indigenous nations. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, land theft, you name it—this treatment of its Indigenous people by a country that claims to be a shining city of virtue and fairness on a hill above all others as an example to the world is, with slavery and its modern results, as well, hiding dark, shameful roots.

When racist trolls at public events and online tell us to “get over it,” this is why we can't. It's still going on, still happening to our people—even today when Americans say, “That was our ancestors, not us. We would never do that.” To all those Americans, I say this, “If you allow this corporation and your government to do this today, you are still doing what your ancestors did to the Indigenous people whose land you live on and work on today.”

Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Essay about the Last Time Demagogues Forcibly Deported Masses of Mexican-Americans

After listening to the horrible fascist talk by the Republican presidential candidate last night, I decided to post this essay I wrote about Latinos in the Midwest and about the last time we did this forced mass deportation/ethnic cleansing thing.

We’ve Been Here All Along: 13 Ways of Looking at Latinos in the Midwest

by Linda Rodriguez

I listen for the broken truth that speaks of what’s been stolen, what’s been cracked and smashed. Bit by bit, I try to put together pieces, fragments of what was, stories for my children to live on. I refuse the blindness and forgetfulness that would render me acceptable in my country’s eyes, this country that lies about what it did to its indigenous roots, about who provides the necessary labor for all the luxury in which we live. Our comfortable lives are built on bones, and how we long to forget!
Here in the middle of the country’s heart, I live surrounded by the liquid names I love—Arredondo, Villalobos, Siquieros, Duarte, Espinoza. We are a secret pool in the middle of this dry, often drought-cursed Bible Belt, petitioners of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Tonantzin with tall flickering novena candles set out on household altars, devourers of caldo, horchata, albondigas with tongues that roll “r”s and hiss our “z”s, dark faces, eyes, hair among all these pale ones.
How did we come to be here in a land covered in ice half the year? How did we come to this place where no parrots fly free and flowers freeze to death? Surely it was not our doing.
Though larger totals of Latinos were driven out of the border states during the Depression’s forced deportations, the usually isolated communities in the Midwest were hit the hardest—in some cases, losing over half their population overnight. Those remaining kept their heads down, hoping to avoid another violent outbreak. They made their children speak only English.
Though that had not mattered. Many of those shipped to Mexico were citizens who spoke English fluently and little, if any, Spanish.
The Midwestern communities became even more invisible. They just wanted to be left alone.
When Federales chased Pancho Villa and his soldados over the countryside in and out of the small farms and ranches and the dusty little towns that supported them, each side of the conflict when it stopped for a rest would force all the men and boys in a village or on a farm to join its army. Worn out from the constant warfare of Mexico of that time, those men and boys—and their families—wanted to be left in peace. They fled to cities where men in suits from the north offered them money if they would migrate to the land of gringos to work on railroads or in meatpacking plants. The old streets-of-gold promise, and it sounded much better than getting shot in one army or another. Taking their families, they moved north to Chicago, Kansas City, and Topeka.
Ironically, when the U.S. entered World War II and needed cannon fodder, politicians remembered those English-speaking, American-citizen kids that they'd forced from their own country. They sent military recruiters south. Large numbers of boys, driven by force from their country to a land where they didn’t speak the language and never fit in, signed up to go to Europe and the Pacific to fight for the country they loved—even if it didn’t love them.
If you didn’t read about this in your school history books, don’t be surprised. Neither did I. This whole episode was like the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent in camps during World War II. After the paroxysm was over, we as a nation only wanted to forget what we had done.
The oldest Latino community in Kansas City, Kansas, was built around an entire village removed from Michoacan and settled into broken-down boxcars beside the Kaw River. When I was younger, you could still see the boxcar origins of a few houses in the Oakland community of Topeka, Kansas, and the Argentine district in Kansas City, Kansas. Around the core of boxcar, wood siding was added. New rooms and additions were built over the years to make real homes.
Few of these houses have survived the past four decades, but I still remember them, always surrounded with luxuriant vegetable and flower gardens in the tiny yard space around the houses—an emphatic statement of a people who could indeed make silk purses out of sows’ ears or real two- or three-bedroom homes out of broken-down boxcars.
In 2007, Kansas City, Missouri, had a new mayor. He had just appointed a very active member of the local Minutemen organization to Kansas City’s most powerful board. I found the local Minutemen chapter’s website and read a call to go door-to-door in Kansas City, demanding to see proof of citizenship or legal status and making “citizen’s arrests” where the occupant could not or would not show these. It was clear from the rhetoric on the website that these would not be random visits but would target homes with occupants who had Spanish last names.
I took this threat personally. So when my friend Freda asked me to come to an emergency press conference to show solidarity, I did. Leaders of Chicano/Latino civic organizations formed the Kansas City Latino Civil Rights Task Force to fight this appointment. We were sure this would all end quickly. We were wrong, of course. It took over six months of constant effort, national groups cancelling conventions in the city, and the cooperation of African American, Jewish, and Anglo groups. 

Along the way, something happened that I have still to forget.
After one meeting, my friend Tino of LULAC emailed me, “This is what the Minutemen want.” Attached was a documentary video. The black and white photos of Latino families being forced into crowded boxcars reminded me powerfully of similar photos of Jewish families being loaded onto trains in Nazi-occupied areas of Europe during the same years.
When the Great Depression hit, citizens of Mexican ancestry made a great scapegoat. Demagogues, sounding much like people we hear over the airwaves today, blamed them and called for mass deportations. Groups of armed vigilantes, most supported by local, state, and federal government, beat and kidnapped men walking down the street to work or home, visited homes with threats of violence and arrest, and drove families out without any of their possessions. They forced huge numbers of people without any of their belongings or food or water into railroad boxcars where the doors were locked shut and the people eventually dumped out in Mexico. The elderly, babies and pregnant women, those already sick—physically or mentally—suffered the most, and many died along the way. Twenty-five children and adults died on just one of these trains on its trip to the border.
When my children were small, I would take them with me to the Westside, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where the grandmothers sold fresh tamales every Saturday to support the church. We would enter the cool basement where las Guadalupeñas would coo at Crystal and Niles en español. Crystal would respond by dancing around and laughing. Niles would try to hide his face in my pant legs, clinging tightly and crying until he pressed new creases. The old women would pack the still-steaming tamales, wrapped by the dozens in foil, into a paper bag and call out goodbyes to el niñito timido.
On the way to the car, I would promise if he stopped crying we would visit La Fama, the panadería, for Mexican bread. We picked out thick, sugary cookie flags and pan dulce, carrying them all in a paper bag that began to show grease spots from the sweet treats inside before we got home.
Or perhaps I would hold out the prospect of a visit to Sanchez Market for chicharrones, the real thing, large, bubbled, almost transparent from the deep-frying that made them so light and crunchy. While there, I would stock up on peppers and spices that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town as the kids relished their big chunks of fried pork rind.
Back then, we gathered around the church and food—at weddings, after funerals, for quinceañeras, after First Communions, and at fundraisers for American GI Forum, the organization founded by decorated, returning Latino World War II veteranos when the American Legion wouldn’t allow them to join.
Many women had a specialty food—tamales, enchiladas, mole, tostadas, arroz con pollo, sopa—that they were asked to bring. You always wanted to go if they had Lupe’s mole or Jennie’s enchiladas. They were better than you could get anywhere else unless you were lucky enough to belong to Lupe’s or Jennie’s family. But these women were generous and always shared with other families who were celebrating or mourning or just raising money for beloved causes.
Many of those driven out in the 1930s were legal residents or citizens, naturalized and native-born. Children born and raised in this country were forced into a country they did not know with a language they did not know and often compelled to leave behind the birth certificates that proved their citizenship. Sixty percent of the 1.2 million people driven out of the country were citizens. Many of these families who were marched to the railroad cars and shipped out like so much freight owned their own homes and even had small businesses. All of this was forfeited to the mobs that kidnapped them and sent them out of the U.S.
Herbert Hoover never made a formal policy of forced deportation, but elements within his government, along with state and local governments, arranged for the railroad cars and gave approval to the vigilantes. In some cases, it was actually government agents who drove people out of their homes. At times, private institutions also financed deportation boxcars. For example, the archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, paid for boxcars to take families out of the city, many of whom had lived there and worshipped as faithful Catholics since before the turn of the century. In fact, in southern California, hundreds of families were rounded up in 1931 as they attended Catholic services on Ash Wednesday.
In Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, we have a large Chicano population that has been in the area since the turn of the twentieth century with third-generation and fourth-generation adult U.S. citizens who speak primarily (and often only) English, have college educations, and work as professionals. We also have a large, newer population, deriving from Central and South America as much as from Mexico, as often as not completely indigenous with little or no Spanish, speaking Nahuatl, Quechua, Q'eqchi'.
I have often thought the great public horror evinced about this new wave of immigrants is due to their indigenous nature. The United States can hardly bear to see such large numbers of indigenous people as anything but threat when this country has worked so long and so hard at wiping out its own indigenous peoples through violence, disease, “education,” and the blood quantum rule the BIA has imposed on our indigenous nations that still endure.
In 2007, my son Niles took a one-week European vacation. He flew home from London by way of Detroit. In Detroit, this non-Spanish-speaking, second-generation American citizen (on his father’s side), born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, was held for 24 hours by immigration authorities and refused entry into his own country, even though he had a passport. They were certain he was an illegal immigrant from Mexico trying to sneak into the U.S.
Neither his valid documents nor his non-accented, perfectly colloquial English could outweigh his brown skin and Spanish last name. He was released and allowed to enter his own country only after his white boss confirmed over the telephone that he was a citizen and had been gainfully employed in a high-level professional position for seven years.
To me, this is doubly galling because Niles is not only Chicano but also part Cherokee and part Choctaw. My children and I have several lines of ancestors who go back to the time before there was a United States of America. I have always since wondered just exactly how many illegal immigrants from Mexico named Niles have flown to England and toured the Continent before trying to sneak into the U.S. on a flight from London.
People always are surprised to find Latinos in Kansas City—anywhere in the Midwest. We’re only supposed to congregate in Miami, New York, El Paso, Phoenix, and LA.
Sometimes I want to ask, “Who did you think picked all those fruits and vegetables from the breadbasket of the country? Who worked in the meatpacking hellholes, if not the Mexicans and Indians? Who kept the trains cleaned, painted, and running, if not the African Americans and Mexicans?”
Always the invisible poor, laborers doing the work no one else wanted. Now, it’s roofing and gardening, cleaning hotel rooms and offices at night. We’ve been here a long time, long enough to lose our language sometimes while we were gaining diplomas and degrees, but never to lose our culture completely. The newcomers make you nervous, afraid. But we’ve been here all along—you just never noticed.