Lost Children Archive I

lost-children-archiveHow to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.

Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.

Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.

The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” [74]). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.

When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant

Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)

Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.

But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.

The House on Mango Street

mango-streetDozens of characters flit through the pages of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Alicia, for instance, who “is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university”; but her mother has died and so she has “inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness” as she has to get up early and look after the family, before taking “two trains and a bus” to study because “she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (30-1). Or Elenita, “witch woman,” who earns a few extra dollars by telling fortunes in her kitchen where “the top of the refrigerator [is] busy with holy candles” (62, 63). Interrupted by her kids, who she has shunted out to a living room where the sofa is covered in plastic, she “gets up to hit and then hug them. She really does love them, only sometimes they are rude” (64). Or there is Sire, a boy who hangs out on his bike with his friends and watches as the narrator, Esperanza, passes and crosses the street: “It made your blood freeze to have somebody look at you like that” (73).

Many of these characters disappear in the wake of these quick but arresting pen portraits. It is as though the book can hardly settle long enough on any of them for us to come to know where they come from or where they are going to. Yet almost always we are left with a startling detail, revealing perhaps more than the child narrator knows or intends to tell, a detail that indicates that there is much more still to be said. In Alicia’s case, this is when we are told that she is afraid of nothing except the mice she sees (or imagines she sees) late at night as she burns the candle at both ends. “And fathers” (32). Then the narrative swiftly moves on–to a tale of “Darius & the Clouds”–leaving the suggestion of some unmentionable violence hanging in the air. Mango Street is as vibrant and colorful as the tropical fruit that gives it its name, but it is also permeated by shadow, not least the shadow of gendered violence and the expectations that young women above all find it nearly impossible to shake off.

In fact, Alicia returns almost at the end of the book, in one of its final vignettes. Not that we hear much more about her fears. She and Esperanza are talking, and “she is listening to my sadness because I don’t have a house” (106). But Esperanza does, Alicia points out, have the house that gives this very book its title:

You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. (106)

Shame is a recurrent feature of Esperanza’s experience in this Chicago neighborhood: she is made to feel (and internalizes) shame for being female, poor, and Hispanic. In some ways, indeed, shame is the book’s dominant affect, if it weren’t for the humor and quick-witted observation that also pervade almost all these brief stories. And Alicia, perhaps the one (other) possibly upwardly mobile figure we meet, already knows that Esperanza will not so easily be able to deny her origins, for to do so would be to try to erase something that is by now integral to her very self: “No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too” (107). This may sound like a prediction (or projection) of failure: that every attempt Esperanza makes to escape will be doomed.

But Cisneros suggests that Esperanza (or Cisneros herself, in so far as this book is broadly autobiographical) will be able to negotiate the tension between escape and acknowledgement, between shame and pride, though writing itself. “You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza,” her Aunt Lupe tells her, “It will keep you free” (61). At the time the young girl “didn’t know what she meant”–and in fact she and her friends treat her aunt shamefully, imitating her, mocking her blindness and incapacity, “with our heads thrown back, our arms limp and useless, dangling like the dead” (61). But by the end of the story, Esperanza has realized that the stories she is telling are a means to take her distance from Mango Street: “I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes” (110). But they are also, of course, a way to return, to render homage to those who stayed, to those, “las mujeres” to whom the book is dedicated, who were unable to leave and had to live in the shadows. Without exactly shining a light on that darkness, without pretending to give us anything like a full representation of these lives at the margins, Cisneros’s book at least offers a glimpse of a myriad of stories that would otherwise go untold, stories that if told in full should shame us all.

Bless Me, Ultima II

anaya_ultimaThe phrase that gives Rudolfo Anaya’s novel its title, “Bless me, Ultima,” does not arise until almost the very last page, when Ultima is on her deathbed. She is dying not so much because she herself is sick or has been injured, but because the owl that in some way represents her soul (is her soul?) has been shot and killed. Placing the bird, wrapped in a blanket, by the old woman’s bed, Antonio, who has been her acolyte and intimate, “drop[s] to [his] knees” and asks

“Bless me, Ultima–” Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you–“ (260-61)

And so the torch is handed on. Of course, Ultima has to die for Antonio to become what he will be, and to be in a position to chart his own path in the future. His childhood is now at an end, and so therefore is this narrative, which has described what its very first page described as a “magical time” (1) so evocatively. However much has happened in the twelve months or so that the book covers (from the beginning of one school year to another), it is understood that in many ways this was all an interlude, a respite from another form of reality, or perhaps another way of looking at the real, which will pick up again after the final page has been turned.

In fact, it is perhaps surprisingly Antonio’s father, otherwise portrayed as somewhat lost (all at sea in more than one sense of the term: both restless and left behind), who best captures this sense of impending transition. Talking of magic (and even beyond the mystical connection between owl and Ultima, there is plenty of magic in Anaya’s novel), he says: “To the child it is natural, but for the grown man it loses its naturalness–so as old men we see a different reality. And when we dream it is usually for a lost childhood, or trying to change someone, and that is not good. So, in the end, I accept reality” (248). Ultimately, Antonio will have to accept reality, to be fine with the fact that he will inevitably (like all of us) lose his childhood, and to learn that he cannot change anybody–not his mother, nor his father, or his brothers. (Again, the sisters get remarkably short shrift throughout the novel.) But if he cannot change anybody, he has to find some sympathy for them, perhaps precisely because of the recognition that they cannot be changed, that they are simply playing out their destiny. It is this sympathy, more than any hocus pocus with potions, that is Ultima’s true magic. Though, again, it is up to Antonio’s father to point this out, when he tells his son that “no greater magic can exist” (248).

As the novel heads towards this conclusion, it becomes ever less a specifically “Chicano” novel. These lessons, whatever one may think of them, surely purport to be universal rather than particular. Indeed, as Ultima exits the scene, urging Antonio to “gather my medicines and my herbs and [. . .] take them somewhere along the river and burn them” (260), her “magic” thus becomes transmuted from traditional, indigenous knowledge, located in place and time, to general human sympathy, applicable anywhere “the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” (262). Of course, this raises the question of what a “Chicano” novel should be in the first place. Why shouldn’t it have aspirations to something like universality? Indeed, the fact that Anaya’s book so successfully and almost seamlessly (magically?) transmutes the particular into the universal is surely a large part of its remarkable success. And yet, I wonder what is lost in this procedure, which at times feels like dilution into rather banal uplift and cheer (“Always have the strength to live. Love life”). Especially given that the novel has in fact portrayed much that is far from lovely–not least the three deaths that Antonio has already witnessed at close quarters even before the book’s dénouement–I for one find its closing moral(ism) somewhat disappointing.

Bless Me, Ultima I

anaya_ultimaRudolfo Anaya’s best-selling Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy, Antonio, growing up in the 1940s in a Mexican-American family in semi-rural New Mexico. As the novel opens, he is about to start school but is already beginning to feel the burden of responsibility and a loss of innocence as he negotiates his parents’ contrasting expectations for him: his deeply religious mother hopes that he will become a priest; his father dreams of the open plains and wants to move the entire family to California but becomes distant and turns to drink when he sees this dream frustrated. Though the youngest of six, Antonio is unable to turn to his siblings for support to resolve these tensions or at least alleviate the weight of so much hope and disillusionment. His three much older brothers are off fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and when they return at the war’s end soon make it clear that they are not going to hang around to live out their parents’ desires; his two sisters, though closer to his age, are little more than ciphers and barely feature in the first half of the book.

Of all those living in his house, Antonio is closest to the only one to whom he is not related, an older woman named Ultima (referred to with respect as “la Grande”) who has a reputation as a curandera, a healer or benign witch. Antonio turns to her with his questions about the magic-infused world around him that he is beginning to explore. She takes him along as she gathers herbs for her medicinal concoctions, and even recruits him when she goes to a nearby village to remove a curse that has been laid on Antonio’s uncle. Ultima tells him “the stories and legends of my ancestors” and it is from her that he learns “the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people” (123). But it is not (yet) clear who or what that people are: the disagreements between Antonio’s mother and father are merely the symptom of wider fractures that divide the community. Antonio’s uncertain search for his own identity and independence mirrors a broader struggle waged by the people as a whole.

So far at least, that sense of a coherent “people” rarely comes into focus. It is the often acrimonious divisions that are more evident: between young and old, between farmers and vaqueros, between the Church and indigenous folk beliefs, and ultimately between good and evil. Though there is plenty of talk of custom and ceremony, and despite his shock in starting school and coming into contact with the institutions of the Anglophone state, it is striking that at this stage young Antonio seems to have little sense of his identity as a Mexican-American or Chicano. This may well change, but for now this is a Chicano novel that hardly features “Chicanos” as such.

Indeed, if we imagine Mexican-American culture to be characterized by a tension or conflict between “Mexican” and (US) “American,” by a proximity to or incarnation of the US/Mexican Border, here this split is far from being the determining factor in young Antonio’s life. In many ways, the first half of the novel might as well be set south of the border, in Mexico itself. Instead, the first key cultural tension is that between a Hispanic Catholicism represented by Antonio’s mother and the loosely indigenous-derived folk beliefs associated with both Ultima and Antonio’s friends Samuel and Cico. Cico takes him to a local river to see carp whose presence is explained in terms of a legend in which the gods turn an unfaithful people into fish, which is why the carp cannot be eaten: “It is a sin to catch them,” Samuel has explained. “It is a worse offense to eat them. They are part of the people” (80). But this seems to be a pre-Hispanic people, whose story long precedes the coming of the Spanish Church. And when told that one of the gods was then in turn also transformed into a fish, the golden carp, Antonio is shaken: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (81). Destined by his mother to be a priest, and yet also picked out by Ultima as helper and confidant, Antonio feels torn between two sets of beliefs, but neither have much if any connection to the Anglo culture that remains at best at the very far horizon of his consciousness, like the semi-mythical notion of the California to which his father want to take them.

The second major tension that structures Antonio’s growing self-consciousness is that between his father’s restlessness as a man of open spaces, the llanos and oceans, and his mother’s attraction to domesticity and rootedness, as a daughter of farmers and denizen of the valleys. This split is encoded in his name, given as Antonio Márez y Luna: On the one hand the patronymic Márez, designating people of the seas (mares); on the other hand the matronymic Luna, signalling a people guided by the seasons and the phases of the moon. But this is a division that is internal to Hispanic colonization, between the conquistador spirit of “men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered” (6) and the desire for stability and permanence of “the first colonizers [. . .] who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley” (52). It may be that the external opposition between Hispanic and Anglo ultimately supersedes this conflict and hispanidad will come to signify a more consistent and united identity. But that encounter with the outside is still some way in the future, and for the time being this is the world Antonio lives in and, beyond distant rumors of World Wars and the like, it is more or less all he knows.