Concentration camps, context and feigned outrage

RIGHT-WING NUTS (there’s a redundancy there, I know) are going bonkers over U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” in reference to the Trump administration’s camps for undocumented immigrants. An insult to the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust, they say. An insult to their descendants. 

Rep. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, was outraged – outraged, I tell you – at Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term, imploring her to learn “actual history” (as opposed to, I guess, unreal history) and accused her of demeaning the 6 million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust.

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen makes the case that the argument 

is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

Gessen has a very good point, but it is really unnecessary because the foaming-at-the-mouth of Cheney, et al, is not about perceived insults to Holocaust victims, it is about politics. It’s about continuing their drive to demonize yet another outspoken Democratic female politician. How long before we begin to hear chants of “lock her up!”?

BUT AS LONG as we’re talking about history, maybe Cheney should start learning hers. May I suggest she start with a recently released book, “El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America” by Carrie Gibson. The book has its share of faults (among other sins, it covers La Raza Unida in a couple of paragraphs, dismissing its importance, and never even mentions Raza founder José Angel Gutiérrez).

However, it is valuable in that it offers an account of the unrelenting campaign by, first, Europeans and, later, white Americans to drive out or exterminate (there is no other word for it, sorry!) the brown people who had occupied this continent for centuries. Wars, slaughters, lynching, executions, mass deportations, incarcerations, the government-sanctioned stealing of land – all of these atrocities were committed against brown people from the Gulf coast to the pacific.

Included in this shameful litany is the inglorious Texas insurrection against Mexico, which had little to do with fighting tyranny and much to do with wanting to keep Texas safe for slavery. Sam Houston was a racist and Stephen F. Austin’s main concern was preserving slavery. The Texas Rangers? The KKK with badges and Stetsons instead of hoods and robes.

The book serves as a reminder that what is happening today along the U.S.-Mexico border is not something isolated, not a recent phenomenon. From the very beginning, brown people in this country, whether we were born here or are recent arrivals, have always been treated as not deserving to be here and numerous campaigns, some more inhumane than others, have been used to keep us out or drive us out. 

Seen in that context, the use of the term concentration camps is more than justified and no amount of feigned outrage by Liz Cheney can change that. 

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On Being a Minority Columnist

A little more than halfway through my first year as a columnist for The Houston Post, I was asked to speak to a local Latino organization. I don’t remember which group it was. In fact, I’d forgotten about the speech until I ran across a faded copy as I was cleaning out some of my files. I like some of what’s here, and some parts make me cringe, like the use of language that would be unacceptable today (Hispanic and Mexican-American instead of Latino or Latina; the automatic use of the masculine pronoun when talking about politicians, etc.) I’m also embarrassed by my arrogance and the preachy tone. But I thought I’d share it with you nonetheless:

I CAN SAFELY say that for the last 8 1/2 months, I have been having the time of my life, doing what I have been wanting to do for long, long time. Writing a column is not half as difficult as I feared it would be and it is a hell of a lot more fun than I ever hoped it would be. 

I’ve become convinced that this truly is a wonderful country. Where else would a white-owned company pay good money to brown boy to give white people piece of his mind? 

Seriously though, one of the greatest joys of this job is knowing that my audience consist of people of all colors. But I am truly touched when I get a call or a letter from a fellow Hispanic who says, “Thanks for expressing exactly what was on my mind.” 

Not all of them agree with me, of course, and I’ve never expected that. One of the scariest things is to hear people say, as one Hispanic told me, I speak for the Hispanics in the city. I do nothing of the sort. I speak only for myself and I would never be presumptuous enough to say that I speak for anybody else. 

I know that, because of my background, because of what I’ve gone through, my feelings and thoughts are shared by many other Mexican-Americans in this town. But I also know that there are many others who have lived through the same kind of things I have lived through and have come out of that experience with completely different opinions about a lot of things. 

And that is the way it should be. For too long, the world has seen us as a monolithic mass with the same emotions and opinions. And for too long, many of us of expect the same things of ourselves, and we somehow even resent it when someone within our community dares to stray from the flock.

I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone else. Having been a Democrat all my life, I’ve often found myself wanting to wring a fellow Hispanic’s neck when he’s told me he’s a Republican. 

But there has always been diversity in our community, and as the years go by, and we become more and more a part of this country, there will be more and more diversity. And that will call for us to have more tolerance of each other, and we will come to a point where we will have to quit questioning the motives of people who disagree with us and accept the fact that they may have valid reasons for their political leanings. 

I think that is one of the best things about being a columnist. Although – as I have made admitted in my column, my roots are in the Democratic Party – and I am proud to call myself a liberal, I have the freedom and the obligation to not be bound by party loyalty. 

That’s why I can criticize Ann Richard and Hugo Berlanga just as easily as I can George Bush and Phil Gramm. And neither am I bound by ethnic or racial loyalty. When I put on my columnist’s hat, I have no more qualms about rapping Román Martínez than I do Kathy Whitmire. 

I’m not saying that it’s not difficult for me to go out for Mexican-American Democratic liberals. It bothers me to have to be critical of Ben Reyes or Martínez or Berlanga, but I don’t think I would be doing my job if I were to remain silent simply because the person I suspect is doing something wrong also has a brown skin. 

SINCE I STARTED this job, I’ve been to accused several times of being “too preachy,“ of having a holier-than-thou attitude, and I’m sorry that’s the impression I have given some people. I am not a saint. I never have pretended to be a saint and I gave up hope a long time ago that I would ever be one. 

I have my faults, just like everyone else. But I am not a politician and the fact that we are all sinners should not prevent us from demanding honesty from public officials. I do not care what a politician does in bed, or with home – or with how many. That’s between him and his wife and his kids. 

I don’t care if he drinks too much and I don’t even care if he uses some drugs on a recreational basis. But I do care if a politician sexually harasses one of his employees and I do care if a politician who screws around goes around making political hay by sanctimoniously criticizing other people’s sexual activities or preferences. 

And I do care if I a politician’s alcohol or drug abuse affects his performance on the job, or if he hypocritically goes around the railing against drug and alcohol abuse. It’s not a politician’s private life that I am concerned about, it’s his public life. It’s how his actions as a politician affect us. 

A Hispanic politician can go out and become a billionaire and I will cheer him on as long as I can be assured that he’s getting rich strictly on his own ability and talent, that he has something of value to sell other than his office and his title and his vote – and the trust of the people who elected him. 

I HAVE ALSO been accused of having a double standard for minority politicians and that I expect more from them then I do for white politicians. My answer is, you better believe I expect more from them! 

And I think we all should. The stakes are simply too high for us to accept Hispanic politicians who are merely good enough. Until we Hispanics are in the majority, the demands on representatives are going to continue to be enormous, and we can’t settle for people who don’t aspire to be better than the rest. 

Think about it: when the time comes for us to have a Hispanic president, would you want that person to be someone like Richard Nixon, or would you rather have someone like Franklin Roosevelt? We all know what the answer is. Well why should it be any different for the city council or the school board, or any of the other offices to which we are electing Hispanics? 

I KNOW SOME of you may be thinking, who appointed him God? The answer is simple: nobody. Actually, the better answer is, I did. I asked for this job. I’ve been asking for it for a long time and finally the Houston Post was smart enough to give it to me last October. And for that, I have to thank those of you who have been putting pressure on both the Post and the Chronicle to do a better job of covering the Hispanic community here. 

Without that pressure, both newspapers would probably still be trying to pretend that Hispanics do not exist in the city. The Post gave me my column, but it was really up to me to decide what kind of column it would be. And I decided a long time ago that if I ever got the opportunity to write a column, I would not waste it, that I would use it to really say something, and not simply take up valuable newspaper space with meaningless phrases. 

And just as I expect more of Hispanic politicians, you have the right to expect more of me. There are way too few Mexican Americans writing columns for major newspapers and I don’t intend to let this opportunity be wasted. If I were to screw up, it would be very easy for newspaper editors to use me as an excuse to deny other Hispanics their own columns. 

There have been many great columnists in this country. What made them great was their willingness to risk their popularity by pointing out the sins of politicians and institutions loved by the people. 

I am not egotistical enough to claim that I’m a great columnist, but I do have enough confidence in my own ability to tell you that I know I am a good one. And as long as The Post continues to let me write this column, I will strive to be good, to provide you with the most honest assessment possible of what is going on.

I am having a ball and as long as it continues to be fun, I will continue to write. I don’t expect you to agree with me all the time or even most of the time. I simply ask that you to give me a chance.

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Recipe for Calabacita (Zucchini-or-Other-Green-Summer-Squash-Squash Casserole)

SOME PEOPLE call this dish Calabacitas, but I grew up using the singular version of the name. Really, the name matters little. It’s about the ingredients and how you cook them.

The name, of course, is the diminutive form of “calabaza,” which in Spanish means both squash and pumpkin (or gourd), although, my dictionary tells me, squash can also be “cidracayote,”  a strange word. Even stranger would be “cidracayotita,” wouldn’t it! 

Calabacita soup (with no meat).

The use of the suffixes “ito” and “ita” doesn’t always indicate a diminutive size, though. Often, it adds a nuance of affection, or it softens the meaning of the word. I think that is the case in this instance. When we say “calabacita,” we are not necessarily speaking of a small squash; we are simply telling the world how dear this dish is to us. And that is certainly what it is to me. Calabacita, mole and chorizo are my favorite among the many delicious dishes my mother used to make. 

My mother always made this dish with either chicken or pork. I’ve heard of others using beef but I’ve never tried it. I’ve made it with shrimp (I imagine it would work nicely with scallops also; I must try that one of these days) and lately, I’ve been leaving the meat out altogether. The richness of the flavors of the squash interacting with the corn and together flirting like crazy with the spices is so beautiful that you don’t even realize you’re having a meatless dish. 

OK, SO HERE’S how you do this:

Place some cooking oil in a deep frying pan and place it on a burner set at medium heat. Take a quarter of a white onion, or slightly more, and chop it up and place it in the pan to sauté, along with three of four garlic cloves, chopped finely. Of course, you can use yellow onion, if you prefer. I always use white for the same reason I use Tide and Colgate: because that’s what my mother used.

If you don’t have any whole garlic, don’t worry about it. You can always add garlic later, when you add the other spices (you can use garlic powder if you don’t have whole garlic).

If you’re going to use meat, add it to the pan at this point (after you’ve sprinkled salt and pepper all over it) and let it brown, then add the zucchini and/or squash, which you have already diced or sliced (the smaller the cubes and the thinner the slices, the quicker it will cook). I prefer to use both green and yellow squash, mainly because I like how the yellow looks; it keeps it from getting too monotonously green. How many, you ask? I’d say at least two yellow, two zucchini and two other green squash. This will give you a hearty dish, enough for several people and, maybe, if you’re lucky, enough for leftovers too. This is one of those dishes that tastes even better when reheated.

Add salt and pepper. Health nuts won’t like this, but this dish requires more salt than your average Mexican dish. I don’t know why. It just does, and I don’t argue with it.

I’LL PROBABLY forget so I’ll tell you right now: keep stirring the pot constantly throughout. Also, the squash has a lot of moisture, which will be released as you cook, but if the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add about a half-cup of water. 

Now chop up about half a cup of red or yellow red pepper and add it to the mixture. You can use green peppers but I like red or yellow (or orange) for the same reason I like to add a yellow squash: aesthetics! 

Peel and chop or slice five or six tomatillos and toss those in. Tomatillos are optional but I’ve found that they add a nice tangy taste to the dish, so I try to use them whenever possible. 

If you have cilantro lying around, take about a quarter cup and chop it finely before adding it to the mixture. If you don’t have any, don’t worry about. I love cilantro but sometimes it can be overrated. 

Add one medium tomato, chopped. If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, use canned tomatoes. I sometimes like to make this dish a bit more Italian by adding a whole can of chopped tomatoes along with a good helping of chopped fresh basil.

I told you not to forget to stir!

NOW IT’S TIME for the spices. Take about a teaspoon of cumin seeds and about two tablespoons of Mexican oregano and place it in a molcajete with a bit of water and ground to a nice, smooth, slightly watery paste. If you forgot to add garlic at the beginning, add the garlic cloves to the other spices before grinding them up. (If you have any dried epazote in your spice rack, toss some of that in also.) Pour all of this into the pan and stir to mix well. After a few minutes of cooking, taste some of the juice and if it seems a bit bland, add more cumin. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much cominos. 

Now add a can of sweet corn, along with its juice. I’ve used fresh corn and I like the taste but I’m not a big fan of the messy process of getting the kernels off the cob. It’s just not worth it to me, but if you’re a purist, have at it.

Other things you can add but you don’t have to:

  • Sliced mushrooms.
  • One or two whole Serrano chiles (make sure they don’t burst in the cooking process or you’ll end up with a very spicy dish; just leave them whole and serve them to the person in your family or party who likes to brag about liking his food hot. Yes, it’s usually a male!)
  • Red pepper flakes.
  • One chipotle pepper from a can, chopped finely. (I wouldn’t use all three – Serranos, pepper flakes and chipotles. Choose one.)
  • Sliced black olives. Not too many. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish with them.

OK, THAT ABOUT does it for ingredients. Now it’s simply a matter of letting it all cook and simmer until the squash is mushy. Or “mooshy,” as Pati Jinich says! If you feel or hear a crunch when you bite into a piece of zucchini, you haven’t cooked it enough.

Once it’s cooked, let it sit for about 15 minutes to cool off a bit, then serve. If it’s soupy, use bowls. Enjoy with either corn or flour tortillas (I prefer corn). If you like, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over it.

If you don’t eat it all, here’s what you can do with the leftovers:

  • Reheat it and eat it, in a taco, or with a spoon or fork.
  • Make a pie out of it, using the double frozen pie shells you can find at HEB. Just make sure you drain it well before you place in the pie shell.
  • Remove all the meat (if you used meat) and place it in the blender along with some crema mexicana or milk or yogurt and blend until you have a nice, smooth creamy soup that you can serve either cold or hot.
  • Cook some bell pepper halves in the oven or in boiling water. Let them cool a bit then fill them with warm calabacita then top with whatever cheese you desire. Place in the oven until the cheese melts.
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Poem: Las Virgenes

To commemorate National Poetry month, here is the last of the four poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Las Virgenes

Las Vírgenes

La Virgen de San Juan del Vallewas my madrina

She baptized me. Juan Diego stood in for Joseph.

She gave me candy and cookies whenever I visited. 

She and Victor, her second husband, would take 

my sisters and me to see movies. Her favorite

was “Around the World in Eighty Days”  

because it featured Cantinflas and he made her

laugh even if he too spoke only English.

La Virgen went unnoticed until the lights were dimmed

and her halo began to glow in the darkened theater.

It was embarrassing and each time my sisters and I

swore we’d never return, but we liked the free movies.

My parents wanted La Virgen de Guadalupeto baptize

me but she had no papers and could not cross the border. 

Juan Diego did immigrate, eventually, and he became

my uncle when he married Tía Rosa. He lured her 

from Fermín while Fermín was out in the fields cutting

spinach. Fermín looked like Hitchcock but walked 

like Charlie Chaplain. Se la robó, my grandmother

would chuckle: he stole her away from poor Fermín.

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Poem: María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

To commemorate National Poetry Month, here is the third of four of my poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. This is one in a series of poems about my childhood neighborhood in which I write about some of the real people (and real events) while imagining them as Mexican legends.

María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

When she wasn’t making movies, María Félix lived

across the street from us. I visited her often. 

She was kind and always had candy around.

One day I mentioned I’d learned a poem 

for Doña Herminia’s escuelitaand she begged me 

to recite it for her. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t 

say no to this beloved Mexican matinee idol 

with Bette Davis curls, so I delivered the poem 

for her with as much passion as I could muster. 

When I finished, María Felix laughed heartily 

and, eyebrows arching like seagull wings, 

she clapped and murmured, ¡Ay, que bonitoQue lindo!   

The next morning I had a fever. I didn’t go 

to school and stayed in bed all day, the next day, and 

the day after that. When mamátold her about me, 

María Félix exclaimed, Pobre niño, he recited 

his beautiful poem for me and I laughed 

and I applauded with joy but I failed to touch him!So

María Felix rushed to my bedside with a brown egg 

from one of her backyard hens. She passed it 

over my burning body as Padre Nuestros

glided from her pouty ruby lips. I blushed 

when I became aroused as she passed it near my crotch, 

but she pretended not to notice. When done, she asked 

for a glass of water. I thought she would drink it. 

Instead, she cracked the egg into the glass and left it 

on a bedside stand. She kissed me on the forehead, 

then left, saying she had a new movie shoot                                            

near Durango, with Jorge Negrete. 

I lay there and stared at the egg for hours until

its golden eye rose lazily to the top then begin 

to rise, like a balloon. It hovered above the glass 

for a few seconds then sailed towards me. 

I reached to grab, not really knowing what I’d do 

with it, but it darted away, like a hummingbird, 

just out of reach, where it floated. And then it winked. 

Once. Twice. 

And, like a moth, my fever fluttered out the window 

into the night. I never saw María Felix again.

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Another poem

TO COMMEMORATE National Poetry Month, I am posting the second of four of my poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of “Fifth Wednesday Journal.”

Impermanence

We rode north each May, straight 

through Texas and the prairies of Oklahoma, 

Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, 

stopping only for gas, pit stops 

and bags full of burgers from roadside 

diners. Dusk was the hardest, loneliest. 

The looming darkness forced us 

into the world where silence

retreats to review its secrets,

making us strangers together 

in a rolling time capsule.

The sun’s departure brought an end 

to the banter and ushered in meditation. 

I became obsessed with the families 

in houses along the road, notroaming 

gypsies in rolling metal cocoons; 

blessed with the privilege of permanence.

As blackness covered the land, I would close 

my eyes until the drone of the V-8 

and the taca-ta-taca of tires ticking off 

concrete squares coaxed me to sleep. 

Throughout the night I awakened 

to the sweet smell of black coffee poured 

from the thermos into the plastic cup 

cradled by the sure hand of the driver – 

my father or Norberto, my brother. 

Or the whiff of the seductive scent 

of a matchstick’s orgasmic burst 

and it’s predictable glowing kiss 

on hopeful cigarette lips. 

Or the intoxicating fumes of fuel 

flowing into the battered and muddy side

of the green Plymouth as the pump’s pings 

counted out the gallons of gasoline.

Each time I asked, “Donde estamos?” 

But it didn’t really matter where we were. 

What I really sought/yearned for was 

the reassurance of a familiar voice. 

“Wichita,” would come the whispered reply. 

Or, “Watertown,” or “Ada,” or “Fargo.” 

Comforted anew, I’d go back to sleep, 

until the next time we stopped. 

Occasionally I’d awaken 

to a darkened stillness as the car 

set motionless on the side of the road: 

my father and Beto had driven 

as far as they could and it was time to pay 

nature the due it had been denied. 

Only the chirping of crickets 

in the grass by the road and the yelping 

of dogs from an unseen farm 

competed with the sounds of slumber. 

Then, from a distance came first the hum, 

then the rumble, then the violent roar 

of a tractor-trailer. When it passed, the car 

nodded and rocked in acknowledgement, 

causing somebody up front to shift positions, 

causing someone next to me – Carmen? 

Dora? Mariana? – to do the same. All 

would be quiet again until the next hum, 

rumble and roar produced the same effect: 

another shift, another elbow or knee digging 

into my side: reminders, even as we slept, 

of our impermanence. When the sun rose at last, 

we were rolling again and my bewildered eyes 

could see a new, flatter terrain. The fresh day 

found us closer to our familiar summer home 

with its black land and silvery grain elevators. 

I was once more in our reality, cradled

in the stale nurturing warmth of our hulking 

sedan. “Ya mero?” one of us asked. 

, almost there,“ one of us replied.

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A poem

IN HONOR OF National Poetry Month, I am posting the first of my four most recently published poems. They appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of “Fifth Wednesday Journal.” Enjoy. Or not.

Al Norte

It’s early spring / and I’ll soon hear / the tweet-zeets / of the cedar waxwings.

They come / from who-knows-where / to feast on the red / berries on the tree

outside my bedroom window. / They’re here for a few days, / long enough to strip / the tree of its shiny fruit.

they come in droves, / chattering, no doubt / commenting on the quality / of the year’s vintage.

Then they are gone, headed / north in search of more trees / with beautiful berries. Up north. / Al norte, what we said as kids

to describe what we did / every summer, in search of work. / We’re going up north. / We’ve been up north.

That was all we needed to say. / Everybody understood. / And, like birds, we knew why: / The shiny fruit beckoned.

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