I was worried about Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The High Sierra: A Love Story.
At 560 pages it felt like a mountain to be climbed. It also seemed to be structured like his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, which can be a bit of a slog, though an often riveting and sometimes terrifying one. That book mixes narrative sections with expository chapters that read like scientific and bureaucratic reports, intentionally on Robinson’s part, drawing attention to how even gray literature has become dystopian in the age of climate change.
Plus, I have heard Robinson speak a few times in recent years in defense of John Muir and wilderness in ways that made me think he was wandering into terrain that could be trouble.
But Robinson has been hailed as “our last great utopian visionary” (the Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And I happen to more or less agree with both of those assessments. He’s a utopian at heart, but he calls what he writes about “optopia,” for the optimal or best possible world given the circumstances. That means his sci-fi novels are deeply entangled with realistic politics, even when set in outer space. The Ministry for the Future takes on the climate crisis on Earth and is, at once, the most dire and most hopeful thing I’ve read about climate change.
So if Robinson is going to write a book about the High Sierra, one of my favorite landscapes, too, I’m ready to tag along, even if it turns out to be a challenge.
Besides, I like Robinson. When I was editor of Boom, we published a long interview with him entitled “Planet of the Future.” And we’ve invited him to give talks at UCLA several times. Robinson is smart, nimble, insightful, generous, and critical, all qualities one appreciates in an interlocutor, whether on stage, in a seminar, or, I now imagine, sitting around a barebones camp high in the mountains: Robinson is an ardent advocate of ultra-light backpacking.
After reading a couple of chapters of The High Sierra, I wondered how on Earth he could sustain interest and a narrative through-line with all the rapid, seemingly random switches between categories he entitles “My Sierra Life,” “Geology” and “Psychogeology,” “Sierra People,” “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “The Swiss Alps,” and “An Annotated Sierra Bibliography.” Several of these categories have more than a dozen numbered chapters with subtitles. There are seventy chapters in all, along with copious photographs, maps, and illustrations.
But I forged on and soon settled into a pleasing rhythm. By the end of the book, I felt like I could keep going. And it made me want nothing more than to ditch everything and head to the High Sierra to ramble and scramble around like Robinson.
Robinson’s book is a kind of “dérive,” a method of drifting through urban landscapes randomly as a means of discovery that was invented by French Situationists in the mid-twentieth century. It is said to have given form to “psychogeography,” too, the study of how different, usually urban, landscapes affect observers psychologically, or how certain landscapes might have their own affect, their own emotional states. Robinson is a fan of psychogeography, which he stretches to psychogeology.
So, The High Sierra: A Love Story, it turns out, is in some ways an urban form applied to the wilderness. And, oddly, it works. His dérives in the Sierra, and through Sierra geology, history, and literature, undertaken from the time when he was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego in the early 1970s, to today from his home in Davis, create a pleasing personal thread upon which to hang all kinds of interesting observations, critiques, and analyses.
Robinson is a magpie — of theory, science, story, scene, and anecdote. A smart bird, like the magpie, he picks up objects and turns them into tools for thinking. This book will appeal to aficionados of California, lovers of the Sierra Nevada, scholars who enjoy seeing big ideas brought down to Earth, and readers of Robinson’s science fiction, who may enjoy seeing the writer work through on his own planet ideas he has tested on other worlds.
When Robinson gets to John Muir and wilderness, I did want to quarrel with him, but in a friendly way. Robinson thinks that Muir has gotten a bad rap for racist comments in his writings. He has read everything Muir has written — published and unpublished in the archives — and argues that there are only a few passages portraying Indigenous people negatively. And Muir grew to respect Native Americans, so remarks in his early texts should not stand in for a long writing career.
I interviewed Robinson recently for High Country News. In that conversation, Robinson characterized Muir as a literary character. He exists on paper now. He is someone we read about, review, and argue about. I think that gets it just about right. Muir as problematic text is much better than Muir as patron saint.
Robinson likes theory. But he packs it lightly – like everything in this big book. He uses actor network theory, for example, to argue that the mountain range was an actor in saving itself from development, along with Muir and many others. Scholars may find his casual use of complex ideas frustrating at times. But if you keep in mind that this is all something like a conversation around camp after a day off-trail, it seems apropos.
Take wilderness, for example. Robinson goes on a bit of a tirade against critics of the wilderness idea, like historian Bill Cronon, who once wrote an influential essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” in the 1990s. Robinson seems to think that thinking critically about the history of wilderness, as a concept and an administrative designation for some public land, actually threatens those public lands. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, evidence of that in the twenty-six years since Cronon’s essay was published.
Where Robinson really throws down in a way that could be consequential is on the subject of names in the High Sierra. There are many peaks named for racists, eugenicists, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Robinson would like to change that, and he has good ideas about how it should be done, de facto if not de jure. He and a group of friends already organized an expedition to name one numbered but unnamed peak after Henry David Thoreau.
Robinson demonstrates in these ways how nature and culture are scrambled in the Sierra. Part of him doesn’t seem to like that. He seems to want the High Sierra as pure wilderness, in a way. At the same time, he recognizes the muddle. And like many of the characters in his science fiction novels, he relishes a good argument without end.
Robinson isn’t the last word. And I don’t think he wants to be. Like his renaming project, which he says should be a kind of never-ending game, he just wants to keep playing in the High Sierra. It’s a pleasure to play along. The High Sierra, it turns out, is a user-friendly wilderness, both figuratively and literally.
California is largely terraformed. That is, human beings have transformed it with massive Earth-shaping works like the California State Water Project. At the same time, the least terraformed part of California, the High Sierra, is humanized in Robinson’s book. It’s made for rambling and scrambling and thinking with. It is a good place to contemplate, from a high angle, being alive on a planet spinning in space.
In turn, the High Sierra serves, for Robinson, as a model for terraforming other off-worlds. Quite a dérive, after all. And well worth the trip.
Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.
A fishwife sits across from a writer and asks, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” When the writer says she doesn’t, the fishwife continues, “One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’” So begins Spell Heaven, Toni Mirosevich’s linked collection of stories and impressions and Borges-evoking philosophical meditations. Even the title evokes a question (verb? noun? adjective? all of these at once?) in a quest to connect in what has become an era of disconnection—politically, and especially in the isolation of COVID-19. Though there are only a couple of sparse references to the global pandemic that made landfall in Northern California (the collection’s setting) at the end of January 2020, Spell Heaven is the encapsulation of the forced separation that shook (it’s no stretch to say) all of humanity in a way that people under 102 years old had never experienced.
Living through a global pandemic provides its own kind of “fish story,” but it’s the real thing that occupies Mirosevich, herself (like her narrator) the daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker, bound inextricably to the sea, body and soul. Not ineffably, though—Mirosevich’s personal language and cadence is of the sea and is a known language to everyone who has descended from seafaring or sea-sifting people.
In relating the fishwife’s own memory in the collection’s first story, “The Devil Wind,” our narrator places herself and the reader in the middle of the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1960: “She was holding on to the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again, about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.” The sentences are tossed by uneven swells and surges, of waves crashing and hulls listing catastrophically. Even in quieter moments, landlocked moments, the lines move at times at a twelve-knot clip over rolling swells, at other times at anchor, letting light ripples nudge the lines in trochaic pulses (Mirosevich is also a poet).
It’s the landlocked isolation from the sea, from the life she wished for herself, following in her father’s footsteps to be captain of her own vessel, that informs our narrator’s reflections. Our narrator, who shares more than a little biography with the author, is a self-proclaimed loner, though despite locking herself away at home or in a motel or her office at work, she is always reaching out, crossing the street to say hello to a new person on the pier, or on the routes between local dives and the sketchy parking lots between them, populated by the “out crowd,” the clique of outsiders and misfits, crabbers with day jobs or who live in their vans, who are holding on from one day to the next, waiting for a little luck or maybe just a little grace.
“There’s big luck—” Mirosevich writes, “being born with your choice of which silver spoon you want your nanny to use—and there’s small luck, the kind everyone gets a shot at.”
Our narrator’s wife, Stevie, is the ballast to the loner tendencies—upon moving to a new neighborhood, the couple are hyper-aware of the perceptions of their relationship (loving lesbian neighbors—gasp!), though it’s not the vapors but acts of violence that make our narrator and Stevie wary. Our narrator’s reaction is to withdraw into the house and set up watch, while Stevie’s approach is of the “keep your enemies closer” variety.
In “Murderer’s Bread,” we learn, “Stevie’s reaction to our emissary from the neighborhood’s welcome wagon is to plant with even greater fervor. […] My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There is:
The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house…who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.
The boy I catch in the act of writing bitch on our fence in green felt pen…
The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pickup. When he’s sure he’s got out attention, he pulls out his Johnny-jump-up and pees in the street.
The family that launches bottle rockets toward our yard on July 4…”
Stevie works overtime making bread for the neighborhood. Ice may or may not thaw, fog rolls in with a little less chill, and neighbors who are no less dangerous might become less dangerous to our narrator and her wife. Our narrator is no stranger to triangulating perceptions, both as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as the daughter of Croatian immigrants with the bluest of collars who lived a neighborhood with a slightly higher income bracket. In the end, though, a revelation: a knock on the door, our narrator spies through the peephole, the narrowest of views, most myopic of views, a potential threat. The door opens, it’s the man across the street, a man she’s been watching, a man who’s been watching her—he holds up her wallet, “I think you dropped this,” he says.
There’s no instant redemption, but there is a recognition, a connection finally (despite one of them going to San Quentin for twenty-five to life for murder). Our narrator and Stevie are seen as of the neighborhood, people to be protected.
Seeing and being seen is the recurring theme throughout Spell Heaven, the tide that surges and recedes, through familiarity, memory, Alzheimer’s, death, gentrification—surging, receding. “Memory is not so firmly fixed,” Mirosevich writes, and in fact, it moves and changes shape and reorders itself. Memory in this collection comes at once, swift as the tide or a taste of a madeleine, but in this case, the madeleine is an in-class presentation by one of the narrator’s students, or it’s a knock on a motel door, or a stranger’s tug on their facemask. “Does the smell of the center’s noontime meal—clam spaghetti and green beans, a steal for only two bucks—trigger a memory of the taste of salty bakalar, your favorite childhood dish, an image of your mother standing watch over a pot on a woodstove?”
The route through the stories, is circular, themes reappearing in the spin of a lighthouse light. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where a story ends on one theme or character, and the next chapter picks up in that new character’s point of view and so on, Mirosevich’s stories pick up the subject illuminated by the beam of a lighthouse light, following them for a time, then onto the new subject until that light swings around again. In “Our Lady at the Derby,” our narrator waits for a stroke of luck, falls into a memory at the knock of the door, a memory of violence and intrusion, but instead of the current knock replicating that threat, there is offered the briefest moment of connection, a man just doing his job, upon which the narrator reflects: “the fact that our lives are going round and round, round and round, that we don’t know where we’re headed, that what we do know about each other is not enough it’s not enough. He doesn’t stop to stare at me or my home-brought objects: my lucky mouse pad, the Derby glass. He just turns away and the curtain closes and the sweeping stops.” The loss, the confusion isn’t resolved, we’re still waiting on our luck to come in; the next story, “Spell Heaven,” picks up that theme, follows that lighthouse’s beam of our narrator’s gaze, “When you’re lost and looking for a sign, an omen. A clue. When the wishbone pull doesn’t yield the lucky stem. When you no longer believe in heaven or hell, past lives or future, yet still hope for a hint…”
Memory and understanding both are “sneaking around the edges of the frame,” nearly within grasp, in each of these stories: Stevie recalls a memory of watching her father take a “remedy” that would turn out to kill him. Meanwhile, her doctors are “watching” her cancer. Our narrator gazes at the out crowd on the pier, the collection she wants to be a part of. “Every day, while Billy is coming across found objects I come across found people, those who others deem marginal on the margins of the sea. I want to be part of this gang, yet I know I’m an outsider. I have a white collar job in an academic world where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty. And I have one of those Italian coffee makers on the stove at home.”
The eye (so often spying in these stories) makes judgments upon a woman obviously on meth, who lives in a car with her young daughter. Our narrator contemplates the call to social services, until she sees the love, protection, and tenderness the woman has for her daughter and the other out crowders have for them both. Thus, our narrator sends her own beam of watchful light out to them, until the woman starts to wave her over as a friend, saying hello, urging her closer.
The lighthouse scans the seas, its open eye, its glare a warning, watch out, watch out, watch out, but it also is a plea: See me, see me, see me.
The most acute instance of reciprocal gazing and recognition is in “Members Only,” where our narrator begins surveilling a new woman, Joan, who turns out to be an FBI agent near retirement, who in turn has been habitually surveilling the other cast of characters in this swiftly gentrifying south-of-San Francisco exclave. When the narrator and Joan discuss a man who leaves candy bars in the hollow of a tree, Joan admits to collecting them, recording the date and brand of each bar, then keeping them secure. When our narrator asks why Joan thinks he does this, Joan replies that it’s not her job to guess, not to find meaning in the actions, only to report.
However, that’s not the writer’s job.
Our narrator wonders: Are answers the same as meaning? Is understanding the same as knowing? Is recognition enough to make a connection?
It’s no accident that our narrator, in a flash of rage, is ready to claw the eyes out of a gentrifier in a million dollar condo who calls animal control on the feral cats in the care of a local man/a member of the out crowd with Alzheimer’s, the cats being the one thing he never forgets, his devastation over their removal an ominous peephole into rapid cognitive descent. It’s cat scratch vengeance, but it also says you don’t deserve to see.
Also, the man with Alzheimer’s was once a teacher of photography, who found the magic in a student’s accident, who said, “Look again…I can see what your disappointment won’t allow you to see.” The tenderness of recognition.
Of finally being “in with the out crowd.” It’s once the loners welcome her in that finally allows our narrator to feel at home, among her people. The ones who pass on are still remembered, in reupholstered furniture or in names scrawled in Sharpie on a bench.
Memory as lighthouse beacon is itself an act of resilience—I’m still here, my wife and I are still in this neighborhood of misfits, who now even look out for us, in this crew of outsiders huddling together in this changing community, against battering storms, of remaining visible even in wariness, in danger, watching out for others in need, our gaze reaching out even as we stare at each other from our windows, across streets, from behind medical masks. But isn’t that a beautiful place to be, inside that glow.
Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Origins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.
“This Brown body in repose is never quite in repose, always in question of who will see it, and will they be a threat—do I die today, like this?—this body full of colonization-dystrophy with its instinct to feed upon the flesh of my oppressor? How are you supposed to politely reject your suffering? Genocide is not a matter of opinion.” (27)
There is a haptic, generalized consumption to dystrophy. An appetite that can be insightful and critical, precise, and terminological. It’s also characterized as a wasting away, a concerning health condition. When I read Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado: The Collected Letters I am invited into a reflection of my own processes of making sense of hemispheric subjectivization, both as a member of a diaspora community as well as someone who grew up on the Tijuana River Valley. I learned there that despite the prehistorically shaped ridge connecting Tijuana to Playas before bowing to meet the Pacific, and the rusted incision of the ‘wall’ itself, la frontera remains an atmospheric experience of exchanges, and relationships. Which is to say, it is a landscape where change and cycle occurs over the event of an origination, ecological and political. The “colonization-dystrophy” of it all is rather dynamic, but not without moments and pains that can and should be named. Dominguez makes a study of this: “Tato’s mother calls it ‘colonial sickness’, the latent radiation poisoning of colonization”; or, it is a “colonial atrophy,” wherein one “can almost feel the atoms falling” away (86). These are the bounds of a vatic attention to the material evidence of a trauma that has become, also, through an entangled archival system of literally manifesting events each time critique inches itself toward a light, a form of expenditure.
“Live from the mystery itself, writing love letters to keep myself alive” (86).
The moments that shake me from over-theorizing are those where Dominguez concludes on “love.” What comes before and what follows that notion I piece together as an intimacy that is without resolve. It is rather the full expenditure into something. Something like a relationship, or an imagination. An expenditure we might consider in the lost time and history burned in piles during colonial conversions, and the public displays that would accompany its project inquisition.
“What are you going to do about it? Diego, what are we going to do about it? I want all the artifacts back. Museums are a fucking lie. I want my language back. I want to reconcile the many afterlives of colonization that keep raging inside of me; I want to know a love like the burn of belts and chanclas, the RNA memories handed down from flogging and being flogged by our ancestors. I want to know the love of forgiveness. Like how do you put down a dog that attacked you? How do I put you to bed while pulling you back into my blood?
Like a reverse exorcism, I’m calling you into my body. Stay with me.” (43)
But before going on I want to pause and offer some careful thoughts. Maybe they’re not thoughts, in fact, but wisdom from José Estaban Muñoz: “Brown, it is important to mention, is not strictly the shared experience of harm between people and things; it is also the potential for the refusal and resistance to that often-systemic harm. Brownness is a kind of uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility.” When I consider the various ways I’ve come across someone else, someone often Brown, taking the dystrophy Dominguez captures here above, and putting it on the page, giving it a color or texture, associating to it a sound, a movement of the body in space, and so on, I am struck by the condition of supremacy today. It is the marketing pressure to somehow “heal” from the inescapable condition/s it itself maintains from its own lack of communication.
Yet Dominguez’s is a strategy against the spectacularization of the dystrophic condition, which is the objective of supremacy. Supremacy seeks to spectacularize one mode of feeling blunt force by numbing or dismembering the victim from methods of communicating it back, and thereby legitimating (fantasizing) its own power by disenfranchising the relationship power’s violence needs to survive. To write it, is to thus refuse to be afraid of the difference caused by the disjunctive, dissociating world-making that arises from experiencing both harm and life in the persistent manner Muñoz identifies above. To write and name the paradox befuddles the knowledge systems that textualize us. In their epistolary project Dominguez works through the labor of compiling a record of a process and work which have been thought lost to a 500-year-old fire.
“Whereas the psychotherapeutic literature concludes that Latinos suffer anxiety and depression more than any other group,” Muñoz underscores, “the epidemiological literature concludes that they possess better physical health than any other group and live longer than would be expected,” an “uncanny physical persistence” that “has been enshrined within the term ‘epidemiological paradox’ invented to name it.” Or as Dominguez writes, “We are resilient insofar as we are feeling” (80). To find closure, as I understand it, would be to close the loop on feeling, as something that destabilizes the epistemological networks that hold and betray us. It would be the disavowal of a poetics, which others would seek to subsume into theoretical frameworks devoid of feeling but engorged by the self-applause of an advertisement. And I say poetics because of the temporal reconsideration of the dystrophic as a communication-disruption that emerges in colonial contact and is disfigured by the public act of burning language systems and archives during indigenous conversion. There is a poetics that recaptures the vatic temporality of event while creating the very space for the processing of the implicit intimacy it asks.
Desgraciado is a process. “You forced death down the throats of so many,” they write to “Diego,” and “now I have white people to tell me about it. To tell me all about everything it is I lack” (19). The paradigm shift of work like this, at least one aspect of this shift, is recasting the role and animation of “feeling,” especially as it pertains to existence, both intrapersonal and public. Fray Diego de Landa’s notoriety is often furnished by depictions of the auto-de-fé, wherein in 1562 de Landa ordered the destruction of the Mayan codices and over 5,000 devotional images and idols. They were all burned publicly in Mani, Yucatán. Though we might learn about the auto-de-fé in the purely religious context of conversion, the spectacular lesson of a public burning evokes a purposefully and strategically aligned internalization of corregimiento. In a purely aesthetic sense, a sensible sense, I am speaking maybe of depictions of de Landa’s atrocity, where the faces of the burning statuettes plead through color and brushstroke in an unmistakably human manner.
But what I actually mean is that the public burning, as a spectacularization of the power to correct, becomes an intergenerational reality that lives on through the enactment of new violent actions that originate as an attempt to confront and overcome the latent fear that arises when your life is threatened by a power more extensive than any direct, inter-personal encounter with a recognizable other. You end up writing letters to it because the totality of this one-way act is your world, your love, your worries, your partner-in-crime, your lens. You are given it by those in your life, and are above you in a line of inheritance, and they lash out against the fear as if on trial themselves, in an inquisition of themselves via the object (of intimacy) that is you and them, and everything else. “[M]ade to feel a constant estrangement to my truth,” writes Dominguez when reflecting on the abuse from their “then-father” and his “machismo-addled-brain,” which is to say, without absolving his homophobia and violence, the externalized unprocessed damage expressed, powerfully, as burning. One forcibly brought forth as a witnessed event by the inclusion of the abused. “[U]n angel,” as Dominguez signs off (78-79).
Yet there is that other critique, and it’s one I cannot stop thinking about as an immigrant border subject. Which is a rewriting of angelicity itself in the context of hemispheric identity, of Walter Benjamin’s heroic melancholia in regard to historicity. And maybe it takes a sight of a material piece of evidence, like a border, in both the windshield and the rear-view, back and forth, back and forth to understand this looping intimacy. And so, though Dominguez es un angel, they also claim Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. With a lightning bolt in one hand, and literally the power to transform a landscape into the ashen mud of a new form. The most beautiful of days, the most lasting of impressions from being in the midst of the estuary that is the Tijuana River Valley, for me, were those overcast days where a heavy moisture watched over us all in a gently laid weight pressing down on us through the physics of a pulsing gray matter––the immediate experience of an atmosphere felt from below, from being bound to our humanness. I imagine those days as Chaac’s.
The colonizers did one thing meticulously, aside from murder, and that was keep notes. The archives we have of their actions and intentions is impressive. But they don’t speak, so to speak. Dominguez’s decision on the epistle is captivating for the way it speaks to what refuses to respond, and does so in a deluge of writing, which is the reflection of a thinking-feeling-writing-reading. The subject meant to recede into a violent blaze of corrected silence is the one with an abundance of language on the matter of their intimacy. The “collection” is a totality invoked but not recorded by the same system of conversion and erasure. The disruption to the inherent temporality of the letter (the record) functions both on reflection and vatic projection, in that their reception is always already a past, which in its moment was an interval past even that moment of their own event, but thrown into a new authority as the record which will exist in the moment of its intelligibility.
As the collection advances the reader is enveloped in a process.
“…I can’t make a fire. I’m trying to yield more than I advance. I am learning that not all words are always heard or spoken, though in this moment I hope every dictionary snaps its spine into a deafening ocean… A colonizer on every corner. I wonder what they would have called me if your language never came. Between you and me, I really prefer the name Chaac.
What I received from the book, and for me the review is maybe about this because of the strength with which I felt it, is permission to unlearn that shame of being burned in public. The disavowal of language that is de Landa’s auto-de-fé is his own, and is a site of reanimated poetics towards the neocolonial burnings and attempted corregimientos. I have no illness to heal from, and though it’s not about absolution, the sheer collection of process here reveals a culminating position within its intimacy, its love, that is also the culmination of (a) work. Our work does not absolve the ghosts of colonialism either, those which carry-on in the flesh-troping obsessions with spectacle, and silence, with new kinds of burning and policymaking, all the violence of today’s supremacy. Angel Dominguez has given us a weapon, a codex with which to fortify and record a new communication.
José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.
 José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, 2020, p.4.
 See for example Fernando Castro Pacheco’s mural, “The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa is burning figures of Mayan deities,” Palacio del Gobierno, Mérida, MX.
José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.
Accord to polls, most Americans believe in life after death. Among those who hold most tightly to this improbable notion are faithful Christians. In the texts they adopted from the ancient Hebrews, their god condemned the first humans to death—this otherwise unknown fate—for attempting to eat their way to knowledge. With anger and irony, he scolded his creations saying, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” God invents death. Yet death remains a secondary theological theme until the Christian era. In the Christian Gospels, their messiah engages dead people, dying people, people who fear dead or dying people, and people who simply fear death. He councils them, cures them, and even raises them from the dead. As the messiah himself contemplates his own demise, he too shows fear. But then, with one act, death is reinvented into a fork in the road leading to eternity, with the faithful heading one way, and the rest slouching towards Mordor. The scheme allows this American majority to view dying as a temporary interlude between the material world and the inescapable occupation of a celestial (or scorching hot) afterlife.
This makes Americans particularly piss-poor at accepting loss and expressing grief. Though some tried. In the 1960s, rationalists, (or perhaps folks just hedging their bets), came to believe that they could systematize their fears by adoptingElisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. By the book, each subject moved from denial to acceptance with a tantrum, a deal, and the blues sandwiched in between. In Inter State, José Vadi illustrates that grief is chaotic and not conveniently compartmentalized. Sometimes acceptance is followed by anger, and sometimes each stage happens in minutes, and sometimes simultaneously. He grieves for people. He grieves for cities. He grieves for himself and the transient world around him. For Vadi, struggling with grieving most closely resembles anger, but in expressions peppered by the other four—as they are hardly mutually exclusive. His grieving, however, is perfectly appropriate, and greatly appreciated. He lost his grandfather, his childhood, and the very places those ghosts might still haunt. He writes, but we commiserate together. He demands his reader to be a good listener.
A lamentation on memory, place, loss, and erasure, through Inter State, Vadi traverses and critiques California like a quixotic Umberto Eco—but unlike Eco, he does so not as a tourist, but a lifer. Vadi’s emotional investment in the San Gabriel Valley and Bay Area proper is evidenced in his intimate descriptions of dive bars, street corners, and under-appreciated urban vistas. Walking with him through San Francisco’s Tenderloin or cutting across Oakland’s (and Berkeley’s) Telegraph avenue feels authentic enough to conjure up the sound of multi-lane traffic and the smell of marijuana and urine. As someone who spent years in both the SGV and San Francisco (a generation later for the former, and earlier for the latter) I was genuinely touched by his vision and his loss. His San Francisco, where tech conquered and gentrified, replaced my San Francisco. And for this, I too still feel anger, denial, and begrudging acceptance.
Vadi’s book is both edgy and nostalgic, and at its most provocative hints at issues concerning the future of ethnic identity in a demographically shifting state that constructs public memory at its own convenience. His visits through the Central Valley, Tehachapi, and Salinas suggests as much. He wonders how one commemorates transients. He wrestles with the necessity of memorializing and the subsequent proliferation of historical fraud. But for me, Vadi is at his best when skating, or dreaming about skating. He approaches his environments at the sidewalk level. Skyscrapers may fascinate spire-gazing Midwestern tourists, but Vadi’s line of sight explores ground level. Every curb, bench, stairwell, and handrail holds both purpose and memory. The sound of his wheels in historic (but often invisible) locations echo the familiar noise of every skater who came before—some famous, some infamous, but most nameless. The clank of an adolescent’s failed kick-flip, for Vadi must be both the sound of comfort and the reminder of the inescapable adulthood confronting a married, employed Berkeley grad.
I do have a beef with José Vadi; and that’s concerning his dismissal of Fresno. By pronouncing it “dead,” he did to Fresno what Gertrude Stein did to Oakland with her oft-quoted, “There’s no there there.” Stein, of course, said so because of losing the Oakland she once knew; Vadi, who otherwise strives for authentic experiences, has no relationship to the derided town. He drives through Fresno–one of the most gritty, troubled, confounding, demographically diverse cities on the planet–and jots down his condemnation and short caveat with less care than Francis Trollope mustered in her evisceration of Cincinnati. Like Pomona, Fontana, and even Oakland, Fresno can be grim, but it still deserves a skater’s eye rather than a Victorian’s snub. If Vadi relied on his hubba better angels, he might have found his way into the Fresno High area, and heard the scraping sounds of teenagers launching their boards and bodies down the local school’s notorious staircase. He could have cased the Tower district and followed the plumes of weed and experienced other like-kinds with eclectic tastes, soccer knowledge, scabbed elbows, and the want of cold beers. Unlike Oakland, Fresno’s downtown might have offered a small haven from the sort of gentrification responsible for much of Vadi’s angst. Without tech money to reinvent block after block, Fresno’s downtown changes slowly. If Vadi is being honest about his want of an urban environment uncorrupted by the thing some call progress, Fresno awaits his return.
Regardless of his dismissal of my current hometown, Inter State is affecting. His writing comes from vulnerability which manifests as authenticity. I think Vadi accepts the permanence of death for both people and their built environments. In Inter State, he grapples with loss, and in doing so helps us all grieve a little better.
Dan Cady is Associate Professor of History at Fresno State
In June 2019, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described Donald Trump’s detention centers, especially those holding separated children, as concentration camps. Her accusation created a controversy in the media over the use of the term “concentration camps” to describe immigration detention centers. Some pundits argued that the use of the term was an exaggeration that drew an equivalence between migrant detention centers and Nazi concentration camps and the holocaust. Activists and scholars have countered that concentration camps had a long history of use around the world that included: Native American wars, the Philippine-American War, and the Boar War among many uses. Into this conversation steps Jessica Ordaz and her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro. Ordaz, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.
The El Centro Immigration Detention Center operated from 1945 to 2014, encompassing seven decades of changes in the way the U.S. detains undocumented migrants, not for the better. Ordaz shows just how different notions of what is “normal” operated across most of the twentieth century and twenty first century. She follows the detention of German merchants taken during World War II who were allowed incredible freedoms by later standards. That facility came to house Japanese detainees and after the war, under the INS, became El Centro. Ordaz makes it clear that the primary difference in how people were seen and treated was race; placing the detention of people of color in the long history of settler colonialism, conquest, slavery, and forced labor. In this context the term concentration camp was used casually at the time to describe various forced camps in the 19th and early 20th century, including WWII camps. The name of camps’ location itself carries these historical echoes; the Imperial Valley of California was named for the agricultural company that promoted literal colonial imperialism and dispossession from the local native people.
The way El Centro’s officials detained Mexicans and Central Americans reflected and created racialized hierarchies. Just as white farmers viewed Mexicans as racially fit to stoop labor, so did INS officials who saw no issue with forcing detainees to labor in hundred plus degree heat. The forced labor system that the INS ran for decades is then one of the central components of control over the agricultural labor economy of the Imperial Valley, along with its sibling, the bracero processing center, and ports of entry. Migrants are seen as dangerous and criminal, subject to control by all these entities. Their bodies are seen as potential vectors of disease, so they are stripped and doused with dangerous chemicals. As the story moves from the 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s, migrants, especially Central Americans, come to be seen as potential subversives in the Cold War, subject to imprisonment and removal from the country.
The book uses the metaphor of haunting to think about how the past keeps on shaping the present. Ordaz answers Giorgio Agamben’s call to “investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime.” As Ordaz reminds readers, migrants in these camps are “detainees” not prisoners, the camps are “detention centers” not prisons. El Centro was never a prison in the legal sense. This is because the inmates have not been convicted of anything, they are usually not even facing criminal prosecution. Violating immigration law is an administrative offense, not a criminal one. However, they are treated as if they are inherently criminal, with all the trappings of the industrial prison complex. They are subject to forced labor, arbitrary rules like a requirement to wear hats at all times, a lack of rights, solitary confinement, and a shocking degree of routine violence. The legal fiction of administrative law places much of the migration detention and deportation system beyond the reach of judicial review, meaning that migrants do not have the constitutional protections criminal defendants have.
Yet, from inside of El Centro and similar facilities, migrants have found ways to resist their circumstances. Unlike many scholars who focus on migrant policies, legislation, and law, Ordaz looks at how these policies worked on the ground. She shows a culture of abuse, where racialized violence is rendered normal. Guards beat migrants with impunity and cease to see them as fellow humans. In response migrants find ways to resist, by escaping, sometimes across the nearby border into Mexico. In the 1970s Mexican activists protested conditions and sought asylum. In 1985 a group of Central Americans staged the largest hunger strike in El Centro’s history and filed a series of lawsuits. The lawsuits Ordaz explores provide a counterpoint to INS manuals and reports in illustrating individual stories of abuse and death and attempts to push back.
While immigration ports of entry like Ellis Island are accorded a large place in public imagination, commemoration, and scholarship, places of detention like El Centro are largely unknown. Angel Island occupies something of a middle ground, a port of entry that was also a detention center, mostly of Asians, for which there is increasing public awareness. Most detention centers on the other hand are anonymous, places on rural landscapes far from urban centers, not known outside their local communities. Few exist beyond a decade or two, which makes the story of El Centro unique. The El Centro Immigration Detention Center and the stories of those who resisted detention deserve to be better known and memorialized in the landscape.
At El Centro, the use of forced labor, regularized violence, and solitary confinement on civilians who have not been convicted of anything were so normalized the guards did not call them into question. And the law provided impunity. The way the law was structured made it nearly impossible to hold people and institutions accountable, giving license to abuse. Ordaz argues that this was not an anomaly, but central to how detention and deportation function in America. This is what activists in the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and today were calling attention to by deploying the term ‘concentration camp.’ Ordaz is part of the wave of scholarship that criticizes the prison industrial complex, the migration detention system, and the racialization of Latin American migrants in the United States. She builds on them by showing what these policies engender in facilities and on too many migrant lives. Ultimately, her account asks us: would it not be better if all detention centers were abolished?
Daniel Morales is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in Latinx history, immigration, and public history. He is from Azusa California and earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 2016, and B.A. at the University of Chicago in 2008. His research focuses on the social and economic history of migration between Latin America and the United States. His upcoming book Entre Aquí y Allá: The Political Economy of Transnational Mexican Migration, examines the creation of transnational migratory networks across Mexico and the United States in the twentieth century.
On January 31, 2018, the Jimmy Kimmel-Live show aired a segment called “Fierce DACA Opponents Meet DREAMer Family Face to Face.” This segment was a departure from the talk show’s usual format: comedic monologue, prank videos, celebrity interviews and musical guests. The host, Jimmy Kimmel, acknowledged the deviation and introduced the segment with a rudimentary overview about the debate around reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which the Trump administration had capriciously rescinded months prior. The eight-and-a-half-minute-long segment began with Kimmel interviewing the six panelists about their opposition to DACA and undocumented immigration at large. Their responses echoed popular nativist talking points such as following the rule of law and the importance of getting “in line” for immigration status. As saccharine piano music began playing in the background, they were walked to a room to meet Esmeralda and her family.
Esmeralda is a DACA recipient and mother to her young daughter who was sitting on her lap. Kimmel prompts Esmeralda to share her immigrant story then highlights that she has no criminal record, she is a nursing student, she is gainfully employed and is a dutiful taxpayer. Her fiancé, Michael, a soldier in the armed forces, then enters the room. Kimmel tells the panel that soon Michael will be deployed overseas and if Esmeralda loses her DACA permit and is deported, the family will be separated. Presumably, the segment was intended to show opponents of DACA that if they met someone in this situation then they would reconsider their hardline position. Unsurprisingly, they did not. The segment ended without a musical or emotional crescendo. No resolution, just panelists continuing to shout xenophobic statements to a visibly uncomfortable family.
This segment is emblematic of the discourse about undocumented youth and young adults at large. Even people with the best intentions will rely on patriotic, meritocratic, heteronormative, assimilationist, capitalistic ideals of who is worthy of being in the United States. This specific portrayal of the “good immigrant” echoes back to the late 1990s when immigrant advocacy organizations and state legislators needed a literal poster child as a way of garnering national support for comprehensive immigration reform. In 2001, the proposed legislation “DREAM Act” focused on undocumented youth and purposefully used the backronym D.R.E.A.M as a way of alluding to the exceptional immigrant youth who are portrayed as an extension of the mythical American Dream. Consequently, DREAMer as a term and ideology is entrenched everywhere: in subsequently proposed legislation, in employment and scholarship requirements, and especially in academic literature.
We Are Not Dreamers, edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevive Negrón-Gonzales, is a notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). Many of us are compelled to explore these realities because of our own personal connections and history. Yet, growing up in a mixed status family, having a partner who is undocumented or who must endure a xenophobic slur does not equate to the experiential knowledge and realities of being illegalized by the State. All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.
The editors begin the book by providing historical context about the DREAMer narrative’s creation, its relative effectiveness in shifting public opinion and prevalence in social and academic discourse. The book’s introduction concludes with the critical point that any advancement (including the Obama administration’s concessionary DACA) has come as a direct result of the activism and advocacy led by undocumented youth and young adults. The reader is then welcomed to select a chapter in any order and learn about different realities present in the lives of many undocumented youth. In this way, the book is akin to a mosaic. The reader can focus on a particular section and then step back to appreciate it in its entirety. Perspectives shared in the book include, but are not limited to, the stigma of being on academic probation (chapter 2), commodification of university diversity initiates (chapter 3), the paradox of marriage for both love and immigration status (chapter 9) and the family dynamics of undocuqueer parenting (chapter 10). The rich and textured narratives provide the reader a glimpse into people’s lives in a way that is not voyeuristic or marauding. The realities the authors share are not curated for an audience that fetishizes trauma and struggle. Rather, they are unfiltered narratives about life as an illegalized person that echo the tradition of testimonios, which denounce injustices and document the experiences and acts of survival of oppressed groups.
Given that my own scholarship focuses on Education, chapters 2 and 3 were of particular interest to me. In chapter 2, Grecia Mondragón focuses on undocumented university students who have been placed on academic probation. This chapter vividly articulates the toxicity of the DREAMer narrative and its consequences. Similar to the model minority archetype, students labeled as DREAMers are expected to demonstrate their worth through high academic achievement and stoic meritocratic perseverance, regardless of the circumstance. Mondragón centers participants’ own words about being outside of these impossible standards and the resulting internalized guilt and shame that they felt. The chapter concludes with an implication section that explicitly places the onus on universities to improve their policies and practices regarding academic probation because participants indicated that in their time of most critical need, faculty and staff treated them as deficient and unworthy of support.
Chapter 3 also explores the university’s relationship to undocumented students, specifically its commodification thereof. In a meticulously researched and masterfully articulated examination, Gabrielle Cabrera posits that The University of California-Merced profits from the recognition and state funding associated with having the highest percentage of undocumented students of any campus within the UC system. In the chapter, Cabrera states that “the university sells undocumented stories of migration and trauma as a method of cultivating an image of an altruistic, progressive institution” yet systematically fails to deliver on any commitment to support them. She then chronicles the undocumented student activism that pushed the university to confront their unfulfilled pledges, particularly that which relates to funding. I was so impressed by this chapter that I felt compelled to reach out to the author to compliment her work. It was then that I learned that it was based on her undergraduate senior thesis. I was astonished. At a very early stage in her academic training, Cabrera accomplished what I have rarely seen even senior academics do. She spoke truth to power, with every resolute statement substantiated with reports and public records while simultaneously and seamlessly weaving in quotes and theory to demonstrate how that university (and arguably liberal institutions writ large) utilize diversity and multicultural initiatives and rhetoric to undermine systematic change. This speaks to the ethos of the book: when afforded agency over the portrayal of their own experiences, the resulting brilliance is unmatched.
The book is undoubtedly outstanding. However, at times some chapters are dense with academic jargon and theories specific to certain disciplines. There are also instances in which some authors fall short of fully articulating their main arguments and/or stray from coherence of the theories they cite. In general, the book is also very much geographically centered in California with many of the perspectives coming from the larger Latinx undocumented community. The editors acknowledge this predominance, which is not so much a fundamental flaw as it is a possibility. The potential for future volumes where authors from other communities (geographic, cultural, racial) contribute their perspectives to expand the literature on illegalized lives is exciting. We Are Not Dreamers will undoubtedly become canonical. It should be required reading for every educator, administrator, and staff member across all levels of education, specifically higher education. It is also recommended for anyone who has ever used “DREAMer” to refer to undocumented students. Basically, it would benefit everyone to read this book, including late-night talk show hosts and producers.
 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act
 See: Solórzano, D. G., & Bernal, D. D. (2001). Examining Transformational Resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context. Urban Education, 36(3), 308-342.
Luis Fernando Macías, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno. His scholarly focus is on undocumented studies, racial formations and how they relate to educational policies and practices. In addition to research, he has organized several educational summer camps for immigrant and refugee youth and previously worked as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative. His work has been featured in various media outlets like the podcast: Politically Re-active with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu (episode 54).
Early in Cassandra Lane’s keen-edged, forthright memoir, We Are Bridges, she encounters an unexpected spiritual chasm: the gap between the person she has been, and the person she needs to become.
Thirty-five and freshly linked with a promising new partner, she learns that she is pregnant. Instead of unmitigated enthusiasm, she feels curiously outside of herself. Motherhood is a reality for which she hasn’t prepared. It is, in fact, a role she vowed she’d never undertake. “I was witness to my mother’s failed romances and the hardships of child rearing,” she reveals, “I wanted to be free of all the chains and stains of motherhood.”
This new ambivalence, consequently, unsettles her. Her decision to not bear a child had been nothing less than a pact. Hadn’t she been clear? With everyone? Not least of all herself.
Looking squarely into that deep breach, she realizes, might offer some necessary answers. Her fear of bearing a Black child into a world of antipathy was plenty enough. Yet, bringing that same child into the unaddressed legacy of family trauma was another daunting contract altogether. “The more folks bury a thing,” she reflects, “the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.”
In order to step forward, she would have to circle back.
Lane grew up in her small-town Louisiana home with hand-me-down heartache circling around the household like ghosts: “Haints” that bumped in the night, spirits that seeped into the crevices and kept watch. For years, without questioning it, Lane found herself falling in-line with the family trait—stepping over and around the heaviness of its unspoken presence. And while she was not convinced of the power of the restless “disembodied,” she was coming to realize: “I do know the past is a ghost.”
The collective family disarray was formidable: Romantic relationships that slid out of grasp or off the rails; women and men boxing with free-floating pain stemming from systemic racism and attendant racial violence; and, most particularly, the quagmire of self-doubt or shame that the women in her family found themselves lost in.
Lane discerned a wisp of herself floating there, too. While she’d imagined many scenarios for her life—journalist, teacher, and culture worker—the list of evolving roles formed the semblance of moving forward, yet in certain respects, emotionally, she was running in place.
To break that cycle, to edge closer to new territory, a new self, she knew, her journey would have to begin with an ending: The lynching of her great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, and the breach left at the center of her great-grandmother Mary’s heart. This meant walking into a century-old, raw wound, and confronting the possibility that the journey may not offer up answers, but even more painful questions. Even still, the endeavor would allow her, perhaps, to offer her expectant child something more than she had—a framework and language to investigate the whys and hows.
Who was Burt Bridges? Not the tragedy, but the person. How does he hover over the family? Lane knows a name and the outline of his story; who he was, as flesh and blood, exists only in fragments of passed-around family stories. What is clear is that he was all plans, pride and dreams. Taken together, this made him a highly visible target to the small-town white powers-that be. His desire was to flee the Jim Crow South, and try his luck with California, a destination that seemed big enough to foster his dreams. He doesn’t make it, but more than a century later, Lane, his great-granddaughter, does.
Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.
Time here is not linear. The narrative slides, jumps, circles back on itself; in a vivid, experiential way, it is a commentary about how hurt tails us, leaps a generation, lies dormant and suddenly springs to life when we least expect—or want—it to.
While the “Bridges” of the title speaks specifically to lineage, the symbolic “bridges,” in Lane’s account are two-fold: It is a tricky span she must navigate in order to cross into new life territory; as well, it is a new generation and its hope—to move from pain to healing.
Lane, with an expert seamstress’ finesse, weaves trauma and its legacy into the story’s backdrop. It is its own character, hanging back, weighting the atmosphere, as fulsome as Louisiana humidity.
Trauma lays in wait; it touches everything. From the outset, Lane reveals that there isn’t much physical documentation or family testimony left: Instead she confronts absence: a dearth of letters or intimate journals to discover or guide her; a paucity of legal documents to ground her, or point her forward. These were people that kept their secrets close.
As a rule, the journalist’s way is to get as close to the truth as one possibly can, to look for a primary source–the person who bore witness. Consequently, Lane’s way of writing herself back into the moment is to “listen to the hurt,” the few family anecdotes—and the melancholy that shadowed them over generations. Then she could imagine its effect, and name it.
At the narrative’s outset, Lane classifies the book as a “hybrid”: It’s memoir, yes, but it’s also a journey into the speculative, tunneling back into a series of what ifs and if onlys. In so doing, she creates lush scenes and dancing, intimate dialogue, that pull the reader effectively into both the terror and the tenderness, and give her forebears’ ghosts flesh and form. As well, it hands them back their dreams and aspirations, but also sharply reanimates the hurt—making it palpable and present.
The fluid structure allows Lane the necessary breadth to animate and theorize, to move the fragments around, and in certain respects, to haunt the past. She is skillful at examining cause and effect, intimating how past and present bend and interact. In bridging the present to the past, her language is at turns lapidary and crisp: Of the disintegration of one her mother’s hopeful romantic liaisons she writes: “The courtship ended just outside our house, where the plums were still light green the way I like them: tart and hard and begging for salt, an astringent against the teeth…”
For all of the lyric language and her adroit ability to call up lost worlds, Lane does not dodge unpleasantness: She refuses to prettify or idealize; she does not sidestep the uncomfortable. Instead she lets the light in—illumination that is both astringent and purifying. She holds key subjects’ feet to the fire: the father who doesn’t appear to know how to love, the newspaper editors who undervalued her abilities, the graduate school classmate who advises her to hold-back, to censor her pain on the page, and not least of all herself, for her own blind spots and transgressions.
Late in the book, Grandma Mary reflects: “Why are we [women] always the ones weeping and toting all the pain.” This question moves Mary, in another one of Lane’s invented scenes, to pull back and consider, for all the damage, pain and desolation that cycles back on itself: “What is the purpose of black life?”
What Lane’s book eloquently illuminates is that we all too often overlook the quiet victories along the path to survival. Not perfection, but endurance. The sturdy branches, reaching out. There’s not just damage, not just “a generational trail of broken people,” Lane finds, but a specific type of fortitude and hopefulness that was buried back there as well. That too must be alive. This act of looking back? This act of reclamation? It is as much for her, as it is for her newborn.
At this life’s crossroad, what are the necessary tools and gifts that she might pass down to her child? Lane won’t allow an easy answer; she is more tough-minded than that. She’s come to know, you have to be ready for the truth. As it comes—shards, rough edges and all.
“The world is not all bad Mary,” Lane ascribes these words to her great-grandfather Burt, who is making his case for the dream of California, its possibilities. But, perhaps, on reconsideration Burt’s words are not necessarily imagined, but received, over the bridge of time: “The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.” Messages for the journey. A spirit’s nudge. Those sturdy bloodlines connect sons to grand daughters, to the next generation of great-grands and beyond. But even more—they offer a passage to brand new ways of seeing; to renewed opportunities, to not so much make things right, but, first and foremost, to make yourself free.
Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she is the author of three books of nonfiction: No Crystal Stair African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday); After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, a collection of her essays and photographs (Angel City Press) and “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” published by Angel City Press in 2020.
On August 28, 1970, a group of constituents penned a letter to Chester Holifield, California’s 19th District Congress member. Comprised primarily of women, the authors asserted that welfare recipients in their suburban communities constitute a “burden on the taxpayer and the homeowner.” Decades of conservative angst over the New Deal state birthed nativism throughout suburban Los Angeles. “Aliens of any country should not be allowed in our country if they have no means of support,” they argued before asking rhetorically, “have you seen the cars these people drive?” And, in a move that became so emblematic of Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism, the authors pathologized women who depended on government assistance in arguing that “unwed mothers, divorcees, dope addicts…and aliens” deserved no public benefits. This was not George Wallace’s Alabama; it was Reagan’s California. Latinx population increases in those suburbs, and others like them across the state, fueled local populist anxieties that nested in state and national Republican Party platforms. Spanish surnames like Andrade, Ochoa, and Saldivar,to name just a few, scrawled across the final page revealed an unsettling truth about the suburbs east of East Los Angeles; an emerging Hispanic conservative base had found its voice.
In The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady. Polls show that Trump actually gained in Hispanic voter support from 2016 to 2020 — a concerning statistic for many. Indeed, Cadava argues that a principal objective of his book is to historicize and contextualize Hispanic support for Republicans, including Trump (336). Why there are Republican Hispanics is not so much the driving question, as that would presume a political authenticity that is not true of any group. As Cadava asserts, “Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative. They aren’t naturally anything” (xvii). Rather, Cadava explores how Hispanic Republicans crafted collective identities within the conservative movement and to what extent they wielded real institutional power.
Argued over ten chapters and divided into four sections, “Awakening,” Influence,” “Doubt,” and “Loyalty,” Cadava’s book is a sweeping survey of the leaders, organizations, and shifts that make up the Hispanic Republican leadership and the opening to an increasingly urgent conversation about the intertwined futures of Latinx politics and the evolution of the GOP. As Cadava writes, partisan issues such as border-wall funding, taxes and business regulations are a result of an electorates’ set of concerns in a given place and time. However, a significant contribution that he makes here is to extend “issues” into the past in order to expose the ideological foundations upon which they rest. More than any single problem, Hispanics have become loyal Republicans over the last seven decades based on a web of dogmas about U.S.-Latin American relations; the United States’ role in spreading democracy around the globe; government-supported capitalism; and a “contrarian identity politics that is every bit as pronounced as the liberal identity politics they’ve spent decades criticizing.” (xvi).
The first wave of Hispanic Republicans formed their political identities through the crucible of the Cold War in Latin America and its manifestations within the territorial boundaries of the continental United States. Prior to the 1950s, Hispanic partisanship vacillated between both major parties, but Cadava argues that World War II and national political realignment following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency shaped Hispanic politics just as it did for other Americans. Cuban American exiles like Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, and Mexican American business leaders like Lionel Sosa, a graduate of Sidney Lanier High School in San Antonio’s West Side barrio, embraced the party’s tough stance against communism, its position on law and order on the domestic front, and its business-friendly policymaking laced with rhetoric of self-determination. For Cadava, Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential bid in 1952 proved a testing ground for the GOP’s appeal to Hispanic voters. The 1952 “Latinos con Eisenhower” campaign and its successor “Me Gusta Ike” in 1956 promoted Eisenhower’s Cold Warrior credentials and beckoned supporters who felt like the Democratic Party took Latinos for granted. Disaffected Latino Democrats proved a source of recruitment for Republicans during the Eisenhower years. John Flores and Manuel Mesa, both from California, created the institutional frameworks to recruit Hispanics to the Republican camp by tapping into the same disillusionment that spurred leftist community organizers both in the cities and in the fields. The Republican Party adopted a militant anti-communist platform and won Hispanic support, particularly from those with roots in regions touched by revolution, CIA-backed coup d’états, and draconian immigration enforcement policies.
In anti-communism Republicans readied the assault on domestic labor organizing and civil rights efforts. The 1950 deportation of renowned labor organizer and civil rights activist Luisa Moreno is testament to the emergence of Cold War maneuvers on the domestic front. However, rather than oppose such actions, Hispanic Republicans became more defiant in their racial politics. Democratic Party leadership, at least rhetorically, had taken up the mantle for civil rights. By contrast, conservatives such as Barry Goldwater innovated new modalities of anti-blackness by hanging their arguments for segregation on outcomes of the free market.
Barry Goldwater’s conservatism and anti-communism shifted the Republican Party further to the right. The racist ideologies underlying his platforms attracted like-minded blue-collar voters across the country, which included Hispanics who identified more with Anglo Americans than with non-whites. Perhaps because Hispanic Republican numbers were few in the early 1960s, they showed surprising unity despite regional and national-origin differences.
Cadava highlights the role that California Republican candidates played in pushing the party to recognize the Hispanic electorate. Richard Nixon grew the Hispanic Republican base because of his personal history in suburban southern California and because he recognized early on that Hispanics, particularly Mexican Americans, could potentially put Republicans over the top.
In the third chapter, “Nixon’s Hispanics,” Cadava recounts the stories of several influential Hispanic businesspeople. Romana Acosta Bañuelos, who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, rose to success at the head of Ramona’s Mexican Food Products in Los Angeles, and became chairwoman of the Pan American National Bank located on First Street in East Los Angeles. Nixon selected Bañuelos to head the Treasury based on her hard scrabble background and the symbolism it offered for free market capitalism and rugged individualism. He also approved of the fact that she did not participate in the Chicano Movement, despite the décor of her bank adorned with imagery of Aztec civilization – a ubiquitous iconography of the movement (95-7). Even though many Chicanos considered Bañuelos a “tia taco,” or “vendida,” (Chicanx slang for sell-out) she would emerge as one of Nixon’s greatest ambassadors for courting Hispanics. Whether or not she truly represented a “token,” as her detractors argued, she wielded actual power and influence as the Treasurer of the United States appointed by a Republican president. Democrats had never come close to incorporating Latinos – let alone Latinas! – into serious positions of authority, despite the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson whose popularity with Latinos far surpassed that of any Republican politician then or since. This fact was not lost on the community-at-large, nor on the Nixon surrogates who helped to orchestrate the nomination. Influence and visibility counted for a lot and Democrats lost the race in that respect.
Bañuelos’s rise to prominence in the Nixon White House resulted from a strategy to attract Hispanics in greater numbers to the party’s orbit. However, an immigration raid on Bañuelos’s business in East Los Angeles in 1971 cast a pall around her nomination for Secretary of the Treasury because public opinion about undocumented immigrant workers circulated widely through the California press. Calls for employer sanctions on those businesses that knowingly employed undocumented labor culminated in the Dixon Arnett bill that Gov. Reagan signed into law a mere one month following the Bañuelos raid.
Nixon’s efforts to install Hispanics in government positions, regardless of their efficacy as politicos or of their community acceptance, helped to solidify a Hispanic base for the party well into the future. Even the dirty tricks embodied by the Watergate affair strangely shored up Cuban American support, particularly in Miami as 4 of the 5 men held close association with Cuba either through ancestry, anticommunism, or both. The effort to bug the Democratic Party offices in the complex was prompted by Nixon surrogates’ assertions that the Castro regime secretly funneled large sums of money to the George McGovern campaign. Thus, spying on Democrats was justified in the eyes of many everyday Cuban Americans whose disdain for Castro and communism ran deep. Many, in fact, wondered why the arrested “plumbers” were considered criminal at all given the Cold War context of the narrative. Under the Trump Administration, they might have been elevated to the level of national heroes and fully pardoned by the president. It was an ignominious contribution, but Cuban American participation in the Watergate break signified one of the most consequential events in modern Republican Party politics. Cadava shows that despite Nixon’s culpability, perhaps even because of it, Hispanic support of the GOP did not waiver. Rather than repel Cubanos, the event did the opposite by burnishing the Cold Warrior credentials of the GOP standard bearer. Also, by that time, an infrastructure had been built to expand Hispanic influence in the party. The Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA) had emerged as force within the party and thus launched the efforts by members to reach further into the apparatus.
Cadava writes about the latter half of the 1970s as a period of doubt marked by a decline in Hispanic support that was triggered by uninspired leadership, the loss of the Vietnam War, a global recession, and increased undocumented immigration. Nixon’s downfall caused ripples across the rest of the Hispanic Republican world. Where Cuban Americans found a bedrock of anti-communist support in the party, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in different parts of the United States waivered in their enthusiasm for the party’s direction.
Into this void stepped Benjamin Fernandez, a Mid-Western born Mexican American with dreams of uniting all Hispanics under the GOP banner. As quixotic as any Hispanic Republican leader before or since, “Boxcar Ben” – as he was known because of his self-styled narrative about his birth in a railroad boxcar in Kansas City, Missouri – mattered because he was able to situate himself against the measures of his time: the Chicano Movement, immigration liberalization, and the government social safety net. The son of migrant workers from Michoacán who traversed the Midwestern states before settling in East Chicago, Indiana, Fernandez pulled hard on the bootstraps mythology that he believed colored his story. A lifelong Republican, he set out to become the first Hispanic president of the United States running in the 1980 primaries against the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John Connally. Although he did not win even 1 percent of the national electoral vote, Cadava rescues this character from the historical shadows to demonstrate that the new militancy birthed by the Chicano Movement coincided with a smaller, but equally persistent, movement within conservative circles to tap into the working-class and family-oriented sensibilities of many Hispanics just as blue-collar whites began to leave the Democratic Party en masse.
Reagan reenergized the Hispanic constituency by reviving the Cold War, particularly in the face of retrenchment with Cuba. Additionally, he played his popularity as governor of California and the battles he waged against civil rights, to the Hispanics who supported him in his home state. Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980 not only burst Ben Fernandez’s bubble, but also consolidated conservative politics at the national level. Reagan’s tough stance against Fidel Castro inspired Cuban Americans to support the newly elected president. Jorge Mas Canosa, a Miami-based Cuban American politico, helped to form the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) modeled on American Israel Political Affairs Committee and laid the foundation for a reliable GOP constituency in South Florida that persists today. Reagan further garnered Hispanic support by usurping the immigration bill that existed in many draft forms since the early 70s (it lived for a time as the Carter Bill) to sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA endeared Reagan to Hispanics because it opened a path for amnesty at the same time that it codified employer sanctions and drew limits around further legal immigration. It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP as it would also throw fuel onto the kindling of nativism that had begun to emerge within party ranks as early as the 1970s.
The populist uprising within the party around Puerto Rican statehood and undocumented Latino immigration tested the loyalty of many Hispanic Republicans. Despite Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s victory in a Florida special congressional election in 1988 which signaled a significant victory for Cuban American Republicans, the national appeal of the party faced jeopardy because of the swell in thinly veiled white nationalist rhetoric and policy priorities.
Cadava shines a spotlight on George H.W. Bush’s influence on Hispanic Republicans. With a naturalized Mexican American daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandchildren whom, H.W. notoriously referred to as Jebby’s “little brown ones” on the campaign trail in 1988, H.W. inspired hope as a moderating force within the GOP to continue to rally Hispanic voters. His victory in 1988 yielded strong support initially. He oversaw the confirmations of three prominent Hispanics to his administration, Lauro Cavazos as Education Secretary, Manuel Luján, Jr. as Secretary of the Interior, and Catalina Vásquez Villalpondo as Treasurer. He also flexed support for Puerto Rican Statehood and appeared to Cuban Americans as a battle-tested Cold Warrior by virtue of his eight-year tenure as Vice President under Reagan. However, not long into his term, he began to lose support as statehood died in Congress at the hands of fiscal conservatives in both parties. Also, the end of the Soviet Union and normalization of U.S.-Russia relations essentially removed Cuba from the foreign affairs priority list as national security concerns shifted from communism to terrorism and flipped the map from Latin America to the Middle East. Notably, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Villalpondo’s activities in the Treasury Department where she faced accusations of improperly influencing the delegation of non-competitive contracts to her former employer. She was eventually convicted of tax evasion and destruction of evidence.
Pat Buchanan’s insertion into the debates around Puerto Rican statehood inflamed tensions between Hispanics in the Republican Party and their non-Hispanic fellows. Buchanan launched a tirade in the Washington Times early in 1990 that played overtly to strains of white ethnonationalism already strong in the GOP. He claimed that 50 percent of Puerto Ricans qualified for welfare and therefore posed a significant financial burden to the United States. Buchanan further asserted that including 6 million Spanish speakers would mark the end of the English-only United States and argued that the new proposed state would send six new Democratic house members and two new liberal senators to Washington (284-5). Prominent Hispanic Republican Luis A. Ferré responded vigorously, speaking for the collective outraged Puerto Rican community that Buchanan’s racist arguments were unfounded, and that the 51st state would contribute to the nation in taxes and military sacrifice, and that the language argument held no merit because 15 million Spanish speakers already called the U.S. home. He also wrote that although nobody on the island in 1898 asked to become a colony of the U.S., Puerto Ricans remained “loyal Americans” (286). Buchanan’s position ultimately won the day and marked a significant pivot from a longstanding GOP policy priority. On a more expanded level, it signaled the growing power of xenophobic discourse and white grievance politics as weapons against people of color and center-left and progressive advocates.
The would-be rupture between Hispanic Republicans and the party, although strained, failed to materialize even as Pat Buchanan blustered on a national stage. In California, former San Diego mayor and U.S. Senator Pete Wilson pushed the GOP immigration agenda further to the right as governor of the Golden State from 1991 to 1999. This creep in party discourse began during the Reagan years as the agendas in 1984 and 1988 insisted that the U.S. retained an “absolute right” to secure its borders by legislation, police enforcement, and even physical barriers. Cadava writes that Hispanic Republicans found themselves betwixt and between a party that grew in hostility towards people who looked like them and their compatriots who would be potential Republicans if the party toned down its rhetoric. One example Cadava offers that exposes the choppy waters Hispanic Republicans navigated came in 1992 during the GOP national convention agenda which called for the erection of “structures” along the southern border. Rather than recognize the most common definition of that term, i.e. physical barriers, many surrogates, including Hispanics, described the phrasing as metaphorical (295-296).
Debates over fencing in the 1990s became a proxy for white nationalist, nativist, and anti-Latino sentiment. Far from an easily cordoned off set of camps, many Hispanics supported fencing and immigration restriction, and many non-Latinos opposed the same measures. Bill Clinton’s immigration agenda included some of the most militaristic efforts in decades, beginning with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso and followed by Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Safeguard in Arizona. So as the GOP drifted further into the nativist cesspool, Democrats followed as the Clinton White House established policy prescriptions that would prove even deadlier for migrants seeking to cross into the U.S.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book in that it demonstrates that an agenda built on fiscal austerity and small government was not the overriding raison d’etre for Republicans despite their claims to the contrary. Rather, demographic change, nativism, and racism were equally powerful drivers, if not more so, in shaping the modern Republican agenda. As one of the founders of the Save Our State initiative in California, better remembered as Proposition 187, recalled as she walked into a social services center in 1991 “with babies and little children all over the place,” speaking Spanish, she learned that they qualified for the same benefits as U.S. citizens and then and there transformed from a “political neophyte to a fiery crusader” (301-2). Such populist energy against demographic change fueled Governor Pete Wilson’s re-election platform in 1994. Running on anti-immigrant sentiment and championing Prop. 187 made Wilson a GOP darling for those on the far right such as Rush Limbaugh, at the time a burgeoning radio personality.
Cadava highlights the 1990s as a watershed for immigration legislative debate. The far-right agenda focusing on restriction and removal became the center of the GOP, and likewise influenced Democratic positions (310). Support of anti-immigrant measures at the state and federal levels hurt the GOP and shook the faith of its longtime Hispanic supporters. As a presidential candidate, Bob Dole did not commit to cultivating Hispanic support for his candidacy, not out of any special enmity, but more likely because he was a rather terrible candidate. His poor showings in California and in Florida,where he was the first Republican candidate to lose the state since 1968, signaled to the national party that Hispanic support was slipping. Combining a bad candidate with bad politics sunk the national party in that decade. Additionally, the renewed nativism on the right prompted a groundswell of naturalization and permanent residency applications by Latinos in direct response. As Cadava notes, this was likely not a result of newfound patriotism for the U.S., but a pragmatic decision to protect themselves and their families from deportation or loss of benefits (311).
For Cuban Americans in Miami, the Elián González case confirmed their conservative partisanship. The Democratic Party’s adherence to Bill Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans crossing into the United States sunk Al Gore’s chances in the state as Hispanics in Florida rallying around González punished him at the polls in favor of his Republican challenger, George W. Bush (321-2). Détente between nativist forces and compassionate conservatives was made possible by the Bush family’s influence and popularity with Hispanics. But the floodgates were blitzed and the peace lasted only as long as the PATRIOT Act and the unsupported popular perception that the southern border offered viable passage for would be terrorists.
Fifty years following the Holifield letter that opened this review, the city council in Whittier, California added a new member, Jessica Martinez, whose political identity aligns with the insurgency championed by Donald Trump. Social media posts that predated her election caused an outrage for what some viewed as their bald racism and bigotry. However, the mark of her trumpista GOP identity was confirmed on January 6, 2021 as she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally promoted by Trump and his boot lickers in an effort to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election results which Joe Biden won by more than 7 million popular votes. Although Martinez contends that she would not have gone to Washington, D.C. if she had known violence would rock the Capitol, she remains unrepentant in her political beliefs, despite narrowly escaping formal censure. More well-known is Miami-born Enrique Tarrio, the Afro-Cuban leader of the fascist organization Proud Boys who have become an informal political army for Trump. Tarrio spent the day prior to the insurrection in a jail cell as law enforcement personnel arrested him upon arrival to D.C. for his role in burning a Black Lives Matter flag during a protest the previous month. So what are we to make of these Hispanics, past and present, who continue their allegiance to a party that has long since proven to harbor anti-Latino agendas?
For all the answers that Cadava provides in this text, we are left to speculate how self-identified Hispanics like Martinez and Tarrio became contributors to the latest white supremacist surge. Here it is important to remember what George Lipsitz taught us about the power of whiteness as an identity that structures opportunities, benefits, and, as we consistently see, protection from accountability: “even nonwhite people can become active agents of white supremacy as well as passive participants in its hierarchies and rewards.” As a condition predicated more on power than prejudice or pigment, whiteness “manifests itself through practices that create differential access to wealth, health, housing, education, jobs, and justice.” Historically, people of color who have touted conservative populist causes have done so by aligning with taxpayers or homeowners groups concerned about declining property values. In our present day, the fascist rearticulation of the term “patriot” enables people like Martinez and Tarrio to nuzzle up to whiteness so long as they express outrage at undocumented immigration, or any immigration for that matter, denounce Black Lives Matter, and support a whole host of lies.
Similar to the internal struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, brown participants in the GOP do not go unchallenged. As the Latinos Por Trump group ramped up efforts, Latinx opponents refashioned the epithets from an earlier generation that charged these actors as sell outs to their people. A popular insult – “tiene el nopal en la frente” – highlights the hypocrisy of being Latina/o/x and supporting white American conservative causes, particularly those that target Latino immigrants. Literally translated as “you have the cactus on your forehead”, the point it makes is that brown/indigenous/mestizo physical features belie the support of white supremacy.
It is in these grittier social contexts that readers will ask more from this text than it delivers. It is not a social history of Hispanic Republicans, nor does Cadava frame it in such terms. Rather than a focus on everyday Hispanic conservatives, the focus is fixed primarily on the institutions that created access for Hispanics into the party, and the principal actors in this historical drama. Many will want an explanation for folks like Tarrio, Martinez from the Whittier City Council, and the signatories of the Holifield letter, but, for now, will have to analyze them and other grassroots conservatives through the prism of this institutional history.
Perhaps a more peculiar absence in this book is an analysis of the Ayn Rand-style libertarian influence on the current GOP. The “greed is good” strain of conservative thought has arguably been as influential in the evolution of the post-Reagan machine as blue-collar conservatism and racism. How do Hispanic Republicans figure into the libertarian wing of the party? Certainly Ted Cruz, a renowned Rand acolyte and self-styled libertarian, enjoys a significant following of Hispanic voters (35% support in the 2018 Texas senate race versus Beto O’Rourke). The extent to which Hispanics subscribe to GOP-informed libertarianism is an open question and one that merits further research to understand how future pathways to whiteness channel through such conservative ideals.
Another condition of the modern GOP that is curiously absent in Cadava’s book is a focused analysis on space and how it contoured conservative politics at the metropolitan level. As Juan De Lara points out in Inland Shift (2018) places like Inland Southern California from 1978 to the 2000s supplanted the coastal regions as conservative bastions with large numbers of Republican Party voters and representatives. Indeed, as demonstrated in Adam Goodman’s essay in East of East (2020) and in his monograph, The Deportation Machine (2020), suburban municipalities like South El Monte, California became new nativist fronts marked by Immigration and Naturalization Service raids and support for anti-immigrant legislation like Proposition 187 in 1994. Such efforts have steadily come to dominate the national Republican Party immigration agenda, but all began at local levels. Trump’s immigration czar, Stephen Miller, grew up in Santa Monica and came up through the ranks of southern California’s nativist machine, first by consuming conservative radio that in the 1980s included characters like Wally George and in the 1990s were dominated by figures like Rush Limbaugh, and Larry Elder, and then by making a name as an undergraduate provocateur at Duke University. The political positions he developed in Southern California eventually came to define the Trump Administration’s immigration agenda.
I highlight the absences because, as a study with ambitions to forge new lines of inquiry within Latinx Studies, it is highly successful and will undoubtedly launch new and sorely needed research projects that deepen our understanding of the diverse political identities of this growing population. Traditional studies of Latinx politics focused on organizations and institutions to broaden access to the grassroots-level research on organizers and activists. Cadava has paved the way for such future studies by contextualizing the key organs of Hispanic power within the GOP. For one, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly receives considerable attention throughout the text for its role in shaping a constituency within the GOP. Founded in the late 1960s as the Republican National Hispanic Council by a group of war veterans and professionals, the organization would grow to wield significant influence. This vehicle for Hispanic participation embedded in the GOP network symbolized the party’s official recognition of “the little brown ones” in their midst – to borrow from George H.W. Bush’s lexicon – and opened pathways for future recruitment.
Additionally, Cadava highlights the gendered experiences of Hispanic women leaders who played fundamental roles both in the GOP apparatus and national politics. For example, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, Katherine Ortega, and Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, all Hispanic women, all Treasurers of the United States under Republican presidents, represent more than “tokens” but actual power brokers. The fact that Richard Nixon appointed a fellow Californian, Bañuelos, a Mexican American banker from East Los Angeles, meant that a Hispanic Republican and woman of color exercised actual authority over federal decisions. Cadava demonstrates that the GOP has implemented strategic efforts to challenge the idea that their political agenda is racist and sexist by promoting women and people of color for national and state leadership.
The Hispanic Republican is a wake-up call for progressives, particularly white liberals, who uncritically believe that rising Latinx population numbers will naturally shift the political winds. We learn a lot about the machinations of Hispanic Republican power, how it is cultivated and seated, and why any liberal dreams of it evaporating are pure fantasy, given how embedded it is in the GOP apparatus. There is nothing irrational in many Hispanics’ embrace of conservative causes and policies. Rather, the historical resonances with one-third of the messy conglomeration of peoples lumped into the category challenges us to think critically about the value they find in Republican Party platforms and promises.
One of the real gems of this book is how Cadava rescues monumental figures from the throwaway lines and endnote catacombs of so many Latino political histories prior. Bañuelos, for example, receives a full treatment, as does “Boxcar” Ben. Regardless of their brand of politics, they are significant figures in the grand tapestry of Latinx history and deserve to be adequately critiqued in the context of their counterparts. For example, Bañuelos faced protests by the United Farm Workers and Chicana/o activists as a result of her hiring practices and for her loyalty to Nixon. These kinds of internal politics warrant closer examination and introspection for Chicanx scholars who seek to understand the ripple effect of the 1970s on our current politics. In the end, we learn that Hispanic Republicans are dogmatic about the principles that govern the GOP. Anti-communism paved the way for hostility towards any political philosophy left of center. Goldwater’s color-blind racism became the seed bed for a refashioned white supremacy, and the hero-worship that Nixon once enjoyed, and that Reagan still holds, created a condition that allows for a single person to shape the party agenda. In other words, Hispanic Republicans are just like the majority of Republicans, and they will not be so easily dislodged from the party apparatus.
 This letter is dated one day prior to the Chicano Moratorium that overtook Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and infamously culminated in widespread abuse by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and the murder of Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar.
 Betty Lounsberry, et. al. to Holifield, 28 August 1970, Chester Holifield Papers, box 22, folder “Welfare Programs 1970,” Department of Special Collections, University of Southern California.
 For more about the political climate surrounding undocumented immigration in California see Jimmy Patiño, ¡Raza Si! ¡Migra No!: Chicano Movement Struggles for Immigrant Rights in San Diego (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Press, 2017, 104. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled the Dixon Arnett legislation unconstitutional.
Jerry González is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Director of the UTSA Mexico Center, and Principal Investigator on the UTSA Mellon Humanities Pathways Grant. His research interests in Latinx metropolitan history and identity, transnational and transregional migrations, and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands inform the courses he teaches in history and American Studies. Prior to arriving at UTSA he spent 2009-2010 as a Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Latina/Latino Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he began work on his book, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press in the Series “Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States.” His current research on San Antonio as a site of continuous Latin American migrations explores the intersection of Sunbelt and Borderlands political economies, cultural confluence, and grassroots organizing.
Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the “Continental South” grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands. Waite’s statement that “slaveholders lusted after a transpacific dominion” is vividly supported by this book.
Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.
Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.
The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.
West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.
Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.
The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”
Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.
One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.
Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/
You’re listening to a live broadcast on Ehekatl 99.9, a pirate radio station named after the Aztec god of the wind, whose mission is to “advance the proletarian interest of the community and to counteract the military-industrial propaganda of the oppressor government.” A pilot-trainee has just taken the wheel of a “700-foot long state-of-the-art post-modern dirigible,” a master pilot by her side, and this Report in Progress is tracking their attempt to find Sky City, “a conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings – agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” What they expect to find there: “enough plant and animal life and atmospheric water to have sustained a totally marginalized and invisible population, in spite of the occasional 1979 Pontiac El Caminos, delivery vans, old tires and broken water heaters that fall out of the sky at approximately 145 miles an hour terminal velocity, landing in school yards and shopping mall parking lots, which the government blames on Muslims and maintains is yet another thing soon to be fixed by tax cuts.”
Reader, welcome to ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as “a fictional history of an actual company,” ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those “marginalized and disappeared” by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy. These include, among others, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, founded by real-life black aviator William Powell, and the East L.A. Balloon club, founded by the fictional Ericka Llanera. Building on his longstanding practice of personae-based artmaking, Romo gives this history/historical fiction a captivating visual form in détourned photographs, collages, etchings and mixed-media prints dispersed throughout the book, which blend the factual (incorporating photographs of real people, places and artifacts) and the fictional (assigning them captions that correspond to events and characters in the story).
One of the many pleasures of reading – or sifting through – ELADATL derives from the interplay between Romo’s and Foster’s sensibilities. As Romo describes their process, which includes the co-creation of characters and events, “sometimes the text would match the image, sometimes the text would fill in the gaps in the image, and sometimes the text would float away from the image. The relationship was dynamic.” With this project, and other related ones, such as a series of walking tours of East L.A. collected at elaguide.org, he and Foster feel they hit upon “an alternative to colonial, capitalist and white supremacist constructs of art-making,” working in a way that “wasn’t privatized or individualized or attuned to the market, that wasn’t restricted by hierarchy of medium, and that didn’t believe in the legitimacy of non-fiction over fiction or vice-versa.”
Another of the book’s pleasures lies in how it activates the relationship of part to whole, whether that be fragment to narrative, neighborhood to city/region, or individual to collective. The story of the dirigible lines themselves is not one of seamless coordination, but of hit-or-miss connections within a crumbling infrastructure that must constantly be made and re-made, imagined and re-imagined. In the chapter titled “Following Years Without Communications from Downtown, This Was What Our Agents Reported,” the company responds to an unfavorable customer review by organizing teams of agents to serve as inspectors, “sending them out to check on all the lines, our ships, stations, and maintenance and ancillary facilities. The reports we received back were like a slap in the face by an octopus. Twice maybe.”
Throughout the book, characters appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly, with no one “character arc” predominating—though the on again/off again romance between Sergio, a world-weary dirigible builder, and Mel, a fearless young dirigible pilot, causes things to gel just enough before it, too, comes apart. And here, too, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred: another character, Swirling Alhambra, seems to function as a surrogate for the writer, who’s been awarded a Poet of the Universe residency “located in a remote area of City Terrace” (the East L.A. neighborhood where Foster grew up and the subject of his influential poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual). Swirling is a humorously unreliable member of ELADATL, and a source of annoyance to many, but he is committed to the collective enterprise. In this fundamental orientation he resembles both Foster and Romo themselves (who are LAUSD teachers and activists), and the novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta, author of the legendary Revolt of the Cockroach People, who was a Chicano movement lawyer.
Acosta makes several cameos in the text, and ELADATL is animated throughout by a rasquache sensibility similar to Acosta’s own, a bricolage aesthetic with an underdog spirit and sense of struggle that is “down but not out,” to borrow Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s memorable formulation. Another rasquache forebear, Noah Purifoy, the L.A. Black assemblage artist and founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, also puts in an appearance –or his legendary desert “junk art” environment does, as an abandoned dirigible station. Nothing is thrown away, everything is repurposed — the form, or many forms, of ELADATL mark “an ongoing process of dodging erasure or denial,” in Foster’s words, “and individually, personally, reinventing community in order to survive.” As Romo observes, “the very way the book was created comes out of a particular political way of being.” Don’t be fooled by its wry, irreverent tone; this is a work of serious social imagination.
Given ELADATL’s rich texture and many layers, one must ask the question, can there even be a central storyline to a work like this? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is what’s happening with the dirigibles, up in the sky, and there is what’s happening down below, an archaeology of everyday life in East L.A., with its own “mysteries,” also documented in the book, which includes over seventy pages of appendices. One overarching goal of the project, Foster tells us, “was to float the figure of the imagination over the historical landscape of the ordinary everyday and ask people to look.” The dirigible, with its slow-moving heft, drifting along erratic pathways, is the perfect incarnation of an imagination always in sight but just beyond reach of the predictable circuits of daily life (work, eat, sleep, repeat).
As we read on in ELADATL, the struggle to reactivate the dirigible lines begins to merge with the climate crisis, and the very real possibility that that there are no more possibilities to be had. Even as Mel and Tina, another young agent, hustle to get the ships back in the air, dirigible stations throughout Southern California are being repurposed by anarchist mutual aid groups and other community members to house climate refugees. At the South Gate station, Food Not Bombs “was showing Salt of the Earth and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill over and over for refugees from the most recent firestorm . . . [and had] set up the vegetarian buffet for people who hadn’t had hot food in days, José Uriarte brought in his taco truck and set out the salsa, and even Ray Palafox mobilized Los Quemados to blast out cumbias or whatever they call it in a free concert.” ELADATL shows us what climate collapse looks like in the everyday:
That’s just how it is (when it’s not worse), everybody driving with their lights on even if it doesn’t help much to cut the blowing clouds of particulate and debris, pedestrians wearing face masks and head wraps, hunched over against it like a desert sandstorm, now there’s a haboob for you, everything glowing orange from sunlight refracted through carbon dioxide, they say, and the wind tearing through the streets . . . a telephone pole in an intersection, people driving around it, shipping container on top of a store, a billboard on top of parked cars.
In an eerie parallel to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Jewish-lasers-from-space-caused-the-California-wildfires conspiracy theory, “experts and spokespersonifiers” insist that all of this is not, in fact, due to climate change, but the work of Hair Balls from Outer Space blasting Europe and the United States with Death Rays. While “white guys with automatic rifles” drive around “firing at anything suspicious,” the official response is the same old non-response: “trillions of spending on rockets” and “nukes to rain down on enemies and terrorists and stuff.”
Unabashedly experimental, ELADATL resists linear narrative at every turn, knocking time out of joint by bringing invisible histories to light and to life, not content to let the past be the past, nor the present be the present. This strategy reveals its full power in the moving scene where Mel and Tina briefly exit “the blasted smoke and particulate atmosphere” of full-on societal and climate apocalypse and “[descend] in actual sunshine and [merge] with the crowd into the infinitely forgetful city.” They suddenly find themselves marching towards downtown L.A. in the middle of something that looks a lot like the recent protests for George Floyd, or an immigrant rights protest, or a teachers’ strike—or as it happens these days, all three–running into old friends (who also happen to be Foster’s and Romo’s real-life comrades, fellow artists, writers, educators and activists), everyone glad to be there and be there together. Is this all in the past now, only a memory? Or is it a glimpse of what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present,” a way out of the nightmare – if, like Foster and Romo, we know where and how to look.
Sesshu Foster (left) Arturo Ernesto Romo (right)
Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts.
 “Q & A with Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, authors of ELADATL: A History of the East los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines,” City Lights.
 Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.” In Chicano aesthetics : Rasquachismo, 5-8. Exh. cat., Phenix, Aruz. : MARS, Movimiento Artiscico del Rio Salado, 1989.