Photo still taken from a Facebook video of protestors against the visit by AG Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly visited my hometown of El Paso along last week while I was in Indianapolis. I watched the protest on Facebook Live, listening to people yell "No Somos Criminales!" We are not criminals. I thought about the real frontera, the one that I know and live. Not the one that Sessions paints of a lawless place of "depravity and violence." Jeff Sessions says my border city is "ground zero," a "beach head" in a war against gangs and cartels.
Earlier on his visit to the Arizona border Sessions said that cartels “turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent citizens, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders... It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”
El Paso civic leaders quickly responded. The Texas Monthly reported that everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the County Judge to the Congressman complained that this was one of the safest cities in the nation, and that these kinds of statements make it harder to attract people to our city. (See http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/jeff-sessions-likened-el-paso-war-zone/ for their report.)
In Nogales, Sessions declared, "This is a new era. This is the Trump era"
Indeed, and still shockingly, it is the Trump era but it is not that new. The border has been villainized, criminalized, and mischaracterized for over a century. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, reporters and others found their deeply held perceptions of Mexicans as untrustworthy and lawless "bandits" reinforced by the civil war that tore Mexico apart. U.S. fears of German alliances with Mexico as well as revolutionary organizing on this side of the border added to the fear. In South Texas, the Texas Rangers killed unknown numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, justifying the killings as their stopping "Mexican bandits." Postcards like the one below were made popular, portraying the Texas Rangers as keepers of law and order. In 1919 Texas state representative J.T. Canales called for an investigation into the Texas Rangers and the investigation concluded that the Rangers had killed possibly 5,000 Mexican Americans between 1914-1919.
The investigation produced hundreds of pages of testimony.
The Rangers, los rinches, have been immortalized by a joke people used to tell in South Texas, one that I learned from my graduate school professor who was born on the King Ranch.
Did you know that every Texas Ranger has Mexican blood? [Here people usually respond with surprise.]
On his boots! [Here people don't know whether to laugh or get angry because people still remember the violence.]
Postcards like the one shown below were popular across the United States. Titled "Dead Mexican bandits," the 1915 postcard reinforced the image of the border as dangerous and border people as criminals. Although it was probably staged, the violence it represents resonated with border people who lived the anti-Mexican violence in their daily lives and reinforced the beliefs of those outside the border that dramatic means were necessary to stop the criminal Mexicans.
This is not dead history. In South Texas, stories of the violence against Mexican Americans have been passed on from generation to generation. A group of historians created "Refusing to Forget," a public history project that uses museum exhibits, curricular materials, lectures, and historical markers to tell the history of this time, to remember the murders of innocent Mexican Americans and to tell this story that is often hidden in the laudatory story of Texas "freedom.".
In El Paso, this is not dead history. As I watched the Facebook video of the protesters telling Sessions he was not welcomed here, I also heard them chant, "We are not criminals! We are not criminals!" After a century, border people are still demanding our dignity be respected in the face of politically-motivated attacks on our very being and on our character.
I long for the day when instead of chanting "We are not criminals," we can say instead "We are. And we will be. We are on our land."
Mi Manda Fronteriza
a promise to God
Acclaimed author Denise Chávez invited me to participate in a panel at the Press Women of New Mexico Conference held in Mesilla, New Mexico on April 22, 2017. She asked the panelists to address the following questions:
I have a childhood memory. One of those dream like memories that you question over the years. My mother is walking on her knees up the steps of a church, each move forward more painful. I am walking alongside her. I know that I am very little because even though she is on her knees I am still smaller than she is. It is her manda, her spiritual promise. When she was in her 80s, she told me, “Remember when I walked on my knees to the church?” That’s all she said. I never knew why she made that sacrifice or what motivated her to do something I had never known her to do before.
My father’s manda, however, was a story I heard all my life. Born in 1910, two months before the Mexican Revolution broke out in the Mexican north, he was blind. His mother Emeteria made a manda. She would not cut his hair until he was healed and once he was healed, she would cut it and offer it to El Santo Niño de Atocha, the beloved holy child that people in Durango where my grandmother was from turn to in times of need. When my father was two, he began to see. My grandmother braided his hair, tied it with a blue ribbon and took it to the church. The priest said, “Why would I want this hair? We need money.” So the family kept the braids and now I keep them these 105 year old trenzas, waiting for the day I give them to my son.
Over the years I have made my own mandas, my own sacrifices made in prayer. I have fasted. I have done without water for days. I have walked down dusty roads praying on my way to a church. My greatest manda, however, has been the one to dedicate myself to recovering and preserving the histories of la frontera. It is a place to me that is painful and weighs on me so heavily sometimes that I feel that I can’t breathe. It is also a place of beauty and vitality and creativity that I can never imagine leaving.
Many of us hear the stories of our births and they become part of our origin story. I am no different. I was born in the mid-1950s to a teenaged woman name Guadalupe. My identical twin sister and I where is born at 2 pounds and no one expected us to live. Everyone waited for us to die—the doctor, the nurses, our mother and family. We spent a month in an incubator and when it was time to release us my mother did not have the money to pay the bill. The doctor made a proposal. Give one of us to him and she could just leave. As a child, I sometimes saw his house as we drove down Avenida Juárez. To me it look like a mansion and I wondered whether I would be raised as his daughter or as a criada, a servant.
Instead, my mother offered us to her aunt who had never been able to have children. Her aunt said she could not take children from their mother. She offered us to her mother but her mother said she was too poor to keep us. She thought about keeping us but wasn't sure how she would keep us alive. In the end her aunt relented and agreed to take one of us so she gave one of us to her aunt and one of us to her mother. When her aunt first saw us she looked for the one who looked más vivita, more alive and energetic. She chose me and brought me to El Paso. My sister died after a brief time with our grandmother in Juárez from drinking bad water. I came to El Paso, received medical care and thrived. Because my sister lies in an unmarked grave on the other side of the Border I know that part of me exists on each side.
I tell you this origin story because I don’t remember a time that I didn’t know it. I remember knowing it before I entered school and it shaped me and my understanding of my place in the world. This is why I do the work I do—because the border is filled with stories of potential, of different paths, of suffering and rebirth. It is not the black and white story told by our politicians of “bad hombres” and invasions. It is not the “ground zero” that Attorney Sessions labeled it on his visit to El Paso a couple of days ago.
I see my work as a historian, as a keeper of histories, as the reason I survived my birth. It is my calling. For thirty years I have documented the histories of border people. I see it as a way to heal. We don’t always understand the lives of the people who came before us and the ways in which we carry their trauma and their resiliency. It’s more common now to talk about epigenetics – how the experiences of our ancestors change the ways our DNA functions. But social workers and psychologists have studied inter-generational trauma for decades.
For years I’ve documented the history of Mexican American children on the border and the unequal education they received from school districts who believed that Mexican children didn’t need an education. More recently, I’ve conducted oral histories on the elders who lived these experiences and supervised the creation of videos for a “Voices from the Border” series. I want their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to know these histories so that they understand themselves. And I want the larger community to know the histories so that when politicians say the border is filled with people who don’t want to work, who are threats to the United States, who come here to seek only welfare, we will have a historical record of the truth.
Denise Chávez asked us to think about our legacy and it is something that I have started to think about recently, as I grow older. The legacy that I hope to leave behind is my work as an educator who trains my students to look at the complexities of border life and are devoted to their work as historians, but who as importantly understand that the work we do has a deeper meaning than simply writing for other historians. What we recover and the histories we tell, the truth-telling, goes back to heal the memories of generations past and forward to heal the generations to come. And I know that truth-telling is not always pretty but without it, we won’t know who we truly are.
Antonia Morales aka Doña Toñita walking at a protest in defense of her barrio this week
This week Antonia Morales attended a City of El Paso open house where city staff tried to explain why her neighborhood, Barrio Duranguito, should be demolished. She walked in a protest against mayoral candidate Donald "Dee" Margo, a Republican who is in favor of demolishing Duranguito and calls Mexicans "riff raff" and "illegals." She participated in a Women's Studies Conference panel at the University of Texas at El Paso. Tonight, she will also attend the regular meeting between residents of Duranguito and their supporters.
And one last thing-- this week she turned 89.
She is the epitome of a Fierce Fronteriza.
Artwork by Zeke Peña/ Typography by Los Dos.
Doña Toñita has lived in Duranguito continually since 1965, and lived there as an teenager years earlier. She remembers walking home one day in 1945 and seeing the women of her barrio on their knees crying. She thought the world was ending but it was World War II that had ended and the women were giving thanks that their sons, husbands, and brothers would soon be returning home.
She has been a community leader for decades. Under the Clinton administration she participated in a program for seniors, leading the campaign to clean up the neighborhood from crime. Because of her leadership and the hard work of her neighbors, Barrio Duranguito is a safe and peaceful neighborhood.
I met Toñita in mid-October of last year, shortly after the City of El Paso announced that the City Council was scheduled to vote on whether to put an arena in the barrio, displacing the mostly elderly neighbors. The day before the vote, Dr. David Romo and I, both members of Paso del Sur, a grassroots organization that works with Southside neighborhoods to stop displacement, met with a group of Duranguito neighbors including Toñita. We asked how we could help. Did they want us to assist them in negotiating assistance from the City? Did they want us to be part of the fight against displacement? We told them it was up to them. Unanimously, they said, "Help us stay in our homes." The next day, the women of Duranguito went to their first City Council meeting to defend their barrio.
I have often heard Toñita call herself a fronteriza. "Soy fronteriza. He convivido mi vida en los dos lados de la frontera." Her life story shows the complexity of living on the border. Born in Columbus, New Mexico, her birth was registered in Palomas, Chihuahua so although she is a US citizen by birth, she had to go through the naturalization process to become a citizen.
She frequenlty says, "No me expreso muy bien," adding that she doesn't speak English or Spanish very well yet she is one of the most eloquent and forceful speakers I have ever heard. She did not have the opportunity to attend school but her lived experiences have been her education.
In the video below, courtesy of Paso del Sur, you can hear Toñita speak about the value of the people in her barrio.
The day before her 89th birthday, Toñita told us she would share the secret of her long life with us. "Surround yourself with young people and they will keep you young." Toñita's energy is indeed young. She is a fierce fronteriza who defends her barrio with love.
Happy 89th birthday, Antonia Morales. You inspire me.
and the 1980
Several days ago, I received a message from a student wanting to know about a lesbiana archive project I had back in the 1990s.... somehow the message has disappeared. I'm reaching out to you through this blog. Please message me again!
There was a recent post in Slate titled "Dyke Culture and the Disappearing L" that said:
My generation of lesbian activists, who honed our identity politics and confronted racism and classism in the spaces of women’s music events and women’s bookstores, are approaching a cultural expiration date. Having achieved many of the radical goals we pursued through the late 20th century—same-sex marriage, antidiscrimination laws, openly lesbian celebrities and politicians—we are indeed celebrating new opportunities to be out and proud. Yet having been permitted to be “out,” many of us are now spending the energy of our menopausal years pushing back against encroaching disappearance; our own invisibility. Dyke identity, that specific nomenclature of the fierce woman-identified woman, has been replaced by the more inclusive queer, as a new era of thoughtful LGBT activists proclaim their disidentification with the categories woman and lesbian.
(See here for the entire article: http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2016/12/22/disappearing_lesbians_and_the_need_to_preserve_dyke_culture.html)
As the generation of lesbians that I came of age with become elders, we have much to share about what it was like to be queer in the 1960s and 1970s and the 1980s. I had a son when the only lesbians who had children were the women who had married, had children, and then come out. Sometimes I wonder if today's young lesbian mothers know what we older lesbian mothers went through to raise children at a time that our children could be taken from us because being a lesbian was inherently considered being an unfit mother.
In the 1990s, I sought out the women who had come out in the 1950s, wanting to know what it was like for them. Each generation has our own challenges and successes, our own history. We are all connected, not by blood, but by love and courage.
Just know, that it made me very happy to hear from you and I am happy to share whatever I can.
We are not all immigrants
A few days ago, International Business Times ran an article reporting that "DNA proves that Native American and indigenous Canadian groups along the northern Pacific Ocean have been living there for more than 10,000 years." The article stated that this evidence backs up the oral traditions of the contemporary descendants of these ancient people. The headline, however, erroneously yet not surprisingly declares, "America's First Immigrants: DNA Links Native Americans, Indigenous Canadians To First Ancient Migration."
Were there "immigrants" 10,000 years ago?
In his 1995 book Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact, scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. recounted a story of a 1970s trial in Nebraska where Native Americans were fighting to enforce a 19th century treaty. Discussion of the Bering Strait came up and during the break, a white woman came up to Deloria. "Well, dearie, we are all from somewhere," she gushed. Deloria writes that "Her remark was symptomatic of non-Indian response to Indian pleas. By making us immigrants to North America they are able to deny the fact that we were the full, complete and total owners of this continent."
The theft of Indigenous land was the foundation of this nation.
The liberal concept that "we are all immigrants" is dangerous and wrong. Conservatives also critique it, but for a different reason than I will. They argue that it is misleading because a nation cannot be made up of diverse people since the word "nation" originates with Latin word for "birth." Nations must be homogeneous, they say. This is a a damaging critique.
Relying on the idea that "we are all immigrants" makes the violent creation of the nation, the imposition of a border, as well as the traumatic history of the powerful elite deciding who belongs and who doesn't belong, who is a citizen and who is not a citizen invisible. It makes us all appear homogeneous in our immigrant journeys to becoming "American."
The word "migrant" in English dates back to the 1670s but the word "immigrant" dates to the 1790s, a time when nation-states and nationalism were on the rise. The word was used increasingly by the 19th century when Irish immigrants began to come to the United States in rising numbers. By the early 20th century, its use was increasing dramatically as people from Latin America and Eastern and Southern Europe began migrating here.
What the "we are all immigrants" concept hides is the traumatic effects of the theft of land and lives upon which the US was built as well as Manifest Destiny and U.S. imperialism.
Despite Secretary of HUD Ben Carson's allegation that enslaved people were immigrants (made possible by the widespread of acceptance of the "we are all immigrants" lie), over twelve million Africans were brought from African involuntarily; ten million survived the middle passage to come to the Caribbean, South and North America. The descendants of enslaved people undermine the immigrant lie.
In 1846, the U.S. declared war on Mexico and took half of its national territory, including the valuable Pacific ports in 1848. Approximately 100,000 people were incorporated into this nation against their consent. These first "Mexican Americans" were not immigrants. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war did little to protect these forced "Americans." The first generation of Mexican Americans lost land, political and social status, and despite the fact that the Treaty said they would be citizens, they were not treated as citizens. The descendants of the Mexicans involuntarily brought under US control undermine the immigrant lie.
In 1898, the US war against Spanish imperialism lasted a matter of weeks. While the United States was initially welcomed by the Puerto Ricans and Cubans fighting for their independence because the US declared it was fighting for their freedom, the end of the war did not bring freedom. Instead the US annexed Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam as colonies. In 1917, the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship. A recent survey reported by LatinoUSA showed that less than half of Americans believe that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. The existence of Puerto Ricans brought into the US involuntarily undercuts the "we are all immigrants."
We are not all immigrants.
Returning to the Mother
What do we carry of our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers? It has intrigued me for years. In 2008, I wrote a piece about carrying the stories of generations of women in my family not just in my memory but in my body. Years ago I wrote a poem titled "El Regreso: an invocation" where I named generations of women in my family who preceded me. I have been seeking an understanding of our connections to our ancestors my whole life. As a five year old, I built a small grave in our backyard for my twin Elisa who had died as a baby so that I could feel connected to her.
Perhaps it is because I never knew my mother that I have always sought to find her in me somehow. Perhaps it is because I lost my other half, my identical twin sister Elisa, just as we were beginning our lives.
It is these losses, these voids, that have encouraged me to find pieces of my ancestors inside of me.
Guadalupe, my birth mother
Can we know the traumas and the resilience of our ancestors? How do we recognize them? It's not as simple as recognizing wavy hair or hazel eyes. When I became an abuelita, I began to see for the first time how both physical traits and personalities are passed on from generation to generation. I also began to see how pain and trauma was passed on.
As a historian and as a keeper of family stories, I know much about the trauma experienced by my people and my ancestors. I know about the resistance and resilience as well. I believe that both are passed on inter-generationally.
A recent book, It Didn't Start WIth You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn has provided me new insights in recognizing the trauma and how it expresses itself. Wolynn makes a rather amazing observation: When our mothers were in the womb of their mothers, they already carried the eggs that would eventually become us. Three generations inhabit the same body.
Several years ago, scientists discovered that the DNA of sons remains in the brain of their mothers for a lifetime. It can also reside in the liver, spleen, and skin. The generations are connected in tangible, physical ways.
Esther, my great aunt and adoptive mother
Wolberg describes the bits and pieces of memory, the body sensations we can't explain, and the emotions that we feel deeply but that we know aren't really ours. These are markers of this inherited trauma. As scholars of both Holocaust survivors and their children have noted, the children manifest the same characteristics of trauma as their survivor parents even when the children don't know what their parents went through.
Two Elisas, born a century apart. One my great aunt; the other my granddaughter.
This understanding provides both an explanation for the physical, emotional, and spiritual pains that plague us as well as hope for healing and growing. It is our history that both harms us and heals us.
Maria, my great grandmother
It is an important and scary journey to begin-- to seek the trauma that lives inside our families, our communities, our people and confront it face to face. But it is not enough to acknowledge and place the trauma. Our ancestors left us a gift-- resilience, survival, cultural practices that promote our well-being.
Mercedes, my great great grandmother
I pray that we return to the mother to learn how our ancestors have shaped us and so we can seek our healing, for the generations that came before us and for the generations that come after us.