How the Term ‘Essential Worker’ Obscures the Cost of Racialized Human Life
October 5, 2020
“The Latino community is suffering a lot right now,” says Arnulfo Romero. The former field supervisor lives in Santa Maria, California, an agricultural community that, depending on which way its sea breeze blows, smells of strawberry, broccoli, or diesel. The town is small by California standards, populated by about 107,000 residents. Most, like Romero, are Latino of Mexican origin. Many are also Indigenous (primarily Mixteco).
While the Santa Maria Valley’s berry crops have sweetened the region’s reputation, its large concentration of COVID-19 infections now brings notoriety.
“Santa Maria’s number of coronavirus deaths has been higher than anywhere else in Santa Barbara County,” Romero laments. “The only place that looked like it was going to outpace Santa Maria was the prison in Lompoc. But it got worse here.”
With The November Election Looming, Viral Video’s Vibe Brings Comfort
October 2, 2020
Like many rucas, I’ve found comfort in the videos of quasi-midwestern cholo Nathan Apodaca, aka @doggface208, the one that went hardcore viral, stoking much adulation, features Apodaca skating through a flatly serene anywheresville, sippin’ cranberry juice from the bottle, enjoying the wind on his bald head as Stevie Nicks serenades: “Now here you go again. You say you want your freedom…”
Many of us admire that vibe.
We envy it too since an ugly but largely unspoken fear hangs in the air. An unanswerable question provokes this fear.
What will happen in November?
Some people, white male Democrats in particular, answer this question cavalierly. They argue that to suggest that the current head of state might refuse to leave office in spite of an electoral loss is a sin against our hallowed Constitution. The United States of America is an exceptional empire with a founding document crafted by Providence herself. Americans always, well, mostly, submit to rule of law and this election will not deviate from historical precedent! Any attempt to persuade these voters otherwise results in figurative fingers inserted into figurative ears.
“The Undocumented Americans” Expands The Latinx Canon
October 2, 2020
Latina geniuses aren’t rare.
You’ll find us anywhere Latinas are which means you can locate us in schools and in prisons and in the House of Representatives and skateboarding down messed up sidewalks and praying at misa, beseeching La Virgen for winning lottery numbers or for our ex to get run over by a bus. You can also find us in libraries and a Latina genius I urge you to read is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of “The Undocumented Americans,” a hardcore non-fiction masterpiece that makes no attempt to humanize migrants because humanizing projects always achieve the opposite. One of my favorite lines in Karla’s book violently makes this point: “I’d honestly rather swallow a razor blade than be expected to change the mind of a xenophobe.”
On August 27th, I had the pleasure of participating in a remote “fireside chat” with Karla about her work. We All Grow Amigas, an online community that provides “original content, mentorship, wellness sessions and growth tools developed with [Latinas] in mind,” hosted our talk.
The Lost Women Who Haunt My Dreams
July 29, 2020
Have you been sleeping badly?
Some nights, it’s insomnia. I lie in bed, blinking at the darkness, trying to calm my imagination. Its current preoccupation is a terrifying place: the future. I struggle to conjure soothing images. Sheep. Lavender. Vaccines. Once I do fall asleep, my rest is fitful. I wake up during the spookiest of hours, around one or two in the morning. After shoving off my sweat-drenched sheets, I stagger to the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, and breathe. I return to bed. The challenge of falling back asleep intimidates me. My dreamscapes are no longer benign. The macabre saturates them.
Why I’ll Probably Vote For Biden Even Though He Turns My Stomach
June 24, 2020
I’ll probably vote for Joe Biden. There’s a chance I might not. This essay, though, isn’t about that. It’s about who Biden is and how we arrived at this moment, one during which political machinery offers us a choice between a head of state who advocates that we be choked versus one who’ll have us shot in the leg. In other words, I want to discuss why the United States two-party system allows us to choose how we will be abused, not if.
Biden me da asco. That Spanish statement imperfectly translates to Biden disgusts me. Quizás you’re thinking, “Of course he disgusts you: he’s a politician!” Now, I understand that politicians are gonna politician. I understand that just like my parents, politicians are not supposed to be my friends. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a centrist chide “Elections are always a choice between the lesser of two evils!” and “Just hold your nose and vote!” my disgust would be heavily subsidized. The thing is, I don’t fantasize about a lovable president who sends me friend requests. Instead, I fantasize about one who isn’t at war with the people I love. I fantasize about one who isn’t at war with me.
The Reckoning Of (Fu)Lana Del Rey
June 5 2020
Toward the end of her IG rant, (Fu)Lana proclaims that she “paved the way for other women to stop ‘putting on a happy face’ and to just be able to say whatever the hell they wanted to in their music…” As if Poly Styrene never swayed onstage screaming, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/But I say…/Oh Bondage! Up yours!” As if Alice Bag never pogoed on stage chanting, “Violence girl!” GTFOH, Hannah de la Montana.
Because WASPs are low-key murder hornets, they never apologize. They strike back. Womxn of color called Fulana out, we explained to her why her letter was nasty, and she doubled down, claiming that she’s sticking up for “people who don’t look strong…it’s about advocating for a more delicate personality.”
Be About It: How a City Stands Together for #BLM & the Cry to Defund the Police
June 4 2020
On the morning of March 25, a cohort of Black Lives Matter activists assembled on the front porch of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s home. Frustration drove them there. For a year, the DA had been giving them the runaround. Activists wanted her to explain her unwillingness to prosecute killer cops. She had given them her word that she’d meet with them.
The DA broke her promise.
When her husband, Donald Lacey, opened their front door that day, he emerged with a handgun, aiming it at the chest of scholar-activist Professor Melina Abdullah. With his finger on the trigger, he announced, “I will shoot you.” Before retreating back into his home, Lacey announced that he was going to summon the very force that BLM was there to hold accountable.
“We’re calling the police right now!” he threatened.
Why Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s ‘The Undocumented Americans’ Is a Hardcore Masterpiece
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio kicks off her creative non-fiction masterpiece The Undocumented Americans with a three-word declaration of love: “Chinga la migra.” This inscription establishes the book’s punk sensibility while el Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart—a Catholic symbol she baroquely asserts) lays down a beat. It will come as no surprise that the writer, herself a 30-year-old formerly undocumented Latina from Cotopaxi, Ecuador, chose the body’s hardest working muscle to represent migrant will.
Spatial politics structure The Undocumented Americans. Organized according to place, each chapter chronicles how geographic forces, from New York to Miami to Flint to Cleveland to New Haven, work to crush immigrants. Karla uses the art of the Standard American English sentence to process the violence of these United States and, she explains, that if one is going to write a book about undocumented immigrants, “you have to be a little crazy.”
Plus, “you certainly can’t be enamored of America…that disqualifies you.”
It’s Time to Take California Back from Joan Didion
May 12 2020
I doubt my abuelito read Didion. He’s dead so I can’t ask him. He was a Mexican writer, publicist, and machista who actively avoided prose written by women. I do know that critic Michiko Kakutani’s claim that “California belongs to Joan Didion” would’ve given him a chuckle. He’d whip a pen out from under his serape and fix the line: “California belongs to Joan Didion because her ancestors stole it.”
In my imagination, Abuelito’s version of history wrestles Didion’s. The white literary establishment handed her California but I propose we wrest it away from her. The Mexican presence haunting her work could do so if those of us living outside Didion’s prose lend a hand to the diaspora trapped inside of it.
How Controversy Over “American Dirt” Inspired a Movement for Change
April 9 2020
The Latinx demand to be part of the national literature shook White gatekeepers. From coast to coast, the most scandalized among them banged out editorials expressing panicked concern for themselves, Cummins’ safety, and the White imagination. People of color did the opposite.
By and large, thinkers and writers of color condemned the novel and Flatiron’s marketing strategy. We didn’t just call on the publishing industry to transform, we also urged the public to read responsibly, to read us in our own voices. Latinx reading lists proliferated. Booksellers reported that demand for our titles had spiked.
Our collective rage gratified me. I traveled the United States speaking with audiences about Dignidad Literaria at public forums. Many Latinx folks I met shared the frustration and rage they’ve carried since the day that a White supremacist committed the largest massacre of Latinx people in United States history. For many of us, it’s come as a relief to be able to shout that we’re tired, we’re scared, and we’ve had enough. Anger expresses our truth. Politeness masks it.
I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.
March 12, 2019
I recalled the chilliness and aggression some white teachers and administrators had been displaying toward me since I had criticized the book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, and the publishing industry’s white gaze, criticisms that were echoed by other writers of color across social media. I looked up from the paper, at the Mexican and American flags sagging above my desk, and thought, “I wonder who will use this paper for target practice.”
Little did I know that three days later, I would be escorted off the campus where I teach by several administrators, security guards, and an armed police officer for a different, yet related, incident. As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.
My Taco Laughs at You: On Death Threats Aimed at Women of Color Who Don’t Fellate White Supremacy
January 23 2020
I called the police after my batterer told me he was thinking about driving me to a desolate California location, fucking me, and then soaking the countryside in my blood. After I shared these details with a domestic violence detective, he lectured me about male fantasies. The detective urged me to have compassion, stressing that what I had described is common and that I shouldn’t be frightened of the violence in men’s imaginations. When has a woman ever been harmed by a fantasy?
I pushed back against the detective’s bullshit, arguing that my boyfriend’s imagination should be taken very seriously. As proof of how much imagination matters, I explained that my boyfriend had discussed beating and raping me before beating and raping me. The detective then wanted to know what I was wearing when I got raped.
During questioning, the detective’s voice swelled with vicarious pleasure, making me feel freshly assaulted. Not wanting to endure a similar humiliation, I decided to refrain from reporting E. V. L. Whiteman to law enforcement. I didn’t need another lecture on male fantasy. I’m intimate with it. My back is scarred by it. My front tooth has been broken by it.
Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
December 12, 2019
(A scathing review of Jeanine Cummins’ brown-face novel “American Dirt”)
Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.
By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt.
And she did it anyways.For a seven-figure sum.
A seven-figure sum.
As Bart Simpson used to say, “Ay caramba!”
Tropics of Meta
El Corrido del Copete
December 17, 2019
Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.
I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.
October 13, 2019
As my lesbian marriage was disintegrating, I experimented with dating men and writing letters to the dead. I wrote one to Gertrude Stein nearly every day in order to see if it would make Alice B. Toklas mad. What follows are some of the results.
Dear Gertrude, I don’t have to introduce myself to you. You already know everything there is to know about me. You have this insight because I’m communicating to you through the Ouija board of my mind. Often, people compare the mind to a machine or computer. John Locke referred to it as a tabula rasa. Ancient Greeks conceived of it as wax tablet. I reject those analogies. I prefer the notion of it as an occult instrument.
SOY LA TEACHER
October 4, 2019
I proudly follow in my mother’s tiny Mexican footsteps. She taught bilingual kindergarten at the elementary school I went to and her presence was usually enough to keep me in line. There was, however, the time I blew off writing a book report. Instead of dealing with me herself, my White teacher decided to outsource my punishment. She dialed Mom’s classroom, snitched, and then handed me the phone.
“En cinco minutos,” hissed Mom, “irás al baño al lado de la biblioteca.”
The Mexplainer: A History of Anti-Brown Violence in the American Southwest
August 14, 2019
Mi familia had just moved into a big, white house in a “good” neighborhood, the kind of place where the windows weren’t supposed to have bullet holes. Nonetheless, here they were, pocking the panes of my little sister’s bedroom. I ran, found my father, and brought him to survey the vandalism. His green eyes squinted. Rage, terror, and disgust contorted his face. His brown bald spot glistened. He marched to the phone and dialed the sheriffs.
RACES, RAÍCES AND RACISM: Anti-Mexican Sentiment and Ultrarunning
July 24 2019
Because I suffered through puberty among racists, I can recite a lot of anti-Mexican jokes. Many involve athletic skill. “Why doesn’t Mexico have an Olympic team?” a twelve-year-old white boy hissed at me during recess. I braced myself. “Because any Mexican that can run, jump, or swim is in the US!” These days, I hear such rhetoric from the Oval Office.
One Word: Striking
June 26, 2019
While aiming a lens at my face, the photographer whispered, “You’re striking.”This quality lives far from pretty. Daisies are pretty. Adolescent hamsters are pretty. William Wordsworth wrote pretty poetry. It wasn’t striking. Striking poetry ambushes us. The sensory details are chosen to paralyze, discomfit, or inflict pain. When such poetry bears lilies, they fester. When such poetry harbors horses, they crush toes. When such poetry casts a fishhook, its metal sinks into an open eye.
One Word: Avuncular
March 19, 2019
My uncle Henry has killed a lot of people. In spite of his dark past, and because of it, he’s my favorite American uncle. Since I cherish bilingually, in English and in Spanish, I cherish my uncles and my tíos separately. The border separates us, cleaving family from familia. My favorite tío was Alvaro. Unlike Henry, he wasn’t a genius.
One Word: Salty
March 19, 2019
One kid raises their hand. They ask, “Miss Gurba, why’d you become a high school teacher?”This is a classic time-killing move. My tone turns serious. I respond, “It was an accident. Hearing a public school employee be so blunt widens kids’ eyes. They’ve baited me into a tacit game of truth-or-dare and I’ve knowingly broken the rules. I’m pretty sure they expect me to belt out the opening lyrics of The Greatest Love of All.
Why I Use Humor When Talking About My Sexual Assault
March 30, 2018
I chronicled this assault and an earlier instance of sexual molestation in my memoir Mean. When I’ve discussed the book with journalists, students and other writers, the same question repeatedly emerges: Why use humor to write about sexual abuse and violence? The inquiry veils a criticism. It implies that I’ve committed an impropriety by inviting readers to visit the intersection of horror and humor. I’m a cold and tasteless blasphemer for bringing them to this place. They would rather behave as if this intersection doesn’t exist. So much for intersectionality.
Our storytelling habits matter and I’ve listened, with care and concern, as a certain pattern of storytelling has come into vogue. This style saturates stories of sexual assault and violence with piety, banishing irreverence from the narrative. Stories of this sort have formed their own canon and developed their own script. According to it, experiencing sexual violence is the worst moment in a survivor’s life, period. It centers violation as a baptismal experience that defines one’s person and in many ways, all womanhood. Because such experiences are so exceptionally horrific, the tools we use to discuss the everyday, the language we use to talk about human events, fail us. We raid the vocabulary of religion in order to confer solemnity. We “witness” a victim’s pain as they “testify.”
A Guide to Gay Los Angeles, 1965
November 17, 2017
Before there was Grindr, there was The Address Book.
This guidebook, like all guidebooks, was written for the hungry. Its slogan, “See America. Find a friend,” hinted at the exact nature of its readers’ appetites while skirting the particularities.
Friends of Dorothy, and Sappho, turned to The Address Book, which debuted in 1965, to map their pursuits. The baedeker advertised via mail order, in-the-know bars sold it, and the initiated flung their bedraggled copies into the hands of the desperate. Butterflies must’ve fluttered in many a hopeful reader’s stomach as they skimmed the guidebook’s list of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs: these addresses offered potential antidotes to sadness
The Mexican American Bandit
November 6, 2017
My ex-wife stared as she watched my maternal grandmother slide a chicken into her purse. When she noticed she was being watched, my grandmother locked eyes with my ex-wife. In her thick Guadalajara accent, my grandmother bellowed, “For the dogs.” Her dogs were waiting outside of the buffet, in her truck. It was Mother’s Day and they were her most beloved.
On our way home, my ex-wife asked, “Have you seen your grandmother steal meat before?”