EN5333, US Latino Literature
Dr. G. Diaz
October 13, 2001
San Antonio Inter-American
Bookfair and Literary Festival
“beyond the river, words also flow,” theme of this year’s Inter-American Bookfair and Literary Festival, foreshadowed “things to come,” including last night’s sheets of rain on the windshield of my car as I struggled to get home before midnight. With caution and the agility of a Walenda, I removed the size 10 boot from my right foot, so as not to press too hard on the accelerator. I remind myself that I’m in a car, not a hydroplane. I will get home safely so that I may attend tomorrow’s festival, come hell or high water!
The 35-mile drive from my Medina Lake home to the festival passed quickly as anxiety-borne adrenaline caused me to forget that I was driving in heavy traffic--cars, pickups, cycles, and RVs--all going “thataway.” “Why was I nervous?” I mused, knowing full well that this feeling was no stranger to me. I recalled experiencing the same sensation while en route to the Latina Letters Conference held at St. Mary’s University last summer. I questioned the unsettling effect that literary symposiums seem to have on me.
Perhaps the jitters befall me knowing that I may become acquainted with some highly educated women and men. But, how could this possibility alarm me? The guy voted “most likely-to-meet-everyone who attends raza conventions?” The “perica king?” Not me, I am a total stranger to nervousness when speaking with other people, particularly if the conversation regards issues affecting our Hispanic community. Unless of course...that’s it! I’m afraid that someone may ask me a question about literature.
Feelings of inadequacy prevail concerning my own literary knowledge. I tend to panic each time I’m asked for opinions of certain books or authors. I am embarrassed to say that I read my story de jour in the San Antonio “Excuse-for-the-News.” Well, maybe this particular event will be different....
I enter the auditorium foyer where book vendors have set up tables piled high with endless stacks of books. Walking by an attendant passing out festival program books, I head straight to the first table and pick up the first book I see from a stack of about twenty. I casually flip through a few pages, and then glance around to see if others notice me. They do! I smile at them as I reach into my shirt pocket and pull out my reading glasses, they smile back. I decide not to put my glasses on. I placed the aforementioned book back on the stack without looking down, but continued to engage in a smiling contest with those other smilers. I bumped the stack, thus causing it to tumble onto the other stacks, creating a mini-domino effect across the vendor’s table. He is not smiling anymore. I leave the foyer.
I attempt to walk past the attendant standing at the top of the stairway leading to the auditorium, since the next reading has begun. Mr. “Gatekeeper” steps in front of me, looking straight into my eyes. His thick eyebrows extend upward and his head is cocked slightly downward as if he might charge at me. I half-expect him to say, “Halt! Who goes there?” He surprises me by asking instead, “Don’t I know you?”
“I think so,” I answer him without explaining. He seems perplexed. He hands me a program book while motioning with his arm toward the auditorium doors located at the bottom of the staircase. His walrus-like mustache flutters as he mumbles something about the dirty stairs.
I clearly heard him say, “Wash your step!”
I enter the auditorium and find a comforting seat in the back to calm my “jitters.” I learned the hard way years ago never to sit in the front row during a lecture. I suffered the embarrassment of being asked a question I couldn’t answer. The speaker had no way of sensing my capability to tell him to “fuck off.” I never sit in the front row anymore, and I am certain that that one speaker asks no more questions from his audience!
Anyway, I clearly see Marta Moreno Vega from the back row, as she saunters to the podium. She is dressed in a full-flowing dress and wears a bright red scarf wrapped around her head to hold her hair away from her face. At first glance, she reminds me of the stereo-typical, regal African Queen in native dress I once saw on WorldLink TV. She looked quite elegant as the lights in the room dimmed, and the spotlight fell upon her.
Marta Moreno Vega immediately chastised the lighting director by ordering that all lights be turned on, since she was not an entertainer, and she much preferred to see the people in the audience. The lights came on as quickly as they had been turned off. The queen had spoken. I sat in the back, smiling, thinking how lucky I was not to have to say “fuck off” again--not today.
Before reading an excerpt from her newest book, The Altar of My Soul, Marta first strove to explain why she wrote it. “A Dominican sister,” she said, not elaborating whether the sister was a nun or a comrade in the struggle, “helped her to realize that she should accept herself as an African Diaspora, and as such, embrace that culture.”
Marta went on further to explain her thoughts on Santería, the theme of her book. She wanted to dispel any negative myths regarding the religion that was created by people in her new culture.
Marta claims that ignorance led to the belief that Santería was a religion that worshipped the devil. “The devil doesn’t say to anyone what a person ought to do.” She said. “In the new culture, historians took those things that are precious to us, or that defined who we are, and made them as negative. Santería is one of those things. History books do not include our experience, but rather treat them as blurbs. So, we try to find our own space.”
I believe Marta Vega suggests that we take culture, religion, or any other intrinsic value and search for our own identity. We cannot depend on others to define us. After her short reading, she closed by saying, “Our people are cultural and spiritual warriors, in spite of the attempt to marginalize us by our new society.”
In contrast, the second author in the symposium breakout I attended, Three Lives: Fiction and Biography as Bedfellows, Norma Cantú, seems to be in a hurry to get to the podium as she scoots across the stage in a half-trot. I venture a guess that this lady has an attitude--a very confident one. I like her even before she begins to speak. She speaks. I was right.
Norma reads from her book, Canicula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera.
Boom! Boom! Boom! She rattles off a series of very witty and true short stories of herself as a young girl growing up in a Chicano family. She proves that growing up Chicano was, and always will be, a beautiful experience.
Norma Cantú also writes about identity, but in my opinion, she does it from a collective, rather then an individual perspective. Her stories provide a better balance of familia values more recognizable for me, as opposed to Vega’s Santería, which I respectfully, but reluctantly, accept and only in the “new society” vernacular--the negative sense.
Cantú describes people and events in her book through the use of much imagery and metaphoric tools for exaggeration. They become caricature-like, yet very believable.
She ends her presentation with a reading from a story entitled, Tengo Piojos. She uses the idea of having piojos as a form of inclusion. All of Cantú’s friends have lice, get sent to the nurse’s office, and are sent home with a bottle of yellow liquid that is used to shampoo their hair. She succumbs to peer pressure and piojos and is sent home. I laughed throughout Norma Cantú’s account of her life in the barrio. Norma took me back to my youth.
The final presenter, Bárbara Mujica, is arguably the most noted author of the three hermanas. Her resume is a litany of published works. She began her presentation by apologizing for not being able to live up to her introduction and added, “I will try my best.” For a moment, Bárbara’s unsuredness reminded me of my own now-dissipated nervousness due to my being seated in the back row.
Mujica’s introduction to her book, Frida, was limited, and then she began to read it. I needed only a few sentences read to me before I had decided that the back row is also good for sleeping. I guess it’s the memoir, creative non-fiction aficionado in me which prevents me from listening to true biography. I wake up and leave. The only identity perspective in this presentation was the lack of a mask--to hide mine.
In summary, Cantú, Mujica, and Vega share a common thread linking the three of them to me and to the rest of the audience--empowerment. These three Latinas have crossed the river, a metaphor for an implied barrier, and have chosen to let the “words flow.”
They will not let the “new society” surreptitiously dam the dialogue, unless, of course, acculturation chips away at the surface piece by piece.
As the insidious sweet fragrance wafts through the air--a mixture of “Red”, “Happy”, and “Eternity”, I deeply inhale a powerful sense of cross-cultural assimilation. This is followed by a conscious exhalation of personal gratification, which sifts through the hairs in my nose. I leave the cold auditorium in search of my own identity, or, at the very least, finding a way to get rid of my “Siete Machos” cologne.
I return home enthralled with the thought of becoming a writer. As I drive across the last bridge, I glance downward at the rain-swollen creek, only yesterday a bed of sun-bleached stones, and voice out loud the first wave of words that come to mind. “I am beyond the Rio Bravo, and it will not foil the flow of my words--the dam is destroyed.”