Author Archives: madesontodd

Lost Children Archive – last post :(

I think this novel is still one of the most interestingly written out of the books we’ve read throughout the course. To me, the nameless feature is still fascinating, and I struggle to find the purpose of this, although, I may have made some headway. I think I mentioned this last Thursday during our discussion, but it seems that this novel is attempting to give a voice to those who are normally silenced. This was referenced when we were talking about Box III and Box XI; while Box III consisted of famous novels that are well studied while Box XI consists of seemingly nonsense words and sounds. To me, it seems that Luiselli wants to bring consciousness to the fact that it is not only important to pay attention to and be aware of those world-renowned novels written by famous authors, but also the little stories and sounds and riddles that are present by the lesser known, by those who may not be famous and popular; they are just as important. I think the nameless feature has a similar function; perhaps the characters are nameless because refugees in the real world are often depersonalized. They are often referred to as “they”, or “trespassers”, “foreigners” or simply “refugees”. Their names are often erased or changed or forgotten. But by the end of the novel, Luisellini not only gave the main family names, but the lost children as well. More than that, she gave them all made up names, making them equal and on the same playing ground; adults or children, refugees or citizens, they were more or less equal. This may seem like a small or miniscule point or detail of the book, but I found it rather clever and fascinating.

Although there is a lot more to say about the novel, I wanted to take the rest of my blog to just reflect on this term and state my appreciation and thankfulness for this course. This is definitely not the way I thought I would be graduating, however, I wanted to thank all of you for making one of my last classes of undergrad so amazing. Even in this time of uncertainty and chaos, this class has kept me sane and inspired to keep my head up and make the best out of a strange situation. I wanted to do a big shoutout to Jon for being so awesome and accommodating with the switch online, as well as being such an amazing prof for inspiring thought-provoking discussions throughout the entirety of the term – thank you so much. I honestly learned so much from each and every one of you during our class discussions, and I found it super interesting how, although we were all drawn to the same course, we all come from different backgrounds and had such unique and valuable points to offer. We might be done our blog posts and perhaps tomorrow is our last “in person” group discussion, but I hope we can all keep in touch and maybe have a video chat here and there to all catch up. Overall, thank all of you for making this last term super memorable and awesome – love you all!

Lost Children Archive

I had lowered my expectations for this novel, as per Jon’s request, but I have honestly found it easier to read than Bless Me Ultima or Gregorio Cortez. Particularly, I have found the style of writing quite interesting. It is seemingly uninteresting and anticlimactic – there are no names for the characters (which I have not figured out why yet), the dialogue is rather dry and the conflicts we’ve seen so far are anti-dramatic. Instead, it is written in a self-reflexive nature, where Luiselli’s thoughts turn in and upon themselves.  In fact it seems that the book is written in such a way that is analogous to comparing a movie with a documentary; while a movie is full of action and expression and music that enhances every scene, a documentary is raw, dry and simply following the actions of the characters with no embellishments. I somewhat appreciate this about Luiselli’s writing, because it makes the events seem real and untainted. Moreover, like a documentary, Luiselli’s writing envelops the reader in such a way that it seems we are there with them I their 1996 Volvo wagon. That we are there as they drive across the country and make their pit stops to eat and drink and sleep.  

The title is also very intriguing… the meaning and purpose of it seems to be unravelling slowly as the novel goes on. For starters, the husband, wife and kids had brought archives with them – the boxes of books and audio recordings in their trunk – and they are attempting to find new material to add. However, the “lost children” part remains more mysterious. We do, however, have some idea thanks to the wife helping Manuela get her daughters into America. (I am realizing now that other characters have names while the main family does not, why is that?). When Manuela calls to say that they had lost their case and the girls have disappeared somewhere between New Mexico and Arizona, it seems that Luiselli had an ah-ha moment that her novel must be for “the children who are missing, those whose voices can no longer be heard because they are, possible forever, lost”. I think that this is such an intriguing way to write, because it seems as though we were brought on Luiselli’s journey to find her purpose and her passion. It seems as though we were included in the process of writing this book, as well as included in discovering the the how, why and for whom it was written.

The House on Mango Street

I can honestly say that The House on Mango Street was not what I expected when I began reading the book. Perhaps this is because I kind of did it backwards, as I read analyses on the book for the Wiki Project before reading the actual text, so I was expecting more of a novel that was written like others we have read in the class. So, its short, poetic-like narrative caught me by surprise.

It certainly is an interesting and intriguing way to write; not quite a novel, nor a short story. Not quiet a poem, nor a play. While it is a length of a novel, it is made up of short pieces, each of which have rhythm and rhyme, but are all connected by a unified story line. One article poses the question, “Is this a novel or a mere collection of letters?”, and this is a valid question.

The book is a testimony to her life – the poverty, cultural suppression, gender inequalities, her fears, her doubts, her bravery in overcoming obstacles and social constructs. Perhaps, then, the fragmented and unconventional way of the narrative is a reflection of the multi-faceted and fragmented life that she has experienced. One thing that I hadn’t noticed when reading this novel is the fact that each chapter (if that’s even what they’re called) can be read individually without any context. Apparently, this was purposeful on Cisneros’ part as she stated in an interview that she “wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or that could be read as a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with reverberation.” To me, this speaks to how great and skilled of a writer she really is, as making the individual parts seem whole by themselves, while also making them a congruent and continuous full story, is no easy task. This might be a stretch, but perhaps this is symbolic or reflective of her (and everyone’s) identity – we have snap shots of experiences in our lives that can be viewed as an episodic memory, one that holds part of who we are, but we can also view those memories as a continuous lifeline that makes us up as a whole person; we are both defined as those individual memories that can be recalled and retold without much context, yet we are also defined by all of them at once.

Before I end this post, I would also like to comment on the name Esperanza. On page 11, she describes the meaning of her name: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow …. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window”. The inheritance of this name also means that she has inherited the social constructs surrounding it – submission of women in a world of patriarchy and cultural suppression. In other words, she has inherited the “sadness” and “waiting” that is present in the lives of women in the patriarchal world she lived in. However, she goes on to say that she would “like to baptize [herself] under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Martiza or Zeze the X. Yes. Zeze the X will do.” I find it interest that she provides no explanation of where those desired names come from nor what they mean to her, but I think this chapter really highlights her resistance against the cultural constraints that hold her and her immense desire to break free.

Bless Me Ultima: Female Characters and Liminality

I was reading an analytical essay on Bless Me Ultima, as an attempt to understand the novel better and came across an interesting description of females in this book. This author claimed that the female characters can be categorized into two groups: good vs. evil. On one side of the dichotomy is Maria Luna (the mother) and the Virgin of Guadalupe, while the other side is represented by some prostitutes and three witches. On the “good” side of the dichotomy, we arguably associate daughters, wives and mothers as they are often modest and the heart of the home, and their chore work and dedication to husbands and children are what define their role in society. In fact, we see this in the first pages of the novel with the description of Maria as Antonio describes her in the kitchen as “the heart of [their] home, [his] mother’s kitchen”. This perspective of his mother remains unchanged throughout the novel, even though the relationship between Antonio and his mother may have shifted; we see that as Antonio becomes more mature Maria loses some authority as a mother, so she relegates to her role as a wife and by the end Antonio speaks to her mom more as a man and she simply “nod[s] and obey[s]” without question.

Ultima, however, is not so easy to define; while she is the main female character, she does not seem to fit into either category. For while she does complete housework, spew patriarchal ideas and criticizes the three witches to Antonio, she is also a curandera whose habits do not follow a traditional patriarchal role for women. What is also interesting about Ultima, is her religious and spiritual practices; while she respects Catholicism and uses religious expressions in her language, she also exercises magical practices and folk medicine. This relates to another topic discussed in the aforementioned article; liminality (@Craig). While this term has come up in class a multitude of times, I never really knew the full definition. One definition states that it is “a borderland state of ambiguity and indeterminacy, a transformational state characterized by a certain openness and relaxation of rules, leading those who participate in the process a new perspective and possibilities”. However, relating it back to the book and its characters we can say that “the features of liminality are ambiguous; that is, they are outside of all society’s standard classification”. Relating it back to Ultima, her character is rather ambiguous and hard to place; she does not fit into one classification and stands between the positions that are traditionally assigned by laws, customs and conventions. This is certainly visible in her peculiar blending of religious and spiritual practices, particularly in regard to her death. She states to Antonio’s father “as she peered into the dying fire and smiled” that “perhaps this would be the best burial you could provide me.” Here, she signals that she would rather be burnt than buried in a cemetery. In the same breath, Ultima expresses that she does not want to use a traditional Catholic casket because she “think[s] the confines of a damp casket will bother [her] too. This way the spirit soars immediately into the wind of the llano, and the ashes blend quickly into the earth”. Earlier in the novel, we saw that the Trementina sisters were “proved” to be witches since they did not use coffin, but rather a “basket woven of cottonwood branches”. As such, this scene depicts a stark contrast in Ultima’s character from the beginning of the novel, that is to say,  Ultima’s connection to witchcraft seems to be stronger by the end of the novel which further pushes the liminality of her character. In the end, her body will be buried in a cemetery as a good Christian does, but her soul is buried in a non-Christian way by Antonio burying the owl under a juniper tree. Ultima’s expressions in these scenes (wanting to be burnt instead of buried, and symbolizing the owl as her soul) are clear examples of her liminality and certainly speaks to her very interesting character.

Bless Me Ultima (Part 1)

I think that this text is one of the most interestingly written out of the texts we’ve read thus far. It seems to be written in a “wandering” manner, meaning, the book is an exploration of Antonio’s thoughts and in a manner that is not afraid to stray away from the topic at hand, instead venturing into a distant memory or thought then to be regrouped to the original topic. I think this strategy really helps to get in the mindset of Antonio and how his brain works, especially as a quizzical young boy.

What I also find interesting is the overwhelming distinction between the vaquero lifestyle that is favoured by Antonio’s father and the Luna family lifestyle that is favoured by his mother. This seems to be a deep-seeded conflict between his parents’ marriage, making Antonio essentially stuck between the two different lifestyles and cultures. It is clear that the two ways of living are quite different; while the vaquero lifestyle manifests in love for the llano and seems to value freedom, mobility and independence, the Luna family lifestyle wants to build towns and fences around the llano, valuing  family, stability and productivity. These concepts are brought up very early on in the novel, and also very early on in Antonio’s life, as he is only six years old. As such, it seems that his future is already hanging between two competing cultures, which each have unique expectations. Early on in the book, we read about Antonio’s dream of his birth. In this dream, he expresses his uneasiness around his future and whether he will become a vaquero or a priest. This reveals his overall anxiety that surrounds the culture conflict. We also see pressure coming from his parents; while his father talks about the llanos, his mother cries “if only he could become a priest…just think the honor it would bring our family to have a priest” to which his father replies “Be sensible!”, clearly demonstrating their conflicting views on the topic. Although Antonio does not seem to vocalize his anxiety of the situation to his parents, or even to us in the text, it comes out in his dreams (which seems to be a way to show Antonio’s interpretations and feelings towards the thoughts and experiences he has, and how that affects him as a character). Also, it is clear that Ultima is a guiding figure in Antonio’s life. So, her role may very well be to guide Antonio throughout this process of coming to terms with his heritages and embracing both of the cultures into his life.

Territory & Boundaries

I’d like to focus on territory and as a subset, boundaries. We see this as a theme in all three books. In The Squatter and The Don we see the disruption of territory as the Squatters move on the Don’s land, in Gregorio Cortez we see the emphasis on the physical border between Texas and Mexico, and in Down These Mean Streets we see territorial boundaries between different neighbourhoods and the northern and southern states. It is interesting to see how these territorial lines play a role in the motivations and behaviours presented in the books. In many ways, none of these books could have happened if not for these boundaries, and the trespassing of these boundaries.

In The Squatter and The Don, for example, the story is centred around how the squatters unrightfully – or rightfully, in technical terms – claimed territory that was already owned by the Don. If it wasn’t for this action, this trespassing, then none of the subsequent events would have been possible; the Don would have kept his land and cattle, Clarence would not have met Mercedes, they would not have travelled across the US nor gotten married, there would not have been a collision between the Anglos and Californios, etc. It is interesting to think that so many events could be centered around what seems to be a simple, and somewhat trivial, part of the book. It almost seems too simple…

In Down These Mean Streets, on the other hand, we could argue that the territories in which Piri lived drove his behaviours throughout the autobiography. In the barrio, for example, he strived to be macho and fit in with the other barrio kids. Upon moving out to Long Island (I think it was?) he was forced to realize he did not fit in there, causing his out lash and subsequent desire to go to the South. When in the Southern territory, we see him adopt the black man’s mentality, driving him to execute actions that he may have not done otherwise, such as take advantage of a women in order to feed his pride. When in jail, we see him go through a transformation. I argue the jail is another territory; a territory and boundary that separates people from freedom, one that separates the old Piri from the new. But I also believe that Down These Mean Streets holds another layer of boundaries; the physical to mental, the territory of the inner mind vs. the territory of action. We discussed this last week, in how Piri seemed to go through life almost on autopilot – he acted like he thought he was expected to act, did things because of who people told him he was and not who he thought he was. He acted in the physical space and the “territory of action”, so to speak. But in jail, we see him venture into his mind; he explores the territory of his thoughts, his feelings, the psychology of his mind. Perhaps this is a stretch for some people, but I believe that these territories, these boundaries, that Piri explores throughout the book are fundamental to his self discovery. I’m curious to know what you guys think!

Down These Mean Streets (Part II)

I honestly really enjoyed reading this book. It is enlightening, in a way, to be exposed to the harsh realities that many individuals have gone through, and still go through today. My own life has been rather fortunate, and I have not experienced anything close to the poverty and descrimination that Piri experienced in this book. And I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in a bubble of naivety, unaware of the difficult, trying and harsh conditions of many people across the globe or even within the same city you live in (the Downtown East Side, for example). Although this aspect of poverty and drug addiction is foreign to me, I believe the struggle with identity and fitting in is a universal concept and experience. I think the historical context in this novel is not only important (during the Great Depression), but also the time point in Piri’s life; puberty is a confusing and frustrating time for just about anyone. It is a time of critical importance for biological transformations, especially in the brain, as well as understanding who you are, the social constructs and where you fit within that. Thus, it is a book of coming of age and perhaps the events that Piri experiences are dramatized fluctuations that we have all experienced to some extent – a panic of finding who we are, an obsessive need to fit in (for which personal values may be put aside), an internal dialogue that conflicts with what words we spill out into the world, self consciousness and guilt and familial struggles, the list goes on. In this sense, perhaps Piri could be envisioned as an “everyday man”; although, his story is unique. Someone said that this book was sad, but for me, it was inspirational. It takes bravery and ‘heart’ to go through everything Piri went through; to fight his drug addiction, to go through jail, to come out stronger and with more clarity than ever in his life. But it takes even more courage to relive that pain, that suffering, that turmoil, and share it with the entire world. We discussed whether Piri was a hero – perhaps he is not a hero for having had an identity crisis, a drug addiction and jailtime, but he may very well be a hero for sharing his story and trying to touch and inspire millions of lives with the pain and ultimate breakthrough he experienced.

Down These Mean Streets (Part 1)

I’m really enjoying this book so far – so much so that it has been hard for me to put the book down and tackle the other work I have to do. I think one of the more obvious themes is the concept of race and identity. At surface, this may seem as a simple story; a story – or perhaps more appropriately deemed as a memoire – of the life and transformation of a young, Puerto Rican boy trying to find his place in the world. However, I think this book as a whole is unusual and complicated – a “kink”, if you will.

Most memoires about race in the USA are centred around the African American experiences. I, for one, haven’t read, about the experiences of Puerto Ricans (or other races for that matter) during this time, prior to this class. This seems like a kink in and of itself – a dark skinned, Puerto Rican boy telling his story in insane detail of his experience in an American world. Thus far, it has been a constant search for the young boy’s identity – he is stuck in the middle. He has a fair skinned mother, but a dark father. He is told by the many he is black, wants to be white, and yet, he is neither. His sense of insecurity and uncertainty of who he is and how that differs from who he wants to be is demonstrated in how he constantly compares himself to others:

 “I wondered if it was too mean to hate your bothers a little for looking white like Momma. I felt my hair – thick, black and wiry. Mentally I compared my hair with my brothers’ hair. MY face screwed up at the memory of the jillion tons of stickum hair oils splashed down in a vain attempt to make it like theirs. I felt my nose. “Shit, it ain’t so flat,” I said aloud. But mentally I measured it against my brothers’, whose noses were sharp, straight and placed neat-like in the middle of their paddy fair faces. Why did this have to happen to me? Why couldn’t I be born like them?

Although he compares himself with his mother and siblings in this way, his father is different; Piri and his father seem to be considered outsiders to their family, and society in general. Piri even references their “peters”, stating how his two brothers have white peters and the “only ones got black peters is Poppa and me, and Poppa acts like his is white, too”. He goes on to say that “if I’m a Negro, then you and James is one too. And that ain’t leavin’ out Sis and Poppa. Only Momma’s an exception.” This is interesting, because it calls into question of decent, while also hinting at the patriarchy of the world; it’s not the mother who passed down the blackness, it’s the father, and the whiteness of the mother does not negate or “rescue” the blackness of her husband in the family, nor his position in society. It’s interesting to ponder that if his mother were dark-skinned and the husband fair-skinned, if their lives would have been the same or dramatically different during this time in history. To me,  this distinction seems quite deliberate as Piri quite frequently references his Mom’s lighter complexion and his father’s darker skin. The purpose? I’m not 100% sure.

With a Pistol in His Hand (Part 2)

I think this book was so great, because it brings into question the role of class, of culture, of dominance and of resistance. Although it is a folklore, Americo Paredes shows how the ‘myths’ of Gregorio Cortez incorporate important historical events, whilst putting an artistic twist on many perspectives of these events. As such, this book was certainly beneficial in many communities as it gave light to new views and meaning in the tales of Gregorio Cortez. I think that it is important to recognize, however, that Cortez was not the first, nor the last, to go through the obstacles and hardships mentioned in the story. There has since been, and continues to be, subordination of Mexican communities. This got me thinking about the role and influence With His Pistol in His Hand after it was published, particularly within the Chicano population.

After a bit of research, I found that Paredes’ book became popular in the sociopolitical realm in the 1960s, which broadened the scope of readers and gave it more meaning in the world. It seems that the groups that were particularly intrigued by the book were groups of young adult working-class Mexican Americans, especially those who attended either college or university. These individuals apparently took part in some political protests and cultural rebellion that were occurring at this time. Thus, Paredes’ study on this anthropological folklore was not only scholarly but was written in such a poetic and artistic manner that it had tremendous impact on the Chicano writers in the new generation, as well as on other intellectuals and the general activist population. One major aspect is the obvious fact that Cortez is recognized as a hero in the book, and most likely serves as a role model for young Chicanos who were/are resisting Anglo authority. However, it was also probably the actual publication of the text, as it was proven that it was even possible for a Chicano author to publish. In addition to that, this book shows that it is possible to talk about a Chicano in a new light, and for that to be heard and recognized within society.

This made me reflect on how much influence literature can have on people, both positive and negative. For instance, how we were talking about American Dirt and how much of an impact and dialogue it was causing on its readers. As cliché as it sounds, words are powerful. Authors do have quite a bit of power and influence over their readers, especially when well-written. With a Pistol in His Hand is a perfect example of this; this book began as a thesis statement, a man exploring his interest and curiosities of Gregorio Cortez, and then turned out to touch and inspire the lives of many. Pretty darn cool.

With His Pistol in His Hand – Gregorio Cortez: an everyday man

I’m really enjoying this text so far! What really caught my attention was the emphasis on ‘man’, what it means to be an ordinary man and how this affects the audience reading this text. Américo Paredes seems to make a point that this is not a story or ballad about a unique man; it is a story about an everyday man.

We see this during the first description of Gregorio Cortez; “He was a man, a Border man. What did he look like? Well that is hard to tell. Some say he was short, and some say he was tall; some say he was Indian brown and some say he was blond like a newborn cockroach… He was a peaceful man, a hardworking man like you and me”. The uncertainty and multitude of possibilities of Cortez’s looks allow the audience to use their imagination to decide the shape and appearance of the character. One thing that is clear is that he is a man “like you and me”.

This idea is reinforced by the fact that there are many different versions and facts that pertain to the actual story of Gregorio Cortez. There is not one definition of the man, nor is there one definition of the story of this man. Paredes therefore implies that there are many different definitions for an “everyday man”, making this novel suitable and agreeable to a wide and variable audience. However, there is a common theme amongst these different versions of the story Cortez and an “everyday man”; he is always the underdog who is up against an oppressive system. This is a concept and situation that is arguably in every community or social group. I believe that this is one of the major reasons that make With His Pistol in His Hand relatable to many historical events and groups of people.

Another interesting thought to ponder is the fact Cortez was seen as a hero while he, himself, was not looking to be a hero in any sense. In fact, it seems he was trying to be “normal”, to be an “everyday man” – he wanted to make an honest living to support his family and live a peaceful life. Paredes vocalizes this as Cortez “was peacefully minding his own business when the sheriff or other American showed up and committed some outrage”, and thus he became a man, alone at the border, and by reason of the people, became a hero. But, personally, I don’t think the point was whether he was a hero or not, but rather how he was, indeed, an everyday man.