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Yesterday in class, after teaching ourselves the memoir Drinking: A Love Story (Caroline Knapp), we allowed music to take us on a journey. Three different pieces—a touch of Cuba, a touch of tango, a touch of reggae. I wanted the students to find within the rhythms some memory of movement—of their own bodies taken across place and time. What is it to walk, to run, to drive, to jolt, to slide forward? How do we find the language that moves a passage ahead while at the same time unblurring the particulars of place, weather, mood? It was, in part, a lesson in verbs, or it might have been.
Later, coming home, I tried to remember my own journey language. How might I have attacked the assignment I gave to my own students? I recalled this passage from my third memoir Still Love in Strange Places. It is an odd thing to read your own work, years on. But this day at St. Anthony's farm, my husband's home, is still alive in me.
Wanting time to myself before I surrendered to the Spanish, I slid out of the tree and set off across the courtyard and out through the crooked, metal gate, calling to no one in particular that I wasn't going far. I went down the dirt road between the two dug-out walls of earth that towered above my head. Hiking up the road while I was hiking down came two brightly dressed women, their hair the color of ink, their postures accommodating the pitch of the road as well as the woven baskets in their arms and the plastic water jugs that sat on the yaguales upon their heads. One jug was blue and one was orange, and the women kept their eyes low as they passed, not meeting mine, not inviting inquiry, not keen, I sensed, on my camera.
I hadn't gone far before the dogs found me, an ugly, snarly pack, half starved and probably only partly sane, three or four, maybe, I can't remember. Mongrels. Their coats short, sparse, bristly as a wild pig's hide, their ears angered flat against their heads. They had nothing between them but their hunger, no reason not to attack the thin, white American girl-woman who had come among them accidentally and who now stood, grossly transfixed, as they blasphemed her through yellow teeth. I was aware of a broken tree limb on the road. I picked it up. I heeled my way up the incline, holding the stick out before me like some kind of Man of La Mancha warrior. I inched backward. Jowl to jowl, the dogs howled forward. I wondered if Bill would hear, if I'd be rescued, if I should turn and run like hell.
But before I could act, I was saved by a barefooted boy who out of nowhere appeared with a fistful of dog-deterring rocks. He hurled. The dogs scattered. The dogs returned. He hurled again. In the dissipating dust, I gestured my thanks, then half walked, half ran to the place I'd come from. I held the camera tight against my chest. I cursed the country, and I blessed it. I hurried past the gate of St. Anthony's, past a herd of wild chickens, past more women bearing jugs. I kept on walking until I came upon a path cut into the high wall of earth beside the road. The path rose vertically on tight, hard, dirt steps, and it was at the end of this path, as I'd been told, that the peasant dead were laid to rest. I swung my camera onto my back and pulled myself toward them with my hands.
To be among the dead at St. Anthony's is to enter into communion with wild turkeys....
I am always surprised—and, indeed, why shouldn't I be?—when I find myself in conversation with anyone making sweeping generalizations about "certain" types of people.
Of course he would do that, the person will say. He's from (name a country).
Of course she would say that. She's... Latina.
I find generalizations of any kind both treacherous and appalling. I have been squeamish around bucketing, categories, labels (applied to people, literature, opinions, persuasions) for as long as I can remember. But it's personal, too, for me, for I married a Salvadoran man, and I have raised a beautiful half-Latin child, and any bracketing, tiering, or typing assigned to "those Latinos" is an assault of sorts against my family.
This image, above, is El Salvador, years ago. It is my husband's childhood home, and it is home, still to Nora, my mother-in-law, and to Bill's aunts Adela, Ana Ruth, and Marta, and to his uncle, and to my husband's best friends, and to a gardener named Tiburcio, and to so many more. Nora's first language isn't English, far from it, but Nora has taken such an interest in my writing life that she has asked three times already for a copy of my newest book, which was only released a week or so ago. It will take her a long time to read it, but she will. She's interested in the stories I tell, even if I'm not "from her country" and was not, perhaps, the kind of woman she first imagined her son saying yes to, and do happen to have skin that is lighter than her own.
We are a web, we are human, we are mutual planet dwellers.
The 2nd Children’s Poetry Festival was celebrated in El Salvador, November 16 – 18, 2011. Talleres de Poesia hosted the event at the National Library in San Salvador where a number off well-known poets including Jorge Tetl Argueta, Francisco X. Alarcon, Margarita Robleda, and Holly Ayala worked with Salvadoran children, youth and teachers in a blend of poetry readings and workshop presentations. The theme of the workshops this year was the importance of reading and significance of peace for Salvadoran children and youth. The event was a resounding success; check out the smiles on the participants’ faces and the video of the event.
Mother Earth is not only a source of life in Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra, a profound collection of poems by renowned Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta (Groundwood Books/Libros Tigrillo, 2006), but she also provides the young native boy Tetl, in whose voice the poems are written, with joy, a connection with his land and heritage, and, most importantly, a comforting stability in the face of racist jeering from his peers.
Argueta’s poems are written in succinct free verse, presented in both Spanish and English with smatterings of Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people passed down from the Aztecs and that Argueta grew up with. From the first poem in which Tetl presents Mother Earth, or “Ne Nunan Tal” in Nahuatl, readers are welcomed into Tetl’s life. His joy in the creations of Mother Nature is contagious, from poems such as “Walking and Whistling”, “The Wind” and “Water”; and I love the wordplay in both languages in “Suenos Días/Gourd Morning.”
These poems alone would represent a lively collection that provides insight into Nahuatl culture – and this impression is enhanced by Lucía Angela Pérez’ vibrant illustrations that leap out from the pages. What makes this book outstanding, however, is the way it draws young readers in to think about how they themselves might have behaved, whether deliberately or thoughtlessly, towards their peers from a different cultural background. The first indication that Tetl has to deal with such abuse comes in the fiercely upright poem “Yo/I”:
[…] Sometimes I feel like yelling
From my toes to my head.
Yes, I am a Pipil Nahua Indian.
I wear feathers of beautiful birds to protect me
from the bad words and the looks
that come my way from some people
because I am Indian.
Immediately after “Yo/I”, the poem “Tetl” rings with the boy’s name, Tetl: “It is the name my grandmother gave me”. The name Tetl runs in counterpoint to “But everybody knows me as Jorge” – a clue to the autobiographical nature of the poems.
A little further on, the poem “Indio/Indian” addresses the verbal abuse head on: and the illustration shows Tetl rising above it, proud of his identity, even if some people don’t understand or respect it. Indeed, what makes this collection work so well, and makes it an excellent resource for young children discussing issues of racism and bullying, is that it presents a complete view of Tetl’s life so that the cruel behaviour of his peers towards him fails to define him.
To find out more, read our PaperTigers review of this beautiful book. When I first opened it, I was expecting to be transported to another culture. I got that and so much more.
When I was a child in El Salvador, I went to school, recited poetry, played with my friends and won a hula-hoop contest on national television. I might say that I had a normal childhood. But then, everything was upside down. For many days the school closed because of civil revolts. The radio and the television always talked about the army, guerrillas and the revolution in the country. The mad game came to El Salvador. The country was involved in a terrible civil war.
As I child, I did not really understand what was really going on. I asked myself many times, Why? Why were they doing this to the country? Before the war, when I heard a “boom”, I clapped and jumped up a down. It was the sound of the fireworks for Christmas. A “boom” meant that Christmas was around the corner. But during the war, when I heard the first “boom”, I ran home and hid under my bed, while more “booms” went on and on. Because those “booms” were not the sounds of happiness, they were the sounds of war.
During the war, thousands of Salvadorans left the country looking for peace and better opportunities. Many of these Salvadorans traveled to the United States. My mom was the first one in the family who left the country. After many struggles, my father and I left El Salvador in 1985.
I arrived in Los Angeles, California and I had the determination to go to school to become a teacher. Now I am a kindergarten teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School. I am also the author of many children’s books.
In December 2010, Cinco Puntos Press contacted me to participate in a book. They were putting together an anthology about children and war and were wondering if I could consider submitting an essay for the anthology. Of course I said yes! I love Cinco Puntos Press books. I use their bilingual books in my classroom all the time. Participating in this anthology was an honor for me.
Now was the hard part. What to write about? I grew up during the war and I had so many memories. My fourth grade teacher was killed during the war. That morning, the school was closed. Instead of having class, all the students went to a funeral home that was located one block away from school. I also knew friends who were recruited and found dead days later in rubbish dumps.
But I wanted to write all the way from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to write about my family and how the war divided us. But it was hard! Remembering my mom saying good-bye at the airport, visiting my father in jail, listening to the terrible news that archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated and the final chaos at the cathedral during his funeral were all hard memories to put on paper. I must confess that I wrote my essay with tears in my eyes. Also it was a good therapy to write the essay. Yes, the war divided us but it could not destroy our love, faith and family bond.
For Christmas of 1984, my mother sent me a new pair of shoes from the United States. I still remember my father’s words, “These are good gringos shoes. These are very good shoes for the trip to the United States.”
On February 17 1985, my father and I left El Salvador. Two days later, we arrived in Mexico City. Then, we were stuck in Mexico City for almost two months. We could not continue our journey because Mexican immigration took all the money from my father. It wasn’t until April that my mother sent us more money for our trip. During my journey, my father and I crossed three countries and climbed the mountains from Tijuana to the United States. But we made it to Los Angeles. My shoes were not new anymore. They had holes everywhere. One shoe was missing the sole.
I experienced the silent period and many culture shocks. In El Salvador René is a name boy. I could not believe it that in the United States my beautiful name was a girl’s name, Renee. Children not only laughed because I had a girl’s name but also because I had two last names, “Your name is longer than an anaconda” “You have a long dinosaur’s name.”
I was able to adapt to the new country. I studied really hard and graduated with honors from high school. Then, I went to college and became a teacher. But I did not have legal papers yet. My mother became a resident thanks to the amnesty program. She applied for my papers but it was 1993 and I had not received my green card. I started to work as a teacher because I got a work permit. For two years, I received letters from LAUSD, “We need to have evidence of your legal status. Your work permit will expire soon.” But finally in 1995, I received the famous immigration letter. Yes! I had an appointment to get my green card. It was not green after all. It was pink!
The ideas to write many of my books are born in the classroom. One day, a first grader told me, “I want to write a letter to my mamá. She is in Guatemala and I miss her so much.” That night I wrote a story named Add a Comment
In preparing to teach the advanced nonfiction course at Penn, I read and re-read and remember. I re-enter the mind-space that took me here, to the first page of my Salvador memoir, Still Love in Strange Places.
The tear runs like a river through a map, hurtling down toward his right shoulder, veering threateningly at his neck, then diverting south only to again pivot east at the fifth brass button of his captain's uniform.Below the tear, two more brass buttons and the clasp of his hands, and below all that, the military saber; the loosening creases on his pants; the shoes with their reflections of the snap of camera light.He is one of three in a sepia-colored portrait, and someone had to think to save his face.Someone had to put the photo back together—re-adhere the northeast quadrant of this map with three trapezoids of tape so that his left hand would fall again from his left elbow and he would still belong to us.We suppose he is the best man at a wedding.We suppose that it was eighty years ago, before the matanza, before he was jailed and then set free, before he saved the money to buy the land that became St. Anthony's Farm.
“Did I ever tell you what my grandfather did the year the farm first turned a profit?”
“He threw the money into the air, the bills, and they got caught up with a wind.”
“And so he ran after those colones through the park.Chased his own money through the leafy streets of Santa Tecla.Imagine that.”
I do.I am often imagining that.Imagining that I know him—this man whose likeness is my husband's face, whose features are now borne out by my son.His are the sepia eyes that passed through me.His is the broad nose, the high cheekbones, the determined mouth, the face not like an oval or a heart, but like a square.He died long before I'd ever meet him, but I carried him in my blood.Just as the land carries him still, remembers.Just as St. Anthony's Farm will someday, in part, belong to my son, requiring him to remember what he never really knew, to put a story with the past.Words are the weights that hold our histories in place.They are the stones that a family passes on, hand to hand, if the hands are open, if the hearts are.
“You look like your great-grandfather.”
“Yes.Come here.See?That’s him, in the photograph.”
“But he looks so young.”
“Well, he was young once.But that was a long time ago, in El Salvador.”
We remember.We imagine.We pass it down.We step across and through a marriage, retrieve the legacies for a son.
Two days ago, while in line at Whole Foods, a friend approached with some news. "I've fallen completely in love with your husband," she said. And when I didn't say anything, she continued: "Head over heels."
It's not an uncommon line in my world; I've been told the same thing by any number of women who have been charmed by my husband's Latin bearing, unusual stories, and incredible talent for the samba. But in this case, I wasn't even certain that my friend had met my husband, so when I asked her to clarify, she said five words—Still Love in Strange Places—which is the title of the memoir that I wrote about my husband, his family, and the ways in which El Salvador, war, and coffee growing have shaped them. "I just read the book," she said, "and I love everything about him. Everything. I want to meet him."
I smiled at this, of course, and thought of how often I have wished that my husband, a visual artist, would find the time for the books or essays or poems I've written. He hasn't often, but he did read and bless Still Love, and perhaps because of that, the making of Still Love stands as one of my favorite experiences as a writer. I worked for all those years to understand. He opened the book, and he read.
by Aleph (Alex Sanchez), Salvadoran painter and committee member
The first Festival Talleres de Poesía will take place in San Salvador, El Salvador this November 8-10. Many events are taking place in different cities in order to raise funds for this event that will promote books and literature in El Salvador.
This wonderful project is being organized by children books' author, Jorge Argueta and the Talleres de Poesia commitee in San Francisco and San Salvador, with the collaboration of the Director of the National Library of El Salvador, Salvadoran author, Manlio Argueta.
The Children's Poetry Festival will be held at the National Library in San Salvador in November 2010. Renowned poets will be conducting writing workshops to Salvadoran children and youth.
The theme of the workshops will be the importance of reading and significance of peace for Salvadoran children and youth. They will also have the opportunity to enhance their writing skills and learn techniques on how to write their experiences through poetry.
We are asking for your collaboration to help us make this event a success. We are raising funds for the necessary materials needed to make the First Children's Poetry Festival a reality in El Salvador.
Here are two ways you can help:
You can make your donation directly to the Talleres de Poesia account # 0006696 Mission Federal Credit Union 3269 Mission St. San Francisco, CA 94110
or you can mail a check to: Talleres de Poesia 90 Bepler St. Daly City, CA 94014
Thank you in advance for your support!
Event in San Francisco in support of the
First Annual Poetry Festival in El Salvador (Nov 2010)
Date: Saturday, July 17, 2010
Time:5:00pm - 8:00pm
Location: El Patio Restaurant
Street: 3193 Mission St.
Live music by Grupo Conciencia and amigos Goldband, poetry for children and adults, clowns, riffles and many more exciting surprises.
Los esperamos - gracias! Please join us - thank you!
We bring out the old albums, and, remembering, they talk. The long gone near again, curiosity alive. I could almost imagine (listening to them remember) that the stories themselves had not yet unfolded, had not revealed their denouement. When I wrote Still Love in Strange Places years ago, I was writing about my Salvadoran husband's family stories, about the capacity for reimagining, and about the pliable nature of marriage. I was writing to get it right. But listening again to his family tell his family stories this weekend, I remembered what perhaps I've always known: You never get it all just right. Stories mutate with time, and with the teller.
An exciting event is being planned in San Salvador this coming November and celebrated Salvadorian poet and children’s author Jorge Argueta has kindly sent us the following details:
From November 8 -10, Talleres de Poesia and the National Library of El Salvador will be presenting the 1st Annual Children’s Poetry Festival at the National Library in San Salvador.
The theme of the festival will be the importance of reading and significance of peace for Salvadoran children and youth. Renowned poets will be conducting writing workshops to Salvadoran children and youth. Attendees will also have the opportunity to enhance their writing skills and learn techniques on how to write their experiences through poetry. Confirmed poets include Jorge as well as Francisco X. Alarcon, Margarita Robleda, Rene Colato Lainez, Ana Ferrufino, Jackie Mendez, and Jeannette “Lil Milagro” Martinez-Cornejo
Jorge is c0-organizing this wonderful project with Manlio Argueta, Director of the National Library of El Salvador, and two committees of volunteers from the San Francisco, USA and San Salvador areas. When I asked Jorge how the idea for a children’s poetry festival in El Salvador came about, he replied:
I’ve been coming frequently to El Salvador for the last 2 years…I began to do school presentations as well as adult poetry readings where I had the opportunity to meet teachers, librarians and other writers. Having worked many Poetry Festivals in the USA, it occurred to me that a festival would be a positive, creative opportunity for the children in El Salvador. It is also my way to contribute back to my country. I was thrilled when many of my old and new friends supported this idea and project.
Producing a children’s poetry festival in El Salvador has always been in my heart and mind. I grew up without books in El Salvador, however I always understood the beauty and the great success that comes from reading. Today, unfortunately there is a lot of violence in El Salvador – our hopes are that this festival will give children and young adults the opportunity to express themselves creatively on the issue of living in peace and their dreams for a positive future.
As you can imagine this is a huge undertaking and organizers are asking for help in making this event a success. Donations are greatly appreciated and can be made directly to:
Talleres de Poesia
Account # 0006696
Mission Federal Credit Union
3269 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA, USA 94110
or you can mail a check to:
Talleres de Poesia
90 Bepler St.
Daly City, CA, USA 94014
Fundraising events are underway in cities throughout the USA and well-known artists and children’s book a
We are looking forward to the release of From North to South / Del Norte al Sur, by René Colate Laínez, due out in September by Children’s Book Press. René has written many children’s books about the immigrant experience, such as I am René and René Has Two Last Names, always drawing on his experience of coming to the United States, as an adolescent, from civil war–ravaged El Salvador (he arrived as an undocumented immigrant and is now a US citizen). From North to South deals with the issue of family separation, due to a parent’s precarious immigration status, from the perspective of child who, as is the case in these situations, has no say in it. With the immigration debate in the US being as heated as it is now, this is an important and very timely release.
Spanish speakers can see a video of René talking about the book here. I’ll be adding a link to our review of the book as soon as it’s live.
What do you do when the very perfect title you'd picked out for your new book is—uncomfortably, sadly, a fact discovered late in the game—a title David Foster Wallace used for a short story a few years back? What do you do when nothing else seems to fit?
You find a quiet place in which to think, for one thing.
And you call your son, a genius at titles, among other things, who, years ago, when a certain untitled book was a day away from final catalog copy, called out to you, from where he was writing,
But Mom, he said, isn't that book (a memoir about marriage to a Salvadoran man) about how there is still love in strange places? Still Love in Strange Places? you said.
Yeah, he said. Something like that.
Two minutes later you were on the phone with Alane Mason, your W.W. Norton editor. We have a title, you told her. She didn't skip a beat. She agreed.
Last November in San Salvador, El Salvador, Talleres de Poesia hosted the hugely successful First Children’s Poetry Festival. Award winning Salvadorian poet and children’s book author Jorge Tetl Argueta (who now resides in San Francisco, CA, USA) co-organized the event with Manlio Argueta, Director of the National Library of El Salvador, and two committees of volunteers from the San Francisco and San Salvador areas. The festival featured a number of well-known poets including Francisco X. Alarcon, Margarita Robleda, and Rene Colato Lainez who, for three days, participated in this unique and wonderful event giving the Salvadoran children, youth and teachers a blend of poetry readings and workshop presentations. Stay tuned as event organizers hope to make the Children’s Poetry Festival in El Salvador an annual event.
Although I've had an obsession with photography since I built my first pinhole camera back in elementary school, it wasn't until I married a Salvadoran and began to travel to his country that portrait photography became my great passion—photographs of people living their real lives, children, in particular. In El Salvador, then in southern Spain, then in Juarez, San Miguel de Allende, and West and North Philadelphia, I have been confronted, again and again, with the raw, guileless beauty I ache to carry home.
The camera frees me from the need for conversation. It demands of me an observer's stance. It requires no vocabulary—not, at least, right then, when the child stands before me, in her bird-colored dress.
Though there was a war on and I'd been cautioned, I was often alone in El Salvador. I never believe, as much as I should, in danger. On this day we'd left in a mad hurry from the white house in Santa Tecla and driven a highly militarized road (guns everywhere, soldiers at attention) to the raw edge of a cattle-and-pigs somewhere, where we loaded our hastily assembled things into a pontoon of sorts and floated to an estuary. No one told me, until much later, that we were escaping the threat of bombs, a report that the American Embassy had been targeted.
The others unpacked and spoke in their Spanish. I was confused and wandered away. Down a dirt road where women balanced jugs of water on their heads and the houses were brilliantly thatched.
Finally I stopped and waited for this boy to look up and see me. Beyond the thin barbed wire, he would not. I wonder to this day what he was thinking.