Category Archives: Migrations

Americanah

20939941I quite loved Americanah — this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.

I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other — I like them as things I don’t have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don’t like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.

Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.

There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can’t help but quote these:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often….Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station…and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (227)

This too rings so true, breaks my heart:

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)

I also loved Ifemelu’s blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:

Job Vacancy in America — National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)

This quote is just because I know someone like this:

There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).

My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.

Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written.

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Journey Through a Small Planet

3339202Emanuel Litvinoff (1972)

Another exploration of the East End, and so much a better one. This is beautifully written, candid, and by one of the young men who for Harkness probably ‘looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39). Written about a period a just a little later than Harkness to be sure, this opens a window onto the thoughts and dreams and intense individuality seething behind what to middle class eyes apparently looks all the same. How could we all look the same?

Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on a map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book. It was a part of a district populated by persecuted Jews from the Russian empire and transformed into a crowded East European ghetto full of synagogues, backroom factories and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage and onion bread. The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich, or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure, despair (9).

He returns to it as a much older man, finds it completely changed, can no longer see himself in the tenement room he grew up in. Who cannot identify with his sense of loss?

I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past (10).

and so he began writing this…

So much resonated, it is a wonderful coming of age story of a smart kid facing a very hard life — and facing the blossoming panic in his stomach that he is trapped in a working poverty for the rest of it. There is love and friendship and violence, along with a couple of evocative sections on what it means to live in a packed tenement block full of Jewish immigrant families, the closeness of the world:

In as close a community as ours, each newcomer added a new complexity, changing us all a little and sometimes even influencing the whole pattern of our fate. For Mendel Shaffer, the arrival of Kramer’s sister, Freda, was momentous (52).

And I loved this passage so evocative of the streets — and one of the things that changes over time as customs and culture and people change, one of the things that is lost forever once it is lost, and that we can only find again through the pages of books:

A further disagreeable surprise awaited. The Welfare Officer chose to deliver me to my new lodgings in person. Even blindfolded, I’d have known where we were by the smell of the different streets — reek of rotten fruit: Spitalfields; scent of tobacco warehouses: Commercial Street; the suffocating airless stench of the Cambridge Picture Palace; Hanbury Street and the pungency of beer from Charrington’s brewery. Then Brick Lane with half the women from our street jostling among the market stalls (115).

I’m looking forward to his fiction.

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Don’t Evict Gustavo Garcia

I saw a post on the Lambeth Housing Activists list asking for support in a protest to the council not to evict a vulnerable tenant recovering from a stroke. So I protested. we were hoping to speak with someone in charge but they said that wasn’t possible.* What doesn’t seem possible to me is that they will send this human being back to live on the streets when he needs a home and he needs care. In fact this story would once have been quite impossible, but the changes of the past few years means that Lambeth Council has been selling off social housing rather than building it, even as the waiting list for homes rises and rises — because we all know rents are rising and rising some more. As a citizen of this country, not its customer, I really hate the term ‘Customer Service Centre’. Lambeth Council has made their service centre look as impersonal as a bank, and when we went in we saw it was full to overflowing with people in need. This physical reality is as much a part of the neoliberalisation of space and services as their capacity to kick Gustavo Garcia back into the streets unless we can stop them.

* UPDATE: Needed because after I left the manager came out to speak to them. Apparently they were supportive and said that the eviction notice is suspended until further notice while they review his case. A small victory, and not yet permanent the way it needs to be for Gustavo’s health and well-being, but nice all the same.

The below is a description of Gustavo’s circumstances from the folks working to give him support:

2014 has been a tough year for 54 year old Gustavo Garcia. He suffered a stroke, causing him memory loss and physical weakness, and has also led to severe depression. He now faces his 55th birthday next month with the threat of life on the streets, as Lambeth have given him notice they will be evicting him.

Gustavo became homeless in June when he had to stop work after a stroke. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get Lambeth to accept that he was actually homeless, the Council finally agreed to assess his housing need and give him temporary accommodation. The stroke he suffered means the right side of his body is now numb and much weaker. He cannot do the things he used to. His previous job as a window cleaner fills him with fear as he doesn’t have grip in his right hand, so climbing ladders and working at great heights is dangerous for him. He is shaky. This in itself is hard enough to cope with, but his memory loss has also caused him much distress and disorientation.

Gustavo came here from Ecuador eighteen years ago, and is now a British citizen. He spoke fluent English prior to his stroke, but the memory loss caused by the stroke means he has forgotten a good deal of the language.  Before the stroke Gustavo was self-employed, but memory loss means he also cannot remember his customer base. Nor can he remember friends that he had before the stroke. “I feel so alone. I can’t sleep at all. I’m always worrying, afraid of being put on the street” he tells me in broken English. As his stroke was caused by stress, Gustavo’s greatest fear is that the mental stress he is now suffering will provoke another one. “I think of suicide often. I’m finished” he shrugs, with an unbearable look of sadness and despair.

The council now accepts that Gustavo is homeless, but say that he is not sufficiently vulnerable to deem him a priority case for housing. They say that although they accept he suffers numbness in one side of his body, because he doesn’t need a walking aid, he would be okay on the streets.

Join us in protesting at Lambeth’s Homeless department in Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill at 9am on Wednesday 8th October in solidarity with Gustavo to let the council know it is unacceptable to treat vulnerable people in this way.

Seeds of Autonomy in Greece

While the economic crisis has hit all of us, and hit us hard, Greece is a country riding the edges of bankruptcy, even after the intervention of the IMF and the European Union.

This intervention has come at a high price, requiring Greece to slash its national debt at a brutal cost to its own citizens.

To find out more about the impact of the crisis on the lives of people and how they are responding, I recently spoke to Antonis, who is from Greece and is a fellow graduate student at the London School of Economics.

ANDREA: Tell us a little about yourself.

ANTONIS: My name is Antonis. I’m a student here in London and I’ve lived here for quite a few years. But I’m originally from Greece. Since the revolt of 2008, together with some friends, we’ve been covering what’s been happening in Greece in a blog, the Occupied London blog. We were also running a journal, an anarchist journal, called Voices of Resistance from Occupied London. But I think our project was one where the blog completely overtook the journal itself, so that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment.

ANDREA: Would you just say a few things about how concretely the crisis has affected Greece, and how it is affecting people in their everyday lives?

ANTONIS: Obviously it’s had a massive effect on every single level — the political, the social and the everyday — all around. And it’s happened very rapidly.  Its very hard to explain in a few words how big the change is because its something we are still assessing. People are still trying to grasp what has actually happened.

But to see the difference in the everyday reality in the country and in people’s mentality, even from December (which was the second to last time I visited) to March this year (which was the last time I was there) is tremendous.  To put it quickly, pretty much everyone, or at least most people I know who work in the public sector (and the public sector is huge), are facing the same sort of decrease in their wages — about 20 to 30 % of their total wages, anywhere between the two roughly.  And they probably are faced with even higher cuts in their pensions —  if you ever get to get a pension, the way things are going.

The private sector is about to go through the same kind of process and the cost of life overall has increased tremendously. Just to bring one example out of many: the cost of gas, from August 2009 to what they predict it’s going to be in a couple of months (in August 2010) has gone up by about 150%.

ANDREA: So how are people reacting to this? I know there was a general strike just a few weeks ago…

ANTONIS: Four weeks ago… There’s been a few general strikes actually; the one on May 5th was the fourth in 2010 if I’m not mistaken. Which is not that much, by Greek standards, you would usually have at least a couple of general strikes in a year anyway.

ANDREA: And so when you say general strike, is it really everything that shuts down?

ANTONIS: Pretty much. Airports completely shut down, transport is completely out. And the largest part of the public sector. Not the private sector, and of course one of the sectors where people are pretty much bullied into working is the banking sector, and that’s why the people who died on May 5th were actually in the bank working, they were forced to work, and threatened with being fired if they did not stay in the bank working. So the answer to that is yes, one reaction has been these relatively frequent general strikes. But then, the atmosphere in the country after May 5th has changed dramatically, people are very scared, they’ve been very taken aback by the level of violence on that day.

They are expecting more trouble even though this summer is probably going to be a dead period because nothing ever happens in Greece in the summer: It is way, way too hot for any kind of action! But come September … we are expecting, quite realistically, that anywhere between September and December the country is going to default; it is also most of the economists are predicting this, so of course it will be interesting to see what happens then.

ANDREA: So you don’t think that Germany will step in again, or that the rest of the European union will bail them out?

ANTONIS: It seems like it’s pretty much inevitable, that Greece’s default is something just waiting to happen and they are trying to allow it to happen in the most painless way for them, not for the people in Greece of course.

ANDREA: So what kind of alternatives are people talking about, are people thinking about long term change at this point, or that this is an opportunity to have a different sort of economy or different way of life aside from capitalism, is that being discussed?

ANTONIS: I guess there are two kind of tendencies toward which people are moving. One is individualization and a kind of despair: you hear a lot of stories, very personal stories about people going on anti-depressants after looking at the prospects of what is coming ahead. And of course this is really bad. But at the same time there is another tendency, of a lot of people trying to organize, to work collectively. There are a few projects being planned at the moment and they are going to be rolling out in the next few months, to head toward a more self-organized economy at least on a very local level. So people are talking about anything from self-organized bakeries to self-organized soup kitchens. Which on the one hand is emergency relief, but on the other people are really trying to avoid, I think, these projects taking the character of charity. We want them to be more of a solidarity thing, so it’s going to be emergency relief for now, but also a  structure that could live through the entire crisis itself and into the future.

ANDREA: So you’re going to be working in a bakery, right?

 

ANTONIS: That’s the plan.

ANDREA: So how did you set that up?

ANTONIS: I mean it’s still very much on paper, it’s just an idea we’ve been having. But we just said, you know, hell, we have to build on the ideas that we had and the experiences that we had from comrades abroad, in different projects abroad, the cooperative movement in this country but also in the States, as far as I know, it’s huge. So we can build on this experience, and build on the experience of, say, the Italian self-organizing autonomia movement. And we’re trying to combine the two, and of course many of us have seen that large part of the population is coming to the threshold of starvation, of bare survival, and so you have to kick in at that point and try to address these people and their needs. Again, like I said, absolutely not as some sort of top-down charity and “we’re here to help you” kind of attitude, but to organize with them.

ANDREA: So just one last question, if you could tell a little bit the story of December Park?

ANTONIS: This park is quite amazing, the history of this space. It’s what used to be an abandoned parking lot only a few meters away from where this kid Alexis was shot in December 2008, and of course his assassination triggered the revolt of December, so symbolically it’s very important. An abandoned ex-parking lot was lying there unused for many years, and a few months after the revolt a group of people came in, mostly local residents, and said “we are going to take over the space.” Athens has very few green spaces and very few public spaces, so they said, “we are going to turn this into one.” In a way, this is not too far from the kind of guerrilla gardening that you’d maybe see in New York and other places, but at the same time very specific to the Greek situation, a very strongly political space. So people have done a really amazing job in transforming the ex-parking into one of the nicest spots in Exarcheia, and ever since it has been very lively. Many political demonstrations start and end in this park, and of course it has attracted a lot of notice from the police: there has been at least three major raids by now. In the last raid more than 70 people, and two dogs, were detained by the police.

December Park

ANDREA: Two dogs? [laughing]

ANTONIS: Yeah. [also laughing]

ANDREA: That’s not funny at all…[still laughing]… so basically over the summer you’re going to work to build something…

ANTONIS: That’s the idea, and the main thing, and this is where I want to utilize the blog and any means of communication we’ve got with other people abroad, is to build on the experience of other people and other movements that went through something even vaguely similar to this. So Argentina is very important to us, Italy historically is very important to us, but also the States and the UK in relation to this kind of cooperative movement are important to us as well.

ANDREA: All right, so I suppose we’ll be checking back in with you in September?

ANTONIS: Sounds good.

For more on the situation in Greece, check out the Greek Indymedia website.

[also posted on Dr. Pop]

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Santa Teresita and Clifton, AZ

Santa Teresita de Cabora…that is how she was known to the thousands who loved her, and believed she could cure the sick, the blind and the lame. So we went on a quest to find Teresa Urrea today,  one of the more extraordinary figure of the Southwest borderlands. It was inspired by reading Ringside to the Revolution by David Romo (which you should read, without a doubt)…but when we started looking we found so much more.

Santa_de_cabora

Her life defies summary, but I shall try. In 1873 she was born in Culiacan, Mexico, the illegitimate daughter of a Yaqui woman named Cayetana Chavez and the local landowner, Tomas Urrea. She worked with the local curandera…known alternatively as Huila (a Yaqui name) or Maria Sonora (a Yori name, we shall disregard it). While an adolescent she went into a coma, her father ordered a coffin, and the story goes that the night before her burial she suddenly sat up. She said that they should keep the coffin as someone else would die within 3 (or possibly 5 days). She was right, and they buried Huila.

From that time on she was famed for her healing powers, powers both of traditional medicine and faith. She never charged for her service. And the thousands came…so many that Porfirio Diaz feared her powers in leading an insurrection and expelled her from the country…revolution was already boiling along the borders among the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Tomochic. And they revolted up and down down the border in her name, they carried her photograph cut out from the papers next to their hearts. Federales saw her mounted on a white horse leading them, even though she was hundreds of miles away. They were called the Teresista Rebellions, and although I grew up an hour from Nogales, I never knew the Teresistas had risen there.

Diaz said that El Paso was too close, so she moved to Clifton…she traveled, always attracting thousands seeking healing. And she returned to Clifton when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she built a house there, and died in 1906, peacefully, she was only 33. 400 people attended her body from the church to the grave.

And yet today no one is sure where she is buried. And that is quite a story.

Apparently in the Clifton area there were three cemeteries. There was the whites only cemetery (known simply as the Clifton cemetery, though now it is officially called the Ward’s Canyon cemetery.) There was the Mexican cemetery. And there was the Catholic cemetery. Clifton is a mining town, only a few miles from Morenci, and the largest pit mine in the country. At some point Phelps Dodge decided that there was copper under the Mexican cemetery, and they wanted it. And so they dug it up and dumped all of the bodies from there into…an unmarked place. Supposedly in the whites only cemetery, though that puzzles me really, it would have made much more sense to have put them in the Catholic cemetery, especially as apparently that now belongs to PD as well. And since it was unmarked…it is hard to say.

It’s unimaginable really, especially given the relationship Mexican families have with their dead. It fills me with a kind of fury. But segregation even in death is enough to do that. And there’s the lovely story in the Roadside History of Arizona (full of interesting facts, though nothing about such things as strikes, civil unrest, Mexican saints or etc etc)… in 1904, 40 orphans were brought to the town by New York nuns, happy that they had found good Catholic families willing to adopt them. Sadly, the children were white, the families Mexican, and the good whitefolk of Clifton couldn’t have that. Vigilantes took custody of the kids, and every court up to the Supreme Court supported them in their efforts. Vigilantes are nothing new around here, nor is government support for them.

And so here is the cemetery that was once whites only

You can see Morenci’s open pit in the background. We thought that Teresa’s grave had been (provisionally) identified and marked, we wandered up and down, and found nothing. The graveyard is on a steep hillside, with many of the graves themselves forming the terracing, and the ultimate disposition of bones over years of torrential summer rains an interesting thought. Below is one of the spots I thought they might have dumped a load of calcium and dream rich dirt.

It contrasts with the more worthy sections…

Even Mr. Greenlee for whom the county is named is buried here. Under a small pyramid of rock. I don’t think he would have appreciated PD’s idea, it makes me doubt that they managed to bury an unnamed load of Mexicans here. But perhaps they did, and the outrage was great enough from both communities (united if only in this), that that is what forced them to relocate graves properly when the towns of Morenci and Metcalf were claimed by the pit as well.

We navigated at temperatures of 103 or so…and even hating the idea of a white’s only cemetery (though it isn’t quite at this point…), it was still haunting and some things were impossibly sad, like this, hid amidst great marble headstones

6 years old, chiseled by unskilled hand…and then I found this one a few steps away

Born and died the same day. And you realize how hard and bleak and terrible life could be, for everyone. But heartbreaking as they are, the Chapmans got to keep their headstones. Teresa Urrea has been erased.

So we headed into town to ask where the grave could be found. We started at the courthouse, moved to the recorder’s office, and there met Berta who was amazing and took us to the library over her lunch break, where she had started a file on Teresa. And all of a sudden I started liking Clifton again. I have photocopies now of the original article from The Copper Era (nice title, no?) from January 18, 1906, announcing her death. And a handful of others published in local papers, and one with a picture of a grave they think just might be Teresa’s.  We returned to the cemetery, to the grave we thought just might be the grave in the picture of what just might be the grave of Teresa Urrea. It was missing the wooden cross though….And we left our flowers, red plastic roses, and fresh white calla lilies, deciding that she would be understanding if we hadn’t found her, and anyone else who might be buried there would be happy.

And then we headed into downtown Clifton, up to Morenci…but more on that later. Another stirring tale of racism, labor strikes, evil mining companies…exciting stuff!

And last thing, a brilliant fictionalized book about Teresa is by Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

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Baja California…er…adventure

We are five miles south of Ensenada…ex-ejido Chapultepec. Cars drive up and down every now and then outside the hotel. There is no other sound here, and no wireless networks at all.

If you keep walking west down the paved road you come to Faro beach quite quickly…Faro beach and trailer park. You can rent rooms there with kitchens, a space for a tent, a place to park. And welcome to chuntilandia! There are lines of washing. There is the smell of carne asada. There are ice-chests with beer, and radios playing rancheras and banda. Grandparents sit on folding chairs with their hard-faced tatted children and their children’s children in masses. The kids are lined up at the little store buying candy and snacks. You walk down the steps to the small stretch of beach and find it filled with more families; many of them are swimming in their clothes. To your left as your stare out over the ocean are broken down horses that you can rent for an hour’s worth of riding, and a wall that once bore a sign now half washed away saying the area is unsafe for swimming because of riptides. The remnants of what looks like a rather grand sea wall curve around with fisherman sat up on top. Before you get too far there is a fence, a guard, the other side is Estero beach resort. The people fishing on the other side are all white tourists. At least we are on the right side of the fence.

If you walk the other way you come to another dead end quite quickly, but you can climb up onto the wall’s ruin and follow it around past a new wall topped with barbed wire to the dirt road running to the houses behind the tents and short-term rentals.

The houses there are a crazy mix of anything that can be thrown together, the most common being a trailer entombed in a house, or a house built around a trailer…some feel more like one than the other. In one lot stood two toilets waiting patiently on a concrete foundation for their house to be built around them.

We passed Mario & Cookie’s house of love, un vato y su ruca on the sign and wedding pictures in the windows. There are a number of little houses here that are loved. But more that look empty, more that are abandoned and broken-windowed and falling apart quickly. Over a third are for sale.

In fact a huge amount of this whole town is for sale, or it feels that way. It feels as though it has lost its heart…or did it ever have one? I wonder if it is just an older prototype of what is springing up everywhere between TJ and Ensenada…the pockets of luxury play-homes, advertised by a line of billboards entirely in English showing the ocean, gleaming white houses with cool and modern interiors, beautiful women in bikinis. Mario at the bar said the resort has been there sixty-nine years and started out as almost nothing, a collection of trailers…some of the people in the restaurant had practically grown up there. They weren’t speaking Spanish. They were so obviously American in every visible way. I don’t understand how such a thing could be, but it obviously is.

Bev, Jose and I walked back to the hotel as it grew dark, and I attracted the attention of an old one-eyed cholo carrying a plastic cup of beer that was clearly not his first of the day. Like others before him he was taking no hints, to show off he had words with Jose about what neighborhood he was from, before it escalated the hotel owner kicked him out of the little courtyard…so that was exciting. We came in and watched anime until the coast was clear to go to the little bar next door for some bohemias.

I’ve enjoyed the adventure but…tomorrow we are getting the hell out of dodge for the day and look for another spot. Prepaid reservations now, that’s a dilemma.

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