by Jeremy Paden
Much of the rhetoric coming out of the White House regarding the crisis at our border dehumanizes the people who have trekked countless miles through violent and godforsaken lands to come to the United States. Their request for sanctuary is written off as a tactic employed by bad actors trying to game the system in order to gain access to a country that does not need their work or their kind. The point of this brief essay is not to engage in an argument about the economics of immigration. It is a difficult and fraught subject, and fully out of my field. Instead, after a much too brief history of Central America and the account of a family friend from Nicaragua who came to the U.S.A. illegally in the 1980s, I would like to review the book Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado, a multi-vocal memoir in verse by four Salvadoran immigrants and the social worker that worked with them to create art as a means to preserve their memories.
My family moved to Nicaragua in the early 1980s. The Sandinista uprising that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship (the complicated history of the Somoza family and the relationship this forty-plus year dictatorship had with the U.S. is well-told in Michael Gobat’s Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua Under U.S. Imperial Rule (Duke University Press Books, 2005)) had happened two or three years before we arrived and the Reagan Administration was searching about for a response. The result, as we know from the nightly news footage during those years and from the Iran-Contra Affair that came to light later that decade, was an infusion of weapons into an already politically unstable region.
Central American political instability has a long history. Shortly after independence in the nineteenth-century the deep distrust local oligarchs had for one another led to civil war and to the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Central America, also known as the United Provinces of Central America, (after a mere twenty years of existence) and the formation of the various nation states that now make up the isthmus. Power struggles between Conservatives and Liberals, and between landowners and tenant farmers, and also the cultural tensions between Creole elites and native communities are central to the political problems of nineteenth-century Central America. These, in turn, lay the foundation for many of the problems of the twentieth-century. Local issues, however, have not been the only problem, a major factor in Central American instability has been various sorts of interventionism: William Walker’s filibustering in the 1850s, the police actions of the U.S. Marines during the Banana Wars of the early twentieth-century, and the 1954 coup in Guatemala of the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, to name just a few. While this much too schematic overview notes the role American military power played, it doesn’t highlight how American foreign policy propped up the various dictatorships that have controlled Central America and the Caribbean from the late nineteenth-century on. I write this because we need to remember that the violence of Central America is not simply the violence of states that have failed due to the corruption of their own political class, but that the U.S. has had an active and destabilizing role in the failure of these nations. And, in turn, in the desire of poor and powerless families to seek out places where they can live in peace.
Shortly after we moved to Nicaragua, Dad made friends with a meat salesman. He was a kind, gregarious man who showed Dad around the country. He was a man whose only interests were providing for his family and practicing his religious faith, a man who, so long as he could do this and those around him could do the same, would not have cared who was in power. Yet, for various reasons, not the least of which was his independent streak and his belief that swearing allegiance to the Communist state went against his conscience and his faith, he found himself marginalized by the meat-sellers’ union. Despite his success as a salesman over the year and a half that we were there, he was given inferior cuts of meat that were increasingly less fit for market. Right before he decided to travel north and cross the border illegally in to the U.S., he was selling bones. By 1986, when he received amnesty as part of Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, he was living in the Washington, DC area and had brought his family to the States legally. There are ways, possibly, in which this story of my father’s friend makes him a sympathetic character to Anglo-American readers, despite his illegal border crossing. After all, he was fleeing a Communist state and all he wanted was the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness for his family. However, given that certain sectors have redefined the unlawfulness of his border crossing as a form of criminality in and of itself rather than as a simple breach of contract, it could be that his flight from a Communist state in search of religious freedom does not redeem him in their eyes. Regardless, his story is very similar to that of most immigrants caught at the border—he and they are all seeking economic, political, and domestic stability. And, while here, they build our houses, cities, and roads, clean our houses and cut our grass, harvest and cook our food, even watch our children.
The problem with how we tell immigration and border stories is that we simplify them. We simplify these stories due to our own ignorance of history and the role our nation has played in creating the political and economic instability Central American immigrants are fleeing. We simplify them by lumping together various national and ethnic groups, by erasing the historical particularities of the various immigration waves, and by stripping these refugees and immigrants of their individuality, even of their humanity. Part of the complexity of the immigration problem is that it sits at the intersection of macro processes—like, among other things, a foreign policy that favors dictators over the rights of citizens to be self-determining because dictators have greased the wheel for U.S. political and economic concerns, or like the economic changes brought about by trade agreements that leave poor and middle class families among the global losers—and micro concerns—like the ability of a family to make a living, or of a parent to protect children, or of a woman to escape domestic violence.
This brings me around to the lovely book Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado, published in 2018 by Thick Press, a new, independent, small press. The story is a collaboration among immigrant narrators Angela Celaya, Sergio Guzmán, José Lovos, and Gloria Revelo, social worker Erin Segal, who worked with them to record, translate, and arrange the stories, and graphic artist Julie Cho, who designed the book.
The four narrators are all senior citizens and know each other through the Bernice Fonteneau Senior Wellness Center that is managed by Mary’s Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC and Maryland that began as a way of providing medical, educational, and social services to the Latinx migrant community and now works with persons and families in need regardless of origin. They were all born in the 1930s, shortly after the 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre—a right-wing repression of a Communist-led insurrection of peasants against the abuses of the landowners that ended in an ethnocide. And, from what I gather, all came to the U.S.A. in response to the political unrest during the 1970s and early ’80s. A period of state violence during which the U.S. helped the Salvadoran military government. Each, also, came in different ways: one crossed the border illegally, another sought political asylum after having crossed the border, another came to the United States on a diplomatic visa meant for someone else, and the fourth does not say how he came, but that he found himself working as an intermediary for a Los Angeles factory.
The story is divided into nine sections; each section is further subdivided into four voices. A two-page graphic and a roman numeral signals these divisions. The first graphic is a round, white circle against a dark gray background speckled with white, as if it were the full moon against a starry sky. As the book advances, the graphic element separating the sections uses collage to call up images from the other dividing sections. Always, though, there is the circle in the middle of page—half on the verso, half on the recto. At times two circles are superimposed one on the other, as if an eclipse; at times only half a circle is present, as if a moon moving through its phases. The other images that make up the collage are of corn, of plants, of rock, of the haunches of a predatory animal. These collages set a mood for each section, and, as I have mentioned, establish relationships between the various sections. In the middle of the book, there is a photo album. The portion of the book that normally makes up the notes and the colophon is set in a different font type and on a paper of a different type and color. It also contains Erin’s account of how the book came into existence. In their comments, both Erin and Julie stress the process of composition and they turn all attention to the stories told by Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria.
Erin, as she recounts her involvement with the project, came to the Bernice Fonteneau Senior Wellness Center hoping to mobilize the seniors through a Monday morning memory and story-telling group. The consistent members of this group were the four narrators. They, however, did not want to mobilize for action, but to relax, to visit. The stories they shared over four months formed the germ of a memoir project. The exact shape of the project, however, was not fully determined until the four said that they preferred a book over a performance and that they wanted this book to be in English. Their decision that it be a book and that it be in English rather than in Spanish reminds me of a story Luís Alberto Urrea tells of a garbage picker he met in Baja California, Mexico when he used to work there in the late ’80s with a missionary group. According to Urrea the old man asked him why he carried around a journal, what it was that he wrote in that book. When Urrea explained to him the use and function of dairy and told the garbage picker that he had written about him in his journal, the old man replied that it was good that Urrea write about him, that he wanted people to know that he, too, had lived.
The life stories recounted in this book are told in a verse very reminiscent of late twentieth-century free-verse. There is good control of the line, a colloquial—but not monotonous rhythm—and strong images. There is nothing pyrotechnic in Erin’s writing, but there shouldn’t be. This is verse in service of these lives and stories, not verse trying to draw attention to itself.
As previously noted, the four life stories collected in Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasadoare, in keeping with the wishes of the narrators, are presented in English, rather than Spanish. The process of composition unfolded over four months of group conversation, an extended thirty-minute personal interview with each of them that was translated by a professional, and then— after several fitful starts—a drafting process that, rather than attempting to arrange the translated material, rewrote it trying to stay true to the voice of each person. These drafts were then revised and corrected by the four narrators. As a poet who does not deal with IRB, I cannot speak to the ethics of this mode, though it all seems very conscientious, collaborative, respectful, and attune to the lives and the wishes of the subjects. I can, though, speak to the art of the story, the arrangement, the craft. This is a lovely testament to the lives of Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria. It is well-told, well-presented, and it is a necessary corrective to the current rhetoric surrounding immigration.
As an object, the book Julie has designed is beautiful. Measuring 10 ¼ by 6 ½ inches, it’s slightly larger than most modern books. It’s tall, slender shape calls up the royal octavo format. The green hardbound cover has in the upper right corner a collage of photos of the four Salvadorans whose story the book tells. Though the picture of Sergio is largely in blues and grays, the picture of the other three narrators have considerable red, purple, and orange tones in them, either from colors in each picture itself or from fading. The title is in yellow. The use of an analogous color for the title works nicely given the predominance of complimentary colors in the collage. The yellow is carried over in the end flaps. The color scheme creates a nice harmonious book.
I have spent more of my time in providing background to Central America and in praise of the beauty of the book than in recounting the story of the four immigrants, now citizens. I have done this, in part, because I do not want to spoil their story. You should read it for yourself. I have also done this because the effort of Erin and Julie should be noted. They have honored, and honored well, the lives of these elderly Salvadorans.
Story telling is a political act. Giving voice to marginalized, ignored, erased, and dehumanized individuals is a deeply affirming act. While Erin might have originally been disappointed in the reticence of Ángela, Sergio, José, and Gloria to mobilize toward some sort of community action within the Washington DC-Central American community, honoring their lives and their stories through this gorgeous book not only affirms them as individuals but also provides the immigrant community in the U.S.A. a voice. Let us listen to the stories of these immigrants. Let us see and hear their goodness and say thank you.
Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado is available for purchase from Thick Press.