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A reader recently urged me to share this essay, which is included at the end of my most recent novel, Do They Know I'm Running?, and to try to get it posted on as many social networking sites as possible. First, I suppose, I should place it here.

September 9, 2010

Going Humbly

An Ear for Tone

I grew up in central Ohio, a fairly provincial and racially segregated backwater at the time, despite the presence of the statehouse and one of the country's largest universities, Ohio State. Before I left, this was changing; African Americans were gaining ground politically, economically and socially, the university's international draw in both students and faculty was quite literally changing the face of the local community, and Columbus was growing into the major metropolis it has become. But I saw firsthand, at times within my own home, the sometimes subtle and other times quite blatant transformation of small-town rectitude and middle-American conformity into racist fear and anger and contempt.

The word "nigger" was a constant drumbeat among the working class white guys I hung out with, so much so that by the time I made my first black friend—his name was Adrian Bennett, we were both fourteen, working together as volunteers at the Center for Science and Industry—I was startled by how "normal," how like myself, he was.

I felt embarrassed by this reaction and still do. Although I was not paralyzed by white guilt I realized I was by no means innocent. I bore the emotional and conceptual baggage of my place and time and no amount of feel-good hipness could cure me completely.

In a way racism is not unlike alcoholism. The tendency cannot be escaped, merely controlled, and the control requires insight, honesty and discipline. Put differently, it requires one to become more fully human. And like an alcoholic, I very much wish I did not have the thoughts and feelings and impulses I still sometimes observe within myself. I wish I was colorblind, race-blind. Instead, I have tried to become insightful and conscientious, I've learned to question and control my impulses, I've learned to listen and observe.

Much has changed. I now live in a very mixed community in a California neighborhood so diverse I once reflected, during our yearly Nationwide Night Out get-together, that I and my neighbors looked like we'd been transplanted from a Jonathan Demme movie—whites, blacks, Latinos, Filipinos, all intermingling effortlessly with genuine warmth and fondness. We look out for each other and involve ourselves in each other's lives.

It's the 21st Century. "Post-Racial America." All is well, no?

When I first came to California in the mid-seventies, I worked briefly at a Los Angeles restaurant with a largely Mexican staff. I was supervised by a waiter named Ramon, who asked me to help him learn French, in return for his help in teaching me Spanish. But Ramon was not merely generous and curious. He was also proud, world-wise and reserved. He knew that I, as an Anglo, might easily replace him as head waiter if the Caucasian owners saw fit or if customers groused. The other Mexican waiters also treated me with a mix of helpfulness and detachment; one actually picked a fight with me in the dressing room. And though none of the other waiters who were there came to my defense, none of them jumped in to help my adversary either. The fight was between me and him; we could fend for ourselves.

What is strange to me in reflection of these incidents is how different in character my feelings were at the time than the racism I'd known growing up. There were clearly tensions between us—and those tensions were the result of our being of different color and class and culture—but there was also an awareness of each other as human. I'd known no Latinos in central Ohio; the Great Brown Threat had yet to register on our radar. I had not been indoctrinated in class or community-wide resentment and fear. Latin Americans were not the Other, to be feared and mistrusted, controlled and repelled. Not yet, anyway.

But I remain very much attuned to tone. I have a pretty good radar for bigotry, due to my own struggles with it. It's for that reason that I've grown increasingly disturbed at the poisonous distortions that too often overwhelm the immigration debate. I detect in the shrillness that old familiar fear and guilt and anger, with its gloss of righteous indignation and "common sense" and its rhetoric of protection—defense of our borders, our laws, our culture, our way of life. I hear echoes. They are not pleasant ones.

One of the most frequent things one hears is the epithet "illegal immigrant," with the underlying insinuation that the undocumented are intrinsically criminals, since their very existence in this country is testimony to their violating our immigration statutes. And criminals deserve no compassion, no respect, no "amnesty."

I see the situation somewhat differently. When my wife was dying of cancer, she was once in such extreme pain that, as I drove her to the emergency room, I ran two stop signs and a red light, driving over 80 miles per hour in 25 mile-per-hour zones. She later thanked me, even though what I did was clearly against the law. And I would do it again.

The "crime" attributed to undocumented immigrants in crossing the border is analogous—and much less dangerous to everyone but themselves. They do what they must for the sake of the well-being of their loved ones. If this is the moral outrage immigration opponents make it out to be, show me the innocent. Are we to champion as virtuous the heartless, the indifferent, the scared, the ones willing to just sit there and watch their families suffer under the oppressive weight of corruption, poverty and crime that increasingly characterize Mexico and Central America—conditions for which the United States, though not entirely at fault, is nonetheless far from blameless?

The Latino Patriots

Something else was happening while the anti-immigrant backlash was building: Latinos were joining the military in unprecedented numbers. Not just that—their casualties in the Iraq war were disproportionately higher than their representation in the armed services as a whole (11% compared to 9%).

Interestingly, the reasons Latino recruits gave for enlisting was not just the expedited path to full citizenship put into effect by Congress at the request of the Bush administration, though that did frequently remain a motivating factor. A Rand National Defense Research Institute study revealed that in post-enlistment surveys Latino recruits listed "patriotism" and "service to country" as the top two reasons for joining the service, followed by "duty" and "honor." Many soldiers noted that their families were proud of them, even if they disagreed with the Iraq war.

Despite this, legislation was drafted in the House of Representatives that would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony, forever barring a path to citizenship or even legal status. And attempts to provide a means to citizenship for the children of undocumented workers, many of whom arrived as infants and know no other country than the U.S., were sabotaged by the anti-immigrant bloc in Congress. Now there are calls to strip the citizenship rights of children born here in the U.S., rights granted by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, if those children are born of undocumented aliens.

To paraphrase the father of a Latino U.S. marine killed in Iraq: On the one hand they're recruiting the young men to fight and die, while on the other they're kicking the parents and children out of the country.

Who Do I Think I Am?

Outrage is a luxury. Writers write, and I felt a particular need to contribute something, to bark back at the distorting invective. I felt it particularly important that Anglos chime in on the side of Latinos out of a sense of justice and simple decency. Silence was not an option.

But I'm a novelist, not a pundit. And what right does an American mutt like me, a white boy from the very heart of Middle America, have to depict in fiction the life of a Latino family?

The old arguments against white authors imagining the lives of people of color addressed power, maintaining that the servant always understood the master, if only out of bald necessity and naked survival, but the master was intrinsically self-deluded about the servant.

Such reasoning, with its colonial baggage, elevated the term "insensitivity" to a cultural death sentence. The damning reception inflicted on William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the author tried to mine the inner lives of African slaves, would be hard to replicate today, and that's a good thing. No work of art deserves to be strangled in its crib. But that doesn't mean we've all somehow become sensitive.

I studied math and music, both arguably universal languages. And though I came to Latino culture first through fiction—Borges, Amado, Cortazar—I gained my greatest appreciation of it through music, perhaps its most accessible art form. Also, being partially of Irish descent, my imagination leans instinctively to the underdog, especially one standing in the shadow of imperial power. Last, being raised Catholic, I felt a special fascination with the manner that religion took hold in the southerly Americas, both Gothic and primitive, awake to suffering, fiercely immediate. From where I sat, Latino culture in general and its music in particular possessed a vibrancy, a passion, a sense of both the tragic and the absurd I found mesmerizing and too often lacking in what I saw and heard around me here in the States. Steely Dan was a hip act but Santana could blister your soul. And Santana led me to Tito Puente, who led me to Ray Barretto, who led me to Poncho Sanchez and on and on: Willie Bobo to Eric Bobo to Los Lobos to Celso Piña to Control Machete to Julieta Venegas to Ana Gabriel to Pescozada . . . The chain hasn't stopped in thirty years. I pray to God it never does.

Admiring a culture, though, doesn't grant me a right to depict it in my own work. Artists steal from each other at will, musicians especially, it's almost lazy not to. But can fiction writers get away with it?

All artists are outsiders to the extent they observe more than they participate, but everyone joins in to some degree, just as we all reflect. Rather, the crucial question seems to be at what point does observation fail us, i.e., when do we begin to imagine, and why?

I began with my third novel, Blood of Paradise, because I felt a need to address the current state of affairs in El Salvador, a country whose political, social and economic life was significantly affected by U.S. policy, and which I saw being alarmingly misrepresented by those who wished to propose a "Salvador Option" in Iraq. I also had Salvadoran friends who introduced me to their country, and felt an obligation to portray it as they saw it.

Do They Know I'm Running? was simply a continuation of that trajectory, an attempt to depict, as best I could, the effect on Latino families of current immigration policy; the predation on migrants by organized crime and street gangs who now control the underground railroad that transports not just drugs but human beings into the U.S.; and the various ills befalling Mexico and Central America. I was moved because I see these effects all around me in people I know and interact with daily or have met in my travels, some of whom are not just acquaintances but colleagues, neighbors, friends, people for whom in many cases I feel not just fondness but admiration, and whose lives I felt deserved a more fair representation than they were too often getting in the media.

Roque was partially inspired by a number of young Latino musicians I have met and befriended during performances at various bay area venues, some of whom reminded me of my own musical career with its hopes and hardship, the disillusion, the resilience.

Godo was partially conceived after reading accounts of real Latino servicemen who returned from Iraq, with further inspiration provided by my encounters with Latino-American men and women in uniform at the U.S. Southern Command and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Tía Lucha was based on a number of Salvadoran immigrants I have met, including a single divorcee I know who lost her job as office manager for a German construction firm in San Salvador after the 2002 earthquake and was forced to emigrate to find work, leaving her aging mother behind with the hope of building a better future for her children here in the States.

Happy came to me as a patchwork, pieced together from traits observed in various young men I know, one a photographer who supports himself by managing the best taco wagon in my home town, the other who works as a paramedic, tending the injured and saving lives while constantly worrying about being deported.

Tío Faustino was a fusion of my own father, who drove a truck to put himself through college and sometimes dreamed of running his own trucking firm; a handful of port truck drivers to whom I was introduced by Ron Carver of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and some of the interviewees of documentary filmmaker Don North, who returned to Guazapa Volcano after twenty years to talk to the survivors of the civil war offensive that took place there.

The gang members depicted in the book were modeled after real young men (and their families and friends) whom I met in my travels to Central America or while working as a private investigator, in the latter case when I was entrusted with protecting their rights, their freedom, sometimes even their lives.

But in all these cases I blended the true with the imagined, what I knew with what I felt the story required. And taking that additional step, that leap of imagination, is an act of presumption, yes, but also an act of love. In a way we imagine each other every day. So simple an act as reading a facial expression, whether that of a stranger or an old friend, requires innumerable acts of interpretation we make unconsciously—"interpretation" being the guise imagination assumes to appear more reliable. And as we imagine others, so they imagine us. But is this act of imaginative interpretation intrinsically flawed? Are we to believe we never really know the difference, cannot know the difference, between when we're loved and when we're misunderstood—or worse, getting used?

John Coltrane once remarked that when there is something we do not understand we must go humbly to it. That humility is the test of our honesty. Our art will demonstrate not just our understanding—our sensitivity, or lack thereof—but how honest we allowed ourselves to be, not just about our subject matter, but ourselves.

If we sense sloppiness or laziness or sentimentality, or even a bigoted indifference disguised as a well-meaning advocacy, we can justifiably criticize the result, regardless of who the artist is or what the work portrays. This is a question not just of execution, however, but of motive, and all such inquiries are slippery. We can hardly accuse an artist of botching something he doesn't understand by attributing to him motives we cannot possibly know. The inner life of the artist is no less inscrutable than the soul of the vato.

But if the era of identity politics is coming to a close, the craving for authenticity is as strong as ever—thus the popularity of so-called reality programming on TV. Everybody wants the real dope, even the person who wouldn't recognize it if it sat on his head. But the authentic is an illusion, we never possess the truth, we approach it—not just with our eyes but our imaginations. And, if we are wise like Coltrane, we do so humbly. We do so in a spirit of love, not empowerment. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know the difference.

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