Tag Archives: Luis Alberto Ambroggio

Small Graces in the Valley of the Shadow of Trump (with malice for none, if you’ll pardon the pun)

"We won't be silenced."--Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

“We won’t be silenced.”–Jorge Ramos, Univision journalist and newscaster

In an essay still forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (see 8/17/16 blog), I speak of certain “small graces” that help us wade through whatever intervening darkness might otherwise engulf and drag us down in life. Indeed, for those readers accustomed to these occasional scribblings of mine, it will come as no surprise that the electoral results of November 8 did send me into one of those spirals toward the Land of Despond, although my intuition had been warning me all along that it might well happen. When it did, I was more disheartened than really surprised.

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

Trump to Ramos as he signals to his people to have him removed from the premises

So I ask those of my readers who might have voted for Herr Trump—for whatever variety of motives; with hopeful heart or held nose—to indulge me any signs of that honest discontent while I give thanks for the small graces that do continue appearing to me. Which give me reason, as well as strength, to struggle on.

First, to those closest to me who were my initial support:

  • Anita, near tears of her own and startled by mine, who hurried to notify our daughters and son that their father needed comforting (I had been trying to express in words the sadness I felt for all the children who were already so fearful of the wall that might soon separate them from their parents—all the more since watching Jorge Ramos’s documentary, Hate Rising, on my computer the previous night: his interview with a classroom of those children, in particular; and also with some white supremacists just up the road from me inPaoli, Indiana—the virulence and unreason of their hatred, pre-existent but newly vindicated by authoritarian demagoguery, so overwhelming);images2T8B1O1V
  • My daughters, both of whom answered, for my sake, their mother’s call to share a dinner out with us the following evening: Stephanie, conscientious and empathetic social-work therapist, who also cried that night thinking of her own unorthodox family (two wives/mothers, one teenage son), the struggling people she counsels, and so many others, known to her and unknown; and her sister, Nadina, who marveled at the ubiquitous and vindictive Facebook rants of otherwise kind, generous, loving, even upright and church-going people;
  • Their brother, Jonathan, who called me on the phone from his home three hours north in Indianapolis; and who sent a card bearing a message about love—received a couple of days later—from that radical dreamer John Lennon;
  • My vivacious and good-hearted cousin, Jeri Lynn, to whom Jonathan had confided on Facebook that I was feeling low, who also sent me a card with her own personal sentiments of shared commiseration and condolence; as well as the women of the Southern Indiana Writers group who, whatever the content of their individual perspectives and politics, lifted my spirits at our weekly Thursday-evening meeting—
L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

L to R: Brett Alan Sanders, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Ana Ona

But then, on November 29, the event I have been leading up to: on a stage on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus (IUPUI)—I, American-Argentine poet  Luis Alberto Ambroggio, and fellow translator Ana Ona—in front of an auditorium full of almost two hundred people, mostly students, where we discussed and read from two of Ambroggio’s recent books; as my readers may know, the one that I translated for him (who I met that evening in person for the first time) is Todos somos Whitman/We Are All Whitman, his Latin American response to the “Song of Myself” and tribute to that Great Bearded Bard, published this year by Arte Público Press in Houston, Texas.

I had been to the Lilly Auditorium before, visiting it about five years ago with Buenos Aires writer María Rosa Lojo to discuss and read from both versions of her novel La pasión de los nómades, or Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011). And now, for this second time, I was invited by Professor Rosa Tezanos-Pinto, whose published work includes a separate anthology of literary criticism about each of those writers’ work; and who also edited an impressively thick volume of roughly thirty years of Ambroggio’s poetic production.

To say that this was a moment of no small grace for me is perhaps an understatement. I would say, in fact, that no single book event that I have participated in has been a bigger one.

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Dr. Rosa Tezanos-Pinto (front, in dark suit); Dr. Ambroggio, (behind her), and students

Why? For the gracious enthusiasm of this group of students, for one thing, several of whom shook my hand and thanked me effusively for my contribution and for even being there; and who later, after the meal that they had prepared in honor of the three of us (each dish representing the country of their families’ origins), were among those purchasing the Whitman book and asking for mine and Luis Alberto’s autographs.

And then—not to mention the usual graciousness of Dr. Tezanos-Pinto and her husband, José Vargas-Vila—there was Liz Goodfellow, friendly university employee (and non-Spanish speaker) who had arranged our hotel accommodations; and who also asked me, with credible signs of having been touched by my translations, if I wouldn’t also sign her copy.

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

Ambroggio and Sanders, the Whitman reading

So with all of that, in particular hers and others’ repeated and insistent praises, like Don Quixote after an unexpected victory I may have gotten a slightly inflated head. But not to worry: it was only a mildly intoxicating feeling, not on the whole unhealthy and, if I may say so, quite delightful. When I fell asleep a short time later in its fragrant mists, just imagine that it was into the most pleasant dreams of literary glory; and which appear, after all, to have done me no lasting harm.

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Speaking of unlikely Quixotic victories, can it be possible that, as I was composing the rough draft of these words last night, the Standing Rock Sioux scored at least a temporary victory against my good knight’s evil magicians and the determined capitalists and enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline? Who had so lately taken to showering them—water protectors, or agitators, or “bad, bad people,” as I seem to recall our triumphant president-elect having characteristically dismissed them—with blasts of icy water in already sub-freezing temperatures? Blowing off an arm, here, with a concussion grenade, and taking out an eye, there, with a rubber bullet, for good measure?

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Militarized police drenching peaceful water protectors in freezing weather, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

To protect them from the ravages of hypothermia, I suppose; so that now, to prevent that from happening to them (or for whatever official reasons or unofficial intentions), the Army Corps of Engineers decides to call for the environmental study that may or may not force the “big snake” of the oil barons to direct its path around Native lands—as it had already been re-routed before from Bismarck, with far less spectacle and show of force, when the good and respectably white residents of that city had previously petitioned.

For such graces large and small, in any case, let us rejoice! And lay praises on the brave community of nonviolent resisters who fought on in the great tradition of their ancestors—as well as of Henry David Thoreau, the Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

Palestinian support for Standing Rock Sioux protesting DAPL.

And, from however near or far they came, those others from the populous and diverse United States of America and beyond, including those who just sent money, made phone calls, or wrote letters; but none more so than the courageous American veterans of foreign wars, whether of Native or Immigrant stock, who came this time by the thousands to really defend the freedoms (for perhaps their first time) of the American people.

So let’s not allow the dividers to divide us, my good neighbors and kith and kin, from those who might become our faithful allies. Together with whom, if we dare imagine it, through whatever darkness may lie ahead, we might still become the more united … mutually reliant and peaceable … and truly democratic people that our better angels would have us be.

Blessèd, as scripture says, be the uniters and the peacemakers!

"Vict'ry?" said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. "Vict'ry!"

“Vict’ry?” said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. “Vict’ry!”

We Are Humanity (Every Last One of Us!)

Todos-somos-Whitman-350x550[1]Today’s title and theme reflect the English-language titles of my translations of María Rosa Lojo’s most recent novel and of the Arte Público Press’s newly published bilingual edition of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s poetic response to Walt Whitman. The Whitman book is available here: https://artepublicopress.com/product/todos-somos-whitman-we-are-all-whitman/.

Luis’s book, from the Spanish title Todos somos Whitman, becomes in my version We Are All Whitman; while María Rosa’s, Todos éramos hijos, becomes All of Us Were Children (instead of, as might have been expected, We Were All Children). Why? Because the parallel being sought here is not to Ambroggio’s book but to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, which is a central motif that runs through María Rosa’s novel; which, in its Spanish title (Todos eran mis hijos, or, They Were All / All of Them Were My Sons, more closely parallels her own novel’s.

True, either English version would have included Miller’s word All, but it seemed to me that placing it at the beginning would echo that antecedent more effectively. Such are some of the seemingly trivial concerns that the literary translator faces on a daily basis. The translator of more technical texts—from the legal or medical professions, for instance—might not stop to ponder such fine points. Which is why they tend to work faster than we do.

images0HJCF060Like Whitman, in any case, Ambroggio writes about universal themes such as identity, love, and life; death, nature, and physical pleasure. But he does so from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Which is only logical, considering the degree to which Whitman has long been venerated by the people and poets of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Indeed, while Whitman’s subject is the people of this American nation in particular, his is an expansive and inclusive view of humanity. Drawing as he does on the experience and energy of all the people of this immigrant country, he writes of them in all their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. The “Myself” of Whitman’s title is really a plurality, then, all the people embraced within the poet’s charismatic verse. It is not the merely egocentric musings of a single man, though he does speak like one of immense self-confidence; nor does it exclude the people of other lands—from which our various selves have originated, and who might also fall under his spell; as we, potentially, under the spell of José Martí or Pablo Neruda.

Ambroggio’s Hispanic or Latin American perspective is of particular value today for the light it sheds on what otherwise has long been our rancorous and often fact-free national “debate” on immigration: as in these United States, now again in Europe as we seek to contain the seemingly unending flow of refugees from a Middle Eastern inferno that our nations are at least in part responsible for creating.

Ambroggio illuminates the subject by attaching a more humane and human face to the voice of the immigrant Other, who contributes to our nations’ health in ways all too easy to ignore. He addresses this issue directly, in a passage that opens with one of Whitman’s most famous lines:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky,

in the delightful meaning of your body.

images2T8B1O1VMy personal epiphany on this subject came when I was about twelve years old and my Vacation Bible School leaders took us to visit a migrant labor camp somewhere in south-central Indiana. The insight may not have approached the sophistication of my present understanding, but it was real and powerful and has been with me for all these forty-some years.

It was my impression, as I looked around at the poverty the migrant families lived in, and as I ran with the children to play by a nearby creek, that they were people just like me; so, why did they have so little and I so much? And I understood immediately that it was not because I, or my parents, or anyone else, was in any moral sense better than they. That something, which has haunted me forever after, was wrong in the world.

Those people who are so eager to run them off or keep them out should try to imagine how we would feel if we were in their situation and they, ours. But it is a difficult concept to get a hold on, I gather, and the best those of us who get it can do is probably to just keep keepin’ on in the struggle for basic rights for all human creatures; knowing that, if we can’t ever reach that utopian place of universally shared bliss, at least we can create—and fight to maintain—a little more of it for our fellow beings.

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imagesFUTEWQ01In All of Us Were Children, María Rosa writes of what were troubled times in Argentina: from 1971, as political and social chaos reigned and Juan Perón was maneuvering his way back from exile to the presidency, to 1975 or ’76 as the generals’ dictatorship began to rain an unprecedented level of violence (a “dirty war”) on its populace. Unlike other treatments of the subject, we are allowed to see all of this from the perspective of an idealistic group of young students in their transition from their final year at a rigorous Catholic high school into university studies and other activities.

Arthur Miller comes into the picture because of this group’s performance, at the end of that academic year, of All My Sons. The priest and the young woman who chose that play, both of them teachers, did so because it spoke to their own national situation from the safe distance of space and time. It was an opportunity to address important issues like integrity and responsibility, as well as the far-reaching and unanticipated consequences of war and of the race to get to and keep one’s place at the top in a capitalistic society.

At center of the tale Miller weaves is Joe Keller, a successful businessman and provider, with one son at home and the older one, before his plane had vanished, flying missions over Hitler’s Europe. The crisis comes because of a faulty batch of airplane parts that he allows to be superficially fixed and shipped off to the European campaign. Everything comes to a head when we learn that his son—whose body was never found and, so, the mother continues to await him—deliberately crashed his plane, committing suicide; at shame over what his father had done and which had caused the deaths of other young men, and for which Joe Keller had sent his partner in business away to prison, for his own unacknowledged betrayal of all those sons.

And what is “so terrible” about Joe Keller’s personal tragedy, the one teacher comments to her female students at the end of a day’s discussion, is that he “is not a conspirator, a spy, or even a monster. Aside from that, until then he has been an admired citizen. Someone who has made himself with hard work, audacity, and a bit of luck. A model that everyone wanted to imitate. The conclusion, then, is that any other man like him could act that way under similar circumstances, perhaps because the evil is not just within himself, but in the society he lives in. A society whose greatest values are success, power, money, and which for that reason generates people who fail. Like the defective parts.”

We have all heard that banal truism that says capitalism is the worst of economic systems, except for all the other ones. But that is at best a diversion, one that lulls the most comfortably situated of us into complacency and discourages the rest of us from embracing the truly radical change—whether we come to it in four to eight years or over decades—that might actually make radical progress at lifting all boats. And at ceasing to discard people like defective parts, then blaming and shaming them for their misfortune.

It seems clear to me, in any case, that if we do not begin to shake the old ideological myth that exalts selfish and homogenous individualism over the common effort of an engaged and diverse citizenry—a citizenry at once tolerant of religious and cultural difference, but also fiercely determined to engage each other in informed inquiry rather than the ideological free-for-all that we have come to call political debate—until then, if I may wax colloquial, we scarcely have a snowball’s chance in hell of resolving the array of urgent problems that confront us.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

There does, indeed, need to be something on the order of a revolution in all of our public discourse. If the present political season has not already been enough to convince us of this, I despair of knowing what will. Being an essentially Quixotic spirit, though, despite the melancholic streak that almost continually wrestles me toward darkest despair, I will continue as best I can to cultivate hope.

And if, as that good knight says, we are children of the things (good or ill) that we do, then why shouldn’t our extravagant and impossible dreaming bear some good fruit? We needn’t create Utopia in order to create a significantly better and more humane society. That the United States is not Denmark does not mean that we cannot (like Denmark) find a way to feed and house all our people, make their children’s education free or radically more affordable, and provide for their medical needs.

And just maybe, as long as we’re dreaming big, become a superpower in the arts of diplomacy instead of destruction, peacemaking instead of perpetual war, and environmental sanity instead of apocalyptic madness.

If we cannot produce any substantive progress in these vitally existential areas, then what good is our much-touted American exceptionaism and ingenuity?

It is, as the Seventies’ rock group used to sing, “dust in the wind.”

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

“I am large, I contain multitudes….”

images79QYH704Before I come to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, I begin this long overdue blog-essay in the parking lot of my eleven-year-old grandson’s elementary school, across the river in Kentucky where I had just witnessed the first couple of rounds of his academic-bowl team’s quick-response rounds. As I turned on the radio for my return trip to Indiana’s southern shore, switching from the opera on my regular NPR station to a neighboring one playing folk music, I was pleased to recognize the strains of an old Woody Guthrie song called “Deportee.”

Another song about our immigrant nation immediately followed. All of which led me, no doubt, to reflect on the U. S. Congress’s still-unfolding saga (as of this writing) of holding hostage the Homeland Security budget in order to be seen determinedly and heroically fighting President Obama’s executive actions on immigration – executive actions, by the way, that are not significantly different than executive actions on immigration taken earlier by Presidents Reagan and both George H. W. and George W. Bush; and only necessary, on this occasion, because of Congress’s inability or refusal to pass its own more extensive and permanent plan.

Personally, whatever differences I may have with the President on this or that issue, I am impressed and pleased by his refusal to play the role of “lame duck,” a label in his case that seems to have been rather more liberating than restrictive. I would also point out, in respect to all the Opposition patter about “the American People” having spoken in the last election – and that this indefinable and impoverished mass (in a midterm election with even lower-than-usual turnout) has clearly, absolutely, and decisively spoken for the vast majority of Americans; in favor of each and every one of the most reactionary of Opposition goals – I would remind them that the Opposition minority in both Houses at the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 election said precisely the same thing in their defeat. And set out with unbounded arrogance to be sure that this scary African American Socialist Islamist President from Kenya would only be a one-termer. If they couldn’t deport him first.

The President, for his part, was at least more circumspect in his response to the latest election: It is clear that the American People are not satisfied with our [not just Opposition] failure in Washington to get the People’s business done; which is more or less what I think he said also after the 2010 midterm election.

But as I was saying, anyway, I was thrilled to catch that old song that I had occasionally shared, guitar in hand, with the high school students in my Spanish and English classes. The song, like all of Woody Guthrie’s populist singing, aims to give voice to the voiceless; in this case the countless Mexicans who, under the Braceros program of the 1940s and beyond, were recruited to do the heaviest of agricultural labors at precious little pay and with constant humiliations. Then, no longer needed, they were as likely as not to be run out of the country and out of sight.

The song narrates the incident – inspired, I seem to recall, by an actual radio news report that the singer-poet heard – of a plane crash around “Los Gatos Canyon,” its human cargo all killed; whose victims, as the lyrics bitingly put it, were “just deportees”: expelled from the country and, in effect, of no real importance to us, completely disposable, scarcely even human.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adiós mis amigos Jesús y María; you won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane, all they will call you will be deportee.

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 imagesYHF8J17GWith this I come to Walt Whitman. It turns out, happily, that since last time I wrote I have been recruited, by Argentine American writer Luis Alberto Ambroggio, to translate his book of poems called Todos somos Whitman (in translation, tentatively: We Are All Whitman). The Spanish edition was published in 2014 by Vaso Roto Ediciones in Madrid.

Whitman, aside from being richly beloved and widely popular in these United States of America, is perhaps equally adored throughout Latin America for the vast reach of a poetic embrace that, particularly in the Song of Myself, seems clearly extended to all of the Americas with equal respect and with his characteristic passion. Ambroggio’s book is, at once, homage to Whitman’s Song and a Latin American’s literary response to it, from a distinctly Latin American perspective.

Listening to Guthrie’s song, in any case, I thought of a single passage from one of Ambroggio’s poems, which in my translation, as it stands, after the citation from Whitman that heads this essay, reads thus:

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky […].

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There exist, undoubtedly, numerous examples of a literary rhetoric (literature as “equipment for living,” in Kenneth Burke’s trenchant phrase) that gives a sensitive and nuanced picture of the immigrant experience in the United States. In closing I will mention, in passing, a slight few that spring to mind most immediately:

images4PUXLM3VMy Ántonia, by Willa Cather. This outstanding and undeniably American novel, published in 1918, illustrates the multiplicity of our linguistic history, showing the reader an immigrant community in which the European language remains a vibrant part of communal and civic life – at least for the first generation or two. A good corrective to the simplistic view that whoever comes here should just speak English, end of story.

… y no se lo tragó la tierra / … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, bilingual edition, by Tomás Rivera, translated into English by Evangelina Vigil-Piñón. This very short novel, or collection of inter-connected tales, is set in roughly the era of Guthrie’s song lyric and may best be described as a miniature Grapes of Wrath with Mexican American migrant workers in place of Dust Bowl-era Okies. The characters and their situations are deeply affecting.

The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea. This book of nonfiction recreates the lives and tragic road of a single group of undocumented Mexicans, in 2001, to hoped-for jobs in El Norte; better than half of them died in the desert where their coyote, or smuggler, took them to avoid border control. The book also has the virtue of following the stories of the border agents themselves and treats both sides of that deadly cat-and-mouse game with dignity.

6163[1]The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain), by Cormac McCarthy. The setting is the rather porous U.S. / Mexico border just after WWII, at a moment when that border is on the verge of great change. The heroes in these almost Biblically epic, darkly romantic, realistic yet larger-than-life, subtly allegorical tales, are a couple of young cowboys who roam back and forth across the border – their trajectories only intersecting in the third novel – in a slow encounter between good and evil.

In closing with this trilogy, I am thinking principally of the long opening section in The Crossing, in which the boy-hero’s life intersects with a Mexican wolf that has crossed the border into our own American southwest, and gotten its foot caught in a trap. Without giving away the episode’s heartbreaking conclusion, I will just say that it happens that the boy takes a mind to fixing its leg and taking it back to its originating mountains in Mexico. Having made the crossing, he encounters a community of people who stand in the way of that purpose. The following passage, which sprinkles a little bit of Spanish with the English, picks the story up there:

 You think that this country is some country you can come here and do what you like.

I never thought that. I never thought about this country one way or the other.

Yes, said the hacendado.

We was just passin through, the boy said. We wasnt botherin nobody. Queríamos pasar, no más.

Pasar or traspasar?

The boy turned and spat into the dirt. He could feel the wolf lean against his leg. He said that the tracks of the wolf had led out of Mexico. He said the wolf knew nothing of boundaries. The young don nodded as if in agreement but what he said was that whatever the wolf knew or did not know was irrelevant and that if the wolf had crossed that boundary it was perhaps so much the worse for the wolf but that the boundary stood without regard. (pp. 118-19)

That last part about the wolf’s not knowing anything of borders should certainly be taken allegorically, in relation to our present immigration dilemma. Put the recent influx of children and teenagers from violence in Honduras and Guatemala – refugees, really – in the place of the wolf who knew nothing of borders. Put the enraged U.S. congressmen and women, and the mob of citizens in California turning back a busload of  invading “illegals,” in the position of the young landholder who claims the wolf’s ignorance of the law, or defiance of it, is perhaps just the wolf’s tough luck.

The dividing lines between opposing forces, in real life, are not neatly good or evil. The anti-immigrant congressmen and women may be, to varying degrees, cynically calculating or truly worried about national security, in any case viewing the borderland as a great battle zone. The citizen mob is made up, likewise, of flesh-and-blood people whose hearts, at that moment of confrontation, are variously full of fear and / or a whipped-up, blinding hatred (isn’t hatred always blinding, after all?).

If we are truly the Judeo-Christian nation that we so piously claim to be, then McCarthy’s prose calls on us to reflect on what that means in relation to human beings and wolves, undocumented immigrants and those who would just turn them all back, no questions asked or answered.

Think of all the world’s refugees, whom countries far away from us and with fewer resources are compelled by necessity, if not pure goodwill, to absorb. And ask ourselves how the proverbial “land of the free and home of the brave” looks in comparison.

The devil is in the details, okay, but in broad strokes we can learn a few basic truths about ourselves, and not all of them exemplary. We should know that our national ideals are aspirational, and that we do not ever wholly live up to them nor should we pretend to do.

We are any one of us no more exceptional than the next human being. Except to the extent that one of us or the other is struggling toward peace and justice or laboring for the dark side.

At least that is, in broad terms, how I look at it.