The Writing and Rewriting of the United States | Sojourners

The Writing and Rewriting of the United States

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My family walks a palimpsest, on translations and mistranslations of rivers, of people, of places, of faith. My family walks on unfinished words that have yet to be formed, stuck on molar, in mouths, being shaped by tongues that twist two into one. My family walks on places unfinished and already traversed.

My country is a palimpsest. The Spanish shipwrecked their religiosity upon a continent. They renamed sacred sites, using their own sacred words. The forces of erosion and conquest left only the names of the places like scratch marks as the land fell from the grips of their empire into another. If the historians, Frederick Jackson Turner and Herbert Eugene Bolton are to be believed, Puritans raced west and priests north in the name of nation and empire. They collided in the Southwest.

In the land of the Miwok, Ute, and Tonkawa, I walk my son and daughter down to rivers. My son throws rocks into the river the Spanish called El Rio de Las Animas — the river of souls — that has been shortened and pronounced animus, a different word that fits our current epoch. My daughter dips her hands into the river of mercy, reaching for stones shaped timeless by ancient forces. She plucks them from their place, interrupting their timeline, dislodging them from their past and heaves them into an alternate reality in the Merced River. I row into the arms of god in a canoe with my best friend, without captains or chain of command. Los Brazos de Dios robbed us of our fish, but will eventually welcome us in the end.

The Utes who inhabited the area called it Uncompahgre, for the red that stained the rivers and mountains. Having already christened another range, Sangre de Cristo, the Spanish named them the San Juan Mountains. I would like to believe that they named them after Saint John, the beloved disciple, out of terror, deference, and reverence for the mountains. There, I am hushed. Awed.

I have tried to lose the small hum of my soul’s disquiet in the wild yawp of the mountains, only to have it silenced by their roar, ancient and inaudible. And yet, my daughter, at only a few years of age, climbs to her full height and roars back. There, among the peaks, primordial permanence and youthful impertinence battle. I believe my daughter at any moment will demand that they throw themselves into the sea. En las alturas — where Neruda poetically described, lies the soul — my faith borrows confidence from my daughter’s full conviction.

We climb the divide that breaks waters into their continental shapes, sending them into journeys that end with permanent division. We rest ourselves over it, place our bodies at peace upon it. There, we lean and loaf. We loaf and invite our souls, as Whitman pleaded.

Seeking something, I tread on the high places of earth named and renamed after saints and soldiers. The names matter, some Indigenous, some Spanish, some English. Over the continent, the only way to know the place is to speak words that tell the story of violence, conflict, and also persistence and communion. In those places, code-switching takes continental shape.

The humanity and inhumanity stretch across the valleys and ranges. Then, religion provided the vocabulary and the grammar for the taking of land, lives, and souls. Errands into the wilderness, destines made manifest, left the words across the contested terrain. I cross those places now, impacted by their histories. I speak those languages now, although sometimes my words leave me reaching for those of poets and peoples across the hemisphere.

My country is a palimpsest. The maps have been erased and written over, each time reshaping imaginations. Each time they are drawn and redrawn with more authority and certainty, meant to indicate permanence and separation. But the lines are not natural, nor supernatural. They are artificial impositions in rivers, in deserts, in nature. They are attempts to shape the world in a desired image. They leave harsh scars on the landscape. They will be drawn thickly, but the intended erasure will be incomplete.