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Holding On and Letting Go
I WAS PRESENT when my uncle died. I didn’t plan to be, but once I understood his end was near it felt right. I had been the flower girl at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, the ritualized beginning of their life together, so witnessing this milestone event of my uncle’s death seemed appropriate. And I wanted to support my aunt, I told myself.
My aunt is my father’s youngest sister. They are the last living siblings from nine brothers and sisters; both their parents are also long gone. My aunt wears this fact like a veil. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; sometimes it’s the only thing she sees. While my parents’ divorce had kept me apart from my aunt for much of my life, it seemed important, the fury of those old family dramas now covered with dust, to offer my aunt support in her husband’s last days, hours, then moments. She was hardly alone. My aunt has three grown daughters, and my uncle comes from a huge family, most of whom were packed into the hospital room where he died at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2013.
My aunt told me she was happy to have me, a representative from her side of her family, present. So I was there. For her, I said.
But to tell the truth, I was there to learn. I have plenty of information about the beginning of life. People in my generation received hours of tutoring, lecturing, indoctrinating, and warning about puberty, childbirth, birth control, and “safe sex.” Although we were actually not given much information about sexuality—I had to learn that on my own. But I knew even less about death.
The Book Smugglers
Author’s Note: When Arizona House Bill 2281 was used to dismantle the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson public high schools earlier this year, books used in the courses were removed from classrooms—in at least one school as students watched. Most of the titles, but not all, were by Latino writers.
Instead of swallowing their dismay, several students documented what they witnessed through social media. That’s how members of the Houston-based writers’ collective Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say heard about what happened in Tucson. Incensed by the stifling of knowledge, they organized the Librotraficante (literally, “book traffickers”) book caravan. Their goal was to “smuggle” the “contraband” books back into Tucson, and bring attention to what critics contend is a troubling combination of anti-intellectualism and the state’s anti-immigration stance enacted earlier.
Nuestra Palabra members worked with partner organizations along the caravan route to hold press conferences and celebrate Latino arts and culture at several Librotraficante book bashes. In addition to the public events, the five-day journey stopped in six cities, seeding Librotraficante underground libraries along the way. This is a reflection on riding the Librotraficante caravan, which took place in mid-March.
SEEDS. My parents were farm laborers for part of their young adult lives. They did that body-leeching work in the hot Texas sun, picking and hauling cantaloupe, watermelon, onions, and anything else that required a human hand.
My life has been very different from theirs. I make a living working at a desk. But I keep an image near my computer: It’s a black-and-white photo of farm laborers working a field. Bent at the waist, their arms hang from their torsos, grazing the ground like roots recently pulled from the earth. Whenever I start whining—about how hard my chair is, or that my computer is too slow, or that my agent doesn’t love me as much as his other clients—I look at this photo. I work, but the kind of work shown in the photo is grinding and thankless.
Because the workers’ faces are hidden in the shadow of broad-brimmed hats, I feel that I know even less about them. I don’t know their story. What I do know is that the spinach, tomatoes, and onions I enjoy on a chilled plate are because of these faceless, distant people. And yet, I know I’m not that far removed from them. Besides our shared heritage, it’s hard not to feel a sort of kinship to someone who makes it possible for food to appear on your plate.