Excerpts from Z is for Zapatazo by Ruben Rivera published by Atmosphere Press
Z is for Zapatazo
I started learning my ABC’s before I could even read. The first lesson involved a woman collapsed in the back lot of the Bronx tenement where we lived. Something had scared her nearly to death. There in the pouring rain she lay writhing and screaming out her wits while neighbors watched from the covered balconies and fire escapes. R is for Rat.
Another lesson was connected to chickens in that time when “children should be seen and not heard.” The Spanish version had, as usual, more syllables as well as color: “Los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean.” “Children talk when the chickens pee.” Those who relate to chicken only in conveniently dismembered extra crispy form may ask when or how often do chickens pee? Never. We Nuyoricans, Spanglish-speaking Gothamites, who had never seen a chicken except when it arrived steaming aromatically on a plate with rice and beans, nevertheless knew well that chickens don’t relieve themselves like little boys and girls. C is for Chickens.
We moved to California, that hub of social contradictions. There I was raised on breezy primetime shows, punctuated by interruptions about some protest march, police suppression, riot, space-race launch, cold war threat, assassination, or other scary event. For a while it seemed like “We Interrupt This Program” was part of the regular TV line up. Maybe that’s why there were so many sitcoms and family shows – diversions from the worry and sheer terror. The shows conveyed placid American suburbs lined with houses that never needed painting, populated by families like the Andersons, the Nelsons, and the Cleavers, lovingly and rationally ruled by parents that never yelled or hit or even had sex.
Meanwhile, on this side of the fourth wall, verbal and physical discipline was natural. So natural in fact that it was conveyed in a Spanish-language ABC book for children. The benign English version that the Cleavers read had, “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat” and so on, to the last letter, “Z is for Zoo.” A logical entry for the Spanish Zeta (Z) would have been Zapato (Shoe), something every Latino child would know. But instead it read, “Z esporZapatazo” (paraphrased: Z is for Shoe Missile). The expounded letter was accompanied by a drawing of a dark-haired child with its wincing face cocked to the side from the impact of a flying shoe. A friend recalled the book to me years later and we responded with equal parts laughter and loathing at the kind of mentality that would include such a casually violent lesson in what is perhaps the most basic childhood introduction to an intelligible world.
History reminds me, however, that Anglo American ways of child rearing were not so idyllic as the TV shows portrayed. In colonial New England, a child’s education went hand in hand with physical discipline. The 1691 edition of The New England Primer for children had ABC lessons that included: “F: The idle FOOL is whipt at school,” and “J: JOB feels the rod, yet blesses God.” And even as the belt-free world of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” was being beamed into televisions across North America, teachers in schools who looked just like Robert Young and Barbara Billingsley blistered our tender behinds with every device imaginable, from ping pong paddles to a cricket bat perforated in wood shop by one particularly sadistic misanthrope to cut wind resistance.
I can at least affirm that I advanced in my ABC’s fairly early in the game – my older brother, not so much. If I say that too frequently I followed a crowd of kids to an afterschool fight only to discover that my brother was one of the young gladiators, you’ll understand what I mean. The same feckless pugnacity repeatedly got him into needless trouble at home, where there was no immunity of non-combatants. K is for Knucklehead.
Years later, my mom and stepdad divorced. (My birth father I knew only through an old wedding photograph and mom’s spectacularly imaginative comparisons to our misbehavior.) By then I was married, living at the other end of the country and going to seminary. I did not know the degree to which their split had affected me. Then one evening, after my wife had gone to bed and I stayed up studying, I sank into an abyss of grief, crying and shaking uncontrollably.
Gone were the family parties when we kids listened to music and played while our parents did…whatever parents did at parties, until the sensuous Puerto Rican food appeared miraculously on the table to be gobbled up by gangly calorie-burning urchins, leaving the mess to be cleaned up by elves while we slept soundly wherever our bodies happened to land. Gone was the Monorail, and the Matterhorn, It’s A Small World, and the Adventure Thru Inner Space courtesy of Monsanto. Gone Knott’s berry pie. Gone the excursions to Pacific Ocean Park, Redondo Beach, and Newport Dunes, the broiling burgers, the quenching watermelon.
Gone the chilly early hours of Christmas when we’d sneak out of our beds to peek at the gift-wrapped silhouettes under the tree and imagine they were what we wanted. Gone a mother’s tender ministrations when any of us kids were sick. Gone her tears when she saw mine after a broken wrist ended high school gymnastics. Gone the rosary prayer circles and sleepless nights when my brother was in hospital with brain tumors. Gone the frantic calling for my sister lost in a Tijuana bazaar. Gone the tears of joy when she was found. Gone the dreaded daily tablespoon of cod liver oil and the sting of Mercurochrome on scraped knees and elbows.
Gone dad’s brutal six-day workweek that underwrote our lives. Gone when the family sat around the only television in the house after eating dinner at the same table, at the same time, and the wild symphony of everyone talking at once. Gone the laughter, I’m talking Puerto Rican laughter, the world series of laughter, now only faint bells in the distant steeple of my memory. Z is for Zapatazo.
The Fall of Middle Earth
One day, I went to that land between home and school, shocked to find it invaded. The scene looked like a horde of dragons, their plated skin clattering, their movement stuttering like some Harryhausean nightmare, and generals commanding troops in white helmets from blue paper battle plans. The noise cracked the sky’s thin blue shell and soot from organ pipe nostrils nearly blocked out the running yolk of the sun. Mandibles dropped open dripping an earthy stew then clammed shut with the metallic squeal of lightning, like colossal hinges on the gates of Mordor, maws of these steel-veined horrors engorging and disgorging dirt, rocks, grasses, trees, nests, warrens, dens and cloisters, secret gardens, fens and shires. Fangorn, Moria, Rivendell...
How I started hating conspiracy theories
How often the truth is just not sexy enough. But the lie? Now that’s an orgy. In the fifth grade I caught the flu so bad I missed two weeks of school. When I returned my teacher got down on one knee to look me in the eyes and said: “Ruben, are you OK? I heard you got in trouble with the law and went to juvenile detention.” “Home with the flu,” I said. “Nearly died. Didn’t you get mom’s letter?” “I heard you were really in juvie.” “Nope. Home sick. Nearly died.” He walked away disappointed, in the same way dogs find catching cars disappointing. That year I was “Juvie Rubie,” hang all my protestations for truth. Even today, I’m Juvie Rubie.
I Don’t Mean
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
I don’t mean to question your scriptures but why are the sweet parts applied to you and the harsh parts to me?
I don’t mean to be aloof but why does god love you unconditionally but me conditionally?
I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic but why does the god of the universe bless America over other nations, and before that Rome, or France, or Germany, or Spain, then England?
I don’t mean to risk your wrath but why does god look and act like the latest rulers?
I don’t mean to appear radical but why does god favor your race over mine?
I don’t mean to feel cheated, but why does god answer your prayers and not mine – when you got the job I didn’t, and the traffic lights you believe worked for you made me miss my friend’s last moments?
I don’t mean to impugn your justice but why does god love sinners like you more than sinners like me?
I don’t mean to question your motives but why does accepting your religion put me and mine under you and yours?
I don’t mean to sound bitter but why is there no room for me in the land, the neighborhood, your family, your heart?
I don’t mean to dislike your god of grace but why gift the one truth to you and leave others in damning ignorance?
I don’t mean to be impertinent but how come god welcomes prayer in any language but only English can be spoken here?
I don’t mean to be skeptical about the universality of your religion but why do I have to amputate my culture but you get to keep yours?
I don’t mean to be in your face but why can’t you see me?
I don’t mean to speak so loudly but why can’t you hear me?
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
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Ruben Rivera is Emeritus VP for DE&I and Associate Professor of History at Bethel University in Saint Paul, MN. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Anita. Although his poetry has won awards in various contests, Z is for Zapatazo is Ruben’s first published collection.
Excerpts from The Shadow of Time by Robert René Galván
The Shadow of Time New Year’s 2018 – Bear Mountain
The International System of Units has defined a second as 9, 192, 631, 770 cycles of radiation corresponding to the transition between two energy levels of the caesium-133 atom.
The star glares through the glass; A frozen lake between two mountains; The world turns on its spine as it has for billions of years.
What’s a year?
An accretion of eddies within a vast storm, An endless trek, but more than the distance Between two points, a resonance we feel compelled to track, First with arrays of stone, then with falling grains of sand And complex contraptions of wheels within wheels, The heartbeat of liquid crystal, the adumbrations of an atom.
I listen to what the geese tell me as they form a V in retreat, The toad as he descends to his muddy rest, The perennials as they retract beneath the frost, The empty symmetry of a hornet’s nest, And the choir of whales fleeing in the deep.
They all return like the tides, so tethered to the sun and moon, While we chop at time with a pendulous blade, Doomed to live in its shadow.
And then, the machine stopped; the sky began to clear when the great gears groaned to a halt; the ground ceased its shivering, stars appeared and beasts emerged in our absence, wings cast shadows over empty streets.
In the gnawing silence, a distant siren reminds us of a gruesome tally; we peer from our doorways for a ray of hope, long to walk the paths we barely noticed.
In the ebb and flow of life and death, we inhabit the low tides, a scant respite from irresistible waves.
After a time, most will return to normal, become mired in old assumptions and petty desires, to the ways that failed us,
But a few will awake to find that the world kept turning and changed:
They will walk into the sun And shed their masks.
Hommage à Neruda
What does the horseshoe crab Search for in the murk With its single hoof,
Or the she-turtle In her lumbering butterfly Up the shore?
Does the quivering hummingbird Find solace as it probes The dreaming delphinium,
Or the velvet worm As it reaches with its toxic jets?
Are the choral cicadas Worshiping the sun After emerging from seventeen Years of darkness?
What of the myriad species That have come and gone, The gargantuan sloth, The pterosaur that glided Over a vast ocean From the Andes to the coast Of Spain, Saw the seas rise and fall Back upon themselves,
Just as I slumber and wake For these numbered days.
L’heure Bleue – The Time of Evening
The sun has set, but night has not yet fallen. It’s the suspended hour… The hour when one finally finds oneself in renewed harmony with the world and the light…The night has not yet found its star. -Jacques Guerlain
As the world folds into shadow, A grey tapestry descends:
The coyote’s lament from the wild place Across the creek and the fading chorale Of the late train awaken crepuscular birds Who inhabit the rift like rare gods.
Abuelo sits in the cleft of a mesquite, His rolled tobacco flickering With the fireflies as a dim lantern Receives the adoration of moths;
A cat’s eyes glow green In the gloaming light And a cloud of mosquitos Devoured by a flurry of bats.
The outhouse door moans open And the boy treads quietly On the moonlit stepping stones, Through the corn and calabacitas, Under the windmill as it measures The October wind;
Pupils widen like black holes, Ingest the night spirits, And he cannot yet imagine A world beyond these stars, Or that he will someday Live in a place where it’s never dark.
for Zuzana Růžičková
She clutched the leaves in her hand as she waited to be loaded onto the waiting truck.
Somehow, an angry wind lifted the notes and they sailed down the street like runaway kites,
But the music rode along in her heart, persisted through every kind of horror, from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, antithesis of the camp accordion and broken strings’ blithe accompaniment to endless roll calls in the bitter cold, starvation, dehydration, executions and the merriment of the guards.
Those pages looped in her head even as she wrestled a stray beet from the cold ground, digging with her fingernails to feed her dying mother.
When she returned to Prague, her hands were ruined, and new monsters would soon appear in the streets, but the Sarabande sang in her insistent fingers until it circled the soiled world like a golden thread.
* Harpsichordist, Zuzana Růžičková, is considered one of the great musicians of the 20th century. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
The work in question is J.S. Bach’s E minor Sarabande from the fifth book of English Suites. Růžičková had written it out by hand at the age of 13 to take with her during her internment.
Robert René Galván, born in San Antonio, resides in New York City where he works as a professional musician and poet. His previous collections of poetry are entitled, Meteors and Undesirable: Race and Remembrance. Galván’s poetry was recently featured in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Azahares Literary Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal,Gyroscope, Hawaii Review, Hispanic Culture Review, Newtown Review, Panoply, Sequestrum, Somos en Escrito, Stillwater Review, West Texas Literary Review, and UU World. He is a Shortlist Winner Nominee in the 2018 Adelaide Literary Award for Best Poem. His work has been featured in several literary journals across the country and abroad and has received two nominations for the 2020 Pushcart Prize and one for Best of the Web. René’s poems also appear in varied anthologies, including Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change and in Puro ChicanX Writes of the 21st Century.
In these times, you and I share, amid air you and I breathe, and opposition we meet, we take inspiration from day to day thriving. The sacred conch shell calls us, drums beat, prayers send up; aromatic smoke of the pipe is our pledge to the gods.
An all-night fire vigil burns where we may consume the cactus messenger of the Huichol and of the Pueblo people of New Mexico. Red seeds of the Tlaxcalteca, mushrooms of María Sabina, tes de mi abuela from herbs grown in coffee cans on a Chicago back porch, tears of my mother on an assembly line in Lincolnwood, Illinois, aid us in calling upon memory, in these times.
In other days, when memory was as unshakeable as the African continent and long as Quetzalcoátl’s tail in the underworld, whipping against demons, drawing blood, potent as Coatlicue’s two-serpent face and necklace of hearts and hands (to remind us of our much-required sacrifices for the sake of the whole). We did what we could to take memory like a belt chain around the waist to pull off, to beat an enemy.
But now, in these times of chaos and unprecedented greed, when disrupted elements are disregarded, earth lashes back like the trickster Tezcatlipoca, without forgiveness if we won’t turn around, start again, say aloud: This was a mistake. We have done the earth wrong and we will make our planet a holy place, again. I can, with my two hands, palpitating heart; we can, and we will turn it around, if only we choose.
In these times, all is not lost, nothing forever gone, tho’ you may rightly think them a disgrace. Surely hope has not abandoned our souls, even chance may be on our side.
There are women and men, after all, young and not so young anymore, tired but tenacious, mothers and fathers, teachers and those who heal and do not know that they are healers, and those who are learning for the sole purpose of returning what they know. Also, among us are many who flounder and fall; they will be helped up by we who stumble forward. All of these and others must remember. We will not be eradicated, degraded, and made irrelevant, not for a decade or even a day. Not for six thousand years have we been here, but millions.
Look at me. I am alive and stand before you, unashamed despite endless provocations railed against an aging woman. My breasts, withered from once giving suckle and, as of late, the hideousness of cancer, hair gone grey, and with a womb like a picked fig left to dry in the sun; so, my worth is gone, they say. My value in the workplace, also dwindled, as, too, the indispensable role of mother. As grandmother I am not an asset in these times but am held against all that is new and fresh. Nevertheless, I stand before you; dignity is my scepter. I did not make the mess we accept in this house. When the party is done, the last captive hung—fairly or unjustly-- children saved and others lost, the last of men’s wars declared, trade deals busted and others hardly begun, tyrants toppled, presidents deposed, police restrained or given full reign upon the public, and we don’t know where to run on a day the sun rose and fell and the moon took its seat in the sky, I will have remained the woman who stayed behind to clean up.
They say in the Underworld one wanders through a perennial winter, an Iceland of adversity. Some end in Hades, consumed by ¨res that Christians and Pagans both abhor. <#> My ancestors too imagined a journey that mirrored Earth. Nine corridors-- each more dreadful than the one before-- promised paradise. You kept your soul but not your skin.
When my time came to return to the womb, I wasn’t ready. Anti-depressants, sex, a trip, prize, company of friends, love under moonlight or generous consumption of wine-- nothing did the trick to ease my mind.
When the best, which is to say, the worst rose from swamp, elected to lead the nation-- I presumed my death was imminent. Eyes and ears absorbed from the media what shouldn’t have been. Had I time traveled back to 1933? Perhaps I’d only woken to a bad dream, or died and this was, in fact, Purgatory-- (Did being dead mean you never died?)
The new president and appointed cabinet soon grabbed royal seats happy as proverbial rats in cheese. An era of calamity would follow. Holy books and history had it written. ¦e Book of Wisdom, for example, spoke of the wicked rollicking down the road, robbing the in¨rmed and the old. ¦ey mocked the crippled and dark skinned-- anyone presumed weak or vulnerable.
Election Night-- I was alone but for the dog, moon obscured by nebulous skies; sixty-odd years of mettle like buoy armbands kept me afloat. Nothing lasts forever, I’d thought.
Two years passed, world harnessed by whims of the one per cent. I managed-- me and the dog, me and the clouds, contaminated waters, and unbreathable air-- to move, albeit slowly, as if through sludge, pain in every joint and muscle. Sad to behold, equally saddened of heart, and still we marched.
Sun came up and set. Up and down, again. My throbbing head turned ball of iron. Thoughts fought like feral cats. Nothing made sense. The trek felt endless, crossing blood rivers infested with scorpions, lost in caverns, squeaking bats echoed, µying past, wings hit my waving hands.
I climbed jutting flint, bled like a perforated pig, ploughed through snow-driven sierra, half-frozen—lost gravity, swirled high, hit ground hard. Survived, forged on. Two mountains clashed like charging bulls. Few of us made it through.
(Ancestors’ predictions told how the Sixth Sun would unfold with hurricanes, blazes, earthquakes, & the many that catastrophes would leave in their wake.)
(Demons yet abound, belching havoc and distress. Tens of thousands blown by gales of disgrace.)
(I hold steadfast.)
The Berlin Wall was coming down. One afternoon beneath gleaming skies of Bremen, Dieter was dying (exposure to asbestos in his youth). “My only lament in dying would be losing memory,” my friend said. “All whom I knew and all whom I loved will be gone.” Once a Marxist, after cancer—reformed Lutheran. (It was a guess what Rapture would bring a man with such convictions.) A boy during third Reich, Dieter chose to safekeep recollec- tions—from the smells of his mother’s kitchen to the streets of Berlin that reeked of rotting flesh as a boy. Men had always killed men, he concluded, raped women, bayoneted their bellies and torn out the unborn, stolen children, stomped infants’ heads, commit- ted unspeakable acts for the sake of the win, occupy land, exact revenge, glory for the sake of a day in the sun.
(Do the dead forget us? I ask with the lengthening of days each spring. Do they laugh at our naïveté, long for what they left behind? Or do they wisely march ahead, unfazed?)
Xibalba (Ximoayan & Mictlán & Niflheim, where Dieter rightly should have gone) cleansed human transgressions with hideous punishments. You drank piss, swallowed excrement, and walked upside down. Fire was involved at every turn. Most torturous of all, you did not see God. Nine hazards, nine mortal dangers for the immortal, nine missed menstruations while in the womb that had created you-- it took four years to get to heaven after death.
Xibalba is a place of fears, starvation, disease, and even death after death. A mother wails (not Antcleia or la Llorona but a goddess). “Oh, my poor children,” Coatlicue laments. Small skulls dance in the air. Demon lords plot against the heavens
I wake in Xibalba. Although sun is bright and soft desert rain feels soothing, fiends remain in charge. They take away food, peace of any kind, pollute lakes, water in which to bathe or drink, capture infants, annihilate animals in the wild. (These incubi and succubi come in your sleep, leave you dry as a fig fallen on the ground.)
There were exceptions to avoid the Nine Hells. Women who died giving birth to a future warrior became hummingbirds dancing in sunlight. Children went directly to the Goddess of Love who cradled them each night. Those who drowned or died of disease, struck by lightning or born for the task, became rainmakers-- my destiny—written in the stars. Then, by fluke or fate, I ended underground before Ehecátl with a bottomless bag of wind that blew me back to Earth.
Entering the first heaven, every twenty-eight days the moon and I met. When I went to the second, four hundred sister stars were eaten by our brother, the sun. Immediately he spit them out, one by one, until the sky was ¨lled again.
In the third, sun carried me west. In the fourth, to rest. I sat near Venus, red as a blood orange. In the fifth, comets soared. Sixth and seventh heavens were magni¨cent shades of blue. Days and nights without end became variations of black. Most wondrously, God dwelled there, a god of two heads, female and male, pulled out arrows that pierced skin on my trek. “Rainmakers belong to us,” the dual god spoke, his-her hand as gentle as his-her voice was harsh. Realizing I was alive I trembled. “You have much to do,” he-she directed. Long before on Earth a Tlaxcaltec healer of great renown crowned me granicera, placed bolts of lightning in my pouch. I walked the red road. Then came the venom and the rise of demons like jaguars devouring human hearts. They brought drought, tornados, earthquakes, and hurricanes-- every kind of loss and pain. The chaos caused confusion, ignorance became a blight. (Instead of left, I’d turned right, believed it day when it was night. I voyaged south or maybe north through in¨nity, wept obsidian tears before the dual god-- “Send me back, please,” I cried. “My dear ones mourn me.”)
The Plumed Serpent’s conch blew, a swarm of bees µew out from the shell. Angels broke giant pots that sounded like thunder. Gods caused all manner of distraction so that I might descend without danger. Hastily, I tread along cliffs, mountain paths, past goat herds and languishing cows. A small dog kept up as we followed the magenta ribbons of dawn. I rode a mule at one point, glided like a feather in air at another, ever drifting toward my son, the granddaughter of copper hair, sound of a pounding drum-- we found you there, my love, waiting by the shore, our return.
Ana Castillo is a celebrated author of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Among her award-winning books are So Far from God: A Novel; The Mixquiahuala Letters; Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me; The Guardians: A Novel; Peel My Love Like an Onion: A Novel; Sapogonia; and Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (UNM Press). Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo resides in southern New Mexico.