Painting representing St. Augustine, author of Confessions
Actor Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in 1935 film based on Crime and Punishment
We hope to learn more of Roberto deVillar's worlds in future columns. --The Editor
Welcome to my worlds
By Roberto deVillar
First of all, let me introduce myself. By birth, I am a sinner, as are all Catholics, and a perennial outsider from the moment I burst forth from the internally secure universe of my mother’s womb. Transgressions and marginality; redemption and wholeness; wanting and sharing; hiding and seeking; standing firm and finding. These and other key elements constantly are in simultaneous play with one another throughout one’s life. And as we try constantly to wrestle with the elements to find ourselves, define ourselves, make sense of ourselves, justify ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and the like, there are many times that we find ourselves pinned down by the elements. I want to share aspects of my meandering journey toward working in the fields of social justice, and include the rocks and potholes that caused me to stumble, and the forks in the road that led to unexpected detours or dead-ends. At the same time, obstacles in my path never caused me to stop wandering in the direction that I thought was a forward one, fueled by the light of my passions, guided by the whispers, howling, and silences of my mind-soul’s inner voice. So I begin, claiming my birthright, to write as an outsider and confess.
I have always found my baptismal certificate from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, interesting. Along its left side, all the language is English. And all the names and even the month in which I was born are inserted to the right, handwritten in Spanish. My name is listed as Roberto Alejandro DeVillar, which is the same name as on my original birth certificate; then Alfonso Arturo (my father), Cecilia (my mother—known as Nina), José Alejandro (my mother’s brother and my godparent, known as Nine), Guadalupe (my father’s sister and my godparent, known as Lupe), Rev. J. Frias (officiating priest), and my birth month is written as Junio. This integral blend of language and culture, literally from day one, was a birthmark, stamped on my soul, my character, my very being, and not only accompanied me to every geographical location, every cultural setting, and every social context in which I set foot, but influenced me, as well. In my earliest days, although my parents and their siblings were what would be termed fully bilingual in Spanish and English, it was Spanish that was always spoken in the presence of my two remaining grandparents, who were Papá Bocho (Ambrosio Samudio Rodríguez), my grandfather on my mother’s side, who died when I was 7 years old; and, Mamá (Basilisa Riva Pellón), my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived for many years, passing away in 1976, at 94 years old.
The author at 1 year, nine months in San Antonio, Texas
I never got to interact with my grandfather on my father’s side, Julián M. de Villar, as he died in January, five months before I was born, or my grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamá Celia (Celia Valdez Arizpe), who died when I was a little more than a year old. Nevertheless, their names floated in the family air we breathed daily, and, in the case of my paternal grandfather, influenced my character development and sense of culture and accomplishment throughout my life. From a strict chronological perspective, I, and my brothers, associated having grandparents with the sole experience of interacting with my father’s mother, our grandmother Basilisa, our Mamá.
My Upbringing in Diverse Socialization and Cultural Contexts
The formal socialization contexts in San Antonio that I entered outside the home from pre-school to 3rd grade were Catholic. Here, nuns ruled with rulers in hand and—although this will be almost impossible to believe--strait-jackets, which both my older brother and I, on different occasions, were strapped into. I can still remember, not even being old enough to attend first grade yet, sitting down, crossed-legged, silent, as the strange, rough, canvas-like material was wrapped around my torso, locking me in by straps looped through shiny metal rings. I have neverforgotten that image or experience. It was far worse than when I was made to kneel to have my mouth washed out with soap by a nun for having uttered, I imagine, a swear word. Then there was the snarling, wild-eyed anger projecting from my brother’s face as he sat, body pulsating, imprisoned in the strait-jacket, somehow still emoting strength and pride, even in that shocking, depressing condition. I was perhaps 4 years old, but that tortuous image of seeing my brother in the strait-jacket lives still within my memory and continues to haunt me. And later, at Saint Ann’s, I vividly remember wearing with pride my khaki uniform with patches, tie and brass-buckled belt, raising my hand and waiting, without being acknowledged by the nun, until I finally summed up the courage to go up to her and asked her permission to go the bathroom. She responded: “No, it’s almost time for the bell.” I returned to my desk, and despite all the attempts a child does to stop his bladder from emptying, while sitting at my desk, I uncontrollably urinated, staining the front of my khaki pants down to the knee. I waited for everyone to leave when the bell rang, but a girl stayed behind to wait for me, and I finally got up, saying in an utterly unconvincing tone that was supposed to be lightheartedly amusing: “Oh, Paul and I were playing at recess and he threw water on me!” She didn’t say anything, her look said it all. I went outside to one of the side doors leading to the steps where the playground began, and wedged myself in a space between one of the recessed door frames and a low wall to become invisible. I then opened my tin lunchbox in such a way that its top extended across my waist, so that in case someone did see me, they could not see my urine-stained khaki pants. A nun came by, saw me, and asked why I was there, eating alone instead of being with the others on the playground. That was all it took for me to begin to wail and angrily tell her what happened. Rather than comfort me, the nun began to defend the offending nun, and I, even at 6 or 7 years old, knew that was unjust. So, I hollered, still shedding tears of anger, that the offending nun was a Jackass! And, each time the nun would open her mouth to say something, I would repeat, again and again, “No, she is a jackass!” Until the nun finally realized that I was in a fit of rage, came to me, put her arm around me and guided me up the stairs. The next thing I remember is that my mother was driving me home, saying that I would not have to return to school that day. And it was her calm, gentle, loving presence, even while driving, that enveloped me and made me feel warm and safe. That same summer, I asked my parents if I could change schools, and, even though my older brother stayed at St. Ann’s, I enrolled at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
Aside from being strapped in strait-jackets, having my mouth washed out with soap, and suffering the consequences of restricted bathroom use, it was also quickly transmitted within these various Catholic settings that we are all sinners and need to repent. Thus, Catholic school is also where I learned to confess.
The Why of Confession: Many Paths, One Goal
Confessions are, of course, two-sided. On the one hand, the confessor wishes to relieve the self of the weighty burden of guilt, of pain, of suffering, of mental torment, and so on, brought on by the internally conscious judgement that one’s action or actions have violated egregiously the moral rules, guidelines or expectations of a community in which membership is claimed. On the other hand, the confessor takes this humiliating step, in which at least one other person is present, for the explicit sake of redemption, of being forgiven for one’s transgressions, however severe, and being reborn, so to speak, to go out and sin no more—which, as we all know, is an impossibility and the paradoxical bane of Catholics and other Christians. As sinners, we all inhabit two spaces simultaneously; that of the sinner—either actual or inevitably prospective—and the searcher who seeks forgiveness through confession for the sins committed and confession’s product, redemption. It is the same if one reads the eponymously titled autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine (circa 400 AD), or the tortured, tormented fictional tale of the murderous Raskolnikov, the young, feverish killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866; spellings include Dostoyevsky/Dostoevsky). The opportunity for redemption can be personally experienced (St. Augustine) or societally imposed, as in the case of Raskolnikov, whose mental anguish ultimately leads to his confession and redemption, albeit in the literal purgatory of Siberia. Thus, the path leading to redemption is rarely smooth and may not even be successful, as in the case of Eugène Marais, the Afrikaner polymath who, alone in his hovel, observed, documented and wrote about apes for three years in their native context—resulting in his The Soul of the Ape (1969, English edition, but actually written in the 1920s)—while musing about his ingestion of morphine to which he was addicted and led him to clearly understand that ever-greater amounts of morphine were required to achieve the same level of momentary mental elation. I read Soul of the Ape in Heidelberg, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army, at some point during the time I was stationed there (1970-1971). Marais clearly understood that there would come a time when the amount of morphine required would surpass the body’s ability to withstand it, but he did not live to witness and attest to that principle. At 65, he took a shotgun and shot himself first in the chest and then the head. Marais’ anguish and insights did not lead to confession and, therefore, there was no redemption, only despair and the emptiness of a tragic death. Drug addiction, nevertheless, is not an insurmountable barrier to the quest and realization of redemption. Thomas De Quincy’s autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was immensely popular with the public for decades in England and abroad, describing as it did the vast pleasures and marginal pains of addiction. The necessity of redemption was presented as an almost reluctant conclusion by the author-eater. De Quincy considered redemption justified for the sake of, if nothing else, being able to continue to meet one’s professional responsibility and the demands of productivity. He also found it essential to remain in an appropriate physical and mental condition sufficient to appear coherent to others and to engage in sustained social interactions. In a manner that gives the impression of deception or hypocrisy, or both, De Quincy used confession, forgiveness and redemption as a means to continue to ingest opium as a controlled substance, while eloquently claiming or charmingly suggesting that his use was in the past. His was a cycle of perpetual sinning and seeking forgiveness and redemption in order to sin once more, allowing him literary success, moderated opium use, and selective redemption. When I first read Carlos Castaneda’s (I am spelling his last name without the tilde-ñ, as that convention has been used in his books; others may prefer to spell it Castañeda) The Teachings of Don Juan, I completely missed the point of its subject matter. Yes, I know that there was a subtitle, but I overlooked it because I was in the library at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, after Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and now involved in learning Morse code. Since May 1969, I had been experiencing life in the Army as a draftee during the heavily contentious Vietnam War.
The author with his mother and older brother, Art, in San Antonio, while his father was serving in WWII
Why did I miss the point of the title? Well, stay with me now, having spent my late elementary through high school years in Seville, Spain, and five years in Mexico, City, earning my B.A. and working, I naively thought that I was checking out a book on the character Don Juan Tenorio! You know, Zorilla’s (1844) work, or that of Tirso de Molina (1630), or perhaps George Gordon Lord Byron’s (1819-1824) “Don Juan” poem–pronounced for purposes of rhyme, “Don Joo-un.” All of them were essentially, to greater or lesser degrees, about the perennial triad of sin, forgiveness and redemption, and in Seville, no less! I share all the above thoughts that came to my mind to say that I was desperate for a Spanish-related cultural injection—a cultural fix—so I confess my error and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless, as we are prone to sense or know, coincidences are merely unforeseen experiences that were meant to take place. Thus, not at all coincidentally, reading The Teachings of Don Juan was a major cultural fix for me, for it altered my mind in ways I had not experienced previously. Moreover, it was a transformative experience for me, for I internalized immediately two life-long lessons:
First, to respect and honor as a legitimate cultural value and behavior the ingestion of mind-altering natural elements by groups, within their native context, for purposes integral to the group’s codified well-being; and,
Second, to avoid ingesting those types of drugs outside a legitimate cultural context and without a competent guide a la Don Juan.
I didn’t see the United States—the dominant cultural model or any of its less-dominant groups—as having a legitimate cultural context or knowledge-base for drug ingestion and never felt the need for drug use for recreational or “psychology-of-insight” purposes. I had made a marked distinction between cultural values and behaviors associated with the belief system of a group, as opposed to individuals who belonged to a group culture but whose practices did not emanate from or reflect the core values of that culture. This is, of course, the time for full disclosure: I do drink red wine moderately, beer occasionally, tequila reposado—or at times, añejo/añejado—if either is in front of me, and, albeit rarely, I enjoy a straight—no ice, no water—bourbon/whiskey, never the Jim Beam taste, if the occasion arises, which it very rarely does. As this statement regarding alcohol consumption is not a confession, I do not seek or care about redemption or forgiveness, or consider my way of being, in this case, a sin. My sin, as will become clear, was one of massive professional blindness and ignorance toward the very group that I had returned to the United States to work for and with, in pursuit of a deeply-rooted and life-long sense of social justice. I had a modicum of, but not directly relevant, academic preparation in the study and intellectual pursuit social justice, having graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, Social Sciences, from the Universidad de las Américas. My cultural context, both in Seville, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico, was far from the context in which I desired to participate in and contribute to. I just didn’t realize it at the time—that is, all my life up to then. In the 1960s, the university was located a short distance from the exit of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, the massive, mega-élite, mansion-dense neighborhood—specifically at kilómetro 16 de la Carretera México-Toluca. Ambassadors, Cantiflas, politicians, bankers, and others considered the crème-de-la-crème resided in this élite colonia, and so did I, but as a student, in a beautiful residence where they took in student and professional boarders. At that time, mid-1960s, our university campus was, as I remember, characterized mainly by deep ravines and panoramic views of tree-dense, rolling hills—especially visible from the massive terrace of our small campus, itself, a converted country club. Its student body was a mixture of high-wealth, native-born students, in the main from Mexico City, with groups of foreign students, from the United States, Canada and Europe. The campus was, in part, an extension of the relaxed life-style of the rich and famous, where high-end cars were visible, driven by students in tailor-made suits or casually fashioned outfits. At the same time, there were the American students who would come for their “quarter abroad” programs, wearing chinos, sockless loafers and madras shirts—who never really fitted in and whose presence appeared more decorative than substantive. They were like silent, colorful, moving units amidst a socio-cultural context that at times saw them but did not engage with them. There were more serious foreign students, who either could not or preferred not to adapt to the Mexico City culture and left soon after arriving; or native students, who decided to transfer to the internationally prestigious Colegio de México, a highly regarded research university that specialized in the social sciences. There were also those who came looking like the perfectly groomed upper-middle class students they were back home and soon after experimenting with easily accessible pharmaceutical and other mind-altering substances, abandoned their grooming, previous dress codes, and normative behavioral façades, preferring to, as Timothy Leary so famously declared: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It shocked me, literally, to have embraced friends, socialized and laughed with them, only to see them fade into themselves and ultimately disappear from campus. I knew it was due to their drug use, but I did not probe deeper than that and it did not touch me or my particular group of friends—at least not during the time we were completing our undergraduate degrees. This early, indirect experience with the effects of drugs on a few of my friends and other students visible to me led me away from any intellectual arguments in their favor and, as I mentioned above, after reading The Teachings ofDon Juan, I confess that my personal attitude toward recreational use of mind-altering drugs or their use outside of an authentic context native to the culture solidified even more. Ultimately, regardless of where I had lived; what I had experienced; what I had read for pleasure or studied formally; the Spanish I had been exposed to from birth and developed in Spain and Mexico; the values, principles, thoughts, desires and dreams I had of working within the arena of class struggle, of social justice, and of societal change were not sufficient in preparing me for the setting in which I would soon enter: the Chicano context of San José, California.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, haswritten and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, and so far almost exclusively about his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the U.S. from Spain, he earned a B.A. degree in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San José State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-1974) and Economic & Social Opportunities, Inc. He has traveled widely, engaged in international corporate affairs, but returned to complete a doctorate at Stanford University (1987). From 1987 to 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.
First published February 1, 2010, as the inaugural feature of Somos en escrito Magazine By Armando Rendón
William Carlos Williams in his 50s
William Carlos Williams was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey. The date was auspicious because it falls today during a period of celebrating the liberation of several Spanish speaking countries from foreign rule. His struggle with identity that resulted in a remarkable contribution to the world of literature may be a metaphor for that impulse toward freedom. Recent community upheavals in the United States support the argument that people whose contributions to a nation’s development have been slighted or distorted by the ruling majority will seek to correct history. Over recent decades, growing Chicano and Latino political awareness has opened wider the gates to academia for more Latinos and led to scholarly research into the Hispanic past of the United States. We have discovered that the origins of many famous people are rooted in Mexican, Caribbean and Latin American heritage, as well as from Spain.
William Carlos Williams, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, is one of those famous Americans whose Hispanic origin has been little known. He came by his middle name by virtue of his mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, who was born in Puerto Rico. From the evidence to be found in his autobiography, his poetry, and writings about him, his mother and her maternal origins lent more than a middle name to the poet and his works.
Williams’ writings have been thoroughly critiqued and his life minutely detailed by biographers; I don’t intend to advance such scholarship about him but simply to revive the significance of his life’s work to the Latino community.
In Williams’ autobiography, he simply introduces his mother, Elena, as she was called in the U.S., by saying she had come to the U.S. via Santo Domingo “to be married.” (W.C.W., p. 5) The road extended back much farther.
Elena’s mother, Meline Hurrard (or Jurrard) was of Basque ancestry whose family had emigrated from Bordeaux to Martinique, a French possession in the Caribbean in the early 1800s. She had married Solomon Hoheb, whose ancestors had been Sephardic Jews in Holland. (P.M., p. 15) Unfortunately, Williams relates matter-of-factly, the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 wiped out the Hurrard side of Elena’s family along with the other 28,000 inhabitants of the city of Saint-Pierre.
Due to this mixed heritage, Elena spoke both Spanish and French, the two languages that were apparently the idioms of Williams’ childhood. “Spanish and French were the languages I heard habitually while I was growing up,” Williams tells us. “Mother could talk very little English when I was born, and Pop spoke Spanish better, in fact, than most Spaniards.” (W.C.W., p. 15) Obviously, Spanish was dominant in Williams’ first years.
William George Williams, or “Pop” as Williams called his father (Elena was always “mother”), had remained an English citizen despite residing in the U.S. throughout his adult years. At the age of five, Pop’s family had migrated from England to the Caribbean, living first in St. Thomas and then moving to Santo Domingo. William George thus became an hispanohablante from childhood. He and Elena met in Santo Domingo and later on when the elder Williams had moved to New York City, he brought Elena over to marry.
No doubt due to his Spanish fluency, when William George became ad manager for the manufacturer of a cologne called, Florida Water, the job took him to South America on prolonged assignments. When Pop went to Buenos Aires in 1897 to help organize a factory and distribution center there, mother and the boys, William Carlos, 14, and his brother, Ed, 13, sailed from New York City to spend a year in Paris. A multi-talented woman, his mother had studied painting for three years in Paris in the late 1870s, and had also spent a short while in Geneva. The trio lived with an aunt and cousins of their mother’s during their year-long stay.
Besides her multilingual skills and painting talents, Elena also played the piano, accompanying the choir on Sundays at the Unitarian Church where Pop served as superintendent of the Sunday school for 18 years.
In his autobiography, Williams belittled his own Spanish, but he was apparently fluent enough to write poetry in Spanish and translate as well. A physician for most of his adult life, he recalls that as an intern, he was relegated to escorting an aged but wealthy Mexicano ranch owner and railroad executive, from New York City back to his native San Luis Potosí, primarily to keep him alive till he got him there. Though, as Williams says, “My Spanish wasn’t so hot,” (W.C.W., p. 73) he managed to cope with the situation, and delivered the old man, alive, to his family after a four-day trip. The man died within a day, but by then Williams was headed back home, 10 $20 gold pieces in his pockets as payment from the anciano’s son.
William Carlos had obtained an internship at the French Hospital in Manhattan at the suggestion of J. Julio Henna, a senior member of the medical staff there, and an old friend of his father’s—Henna was one of three physicians (including Ramón Emeterio Betances) who had fled Puerto Rico in the early 1880s because of their rebellion against Spanish rule.
The name that Williams chose as his pen name, so to speak, is instructive of where his loyalties and sensibilities lay with regard to his bicultural background. In 1909, he self-published a thin volume of poems with “not one thing of the slightest value” in it, he says in his autobiography, (W.C.W., p. 107) but perhaps using some of the Mexican gold dollars for the venture. When it came time for him to decide on what his literary signature would be, he decided on William Carlos Williams: “To me the full name seemed most revealing and therefore better.” (ibid, p. 108) What he meant by most revealing and better, he does not disclose.
Williams’ third book of poems, published in 1917, was titled Al Que Quiere, and included a poem entirely in Spanish. Paul Mariani, one of his biographers, reports that Pop Williams was “furious” that the publisher had gone to press with three typos in that one piece. (P.M., p. 13)
The Williamses kept close ties with Puerto Rican kin. One Fourth of July, when Williams was about 9 or 10, he was playing with his cousins Carlito and Raquel, who were on an extended visit, when a toy cannon they had filled with gun powder discharged in Williams’ face and nearly blinded him; for weeks, he had bandages on his face, but no permanent harm occurred. (W.C.W., p. 18) The cousins were the offspring of Elena’s brother, Carlos, also a physician.
A conflict arose early on between his mother and British grandmother, Emily Dickenson Wellcome, over the rearing of young William. The grandmother tried to take over his upbringing, Williams recalled, until one day, “Mother lost her temper and laid the old gal out with a smack across the puss. … Her Latin blood got the best of her that day. Nor was she sorry; it did her more good, in fact, than anything that had happened to her since her coming to the States from Santo Domingo to be married. I think that one of the most potent forces that kept my mother going to the age of ninety-two was a malign determination to outlive her mother-in-law, who died at eighty-three in 1920. I hope I take after my female ancestors.” (W.C.W., p. 5)
Perhaps the most startling influence his mother might have had on Williams was her spiritualism, a tendency that often caused her suddenly to lapse into a trance. Close friends and family knew her as a medium; she often would lose awareness of her surroundings but continue to communicate as if in another persona. On one occasion, Williams relates, just as the family was at supper, Elena began looking around as if lost, and spoke as if she were someone else. His father asked her name and she said, “Why I’m Lou Payne.” (W.C.W., pp. 15-16) Pop Williams wrote to Jess Payne, a former neighbor and friend, who wrote back informing William George that, Lou Payne, the neighbor’s wife, had been near death from an illness just at the time that Elena had gone into the trance.
How else explain any number of his poems that convey a perspective as if from within a mirror, from another dimension? Here are a few lines from “Portrait of the Author”:
The birches are mad with green points the wood’s edge is burning with their green, burning, seething—No, no, no. The birches are opening their leaves one by one. Their delicate leaves unfold cold and separate, one by one. Slender tassels… CEP, p. 228
In a later poem, “Eve,” he says, as if vindicating his mother’s terrible gift, “I realize why you wish/to communicate with the dead—/And it is again I/who try to hush you/…It not so much frightens/as shames me. I want to protect/you, to spare you the disgrace—/seeing you reach out that way/to self-inflicted emptiness.” (C.E.P., pp. 376-77)
The influence of Hispanic roots on Williams has been thoroughly thrashed out by Julio Marzán, a Puerto Rican born poet and English professor now living in Queens, New York. Marzán published The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams in 1994.
In seeking to give voice to his Latino persona, Marzán posits, Williams invented a system of expression which enabled him to convey through English “a nascent writing that appears to have no roots in this country’s literature.” In other words, Williams’ poetry represents in fact “a major Latin literary root in Anglo American letters.” (J.M., p xi)
But Williams must have felt he had to be circumspect. He did not want to be labeled by critics or fellow poets as less than a real American writer because he was the son of immigrants. He sought to repel or dispel the biased notion that as a “foreigner” he could not write “good” English, and therefore, he had to write better than anyone else and do so within the American idiom. It seems that Williams found his voice by developing an approach to poetry, different from either that of the European classicist variety or the modernists of that era such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Thus, his primary contribution to American, even world, literature, was to liberate the poet from the oppression of language, that is, to convey his own worldview through whatever influences or informs his personal identity and free of Old World forms. Dante Alighieri reflected this consciousness when he broke away from the Church-imposed Latin as the lingua franca to write the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of the Italian people; by doing so, he freed the Italian language from bondage and created a new literature.
Part of or perhaps the underlying genius in Williams’ poetry, Marzán suggests, is his ability to convey externally the Anglo American persona, which was necessary to avoid being labeled a Latin immigrant and therefore less than an adequate or acceptable writer of English, while imbuing through a kind of code the very cultural essence that was his true self. Had Williams openly professed his Boricua roots, he would probably have been relegated to a second tier as a writer, as the offspring of immigrants trying to pass himself off as a White Anglo American. In short, he might never have continued as a writer.
Was this code, as Marzán calls it, actually a means that Williams used to suppress his “Spanish American roots,” a rejection of his Latino origins? Not likely. That would have meant abandoning his mother, both figuratively and physically. It’s quite clear from his writings that he cherished his mother, despite her idiosyncrasies. Williams visited Mayagüez in 1956, apparently on a mission to learn more about his roots; among other things, he found out the year of his mother’s birth— for some reason, she had kept the fact hidden from her children until her death.
Any writer will tend to convey in his language the ethos that is derived from his origins. That doesn’t make it good literature. Most of the writing in the early years of the Chicano movement would not pass muster today as first class fiction or poetry; it was heavily nationalistic but its good intent would not redeem it as credible literature.
Learning about Williams’ experience as a bilingual and bicultural person adds another dimension to his overall contribution to literature. Williams mastered what was essentially a second language, English, and obviously wrote beyond the ordinary—he established a standard. Chicanos writers, I for one, tend to write with a pronounced ethnic slant. That does not relieve me of the obligation to write as well as I can in English and when I do so in Spanish, my mother tongue. During Williams’ era, the buzzwords stereotyping or racial profiling with their present connotation did not exist, but the denigration of foreigners and immigrants did: Williams realized this and, if Marzán is correct, adjusted to the reality through subterfuge or subtlety, and even “coding” in his poetry.
But, much has changed since Williams’ day. We can criticize writing if it’s just poorly worded or structured, but to demean a poem or story, let alone a community, because it derives from a “foreign” source, or communicates through an “inferior” language, can cause immediate push-back from various social sectors.
Unlike Williams, I feel very comfortable if some of my writing clearly defines me as a Chicano writer or poet, because I can also write from the universal center that Williams found, which is unrelated, even unconscious, of an ethnicity, a place of birth, or a spiritual slant. That underlying impulse in Williams’ poetry of a Latino sub-consciousness empowers all Latino writers. Having set the benchmark in the English idiom, he has “proven” as it were that one can be Latino, Chicano, Boricua or whatever, and still exercise a mastery of English. In fact, Williams tells us, we can enhance the English language because of our bicultural and bilingual nature.
This is precisely what Williams was suggesting in 1940, when he spoke at the First Inter-American Writers’ Conference at the University of Puerto Rico. According to Mariani, Williams “studded his talk with references to Spanish literature and to the salutary influence that literature had had on the American language,” (P.M., p. 446) going so far as to compare the Spanish dramatist, Lope de Vega, to Shakespeare. Mariani says it was “a way of paying tribute to his parents… For the first time in his life, Williams had returned to his mother’s ancestral home.” (P.M., p. 446)
Of course, Mariani missed the whole point. Williams had long before “returned to his mother’s” cultural roots, if he had ever left them, through language—here was an American writer, who could tell the difference between the shorter line of four stresses in Spanish drama and poetry against the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s works, and dare to urge North American writers to take advantage of the Spanish idiom.
Mariani quotes from Williams’ speech: “In many ways, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain and Spaniards are nearer to us in the United States today than perhaps, England ever was. It is a point worth at least taking into consideration. We in the United States are climactically as by latitude and weather much nearer Spain than England, as also in volatility of our spirits, in racial mixture—much more like Gothic and Moorish Spain.” P.M., p. 446-47.
This doesn’t sound like someone who rejects his bicultural roots. Rather it reveals in the “we” that he recognized his origins and found them more vital and organic to his writing than even English literature. Is it not a tribute to his mother and a profession of his Hispanic roots that he claims that “volatility of spirits” and “racial mixture” as his own?
As subtle as ever, Marzán would say. Williams again seems to be using code words for the influence of his mother, the volatile medium, and his own mixed racial and ethnic ancestry. Today, it’s very likely that Williams would have felt quite comfortable to break the code and call himself a Boricua or Latino poet.
William Carlos Williams died March 4, 1963, age 80, after suffering a series of strokes that left him unable to write. Up until now, few if any Latinos have appreciated him as a brother. It must be a final culmination of his complex life that we can now fully proclaim and esteem William Carlos Williams as a Latino poet, no half ways about it.
Sources: The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, (W.C.W.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1948. The Collected Earlier Poems, (C.E.P.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1938, 1951. The Collected Later Poems, (C.L.P.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1944, , 1948, and 1950. The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams (J.M.), by Julio Marzán, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994. William Carlos Williams, A New World Naked, (P.M.) by Paul Mariani, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1981.
Armando Rendón is author of Chicano Manifesto, a long-time writer on Chicano and Latino affairs, and in his later years, having been inspired by the likes of Williams, turning more to poetry. He is in the midst of reading all of Williams’ poems.
A chunk of Arctic ice the size of Barrio Logan falls into the ocean
Aztlan is melting but my Chicanismo is stone-cold as ever
By Sonny Boy Arias
Okay, okay, okay, I just have to tell you bato, this global warming crap is getting personal and by that I mean, it’s affecting my Chicanismo. Now, I have to ask myself, my Chicano SELF (in a social psychological sense), “Self, how can that be? It’s like bato what are you talking about, man?” I can hear my favorite uncle now, my uncle Enrique; we call him “Hank” for short, maybe it is because he is short. Hank isn’t really my blood uncle, but we pay him respect because he has been around forever, does not judge us, and received three Purple Hearts in Vietnam and is a stone-cold Chicano, I mean who could not respect a person like that? I can hear him now, “Hey, bato, don’t try to out-Chicano me or tell me what it’s like being Chicano and experience global warming. I put my ass on the line so that you can be Chicano and that’s that!” If my uncle Hank heard me talking right now about climate change, global warming, and chunks of ice the size of Barrio Logan falling into the bay, he would be sure to say something about, “Aztlan melting away!” He would most certainly add a question as to what extent global warming is having a direct impact on my Chicanismo. If he were still alive, he would sit back in his “comfy” chair, you know the one with burn holes from leaving lit-joints sitting on the wood handles for the past five decades, that one. And he would lean back so as to purposefully position himself so you could see his Yaqui profile with his tanned skin and perhaps catch a whiff of his Tres Flores old-school hair balm in anticipation that things would inevitably heat up—and all at once, there he was transformed into his stone-cold Chicano Self. If he were alive, Hank would respond with something like, “Sonny Boy, I would love to hear what you have to say about how global warming and climate change are getting personal and how it is having an impact on your Chicanismo; tell me all about it, Sonny, tell me all about it!” Hank in his own way would give you his undivided attention, no iPhone, no music in the background, no nada, he loved to talk and engage people in a sparkling interchange of ideas as often as he could and he’d look you straight in the eye. Now. let me just take a moment and share with you that my uncle Hank was a cool bato; he was first generation Chicano at the fringe of the pachuco movement. He was like my old friend, the author-anthropologist Carlos Castaneda (famous writer and honorary Chicano from Brazil). He could present himself like a businessperson, then turn to the side, and look like a Yaqui shaman at a glance. This was part of the mysticism that surrounded him and he knew it. I do not know how they do it, but people like Hank and Carlos are rare like that. Another thing they had in common was the ability to focus, a characteristic harder and harder to find in people stuck to their iPhones these days. Carlos was a little like Victor Villaseñor, except Victor will tell you he spent hours crying at his keyboard writing all his stories. Carlos believed that before you talk to people you need their undivided attention. As Villaseñor puts it, “First, you have to hit the burro in the head, and get his attention, then, you can start talking to him.” (Burro Genius: A Memoir, 2004) So in order to get your undivided attention, Carlos (like Hank) would sit directly in front of you so that your knees were touching. One time Carlos actually grabbed both my ears as he adjusted our chairs and gazed into my eyes, and as he gazed, he all at once gazed even deeper, it was like, I could suddenly see his soul, much like the depiction below.
My sense is that there was not anything mystical about looking into someone’s eyes (Carlos never claimed there was) and getting their undivided attention is just something we never take the time to do. The truth is that part of our human condition is having the innate ability to connect to another individual by gazing into one another’s eyes; my nanita would see it this way, “Maybe this is the answer to reversing global warming or stemming-off alienation in humanity, people need to connect; Latinos know how to connect.” My nanita, who lives in Barrio Logan (Chicano Park) recently said the other day that her sweet tamales didn’t turn out quite right due to the heat outside. “Must be global warming!” she blurted out. I thought, “What the …...” I decided not to take issue with my nanita and I suggest you do the same, as she is one tough cookie. Speaking of cookies the other day I reached into her “Kuki” jar, pronounced “coo-key”, you know the way my nanita speaks with her lovely Chicana accent. It was as they say “unseasonably hot” in San Diego to be sure and the Kuki jar was for the very first time in my life, warm, not caliente, but warm as if I had never felt it before. When I took a bite of a warm “Kuki” I saw myself grimace in a reflection off her Frida Kahlo picture hanging in the kitchen and she saw me and said, “Global warming, the ‘kukis’ are getting old fast because of global warming, mijo!” She added that “….even the extraterrestrial aliens wandering over from ComicCon to Chicano Park have costumes that don’t leave much to the imagination because of climate change.” She observed, “Did you see Wonder Woman down at the café? Did you see her short-shorts and those red boots, her body must stay cool but her feet must get really hot. Climate change is like social change, who would have ever thought Chicano Park would be swarming with extraterrestrial aliens and Wonder Woman to boot, red boots!” Anyway, I provide these examples because Chicanos in daily life (much like my nanita) are making more and more claims about the impact climate change is having on themselves and others, que global warming this y que global warming that. I am not here to argue whether it is true or not, I am just saying, that whatever is going on with the climate, it is having an impact on how Chicanos view themselves and how they socially construct their reality in everyday life. Every time I sit with my uncle Hank and watch “box” (boxing), he tells me that the Mexican boxer known as “Canelo” is tough because he is a red head, implying that all red heads are tough. Hank said that due to global warming, the world is running short on red heads, especially Chicano red heads. Similarly, I actually heard a U.S. Navy Seal recruiter say that he actively seeks out red heads because they are tougher than most people; the problem is that “due to global warming there are fewer and fewer red heads to pick from.” What the f..…? You can say whatever you want about global warming, but let me tell you, I mean, how else can I say it, bato? This past summer I saw a huge chunk of ice-mass break off and slide into Glacier Bay, Alaska; it was larger than Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Chicano Park, Califas, all in one. It was a big piece of ice and boom right there, bato, it broke off right before my eyes, it didn’t cause a tidal wave like I thought it would, instead it was like when I slide into the bathtub, all the water rises. Watching the glacier fall apart rendered me speechless; that in itself is a rare moment. The music on the ship went off at the moment the ice-mass slipped into Glacier Bay. Seeing the massive ice-mass slide into the bay sent me into shock. There was an eerie feeling in the air, the mind of the crowd had taken over the mind of the individual; to be sure, we were suddenly alienated from ourselves, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Then, suddenly there was a god-awful cracking sound, like giant blocks of ice rubbing against each other against their will. It reminded me that when I was a child I ate so much chile one day my tongue was burning so bad I ran to the freezer and pulled out a tray of ice cubes (you know the aluminum ice tray with the long handle). I placed the frozen tray on my tongue and it cooled down for about half a minute, but I suddenly realized my tongue was stuck to the tray. I know you have heard about people who do this; well, bato, it actually happened to me. The point is that while my tongue was stuck to the bottom of the ice tray, my sister ran over and pulled on the handle; this in turn caused the tiny ice cubes to rub against each other. Well, the self-same sound the tiny ice cubes made I also heard in the ice-mass. I don’t know why, but, I call it “blocking.” Now magnify that sound by one million times and that’s the sound I heard when the ice-mass broke off the glacier and slid into Glacier Bay. Holy shit! Dios mio! And then, as if that wasn’t enough shock for the day it started up again, crack, crack, crack; it was like the Cucuy decided to return after causing great mayhem and he didn’t give a shit, now what? More “blocking”—crack, crack, crack, another huge ice-mass was breaking off right before my eyes. The people surrounding me had no time to respond from being freaked-out by watching the first piece break off, Like me, it had rendered them speechless. Again crack, crack, crack, all I could think of was god bless us all, this is it, this could be the end of my life and the end of humanity. The sound was organic, causing a visceral shimmer in me like never before; it shook me to the core. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! This time I grabbed my video-camera and sure enough I zoomed in with my Sony Handycam with a German lens (54X clear image zoom) and I could see white powder flying high into the sky a few miles into the glacier. Now just like before I could hear that eerie “blocking” sound so loud I could barely hear myself think and then again crack, crack, crack: another piece of ice twenty times the size of Chicano Park slid into Glacier Bay. I was once again, rendered speechless. Technically I hadn’t come out of my state of shock from witnessing the first sheet of ice falling. Think about it. We had been there less than five minutes and two huge ice-masses had broken away from the hundreds of miles of blue-white ice as far as the eye could see. This was unprecedented. You know, every time this happens that’s what people say, “This was unprecedented.” In the most unexpected way possible, you might say I had just witnessed history at least that is what the park ranger who suddenly boarded the ship said. Later, I found out that she boarded the ship for safety purposes because she felt threatened by the ice-mass slides. I’ve been stabbed in the park (twice), beat-up by seven batos all at once, hit in the head by a baseball bat as a kid raiding a piñata, fallen off a cliff and even blown up inside a tank in Iraq, but man, watching the ice-mass break off like that, man, that was really something, I’m still not over it. When it happened the second time I felt for humanity, I felt for Aztlan. I felt the weight of all Chicanismo somehow, in some way, melting away, breaking off, breaking down, all I could think of was, “How could this be? Aztlan is melting, just say it ain’t so! No mas!!! I could see my friend Carlos Castaneda’s face forming in the bright white clouds above and he was saying:
Man, you guys [humanity], you guys really messed up. The ice only flows one-way; it is never coming back, humanity is done for and so, too, are Chicanos. What happened? This is not the kind of movement we envisioned? Fighting social injustices is one thing, fighting the environment is another ballgame. We have passed the tipping point on that one. People need to know that humanity has passed the tipping point and that’s that, so now Aztlan is melting.
And then the music on the ship started up, da, da, da, da, da, da, daaaa da, da da, da, da da, da, daaaa da:
Oye como va Mi ritmo Bueno pa' gozar Mulata
I thought, damn it, they are playing my death song, this is it, we are going down like the damn Titanic! All at once my life was flashing before me, how cliché. I recall how many years ago I responded to a call for extras for the movie Titanic as they were filming off the coast near the Rosarito Beach Hotel in Baja and we were having our family reunion. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the director of casting was not picking brown people like me, I mean, think about it, and can you imagine a bunch of Chicanos/as in the movie going down with the Titanic? Well, we were not picked then, but we certainly were picked today. Glacier Bay, thefamoso frikking Glacier Bay that was not on my bucket list, was rapidly becoming my deathbed. Moreover, the music played on causing my wife’s curvy hips to sway effortlessly.
Oye como va Mi ritmo Bueno pa' gozar Mulata
I looked over at my wife, my Patricia, my Mulata and just before kissing her goodbye for life, I peered over her shoulder and there it was, the original flag of Aztlan on the side of the glacier. Was I seeing things?
No, I do not think so as others were commenting on the appearance of the flag as well. The French couple next to us said, “Regardez ce drapeau!” The German couple exclaimed, “Sieh dir diese Flagge an!” And the Afrikaans behind me yelled out, “Kyk na aardie vlag!” causing me to reflect all at once of my years in the bush with descendants of Che Guevara and his men who spread their seed throughout Marripodi Compound just outside of Lusaka, Zambia. The music seemed to get louder because the frozen ice from thousands of miles of glacier acted like a giant acoustic theatre with the best sound possible, better than the Red Rocks theatre just outside of Denver where Tito Puente did his thing with La Fea.
Comments: Refugio I. Rochin said...Well done. FYI I’ve known Victor Villasenor since we were kids. Our parents compadres. Victor does not use computer. He writes all with pencils on writing pads. His sister or friends type all for him.
Reference: Carlos was a little like Victor Villaseñor, except Victor will tell you he spent hours crying at his keyboard writing all his stories. Carlos believed that before you talk to people you need their undivided attention. As Villaseñor puts it, “First, you have to hit the burro in the head, and get his attention, then, you can start talking to him.” (Burro Genius: A Memoir, 2004) So in order to get your undivided attention, Carlos (like Hank) would sit directly in front of you so that your knees were touching. One time Carlos actually grabbed both my ears as he adjusted our chairs and gazed into my eyes, and as he gazed, he all at once gazed even deeper, it was like, I could suddenly see his soul, much like the depiction below. September 19, 2018 at 11:17 PM