We are all Sancho
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
Sometimes clinical language cannot properly capture the essence of a thing. Edmund Husserl went through great lengths with his Philosophy of Phenomenology to define the relationship between consciousness and being, to capture the essence of a thing, or, in his words, to identify “the catness of a cat.” That Phenomenology is often studied along with literature is not surprising because there is no singular sound bite that can define what makes a work of fiction literature versus entertainment or agitprop.
As to a definition of authentic literature, I have always looked to the canon and measured my own response as a reader and that of my students. My students remarked, “The stories we’ve read in your class are about me. It’s as though you knew what I was feeling when you chose those stories.”
Through the years, many more told me, “When you talk about the themes in those stories, it’s as though you wrote those stories yourself! Like you are inside the writer’s mind.” My response: “That’s because those stories are also about me, about the secret person within.” Joseph Conrad’s secret sharer, T.S. Eliot’s true face behind the public “face to meet the faces that you meet.”
That is the best definition I have of real literature: it is the story of the reader’s inner self disguised as fiction. It is a conversation between the author and the reader through metaphor, symbolism, and imagery. It suggests rather than tells, seduces rather that defines. It is the remembrance of the dream we had forgotten, and the realization of the forbidden secret.
DESIRE OVERWHELMS FACTS
I have been revisiting the classic books in my collection. When one re-reads a great work, one always discovers something that one had missed the first time around or one of those instances when life imitates art. The book for me right now is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote de La Mancha. Reading Don Quixote in the Age of Trump and fake news’ attacks on reality, the character that stood out wasn’t the delusional knight but the hapless Sancho Panza.
In Sancho I saw the pathos of what we today call “the low information voter,” the consumer of fake news and bizarre conspiracy theories. He is the person who follows the charismatic cult leader, believes the gifted politician, confuses the buffoon for a wise man. Anyone who purports to provide easy solutions to his afflictions.
Sancho is the unemployed coal miner who cannot accept the empirical reality that clean energy is the future. Rather than adapt and learn new skills, the Sanchos of today wish to return to an imaginary green world, to the seduction of “bringing back coal jobs,” “getting our [sic] country back,” or “making America great again.” The past, Tsunetomo Yamamoto said, slowly dissolves and can never return, yet from the perspective of those who feel dispossessed, it is a dream “[d]evoutly to be wish'd” (Shakespeare).
Sancho believes that there are still undiscovered countries where men of low status can attain land and riches by the boon of men of rank as many had done a century before with the discovery of America. The conquistadors (and, yes, they were my ancestors*), in exchange for their service to the king, were granted land and weapons and the authority to impose their will on the new continent and its people. Sancho wants his island.
Likewise, the misguided American of today longs for the America of Manifest Destiny. Ronald Reagan, who began this backward-looking trajectory, said that he wanted to return the America of 1980 back to the time of his youth. Reagan was the wannabe fictional cowboy who could roam and impose his will with the power of the gun, laws, and institutions that supported the Jacksonian vision. People said of Reagan, “He made us feel good about ourselves.” Who, pray tell, is “us”? It certainly wasn’t the progressive class, environmentalists, nor the intelligentsia.
Sancho blindly believes that Quixote has the ability to make a curative potion that will heal any ill and injury they incur on their misadventures. Even after Quixote vomits the potion into Sancho’s face, the latter still believes Quixote.
In comparison, many Bernie Sanders supporters passionately believed Sanders’ promise of a “free” college education. Empirically, we know nothing is free. The money has to come from somewhere, and even raising taxes would never cover a free college education for everyone for unlimited time. College entrance would have to be tightened, unwittingly giving even more advantages to the “haves” who can pay for entrance exam preparation.
Unlike today, where a student can take his/her time with the course work, time limits would have to be in place to prevent the proliferation of “professional students.” Again, this would hurt students from less advantaged backgrounds who need to work, or need additional time for remedial coursework. Desires have a way of clouding our ability to envision unintended consequences.
The pathos of Sancho Panza is his eagerness for ignorance. Even after he receives beating after beating, one humiliation after another, he chooses to believe the outrageous fabrications of Quixote. Desire overwhelms facts—obvious, shameful facts like when Quixote proclaims that a flock of sheep is an army and stupidly attacks them only to receive a well-deserved beating from the shepherds.
Even after each pummeling, the gentleman Quixote, a gifted talker, spins an alternate reality, “alternate facts” in today’s parlance. Cervantes says that “Sancho hung onto his (Quixote’s) words without uttering one” (172) and later praises Quixote as being “fitter to be a preacher than a knight-errant” (176). The comparable Sancho in our world is the hapless Trump supporter who stands to lose his Medicaid, his clean air, his national parks, among other things, but still remains firm in his hoped-for Trumpian dream.
The dramatic irony of Don Quixote works because we have the distance of fiction to see the utter ridiculousness of Quixote’s imaginary quests. The darkside of Quixote is not so much his indulgence in his madness as much as the need to have a follower. Quixote wants to be watched, admired, praised. But the (mis)adventures of Quixote and Sancho are comical rather than evil, analogous to today’s Bigfoot “truthers,” who really do nothing more than engage in self-inflicted public humiliation. At worst, they may get shot by an angry property owner for trespassing or hurting livestock.
Quixote is not Faulkner’s Sutpen nor Milton’s Satan, who like Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Hugo Chavez, loose their dark ambitions on their followers and enemies equally. These dark men crave attention and admiration to feed their own degenerate souls, caring nothing for their followers, giving them stones when they ask for bread. They return contempt and cruelty for loyalty and love.
WE ARE ALL SANCHO
We are all susceptible to the delusion of easy solutions, to the honeyed rhetoric that appeals to our emotions rather than our reason. We can all be seduced by an ideology, right or left, which purports to have all the answers. We can only avoid Sancho’s fate by being aware that, on some level, we are all Sancho, willing to believe nonsensical conspiracy theories such as that the World Trade Center attack was an inside job by the Bush Administration; or that Hillary Clinton was running a child porn ring out of a pizza restaurant.
However, when confronted by facts and reality, people naturally resist contradictions to their worldviews, cherished beliefs, and desire for meaningfulness in the face of a perpetually changing world. This is where literary fiction exerts its power. Fiction is the metaphor, the mirror that strips away the mask. The function of true literature is to penetrate the human mind and its defenses, to sweetly force awareness as if in a dream. The Roman poet Horace, in Ars Poetica (Epistulas Ad Pisones), said it best:
Rosa Martha Villarreal, recently retired as an Adjunct Professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several important novels including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams. The name for her column, Tertullian’s Corner, comes, she says, from the time when liberal, i.e., free thinking, people were persecuted by the Catholic Church. So young men (and women) would gather in some corner of a monastery under the pretense of discussing the Church Father, Tertullian. Thus, the tertulia was born.
Her Name Was Maria
By Em Montoya
I remember her. Great-grandmother, curled up beneath a hand-crocheted afghan, pursing her lips. Her gray white hair short and swept aside.
Nearly a decade after her passing, I could not remember her name. What does it mean when you forget her name? Her, curled up on the small armchair. Her, with her long, bony, beautiful hands. Her, with her repetitions. She was always Great-grandmother, nicknamed Grandma-grape, not known to me by the name she carried her entire life.
She is beautiful behind my closed eyes, small, her hands knotted, and worn. When she was young she kept her hair coiffed in pin-curls. She wore red lips and dressed in smart, tailored, black clothing. She raised a swarm of daughters. All dark haired, and brown eyed. Even in her old age, she had such grace between the lines of her face, her olive skin, brown eyes strong.
Great-grandmother’s room was blushed with floral blankets and pink walls. A vanity with delicate glass perfumes. My Grandmother would bathe her, dress her, tuck her in at night. She’d comb her white hair, dress her in warm sweaters—just as she had done for her when she was small.
I spent my childhood secluded, away. My father’s feud with my Grandmother’s husband kept us isolated. I only knew my Grandma when I was older, ten, twelve. High School. I learned family. I struggled. A small child in a small life, with two parents in a cold apartment, with only her toys to keep her company.
I treasured the one thing I had from my Great Grandmother — a porcelain angel, one that I remember handed to me once on a sunny day when I was four years old. Her smiling down at me as she handed me the glass figure. It wasn’t until I was much older, that I found it again, and read the words etched into the ribbon wrapped around the base that I realized it was a glass figurine from my cousin’s baptism—not a gift to me, but a gift from the family to honor my cousin’s birth. I had never been baptized, or honored, or felt their presence at school recitals. No group to greet me from the crowds, just the figure of my Mother, her pale face and blue eyes, shining at me from the seats.
The cushioned recliner in my Grandmother’s living room was solely Great-grandmother’s, and it was there that she sat among the family, watching television, repeating in her frail voice, “Do you get it? Do you get it?” Over, and over, in a melody that rendered both familiarity and confusion.
One by one as cousins we’d file inside and it was our custom to greet her first. Bend down, let her look at us. Sometimes she would touch my face, or kiss my cheek. Sometimes I was a stranger and she would merely look away. She loved the men the most, my male cousins. I think perhaps because she had so many male grandchildren, and that she believed their sons were still her grandbabies, still young, and little. Forever children.
I still don’t think she ever saw me. Her beautiful dark eyes, looking but not seeing. I was faceless, someone she could not place a name to or a memory—someone who looked like her Grandson, but was a young lady. I was afraid to be alone with her. I was just a child, and I didn't understand why she didn't recognize me, why she didn't talk.
Through the filmy gauze of memory, I can recall not the words, but the images that they built in my mind. Half-renderings of pink table cloths, and porcelain rabbits. Crystalline centerpieces. Once at the dining room table, I sat with my grandmother and father over tea. I was only a child. I soaked up their stories.
My Grandmother told me of her Mother’s journals. Written by hand, in slanted cursive, in Spanish. She wished to read them one day—her ability to read Spanish had slipped away with time. She had not passed on the language, and the words for me then were like hieroglyphs. She spoke of wanting to have them translated, preserved. Kept alive. She told me a story. My mind filled in the gaps.
The New Mexican heat burned on her skin. They’d walked for miles, suitcases in hand. The brown leather rich, and scalding to the touch beneath the sun. She loved him, her now husband, her Ramon. He had nothing, and her family had everything. They stole away together in the night. They fled beneath the cool New Mexican moon. Married in a small chapel, they were bound. It was somewhere in the twilight, where light crept up to meet the night and the last of the fire flickered in the small table lamp, that they found one another. The cool blue sky began to change colors along the horizon, where the hills, expanded across the sky in dark smudges were aglow with light. The animals barely stirred the blue oatgrass. The fear settled in on the road, crept down her spine. When they reached the gate, she saw him, her father, standing in the doorframe. A silhouette in the shade. It wasn’t until the suitcase sat in the dirt, coated, and she lifted the metal latch of the gate and walked inside, that she saw it: the long smooth wood of his rifle.
“How do you come?” he said.
Ramon moved to her side. She jumped at the damp touch of his palm, but calmed when his fingers laced with hers. Her father stepped into the light. His forehead creased at his brow.
“How do you come?” He repeated. She held her breath. His voice boomed inside of her head. She did not know how to respond. The silence seemed to pull at her insides, twisting them up.
“We are wed,” Ramon said. Her father never looked at him, he stared only at her. “We are wed,” she repeated under her breath. Her father disappeared into the house, and the sun slipped behind the clouds, casting shadow over the hillside.
Each Christmas Eve we’d gather over steaming bowls of pozole, heated tortillas drenched in rich butter. We’d gather around two tables with hands held side by side, and once... Great-grandmother—as if from instinct or old memory—began reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. The room fell silent, our hearts thudding with the honor, the rare precious moment of her voice that washed over us like song.
que estás en el cielo.
Santificado sea tu nombre.
Venga tu reino.
Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.
Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día.
Perdona nuestras ofensas,
como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden.
No nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal.
I can still hear her saying: “Do you get it?” And I don’t know if I got it. I don’t think I understood then, what it was like to live inside a body with a mind slipping away. To exist like a ghost in one’s life. A stranger to oneself. A representation of Great-grandmother. Existing and not existing. Like a legend inside my Grandmother’s house, which was full of old black and white photos, bone china with delicate flowers, deep green carpet, and orange countertops. Somewhere among the paisley, the bread machine, the soft wool blankets and hidden ashtrays in the sunroom, I found her. She never spoke, beyond those four words, until she did. And it was magic.
Eventually, I asked my cousin for her name and I asked my aunt if I could read her diaries, so I could find a way back to her. “She had no diaries,” my aunt said. Were they lost? Had they slipped away with time?
But I remember. She did have diaries. I remember the story. And her name was Maria.
Em Montoya is an artist and writer of speculative fiction and creative nonfiction centered around memory, ancestry, family, and the symbolism of home. She received her MFA in Fiction from St. Mary's College, Moraga, in Spring of 2016 and is now working on her dual-emphasis, focusing on Nonfiction with a collection of essays entitled All The Little Houses, and works as an Assistant Editor for "Somos en escrito, The Latino Literary Online Magazine." Two of her watercolor paintings will be on display at Sanchez Contemporary's Flora and Fauna exhibit in January 2017. This is her first published work.
Somos en escrito The Latino Literary Online Magazine
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