Conversations with Alejandro Morales, October 11, 2018 – August 4, 2019

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Part I

University of California, Santa Barbara, Goleta, University of California, Irvine, California, U.S.A.

I. Development of an acclaimed author

MLL:   Hi, Alejandro.

AM:     Hi.

MLL:   We are with the acclaimed author Alejandro Morales, at the University of California in Santa Barbara, this beautiful day. First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak not only about your work, but also about your vision in literature- Chicano literature, and about many other topics. I have always been intrigued about how one becomes an influential writer, like you have. How do you feel about taking a short trip through time and talk about your development as an acclaimed author?

AM:     Ok.

MLL:   We will visit, briefly, your life as a Chicano, as an intellectual, as an academic, and, of course, also as a writer. So, let’s go back in time, and learn how writer Alejandro Morales came to be. Tell us, please, as a child, did you ever imagine being a writer?

AM:    No, not as a child, I was just growing up. I remember in grammar school we read Dick and Jane to learn how to read. When I was in junior high school, I read Ivanhoe. That was one of the first books that fascinated me. I enjoyed reading about the kings and queens. It was almost magical for me to read about a world so different than the one I lived in. Then, in high school, I remember I had a very good teacher, Mr. Rapkin. He had a way of explaining how important literature was and that really caught my interest. Maybe then was when I first thought of writing some poems and stories. So, I started writing. I have saved just about everything I wrote then– short paragraphs, little stories, poems, etc., and I still have all of it. In fact, if you want to see that material, you can go to Stanford. All my papers are in their Special Collections.

MLL: Which books or authors do you remember reading in your childhood? And, why do you remember them so well?

AM:     I was in high school when I read a couple of books that interested me. The novel Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, written in the 1940’s, really held my interest. It was about a woman named Amber who struggles through life, after her mother dies giving birth to her. Amber rises through English society to be the king’s mistress and a powerful woman. The language in the novel depicted detailed scenes that I could easily picture and imagine. Another novel was Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Here, again, it was the novel’s style, its use of language and the story. This book has always captivated me with the questions it asks. “What is creation? Who has the power to create life? Who is God?” You have this monstrous figure that was created and turns against its creator. There is also An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The author narrates the life of a young man who comes from a well-to-do family and whose father wants him to be successful. But the protagonist falls in love with a young girl who is not as socially and financially advantaged. His father forbids him to love this woman. The protagonist commits a terrible crime that ends in tragedy for the lovers. These are a few books that encouraged and inspired me to write.

MLL:   What led you to write your first novel?

AM:     I did not know whether I could write or not. But once I started writing, all I wanted to do was to fill one inch in the library. That was my goal.

MLL:   Well, you have more than one inch in this library.

AM:     True. And, that was it. That’s what I wanted to do. My first book, Barrio on the Edge: Caras viejas y vino nuevo was put together from many of those little tidbits of writing that I wrote in junior high and in high school. I arranged those writings together to construct a story of my experiences as a teenager and young adult. In that way I created my first novel. I was lucky to have the book published in Mexico by Joaquín Mortiz. That really pushed me to work harder to become a better writer.

MLL:   What led you to write that book, your first novel?

AM:     Again, that desire to write only one novel.

MLL:   Was there something else that told you “I have to write this”? Was there an urge? A need? How can you explain “I want to fill that one inch”? Was it an ambition?

AM:     It was a challenge to see if I could create a complex world, with interesting characters in a great story. And, I also wanted to write about my particular experience. I wanted to write about what I was going through in high school. I had some rough moments in my life, getting into trouble, getting into fights. In fact, one of those fights got me in really bad trouble because I was charged with assault and battery and the police arrested me. I had to face the judge. I remember the judge’s name- Leopoldo Sánchez, from the East Los Angeles Municipal Court. He gave me a huge break. He didn’t charge me with a felony. Instead, he sent me to the county jail to serve twelve weekends. I remember my brother-in-law, and my sister sometimes, would take me on Friday afternoon to the county jail on Vignes Street and on Sunday they would pick me up. One of the things that saved me was that the judge wanted to know a little bit more about me. At that time, I was attending East Los Angeles College. Judge Sánchez contacted some of my professors who must have given me a good recommendation. When I was sentenced, the judge ordered me to twelve weekends in jail. He ordered that I would not have fumigation or a body search. In addition, he ordered that I would have a cell to myself and that I be allowed to have my books. And, I actually did! I walked into the county jail with a bag full of books to study for my classes and finals. I will never forget Judge Leopoldo Sánchez. He taught me a lesson that radically changed my life.

MLL:   How important was that lesson, not necessarily in leading you into being a writer, but in leading you in that direction?

AM:     Well, to me, it was important because another thing that happened that summer was that my brothers, not that they were saints, told me “you have to leave the house because you got into too much trouble and it really has affected our mom and dad.” I left the next day. I was lucky enough to go to the University of Oregon for summer school. Oregon, the campus, the neighborhood, were beautiful. Living there completely changed my perspective. When I returned home, I felt like a different person. I turned to writing again but with a whole new perspective on life, my family, friends and community. I think my first book focused on me, where I was going, where I was at that particular time, also announcing where I was heading.

MLL:   Speaking of significant instances in our lives, there are some events in U.S. history that have influenced our lives, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Vietnam War, and even international events, including the student movement in Mexico in 1968, the Zapatista Movement in 1994, and other more recent events in the 21st century. How have some of these and other events influenced your life personally, as an intellectual, and as an academic?

AM:     Well, I think that the experience I just described was definitely very influential in my life. It pointed and directed me to my goal to continue my education and to write. Coming out of high school into East L. A. College, then Cal. State L.A, the Vietnam War was intensifying, raging, bloodier by the year. I wanted to stay in school. So, I applied for deferments and I got them. The closest I came to go to Vietnam was getting a letter to take my physical. The very next day I received a deferment. I hated the war and what we were doing. Many of my friends that I grew up with volunteered. I pursued my education. I have been in school since I was in kindergarten. I have never left the classroom, either as a student or as a teacher. In 1967, I graduated from Cal. State L. A., got married, and earned my teaching credential. In 1968, I was teaching Spanish at Claremont High School, and, in 1969, I entered Rutgers graduate school to study Latin American literature and U.S. Latino literature. In 1974, I got a dream job at the University of California, Irvine. Even today, after forty-three years at the university, I finally retired. However, I still have my office and am still productive writing short stories, novels and poetry. By the way, I have a collection of poetry that will be published (I hope) at the end of this year. I think the remainder of the time I have is going to be invested in writing short stories, novels, poetry and making documentary films. But we will see.

MLL:   What or who evokes your strong voice in your writing, not only as a writer, but as a Chicano writer?

AM:     The term “Chicano” is hardly used by writers, you know that. I think that everyone, every person, Chicano, Latino and now Latinx writers, whatever label you want to put on them, all have a strong voice, different but strong. You can talk about Sandra Cisneros. She has a powerful, impactful voice in her poetry, her short stories, and all her narratives. Her language use is multilayered, lyrical, and replete with irony and meaning. Ray Gonzalez, a magnificent poet, has a powerful historical voice, a palimpsest of cultural views of the environment, the Southwestern United States, Native American cultures, music and poetry. Luis Rodríguez has a strong, influential, collective voice dealing with Chicano life in Chicago and Los Angeles. He communicates a different perspective, a different experience. Every one of us is driven by something. For me, in the beginning, it was that one novel to take my place in the library.

I want to tell you a story about writer’s voice. I was invited to write a short story for a coming collection of Latino/Chicano speculative literature. The editors of this anthology are from the East Coast. I was excited about the invitation and was eager to write this kind of story. I wrote “The Integrals,” a somewhat complex story that focuses on brain imaging, theories of memory of Carl Jung and Jean Gebser. Both deal in different ways with ancient memory or collective memory that humans carry. Neurologists who use nanotechnology discovered that they can capture parts of images or memories in the process of scanning the brain. The question is “what is the date of these images?” and “what time in personal or universal history do the images represent?” I sent “The Integrals” to the editors. They asked me to make a few changes and I did. I sent it back to them. The editor called to tell me that “the committee was looking at my story.” Two weeks later he said “Alejandro, we can’t use your story.” I, of course, wanted an explanation of why they couldn’t use it, why they didn’t like it. And he informed me that the committee felt that the story was “… not Chicano enough.” Their reasoning was absurd. What do you mean “not Chicano enough”? “Yeah, we want stories that deal with Chicanos and none of your characters have a Mexican or Chicano last name.” Why are we put in a literary cubbyhole, in a niche that asks us to write only about the Chicano/Latino experience? I would have preferred some critical points to indicate that the story didn’t meet up to their literary standards. But to say that the story “…wasn’t Chicano enough” tells me they wanted stereotypes. I have written other stories that are speculative and that is what I am working on now: Speculative literature, speculative stories that consider the limits of science and the paranormal. Here, at UC Santa Barbara, the literary journal Ventana abierta published “Energúmenos- The Possessed.” It is a story that deals with infectious disease in Central America. The story questions how scientists and government authorities respond to dangerous pathogens. I think more writers should be exploring different topics.

In addition, I am also working on probably the most challenging book that I have written thus far in my career. It is a biography, or a biographical novel, based on the life of my in-laws, Stewart Josiah Teaze born in Rhode Island, and Helen Rohde Teaze born in New Jersey, both of whom had an exciting and adventurous life and who lived in Japan for twenty-five years. The challenges of composing the novel are that I have to research and travel to Japan to learn about the Japanese and the expat culture during the time Stewart and Helen lived there. The story begins with Stewart in the Philippines at 18 years old, working in Manila for the United States Foreign Service and eventually, in 1919, gets a job in Tokyo working for Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY). He and Helen meet in 1922 in Tokyo, where she works for the Rising Sun Oil Company. The novel requires a lot of historical, cultural and family research that I have done for many years. I am very excited about that project because it does have something to do with me, a Chicano/Mexican American writer who writes about Stewart and Helen Teaze of Norwegian/Irish immigrant ancestry who lived in Japan for twenty-five years. They were born in the States, but their parents were immigrants. Critics might say, “this is cultural appropriation. What do you know about Japan or Norwegian and Irish immigrants?” Obviously, I will continue to research and travel to these countries. The point is Chicano/Latino writers should write about whatever interests us. I encourage them to do their due diligence and tell a hell of a great story.

MLL:   Yes, you confirm what I have said before: You do research and go beyond that to read between the lines. You find what has been omitted or neglected. There are many stories that you bring to life, and that biographical novel is an exciting project.

AM:     Well, those two projects: The collection of speculative stories and then, of course, this novel.

MLL:   And your poetry as well.

AM:     Yes, my poetry.

MLL:   Let’s find out a little more about Alejandro Morales and his leisurely activities. Enjoyment should never be lacking in our lives, right? What are some of the pastimes you have had in your youth and now? Could you also tell us if any of your characters share these pastimes or leisurely activities with you?

AM:    I think they have. Let’s look at Reto en el paraíso. This novel is about the Irvine Ranch. It starts off on a tennis court in a place called the Park West Apartments, very close to UC Irvine. One of the characters plays tennis. That is one thing that I learned from my wife because she was a very good tennis player. When I first met her, she started me on the courts, and I started playing more and more tennis. Her father Stewart Teaze was a very good tennis player in Japan. He was a very good athlete and a very good tennis player at the time. And her mother Helen was an outstanding tennis player. In their time, right? She started playing tennis in high school and became a dominant tennis player in Japan, where she played in major tournaments and won some of them. Tennis is a sport that, because of my wife and her family, I really enjoy and hope to continue to play until my last days. Tennis does come up in Reto en el paraíso, maybe even several times and in other novels and stories. I still feel that even at my age I can get better. I definitely am not a college player, but I would have liked to be. But I knew very little about it then. Yes, tennis is one of my leisure activities. Another activity, maybe not leisure, but one that has become more and more important, is making documentary films. The first film we did is based on The Brick People. It turned out to be very good. The other was Visions of America Through the Eyes of Alejandro Morales, a documentary made by Luis Mancha, a filmmaker from Spain. The film was written and shot on a very low budget and very little time. The one I am doing now with director Mike Kirsch, who also did The Brick People, is about tennis and diversity in that sport. It explores questions such as where are Hispanic, African, Asian American tennis players in American tennis? We have worked on this film for almost two years already. We have a lot of film now and we are trying to interview more professional tennis players and people from the United States Tennis Association. We are going to continue for probably another six or seven months to put together the first draft of the movie. But it is coming along well and we are going to continue. Even though our budget is again minimal, we feel that the tennis story needs to be told. We already have other subjects that we want to explore.

MLL:   Yes, all this in your leisure… which you combine with your research. Speaking of research, how about your professional career? I know there is an anthology coming up about your work. Could you tell us about some of your greater recognitions? And, most of all, tell us why you consider these important in your life.

AM:     Yes. I have never written to win a prize, number one. But I have gotten fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Mellon Foundation, the IT&T Fellowship, UC MEXUS Grants and the Nebrija Writing Fellowship from the Franklin Foundation, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in Spain. Here, at this university (UC Santa Barbara), they awarded me the Luis Leal Prize in Chicano Literature, which is a very prestigious prize. I have had those kinds of recognition, and they are important because they have encouraged me to continue writing, and have also helped me financially. But what really moves me to write is when a scholar presents an essay or an article on my work at a national or international conference. That is what I find inspirational, more than anything else. There are many scholars who have written some magnificent articles about an idea, a theory, a relationship, or a character that they have found in my writings. Their work is so fascinating, beautifully constructed and written. These scholars are from different countries and they possess the power of revealing different levels of meaning that makes me want to improve the art and craft of my writing. It is just the power of putting words together, of writing a beautiful essay and communicating from such a point, from somebody in Greece or in Latin America, for example. Professor Baoji Li from China spent a whole year at UC Irvine and studied my works. Now, she is writing and will be part of this upcoming anthology. She has students studying my work also. There is another professor in China whom I met at UC Riverside. He had published several articles on my work and introduced me to Chinese readers. This encourages me to keep writing.

MLL:   You mentioned students, teaching the students, and students reading your work. I recall one of my students from CSU Channel Islands who interviewed you. She wrote her capstone project on three of your novels. I was just reading it this morning. She dedicated it to you. I have it and will show it to you later. I was at her capstone presentation and, at the end, she said to me “profe, this is for you. Thank you for introducing me to Alejandro Morales’ literature.” She got hooked! She did the interview with you and is now one of the many readers that bring life to your work in their papers, making connections with their lives as well.

AM:     Yes. If I could add, also, one more little thing. Some of these books are based on real people. The Brick People is my family. Then there is Death of an Anglo or La verdad sin voz.

MLL:   Barrio on the Edge.

AM:     Yes, Barrio on the Edge also. But Death of an Anglo is based on an incident that occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas. I wrote the book and it has haunted me for years! This book, for which I never did any research. All I did was use an article I had, entitled “Death of an Anglo,” about a doctor named Fredrick Logan who was killed by a police officer in Corpus Christi, Texas. There have been times, after I have given a talk at a conference, a university, or a book club, when a person has come up to me and say “hey, I am from Corpus Christi and I read your book. Some of those characters are real.” But I made everything up in the novel, other than the fact that the main character is based on a real person. I added a lot to his story created on the article that became my outline for the novel. In my imagination, I created everything. Readers have reacted to the character in positive and negative ways. Some have been very vehement. The Brick People has also had many responses about the place and life in the Simons’ company town. Some have approached me, have sent me a letter or an e-mail saying “I enjoyed your book and I am so happy that you are doing this for the community, etc.”

So, in a sense, my writing has become a collective community project, which I think is great! Not just speaking to the particular experience I talked about earlier, but I hope that my books, short stories and poems have something to say to anyone who picks up my work and reads it. The origin of my writing is that Simons community experience, that child experience, living as a kid growing up in this small company town and some of its workers who later moved up to the barranca to make a barrio. The act of writing means constantly moving forward, expanding the space, and breaking through whatever conundrum comes before you and, eventually, moving beyond that to different worlds and different times.

MLL:   Yes, expanding borders to different worlds. Regarding what you said about the community, sometimes we remember difficult times with a bit of humor, which means we have overcome them. Taking your life as an example, what words of advice would you give Latino and Chicano youth, about setting goals, getting ahead, and overcoming difficult moments in life? Specifically, what would you tell those young Latino and Chicano college students who wish to fulfill their educational goals, but, at the same time, are expected to carry their family forward while forging themselves a future within society?

AM:     Well, to begin with, try to fulfill your dreams. We all have dreams. I have fulfilled some and have not accomplished others. But, that’s OK. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on something that you might think is too difficult. Your parents want you to become a doctor or an engineer (plan B) but you want to be an art major and study dance and theater (plan A). You have a “what if” choice: You’re not sure if you can do well in the pre-med courses. You received “As” in bio, “Bs” in chemistry and A+s in math classes. You also took dancing and theater for three years in high school and loved performing in plays. It’s your choice. Make sure you do your due diligence and research both fields. Then, after, make a decision. It’s not easy! But don’t let yourself get pressured into a “what if” choice when later in life you’ll think “what if” I had majored in dance and theater?

As part of your due diligence research, remember that today all fields offer different kinds of challenges. Nothing is easy. Think about different future scenarios in your life: Where do you want be? What do you want to do? Whom do you want to help? What is it going to take, and how long, to get me there? Remember that competition will always be tough in whatever you decide. Accordingly, get ready to always work hard from the very start and be aware of distractions.

In acquiring an education, I learned that it was most important to return or work or help or contribute to my community in the best way I could. I also understood family was the highest priority for me. To start and complete my education was certainly a significant contribution to my community, and to value and hold in the highest regards my parents, brother and sisters, and my extended family. From kindergarten, through my B.A. and California teaching credential, and my first teaching job, I stayed close to home. By the time I decided to go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D., I was married and my wife Rohde was expecting our first child. Yet, I did the unexpected. Rohde and I elected to quit our teaching jobs and go to the east coast. Rutgers University offered me a four-year scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree and eventually my Doctorate in Latin American and U.S. Latino literature. The point is that I went as far away as possible from my family. My parents didn’t want us to leave, but the break and financial support to study at Rutgers for me was an opportunity of a life time. Against my parents and my in-laws’ concerns, we left. It turned out to be, in terms of my career, the best choice I ever made. When a great offer is in the palm of your hand, take it! Don’t listen to your parents. When you have to decide what college or university you will attend, and if you have good financial packages from schools far away from your parents, you should consider those very seriously and don’t listen to your parents especially.

During your first years of university life, don’t rush into sororities or fraternities, or into any other club or activities that demand lots of time. Use the first year to get to know what’s expected of classes and professors and what opportunities the university offers to students. I enthusiastically suggest you find out what study abroad the university offers. The University of California (U.C.) has study abroad programs in countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. Please don’t lose this opportunity to study in a foreign country. This might be your chance, for a long time to come, to explore and study in a country that you only see in films. At U.C., students usually go abroad in the junior year. Depending on the campus, the junior year abroad can be for a quarter, a semester or the full academic year. Another program in which you should participate is the University of California-District of Columbia (U.C.D.C.) Internship Program in Washington D.C. Usually, students participate in the program during their junior or senior year. Please research the details. If you meet the requirements, apply and go. I have had students who were accepted come to me and say that they can’t or shouldn’t go because “my parents need me to work,” or “my boyfriend or girlfriend needs me here,” or “I have to work to pay my car.” Forgive me for saying this, but these are all wrong reasons for not going.

By now you should know what I suggest: Get rid of your boyfriend or girlfriend, if you have one; Do not buy a car; Do not worry about the finances. You are going to be in debt for the rest of your life, and: Don’t listen to your parents. I believe that the people your decision to leave to study abroad or to D.C. to study will affect, if not right away but eventually, will understand why you had to leave. You have to live your life. You have to be independent. To study and to graduate from a college or university will be very impactful for you and other Latino students. In the future, you will have many possibilities, different opportunities that your parents and your brothers and sisters never had or will never have. Don’t feel guilty for being successful.

That’s where I stand on all this. I believe our children should be independent. They should decide. In the long run, they will help themselves, the family and the community in many ways, even by simply being an example.

MLL:   Yes. I remember, when I was your student, you also gave me advice. Particularly, I remember your telling me that, regardless of how sick I could be or feel, regardless of the many problems around me, or who dies, to never stop coming to school, not to disappear. Just, do not ever stop coming to school. So, I have carried your advice and, now that I am a professor also, I have passed it on to my students and have also added to it. Live the world! Now, my neighbor’s daughter is in China. She also went to UC Irvine, by the way. I feel very proud of her. She also went to my other alma mater, CSU Northridge. Recently, her mother told me, “you told her to go and explore the world, and she is!” I guess I did tell her: “Go, explore the world, and then come back home and take your parents with you as well.”

On another note. Let’s talk about the visions that you have for Latinos and Chicanos in the U.S.A. for the next twenty to thirty years? What do you see?

AM:     Oh, I see, I guess we are talking about the future now?

MLL:   Yes, twenty or thirty years, not much into the future, but enough.

AM:     I see a lot of change coming in the Latino communities of this country and in Mexico as well. I think we are going to get many more Latinos in school, through high school and into colleges. They are going to be involved in all facets of our society. They are going to be doctors, lawyers, and all different types of professionals. I also see that our population is going to grow very much. Let’s see, our population right now is close to sixty million Latinos of which the largest group is Mexicans, with thirty-seven million. Demographers estimate that, by the year 2050, 2060, or 2070, the Latino population in the United States is to be seventy-five to ninety million people. But I also think that in Mexico there is internal migration occurring from rural areas going to cities, like Mexico City, Guadalajara, and further north to Hermosillo, Chihuahua, and Monterrey. These cities, located three-hundred miles south of the border, will thrive when water is brought into these areas through desalinization plants. In addition, converting waste water into drinkable water will be another purifying process that will be used to produce more clean water. There are now other processes that are being developed. Those cities will get much bigger. Eventually people who have gone to these cities will push on to the cities on the border. So, I believe, that in the future, three to four-hundred miles south from the U.S.- Mexico border, and then the cities in the border are going to grow- like Tijuana, which already has two million people. And they will become transnational municipalities. My point is that, as I said earlier, we might have eighty million Latinos living in the United States. But, from those cities to the border, you might have forty-five million mexicanos. This means that our population is going to be close to one-hundred and twenty-five million Latinos, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans. This is going to have a tremendous impact both, on Mexico and the U.S. If you look at a couple of books that deal specifically with how the United States today is intertwined with Mexican economy, in every aspect we have this multi-borderless economy and also product crossing back and forth. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are all going to form an alliance. That is going to be in the future. The other thing in the future for us, Latinos, is to prepare for technology. Technology is going to have a huge impact in the way we see and do things. Examples such as artificial intelligence, which we have now in a box that you put in your house and you buy from Google or Amazon. What is it? Alexa? We ask “Alexa, please, tell me, what is the population in the United States?” And Alexa will tell you the answer. Knowledge is going to be so concentrated. Big data in all fields will be stored in a small box maybe about 5x5x5 inches and eventually even smaller. You’ll ask about any subject known and it will answer. Artificial intelligence and robotics will impact every area of knowledge including medicine, law, economics, engineering, large-scale construction projects employing three-dimensional printers, etc. It will affect and even eliminate many types of skilled jobs and professional careers. Our future is going to be greatly reconfigured by technology and internal and international migration .

MLL:   This takes me to some of your novels.

AM:     Yes, and more so now that I am interested in those areas, especially in technology. Now that I am working in speculative literature.

MLL:   Let’s talk about your career now. You are definitely a visionary. But, as a writer, do you find yourself doing things differently­ in your life? Do you think differently? Enjoying life, and expressing yourself? What is most important in your career now?

AM:     What is most important in my career?

MLL:   Well, I know you have projects and you have, obviously, developed as an influential writer. You have also done projects that vary so much, in regards to themes and locations. As I said, you are a visionary that expands the so called “border.” There is no border, you go beyond that. So, as a writer, what is most important for you to accomplish at the moment?

AM:     Well, I want to continue to write and to stay healthy. However, what is of paramount importance to me at this time of my life is to vote POTUS out of office. POTUS has proven himself unworthy to hold the office of president of the United States by his language and actions. Terrible attacks on Mexicans, Central Americans and other people of color have been launched by POTUS. He started these assaults from the beginning of his campaign and he hasn’t let up. Instead, he has intensified his assault and, in doing so, his racist hatred toward specific ethnicities, races and religious groups has been exposed. POTUS’ hateful rhetoric targets and puts a specific people in danger .

For undocumented, documented and even for people born here, POTUS’ policies have made daily life difficult! The everyday sense of feeling safe has diminished. There is now always a kind of insecurity, of fear, that has filtered into what used to be common safe zones. The psychological effect is symptomatic of POTUS’ programmed systematic attack that his immigration advisors, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions call “Restrictionism.” I call it “Eliminationist Ideology.” It is a kind of browning to shaming. This social technology identifies a certain group and makes it, in the eyes of the dominant society, socially and physically inferior and unworthy to reside in the United States. This ideology is based on racist beliefs and false scientific theories like eugenics.

The fear that drives POTUS and his advisors is the belief that the white race is threatened by demographics and that the present and entering immigrant populations of color will degrade, dilute and eventually cause the white race to meld and disappear. POTUS is convinced that current demographics is indicative of a white genocide occurring today in the United States. Thus POTUS’ world view compels him to construct an image that makes Mexicans, other Latinos and people of color as the abnormal, the antisocial, rapists, drug smugglers, criminals, etc., to justify what he says and what he does to “send them back!” to “go back to where you came from!” He has used vile, offensive language and by adding more repulsive words and repeating them continuously he creates false truths that his devotees believe, repeat and act upon violently. In August 3, 2019, a lone gunman with an automatic weapon entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and murdered twenty-two people and gravely wounded twenty-four individuals. The El Paso killer authored a manifesto where he wrote that he specifically targeted Mexicans that are invading the country. POTUS’ racist rhetoric has fueled hatred and incited violence.

POTUS’ no-tolerance policy criminalized immigrants coming to the U.S. to request asylum, which is their constitutional right. This policy was implemented as a deterrence for immigrants from coming to the U.S. border. Still individuals and families came hoping to enter the country. However, individuals were arrested at the border and families were broken up. The family is a crucial support and survival system for 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant families. In a cavalier manner, POTUS ordered ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to literally tear infants away from their mother; this act is tantamount to kidnapping. To discourage families to come to the border to request asylum, POTUS has kidnapped children and held them in wire-fence cages while their parents were stripped of their dignity and incarcerated in cages for entering the country illegally. Today, there are thousands of children still in prison waiting to be unified with their parents. For many, this may never happen because their parents may have died murdered, or may not have the money or physical stamina to survive the trip north to the United States.

There is no indication that POTUS will cease the practice of Eliminationist Ideology. On the contrary, he will most likely escalate and apply its step-by-step process for the cultural elimination and physical deportation and prevention of Mexican, Central American and other people of color, and practitioners of non-Christian religions to enter the United States.

POTUS’ immigration policies are dangerous and volatile to the point that they will lead to physical conflicts throughout the country, or lethal attacks on targeted people. POTUS has no empathy for the people he persecutes and suffer his Nationalist White Supremacist racist immigration policies. He will execute and escalate these programs attempting to make “America White Again.” He will only stop persecuting the targeted populations when he is voted out of office. Yet, the ugly language and physical attacks might continue, for it seems that POTUS has opened the White Supremacist Pandora’s box of racism. My point is that we, as people of color, must use our art as a form of protest against this heinous administration .

One last word, POTUS has negotiated billions of dollars to build a wall at the southern border to keep brown people from entering the United States. As the wall is built it will require immediate and on-going protection and maintenance that will cost billions of dollars more. The wall itself will become an ironic symbol, a legacy of POTUS’s hatred of Mexico and Mexicans.

END of Part I

Conversations with Alejandro Morales, October 11, 2018 – August 4, 2019

Part II

University of California, Santa Barbara, Goleta, University of California, Irvine, California, U.S.A.

By Margarita López López

I. Development of an acclaimed author

MLL:   I was about to make a reference to your urge to write, to what drives you to write. Do you feel also a responsibility? Do you think it is an educational responsibility towards society, besides your obvious urge for knowledge and need to express yourself?

AM:     Well, I think that you can find political messages in my novels. They deal with political and social issues. Hence, readers will find political and social meanings in my works. These things we talked about just now are in them– history, racism, segregation, prejudice, targeting people. So, yes, I guess I am a writer whose work is a palimpsest of meanings. It has meaning, literally, symbolically, and also politically. And that is good. I am glad it is. Vargas Llosa said “la literatura es fuego.” Literature should get people upset and get people to analyze and think critically about what is going on in the world. I think that many of my books do that. I think literature is a social, cultural and artistic product. Therefore, it can’t escape being political.

MLL:   Yes, it is. Speaking of your books, your novels mostly, is there a character in your narrative with autobiographical characteristics that have experienced drastic changes? Or, perhaps those changes occurred only within the magic of writing? Or, did they occur beyond that?

AM:     Characters?

MLL:   Yes. You have mentioned Caras viejas y vino nuevo, for example. What changes happen in the characters? Are they also autobiographical? Or, are the changes within the magic of writing only?

AM:     I think that in Caras viejas y vino nuevo there are some autobiographical elements, obviously, because I wrote it during high school. But, also, The Brick People is about my family.

MLL:   Were there drastic changes in some of those characters?

AM:     No. I tried to create my brothers, my sisters, my mom and dad, my grandparents, and the community the way I saw it, the way I lived it, the way I felt it. So, there were not any drastic changes here. Reto en el paraíso is a story about a young man and a young woman. The young man questions himself all the time. He does not like the word “Chicano.” He has issues with being a Chicano. While, the female protagonist, whose last name is Revueltas, is a rebel. She is a politically committed enthusiastic Chicana that wants to instigate change in the social order. Influenced by her, the young man does change. Revueltas teaches him to view the world in a different way and to work toward changing the social condition of the Chicano community. The Rag Doll Plagues is a novel with three books. The first is about a man, Dr. Revueltas, during the colonial period, in 1779. The second takes place in the year 1979, still with the same Dr. Revueltas, but confronting now different plagues, in this case, AIDS. And the third book, the same doctor is now in the LAMEX corridor dealing with the future I was just describing– and its technology. Dr. Revueltas has to go from one place to another where infected gasses have penetrated through the Earth, from the ocean to the ground, and have come up in San Diego and killed two thousand people. Then, they disappear completely. These are instant plagues that will occur in the future. Basically, pathogens change through time, mainly because of technology and environmental issues. In one of the best essays about this book, Professor Sobek writes about technology and says that the plague is a metaphor for the existing racism. River of Angels is a book that takes place in the 1920s and deals with eugenics, with the men who built the beautiful bridges across the Los Angeles River, and with a love story. But it is also a book that deals with people confronted with their particular circumstances. One of the things it shows is people being able to rise above their circumstances and go on and do good things .

MLL:   Yes, you had referred to this about Caras viejas y vino nuevo and some of your other novels in your autobiographical characters who also question and reject the term “Chicano” and the ideology that comes with it. Instead, they do not remain in the inside with an individualistic view, but they go beyond it, out to the community, the family and, even more globally, to other things as well. So, they reassure themselves as powerful entities who look at a wider range of experiences. Speaking of the community. Alejandro, do you look for a relationship with your readers? Perhaps, one that will bring something to your writing?

AM:     No. As I said earlier, the community has influenced me to write. But when I write a book, people always say “well, think of your audience, think of your reader.” But I do not necessarily think about that. What I try to do is to write a good story… a damn good story. That is what I think people want to read. That is what keeps people hooked in the books. I use history as my platform, my canvas. Then, I introduce characters when an idea comes up. For example, the building of the Los Angeles bridges that cross the Los Angeles River came from a series of photographs that I saw in the main library in downtown Los Angeles. These were photos of the crews who built the bridges. From there, I started thinking about the novel River of Angels. That was the historical canvas. Then, I started searching for characters to put on the canvas, in the story. I was not necessarily thinking of a readership for this book. I was thinking of writing a good story. So, history is my canvas, but something else comes into play in just about all of my books. It is the whole idea of mythology, legends, magic, all of these other entities that are part of the characters and their lives that are narrated in the novel. So, that also includes research that I do on them. When you read my books, you see they are full with these facts, figures, events, and so forth. I try to create a story, mainly because I believe a good story is going to communicate to whomever reads the novel, whether or not it is translated into whatever language.

MLL:   Let’s talk briefly about Chicano writing. You are an author who writes from Orange County where you live and also work (UC Irvine). Your novels are read in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia. You also spoke about being a writer without the Chicano label attached. But there is a specific literature, a “Chicano writing,” that experience that not everyone can write. You also said “I am a writer, period. I am a writer of many experiences. I wrote about Logan, about Mexico, and now I am on a project about the Japanese.” But that comes from a particular experience that you had. You mentioned as well that others asked if you were Japanese, about having that particular perspective, and where you learned it. What does it mean to you to be known as a Chicano writer in the United States? A Chicano writer who writes about all of these different experiences?

AM:     I have written about the Chicano and Mexican experience. But now I am writing about Japan. I do not hold to labels, like “Chicano.” Los títulos no son necesariamente importantes para mí. Another thing is also how I am introduced, as a Chicano writer, as a Hispanic writer, as a Latino writer, as a Mexican American writer, an American writer from Los Angeles, etc. But I am a writer. I am able to explore what I want to explore. Like I said before, my experience has been the origin of all this. But your other question, about “inside” and “outside.” Ask me that question.

MLL:   Definitely! Some speak of the Chicano experience from different perspectives, views, or angles, whether it is from “inside” or “outside,” to refer to the influence this experience has on an author. Are you someone who has had an “inside” experience? Or do you have an “outside” experience? Are you looking at the Chicano experience from the “outside”? Even though you live in the “outside” (Orange County), how do you keep the real “inside” within your work? Not just that perspective of “lo chicano” and “la chicanidad,” but that “something genuine and untouched” in your writing?

AM:     Yes, I think we talked a little about this earlier. “Chicano” is a historically political word. It means a political stance, a history, the history of the Chicano and the Civil Rights Movement. But, if you are talking about ethnicity, I believe that ethnicity is a practice that is learned. Let’s say, my most Chicano book was probably my very first book, because I was a very young man then. I was very close to the family. I still am. But, even as first generation, someone comes to this country and tries to write his story or autobiography, and maybe he (or she) has not had very much education, he is going to write in a certain way. He will talk about that experience, his immigration, and about living, perhaps, in East Los Angeles. Then, the second generation comes around. This second generation, because of education, will have a very different experience from their mom and dad’s experience. The third generation is also going to be very different. But, how does that third generation, as you say, stay on the “inside”? And still feel part of that “inside”? It is a matter of practice. For example, I am going to use a metaphor: The Christmas celebration table. For the first generation, that table is going to be filled with Mexican food, Mexican desserts, Mexican drinks, etc. For the second generation, let’s say the guy marries an Anglo woman, or the girl marries an Asian guy. The table is now going to be filled with Anglo food, Asian food, etc. Also, the first generation practices Catholicism and they go to church. The second generation may have less interest in religion. Well, the third generation marries a Jewish girl, so he is now teaching his kids Hebrew and is not teaching them Spanish, and he is going to synagogue. It is very difficult in our society, today, to ask a person to remain Chicano, mexicano, all through these generations. It is not going to happen. This country is famous for gobbling up ethnicity and languages because our society is a global society in which there will be a lot of intermarriages in the future. It is happening now. The “inside/outside” is very difficult. Another thing about this is that people believe in bilingualism. They believe in biculturalism. I do not think those exist because we are not bicultural. We are multi-multi-multicultural because we are influenced by all the cultures around us. We are not bilingual because our language is also being influenced by many other languages. Our language kind of overlaps. It is influenced and we slowly begin to lose it because of our education. For instance, I am not bilingual. I could teach a course in Spanish, but I am not bilingual. I am English dominant. And that is what is going to happen for people who are second generation who still speak Spanish. I never grew up in a language-immersion environment. If I had grown up in Mexico, I would have had the vocabulary, all the terminology- from the kitchen to mechanics, everything. When I graduated from high school, I discovered two things: I wanted to be a writer and I was losing my language. Therefore, I studied Spanish to try to recapture it. Hence, that “in and out” idea is just not possible .

MLL:   You have described in detail the development of your work within the last twenty-five or so years. You also recapitulated how you see your writing. You mentioned your work, from Caras viejas y vino nuevo to your most recent project. Is there anything you wish to add? Perhaps, a vision that you have or how you see your development?

AM:     Well, I can say that my writing started out as very experimental, like Reto en el paraíso, with language, time, and space. For this novel, the reader has to be bilingual because it is mainly in Spanish, but the characters speak English, some Spanish, and others are bilingual. It has not had much critical attention. I wish more people would read and write about it. Luis Leal considered it the best Chicano novel of the time. Then, when I started to write in English I was considered “casi un traidor a la lengua española.” Several people criticized me. There were essays asking “why did Morales change from Spanish to English?” Well, I wanted to tell my family story in a language that would expand my readership .

The Captain of All These Men of Death is another book that is experimental in the sense that it switches back and forth in time through a series of episodes in the history of tuberculosis. The novel goes back to the time of Hippocrates who dealt with tuberculosis patients and up to the development of streptomycin. The book also describes the contagion in the Latino community.Another episode deals with Robert Koch who, in 1881, saw that the cause of tuberculosis was bacteria. That was a major breakthrough because they did not know what it was. Then, finally, when antibiotics were discovered, they also found that that was the antidote for the illness, not necessarily the cure, because tuberculosis is still here. I explore many different events in the history of the disease. Another part in the book concerns the weaponization of tuberculosis used to control populations in the 19th century. To find out about what happened, read the book.

The Rag Doll Plagues was influenced by my kids, Gregory and Alessandra, as well as by one man named John Jay Tepaske. He wrote a book titled El Protomedicato Real, in which he describes the terrible conditions in Mexico City in the 1700s. The Protomedicato was the main institution that governed the practice of medicine in the Spanish colonies. The Captain of All These Men of Death was inspired by my son. When he was in medical school, he wrote a short thesis on tuberculosis. He handed it in as a dean’s thesis because he wanted to have an asterisk by his name when he graduated. He gave me the thesis and said “I think this will make a hell of a novel.” It is a short thesis. I read it and agreed that it would make a hell of a novel.

But, to make a long story short, about how I developed as a writer, I think I have gone from experimental writing to–allow me to paraphrase what theorist Linda Hutcheon calls Historiographic Metafiction–novels that are self-reflective and deal with historical events and personages. In addition, these works incorporate the writer’s knowledge of literature, history, and theory. Historiographic Metafiction is a kind of rethinking and reworking of forms and content of the past, a theoretical reconsideration of history. The Captain of All These Men of Death is also filled with legends, historical references, and personages, and questions the official history and the claims of science from ancient time to the present. Same with The Rag Doll Plagues. Even River of Angels is filled with anecdotes- muchos cuentos intercalados, leyendas y mitos, as well as historical references about Los Angeles. I am doing the same with A Rainbow of Colors, the biographical novel I am writing about my in-laws who lived in Japan for twenty-five years. I also consider my work an example of what Monika Kaup calls Postcolonial Neo-Baroque, which includes a cultural resistance to Neocolonialism. She describes Chicano art– and I would say literature– as a Neo-Baroque artistic style that emerges from the Colonialism and Neocolonialism of the Chicano experience. She associates her ideas of the Chicano Neo-Baroque to the concept of Rasquachismo as described in Rasquachismo: a Chicano Sensibility by Tomas Ybarra-Frausto.  I consider my work as Chicano Neo-Baroque and as Rasquache and, also, as an art production that expresses religious and secular spirituality .

MLL:   You have now spoken of your narrative, including your short stories, as well as your poetry. Aside from your documentary based on your novel The Brick People, directed by Mike Kirsch, will we see some of your characters on the screen or perhaps as protagonists of a corrido or a song?

AM:    I have been approached by people who wanted the rights to The Rag Doll Plagues. I gave them a six-month option, which means that they would have to go out and find money and a director. The Brick People, The Rag Doll Plagues, and River of Angels are the ones that have attracted the most interest from filmmakers. But I think just about all of my books would make engaging films. In fact, a filmmaker considered The Brick People for a TV series. I am also all for Los Tigres del Norte to write corridos about my work.

MLL:   Maybe two or several characters?

AM:     Yes, maybe Dr. Revueltas and definitely La Ilusa would be subjects that would attract attention. I think there are plenty of characters in my novels whose stories would qualify for excellent movies .

II. Waiting to Happen

MLL:   Let’s talk about Waiting to Happen, to complement one of the chapters in the upcoming anthology about your work.

AM:     Sure!

MLL:   Your female characters are always controversial or outside the gender social norms, like J.I. Cruz in Waiting to Happen. We see her in a convent where Father Cristóbal speaks to her about how the environment–the streets, the people, those before her and those in her present time, are calling her and are also within her. She is absorbing all that surrounds her and she is called to act. Therefore, can we consider her as a symbol? Is she much more than hope for the poor and disenfranchised who see her as a powerful magical woman known as La Ilusa de las Grietas?

AM:     Well, as you know, J.I. Cruz is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I think, as we spoke about it earlier, that she is one of Mexico’s highly intelligent, powerful, and magical women. I think that Mexico has fallen in love with its magical formidable women. I have always liked this particular idea. I do not know if I came up with it. But, nonetheless, I claim that it is mine. Magical women appear from ancient times to the present. They are Coatlicue, Coyolxauhqui, La Llorona, Tonantzin- La Virgen de Guadalupe, Malintzín Tenépatl- La Malinche- Doña Marina, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Leona Vicario, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, La Soldadera, La Curandera, Doña María Sabinas, Josefina Bojórquez, Elena Poniatowska, Carmen Boullosa, Cristina Rivera-Garza, la Catrina, la Calaca, la Santa Muerte.

So, you have many influential women and also these magical women. But, this woman, J.I. Cruz, represents the struggle of women in Mexico, the extremes they have to endure to survive. First of all, she comes from a very wealthy family. Her parents send her to Harvard and Princeton where she studies Latin American culture and learns about the ilusas in Mexico, who in the 17th century practice religious rapture and pray to the Virgen for help, some even speak in tongues and experience the stigmata. They are accused of being possessed and are condemned by the Spanish Inquisition, then thrown out into the streets. The Church also finds J.I. Cruz a threat to their power and control over the faithful and, at first, do not want to deal with her. She becomes a political figure and endangers her family because of her views on the injustice in Mexican society. As she finds herself in the streets, in order to survive, she performs the rituals of an ilusa and slowly garners a following of the very poor and desperate, who begin to care for and protect her. Her name, La Ilusa de las Grietas, comes from the fact that in Mexico City the very poor live in between walls, or grietas. Take Amecameca, for example. There is a big Sacromonte where people have, literally, dug up family mausoleums and taken out the remains so they could live in them. J.I. Cruz represents the struggle of what Mexican women have to endure, by performing these ilusa practices and miracles as well. It has been said by critics that, if Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had had a following, she would have been a powerful woman within the Church as well as in society in general. Her persona is a palimpsest of meanings. Her identity, at one level, is that of the ilusa; on another, she represents most Mexican wealthy families. Her father’s investments in maquiladoras on the border make the family millions of dollars. Where is she born? In the United States. When her mother is near her due date, they travel to Hollywood to spend time with her father’s financial partners in his maquiladora parks in Tijuana. As they drive, a heavy fog comes in forcing them off the freeway at the same time that her mother begins her labor pains. They drive into a ranch to find assistance. Several men, mexicano workers on the Irvine Ranch, approach them to offer help and, when they realize the situation, they take them to one of their homes where the women help with the birth of J.I. Cruz who, by serendipity, becomes a U.S. citizen. Her parents are part of the wealthy rich, many of whom send their kids to study in the United States. They go to great schools- Yale, Berkeley, or they send them to England. In J.I. Cruz’s case, her father sends her to Harvard and also to Princeton for graduate work. She is an economist. She is a brilliant woman. That is what gives her the power to say “I can be and do whatever I want.” When she turns around to become a street person and uses the ideas and techniques of an ilusa, she begins to get a big following and becomes a political target and has to leave Mexico City. The Church gets her out. J.I. Cruz goes through the liberation that Chicana artists have done with La Virgen de Guadalupe. They free La Virgen by presenting her breaking the wall and running a big race, or sitting and sewing, or the very famous Virgen, sitting in a bikini of flores, of roses. J.I. Cruz somewhat represents that liberation. In this case, it is the liberation of Mexican women to the point of the extreme, almost the absurd. Maybe that is the Baroque element in the text–represented in the structure and all these different scenes. But the Baroque is also political. The Baroque Movement, from the Golden Age of Spain to the Postcolonial Neo-Baroque expressed by Chicano/Latino artists, is a political statement as well.

MLL:   There is something in this novel that I find not only interesting but also essential: The chronicles by journalist Cassandra Arenal Coe. They serve as reference to Mexican journalist Manuel Buendía. Could you tell us about your characterization of journalism, or journalists, or any other similar figures? Do you want to portray them not as martyrs, but, rather, as important figures in history because of their voice?

AM:     Yes, journalists are definitely important figures in history. Journalists have always been a target in Mexico, especially if they write against the status quo. La ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the Spanish Basque separatist group has murdered journalists and other figures that criticize their tactics. For example, in the university of Vitoria, they murdered a politician by bombing his car. They also assassinated a prominent journalist in front of his home. He had been followed for days. The assassin shot him as he opened his front door. Journalists are targets, not only in Spain, but also in Mexico and other countries like Ireland. Another example is the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist from the Washington Post.

MLL:   You also spoke of women as, what I would call, “agents of change”­– la ilusa J.I. Cruz, in this case. Also, when you write about the anti-drug campaign in this novel, Waiting to Happen, you include Salinas de Gortari in Mexico and Bush in the United States, to tell a different story behind all of that. What inspired the idea of rewriting the history of the anti-drug campaign to include women as essential for a much-needed change?

AM:     Well, are you saying that J.I. was an agent?

MLL:   I say that she stands out as an agent of change at the end of the novel, because of what you said of women as agents of change.

AM:    Right. Well, I see women as agents of change. I do. But I will tell you also that they can be more powerful, and they are doing it now in the United States. I was in Holland where I went to a place called Thorn. There is a small cathedral where there was, at one time, in the 1700s, a very powerful women’s federation. It was called the Women’s Sovereign Federation of Thorn (WSFT). It was run by an abbess who educated women from throughout Europe. Wealthy families sent their daughters to Thorn to be educated by the abbess. Eventually, the WSFT became a powerful and rich group of women that owned large parcels of land and were able to retain their independence from the Church and influential families that lived around them for eight-hundred years. The abbess resisted being dominated by Rome and educated these women in that way, as rebels. Now, J.I. Cruz has an attitude of strength and independence that guides her life. The WSFT also inspired another story of mine called “Little Nation,” (Pequeña nación). Its protagonist, Micaela, like the abbess, becomes a formidable leader who organizes the women of the barrio to fight against violence and abuse of local gangs. Micaela is a teacher who forms La Federación de las Mujeres de las Tijeras. What does she do? She organizes women to gather and confront the gangs. The story starts with her talking to gang members who raped a young girl. When there is a gang incident, she calls out hundreds of women to surround the gang members and embrace them. They smother them with love. Many times, they strip them con tijeras. That is why they are called La Federación de las Mujeres de las Tijeras. There is another scene in the story in which the police come up and want to raid their home because the women have also taken away the gangs’ weapons. The women created a huge arsenal. These women communicate with each other with computers. So, the police come and what do the women do? Same thing, at a flash rate all these women come and surround the police, smother them, take away their guns and scissor them of their uniforms, leaving them with their shoes and in their underwear. They take guns out of the police cars. Finally, they send the police back to their station walking. This is an example of women organizing and taking back their communities. Today, women are gathering by the thousands. I even think that, if things do not change, because of all that has happened so far, women are going to express themselves physically in the way the women of the WSFT in the 18th century did and the women of La Federación de las Mujeres de las Tijeras.

MLL:   So, are there more than one J.I. Cruz in different places?

AM:     Yes, there are. They are women of the present and of the future .

III. The world, present and future

MLL:   Let’s take that as reference for a couple of questions that are key to what you are saying just now. The world, present and future. Your historical novels lead readers to try to understand and examine the present. For instance, when reading about injustices committed against indigenous women in Waiting to Happen, the reader can think of feminicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and in other places around the world. There are some novels and other books written about this topic. But, do you feel many more novels would be written if these feminicides were happening in places like Los Angeles or New York, instead of these “Other” places? What would you say would bring more attention to this urgent situation of women around the globe?

AM:     Ah! Women around the globe! Let me respond. I know there is at least one novel about this topic, by Alicia Gaspar de Alba. She wrote Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders about Juárez, Mexico. This question truly gets me to think of whether or not, in the United States, violence, mass shootings that we have here, for example, violence of different kinds, inspire artists to do something, or writers to write about them. Well, I do not know if it does. Maybe because we have become so used to these terrible things that are going on that people do not respond to them. The public experiences a daily fear and expects this kind of violence to occur. It has become a kind of gruesome entertainment, a social spectacle that we live with every single day and night. The majority of the local news usually begins with a litany of murders of the day, hit and run incidents, drive-by shootings, police pursuits, beatings, desecration of holy places, domestic violence, and drug overdoses. These incidents have inspired films based on the violence in our lives and our country. All of this crime is a kind of diversion that is needed because guns, drugs, poverty, and prisons­, all sources of crime, represent billions and billions of dollars for our economy. Maybe you are right. Maybe more books should be written about that. Many newspaper articles deal with the subject. Then, I would ask you “the mass shootings in schools, in Las Vegas, where fifty people were shot, why did these not inspire a play, a novel, or a movie?” Maybe they will. I am not sure the novel, as an art form, would help stop the violence. Yet, I believe one of the values of literature is therapy.

MLL:   Yes, it is, and it lets readers know and learn about massacres and other historical events that continue to happen. It brings awareness. Not everyone is aware of the women of Juárez, even after thirty or more years.

AM:     Yes. How do you make people aware of that? You are right. You would have to come up with, either, films or more accurate reporting in social media, leading to public participation, especially to vote. And the current attitude from the White House toward Mexico is very negative. Still, a lot of people would not be necessarily aware of that or even want to know about it. The stereotypes of the border continue to hold. People look at the border and say “oh, that is nothing but narcotics and prostitution, etc.” Although they do not realize that Tijuana, for example, has changed tremendously .

MLL:   You mentioned changes in the current climate in the United States. What do you feel is the biggest change needed now the United States, Mexico, and even the rest of the world?

AM:     Gee! That is a tough question for me to answer.

MLL:   In other words, what changes would you like to see? Let’s begin with the United States.

AM:     One of the things I would like to see changed is the United States erroneous attitude towards Mexico. Mexico should be considered our universal partner for now and the future. Believe it or not, George W. Bush, Jr. tried to set an all-inclusive pact with Canada, United States and Mexico. George W. Bush, Vicente Fox, and Paul Martin put together a pact, “The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America.” They met several times to talk about a unification, a triple alliance between Canada, Mexico, and the United States that covered just about everything­– the environment, finances, trade, transnational transportation, protection, diseases, just about everything. It was a comprehensive plan that included railroads and corridors that would go from Mexico City up to New York, Chicago, and Montreal. George Bush lived in the border state of Texas, a different kind of border, and he had an open attitude toward Mexico. He attempted to build The Wall on the border with Mexico. He signed the Security Fence Act to spend millions and millions of dollars to build a solid and virtual wall. That failed miserably. There is a documentary called “The Wall” that offers more information. To progress with Mexico, we are going to have to change our attitude and see them as a partner .

I would like to see Mexico progress in technology, economy, politics, and its judicial system, to make it more ethical and efficient and get away from the “guilty until proven innocent” practice. I hope that the standard of living and the educational level continues to improve in Mexico. Mexico and the United States both complain about the cartels. Consequently, both countries must deal with corruption. In Mexico, corruption is called “corrupción.” In the United States, corruption is called “negotiation.” “Corruption” and “negotiation” have infiltrated the government, law enforcement, and the military of both countries. Moreover, the United States must recognize that we are the Mexican cartels’ biggest market. In addition, the United States must establish an effective rehabilitation program that treats drug addiction as a disease. 

I would like to add that, as a Chicano, Mexican, a person of color and American writer, I feel threatened by the ugly calculated, systematic racist language and actions of white nationalist, white supremacist, racist leaders who have directed physical and psychological attacks aimed specifically at Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans and collectively targeted all people of color, undocumented, the properly documented and even those who are citizens. POTUS who initiated this attack wants to expel us all from the United States. Yet his profound ignorance and intense racist hatred blinds him to the fact that the majority of Latinos in the United States are citizens.

MLL:   Let’s talk about your exciting projects. Is there one that you have not mentioned? For example, poetry, what is your next project in poetry?

AM:     Well, I have written quite a few poems, some of them are included in my novels, as you already know. River of Angels has poems. Waiting to Happen has several poems also, and Little Nation as well. My recent book that is ready to go to the press has a lot of poems. I have a friend who is an excellent poet, Thelma Reyna. I showed her some of my poems and she suggested to make a collection to publish. In addition, I have been working with Carol Penn, who has edited all of my recently published novels. They are excellent editors and researchers. But, as I was saying about my poetry and about Thelma, I met her at the Huntington Library because I am a reader there. It is a great privilege to be a reader at the Huntington Library. Thelma looked at some of my poems and said that I have enough for three collections of poetry. We came to an agreement and started work on my first publication of poetry.

I have been inspired by poets like Ray González. I use his books in my courses. I use Lucha Corpi’s Palabras de mediodía and I teach it as an autobiography because that is what it is. I really enjoy reading Sandra Cisneros’ poems, especially those in her collection Loose Woman, which is always a big hit with the students. I continue to write poems. I have many written in long hand in notebooks. To be honest, writing poems is truly a challenging task. What I say in a narrative paragraph, or even a page of a novel, a poet can probably say in five or ten verses. Poetry is more difficult than writing short stories or novels; from one stanza, I can imagine two or three pages, or even an entire scene, in a novel.

MLL:   You do mention a lot of women writers and female figures, which I find refreshing from a male author. I see many of your strong characters are also female, for example, Revueltas in Reto en el paraíso, J.I. Cruz in Waiting to Happen, Micaela in Little Nation, Louise Keller Rivers in River of Angels, and Doña Eulalia Pérez de Guillén in The Brick People. They are influential women that go beyond the text. Can you, please, comment on your perspective or view about the female characters? Will we see that in your poetry as well?

AM:     Yes, I think you will see powerful women in my poetry. As you know, my mother was obviously influential in my life. The worst thing I could do when I was a kid was to hurt my mom. I would get pissed off at my dad, but hurt my mom I would never do. She was very much an influence. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. I have a sister who was about seven years older than I am. You would see her walking me around. So, women have always been very much a part of my life. I think women are remarkable. I have found them in different places, in Thorn, a litany of powerful women in Mexico, and in the places that I have visited. One last thing about my poetry book, there are women that are like my mom, and others as victims. I have written a long poem titled “La jinetera.” The poem takes place in Cuba. Its main character is Marta, a young woman who is “La jinetera.” I hope the reader sees Marta as a historical metaphor for Cuba. I have been to Cuba several times, and the last two times I went there, I became aware of a prostitution called “Club Med prostitution” that is now occurring in Cuba. I stayed at the Hotel Nacional, a place I have always liked. There, I saw men, probably in their fifties or sixties with very young women in their twenties or thirties. These women are jineteras. Through my two-week stay I began to write a poem about Marta and her life as a jinetera. But as I wrote I began to have a deep sense that I was writing about Cuba. I have finished the poem, but I still want to edit more and then pass it on to some of my Cuban friends to see how they react.

You will recognize many different kinds of women characters in my novels, stories and poetry. There are female characters that haunt me and still, to this day, they pursue me. In my poem “The House in Old Greenwich” I write about a woman who is a spirit, some would say a ghost, others a witch or a woman with magical powers. It started on one of my walks to town. I enjoyed roaming by the beautiful homes in the sections of Old Greenwich. There was one house built at the turn of the century that I walked by every morning. I can’t explain why but, when I approached the house, I slowed down to look into the dining room, and I always would see a figure sitting at the table. I studied the figure and became convinced that it was a woman. Usually when I returned, she was no longer there. There were occasions when she was, but her head was down as if she was reading. I asked my hosts, Pat and Bruno, if there was a woman living in the house. They replied: “Well, there was a woman, but she died a while back.” The house had been abandoned now for many years. I always wanted to go up to the door and knock, but I was always afraid. However, I felt destined that before the poem ends in a kind of Cortázar ending, I would walk up the stone path and knock on the door… when the door opens… it is me who says “hello”!

MLL:   What do you think about ending with this anecdote?

AM:   I think that would be wonderful. Yes, let the magic go on.

MLL:   Thank you very much


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