Yerba Mala: Todos los gatos/ Hugo Esteban Rodríguez

I belong to a particular writing community on Facebook. One thing I like about it is that it is a group for writers versus a group about writing. The difference is substantial: In a group about writing, I could not link to an article about a medical breakthrough concerning cloning, because it wouldn’t necessarily be writing related. In a group for writers, the content of that article could be great story fodder for someone.

What happens, then, when someone posts a link to something political? There is a chorus of voices asking why it’s writing related, or saying things like, “Well, I’m not political.”

I think it’s a copout.

I don’t think there should be a separation of being political and being a writer, because the political is real, and writing is a political act.

Before I get into that, I have to tell you that even if you remove what might seem “political”, I still live in the real world and I get my inspiration from the real world. I could show you the bars and clubs and the bedroom featured in This nocturne of misplaced questions and A two-stepping guide for cowards. My magical realism blooms from places as mundane as the Whataburger on Ruben M. Torres/FM 802 in Brownsville, Texas, or somewhere inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s arrival gates. Even my genre stories come from unfiltered reality. I’m far, far, from the only one. If you dig under the surface of the best science fiction or fantasy, even there you’ll find a bedrock of reality. Great literature is more than mere escapism, it’s a mirror, as warped as it may be, and it shows us varying reflections of ourselves.

Some writers may believe that they can create from some sterile place of neutrality, uninfluenced by the real places, real people, real conflicts that have molded them. But that’s bullshit. We become the writers we are, the humans we are, by a process of consumption and growth that is anything but neutral.

I’ll go ahead and say it: We are living in a time that for many Americans, maybe most Americans, is a new era of uncertainty and unpleasantness. Post-election, I’ve been reminded of how things were right after the events of September 11, 2001, that dread-air of paranoia and fear where we couldn’t immediately process that we had just experienced the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

But once the dust settled, we knew who had done it. We had identified the outside threat and were able to go “them’s the bad guys” and head on overseas. Now? Sure, we’d love to place the blame at the feet of the Russian government but that feels almost…empty to me. Can we blame the Russians for Eric Garner or Philando Castile being murdered and the prosecution in those cases failing to find their killers guilty? Can we blame the Russians for the surge in tone policing and “all lives matter” nonsense whenever PoC became rightfully angry? They’re not the ones that fed the fear of the other that drove so many away, and so many to the polls.

I’m a late 80s kid. I grew up watching dubs of the finest anti-Soviet propaganda that Sylvester Stallone and the like could bring to the small screen. Today, the Russian mask was one of many masks the fear wore throughout 2016 and a lot of those masks were reflective.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us” as the Pogo comic strip would say.

I have to emphasize that terrorism is still a very clear danger in our lives, whether it’s external or internal, but right now it feels that in addition to that fear, there’s a specter of “the other” haunting us in a more immediate way. Who is other? Who is my enemy? Maybe it was easier when we were sending troops to the Middle East and the idea of the bad guy was clear in the eyes of many. We sent them, slapped on that bumper sticker, and tied the yellow ribbon outside.

But it’s not as clear-cut now.

San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich (the greatest coach in the history of the NBA, in this man’s opinion) said it best not too long ago: “I feel like there’s a cloud, a pall, over the whole country, in a paranoid surreal sort of way.”

Paranoid. Surreal.

When it’s in every breath we take, writers can’t escape the notion of being political. Like many Americans, I’m at the point where I can’t tell if a headline is from The Onion or other parody outlets, or from a genuine news source.

Pop’s right; it is surreal.

I once stuck to the “don’t talk politics or religion” dictum, professionally and academically.   While I might have confided in or debated with friends, but with colleagues and acquaintances I kept to talking about things like sports, books, food, music, and video games.

But I find myself realizing more often, that there are multiple layers to even these things. I find myself more often operating with the understanding that there is real shit to confront even in the things we consider trivial, real shit hiding behind that surface level of escapism.

I see the San Antonio Spurs and I am attached to the Big 3, three men who aren’t just the winningest trio in NBA history, and first-ballot hall of famers to boot, but three immigrants. Tim Duncan, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Tony Parker from France, and Manu Ginobili from Argentina. I look to the NFL and I see a 29-year-old quarterback with decent numbers find himself completely unemployable while at least 20 other free agents of his position have inked deals. Quarterbacks who are either backups or third-stringers and who you wouldn’t even pick up for shits and giggles in fantasy leagues have jobs and Colin Kaepernick doesn’t. The guy who was sacked by his own teammates’ ass for a fumble that was immediately recovered for a touchdown has a job and Colin Kaepernick doesn’t.

I look at it with a critical eye and I can’t help but wonder if the outrage would have been there if it had happened the year the 49ers made the Super Bowl run? Or the year before and after, when they made their NFC Championship Game appearance? Would the outrage have been so scathing if it had been Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning who took the knee?

Escapism, meet politics.

I’m a big fan of both the Marvel and DC universes. I love games like Mass Effect, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy X. Like many others, I’m asking: “What about representation of diversity?” I could go into so much detail about the lack thereof in film, but one example among many: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther will be the eighteenth MCU film and Captain Marvel will be number twenty-one. Even if we remove the ensemble movies (Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) from the discussion, that makes thirteen movies in the cinematic universe where a white male is the lead before Chadwick Boseman comes around, followed by Evangeline Lily (as The Wasp in Ant-man and the Wasp) and Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. The MCU started in 2008 with the release of Iron Man and it’s going to be 2018 before we see a person of color as a lead in a MCU film.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of the MCU. When The Avengers (2012) came out, I probably saw it 3-4 times in the theatres. The reason why is because when I was a kid, one of my fondest memories is of playing Captain America and The Avengers on the Super Nintendo with my cousin. So seeing those heroes on the big screen for the first time was an amazing experience. But as a fan, I should still be able to look at the things I like critically. Hell yeah I loved that universe, but as a Latino man, I can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore the fact that the heroes I love don’t look like me.

As a Latino author, I have to ask why we are having writing conferences in Texas with few, if any, Latino writers as panelists. Maybe in a state like Vermont or Maine, where the Latino population is under 3%, I’d be more willing to accept it. But when my home state of Texas has a 38.6% Latino population, it’s ridiculous that you can’t find a single Latinx writer.

But if I talk about this, I’m being political, and if I’m being political then the response is awkward smiles and uncomfortable silences. Why? I can’t change the color of my skin and I don’t want to. I’m going to approach the things I am passionate about with precisely that: passion, and I am going to speak to my brown-skinned truth.

Several years back, I was dog-and-apartment-sitting for a friend while he was out of town. He lived in a pretty good area in the center of Houston. His dogs were these two chunky sister lab-pit mixes. They  were the sweetest old doggos, their farts more powerful than their bite.

The dogs had small bladders and would have to be taken out for a walk about once every four hours. The second night (or rather, early in the third morning) around 3 A.M., the dogs started whining. I put on a hoodie, clipped them to their collars, and escorted them out to the area outside the apartment so they could do their thing. For a minute or two, I was a little bit apprehensive: I didn’t know the area, didn’t know what might happen. I might get mugged or…

Then I stopped. And started laughing.

3 a.m. on a weekend night. I had two large, black, pitbull-bodied dogs on a leash. My sleepless, unshaven face was partly obscured by the hoodie, and the visible parts were mean-mugging the world at large because I was tired, cold, and miserable. I had on the Mexican equivalent of a resting bitch face. Resting cabrón face.

Who the fuck was going to come near me?

It was funny then. It’s not so funny now, only six years later.

Not after Trayvon Martin. Not after Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, a list that’s way too long.

De noche todos los gatos son pardos. All cats are brown at night.

Again: Who is the other? Who is the enemy?

Just the other day, I was riding with my fiancée and we honked at a guy who was swerving in and out of the lane on an exit ramp. He started yelling at me, and I (very stupidly, because this is Texas and a good assumption to have is that everyone is armed) rolled down the window. Our heated exchange was punctuated with his screaming that I should go back to my country. Excuse me?

He shouted again: Go back to your country!

Screw him. This is my country. I may be an immigrant, but I’m as much of a citizen as anyone who can trace their lineage to the Mayflower Compact.

A lot of writers want to cultivate the delusion of neutrality. I cannot do that. I cannot deny, I refuse to deny, my own name, who I am.

And I’m going to refuse to deny the problems and challenges that are there: Facts like the millions of Americans at grave risk because of a lack of proper medical insurance or because with whatever insurance they do have they’re always one sickness away from bankruptcy. Facts like there are school districts doing their best to bleed Brown v. Board of Education to death. Facts like our society punishes women for speaking up and for not speaking up, the same society where allegedly-freedom-loving American citizens push through legislation meant to target someone because of how they handle their own health, what they look like, what’s between their legs, or who they want to sleep with.

But one thing’s for certain: I refuse to comply. I refuse to give in. I’m going to keep doing my thing.

“Well, I’m not political,” some writers will say. “None of that affects me.”

If these facts of our reality aren’t affecting you, that’s not neutrality. That’s complicity.

 

6

Hugo Esteban Rodriguez, Rabble’s Latinx Features Editor, is a Mexican-American writer, poet, essayist, and blogger living and working in Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The title of Hugo’s column, Yerba Mala, comes from the adage Yerba mala nunca muere, bad weeds never die.

 

 

 

 

 

Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.

 

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