Love on the D Train

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When I was 19, my girlfriend, Shirley, lived on Tiebout Ave, near 183rd and the Grand Concourse in the north Bronx. We spent so much time on the D Train that eventually we came to regard it as a sort of extension of Shirley’s living room. Lurching our way south toward Manhattan or to the deep south of distant Brooklyn, we spread out comfortably (if we were north of 125th St., when seating was roomy), eating Popeye’s chicken and playing cards.


Meanwhile, our huge platform shoes glittered like skyscrapers.

Essentially,  we were proud of ourselves for being smart enough to be young and beautiful in the right place at the right time – and wearing the right shoes.



We had no idea that an afternoon at Coney Island, eating junk food on the boardwalk and taking off our gigantic shoes to wade in the dirty surf wasn’t everyone’s idea of great good fortune. We didn’t realize that our huge shabby beachfront was actually a slum.



Yes, it was rundown, but its dimensions remained glorious and, for us at least, gleamed with adventure and a kind of abundance. Even the scale of its decay was impressive, although I think the miles of South Bronx rubble we regularly passed through had enabled us to sort of look through decay.



At any rate, seagulls still circled in the bright sky, the air still smelled of salt, waves rolled in and ships passed on the horizon. People did spread blankets on the sand and win stuffed animals for their kids in the shooting galleries.


Above all, people ate. A lot. But nobody ever loved Coney Island food, or ate as much of it, as my girl Shirl and I.




In much the same way, we thought everyone would wander the north Bronx’s Concourse if they possibly could, checking out the stacks of cheap and desireable stuff piled high on the sidewalk and eating huge mounds of greasy noodles.


Shirley and I turned heads in a city that wasn’t inclined to turn its head for anyone: women, men, teenagers – suddenly, it seemed that the whole world wanted to dance with us.



This adolescent thinking may well have been a case of arrested development, but it turned out to be a good thing, since actually neither Shirley nor I was at all certain that we even belonged in the world. We tried to act stuck up, but we could never pull it off. Actually, we were immediately delighted to be almost anybody’s friend.

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Looking back, I think of us fondly as Life’s Cheap Date





 If I hadn’t  dropped by Eeuzicasa‘s  blog today, I would, of course, never have known that today is Bunker Hill Day – and neither would you. I suppose that’s one reason George B. posted it.  More often than not, his bounty of information turns out to be something you didn’t know you might want to know.  I ended up writing a long comment, some of which is incorporated into this post. I figured I’d taken up more space than was polite – plus, I couldn’t figure out how to add photos to his blog (joke, hardy har). He was extremely hospitable, and suggested that I expand my comment into a post. And here it is.

Thanks, George!

How well I remember lounging around the Bunker Hill statue/memorial  (after I had worn out the statue on the Cambridge Common) when I was a kid – the trip to the tougher neighborhood of Charlestown was enough to qualify as something of an adventure, which is an indicator of how bored we were.

We had absolutely no appreciation of the monument’s  significance. When tourists came to look at it, we just couldn’t believe the license plates. But we were absolutely certain of one thing: if we ever had cars and vacations and choices, no force on earth could compel us to travel 800 miles to look at some stupid piece of rock. If nothing else proved that adults had no sense of direction, this national trek to a hulking hunk of rock in the unsentimental working-class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown settled the question.
Years later, as an American history major in San Francisco, I thought of Paul Revere’s house.

Yep. Three thousand miles away.



I thought keenly of the (Old North?) church (above), Longfellow’s house, sitting big and yellow right there in Harvard Square, the 17th century cemetery with the bent iron railings, Old Iron Sides, the Lexington Green, the Transcendentalist Alcott community called Fruitlands, Walden Pond –

and was furiously gripped by the sheer idiocy of the modern child.

I had ignored all of them, except for Walden Pond, a fairly sizeable lake that I leaped into on hot summer afternoons when we were able to hijack a relative with a car. I had not set foot into Harvard’s exquisite free museums – I had only gotten stuck (several times) and hauled down from the lap of the huge statue of John Harvard. Also, kicked out of the music department for sneaking in with my friends to bang out Chopsticks on the practice pianos.



Years later, as I made arrangements to move from San Francisco to the Midwest, I had a moment of perspective – and spent my last month riding cable cars, at Fisherman’s Wharf, in Little Italy, Chinatown, and North Beach (no beatniks had been seen there for to decades. I rode the ferry across the Bay and ate at the Cliff House. I did everything the tourists did – it was the first time for all of us, only I had been right there for 12 years.


But I eventually learned the power of place. I had moved not 20 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Without stopping to unpack, I drove straight to the crumbling town of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) Illinois. It had once been the pride of the Mississippi. My jaw dropped as I drove through town. I didn’t know I was in the northernmost Mississippi Delta. I didn’t know that I had arrived in the region that would teach me more about this nation than Boston, New York, and San Francisco combined. I had no idea that the poorest people in rural America lived here, or that the fragile shacks I passed were homes. I hadn’t yet heard the people speak, in  voices  that I still hear in my dreams,  a cadence that both sooths and pierces  the heart, and echos the mountains of Kentucky.


Main Street, Cairo, Illinois

I climbed a modest observation tower, took one look, and lost my breath.
Boy, was that something to see. Yet most people never see it, because almost no one goes to Cairo, anymore.

I was standing at the tip of the triangle in the upper part of the photo below, on the southernmost tip of Illinois. That tip is almost eight hours from Chicago, and is essentially another country. To the right is the Ohio River, and the land on its eastern (right) bank is the northwesternmost border of Kentucky.  The Mississippi River flows in on the left. It’s western shore is Missouri’s eastern border. Just past the bottom of the photo lies the top of  Missouri’s Bootheel , which extends further south than a good chunk of Arkansas.



When I got to my little apartment, paid for by a graduate fellowship, along with tuition and a stipend, I looked around and finally really knew what privilege was. I returned over and over to that old place where the upper South blends into the lower Midwest, but I always came back to another world, one that paid me to just learn. In the end, though, the people of the Delta were the road I chose. The stories they told me turned me into a  journalist, rather than a professor of history.
By the time I left graduate school five years later, the two great rivers located me like a compass. They still do, and they always will.



That summer, I visited Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, Old Ironsides (don’t refer to them as ‘old – don’t refer to anything as old – to a European. They are unable to hide their amusement), Louisa May Alcott’s home, Fruitlands, and other colonial  structures that have meaning for many Americans. I was more interested in the material culture of working-class people – I had, after all, been to graduate school, recently survived the excruciating, prolonged ordeal of getting admitted to doctoral candidacy and was still feeling my oats. I’m over it now – but I derived a settled feeling from my patriotic tour. It’s not that I’m a patriot. I’m markedly fickle when it comes to the entire concept of nationalism. I just like to know where I am.

True, Boston was no Cairo, Illinoi. But I had come to love the whole American landscape. I had come to see the people whose anonymous lives had been documented after all, left written for those who knew where to look. It was there in what they had laid their hands on, in how they had created beauty, in the songs they sang and in the way they buried their dead.  I knew that America had another story made up of all the unimportant people who had struggled to understand what home meant in this land.

That’s as close as I’ll ever come to being a patriot.


One if by land and two if by sea

Oh, and I dropped in on the Bunker Hill Monument. You know, it’s really quite interesting.

THE LAND TELLS WHO WE ARE: Conquest, Identity and Place in the San Luis Valley

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There are some American places where  history overlaps and  becomes so condensed,  so close and nearly visible,  that each layer is almost like its own separate lens

Lorraine Gomez grew up in such a place

Colorado’s San Luis Valley is  the world’s highest alpine basin, and one of its oldest, created by the great river that formed it thousands of years ago in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Valley follows the Rio Grande south to New Mexico, where the river tumbles over the border  and the two join the Camino Real in its long journey to Mexico City.


Lorraine Gomez / Claire O’Brien 2013

Gomez’s connection to the  120-by-75 mile valley stretches  back to the Spanish farmers who settled the land before the Mexican Revolution. The communities they established have retained a strong and continuous Hispanic identity for generations (the term “Hispanic” refers specifically to Spanish-Americans in this region.)

Gomez is so deeply rooted in this valley that it defines the heart of her own  identity as well,  remaining her central reference point, regardless of whether or not she happens to be living there.

“It’s like a compass that’s a part of me,”  she said. ” And that actually allows me to go further and stay away longer –  I don’t even get homesick because in a way, I’m always there.”


 Gomez has a lot of company. Everyone in the San Luis Valley appears to have that compass. The air is thick with competing claims of ownership, legitimacy, and the contradictions of  history. Ancestors are a defining issue in  this  region where identity is intertwined with land and ethnicity, and people locate themselves in terms of centuries.

They settled at different times, founded  segregated towns with separate, often tiny schools located within just a few miles of one another, and told their own histories, allowing several versions to co-exist simultaneously.  The large land holders are primarily Anglo, while most Hispanic landowners are small farmers, and very few Latinos (specifically, in the San Luis, Mexican-Americans, ) own any  land at all.  Several old Hispanic families are wealthy, but most struggle to keep their land.

However, Gomez was appalled, albeit politely, at the suggestion of open conflict.

“Oh no,” she said, “In most places that kind of rudeness would shame our families, but here it would shame our whole communities. We’re  not raised  like that – neither Hispanics nor Latinos.”


But things are changing in the San Luis Valley. According to Gomez, they’ve been changing for almost everyone for a while, but the momentum of a transformative discovery accelerated her personal journey faster than she had anticipated.  It was  a discovery that changed the way she looks at herself and the world.

“Even before my sister confided in me, many of my generation had started calling ourselves Latino,” Gomez said. “But finding out my full and true heritage – that changed more than my identity. It changed the San Luis Valley for me too,”

What she discovered was that her grandmother was a slave. An illegal, Indian slave, tribe unknown,  owned by an Anglo farmer in 1916.

Nothing has been the same for Gomez since.



Lorraine Gomez’s path began in the small town of La Jara, when it was still possible for a kid to make it to high school without knowing anyone who didn’t mirror himself.

“Of course hardly anyone did grow up like that. We were country kids. We had pick-up trucks. Very old pick-up trucks,” she laughed. “You drove through the Valley when I was growing up – I’m 44, so it was roughly 30 years ago when older teenagers began to let me ride along – and you’d come to a town where everyone was Anglo, and I mean everyone.  Then, five miles down the road, you came to a town where everyone was Hispanic, meaning no one else was allowed…then Anglo, then Hispanic, Anglo, Hispanic, all the way through. That’s the kind of message that speaks for itself.”


Spanish-American farming family/ Info unknown

Gomez added that the strongest messages she received were not often delivered verbally.

“It wasn’t something anyone sat kids down to tell us, just  what everyone grew up knowing: that it took everything we had, our tiny towns, small farms and churches combined with our history, to keep the Anglos …well, frankly, to defend ourselves from them.  Latinos didn’t have their own towns, they were rarely able to buy land, they rented mobile homes and small houses, and they worked for large farmers – mostly Anglo farmers, but some, a few, Hispanic farmers, ” said Gomez. “But this message wasn’t really about Latinos. It was much more about Anglos.  I mean we worked for the Anglos too. I picked lettuce for them starting when I was twelve years old, because my family had lost its small farm. We kept the old house we had inherited, and that was extremely important to us – I always knew that we had been here for well over three hundred years before the Anglos arrived.””



Gomez paused for a long moment before she added one more group. She is still unaccustomed to including its members, even as they become increasingly significant to her. When she was growing up, no one  had included  the small settlement of Utne Indians who had been allowed to remain in a southern portion of the valley when the rest of their Nation was forced to a reservation in Utah.

And when did the Ute arrive?

 The shortest period confirmed by Western scientists place the Ute in the San Luis Valley 3,000 years ago. The Ute’s own religious traditions date  their presence from the Creation.

“I can’t tell you why we never thought about them. The truth is,  I never gave any thought to the small reservation in the Valley,” said Gomez. “No one ever told me about them, I hardly ever even heard them mentioned that I can recall.”

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The last King and Queen of the Ute Nation before conquest/Photo info unknown

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Meanwhile, the Valley’s  Mexican-Americans (“Latino” has refered specifically to them since the mid- 1960s, according to Gomez), were descended from Mestizo ancestors who had accompanied the Spaniards  to present-day northern New Mexico.

Two and a half centuries later their descendents did not need directions home.

Most of the other Latinos who settled San Luis Valley  had roots in the surrounding region, generally. Their ancestors had not come from Mexico: Mexico had come to them.  They also were perfectly aware of their location.


The Great Sand Dunes. Some are as high as 750 feet, the highest in the world.

The Ute had fought long and hard to  prevent intrusion into the Valley, and weren’t fully conquered until near the turn of the 20th century, when Anglo settlers prevailed upon the federal government, which sent troops and constructed Fort Massachusetts.


Not all that long after their final defeat, a 17-year-old Hispanic ranch hand was working alone, miles away from his San Luis Valley home, fixing fences along the New Mexico/Oklahoma border in the summer of 1916.  Young Gomez came upon a 15-year-old Native American girl, also working alone. Word has it that she was herding sheep, although this isn’t certain. Over several months, the two teenagers had occasion to meet again and again, although they were periodically called back to their respective ranches, one in Oklahoma and the other in New Mexico.

The girl told the boy she was a slave, bought and paid for.

The two teenagers fell in love.


Determined, the young couple made arrangements to escape, and that’s what they did. One night they simply removed the boy’s fencing repair materials and tools from his wagon, hitched up his horse, climbed in, and drove away to the nearest train station. No one knows where that was. All Gomez knows is that her grandfather took his beloved to Denver and married her, then the two settled down in the town of his ancestors, La Jara, in the San Luis Valley.


Everything else remains a mystery. Gomez’s grandmother never revealed the name of her tribe, or the circumstances of her  enslavement. That her own tribe had sold her is essentially unthinkable, and in fact she never claimed that it had. Whatever happened was evidently too traumatic for her to discuss – and/or there could well have been political factors at play.

In any case, this is what Grandmother Gomez chose to share, and it is what her granddaughter chose to share with me. Lorraine is pursuing the issue slowly, carefully, and in her own time and way.

“In the end, I was a Latina before I found out about my grandmother, because my experience in the world, my language and my identity here in this place and in America – in the world, actually – makes me a Latina,” she said.

“A Latina is what I am.”


Utes Chief Severo and his family, 1899

Anarchism 101: Everyone shows up and the pancakes are not for sale

At home in this world with the Early Bird Cafe / CLAIRE O'BRIEN 2012


I met Robert Fisher and Karen Lewis last summer at a gas station in central New Mexico. A sheriff’s deputy had forbidden the travelers to hitch hike, while simultaneously ordering them to move on immediately.  Fisher and Lewis had just carried hefty knapsacks and sleeping bags across ten miles of searing  secondary asphalt. Worse,  they had done it without so much as even the paltry fifty percent shade quotient ordinarily provided at regular intervals by half-scale monuments to various Conquistadors. That’s a very long ten miles in our July desert.

Robert and Karen looked dehydrated, as well as more than a little alert to questions of quality control re. local law enforcement.

If not for the disgraceful gaps – referred to less kindly as chasms by more pedestrian perspectives  –  in my knowledge of  various significant American cultural trends , I would most likely have recognized Mr. Fisher. To many thousands of people across the nation and beyond,  Robert is the Rainbow Gathering Elder known more famously and simply as ” Early Bird Café.”

Although he grew up in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy,  Fisher has never been much of a city man. His community and his life are spread across America’s vast public wildernesss lands, where he spends most of his time feeding thouands of people and playing the drums.  In fact, he’s been making pancakes for Rainbow Gatherings across the nation for fifeen years.  The first thing he and Karen see when they arrive to set up the Café,  whether it’s autumn in the Great Smokey Mountains or summer  on an Arizona desert  plateau,  is a simple sign with a small rainbow and two words:

“Welcome Home”.

                   π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π π Φ π Φ  

Now,  the partners drooped under the weight of the New Mexico sun. Things had not been easy since the loss of their van and home, about two months previously,  gone almost before they knew it because they couldn’t pay towing charges. But  their feet were planted much too strongly on the earth for any sheriff’s deputy to budge. And their gaze had moved on to a landscape far beyond the scope of police vision before he had even finished speaking.

Clearly, there was a sense in which Fisher and Lewis were already home.

Still,  the Early Bird Cafe needed to get to an Arizona state forest for a regional gathering in time to get the restaurant organized. Lewis had other responsibilities awaiting her there,  and Robert starts serving his pancakes at 4 am. He feeds people until noon, and he’s never let anyone go hungry

He didn’t have any flour or eggs,  and yet seemed almost the slightest bit amused to clarify  that no, he didn’t know exactly how there was going to be enough to feed  a thousand people a day.  Just hearing about it reminded me to take my blood pressure medicine.  Fisher, on the other hand, could most accurately have been described as serene, while Lewis remarked that I would probably love deep breathing.

“It’s not really my job to think about myself and what I can’t do, ”  Fisher explained.  “We believe people are a lot better at thinking of one another.”

As far as pancakes go (at least!), he’s been absolutely right for fourteen years.

Everybody just needs to show up.


We piled their stuff into the back of my Crown Vic (it’s still got the spotlight and it accelerates like a rocket) and  zoomed  along a country highway to a very small town near a public campground, where Fisher and Lewis thought some Rainbow people would probably be spending the night.

Robert recalled a town that was so astonished and enthusiastic about the four thousand well-behaved, weird looking people who  had spent a week in the nearby state park  that “when we decided to return five years later,  they stocked the stores with stuff they’d  heard we ate,  like tofu,  dried beans, and soy milk. The first time they’d heard we were coming, they freaked out. But this time they strung a banner along Main Street:  ‘Welcome, Rainbow Gathering!’ ”

Lewis added, ” Most law enforcement leaves it to us to monitor ourselves because they know we’re experienced at handling really every kind of situation that might come up.  They also know we always leave the land better than we find it”

Robert looked out the window and chuckled to himself.  Maybe he was thinking of his kunga drum, packed carefully in it’s protective case,  and of a circle of drummers surrounding a huge  bonfire,  playing on and on under the Arizona stars. He’d leave the circle earlier than most, though, and get some good sleep.

He had a lot of pancakes to make. ♥


I learned it in New Mexico. Number 1: Crows brought light back to the world.


              Ξ R A I N B O W  C R O W Ξ

 Rainbow Crow©2013 by Gail Garber/


 Rainbow Crow was the most beautiful bird in the world with the most beautiful voice. Once upon a time, the world went dark and the animals were frightened. The great gods in the sky had stolen the light from the world! The animals wondered what to do to return the light and save their world. Rainbow Crow, who was strong and brave, volunteered to fly to the gods and ask that the light be returned.
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               FLYING  TO  HEAVEN
Rainbow Crow flew and flew, high into the sky. His muscles were weary but he kept on flying higher. Finally, when exhaustion threatened to overcome him, he arrived at the home of the Gods. With his beautiful song, he asked them to return the light. Perhaps because the Gods so enjoyed his enchanting song, they consented. The Gods gave Crow a burning torch to carry the light back to Earth.   Rainbow Crow departed for the long flight home.Crow flew and flew and, as he winged his way homeward, the smoke singed his iridescent feathers and made his beautiful voice harsh and raspy!
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There is still a rainbow.
Finally, he returned the light to the Earth. All the animals and they were happy. But Crow was very sad. He cried because his once beautiful feathers were now blackened and, instead of a rapturous song, he had only a croak for a voice. Today, if you look closely at the feathers of a crow or raven in just the right light, you can see all the colors of the rainbow reflected in them. The rainbow still exists!
Crows are among the smartest and most ingenious of all birds. Thus, long ago, they realized that in spite of what they had lost, their beauty nevertheless reigns supreme.  However, being by nature modest, they try not  brag.
Crows still talk about Rainbow Crow, but then again, they have something to say about nearly everything.

LOOKING AT AMERICA / través los ojos de jóvenes immigrantes


Originally published in Latina Lista at / text and photos by Claire O’Brien

Two very small girls waited for a 4th of July parade in a small Midwestern city a few years ago. The city’s economy is based upon a large, fluid workforce from throughout Central America – a majority of them Mexican – and an industry which has for decades been specifically recruiting workers who lack documentation. I can’t claim direct knowledge of current conditions, but I can report that in 2010, when I took these photos,  an unusally thuggish, even singular,  brand of racism permeated the culture of the city and surrounding region.

The two little girls stood like sentries, about halfway down the block from their family group, The expressions on those small faces immediately stunned me,  stopping  me in my tracks. Whatever they were focused on was most certainly not a parade. In fact, they were intently watching a couple of white families who were spread out on the wide sidewalk in front of them. The Anglos had essentially displaced the extended family of Latinos, a sure sign that the latter were recent arrivals: within six months or so, they would stand their ground.


The displacement had happened almost organically, without a word exchanged – and something very like it had probably already occured at least twice that day.

The  two girls hadn’t followed their family, although they had moved well back on the sidewalk, behind a large sign and were now standing about as close together as two people can stand. The adults glanced over at their children frequently, but did not summon them. Three or four passing children swooped around the  girls, bending to sweep up the wrapped candies that littered the ground.

The little girls maintained a gaze truly remarkable in both intensity and longevity…It seemed to me at that moment, as it does now,  that theirs were the eyes of generations of Latino people, US citizens or not, who have been watching America for two centuries. Their gaze reflected a dawning recognition of what they were not yet old enough to understand. It might very well have been an ancient memory, passed down to them from ancestors whose ghosts were likely to have been hanging about,  attracted by the prospect of a parade.




These people don’t behave themselves  like other people do

They haven’t learned their manners, and they let their kids be rude

They left their old Abuelo way back there in the street:

I hold my Abuelo’s hand,  and help him rest his feet.

Now look at el gigante boy – he’s yelling at his mother!

Hector gasps in shock at this ( He’s my middle brother.)

La Policia eat Papers here: they’re always wanting ours.
When my Papa has no more, they put him behind bars.
Maybe we could show them there are Papers at the store –
That way, when they’re hungry, they can go and get some more.
I used to pray we could go home; but now we need to stay.
Without us here, they’ll never learn the right way to behave!



                                                                       UntitledThese are the faces I see when I think of Iraq. And when I think of a nuclear attack on that ancient place that was once Mesoptamia, then Persia, then part of the Ottoman Empire (which welcomed the  Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition) I think of these faces, twisted in agony as they imagine their families being evaporated, or turned into virtual charcoal to die an agonizing death.
These men represent a very small community of Iraqis who blew a little breeze of joy into my days when I wrote for the Journal-Standard. I lived a block away from their little store, so I saw them every morning (coffee) and every night (whatever). They were interested, kind, generous, earnest, and full of news to share.  They believed in being cheerful, and in fact did seem to find something humorous in every situation – the word that comes to mind is ‘merry’.
After the newspaper’s higher-ups (not my great editor) killed follow-up coverage of the Iraqis, I was free to hang out and talk with them on a level more personal than a continued professional relationship would have permitted. Nevertheless, we all maintained a restraint that stopped short of friendship: I wanted the option of writing about them to remain open, should it become a possibility. And they, of course, had numerous reasons to limit anything they said to an American – or any other – reporter.
That left us plenty of room. They were genuinely emotionally expressive – all of them – and in a manner that clearly showed this to be cultural. The men would reminisce about their mothers and cry freely; they also  spoke unself-consciously of broken hearts, that is, “hearts broken by grief’. Since I come from a family that rejects broken hearts as strategic hyperbole, I recognized a rare opportunity to tell a broken heart story of my own.
They listened respectfully, nodded soberly, and reiterated that a broken heart is an unbearable experience.
The Iraqi men of Freeport immediately recognized the racism directed against the African-Americans who comprised the neighborhood,  and were quick to express their allegiance. They didn’t win the good will of the Black community overnight. They persevered.
Years later, when I arrived and asked to hear that story, the Iraqis told me, over and over, how much people need to feel respected. THIS is something the Iraqii people – and all Arabic, Mideastern peoples – evidently don’t have to be taught.
Could it be that there are some clues here? I wonder what there is about being:
A)   Black in southside Chicago,
B) Arabic in the Mid East
that drives people
C) right over the cliff  –
When the same two factors of:
are introduced

“May it be erased from the earth before foreigners imagine it”: unbearable loss in Java


This is a story about a young man, his grandfather, the very small house he lost, and the unbearable hole this loss left in the universe.

Acep Aprilyana  is a young Indonesian writer from West Java, living far from home in Nunukan, an island town near the Malaysian border. He recently left Burma, where he had found temporary work in a jungle plantation. Thousands of people have arrived in Nunukan looking for work over the past several years.

Like millions and millions of other people,  Mr. Aprilyana lives in a country that was çreated when a European nation forcibly occupied a region of the world and drew lines on a map to create a colony.

Acep is Electrica in the Desert’s oldest supporter life’s greatest heart, and justice’s favorite brother.

Many readers are already familiar with Acep’s work, both because he has allowed me to feature it several times, and because his own blog, Sundanese in Actions, has plenty of  fans.



Acep Aprilyana is the last member of a family whose roots in Indonesia had extended beyond human memory far before it was brutally occupied by the Dutch over 400 years ago

Like most Sundanese people, Acep is from Java, whose people dated their origins  back to the Creation centuries before establishing a Muslim culture in the 1400s. The village Acep describes below is practically as much a part of its small, steep mountain as are the narrow stairways, roads, and rice terraces carved into the face of the rock by his ancestors – about as far back as most human conceptions of time retain coherence.


Although presented as fiction,  what follows is the first part of an essay-length autobiographical account of the small village of traditional rice farmers in which Acep was raised by his grandfather. The  narrative is infused with a particular significance by its time frame: the childhood he describes appears practically ancient – until one recalls with a jolt that Acep did not achieve full majority until 2006 !*

Fer 400 years, it has been attacked in every way a culture can be attacked, enduring every  imaginable form of rupture.

But what it preserved throughout those centuries, to pass down to Acep in the 1990s ( as a wave of violence swept Indonesia ) was a lived experience of continuity, a meaningful interpretation of the colonial catastrophe, and a collective memory so powerful as to leave me on my knees.



By Acep Aprilyana

Balonggandu is just a small village. When it was isolated, wilderness was its blanket and peace was its pulse. Foreigners who imagined it just once from a great distance thought a thousand times about Balonggandu. 

 When they had walked the land with both feet,  over time their hearts followed, drawn by the friendliness of the villagers, and by the sincerity and peace of their lives.  The village’s spirit is unity, its breathing is harmony, its soul is truth.

Its dress is simplicity.  Its robe is resignation.

Its friend is patience.

It would have been better if Balonggandu had not been worthy of mention or had disposed of  its memory so that the mind did not expect to mention its name. With no decent story to tell and no news of interest to be disclosed , Balonggandu  could have been kept off the map. This would have better for the mind,  for being erased from the earth can be a glorious destinty.

Instead,  Balonggandu remained worthy of its name, filled with beauty and charm and  interesting to every generation.  So the generation that preceded it gave messages,  advice, and warnings about how one should live life, weaving the light of love and longing into its blanket, and truth and holiness into its clothes.


Fate has been spinning and embroidering threads, thereby setting in Balonggandu the life of a family consisting only of a kid and his grandfather. They lived in the smallest house, the house facing north at the tip of the village and closest to the forest. Most of the walls at the bottom were made of boards, while the top was made of woven bamboo. The roof was dull, although it still looked solid and some of the tiles in back were cracked.  In fact,  the ground floor was wet with every rain.

A rear door connected the house to the hills behind it, and the courtyard was decorated with cut grass and neatly arranged  flowers. Some would look at the house and see an old shack, but in this old shack a story begins.

If it had not been inhabited by Abie and his grandfather, the little house might have been destroyed. Even so, a light brighter than sunlight shone from within. It was the light that emanated from Abie.

The stars seemed to give Abie his smile. It was a smile that made the moon flush.

This hut has remained the same since Abie was born. His grandfather was reluctant to fix it: other than financial factors, the little house is a form of memory. It is better to keep the memories in this form than to remember them in other ways, for other ways will only bring pain and sorrow. The house holds the  pain of two Deaths.

The first death is the death of Ainah – beloved wife of Abie’s grandfather – and the second death is the death of Oom Romlah, Abie’s mother.

Seventeen days after she gave birth to Abie, his mother died.

And shortly after the death of his wife, Abie’s father left Abie.  He entrusted his son to his father, Abie’s grandfather. and he never returned.

Thus, when the trees have grown, they no longer protect Abie as they once would have.


                                                         End of Part One

Acep Aprilyana’s work is avaiable in Sundanese, Indonesian, English and Dutch, but he has decided on a fourth version, edited for standard English and available for selected posts, and has trusted me to edit with a heavy hand in service to his voice.

Acep’s English has its own beauty, one that many of his readers prefer. This is just another option for readers and a way to expand the scope of his voice.

Come back for Part Two, coming soon.


My note: when the past refuses to stay in the past, it usually heads straight for the present. There, it’s easy to spot, because it’s ususally causing a racket of some kind. If you order it back, this type of past will appear to comply, but it never departs in good faith. As soon as you’re sure it’s finally obeyed, it will show up somewhere else, claiming to be the present.

Maybe it is throwing rocks at a tank in Palestine. Maybe it is an old Jewish man, lighting a candle in Warsaw. Maybe it is a pirate in the Sudan. Maybe it is sneaking across the Mexican border. Maybe it is a 16-year-old gang member aiming a gun at a 15-year-old drug dealer in southwest Chicago.

Or maybe it is a broken heart in Indonesia.


On the eve of the earthquake anniversary, the capital’s streets look little different than they did 12 months ago. An estimated 810,000 people – a majority unemployed – continue to live in 1,150 camps. –  Christian Science Monitor

NOTE: Text in black is directly quoted from Wikipedia. Text in brown is written by myself. Photos from Google Images.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the
colony of St. Domingue, now Haiti, furnished two-thirds of France’s overseas
trade, employed one thousand ships and fifteen thousand French sailors. The
colony became France’s richest, the envy of every other European nation. This
plantation system, which provided such a pivotal role in the French economy, was
also the greatest individual market for the African slave trade

 The slave population on the island totaled almost half of the one million slaves in the Caribbean by 1789. Two thirds were African-born and much less inclined to submission than those born in the Americas.The death rate in the Caribbean exceeded the birth rate, so imports of enslaved Africans were necessary in order to maintain the numbers required to work the plantations. The slave population declined at an annual rate of  five percent: that is, 25,000 of them died every year – twenty-five thousand planned, anticipated, essential murders. Meanwhile, French revolutionaries were preaching the mantra of universal equality for which they will forever be famously associated.

Yes, it was the Age of Enlightenment – and all over the world,  peoples of African descent who had no doubts regarding their equal worth nevertheless seized upon Enlightenment language, analyzed it, pointed out its profound contradictions, and  most of all, gauged its implications for themselves. People of European descent,  propelled equally as far from their countries of origin by imperialism, were no less aware of the impossibility of reconciling Enlightenment principles with their own economic self-interest. 

They all tried. Their biggest big shots, thinkers who remain revered to this day, gave the problem their best shot. When they couldn’t do it, they were smart enough to more or less shut up. However, black people everywhere – whether enslaved, free, Maroon, escaped, or being educated by their white fathers at Europe’s leading universities absolutely refused to drop it.  So did their abolitionist allies. Free African-Americans in Boston, New York, and Philedelphia wrote treatises on the topic and smuggled them south to slaves via ships along the Atlantic seaboard. The fact that slaves were forbidden to learn to read proved absolutly useless to slaveholders. No slave community lacked literate people. In fact many slaveholders remained unaware that all of their field hands had memorized David Walker’s Appeal, before they themselves had even gotten a copy

In August of 1791, the first organized black rebellion ignited the twelve-year
San Domingo (Haiti) Revolution. The northern settlements were hit first, and the flood
that overwhelmed them revealed the military strength and organization of the
black masses. Plantations were destroyed, and white owners killed.
Some of the rebellion’s leaders include Boukman, Biassou, Toussaint,
Jeannot, Francois, Dessalines, and Cristophe. These men would help to guide the
Revolution down its torturous, bloody road to complete success, although it
would cost over twelve years and hundreds of thousands of lives. Many of those
leaders themselves would fall along the way, but the force of unity against
slavery would sustain the revolution.

  Because the plantation owners had long feared such a revolt, they were well armed and prepared to defend themselves. Nonetheless, within weeks, the number of slaves who joined the revolt reached some 100,000. Within the first two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed 180 sugar plantations and hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations.

By 1792, slaves controlled a third of the island, and France dispatched 6,000  soldiers to Haiti – a year later, only 3,500 troops remained

Finally, after twelve bloody years,  France’s revolutionary National Convention  abolished slavery. Haiti was a sovereign state.

350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European soldiers had died.

That’s how much France wanted to keep using half a million human beings as beasts of burden. The whole world knew that its  new government could have stopped the blood bath at any time. U.S. slaveholders watched in terror and tightened their grip on slavery for another 70 years – when they sacrificed an entire  generation in their own frenzy of greed and fear.

The earthquake that hit Haiti was as much a man made as a natural disaster. No nation lacks the most basic,  simple and fundamental ability to respond to public emergencies by mistake, coincidence, ignorance,  or choice. No people remain so completely vulnerable and defenseless 220 years after half a million of them conducted a highy organized 12-year military campaign against a world power  – one that had been giving Great Britian, Spain , Portugal and the Netherlands a run for their money for a few centuries.

This condition is a force. It’s a force imposed on a people by interests more powerful than all of their combined will and courage. Never  mind blaming it all on Haiti’s history of brutal dictatorships – that’s a classic legacy of colonialism that happens to suit developed nations just fine. Since when have the western powers suffered the temerity of any small upstart nation that gets in our way? We’ve proven over and over that we’ll prop up any brutal dictator that will play ball with us – and if there isn’t one immediately available, we’ll go recruit one.

Freedom and democracy  becaome obscene insults when paired with names like Pinochet,  Batisata, Peron, and Duvalier,

Haiti has always been packed with plenty of people who know exactly how to run a democracry. We could have backed them any time we chose. We didn’t want to.

That’s because we’ll choose cooperative facists over stubborn socialists – and we’ll do it every time

In 1973, the CIA sponsored an horrendously violent military coup against the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. He had one last chance to speak to the people before the troops of  brutal criminal, and CIA tool General Augusto Pinochet,  came for him. Just before the end,  as the sound of automatic rifles exploded in the background, Allende said:  

 “Soon the radio will be silenced, and  my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you.
The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves.
Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues
will open again where free men will walk to build a better
Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the

workers!”Seguimos oyes, querido Salvador. Siempre vamos a te escucho.

We hear you, dear Salvador. We will always hear you.

¡Viva Haití! ¡Vivan los trabajadores! ¡Viva el pueblo!