Monday, December 22, 2014

See You on The Other Side of Christmas

As I pack my bags to spend Christmas with Erinn’s family, in North Carolina, I wish to take advantage of this opportunity that thank all of you who steal a moment from your valuable leisure time to visit my blog.

My wife and I depart tomorrow for North Carolina. I know it has become a cliché, but the reassuring thing about Christmas is the chance to affirm the importance of family ties.  

What’s particularly comforting for me about this time of the year is that Erinn’s family has become my own. They welcomed me without question into the fold and have given me a strong sense of belonging. The spirit of Christmas doesn't get any better than that.

I mentioned this loving bond earlier this year in the post “Looking Forward to Christmas.” 

While in Nashville, North Carolina, I will be able to take long walks. This year, my walks will take on a special meaning as they will serve as practice for my first pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago—an obsession I wrote about in “A New Fixation.”  

I wish each of you a joyous holiday in the company of those you love. To celebrate the occasion, I leave you with one of my favorite Christmas songs. It's by Chris Rea, one of the best songwriters in the world.

See everyone on the other side of Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Tale of Two Courageous Youths

In October of 2012, the Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai. The news appalled me. In spite of the danger, the courageous fifteen year old Pakistani had become an outspoken advocate for the education of young women in her homeland.

As a teacher of students Malala’s age, I joined the ranks of her admirers and, earlier this year, I applauded upon learning that she had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, in October, I celebrated the announcement that she had been awarded the prize, becoming the youngest Nobel Laureate ever.

I was stunned, however, when, during the ceremony in which Malala was awarded the Nobel Prize, a young man carrying a Mexican flag staged a protest.

Although twenty-one year old Adan Cortes Salas never specifically mentioned his cause, the world knew that he was attempting to hijack the occasion to express his outrage over the forty-three young men from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who were arrested on September 29 and never heard from again.

The disappearance of these future teachers—whose only crime was to plan a peaceful protest to seek better conditions at the college they attended—has angered the citizenry of Mexico as well as people from all over the world.

During the award ceremony, as Adan Cortes Salas was being escorted away, he turned to the Nobel Laureate and said, “Please, Malala, they are killing us. Don’t forget Mexico.”

Although I disapprove of the way in which the protest upstaged what should have been the world’s celebration of the right for young women to obtain an education, his bold stroke highlighted that there are young people all over the world who are willing to take great risks in the name of justice. In upstaging Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, Adan Cortes Salas highlighted that the world has become interconnected by linking the issue of the education of women in Pakistan to the mass execution of future teachers in Mexico.

In both instances, youth in the pursuit of education were violently attacked.

I never would have endorsed Adan Cortes Salas’s act if he had been one of my students. But in the grand, and sometimes grim, scheme of things—where governments, police forces, and the movements that oppose them validate fear, terror, violence, torture, and war in the name of maintaining order—the peaceful protests of young people everywhere have earned their legitimacy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

On This Writer’s Ethnic Identity

The question of how I identify myself—ethnically-speaking—is a persistent one.  Readers often corner me, trying to get me to pick only one ethnicity.  I believe this is because every booklover understands that a writer’s sense of belonging tints the lens through which he or she tells a story.  Moreover, readers are aware that a writer’s culture plays a vital role in his or her obsessions.

In my case, these things are absolutely true.

When it comes to defining my identity, I’ve swung from a pendulum of cultures depending on a given moment of my life.  During my first eleven years, spent in Los Angeles, I was an “American”—without question or apology.  My upbringing in California, and my being a product of the public school system, heavily filtered the way I viewed and interpreted the world.  Although I was aware that my parents’ roots made me unique, Nicaragua was a part of their world, not mine.  My blood—the blood of a native Californian—ran red, white, and blue.  And although I was of Latino descent, I considered myself part of mainstream “America.”  As a result, I saw the world the way most “Americans” did. 

Then my family moved to Nicaragua.  

Because my parents couldn’t afford to enroll me in that country’s only U.S.-accredited school, they placed me in an all-boys, Spanish-speaking, Catholic school.  But what at first seemed a tragedy—to not to be able to continue my education in the American way—turned out to be a blessing, a stroke of great fortune. 

If I had attended the U.S. school, I would have remained an “American,” and I would have never become acculturated into the world and stories of my ancestors.

In my new school I was the only English-speaking student.  While growing up in the States I had only spoken Spanish with relatives; because of this my skills were childlike: my vocabulary was limited and my knowledge of grammar non-existent.  During my first months in Nicaragua, the way I spoke elicited howls of laughter from my new classmates.  The dread of being teased forced me to adapt, otherwise I would live the life of an isolated cultural freak. 

Thankfully, within six months (Oh, the prowess of childhood to adjust to new circumstances!), I had embraced the language, the culture, the history, and the people of my heritage.  And after only a couple of years, I had, for the purpose of self-identification, become fully Nicaraguan. 

A Nicaraguan: this was how I would identify myself for decades to come.  It wasn’t until I was in my late-thirties, nearly twenty years after I had returned to the States, that I started to acknowledge that an “American” also dwelled within me. 

Although in retrospect it seems logical, as well as inevitable, the designator Nicaraguan-American eventually became my identifier. And the benefits of accepting this hyphenated identity have far outweighed any losses: it is as a Nicaraguan-American that I started to believe that, as a writer, I had stories to share through the lens with which I now viewed the world.

But another shift has taken place in my self-identification, a slight yet significant change.  I approach my thirteenth year of living in Panama.   While I could never consider myself Panamanian (not because I don’t wish to, but at my age the honor eludes me), I am once again embracing another culture, another history, another people.  Both my wife and I are happy to call this nation our home, and our stay here seems permanent. 

Perhaps I will never see as clearly through my Panamanian lens as I do through the American and Nicaraguan ones, but I now understand Panamanians.  (And isn’t this what a writer of fiction does, inhabit the identities of his or her characters’ so their actions are utterly believable within a determined cultural context?)

So, where am I now regarding my ethnic identity?

I’m honest when I reply that I am not entirely sure.  At this point in my life, pinpointing the manner in which I categorize myself is no longer of great importance to me.  What I do know is that when I visit California, I no longer feel Californian; when I visit Nicaragua, I no longer feel Nicaraguan; and when I walk the streets of Panama, I am certain I am not Panamanian.  It seems then that, today, I’m an outsider wherever I am.

But this tribal limbo is not altogether unpleasant.  In fact, I quite enjoy the distance I’ve acquired through the years regarding my need to subscribe to a particular culture.  It appears that in the process of becoming a writer, I’ve freed myself of the calling for a mass identity.  I now treasure being an individual.  And through my writings, my ability to accept those of other cultures has evolved, and this is leading me to feel a genuine kinship with every human being I encounter.

(Credit for Los Angeles photo: The Global Program)