Friday afternoon Kristen Buckles, our editor at the University of Arizona Press, met with us about two new book projects and introduced us to some of the staff and Director Kathryn Conrad. Their hospitality continued at the Reception and Founders Banquet where the press hosted a table for a group of its authors. At the pre-dinner reception (fittingly held in the bookstore!) we had a chance to talk to Chicano writers Luis Alberto Urrea and Reyna Grande whom we hosted in Santa Barbara in 2015 when she received the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. In fact, the day before flying to Tucson for the festival, I was teaching their stellar books, Into the Beautiful North and The Distance Between Us, in my U.S. Latino Literature course. Learning from their presentations at the Festival, I’ll have so much more information to share with students as we finish these books. Reyna texted her friend Francisco Cantú to put us in contact with him so we can invite him to UCSB. She also introduced us to Jean Guerrero, a reporter on border issues for KPBS in San Diego who just published a new “cross-border memoir,” Crux, which I look forward to reading.
At the gala banquet we were seated next to our friend Ilán Stavans whom we hadn’t seen since 2013 when our visits coincided at the University of Cork in Ireland. Stavans was also our daughter Giuliana’s professor years ago at Amherst College, and he added a few sentences as I texted her a picture of the three of us at the banquet. Amazing coincidences of transcontinental interaction across time and space thanks to tech and an unforeseen reunion at the Festival banquet in Tucson! It was fun to chat with Kathryn about the great success of the UA Press in their expanding list of offerings in U.S. Latinx Studies. The Press’s gracious hospitality made us all want to write and publish more books with them in the future. At the end, Luis Alberto Urrea received the Founders Award with a dynamic and humorous acceptance speech, noting that he is the first Latino to be honored with this competitive award and recounting his special connection to the city of Tucson. Later that evening we got to meet other banquet attendees including Ed Asner, David Corn, and Michael Isikoff.
With our minds still spinning from the stimulating interactions of Friday’s events, we were treated to a delicious breakfast hosted by the U of Arizona Press in the library Saturday morning. What a treat to meet J. Michael Martínez and have him sign his new book, to chat further with Ilán, Kathryn, and Kristen. Before long we were in front-row seats for Luis Urrea’s panel discussion where I learned many things to enhance my writing and teaching of his works. Next was a small group session with Nuyorican writer Ed Morales who focused on the hybrid genre of personal non-fiction, recounting his long career of joining creative elements to fact-based non-fiction and journalism. Years ago he began working for the Village Voice where reporters were encouraged to meld the personal to carefully documented journalism. He recounted the connections of the Nuyorican writers to the Chicano Movement across the country and his own interviews with Sandra Cisneros, Luis Valdez, and Culture Clash. I remember his story “The Coast Is Clear” in the early anthology Iguana Dreams, and it was great to learn about his forthcoming memoir about Puerto Rico.
Although at least two hundred were turned away from the overflow crowd at the Border Crisis panel, we were luckily able to get a seat for this powerful session. My desire to attend was to meet Francisco Cantú whose poignant memoir The Line Becomes a River was the students’ favorite book in my Border Narrative course last quarter. After college, Cantú worked as a Border Patrol agent where his complex interactions with migrants led him to quit and write his compelling story of the border. He creatively documents the history of the fluid and porous divide between Mexico and the United States, and takes us inside the stories of migrants and agents in this dangerous militarized zone where human lives are traumatized, lost, and forever changed. He moves from a larger temporal and spatial overview of the border to personally focused close-up views of migrants, humanizing the statistics and hate-based rhetoric about migrants that pervade many levels of our national discourse. No one can read his account without experiencing empathy for these suffering people.
Besides Cantú’s contributions to the panel, I learned a great deal from NYU historian Greg Grandin who argued that the after the Turner thesis of the American frontier reached its limits, a subtle version of it was adapted and extended ideologically to our country’s global expansion in the 20th and 21st centuries. He discussed the role of U.S. interventionism and NAFTA in exacerbating conditions that increase South/North migrations. I had the privilege to meet the panel moderator Ron Barber who told me that he had been shot along with Gabby Giffords and replaced her in Congress afterwards. He lost the subsequent election by 300 votes. Responding to a critique from the audience that the panel focused too much on analysis and not enough on action, Professor Scott Whiteford insisted that investigative studies about migration and the border have a crucial role in establishing and documenting facts. For example, thousands of personal belongings taken from migrants are not returned, although some officials deny this. Reporters and scholars have seen and written about immense caches of these unreturned belongings, documenting this practice.
Three important new voices in Latinx literature came together at a 4 PM panel, “Undocumented: The Price of Admission” with Ingrid Rojas Contreras, José Antonio Vargas, and Reyna Grande. Rojas Contreras came to the U.S. from Bogotá and recently published her first novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree with Doubleday. She described the demeaning medical exam she underwent when she obtained her U.S. citizenship last year. Vargas, who is receiving national attention for his memoir Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, has not been able to see his mother in the Philippines for 25 years. In 2011 when the Washington Post, where he worked as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wouldn’t publish his coming-out story about his DACA status (in a version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the editor told him “I don’t know what I don’t know . . .”), the New York Times eagerly picked it up. After noting that almost all of us in the audience had received U.S. citizenship at birth, he asked, “Is that how America became great? By the accident of birth?” He connects the severance of government to the severance of identity and notes that going through the TSA line at airports is always traumatic for him. “There should be a trauma center in every immigrant community,” he argues. Reyna Grande also commented on trauma—the loss of her parents through migration when she was a young child: “You never really get your parents back.” She pointed to her loss of Spanish after coming to the U.S. and the resultant exclusion of her mother from several aspects of her life because of this language deficit. “Subtractive bilingualism” is a result of migrants’ trauma which leads to them to reject their mother tongue, she argues. Even worse, this language loss gets passed on to the next generation, effectively separating Reyna’s children from their grandmother. “A part of us got left at the border,” she notes. Grande fought for her daughter to be accepted into a bilingual immersion program in California, and the child became fluent in Spanish in only six months. Because Grande had lost her bilingualism after coming here, she could not translate her own work into Spanish. When she saw the professional Spanish translation of her memoir, The Distance Between Us, she didn’t recognize the voice. “It didn’t sound anything like me.” So, she re-edited it with imperfect Spanish to try to capture her own voice in the translation.
I treasure the wonderful messages these authors wrote in signing our books. For example, on Sor Juana or the Persistence of Pop, Stavans wrote, “How to put into words my admiration and love? Francisco Cantú wrote: “With deep admiration for your vital work as teachers!” and Grande penned “Seguimos en la lucha!” These small inscriptions place into written history the brief encounters when writers and readers meet face-to-face and continue the dialogue that books begin. The abundance of treasures at the Tucson Festival of Books can only be dipped into, but even a small portion of the huge menu leaves you wanting to return next year. It’s an experience not-to-be-missed!