On Sundays, I take a Hawaiian outrigger canoe class at my community colleges aquatic center located on the strip of beach and highway connecting the South Bay and the more affluent Coronado Island. The core exercise provided by paddling through the water at high speeds serves two purposes. First, it’s an easy way to raise a grade point average if you don’t mind waking up early on a Sunday morning and stepping into thigh deep frigid waters. As a potential transfer student I need any boost I can get I get. Second, it provides a mandatory weekly work out to counter the effects of hours of physical inactivity that being a student entails.
Most times I arrive to the site at Silver Strand State Beach early, about an hour before class starts, to enjoy the gentle pouring sounds of the current swaying and the tides stretching themselves onto the shore then pulling themselves back. The ringing of metal shackles knocking against the masts of beached sail boats, the salty smell in the air, and the solitude provide the perfect environment for recreational reading and the thoughts it perpetuates.
For weeks I had immersed myself in the works of such distinct and diverse writers as Rudolfo Anaya, José Antonio Burciaga, Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, and Gloria Anzaldúa and other books borrowed from the menageries of titles accumulated in the offices of Professor English Professors Francisco Bustos and Phillip Lopez. Being that I was to be the first Southwestern College student to ever attempt an honors project in Chicano Literature, I knew that I had to come up with something special.
On this occasion I was reading Working in the Dark by Jimmy Santiago Baca. I sat on a bench in front of the bay in perfect concentration as I read Bacas’ anguish and personal account of what he refers to as, “The war between the two countries in America.” Baca explains:
“ …a country of the poor and deprived ,and a country of those who had a chance to make something of themselves. Two societies, two ways of living, going on side by side every hour of every day. And in every aspect of life from opportunities to manners and morals, the two societies stand in absolute opposition. Most Americans remain ignorant of this, of the fact that they live in a country that holds hostage behind bars another populous.”
I read this passage three times over. I put the book down in my lap and stared at the pastel morning mist that was floating above the water. I became consumed with an inexplicable sense shame, the Shame that I had the privilege to sit peacefully on bench reading on a Sunday morning.. I was a scholar now. Though I was all too aware of this opposition, and the struggle between two societies, I had exiled myself from it all. I had exchanged the unforgiving places I once inhabited to rub shoulders with affluent school administrators at scholarship breakfasts and fundraisers. All the praise and awards I had received since I made this transition had only compounded the sense of indignity I tormented myself with. In my mind I could hear the voice of Lorna Dee Cervantes telling me, “Martín, Just because they are not shooting at you doesn’t mean they aren’t shooting.”
This silence was brief and fleeting as it was disrupted by the arrival of the other students of the canoe class. They were an older well-heeled group. They wear designer sunglasses and sportswear made of breathable fabric and nylon, a far cry from the Polynesian barbarians who first braved the shark infested waters of their islands to create this custom that was now sport for the wealthy. They seem unaware that they are wealthy. They always go to great lengths to preserve the dignity and superstitions of an alien culture. “No Bananas on the boat!” They speak in high tones and there is always a sense of optimism when they great each other. Some are kind and others speak to me with a sarcastic condescending inflections. Amongst them, I am a separatist. I stand alone reading or starring of into the bay waiting to stab my oar into the water and propel their vessels forward .
Because of my build, they always sit me in the power seats, the fourth and fifth seats of the canoe. These seats are known as the engine room. They are also a focal point of the canoes equilibrium. Any sudden shift of weight to either side can cause the whole thing to Huli ,a Hawaiian word for when a boat flips over. The chain of command dictates that anyone sitting in these seats must row with the maximum amount of strength while keeping their mouths shut. I do and quietly ignore them when they yell instructions while fantasizing of a Huli. Ironically, I am often told I physically resemble them. I certainly resemble them more than I do the Polynesian Barbarians.
On this occasion I am greeted by a slim older man with gray hairs growing out of his face. He resembles an albino raisin. Perhaps he has a medical condition. I responded by mimicking the high tones they speak in.
“Hey, how ya doin'?”
“Beautiful morning isn’t it”
“Yeah, reminds me of a small motel my grandparents once owned in San Quintin.”
“Oh, San Quintin,” he says. “ I have friends who own some of the agricultural turbines out there. It is such a beautiful place. The rich land and water make it an ideal place for farming.”
I am convinced that he has a medical condition as he begins repeatedly farting but continues speaking undeterred. I am distracted, not by his flatulence, but by his perceptions of beauty. While he imagines San Quintin as a haven for oyster slurping gringos and American profiteering, I am thinking of forgettable short brown figures hunched over picking the ripe strawberries and grapes, and the pesticides that cause deformities in their children. These are the faceless second class citizens of Mexico; the Oaxacos (wa-ha-cos), or, as I’ve heard Caucasian crusaders refer to them, the Mixtec Indians. There is a saying amongst the Mexican working class, “Support Mexico, kill a Oaxaco.”
It dawned on me that war between two societies in America that Baca explains is just the small part of something greater, a gorge that transcends all prison cells and international borders. This is the chasm between the sentient and the supremely unaware. Within the sentient lies a struggle between the urge to yell at the top of ones lungs and rattle and smash cages with provocative language against the instinct to please the world around us by forever holding our peace. This is the endemic conflict that fuels much of what is classified as Chicano Literature, conflicts in identity, culture, education, faith, language and socioeconomic consciousness. The conflict between the comforts of earnest conformity versus terrifying paroxysms of opposition.
This marks the Beginning of my Xicanisms Blog, a documentation of my immersion into these works and investigative report identifying that parallels between words printed on a page and the environments in which I am reading them. A combination of theoretical analysis, social experiment and unsettling rant. Through the use of provocative language, popular consensus will be challenged and sensibilities will be hurt. Though this might occur at the detriment of my academic objective, the relevancy of the project demands it.