Lately, I have been obsessed with myths. Stories. The mythology of living. The tales we tell to define ourselves, explain our existence, create communities, clarify enemies. I read an essay by Frank Chin who chastised Maxine Hong Kingston and other Asian American writers for bastardizing the myths of China, creating hapa myths devoid of their “true” cultural relevance. And at first I aligned myself with him thinking of Disney’s Mulan, of Aladdin, thinking of history classes my children come home from and try to explain why they build model California Missions. My daughter acknowledge though that she is also building a cemetery for the dead Indians used to build those Missions. What bastardized and commercialized mythology is being told there? And why does it get retold over and over? What purposes does it serve?
So I see his point, but then I remembered how often I have written about the ways storytelling and talkstory can change you, change minds, change directions; how it can also replenish, can restore, bring peace, solidify, fortify. I believe storytelling is less about the events and more about the narration, the connections; you tell what needs to be told; you create what your people might need to hear. I remembered how when I think back on the most memorable moments of my life, I smile and recall the way they are told, narrated, shared with others over dinner or at bed time or accompanied by beers on Thursday night. It’s the retelling that is so powerful, is what makes us laugh and smile, or cry and feel empathy. It’s how we live on.
So my kids and I talk about the Missions and how there are so many stories; we talk about how I won’t go in them, how I waited outside the numerous catholic churches in Mexico as their mother went in to connect with the stories of her religious upbringing. We then talked about how her and I both learned from our individual choices and the exchanges or explanations we had around them. My children and I talk about how beautiful those Missions are and what it means to have something so beautiful, so spiritual, have such a dark origin. We talk about both sides; we create a mythology of contradiction.
And as my family marched with hundreds of thousand of other protesters during the May first general strike, we heard talk of what an American is (can you wave both an American and Mexican flag, someone scoffs at us). Well, what’s the mythology of immigration? What are the ways to explain boarder crossing, exile, diaspora? We, of course, know thanksgiving, but do we know the Florida Seminoles’ story, do we retell the stories of the southwest as it went from Indian, to Mexican, to American nations. And as Gloria Anzaldua fortells, “will become Indian once again.” Some day. My New Mexican family claims they have been here before anyone, and they survived by growing and welcoming others into their lives, into their stories and histories like the Mexicans, the gringos, your mother, they tell me. My father says I’m a new breed a chiconky. That’s how he tells it.
In Kingston’s book The Tripmaster Monkey Wittman says that language contains the key to the past and to our future; that in the Chinese character for I was imbedded in it the word warrior or fight or even weapon. To say I was to say I-fight. How powerful is that? But it has been lost to us now. But do I believe? This mythology isn’t mine. Do you believe me about my family? I’m sure I’m not they only half-bred boy from some idealistic white mother and some reckless father from the rez, or ghetto, or barrio. There’s probably a whole underground army of chiconkistas roaming the United States waiting for our story, our time. I think it’s time we start spreading the word, finding that language that says I and means Fight.
I don’t know how to read Cantonese or Mandarin; but I know what Wittman means when he says we have lost the fight and to regain it, we need to relearn our language. Or better yet create our own. Chin, if you wanna wage war against the storytellers, cut out your own tongue.
Because all language starts with stories. When my son asks me about why my mom ran like the prodigal daughter home to her parents after giving two years of her life to the New Mexican desert, what can I say? The myth that was told me from my abuela goes: it was a snowy night when your mom came, mijo, to say good-bye. She looked at all of us and hugged each one of us. But she did not say a word. And neither did we. We all stood in silence. What could we say, mijo, what could we say? Then, she just turned and left.
She never said a word about them again till I was 18. How strong must you be to hold your tongue for so long? The truth is something a little different: my mom, lonely, a single mother because my father left her and then went to jail, trying to survive, knowing she needed family, decide to return home. Who can blame her? What else needs to be said? But the problem was the silence. That is what caused the pain, what divided families years after the events happened. What people remember is the silence that followed my mother’s departure.
Wittman says Repetition makes a custom. Doing things over and over establishes reality. Hearing the words more than once, the people will get it. I want to get it. I want my kids to get it. I want everyone one to once and for all get it. But in order to do so, we must all start talking and start listening. Don’t worry if it is slightly different each time you tell it; don’t worry if someone else tells it different. Just tell it like it might save your life. Tell it like it fighting for your kids. For indeed, in these times, in this day and age, it just might and you certainly are.
Great piece Tomas, thank you.
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