Joe Barrera: Christmas in South Texas

Growing up in south Texas in the 50’s we used to get Christmas presents on three different days. First there was the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who gave gifts to poor people, is the original gift-giver whose name has morphed from the Dutch Sinter Klaas into Santa Claus. Because of him people in Europe give and receive gifts. A remnant Spanish custom survived in our small town and the children got gifts on December 6. I remember getting oranges and apples in my stocking, but never the proverbial lump of coal that the  bad kids were supposed to get. For many of the older Mexican people Dec. 6 embodied the spirit of the season, whereas Christmas was the American celebration. All the Christmas customs, the gift-giving, the decorations, etc. were absent. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, for instance, until sometime in the late 50’s. My mother found a dried branch  from the huge pecan tree in the yard. She brought it inside the house, painted it white and hung Christmas lights on it. That was the first Christmas tree I remember. It looked beautiful. Gradually, Christmas presents began to appear under the tree. By the early 60’s most of the old customs had died out and the new Christmas had taken over.

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The real celebration of “Christ’s Mass” was at church. “Misa de Gallo,” midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the important occasion and even the little kids would attend. The highlight was the procession of the children to the empty manger, to lay down the image of Baby Jesus. After mass everyone would go home and eat tamales and drink the powerful cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate. That stuff could keep you up all night but of course that was not allowed for the children. The men had gone deer hunting and brought back plenty of venison. The women had spent hours in the kitchen marinating the meat and putting it into the corn dough wrapped in corn husks and then steaming the tamales in huge pots. There is nothing more delicious than venison tamales. For days afterward we would be eating tamales. At Christmas women ruled the house. I remember my mother and her “comadres,” which literally means “co-mothers,” making untold dozens of tamales and enjoying their sisterhood time. I sneaked in just to listen to them talk, but men were not allowed in the kitchen.

The twelve days of Christmas, December.25-January 6, had real meaning in those times. There was the joy of Christmas, but mixed with sadness, as all earthly experience must be. We remembered the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, when all the men and boys named Inocente were honored. I often wondered how so many not-so innocent types could have that name. And how could Herod have killed so many babies? There was New Year’s Day, sacred to God the Father, who seldom gets any credit, but because of him sacred to all who bear his name, Manuel. After that there was Epiphany, on January 6, holy to all those named Epifanio. On Epiphany the Magi come bearing rich gifts. It is the Day of the Three Kings, el Dia de los Reyes Magos, the day of the Wise Men. This is also the name-day of all those named “Reyes.” In the old way of looking at things your name-day is much more significant than your birthday. The saint or sacred feast whose name you bear is your protector, a type of totem beloved in the Indo-Hispano culture.

If there was a true joyous day for all, this was it. Jan. 6 definitely eclipsed Christmas for gift-giving. Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar had brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. We emulated them and brought our own gifts. We gave gifts to friends and family.  But in a holy time it’s the King you must honor and how can you give the King any gifts? He already has everything, owns everything. He doesn’t need your poor gift. The Irish nuns at the parish school told us so. They said that on his birthday it is the King who gives gifts. During this season we should ask the King for a favor. There is always life, but also death, and the Irish, like the Mexicans, are ever aware of death. The grace we should request, the sisters said, was for the dead–the release of dear loved ones from Purgatory. Release of captives, that was the true spirit of Christmas and Epiphany. More purified sinners are released from Purgatory at Christmas than on All Soul’s Day.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

James Stuart: Why Stories Matter

Colorado Writer, James Stuart, shares with the Almagre community the importance of stories…

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The greatest storyteller I ever knew probably hasn’t written anything longer than a personal check since high school. He was a farrier from Wyoming, and even at fifteen years old, I was a couple inches taller than him. But that didn’t give me any sense of scale in his presence. He could begin telling a story at lunch, tell three more over the course of an afternoon, and wrap them all up in an intricate bow just in time for dinner. He moved effortlessly between memory, folktale, pop culture, and dirty jokes, taking with him what he liked as he went and leaving the rest on the vine. Sometimes, you found yourself a character in his stories – a small part in a grand narrative you had already lived but looked forward to hearing told anyway. More times than not, that made you a punchline. But such was his skill, you enjoyed it nonetheless.

Through my work, I have been fortunate to know a number of great writers. Some among us are just naturally gifted at turning letters and punctuation into something beautiful. I’ve swapped notes with journalists, essayists, authors, poets, and screen writers. But in spite of their skill and success, none have ever matched the raw talent of that horseshoer I met when I was young. The greatest writers among us are also the best storytellers; the reverse doesn’t exactly hold true. That is the magic of storytelling in my eyes.

Storytelling may well be our most ancient tradition, crawling into existence from the primordial soup of early communication around the same time humans began to observe the world beyond food, water, and shelter. From its earliest days, it has not been confined by any medium.  It was paint on cave walls. It was music from carved bones and strung sinew. It was mythology, parable, and fable. On cold nights, it was traded around fires, providing an additional layer of protection from a world that remained largely mysterious. It was filled with heroes, monsters, tricksters, and sirens – many of whom live on with different names today. Animals often took on human qualities to teach or to amuse. Eventually, it would be written down, printed, recorded, filmed, digitized, and monetized. But the key ingredients and basic structure have not changed over the millennia, allowing storytelling to transcend cultures, wars, famine, plague, technology, and every other obstacle in its way. It connects us with our past, while preparing new generations for the future.

Storytelling will remain relevant because it is a direct response to basic needs. The need to be understood. The need to be entertained. The need to preserve knowledge. The need to be remembered. These necessities are not only timeless, they are fundamentally human.

As such, there will always be another story to tell.

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James Suart received his Bachelors Degree in English from Colorado State University in 2011. He has dedicated himself to writing fiction that is fresh, thought provoking, and occasionally profane. His influences are extremely diverse, running the gamut from Ernest Hemingway and Ray Bradbury to Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahari. He is also the founder of the webpage THE FORGE, a site dedicated to very brief short stories.

Book Chat: Along The WatchTower

In our next Issue, “Language & Music,” coming out December 26, we’re proud to feature an interview with award-winning Oklahoma author, Constance Squires, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Bayou, Eclectica, Identity Theory, New Delta Review, and many more.

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Along the WatchTower (2012) is Ms. Squires first novel. Set in the 1980s, on an American army base in Germany and then in an Oklahoma small town, the novel chronicles the growing up of young Lucinda Collins, following her from adolescence on into young adulthood. We get to experience the growth of this eager-to-please, yet strong-minded woman through the world of a military family — overseas and Stateside.

The setting is something we don’t really see in fiction, that of the military family. And it would take someone with Ms. Squires’ particular talent to truly color and people an environment that is often institutional and drab. But there is no doubt, this novel is vigorous and alive.

The book gives us a wishbone with young Lucinda at the vertex and her mom on one side of the V, her father on the other. What makes the story wonderful to read is the author’s ability to deftly and clearly portray the characters’ cosmic arcs, and from the start we sense the tension bending on the bone where we find young Lucinda.

Faye Collins, Lucinda’s mother, obviously has the artist’s soul, the Creative’s gravitas; her’s is a mighty intellect harnessed into the world of being an army wife. She is always the volcano under the bulk of crust…waiting for release. The manner in which she has arrived in this marriage, as illustrated by Ms. Squires, makes complete sense. The fact that she appears unfit for the life it provides is obvious, yet her world is bruised by the desperate and inescapable need for her husband and kids — by the things they can and can’t provide.

Jack Collins, Lucinda’s father, is a relentless contradiction; the consummate military personality who is lovable and impossible to love, both devoted to the family and completely remote. Every awful action or comment for Jack is followed by a moment of redemption, which is then followed by a cold indifference, which is then followed by utter selflessness, which is then followed by callous bravado, which is then followed by incredible warmth and so on. He can piss us off. But…he also has our sympathy. One thing Ms. Squires clearly conveys is a permeant awareness, as seen by the children, the damage to men and women in the military…before caring about that sort of thing had any public traction.

This wishbone creaks from the start. It is Lucinda, our young protagonist who has to figure things out inside this arrangement. To be in the military, to grow up in that kind of family inevitably means the lowering of expectations in our friends. It’s not that we need them less, or that they’re worse…we just have to replace them all the time. So, standards might be a bit more flexible.

Throw in Rock and Roll — Punk — booze — a touch of fascistic background radiation — devastating metaphors — and we have a wonderful, coming-of-age tale spread across the Atlantic, in a setting that is too little represented in literature.

We need this author, and we need her to tell us her stories. Regardless of topic, Ms. Squires has the gift for flesh and blood. It’s impossible to think of Along The WatchTower without the people in it coming alive. For instance, Jack Collins has one of the clearest voices I’ve ever read. His dialogue crackles in the head with the clarity of a Holden Caulfield. And Ms. Squires’ energies are not wasted there; the minor characters pop as much as any.

As part of the Almagre community, we encourage you to support creative thinking, Great Storytelling, and find your way to a copy of Along The WatchTower. It is a pleasure from start to finish.

John Lewis,
Artist/Editor
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Joe Barrera: Veterans’ Day is about Creating Community

In 370BC a Greek Army ventured into Mesopotamia, lured into supporting a claimant to the throne by the promise of money and booty. How the Greeks managed to extricate themselves from a hopeless situation in what is now Iraq and Syria is the subject of the famous account, The Anabasis of Xenophon. “Anabasis” means “a journey out of.” The story is that Cyrus, the pretender to the throne of the Persian empire, is killed by his rival and the Greeks find that they have backed the wrong faction. This, of course, sounds familiar. We are now in the same position as Xenophon, the wise and courageous soldier who leads the Greeks out of the trap. But unlike Xenophon we have no exit strategy to free ourselves from the Iraqi and Syrian quagmire.

Halicarnassus (Anabasis)
Go to the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues

No doubt about it. We are stuck in Mesopotamia, not to mention Afghanistan. In my opinion it happened because we misunderstood the desires of those countries to create communities according to their own rules. The same for our tragic misadventure in Vietnam. The task for us now is to extricate ourselves by rediscovering our own rules for community. I don’t want to make too much of the analogy but the lesson is clear. Xenophon’s Ten-Thousand fought and won their battles and survived the long journey out of the desert by the unity forged in comradeship. They were a small army, but they acted more like a community, a nation on the march through hostile territory.

Community is essential. This is true in both the military and civilian spheres. Armies imbued with comradeship, the military equivalent of community, win battles against much stronger foes. Civil societies succeed, but only if they are true communities. During this season, when we honor veterans and the society they have protected, it’s good to reflect on this. Philosophers have described community in many ways. It’s useful to read what they say, especially those who write about human communities from the experience of war. J. Glenn Gray, the eminent Colorado College philosopher, in his book The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle says this about the communal spirit, what he calls “love as concern:”

The characteristic mood that accompanies love as concern is neither deep joy nor unrestrained grief, so often typical of erotic love. Concerned love knows relief and it knows anxiety in its depths, but seldom does it put everything at stake on the preservation of this or that life or treasure. Its care is for the whole and not the part.

The essence of community is a love concerned with the whole. Concerned love leads to the building of community after the destruction of war. Fortunately for human beings, most soldiers are not made into habitual killers by war, even if they are soldiers who have killed. They are capable of living civilian lives after war. Gray, the WWII veteran, is correct about this, even if many veterans doubt it. Other writers have sought to define community. Sebastian Junger, who was an embedded journalist with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and made a documentary about the experience entitled “Restrepo,” defines “concerned love” in a different way, the way of male bonding. In

his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger discusses a type of love among soldiers. The men form the ultimate in male bonding, a brotherhood which only men in battle can form. Hardship, such as war, enables soldiers to transcend selfishness. Junger knows from first-hand experience that the bane of modern armies, PTSD, would not exist if soldiers preserved that brotherhood when they return to the civilian world. Unfortunately, combat veterans lose this protection all too quickly. This Veterans’ Day, we should provide veterans the chance to re-enact the communal love of their small units, which existed in our society before we lost our tribal identity.

A good example of communal love is The Warrior Storyfield in Longmont. A group of veterans and artists formed a “tribe,” a sculpture project that gives the unspoken experience of war a voice through the creation of huge iron statues of a dragon, representing homo furens, the ferocious warrior, and the phoenix, representing the resurrection of human love in the soldier when he comes home. Closer to home we have the Veterans Community Dialogues, to be held on November 7.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

 

Again, Please. Tell Me Your Story

As fall turns to winter, I’d like to reconsider a particular reaction.AR_Fall Harvest

We have all been in the room before. Someone else is there…it might be one person, or two, or a crowd. A friend or family member begins a story. We’ve heard it already…many times.

But we let them go on out of politeness. (Is this person okay? Is he well? Does he not remember telling this story last Thanksgiving?)

This got me thinking about the importance of telling the same story again and again. First, it comes from a place of acknowledgement — I grow older, responsibilities increase, the kids acquire new demands; demands on my time, my attention, my bank account, my emotional and spiritual reservoir.

I used to think that my “elders” (I use this term carefully and loosely) were trapped in forgetfulness. At the dinner table, during or after, somehow, someway, the conversation inexorably drew to the moment where someone would re-commence the time when…

Often the details change. But what are details other than the sharp edges on a sugar cube? They don’t matter…around the pond of reminiscence, they polish down into the smooth stone of one-liners, zingers, bad accents, cued laughter. Or is it cued sadness? Either one, yes? Everything in between.

One day, not too many years ago, I noticed myself telling the same story…one I’d told many times. There was also this other strange little thought. I knew I was telling a story everyone had already heard. I knew it. They knew it. I knew that they knew it. And so on.

But, what followed proved to be an insight, albeit small. I did not care that I’d told this story before. I plowed through my social reserve and kept the performance alive, armed with those punches and zingers, cued their laughter, and delivered what my polite audience allowed. I told this story because it was a pleasure to tell. It’s always a pleasure to tell.

Why?

Because it is important. To me, it was a bright cherry along the branch of experience that is worth repeating. I have to repeat it. Others have to hear it. Memory is bad and faulty, and so much of what we live is lost along that long gray branch. But the bright cherries become the lodestars of identity. This is who I am. This is one among many stories that define the “johnness” of John to others…and to me.

Which leads me back to my original thought. That reaction! When a friend or family member begins again that story we’ve heard throughout the years…we stop, listen, and appreciate. We know they’ve told this story before. But they know it too! It does not matter.

We listen, because it is the teller’s pleasure to tell! We grant this woman or man the dignity of his or her story, the dignity of his or her life and experience. We permit them the bright cherry of identity. We listen…because it is a pleasure to listen.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor

 

 

 

Joe Barrera: Los Dias de los Muertos/The Days of the Dead

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Artist: Jose Guadalupe Posada

The season of death and dying is here. Autumn brings the end of the year, the end of living things, the end of growth in the cold of winter. October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, albeit much altered from its original intent, is a celebration of the end of the harvest but also a recognition of the presence of the dead on earth. Originally, Halloween was the time when ghosts of the dead, along with unholy spirits, were given free rein to roam the earth before they were again confined in Purgatory or in Hell. They had to be confined in anticipation of November 1, the Day of All Hallows, the Holy Ones, the saints in heaven. All Saints is followed by All Souls on November 2, during which we honor the Souls in Purgatory, suffering purification before entry to heaven in the Catholic belief that was once universal in Europe. The season is the last vestige in modern culture of the reality that life and death are two sides of the same coin, that where there is life there must also be death, that the same Creator who created life also created death. The season tells us that we should not ignore death, nor fear it, because it is part of our existence and we cannot avoid it. In our culture, which deludes us into believing that youth and physical beauty are eternal, we don’t pay much heed to this kind of thing anymore.

Our Halloween customs derive from northern Europe, but traditions known as The Days of the Dead, usually the last days of October and first days of November, have come in from lands to the south. These influences are often mistakenly considered to be “Mexican Halloween,” but Halloween and The Days of the Dead are very different celebrations. In Mexico, death is traditionally honored in a much more open fashion than it is here. Death is held in high esteem, in a reverential sense, not in the spooky, haunted sense of Halloween.

Awareness of the dead is typical of a culture that looks to the past, as in Mexico, not of a future-oriented culture as in the U.S. In Mexico, which is strongly mindful of the past, the amalgamation of Iberian Catholicism, full of ancient Greek and Roman roots, with the indigenous religions of the Aztecs, has given rise to a rich tradition known as los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead. We enjoy the celebration here in spite of the cultural differences. A manifestation of this in U.S. culture is the creation of “altares,” altars in remembrance of deceased friends or relatives. These are  commonly found in art galleries, where they are seen as opportunities for artistic license. In Mexico, altars to the dead are found in many homes. They are sincere tributes to loved ones, not art installations. Portraits of the departed are displayed, and their favorite food, drink, cigarettes, personal items, etc. are laid out in anticipation of their earthly visitations. The intent is to honor the deceased out of love and affection but also from a profound sense of the very thin veil that separates this life from the other life. In some ways, The Days of the Dead resemble American Memorial Day. Families in Mexico go to cemeteries to visit and adorn the tombs and to share meals with the dead. This is something which we should respect.

The veil separating life and death is indeed flimsy. We must realize that we will all soon be dead. What happens then? The Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is famous for his depictions of skeletons behaving as if they were still alive, enjoying all the pleasures of human life–food, drink, fancy clothes, parties, dancing, even sex. Posada’s skulls and bones in the midst of carnal pleasures symbolize the union of life and death. They also warn us of the illusory nature of pleasure. His art has been appropriated by the dominant U.S. culture and is now found everywhere. But his ideas have not. We see the dancing, drunken, fornicating skeletons as just funny art, missing the point of the illusion of human existence and the much more real intimacy of life and death.

The Days of the Dead celebration in U.S. culture is an example of cultural blending, something which always happens when distinct cultures rub against each other, as is the case in this part of the country. This can be good because cross-fertilization like this saves U.S. culture from stagnation. It goes the other way, too. Mexican culture is influenced by American culture. However, the popularity of The Days of the Dead is an appropriation by the American dominant culture of an element from the subordinate Mexican culture. As such, the meaning of the celebration has been altered. Things get changed when cultural elements are removed from their original context. They diverge from their original meanings. They may be  trivialized, stripped of serious meaning, made into “kitsch,” becoming pretentious, shallow and gaudy. This is what has happened to The Days of the Dead in the U.S. The sacred meaning of Los Dias de los Muertos has been lost.  This sacredness can be understood to be an escape from human rationalism, a journey into a space of intense, passionate, personal religion, a religion not about obeying God but more about one’s relationship with the physical world and simultaneously with the spiritual world. This is a religion of beauty, and definitely not one of fear of death and punishment for sins, but one of love in a space where loved ones await living human beings, who are the soon-to-be dead.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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Book Chat: Blood on the Tracks

Colorado author, Barbara Nickless, delivers the audience intensity and literary satisfaction in her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Intensity: applied deftly, like a clock set to screws tightening meticulously and relentlessly. Literary: with the designer’s eye for beautiful language to animate the hearts and motives of characters.

I must make a confession before jumping into Ms. Nickless’ novel. Crime-Thriller fiction is something I typically avoid. I believe novels ought to draw a reader through on the quality of its prose. To marry prose with “whodunnit” incentive and the Rube-goldbergian trickeration of opening three new questions for every one answered, strikes me as relying on clever tricks as opposed to quality writing. But, perhaps that’s a little too stuffy and self-righteous. Better I get over myself.

Good news: with Blood on the Tracks, we take pleasure in both. Denver railroad police officer, Agent Sydney Parnell, is an Iraq war veteran who is thrown into solving a sadistic murder. Ms. Nickless does not care for a squeamish audience, and…she makes everything personal.

It’s easy to forget that the whole novel takes place over a few days. The fact that it does, argues eloquently on behalf of Ms. Nickless’ handling of prose. She is a brilliant storyteller. And her main character, Sydney Parnell, is fiercely interesting and refreshing.

The murdered victim is family, and through family, Agent Parnell is pulled inevitably into her past, both to her childhood and her Iraq combat experience. It is the kind of story that must invite ghosts…and a self-medication of alcohol and drugs.

For me, this is a bright take on the female hero, where quite often, we are given a main character who despite the blows of combat, always seems to be a bit impervious or never fully imperiled. Something extraordinary and invisible, magical, seems to be granted by the author that will remove the female hero from danger. But that is not the case with Blood on the Tracks. Our character is quite broken…and quite strong. She feels the hammer of her pain swing from the inside and the outside.

Agent Parnell doesn’t have that authorial Deus ex machina excuse. I’m so impressed by Ms. Nickless’ handling of her. Our hero meets the “boys,” (good and bad), on their level—exchanging bullets, fists, kicks, quips, barbs—and gets her ass-kicking in while also taking a few. Her body, throughout the novel, is a chronicle of every encounter, and the author remembers this as she tells her tale. We feel the bruises as they add up. And we root—Hard!—for Agent Parnell. Especially so, as the gruesome murder invites the prospect of neo-Nazis.

But, it’s not that simple. It would be nice, and clean, to stick it to the Nazis…and we do get the satisfaction of killing a few! Ms. Nickless, however, keeps her story screwed to the mud and snow through Agent Parnell’s family ties and the haunting damage from Iraq. It really turns out, that a crime of this nature, involves all three.

The book ends where it should; Agent Parnell catches up to her killer, but we’re left with those three big questions the author can’t answer until the following novel. Which leads me to my next point.

The second book in the series, Dead Stop, comes out October 3rd. That’s next Tuesday for those, like me, who can’t count. Now is the perfect time to catch up and read Blood on the Tracks. It won’t take long…I promise. Go on, pick it up. After three pages, put it down! I dare you.

Almagre Artist/Editor,
John Lewis

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