Books and Action: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros

So much has happened, I don’t even know where to begin. From the president equivocating about people who brandish Nazi and KKK slogans and imagery, to the devastating hurricanes, to the cruel and heedless move to end DACA, a program which protects 800,000 people who were brought here illegally as children, these past couple of months have been bewildering, infuriating, and terrifying. It’s hard to know what to do day-to-day; as those that follow this blog have probably noticed, I’ve even had trouble reading anything beyond the frantic, awful headlines.

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For those who have been protected by DACA, America is the country where they have grown up, and is often the only home they have ever known. For so many people, “home” is a concept that is layered, contradictory, and sometimes fraught. When I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read in years, and I decided to revisit it. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a book that explores these contradictions of “home.” The titular house where the narrator, Esperanza, lives with her family doesn’t live up to her dreams of a physical space that could meet what “home” means to her at the beginning of the novel: not just a space to live, but a space to identify with, a space to claim and be claimed by. Esperanza talks to neighbors who remember the country they came from, and sometimes discuss plans of returning to; to Esperanza, these faraway places seem like “home” for these neighbors in a way that she doesn’t think of Mexico, where her parents came from. While these homes are a place that live in the past for her neighbors, Esperanza’s imagining of home is a place of security that she aspires to, attached to her hopes of adulthood rather than her memories.

At the same time, Esperanza is building her own childhood memories on Mango Street, a place that feels temporary for so many on it, but that becomes the center of Esperanza’s coming of age. And just as Mango Street isn’t “home” the way that those faraway countries are for her neighbors, it also seems to Esperanza to be separate from America in some crucial ways. As Esperanza notes, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives.” Upon moving in, Esperanza meets a young white girl who agrees to be her friend, but, as Esperanza recalls the conversation, “only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad.”

The stories that Esperanza weaves, the pieces of home and not-quite-home that come from her neighbors, parents, and friends, were inspired by Cisneros’ work with college students who came from a variety of backgrounds. As she writes of the woman she was when she began Mango Street in the introduction of the 25th anniversary edition, “She learns from her students that they have more difficult lives than her storyteller’s imagination can invent […] I write about my students because I don’t know what else to do with their stories. Writing them down allows me to sleep.” For so many in this country, building a life–building a home–in America is complex and challenging, but there are no alternatives, no place to “go back” to, no choice but to move forward.

While Trump has started to walk back his initial rhetoric, its hard to know what will happen, especially with so many of his supporters still clinging to the aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments of his campaign. Fortunately, there are many ways to help, and this article by Jessicah Lahitou provides some great suggestions. Call your representatives to let them know that you believe the DREAMers deserve a path to legal citizenship. There are also many groups that advocate for the rights and protection of immigrants, and they can use whatever financial support you can offer. And, as this post hopes to encourage, seek to learn more about the experiences of immigrants. You’ll be surprised to learn how different the place you’ve thought of as home can look to someone else; hopefully, like Esperanza, it will make you want to work for the kind of home we should all be aspiring to create, together.

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Books & Action: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

The news of the bookish world in the wake of this new America has been the massive sales of Orwell’s classic 1984. And by all means, read this book if you haven’t yet: it will certainly help you understand why phrases like “alternative facts” are so dangerous, especially when uttered by spokespeople of the government. But it occurs to me that another book deserves as much attention right now. While Orwell’s prescient novel illustrates the future that could be before us, The Diary of Anne Frank gives us a voice from the past that illuminates something that has happened before, and is happening again, right now.

Right now, immigrants and refugees are being denied entrance into America on the basis of their religion. If the idea of an angry, hostile leader using religious identity as a strawman villain upon which to place a nation’s woes sounds familiar to you, it should. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “Hitler and other Nazi propagandists were highly successful in directing the population’s anger and fear against the Jews.” This rise of anger and hatred led directly to the loss of up to 6 million Jewish lives. And for a long time, America stood on the sidelines under an ideology which included the phrase “America First.” The fact that these were literally the words invoked by Trump makes me fear his ignorance of history: it would seem, as the phrase goes, we are doomed to repeat it.

Anne Frank wrote her diary while in hiding from the Nazis. She wanted to be a writer, and she hoped the diary would be published someday. She intended to document her story, to make sure it would be told. I read The Diary of Anne Frank as an eighth grade student, and I was immediately struck by the maturity of her prose, her clarity and compassion as such a young writer. She would have grown into a voice for the ages. At the same time, I was struck by how much she sounded just like me and my friends, like any thirteen year old girl. She writes about her crushes, her hopes for the future, her fears. She wrote both to escape reality and to document it. She wrote for companionship and imagination. I identified so strongly with her.

You might be thinking to yourself, “we do not have concentration camps. We are not to that place in this country.” Before you let this line of thinking put you back into comfortable complacency, let me bring you to the reason I have been reminded of Anne Frank and her diary. If you think, “America then couldn’t have done anything for Anne Frank, and America now isn’t doing anything like what happened to her,” I have important news for you: the Franks were among the many Jewish refugees denied entrance into the United States. There were prevalent fears that Nazi spies would infiltrate under the guise of refugee status (again, this should sound familiar), but even without that, “America first” ideologies created, if not hostility, “global indifference” towards Jewish refugees.

Here’s the thing: we are not to the point of the Holocaust yet. We are still in position to act. We are still in position to save lives. And turning away immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority countries is an alarming sign that we are repeating the mistakes of the past.

So, what can you do to help? One thing is to donate money. The ACLU has accomplished the first major victory against Trump’s policies (which you can read about here), and they need support to keep doing this important work. If you can give monthly, please do. Donate here. The International Rescue Committee is another important organization working to help Syrian refugees, who are living through one of the most unimaginable crises of modern history. Learn more about the IRC and give what you can here. You can also contact your representatives to express your disapproval of this policy. Here is a spreadsheet listing the current statements (or lack thereof) made by U.S. Senators, but don’t forget your representative in the House. This action will be especially helpful if you live in a zipcode that usually votes for the sitting representative, and will carry even more weight if you are or have traditionally been a member of their party. This issue should be bipartisan: religious freedom is at the core of our foundation as a country, and even prominent Republican leaders spoke out against a Muslim ban (it is difficult not to interpret their silence and/or support now as cowardice–I am deeply disappointed). Americans of all party affiliations should be concerned by the example we are setting to the world, should be upset by the complete reversal of our identity as a global symbol of promise, security, and the hopes of a better life for all people. This is not the America I was taught about in school: then again, it may very well be the America that the Frank family encountered, the America that sealed their fate. Let us not be that America again.

If any person would have the right to feel bitter and hopeless, it would have been Anne. Instead, she wrote the following passage, and as I am certain I could not say it better, I will leave you with her voice, and hope that we can carry it with us like a flame through this darkness:

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”