Articles by Stella Pope Duarte
Latino Perspectives Magazine has a collection of her essays.
I NEVER MOURNED VIETNAM
Stella Pope Duarte
Elephant grass grows seven feet tall in Vietnam. It covers hundreds of meters of jungle terrain, and grows in clumps under trees and alongside riverbanks. Vietnam veterans described it as the “wait a minute,” grass. Wait a minute, my hand is cut. Wait a minute, my boot is caught. The tall, green blades of elephant grass have edges as sharp as razors. There is no known use for elephant grass. The locals can’t even use it as thatch for their homes. I saw elephant grass on television in the 60’s, but I didn’t know what it was. There were American troops hiding in it. It never occurred to me that the Viet Cong were hiding in it too. Few details about the Vietnam War ever impressed themselves in my mind, until years later when I pondered the war, and knew that the ugly memory of what happened there lurked in my mind, not unlike elephant grass, harmless enough from afar, deadly up-close.
In 1998, I visited Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, with a small group of Americans, to complete research on my first novel, Let Their Spirits Dance. The novel tells the story of a Latino family living in post-war Vietnam. The mother of the deceased Vietnam veteran receives an inner call to travel to the Vietnam Memorial Wall to touch her son’s name before her death. A story of family love, reaching beyond the grave unfolds, as the family travels toward the Vietnam Memorial Wall to fulfill their mother’s promise to touch her son’s name. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are terrible reminders of the war. Many beggars walk about with missing limbs and deformed bodies, some of these the result of Agent Orange, napalming by American troops, and war related confrontations with American and Viet Cong military forces. In fact, the beggars were one of the hardest things we had to deal with. They are relentless and often “rent” infants, who are often given drugs and made to look pitiful, to work on sympathetic foreigners. There are orphanages in the city which still house the second and third generation of Asian-American children.
Vietnamese people are curious about foreigners, and were especially curious about my son and me. They were not used to seeing Latino people, except on Mexican soap operas run on Vietnamese television. I finally gave in and went about claiming that I was from Mexico, which is not entirely untrue, and this brought smiles to their faces. They thought I was one of the actresses on their favorite Mexican soap opera, and even had me sign a few autographs! They loved my twelve-year old son, John, often pinching his cheeks affectionately, to his dismay. He ended up making friends with many young Vietnamese, and enjoyed the food immensely, which surprised me, as he’s a picky eater at home.
Latino soldiers serving during the war, had similar encounters, and those with migrant parents and grandparents saw their own folks reflected in the simple, hard working farmers of Vietnam. Of the 3.14 million men who served during America’s conflict in Vietnam, 191,000 were men of Latino descent, although there may, in fact, be thousands more not carrying their Spanish surnames who remain unidentified.
We visited a museum in Ho Chi Minh City which was set up to depict the communist victory against the American foreign “devils.” I was not able to stay there long, as the pictures and stories showed Americans holding in their hands the heads of dead Vietnamese soldiers, torturing others, napalming still others, and seemingly enjoying it all. Some of the photos in the exhibit were taken by American journalists. I left the museum with a sense of wanting to hide in shame, to run from the memory of having seen a tiny baby in a jar of formaldehyde, its body deformed beyond description due to bombing by American troops. We traveled thirteen hours to the city of Nha Trang, and visited the jungle area of the Mekong Delta. From our van, I occasionally spotted an immense Buddhist pagoda, or a Catholic Church that rivaled the beauty of an American basilica, surrounded by jungle terrain and Vietnamese huts. I was able to see, firsthand, the sweltering jungles where our boys had walked. I had a chance to sift the red earth through my fingers, and walk into a rice field to pluck out a delicate rice stalk. The gray waters of the Mekong Delta lay before me. Houseboats, sampans and basket boats were common sights. I saw dense hillsides of rubber trees, and hundreds of tombs rising here and there to mark the remains of a loved one, and everywhere, there were altars of all shapes and sizes with red candles perpetually glowing for the souls of loved ones.
My journey to Vietnam had its origins in 1995. At that time, I had a computer on order from a warehouse back east, and it arrived at my home at the end of the two-week “asking” period. I had plans to use the computer to prepare classes for my university students and to do research on a variety of educational topics. One of the first things I wrote on the computer was a staircase dream I had involving my father. When I spelled out the words my father had related to me during that dream, I understood that his message was actually very simple. My writing was the way up the staircase. One of the stories that emerged was entitled, “Cobra.” It told the tale of a Latino Vietnam veteran, and his wife, living in post-war Vietnam. There was something about “Cobra” that I could not shake off after finishing it. The agony of the Vietnam vet, as he faced the dark story he had lived out during the war, held my attention. For the first time in my life, I began to shed tears for what happened in Vietnam. There was a lament in me, a cry I had hidden inside my soul. I had forgotten it was there. I was surprised that the lament searched me out, surfaced from me, in tears, in a sense of deep grief, and in a desire to resolve something I could not initially recognize. The deepest part of my being was in distress. Images rose in my mind: coffins coming home by the hundreds, draped in American flags; friends from school who had been drafted; the barrios, our Latino neighborhoods emptied of young men who were not in college, and did not join the protestors; mothers who had lost a son, and became ill with sorrow, some to the point of death, and the faces of young American troops running and hiding, shooting and being shot at on television newscasts of the war. This I had seen and forgotten. The process of mourning is an intricate one. It is a time to stand speechless and let the soul express grief in whichever way it chooses. Mourning may manifest in tears, shouts, sadness, rage, and a variety of other emotions. None of these expressions alone can manage the process of mourning, as it can be a lengthy one, and involve a level of existence known only to the individual soul. Tasks are accomplished during mourning. The meaning of life is searched out, life is reviewed, current goals are scrutinized, and beliefs are shaken to their roots. There can be moments of deep darkness in which the soul engages in no activity at all, frightening times in which the individual is alone, distant from others, even if standing in a crowded room. Faced with the bitter memories of the Vietnam War, and determined to complete my own mourning process, I sought out families of men, Latino men who had served in Vietnam. I focused on Chicanos, who are second, third generation in the United States, and were the men I knew in the barrio. The word Chicano is an ancient Aztec word signifying someone from the North, from Aztlán, the ancestral homeland of the indigenous tribes who later mingled with Europeans and become the modern-day Mexicans.
I resolved to dedicate the book to the first soldier whose family I interviewed, without knowing that the family of Sgt. Tony Cruz, my first interview, had an astounding piece of information to share with me. They related to me that Tony had told them several times before he left for Vietnam in 1968, that someday he would be famous, and they would read about him in a book. In fact, he said he would make history. The odds that I would find the exact family whose son and brother had made such a prophetic statement are impossible to calculate. The Cruz family’s revelation, fueled my enthusiasm and led me to understand that I was dealing with forces I knew nothing about, and that I had somehow been mandated to write the book.
The plot of the story emerged in my mind, and linked itself with the names of Vietnam veterans on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. I became convinced that I was to tell a story that would cause Americans everywhere to take another look at the Vietnam War and at the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Wall, and in this way complete a mysterious part of the mourning process that was long overdue. As a new author, I felt at a loss as to how to begin the story, and concentrated instead on doing research, conducting interviews and taking trips to settings that I felt would be part of the book.
My flight back to Phoenix from the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 1997 was the first time I had ever boarded an airplane. When I was a child, no one ventured far from home. There was no reason, nor money with which to travel, and if travel was done, it was done by car. The trip to D.C. had been by U-Haul with my son and another writer who filmed the trip. We followed the route that the family would take in the book. Back in Phoenix after the trip, I knew I had to begin the novel, and had absolutely no idea how this was to be done. It was at some point shortly after my arrival, and after hours of frustrating starts and finishes, that I sensed a desire to form something with my hands. I am not an artist who works with paint or clay, and I was confused. The urge was so great, that I finally took an ordinary piece of typing paper and began to crumble it this way and that. I set the wrinkled product on my desk and stared at it without one clue as to what it was, except that it looked like a flower. Finally, a thought from deep within surfaced to my conscious mind. The memory of the passion vine my mother grew in our front yard when I was a child rose vividly in my mind. The passionflower, which clusters abundantly on the vine, depicts the passion of Christ. It is a huge white and purple bloom that has in its center what looks like a crown of thorns, nails and tendrils that resemble whips. The petals symbolize the ten apostles at the crucifixion, and the five-lobed leaves, the cruel hands of the persecutors. Once I recognized the flower, I called my older sister, Rose, who is a gardener like my mother was. It was ten o’clock at night, but at that point, time had no meaning for me. All I wanted to know was if Rose knew anything about the passionflower. “Wait a minute,” she said, “let me go get my plant book.” There was a pause on the other line. Then her voice came over the line. “I’ve got a book here, and there’s a big blow-up of the passionflower all over the back cover.” I said to her. “Hold that book, I’ll be right there.” It was almost midnight when I picked up the book, and the words for the beginning of the novel flowed immediately. The passion vine bloomed until late November the year Jesse died. Amazing. Then, followed a description of the passion vine, and its remarkable blooms.
The journey begun, there was no turning back.
Elephant grass in Vietnam cuts like a knife. It is unsafe. It can kill. American troops took chances hiding in it, but there was no choice. Soldiers had to adapt to the terrain. Jungles were fiercely hot and humid, the days long and tedious, filled with uncertainty and always, great thirst. Life for those who waited in the States was uncertain too. There was no elephant grass to cut the flesh, but there were great losses of life that cut into the soul. Shame ran rampant as Americans uncovered the truth about destructive decisions the government made concerning the rules of war in Vietnam. The process of mourning was put aside, and then it was never mentioned again. Life went on. Men came back, some to live prosperous lives, others to a life of self-destruction, drugs and psychological problems. I never mourned Vietnam until I stood in elephant grass, and ran my fingers over its razor-sharp edges, slowly—until I saw blood.
Segregation on Cave Man Row
Stella Pope Duarte
Special for The Republic
June 4, 2004
I sat on one side of the room by the windows, next to the pencil sharpener. The students in the Cave Man Row sat on the other side of the room. There were at least eight of them, the lowest performing students in my seventh grade class. Most of them were children of migrant parents who moved from place to place in search of work on farms across the Southwest. They did not have decent clothes to wear, and their hygiene was poor. Some days they came to school smelling of dirt, sweat, and clothes that needed to be washed. Their hands were crusted with dirt. They often went to the nurse to get their hair checked for lice, and sometimes came back smelling of, what seemed to me to be, kerosene. Their heads were, at times, shaved to spare the scalp from the tenacious parasites that lived on their victim’s blood. These were the children who sat in the Cave Man Row.When it was time to line up, nobody wanted to line up next to the students of the Cave Man Row. When it was lunchtime, nobody wanted to eat next to them. Nobody wanted to play with them on the playground. At school dances they were shunned like the plague. It was “Cave Man Row this,” and “Cave Man Row that,” and nobody ever scolded anybody for using the name. It was silently accepted by everyone, including the teacher, who made no attempt to correct the demeaning description, nor to reach out to the students with strategies, that today would be in line with the philosophy of No Child Left Behind, and of ESL education. This was the 60’s. It was sink or swim. Become mainstream, or flunk. It was the era of giving demerits for speaking Spanish, our native language. It was the time of denying the existence and merit of anyone who did not present a decent appearance, and did not perform at the standards set by District policy. It was a time when it was a shame to be poor, and brown, and humble, and speak a foreign language.
I was eleven years old. I sat by the pencil sharpener, but I looked many times at the children across the room. When they came up to sharpen their pencils, I left my paper, which was a worksheet with fill-in sentences asking for the correct predicate, verb and conjunction for them to see. It must have been like hieroglyphics for the children of the Cave Man Row. I let them look at my answers, in the hope that at least they would get one or two answers right on their papers. I had no idea that I would grow up to advocate for them for the rest of my life.
In the wake of Brown v Board of Education’s fiftieth anniversary, I think back at the children of the Cave Man Row, and wonder why true desegregation is taking so long. It has not been accomplished to this day, although many strides have been taken in that direction. We are still faced with students who cannot learn, who are dirty and poor, and who are plagued with parents who are drug addicts and incarcerated, and many others who have no love for their children. The pain of the children of the Cave Man Row is this: They were considered less than human. They will be remembered as stupid and dirty and poor, no matter what they have become. But in my mind, they were the children who smiled at me, secretly, and sharpened their pencils, and sneaked looks at my answers. They thanked me with their eyes—and that was the best thanks of all.
Passion vine a metaphor for new openings in life
Stella Pope Duarte
Special for The Republic
December 17, 2004
My mother’s garden wrapped itself around our house encircling all I knew as the “outdoors,” when I was a child. She grew wild flowers, tiny pink creations that grew wherever there was a patch of ground, and other varieties that we called “poppers” because of the sound they made when we held them in our sweaty palms. She also grew marigolds, daisies, geraniums, roses, boganvilla, bird of paradise, marigolds, lilies, miguelito vines, herbs, hedges, oleanders, evergreen trees, mulberry trees, chinaberry trees, and many other plants that she experimented with, digging holes, planting and transplanting them until she was satisfied with their growth. Sometimes she gave up on a plant, and decided it just wouldn’t make it no matter what she did.
The passion vine outside her bedroom window was the most wondrous of all my mother’s plants. It climbed on a wooden trellis, and covered a huge area of the outside wall, its delicate green tentacles reaching up to the rooftop. The vine bloomed through Summer, and early Fall, sprouting spectacular white and purple blooms, that lived for only one day. The flower’s beauty, springing into life for only day, surprised me, as I thought it should last longer. In those days, I thought everything would last forever, and nothing would ever change.
The flower’s anthers, stigmas and coiling tendrils portrayed the passion of Christ—his suffering and death. I took the passion vine for granted, as I did everything else in my mother’s garden. It is amazing how much beauty we take for granted, without realizing the impact it has on our lives. Beauty is like truth—it pursues us and gives us every opportunity to gaze upon its meaning, and reveals a hidden message, if we are willing to listen.
The image of the passion flower came to my rescue, many years later, as I groped for a way to begin a novel. There it was, hidden in my memory, and it surfaced, as clearly as if I was standing next to it as a child. The memory of the passion flower opened a new way for me to understand the role of pain and suffering in our lives. We are timeless creatures, and “walk” through our lives, past, present and future, all at once. Our souls do not run on human time—they span the years in one instant, and the universe in ways we will never understand. I found out that it isn’t what you suffer that makes you holy—it’s how you suffer it. It’s how you allow suffering, brought on by the mishaps of life, sickness and death, that make you a greater human being, or a lesser human being—and the goal of our journey is to strive for greatness. My mother laughed, one day when I asked her if the birds that visited her garden ever flew backwards. She said if they ever did, they would bump into things, and lose their direction—but you, she said, you can move in any direction you want, and still find your way back home. I am still trying to understand what it means to be able to fly forward, backward, or stay in the same position, within myself, and all at once, hold beauty in my heart that reaches me from a day I had forgotten, to heal me, and bring me safely home.
Juárez Women Deserve Justice
Stella Pope Duarte
March 18, 2005
The author’s current work in progress, The Women of Juárez, was awarded the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award, 2004.
There is a history to tell of the women of Ciudad Juárez, the sister city of El Paso, Texas, that is unlike any other ever experienced in the modern world. Since 1993, over 400 young women between the ages of 14 and 22, some as young as seven years old, have been brutalized, raped and murdered, and the number continues to rise. Of the 400 murdered, over one-third have been categorized as femicides, hate killings of women. As of this writing, eight more bodies have been discovered since January, 2005. La Reforma, Mexico’s leading newspaper has called the murders, “the crime of the century.”
My own life became intricately involved in the story of the brutal murders in Juárez through a question brought up at one of my presentations by an ASU student. The student asked me if I would ever write about the women of Iraq, as our country is presently in conflict with their country, and I found myself telling him that someday, perhaps, I would, but for now, I would tell the story of the women of Juárez. It was then, I realized how much the brutal murders had affected my own life. There is something in me that rises in righteous indignation, and cries out at the killing of so many young women, while the murderers remain at large. Indeed, the whole world is looking at Juárez for answers, and so far, only isolated cases have been solved. Speculations on who is murdering the women point to, opportunists, taxi drivers, cartels, porno rings, gangs, drug traffikers, and Satanic cults. Some of those accused and charged with the murders, have later recanted their testimony, saying they were tortured into confessing.
Recently, Phoenix College ran Teatro Bravo’s brilliant play, Las mujeres de Juárez, written by Rubén Amavizca Murúa, and directed by Christina Marin. The play portrayed a mother in search of her murdered daughter, and showed in stirring detail the callous response of the Mexican police, and the disturbing legacy of poverty, and machismo at the root of the problem. It was fitting that the play be performed on our own home ground, as the majority of young women murdered have been employed at American-owned factories, maquiladoras, out-sourced by the U.S. in Mexico.
The NAFTA Agreement and globalization have created a border town with huge industry, and little concern for the great societal changes that come when rural people are forced, through economic loss, to leave their ancestral homes. Yet, eliminating the factories from Juárez is not a plausible answer either, as families now depend on wages, earned which add up to the equivalent of $4.50 American dollars a day. We are part of a delicate weave, all of us, a balance that hangs in the universe. What is done in one part of the web, is done to all of us. That is why the crimes in Juárez must not be ignored, and that is why I am giving voice to the women’s cries for justice in my work.
It is our obligation as members of one race to let the light of awareness and compassion shine wherever humanity faces senseless injustice. We must pierce the darkness with truth, and sear the consciences of those who have the power to stop the crimes, and do not have the courage to do so.
The art of giving thanks
Stella Pope Duarte
November 18, 2005
I was always told to say thank you, excuse me, and please, if I wanted my life to run smoothly. I had lots of practice in giving thanks, as I lived in a home where veladoras were lit in thanksgiving for anything from somebody making it through an in-grown toenail, to someone finding their lost parrot. There were rules for giving thanks—the person had to look thankful. You couldn’t say thank you, with a sour face. And certainly, no one wanted to be labeled ungrateful in our Latino world, it was absolutely one of the worst things that could be said about someone—an insult that would put a freeze on more favors coming to the person, as everyone knew they wouldn’t be appreciated anyway.
In Spanish, the word, thanks, sounds musical, gracias, almost like the beginning of a song. It was common to hear my mother say, “Gracias a Dios,” automatically, as if thanking God was like taking her next breath. We were taught that thanking God was the first step to being in his good graces–more blessings would follow because everyone loves to be appreciated, which is another meaning for giving thanks. There’s not a person alive who doesn’t want to be recognized, acknowledged and valued for something they have done.
On Thanksgiving Day, my family sits at the dinner table with a feast set before us, turkey, dressing, vegetables, mashed potatoes, hot rolls, and sopa for the grandkids who can’t have a decent meal without a bowl of macaroni drenched in tomato sauce and cheese. My children stare at me because they know a prayer has to be said, and we have to hold hands. The whole year we’ve been rushing around, eating in front of the TV, or in the car, spilling soda pop and coffee on already stained car seats. But on Thanksgiving Day, we pause and look around the table at who is still with us, and who is no longer there. Strange, how death takes its toll, sometimes in the blink of an eye, someone is taken away and they are missing from their place at our dinner table.
Then, I begin the prayer, sighing, as I think of the losses, the hard times, the times we were tested as a family, the times we faced the unimaginable. And as I begin the prayer, an energy begins to rise, a quiet surge that catches at my throat, and sends a warm feeling, like a small, radiant beam that catches from one person to the other as our hands are clasped. Then I understand what Thanksgiving Day is all about. It is a day to practice the art of giving thanks, an ancient custom of counting our blessings, gathering them like so many jewels in the darkness of our lives, unaware of their value, until we hold them, dazzling, in the palms of our hands.
Beauty not shame, in use of native tongue
The Phoenix Republic
Opinions “My Turn”
Stella Pope Duarte
January 19, 2008
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..” As a young girl, I read the poignant words of Charles Dickens in the opening paragraph of, A Tale of Two Cities, and felt myself transported above the stark familiarity of el barrio to the bustling, industrial cities of England, and into the lives of characters who wouldn’t have made any sense to me, had Dickens not brought them to life in his pages. We share the universe with one another when we tell stories that make sense in any language. Words have a way of enveloping readers in a magical weave intricately linking them with the past, present, future, and everything in-between. Words, for me, have been an oasis, a place to discover another world within my own.
At birth, the human brain has the capacity to hear the syllables of every language spoken since the beginning of time. As a child hears specific syllables of his own language, the areas of the brain become sensitive to that language, and lose their responsiveness to other languages. A maze of neurons form as a fetus develops in its mother’s womb, and like so many tentacles, they reach out and communicate to one another as the brain develops. The brain itself is a sophisticated internet of language that is communicating even when we sleep.
Considering all that language means to us, it seems unbelievable that we are still warring over what languages to speak, and whether people need another law to remind them that English is the official language of the United States. In prehistoric times, people spoke an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 languages, and currently this number is down to about 6,000, with those languages quickly disappearing as elderly speakers die, leaving no new native speakers of the language.
Traditionally, our educational system has placed restrictions on our use of other languages, insisting on acculturating students to mainstream America. As a child, I remember receiving demerits for speaking Spanish, and was told time and again that this was not the thing to do at school. The language issue was one of the main reasons my parents did not attend school activities, as they were not comfortable speaking in English. My mother’s pleas that we NOT teach Spanish to her grandchildren, as they would suffer discrimination, created a generation of children who had lost the ability to speak their native tongue.
English is a must, and everyone would agree that it is a universal language spoken throughout the world and used extensively for business and commerce. Still, there is a part of me that sees anything restricting the musical tones of my childhood tongue as a barrier, something erected in my brain to make me feel ashamed of myself. And the shame goes deep, as language is connected with identity, and a sense of self.
It is the worst of times when we seek to destroy languages through political agendas steeped in shame tactics, and the best of times when language is allowed to express itself freely. Had we cultivated mutual respect for languages, we might have, in our midst, humankind’s original language, and the key to understanding the secret of our own mysterious beginnings.
On a Ticket to the World
The Arizona Republic
Stella Pope Duarte
March 25, 2001
La Sonorita is a barrio that borders 7th Avenue on the east, Buckeye Road on the north, the Freeway to the south, and the railroad tracks to the west. La Sonorita is like an open wound, a sore spot in society people don’t want to look at very long, a molar that hurts. You go to the dentist. The pliers come out and you feel even more pain. The barrio was like that, but not always.
A news report once declared La Sonorita, “one of the worst slum areas in Phoenix.” My mother asked me, “Mija, what’s a slum?” I told her, “That’s where poor people live.” She answered, “Let’s go help them.” The message was clear, wealth has nothing to do with material possessions, and everything to do with the human heart. Our house was at the end or beginning of an alley, facing Pima Street, depending on which way you were traveling. Most everybody walked down the alley at one time or another to get to Wong’s Market, or Fay’s, Lowell School or Grant, to visit someone at Memorial Hospital, or to attend mass at St. Anthony’s Church. The line to the north side of town was drawn at Van Buren. There were times in our barrio when the wind set branches of our mulberry tree in motion, and the branches swayed back and forth, making our dolls’ cradles rock just right. Fantastic times, of dark skies at night, and the North Star glittering at the tail end of the Little Dipper. Everything made us look up. The smell of green grass reminded us we were still on the earth, still a part of it all–the vastness, the stillness, the uncomplicated times of sitting with my mother in the yard at night, and getting used to the dark alley, until we could see as good as cats. Out on the grassy lawn, I spun my little sister, Lupe, around and around, because she was skinny, and I could do it. We both got dizzy, and still we laughed because the world’s up was down. Then we saw my mother standing at the kitchen door, calling us in, blocking the light coming from inside the house, the house my father had built.
As a child, I learned to tell stories by listening to them. All I had to do was sit quietly around grown-ups while they talked, and I heard it all. I heard stories about lovers who cheated on each other, stories of dead people who insisted on visiting their relatives, the story of a girl who said she saw a cow’s eye in a glass of water and wouldn’t take another drink, thus dying of thirst. There were adventure stories about La Llorona, the weeping woman who grieves at night, flying around in a shroud, searching for the children she drowned so long ago. One of my three hundred-pound cousins saw La Llorona once on a night of drinking and carousing, and was scared out of his wits. He ran into his grandmother’s house, knocking down her door, and landing flat on his belly. He was so heavy nobody could lift him, and he remained in that position until morning.
There was the story of how I had stood on my Nina Carolina’s grave, and she had sighed, and no one knew why. Then, my sister, Rosie, saw my Irish grandfather, Solomon Pope, sitting one evening in his favorite chair in the living room. Of course Tata had been dead for years. The family was concerned. Was Tata wearing his hat? Yes, of course he was. Then things were OK. Tata would have never forgotten his hat dead or alive.
Then, came the story of all stories. My mother recounted it to us hundreds of times. One night she had walked out into the dark alley to throw out the trash, and there, on a telephone pole, she had seen Christ on the cross. He was enveloped in pure, white light, entirely different from earthly light. The memory of that light and details of the vision never faded from my mother’s mind as long as she lived. One might ask: Did she really see Christ on the cross? It doesn’t matter. It was real to her. The magic of a story lies in its ability to empower the listener, or reader. In my child’s mind I was the only little girl whose mother had seen Christ on the cross in a dark alley. Years later, the story taught me to hope that at the end of a dark time in my life, there would be light, splendid, healing light.
When I was nineteen, I was offered a job by a local Christian youth organization who had headquarters in Chicago. I still recall what happened as I tried to convince my parents that I had to leave the barrio to work for my prospective employers in Chicago. My Spanish-speaking parents were unable to hear the “Sh” sound in Chicago, and insisted on calling it “Chee-ka-go.” They looked at me, then at each other over and over again, trying to understand what it all meant. I tried to explain that Chicago was smaller than New York, closer than Detroit, and that I wouldn’t climb the high-rise buildings unless necessary. After much deliberation, my mother asked my father: “Chico,” (that was his nickname). “Do we know anyone in Chee-ka-go?” My father’s answer was, “No.” End of conversation. They would not send me to a place where there was no family. I was devastated. Thinking back, I am grateful. Had I left La Sonorita, I would have never had the substance I needed for my work, for my writing depicts the heart and soul of barrio life. In fact, it was a dream I had of my father in 1995, which revealed to me that my destiny was to become a writer. Funny, that my father, who wouldn’t let me go to Chee-ka-go, is the same person who gave me the ticket I needed to go around the world.
Alley turns into symbol of love
Stella Pope Duarte
Special for The Republic
April 16, 2004
The alley, el callejón, next to my mother’s house played an important role in La Sonorita Barrio in South Phoenix. It was more than just an alley for garbage cans, broken wine bottles and discarded furniture and appliances. It was a mini highway, a path through our barrio, leading to other callejones which formed an intricate maze of dusty, foot-worn paths that lead to places important to barrio residents. Places like, Wong’s Market, Fay’s, Chico’s Bar, Gray’s Service Station, the brickyard, the bus stop, St. Anthony’s Church, Memorial Hospital and Harmon Park. You could walk down los callejones all day long, and wave to neighbors tending flowers in their backyards, or sitting outside under patios. Men tinkered with their cars, women hung out their wash, kids played on make-shift see-saws, and once in a while you would retrieve a baseball for a would-be Little Leaguer who had just scored a homerun.
Walking down los callejones was like taking the scenic road through a world owned and operated by residents who shared three things in common: a hard life, the will to survive, and faith to get them through each day. You had to have all three to live in a place that mainstream American counted as worthless and where property values were nil.
La Sonorita Barrio was described as one of the worst slum areas in Phoenix, according to a news story in the 1960’s. My mother suggested that we go help the poor people, pobrecitos, who lived in the slum, and was surprised to find out that they were talking about us! This only proves that poverty, like beauty and love, is in the eye of the beholder.
El callejón played another mysterious and miraculous role in my personal life, as it became the place where my mother, Rosanna Pope, had a vision. One dark night, as she walked out into el callejón to throw out trash, she related that she saw a most wondrous thing. On the telephone pole, right before her eyes, hung Christ on the cross, outlined in a bright, unearthly light. Unwilling to take her eyes off the vision, my mother walked backwards all the way to the kitchen door of our house. My mother repeated the story numerous times to family members, and each time with the same passion. Some may ask, did she truly see Christ on the cross in that dark alley? And the answer will remain unknown, however the memory of the vision and the amazing light remained with my mother until her death. Many years later, as she lay dying, she again related seeing a light—a bright light that did not hurt her eyes. Then in a spark of revelation, she identified it as the same light she had seen in el callejón so many years ago, and described the light as pure love, and as possessing “love for each and every person.”
With this memory, shared by my mother, el callejón became for me more than just a place for trash, discards, and a site for local winos to gather under the tamarisk trees. It was a symbol, poor and unsung, dark and lonely, that defied the world of power and money with a simple tale of love.