Dreaming Spires (Part One): The Rocky Road of the Egghead Penitente
Make a firm decision it's time to go That's for you to find out and for me to know No more hard times or petty crimes Forget that life I have left behind The night goes by leaving you behind me as I fly then rise the daylight sky How do you get to heaven if you never try?
New life, new love Where's the heart I was dreaming of? I need a new hope, new dream another part in a different scene
This post started out as a rather elongated email to the fabulous La Lecturess on a recently discovered shared connection, and her post on the socio-economic and cultural dimensions of teaching and institutional space. This led me to thinking about the influence of our first inculcation into the profession, which is usually at our undergraduate institutions. It is here that many of us for the first time are able to conceive of both conceptually and materially the dimensions of the academic life, which however unaware of it we may be at the time, will also someday be our own. So this is a sort of love letter not only to La Lecturess, written across collegiate generations, but also a strange love letter to Prestigious Eastern U itself, my first academic paramour, filled with both loathing and love.
I have written before about Prestigious Eastern U, in a variety of guises: the importance of its symbolic value to myself and my family as “American achievement,” the life-altering changes it provided/enforced, both upon my worldview and my familial relationships, the socio-cultural meaning of “going back East” for a Californian and Westerner. All of these things contribute to and influence my memories of PU, both of the specific time and place that it was in the eighties, as well as returning to it now, either in memory or in person or through my relationships crafted and sustained from that time. Perhaps like some other starry-eyed undergraduates, my time there would determine almost whole cloth the person I would go on to become, the professional I am, the intellectual I am. Its name spoken out loud is almost like a magical talisman, a spell, bringing a hush to the disquietude of voices in a room. While I have discovered that this name alone will not get you much in the end, what it does give you is that one, brief, fleeting moment of respect, or alternatively, recognition, which is not necessarily a function of its actual quality of education and training, but speaks to how we, in our new bold and troublesomemeritocracy, give weight to these things in the same way that old family names had in the 19th century. However, the magical transformative quality of the uttered word of PU also speaks to the two-way effect of its alchemic glamour, for such a powerful weapon transforms those who use it as much as it effect others. And I tend to think of my time at PU in this way, as an apprenticeship into various modalities of life (Anglo-ness, American-ness, Power, “Literacy,” “Intelligence,” Influence, Reputation), almost like Hogwarts, a witchy training and transformation into another, different, luminous creature.
Over the weekend, before my thankfully brief end of term illness, Prancilla, Zilla, and I ventured downtown for a bit of quotidian shopping. Miss Prancilla and Zilla insist, for some strange reason, on going to dance classes on the weekends, exhausting themselves in what I jokingly refer to as “bringing down the spirit,” then like homosexuals everywhere seemingly, seek to relax in a shopping milieu. All of which is fine by me, except for the dance class. So, after their dance fever, we went to Target for some household nothings, then hit Crate and Barrel for glasses and stemware, as Mr. Gordo is coming for a visit next week and I would love to serve him a fine wine in something more elegant and appropriate than a coffee mug. However, since they arrive after their Olivia Newton-John workout, their blood sugar is typically low, and they insisted, for whatever strange reasons that have to do with hypoglycemia, to partake in hot dogs chez Target. Not really my cup of tea, but I sat with them. In between Prancilla complaining about the quality of the bun (hypoglycemia certainly, for the Target canteen is not exactly a Parisian boulangerie) and then morosely and deliberately consuming his Target Dog, we attempted a conversation on race that revealed as much about the differences and similarities between Black Americans and Latinas/os as it did about the individualities of experience.
Prancilla was asking me a series of questions essentially about racial identification, and my family’s perception of itself. For me, these conversations are always given a frisson through the simple fact that in my quotidian experience, I pass as an Anglo. Visually, to the “untrained and even the trained eye,” I give Anglo realness (although like Irene on the terrace in Larsen’s Passing, being recognised is always a strange experience, but it does happen on occasion, usually when my hair is extremely short and I look "like a thug" [a characterisation of my beloved Skanque Huore], which is hardly a racial compliment: “¡Hepa, Carnal!”). And for the passing person, one’s racial identification is always complicated, in the connections we maintain (or alternatively, refute) in a white supremacist society. However, as I tried to explain to Prancilla, in my personal experience, my family never discussed race, per se. The differences between ourselves as hispanophone-identified New Mexicans and other Mexicans and Mexican Americans, as well as Anglos and Asian Americans and African Americans, were almost exclusively conceived of and coded in cultural terms: language, religious practice, cultural and social standpoints that recognised and pathologised the Anglo/American as uncivilised, brutal, and alien, a necessary but distasteful evil.
In a perspective that will be familiar to most New Mexicans, we considered ourselves a tribe apart, speaking an archaic form of Spanish, calling ourselves “Español” without irony (for most New Mexicans are in fact mestizos, miscegenated mixed blooded people) with specific and isolated cultural and social practices that my maternal family did its best to preserve in a Californian and Rocky Mountain diaspora. The fact that this project utterly failed for my generation, raised outside of New Mexico, speaks not only to the powerful effects of assimilation and technological modernity (my mother, for instance, spent her formative years in the fifties on a ranch with no running water or electricity, speaking 16th century Spanish and witness to the brutal passion plays of Easter), but also to the dislocating effects of the displacement of culture by race in that transformation. My family never thought of itself as racialised, exactly, although that perception was distinctly affected by individual variations in skin color (for, like many Black and Latina/o families, mine was a myriad of different physical phenotypes, from very dark-skinned to blond). Raised in California away from the “culture” milieu of my mother and grandparents, however, I did think of myself in racial (i.e. American) terms, as a mestizo Chicano from a working class barrio.
This digression into race is crucial to my perception of my time at PU, not only for the socio-cultural context that I entered with, but also because I think (as my family did as well) that PU served as the engine of my accelerated assimilation into the American mainstream, a process begun in American K-12 education, but solidly cemented at PU. And this is complicated, if what I am saying is true, that my time at PU leads directly to the professor and intellectual and person that I am. The bad reputation assimilation has garnered since the sixties can be simplistic, for most people tend to think of assimilation as a one-way ticket to the glue factory: in goes the old horse, out comes a neat, white, American bottle of Elmer’s. This particular pathology of assimilation, which regards the final product as “monstrous” (viz. Sollors), is also terribly one-dimensional, and as such typically American in its pastoral, naïve vision of our previous, unadulterated, uncorrupted selves. Obviously, it is a more complex process. Culture is not an object: it is not material; it cannot be lost, like a wallet or an ATM card. Outside of the theory, however, we tend to think about culture as armature, as a thing, and we look for the appropriate clues and signs of its preservation, as a guide to the authentic, the true uncorrupted self. Was I more real as the precocious but provincial chubby Chicano from northeast LA wearing "fake" Vans from Payless and terry-cloth tennis shorts? Or am I more real as the sophisticated professor (still gordo) who uses big words and shops at Crate and Barrel in pressed shirts, wearing Brooks Brothers boxer shorts under his slacks? Should I sport a serape and huaraches, or a western shirt and bolo tie and cowboy hat, a peasant hat, an embroidered blouse, a crucifix with a statue of Guadalupe in the garden? These are not only sartorial choices, but speak to how we project and read culture and identity in remarkably one-dimensional ways. In any event, I don’t have the carriage for the embroidered blouse, although my Big Sis does, or did, before he became a fireplug.
All of which is to say, my passage into PU precipitated a series of familial crises that were unanticipated by either myself or my family, based in “culture” but really about race and sexuality and authenticity. Upon one of my last trips home, at the end of my time at PU, my mother openly declared that I had become an Anglo, in a tormented and vicious argument made more surreal by the fact that I had come down with severe strep throat and was feverish and delirious as she screamed at me and I sullenly listened. But this Anglo identity, what was it exactly? It was clearly the fact that I had gone to PU and returned a different (gay) person. I remember her words exactly, for they were powerful: “I don’t even know who you are anymore! I would rather you’d have become a mechanic, than what you are! And if you get sick, don’t even think you can come back here and I’ll take care of you, cause it’s not gonna happen!” The irony is that on this trip home my mother had sworn me to secrecy about my sexuality, to which I acquiesced only to keep the fragile (and clearly temporary) peace. This then exploded openly in this argument, for my cousin Lisa was in the kitchen making us lunch, and we were not quiet. Needless to say, the cat was definitely, um, out of the bag.
In short, a series of different coded themes collapse in this painful, and ultimately final argument, between us: Race (“who you are”), class (“rather … a mechanic”), sexuality (“sick” i.e. HIV disease, or “AIDS”). Writing about it, over fifteen years later, still gives me a little nausea. My mother, of course, is not here to defend herself, and no doubt she would have a different version of these events. I don’t think she was a bad person, necessarily, although her words here, filtered through memory, are ugly. But they do represent real pain and fear at change, changes that get read in a series of different ways that on one hand are very general and on the other speak to the specific conditions of Latina/o life in the USA.
What is compelling is that many of the Chicanas/os I knew at PU were having similar tortured arguments with their families at roughly the same time: Who are you? This was especially true for those of us who were LGBT or str8 women, so these tropes are gendered and sexualised as well as racialised. This is a theme for many educated US Latinas/os, whose families fear losing them to the machinations of Anglo culture. There is a remarkably poignant and painful scene in the brilliant documentary Fear and Loathing at Hoover Elementary, which details the turmoil caused by Proposition 187 on one inner city elementary school in Los Angeles, as a Chicana staff member recalls her family’s brutal migrant labour background, the difficulty of the labour itself and of the life of the farmworker, her struggle to study hard, to get into a good school, and the ambivalence of hope, pride, fear, and revulsion her admission to Stanford caused her family, who let her go but without their blessing. Our achievements become weapons used against us, from both family (“you’ve changed”) and society (“You’re only here because of affirmative action”).
Does this misrecognition of ourselves in the most intimate mirror possible (the family) speak to the unavoidable nature of assimilation or its destructive properties? It seems to be a bit of both, in the sense that ambition drives us out of the home, often supported by our families, but education involves significant shifts and transformations that are then misunderstood or resented by family and community, for what occurs in the cauldron of education is above all an individual process. Indeed, did I return from PU a different person? Yes, arguably a better person, and closer to myself, who I consider that self to be, than the closeted and scared state I had been in before. Did I betray my family and community and culture in this process? If one thinks of culture as static, then yes, I was la traidora, in Moraga’s powerful phraseology, from “a long line of vendidas.” It is these dynamics that often have scholars of colour running around like madwomen trying to justify their presence to themselves as much as to Anglo/white society.
But, in more contemplative and self-possessed moments, I think we need to allow ourselves praise, appreciation, care. To paraphrase Hanif Kureishi’s Rosie, “I left home and became myself.”
On the eve of my departure for PU, as we finished the packing and prepared to depart for LAX, my mother gave me a schmaltzy Hallmark card of a sand castle, with actual coloured sand glued to the image. I still have this card, in a box in Skanque Huore's garage, safely hidden away, for looking at the card brings me great pain. Inside she had written, "Make yourself a dream at [PU]." I did go on to do this, wildly successful beyond my own dreams at that moment, but in the end, my dream and her dream turned out to be radically and incompatibly different.