We Are All Dreamers
Gaston Bachelard writes, “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost” (The Poetics of Space). Standing in front of María Brito’s El Patio de Mi Casa, two worlds blended or bled into each other, colours and images breaking through the wall of her evocative kitchen and patio. Inside outside, outside inside. Nightly dreams more vivid, and I awoke with the taste of memory in my mouth. When I ran my tongue against my palate, along my teeth, over my lips, the dreams shuddered within me, the strong scent and taste of blood and earth in my nose. Like the meeting of light and shadow, kitchen and patio, night and day, memory and dream became one. María Brito’s beautiful art returned to me lives I almost lost forever.
In California there’s a young man who knows hardly anything of his family’s live-in housekeeper. All he knows is her first name, Carmen. In one of his university classes he’s given an assignment. Wonders if he can interview Carmen. He learns of her hunger and poverty as a child, her migration to the US, and the violence she endures once here. (Maybe he wonders more: was your journey a dream or a nightmare, Carmen?) She tells him there was a day when she decided she must change her life. She begins working three jobs to help her brother go to school. Now Carmen works six days a week. She is given a small room to sleep in. A housekeeper until the seventh day, when she visits her family. The young man tries to thank her. Carmen thanks him. Why? “Because every night I come up to my room and I lie on my little bed,” she tells him, “and I tell myself the story of my life—just in case someone should ever ask.”
When I turn a page, steal a moment to write, I remember the many Carmens living in small rooms across America. Face the evidence of the boys and young men who travel dangerous distances.
South America, Central America. Wonder how, like my father (like countless fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles), how can they begin working at such a young age. Small, dying Midwest towns brought back to life as Latinxs create a home. All these lives and migrations with and without words. How to express the pain of being deported back to a country that you never knew, since the United States is your home? How to express some 2,500-6,000 children separated from their families, sent thousands of miles away to a chain-link cell, a thin reflective sheet for the night as they cry for their mothers and fathers, cry in fear for not knowing where they are, why they’ve been taken away? How, out in the moonlight, how to place your ear to the ground and listen?
Writing has become more and more an embrace--un abrazo fuerte—discovered through an act of witness. Or, better yet, listening. Listening for the lyrical place, the ground of song, canto hondo, inside/outside fences. To sow the peoples, places, and stories—the words—into the earth. To break open a small furrow near the heart so others will finally listen. A small furrow that contains earth, seed, water. Life, lives.
And sometimes in the night, when her hands are at rest, clasped there on her chest or stomach, sometimes Carmen surely dreams. In her right ear: a charred tree, moonlight, a crib, a photograph of her and all her primas in white dresses, some smiling, some frowning, squinting in the glare of the sun. She hears a hummingbird in the window. There’s a black pan and a silver knife on the kitchen counter, cold, clear water falling from the faucet into a tin pail.
“The great function of poetry is to give us back our dreams,” Bachelard writes. Yes, we must accept this poetry, ecstatically, as we imagine and dream a place where words are like birds or hands or tears or laughter or rain or song. Write it in the earth, shout it in the streets, talk it out in our bright pink patios: we are all dreamers. Let us break bread, the bread that we have harvested, and then begin tearing down the fences.
— for José Andrés
and with gratitude to Barbara Myerhoff and Christine McEwan, for sharing Carmen’s story
Fred Arroyo is the author of Western Avenue and Other Fictions, shortlisted for the 2014 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and The Region of Lost Names, a finalist for the 2008 Premio Aztlán Prize. A recipient of an Individual Artist Program Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, Fred’s fiction is included in the Library of Congress series “Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers.” Fred has published widely in a variety of literary journals, and is included in the anthologies Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity and the Natural World. In the spring of 2017, Western Humanities Review published a portfolio of brief ekphrastic prose Fred edited in conjunction with the Smithsonian exhibit Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art. Fred is completing a new a new book, Sown in Earth: Essays on Memory, Place, and Writing. He’s also at work on a book of short fictions, The Book of Manuels, and a collection of poetry, Before Birches Blue. Fred is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Middle Tennessee State University.
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