Saturday, September 15, 2007

Alta California

THE OTHER MORNING the woman who was cutting my hair mentioned that she was thinking of moving to Oregon, because she has kids in school, and the schools here are in trouble, and the country is changing, becoming latino.

I stopped afterward at the local supermarket for milk and lettuce. At the checkstand, the checker spoke fluent Spanish with the shoppers ahead of me, and fluent English with me. I mentioned that I envied her bilingual fluency, and suggested that she think of giving lessons in bilingualism, which would not be the same thing as giving lessons in English or in Spanish, that being bilingual is completely different from speaking two languages.

Then in the evening we saw a performance by the local improvisation-based theater group The Imaginists: The Divide / la divisiĆ³n, an original theater piece about borders. There are twenty-four community actors, amateur in several senses, in The Divide Ensemble. Combining stylized movement, masks, manipulated set-pieces, song, mime, and speech, they trace the border concept as it has evolved with respect to US-Mexico relationships, especially confronting exploitation of labor, denial of citizenship, and the maintenance of exclusionary borders. (The production runs through Sept. 22 at the Raven Performing Arts Theatre in Healdsburg; information here)

And in the course of the performance the following came to mind:

• Joaquin Miller, in Life Among the Modocs, writes of watching, with a group of Indians, from a forested ridge above them, a number of (white) forty-niners who were panning for gold in a creek below. They stood in mud and cold water up to their bottoms and worked from dawn to dusk. At night they got drunk and fought one another. Miller tried to explain why anyone in his right mind would behave like this, but the Modoc, who lived comfortably off the land, as they liked, and worked little, didn't get it.

• By the 1830s a pleasant life-style had developed in Alta California, depending on the herding of cattle for their tallow and hides. This was primarily Spanish-flavored, and of course supplanted the native California hunting-gathering economy, but it was relatively relaxed and healthful and perhaps even sustainable. The Swiss John Sutter took this further, importing Hawaiian labor when the California natives proved unable or unwilling to do his work. Later the discovery of gold and then the burgeoning population with its hunger for crops seized California's climate and soils; settlers from the United States illegally seized Mexican lands, war followed. This sordid history is well related by Josiah Royce in his California, from the conquest of 1846 to the second vigilance committee in San Francisco [1856], a book well worth knowing.

• Much the same had happened earlier, in the 17th century, in Virginia, colonized by the English for the production of tobacco, which led to the enslavement of Africans for forced labor; and in the South beginning a few generations later, for the production (again for England) of cotton.

• The Spanish Missions in the Californias: a complex set of motives, some no doubt well meant (the salvation from pagan hell of the innocent native souls), some for a degree of wealth, much simply out of cultural inertia. The Spaniards had dealt harshly with Moors and Jews; the native Americans were a logical third act.

• Successive waves of Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews; fleeing famine, war, poverty, extermination. In the 1930s, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. One side of the equation: flight for survival. The other: importation of labor.

• Today's slaughterhouse industry: exploitation of cheap labor through blackmail: strike and you're out of work; out of work and you're liable to deportation.

• My grandson Henry on the roof: one Mexican immigrant loads roofing bundles at the truck end of the conveyor belt, his sidekick unloads them at the other. Seeing which, fourteen-year-old Henry pitches in, lifting off alternate bundles and carrying them to the other end of the roof.

Afterward he asks "Why is it people like them [the Mexicans] are always so nice, easy to get along with, in good humor, when..." He falters.

"When people like us?" I prompt him.

"Well, when white guys often are all stressed out, in bad moods, up-tight."

"Dunno," I said. "Maybe it's because they're comfortable with themselves, and with their lives. They're relatively content."

"They know what's important," Henry said.

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