By Gerald Hausman
Santa Fe, NM, USA
Somewhere on the borderlands between El Paso and Mexico there is a woman crying by a bed of roses. This is but one image from one story by Marta Elva in her novel, American Tumbleweeds. There are many people in this book who are crying out to be heard. Some, if not all, have been dispossessed. In one way or another.
A familiar story? Well, I would say, not familiar enough because these are the bicultural folks living on the edge of desert and city, living on the edge of nerves and politics, laws and legions of jails, and abundant disappointments.
Appointments are another thing. Such as the appointment made by the U.S. government long ago. This was an appointment to take over the land that belonged to Mexico. Why? Because certain settlers of Texas felt, by right of might, they ought to have the land for their own. Hence, the Alamo. Forget about Cabeza de Vaca, the mystic-turned-saint who toured the land, sometimes nearly naked, and recognized the purity, the beauty, the godliness of it and healed all whom he met on his way.
Forget about all of that and let's go to El Paso. Then let's go a bit farther south.
The tumbleweeds in Marta Elva's poignant and poetic novel are the inheritors of both sides of this internecine war that still goes on between Mexico and America. Is there a wall high enough to blot out the historical misdoings of land-grabbing? And what does that wall say? Does it say, as Robert Frost once suggested in his poem Mending Wall – "…I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out…" and he says poignantly, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
In truth, we do not know exactly what that something is.
Forget about that as well and come into the home, newly taken away, of a woman named Katrina Ramirez. For it is her life Marta Elva raises to a level of deep compassion.
Katrina's social worker has just informed her that her salary exceeds the Federal guidelines by five dollars. She is told that it is time for Katrina to move to a less expensive home. "I've worked hard to stay out of housing projects," Katrina explains. But it is too late for anything but compliance. The social worker, Katrina reasons, is "not to blame for the loss of my dream house, the one I dreamt of while sleeping on dirt floors as a child in San Agustin. When my fantasy came true it had tile floors, shiny new faucets, and a lawn. I seeded and nurtured until green grass sprouted.
"I recall the day after receiving the notice of foreclosure. It took everything to fight the urge to tear out my rose garden. Roses of every color taunting the tumbleweeds tumbling in the desert behind out house. With a shovel, I gently pulled every rose bush from the ground and donated my plants to neighbors. We would be renting and I was not decorating a building that wasn't my home."
As a visiting storyteller I spent some time in the borderlands and even spoke at a borderlands conference. There wasn't a book that accounted for the things I heard in that part of Texas and Mexico. I talked to curanderos and other healers, people of native heritage who longed for such things as a formal education, people who went back home, had to fight their way through rivers of Mexican mud and whose families worked for minimal wages that nonetheless fed many.
None of this is the way it has been presented to us in America. Yes, rapers, robbers and criminals live on both sides of the border, but no culture has a "corner on cussedness" as author Roger Zelazny once said. We are all part of the down-pressed scene of violence and transgression. However if you read Elva's novel you will perhaps see through other eyes; you will see what it is like to know where you come from only by the map in your heart.