Tag Archives: language
“Rain of Gold” by Victor E. Villasenor
Copyright 1991, 562 pages, including photos, map, family trees, author’s notes and acknowledgments. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Texas Commission on the Arts. Publisher Laurel/Dell/Bantam Doubleday. (Go figure that out.)
Here’s a NEW reason to buy a book! A late colleague of ours, Alphonso Corpus, Stockton University Associate Professor of Art, painted the picture used on this paperback edition of the book. We bought a used copy.
This book is the saga of Villasenor’s ancestors. His parents came as children, with their families, to the United States around 1910 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. I quickly realized I know almost nothing about the Mexican Revolution. Wikipedia describes it as triggered by failure of the regime to manage the issue of presidential succession, with agrarian insurrection as an opportunistic reaction to the social unrest. I don’t think Villasenor’s family would agree! The Revolution was presented in Rain of Gold as struggle of the poor against the wealthy. The violence and suffering were immense, which sometimes makes for harsh reading.
This history of two families is packed with energy and love. They were among 200,000 refugees who entered the United States in the course of the conflict (Wikipedia again).
Both of Villasenor’s parents were considered exceptional within their families. His father was the last child of 14. His mother, also a youngest child, was conceived when a meteor strike caused her terrified parents to assume the world was ending. One of his grandmothers was an indigenous child (Yaqai tribe) adopted into a Hispanic family.
Villasenor dedicates his book to his two grandmothers. They and many others in the extended family were powerful storytellers. Villasenor initially thought much of what they said was exaggerated or fanciful, but as he investigated, he realized most of what they recounted was true.
One thread through this account is the evolution of gender roles in a variety of settings, from remote Mexico to the tumultuous border region and into the Prohibition era in the southwestern United States. Now I want to learn more about the impact of Prohibition on American society.
Another thread in this book is the role of religious belief among “marginalized” families.
I certainly recommend this book highly, and suggest you check out Victor Villasenor to learn about his current activities and interests.
Note! A very interesting feature of this used book is the presence of an embossed seal on the front page. The occasional “Ex Libris” sticker is to be expected, but a high-quality seal? It says “Library of Catherine A Brazil – CAB”. Who was this unknown bibliophile? The “usual sources” do not provide any hint. Rest in peace, unknown friend.
“Drawing Fire – A Pawnee, Artist and Thunderbird in World War II” by Brummett Echohawk with Mark R Ellenbarger
University Press of Kansas, 2018, 215 pages plus Glossary (Native American Terms and Phrases, also designations of weapons), Dramatis Personnae (Echohawk and his comrades used both Native and mainstream names, as well as tribal affiliations) and Index. More than one hundred portraits, sketches and photographs.
In early June, my local public library featured a display of books about World War II, in honor of the D-Day anniversary. I grabbed two books. Drawing Fire caught my attention because of the generous inclusion of artwork, most produced on the battlefield by the author.
Don’t you love the name Echohawk? Brummett Echohawk was born in 1922, into a Pawnee family long connected with the American military. At age 18, he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. His unit, which included more than 1000 Native Americans, was deployed in the retaking of Italy in 1943. This memoir is a battlefield classic.
Echohawk identified as both a soldier and a warrior, bringing TWO lives, languages, skill sets and worldviews into the war. “Warrior” carries profound cultural/spiritual weight in addition to what English speakers generally mean by “soldier”. In addition to being bilingual, the Pawnee (and members of other tribes) used sign language (hand signs) which improved their communications. They also used animal calls to communicate between units, usually just to say “We’re here, good night” but occasionally to warn of danger.
It’s not clear to me just how Echohawk wrote these memoirs. Diaries and journals are discouraged (forbidden?) on the battlefield, because they could reveal classified information to the enemy. Echohawk was a diligent artist, drawing at every opportunity. Some of his sketches are on stationery provided by the Red Cross – many are tattered and stained. Most are annotated with names and locations. He sketched prisoners of war as well as soldiers from various allied nations. Many of his subjects were his closest friends, not all of whom survived.
The recapture of Italy was grueling and sometimes seemed impossible. At one point, Echohawk’s infantry division was told to prepare for the possibility of being overrun and captured. He ripped out the front page of his Bible, because it identified his Army unit, but then he hid it in a sketchpad. The native American fighters discussed their dilemma – Pawnee warriors (who call themselves “Men of Men”) do not surrender, but American soldiers follow orders, surrendering if their superiors tell them to.
The war ground on and on. Everything was in short supply, even water. The soldiers rigged improvised weapons and haunted the first aid stations (from which the injured were being evacuated) to replace their destroyed uniforms and to scavenge parts for their guns. The scale of waste and suffering and loss is hard to comprehend.
Echohawk survived the Italian campaign, returned home and died in 2006, after a distinguished career as artist and illustrator. Read this book!
“Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages” by Gaston Dorren
This book is so good I started to write about it when I was only halfway through! I’m not great about taking notes when reading for pleasure, and I didn’t want to forget some of the things that have made this book so much fun.
Gaston Dorren is not a native speaker of English. He lists Limburgish, the Dutch dialect of a province in Netherlands, as his first language. I remember that when I spent a summer in Netherlands, a friend described himself as a speaker of Sittardish, a dialect limited to a single city. For him, Dutch was a slightly formal language, studied in high school and used at the University and at work. Scientists, it seemed, spoke as much English as Dutch. I ended my months in the Netherlands with great affection for the people and their culture, and a tiny knowledge of (standard) Dutch.
In Babel, Dorren writes about twenty languages, use of which accounts for about fifty percent of the human population. He starts by admitting there’s no way to count languages. How do you decide what is a dialect? We know (and regret) that languages have been lost. See my discussion of the indigenous western hemisphere language Potawatami, dated March 6, 2019.
But what else is going on? It is the nature of language to CHANGE! After all, this is a “blog”, a version of “social media”. Wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago…
Dorren counts “second language speakers” when calculating which languages dominate the world scene. My life is full of second language speakers; both of my (native born) grandmothers, immigrants, students from overseas, friends from hither and yon. Each has learned English, and some have forgotten their original languages.
What I like best about this book is that, having chosen his twenty “big” languages, Dorren then discusses whatever interests him about each language – geography, politics, history, sociology, sounds, grammar…
He begins with Vietnamese, which has very few “second language” speakers. In other words, very few people study it. Despite his linguistic training, Dorren finds Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult!
Only one African language makes it into this book – Swahili. Dorren describes the African attitude towards language as very different from elsewhere. French, (British) English and (Mandarin) Chinese (to name a few) are very clearly defined by official bodies, and VERY resistant to change. Correct speech is valued. Not necessarily so in Africa! Almost anything goes! Most people speak several languages – mother tongue, a local language for school, maybe another for high school, a regional language, plus Swahili and/or a “world language”. Dorren describes Africans “storming the language barrier”, cheerfully using any common speech they can find, gesturing, shouting… Correctness falls aside.
This is a great book to broaden your horizons. But beware… the urge to travel may overcome you. The only problem will be choosing a destination. Bon voyage!
Celebrating the Solstice
My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.
Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.
We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.
What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.
Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.
Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.
Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).
Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.
I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.
The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.
Positive Micro (2)
In my blog entry dated November 14, 2016, I talked about words that start with “micro”, my favorite being “microadjustment”. I just remembered another important “micro” concept, also of five syllables. It’s the microexpression. (My text editing program wants this to be written as two words, but I’m CONVINCED “micro” by itself is not a word. Old fashioned of me, I suppose.)
This time I checked Wikipedia. This is a “real” word, not just slang. I didn’t make it up. It’s defined as a “brief, involuntary facial expression” that usually occurs in “high stakes situations”. Books have been written about microexpressions.
I remember an experience… Once I asked a friend how it really feels to use cocaine (which I have never done). I remember the look that flashed across his face, wistful and longing. Obviously he found cocaine amazingly wonderful. I don’t remember what he said, but it was far more guarded.
A friend named Mark recounted to me the following tale: He lived near Wilmington, Delaware, in the late 1960s, a time of racial tension there and in many American cities. One day Mark unexpectedly found himself face-to-face with an African American teenager carrying a baseball bat. Tension crackled between them. Is there such a thing as pre-violence? Both parties were in high fight-or-flight mode. But what my friend saw on the teenager’s face, just for one TINY moment, was FEAR. Not aggression. Not hatred. And, somehow, Mark mustered a smile and a little wave, and the two parties went their separate ways, neither giving in to the violence simmering in their surroundings.
Readers, has this happened to you? Has your life been touched by a microexpression? I’m curious about it. Please feel free to share a comment.
Positive Micro – reflections on yoga and language
The prefix “micro” has gotten a bad rap. Nobody wants a boss who “micromanages”. “Micro-aggressions” are committed by culturally insensitive boors. Most of us meet “micro” in science class when the metric system of measurements is introduced. Only some of us learn to love it. (Digression – I’ll do a great deal to avoid the old fashioned “English” system, with its acres and Angstoms and Roentgens and worst of all, “feet of head”. It’s an engineering thing, a unit of pressure. There’s the femtojoule. The exawatt. I’m not making these up.)
But here’s the nicest “micro” you will ever meet – the microadjustment! You can do it yourself. This is the little wriggle that turns an uninteresting yoga posture into a delicious stretch. A little shift of weight. A tiny realignment. Sometimes this movement is so small your teacher and fellow students won’t even see it. Sometimes it’s a little bigger.
In addition to making you more comfortable (or less comfortable in a good way), it signals to your teacher that you have a mind (not to mention body) of your own, and you are going to do things YOUR way. A good teacher will be cheered by this.
The microadjustment is what lets me take ownership of my yoga practice. My favorite five syllable word! May the “micro” be with you.
Explanation of George Eliot’s phrase “an Italian with white mice”
This pertains to the entry I posted an hour ago. Better read that first!
I love the internet! Sure enough, a Google search for the expression “an Italian with white mice” turned up useful references. At the time in question, around 1830, the English were extremely xenophobic, so just calling someone “Italian” or worse yet “Corsican” would be pejorative, but “an Italian with white mice” probably referred to very poor street musicians, often children, who might exhibit white mice (or a monkey, tortoise or porcupine) while begging. The children were sometimes indentured and may have been “trafficked”, to use a contemporary term for the exploitation they suffered. The phrase also shows up in a novel by Wilkie Collins. So the next time you want to insult someone, say they are no better than “an Italian with white mice”! By the time they figure it out, you can be miles away!