Postcard from San Miguel: What borders mean to children


Art from Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

I was not a real Mexican, and I was not a real American.

Benjamin Alire Saenz

That’s how author Benjamin Alire Saenz recalled his feelings as a young boy growing up in Mesilla, New Mexico, and crossing weekly into Ciudad Juarez for flat-top haircuts. Staring at the giant flags fluttering over the bridge:

I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican one.

kentucky-clubSaenz is the author of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories winning a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Saenz chairs the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border” was the title of the powerful keynote address he delivered two nights ago at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. The visibly affected crowd quickly rose as one the second he finished the final sentence of the emotionally charged presentation. It was the topic on everyone’s lips the next morning as attendees flocked to the bookstore to purchase recordings to share with others.

Saenz’s talk was preceded by an introduction to Duncan Tonatiuh, the artist/author who designed the conference posters. Although Tonatiuh is young – he graduated from college in 2008 – he already has several award-winning books to his credit.

In an article in USA Today, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, labels Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale “propaganda.” But the author of the fable, in which the coyote stands in for those who smuggle immigrants into the United States from Mexico, believes he has created a bedtime story to which many children in North America can relate.

At the Writers’ Conference, Tonatiuh screened a short video made for him by a fourth-grade class in Austin, Texas.

Many a Kleenix was lifted up to dab away a tear.

It appears Tonatiuh’s book provides a key for teachers to encourage children of immigrants to open up and discuss their experiences.

Perhaps Pancho Rabbit serves as an even more valuable tool for helping children of American-born parents understand and empathize with the issues confronting some of their classmates.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Krikorian. Is that “propaganda?”

Update posted on March 19, 2014: Duncan Tonatiuh will be appearing from 11 to 11:30 a.m. in the Children’s Book Tent at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5.

Shiny legacy from HemisFair hints at wealth of SAMA’s Asian Wing

A shiny hint heralding the wealth of Asian art housed in the Lenora and Walter F. Brown Asian Art Wing recently was installed across the river from the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Leiwen, the interwoven thunder pattern on the nine pewter panels, was popular on bronze vessels during the Shang Dynasty, 1800-1200 BCE. These particular panels were crafted for and installed in the Taiwanese Pavilion during HemisFair 1968.

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May Lam donated 14 pairs of the rescued 3 x 1-foot panels to the San Antonio River Foundation during ceremonies at the Asian New Year Celebration more than five years ago. She wanted them to serve as a tribute to the rich cultural contributions of early Chinese immigrants to San Antonio, particularly the hundreds General John Pershing brought from Mexico as the United States entered World War I (I would include a photo of the adjacent panel explaining this and spare myself from typing, but I stubbornly refuse to reproduce materials failing to recognize “River Walk” as two words.).

While General Pershing was pursuing Pancho Villa in Mexico, Chinese businessmen had gathered around his encampments, operating stores and  cafés for his troops. When he returned to San Antonio in 1917, many of the Chinese retreated under his protection and were encamped at For Sam Houston until President Harding granted them legal resident status in 1921.

According to author Mel Brown in Chinese Heart of Texas, some of these new San Antonians, known as “Pershing Chinese,” were able to qualify as “merchants,” an exception to the 1882 Exclusion Act that deprived Chinese of many rights accorded other immigrants and banned additional Chinese immigration. 

Brown wrote: 

Following release from Fort Sam, a somewhat communal lifestyle was assumed at first as the Chinese Camp men stuck together for practical reasons and mutual assistance. If one of them had skills as a cook, the group contributed economically to help establish his café. As the business grew, that man hired his cronies or pitched in monetarily to set up another’s store or café…. This communal response to problems or needs was typical of the Chinese immigrant experience in America. It was a rich cultural resource which strengthened all the Cantonese communities during many years of prejudice, discrimination and exclusion. 

The Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.

New York Notices Our Mayor

Zev Chavets profiled Mayor Julian Castro in the May 3 issue of The New York Times Magazine.  Among his observations:

Nothing seems to ruffle him.  Recently, after Arizona passed its tough immigration law, most Hispanic politicians reacted with fury.  Some even compared the decision to apartheid.  Castro, through a spokesman, phrased his own opposition to the decision in characteristically understated and inclusive language, saying, in part:  “Texas has long been an example of how two neighboring countries can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way for the American economy.  A law like Arizona’s would fly in the face of that history.”

And, while some of Chavets’ questions to our Mayor seemed designed to stir up racial tension where it does not exist, the Mayor did not bite:

“I consider myself Mexican-American, both parts of that phrase,” he said.  “I don’t want to turn my back on my mother’s generation.  But we are less burdened.”

The last line of the following paragraph indicates Chavets did grasp part of what makes San Antonio work:

In 2000, while Castro was still in Cambridge, the political theorist Samuel P. Huntington argued that mass immigration from Mexico poses an existential threat to the United States.  “Mexican immigration,” he wrote, “is a unique, disturbing and looming challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity and potentially to our future as a country.”  At the heart of Huntington’s critique, which many Americans share, is the sense that Mexican-Americans will form a permanent, unassimilated superbarrio across the Southwest and elsewhere.  Julián Castro’s San Antonio is one place that counters that concern.

Will continual national attention go to the Mayor’s head?

…in San Antonio, he added, “nobody likes people with big heads.”

Note Added on June 30:  View Mayor Castro on The Colbert Report