Biography Writing Teaching Appearances  

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Linda Rodriguez, author of Every Last Secret, which won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel award, will be here this coming week along with a number of other novelists, poets, memoirists. Linda Rodriguez will be reading on Saturday, June 16th from 7-8p.m. at Indigo Bridge Books (701 P Street, Creamery Bldg, Haymarket).

Every Last Secret takes place in a small college town outside of Kansas City.  The college newspaper's student editor has been murdered.  Marquitta "Skeet" Bannion is on the case.  Her journey to find the killer leads to unravelling college secrets and her own personal familial struggles. The reviews for Rodriguez' first novel have been stellar:  "Skeet's debut introduces a strong, intelligent woman detective with both a knack for solving crimes and a difficult personal life.  The next episode can't come too soon" (Kirkus Reviews), and "Fans of Nevada Barr and Sara Paretsky will relish Linda Rodriguez's stellar debut.  Her sleuth, Skeet Bannion, is a keeper.  Every Last Secret is a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters" (Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of One Was a Soldier).  

But much before Linda's anticipated reading is The Nebraska Summer Writer's Conference.  
Click HERE to check out the full schedule for this week. So many wonderful writers will be reading from their work and admittance is free to these readings and panels! Tonight, for example, poet and recent Guggenheim winner, Kwame Dawes will be reading new work inspired by the plays of August Wilson (6:30p.m. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Union Auditorium, 2nd floor).  

The title of my blog post today: Every Last Secret:  seeking order out of a mess is actually a line from Rodriguez' novel.  The grandmother says this and it refers not only to the situation in which Skeet finds herself, it is also referring to all of us and our interpersonal struggles with ourselves and with each other.  It is all the more appropriate that "Gran," the elder, says this (and Rodriguez deftly avoids the oft stereotyped grandmother).  Gran also says, "If you're waiting for things to be perfect in life . . . you'll be waiting a long time."  This line reminds me of Sandra Cisneros' story "My Name" from her book, The House on Mango Street.  In that story, the character of Esperanza is explaining the meaning of her name: "In English my name means hope . . . It means sadness, it means waiting."  And then later she compares it to her grandmother who always waited:  "She looked out her window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow."  I've always liked that phrase:  "sit their sadness on an elbow."  Brilliant.  Rodriguez's "Gran" is the opposite of Cisneros' grandmother in "My Name."  Rodriguez's Gran and granddaughter Skeet demonstrate women who are out in the world, who are unafraid to be and to name their vulnerabilities and insecurities which then transform them to self-actualized, powerful women.  Fearless!  Nice to have such strong and ethical characters in novels.  

The Kirkus Reviews definitely have it right:  "The next episode can't come too soon!"

See you at the readings!  Sending you all powerfully positive energies, dear readers!  

Chicanas Making Art, Making Story

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This blog may also be read at: "La Bloga"

Reporting from two places this week:  San Antonio, Tejas and Lincoln, Nebraska.  This past week-- in San Antonio, Tejas, I was very lucky to spend a late afternoon/early evening in Chicana writer, Dr. Norma Cantu's graduate seminar at The University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA).  What an animated, smart, passionate group of graduate students.  Orale!  We were all quite involved with the discussion on Cherrie Moraga's new book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness.  

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A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

While various ideas and perspectives were expressed, my eyes kept focusing on the swift-moving hand gestures to the right of the table (note the picture below).  Those hands are Rita Urquijo-Ruiz's hands:  knitting!

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Dr. Norma Elia Cantú (Chicana author of Canícula and countless edited 
books) leads her graduate seminar at UTSA.  Notice Rita Urquijo-Ruiz's 
quick knitting hands on the right-hand side of the table.  

Chicana academic and performance artist, Rita Urquijo-Ruiz was knitting a gorgeous brown winter scarf during the entire graduate seminar while also contributing brilliantly to the discussion.  She, like me, was a guest that night. I had brought my writing materials.  She brought her knitting loom and yarn.  I kept watching Rita's fingers move up and down the loom while students quoted, argued with, questioned Moraga's words.  Moraga writes:  "The language of the Xicana story--if it were to be real--is fragmented, it is the stutter, the garbled utterance caught in the silence between tongues, tongues literally ripped from mouths.  It resides in the taboo languages of the body:  the vulva pressed unashamedly against a bed of dirt or the body of another woman in the effort to remember what got lost somewhere.  It is a paling Oadami descendent speaking through the body of Xicana performance" (45).  

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Rita knitting (photo by Dino Foxx -- gracias Dino!)

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knitting loom

Moraga's words kept me thinking about Rita "speaking" with her hands.  Later, I learned that Rita was also "performing" her tia Rita's art form in the making of this scarf that she completed by the end of class and then gave to me (lucky me-- see picture below). 

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Rita y yo:  I am on the left wearing Rita's lovely winter scarf she began and completed in Dr. Cantú's class and she is on the right wearing a beautiful gray scarf her mother created.  

Watching Rita reminded me of another Chicana writer, Belinda Acosta--who knits to create story.  And then there is also Chicana performance artist, writer, jewelry maker and painter, Anel Flores, who believes that every art medium she uses is telling story.  These three Chicana writers-artists create art in various mediums to bring together "fragmented" language/memories (prompted by Moraga's words) in order to speak and remember art, story, who we are.

Rita Urquijo-Ruiz who, as I described, loves using the knitting loom to create lovely long, warm scarves, is an Associate Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.  She is co-editor of Global Mexican Cultural Productions with Rosana Blanco-Cano (see book below) and her single author book, Wild Tongues:  Transnational Mexican Popular Culture, will be coming out next summer.  

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One of Rita's co-edited books, Global Mexican Cultural Productions

Growing up in Hermosillo, Mexico, Rita learned to knit when she was 12 from her tia Rita (her mother's only sister).  When Rita moved to the U.S., she soon forgot about knitting--until years later when she met up with Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz, founders of "The Yarn Dawgz." These Chicano brothers taught Rita all about knit graffiti and yarn bombing.  "A gay man and two straight men who do knitting," Rita tells me.  She says they are passionate about bringing color and art to urban spaces.  Passionate indeed because a simple "google search" on "The Yarn Dawgz" will lead you to multiple hits on Facebook and also a website/blog that announces their next creative project:  a documentary about the yarn graffiti movement and their own work as "Fiber Artists."  

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The Yarn Dawgz:  Manuel Cros Esquivel, Dino Foxx, and Billy Muñoz

Rita is grateful that Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz encouraged her to return to knitting.  "For me," Rita says, "There is something about knitting that is very comforting and it helps me concentrate better.  It lowers my heart rate when I'm frustrated with work, with academia.  Even if I just do it for 15 minutes, it then helps me return to my work with much more clarity.  And the fact that it's handmade--people seem to take to that over more materialistic gifts.  It's really neat to have something to relieve my stress and when all is said and done, there is a product to give as gifts.  I also connect with the maternal side of my family while it makes people smile.  It is just a gift from the universe--handmade.  And my aunt gave me this gift."  Rita has been very productive with her academic writing and she attributes her success in good part to the many scarves she's created.  "I'm on my 25th scarf and they've all been given to wonderful friends.  Each scarf is different."  

The "Rita" scarf I'm wearing in the picture (above picture with Rita) is the one she began and finished in Norma Cantú's class!  My scarf has a literary creation story!

Anel Flores is a writer, performance artist, painter, and jewelry maker.  She is the author of Empanada:  a lesbiana story en probaditas and she has also staged and performed scenes from the book.  

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Empanada:  a lesbiana story en probaditas by Anel I. Flores

Anel I. Flores, performing scenes from Empanada

She says, "My painting and jewelry making inform my writing because I bring the story of my grandmother and other women's stories into each art medium."  Anel's story:  Her grandmother lost almost all of her possessions in a fire.  One of the only items that survived was a small box containing her grandmother's lace.   This lace appears on the cover of her Empanada book, on her paintings, and she has created imprints of the lace on the rings, earrings, and necklaces she makes.  

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Anel's grandmother's lace

"I weave everything together."  Indeed-- Anel's work braids together all of these artistic mediums to create a pattern of stories and the struggles, the pain, the understanding and love in familia and relationships.  

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Anel's beautiful "corazon" jewelry

Belinda Acosta, author of the two quinceañera novels, Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over also knits.  She is a Chicana, born and raised (who learned to knit) on the great plains of Nebraska.  Currently, she lives in Austin, Tejas while making regular visits al norte to visit familia in Lincoln, Nebraska.  

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Chicana author, Belinda Acosta

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Belinda Acosta's two novels:  Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz 
and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over

"It helps to encourage creativity," she says.  Belinda learned to knit, "in Home Ec (home economics) when they used to have such a class in Jr. High."  She remembers learning the various structures:  weft and warp knitting, knit and purl stitches, flat knitting vs. circular knitting.  Like Rita, after leaving the class, she stopped knitting.  It wasn't until a few years ago, after her father became ill that suddenly she had a strange feeling that her body was telling her to head for the yarn store and begin knitting.  "I was surprised that I picked it up fairly quickly.  My body knew how to do that and because of my body's reaction, I kept being surprised at how fast I picked it up-- that my body knew and hadn't forgotten."  

I asked Belinda if knitting or other art mediums also inform her writing as Rita and Anel have noted.  "Knitting is very rhythmic.  It is something similar to praying the rosary or meditating. It is an activity that settles you, calms you because you are creating rhythmic motions over and over.  Often when i'm writing or in the middle of a writing project and I get stuck, I'll either take a nap or get to my knitting.  Knitting allows you to take a break from the problem and because you're involved in this physical activity, it gives you a chance to relax your brain and then you return to the writing with much more clarity."  Here are various pictures of Belinda's knitting methods and here is a scarf she made for me.

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Belinda Acosta "in action"

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I am wearing Belinda's scarf in Nebraska (at the 
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ethnic Studies Program offices)

Belinda also knits because, as she says, "I can be a stress eater.  I can't eat when I'm knitting.  At the same time, I get to massage a different part of my brain where there may be a knot.  I free it.  Plus-- I like to make things for people."  

Rita, Anel, Belinda-- all making art that tells a story and that is an offering to others.  In Norma Cantú's book, Canícula, there is a section entitled, "Cowgirl."

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Canícula:  Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera by Norma Elia Cantú

Cantú writes:  "My brand-new, black patent shoes, bought with the money Mami made selling dresses she sewed on Bueli's Singer, remain hidden by the long, full skirt of the red gingham dress, also one of Mami's creations" (33).  Then later in the chapter entitled "China Poblana One," there is a picture of a young girl in a China Poblana outfit.  "Mami has braided my shoulder-long hair, adding volume and length with yarn--green, white, and red-- verde blanco y colorado la bandera del soldado.  The dazzlingly white blouse embroidered with bright silk to shape flowers like the ones that grow in our yard--roses, hibiscus, geraniums, and even some that look like the tiny blossoms of the moss roses remind me of summer, although it's a warm February day" (38).  

Reading this description of dress-making and hair braiding (with yarn!) reveals a narrative of immigration, of two cultures (Bueli's Singer, black patent shoes, and embroidered silk), of seeking to place on the page a remembrance of what Mami created in a land where the month of February is warm, where hibiscus, roses, geraniums grow, where individuals are discovering and reconfiguring their identities.

As for the history of knitting:  It is too long of a story so I will be brief.  Historians trace the origins of knitting to the Middle east, specifically Egypt.  The Spaniards learned the art from Muslim knitters.  The Spaniards then brought knitting arts to Mexico.  There are also paintings of knitters throughout history.  The fifteenth-century German gothic painter, Bertram of Minden painted the Madonna knitting (see below).  Even though Chicana artist Yolanda Lopez's "Our Lady of Guadalupe" has la Virgen at the sewing machine, not knitting-- it still reminds me of the creation and shaping (new perspectives!) of art (in this case, la virgen working on her blue estrella-laden mantle).  

Bertram of Minden's painting of the Virgen knitting (1500s)

"Our Lady of Guadalupe" by Yolanda Lopez

It was a pleasure talking and spending time with Norma, Anel, and Rita.  Now here in Nebraska, Belinda has given me this beautiful red scarf that she made.  

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I am wearing Belinda's scarf next to Chicana artist 
Patssi Valdez' acrylic painting entitled, "Saturday" (1997)

How lucky can I be:  two scarves, a gorgeous heart necklace, and their important words on the page.  It's important to place a focus on these writers'/academics' knitting, jewelry making, painting.  They are mostly known for their serious and poignant writing which is indeed a gift to us.  How they illustrate "story" in other mediums also gives us additional information and stimulates our own aesthetic sensibilities.  And stretching oneself creatively is indeed healthy as well.

Thank you all and happy knitting/art making.  Vamos a tejer!  Let's go unknot our brains!

Wangari Maathai PRESENTE!!

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Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

We have lost one of the most important voices of our time.  The loss is great at this critical moment in history. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist was the first East and Central African to receive a doctorate.  Her degrees are in biology and anatomy. 


Two of Maathai's books I've read, Unbowed:  A Memoir (2007) and Repleneshing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010) describe a passionate, brilliant woman who disobeyed the law in order to make significant changes in the environment and significant changes in society for women. And she gives us such innovative and powerful suggestions to replenish the earth, to heal ourselves. In 2010, she was in Mexico for the UN Climate Summit and said the following:

"[G]overnments must do what they have promised: take concrete action to reduce their emissions; deliver finance and work together to make low-carbon development a reality; and protect those least able to cope with the impact of climate change . . . 
If we truly want to tackle climate change, poverty, and conflict, we need to think holistically.  We need to, as Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of the UN global sustainability panel, "think big, connecting the dots between poverty, energy, food, water, environmental pressure and climate change."  

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During the UN''s 3rd global women's conference in Nairobi in 1985, Maathai introduced her organization, The Green Belt Movement and this connection greatly aided her efforts in setting up countless programs in various countries (including Mexico) to combat deforestation, water crises, rural hunger.  May her efforts continue even though she is no longer with us!  Que Viva The Green Belt Movimiento!!  Que Viva la Profesora Wangari Maathai!

There is a wonderful award-winning documentary about Professor Maathai's life and environmental work.  It is entitled, Taking Root:  The Vision of Wangari Maathai.  I strongly recommend seeing it!  And you can order it from The Green Belt Movement website (just click on the title above).  

Gracias Profesora Maathai, for your courage, your tireless work, your constant smile in the face of adversity, your willingness to stand up and question, to stand up and disobey. Dissent!  Gracias.  Your efforts will not be forgotten.  Wangari Maathai:  PRESENTE!

How Mexicans are Made Diabetic---

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Genetics is not the answer to "why" people develop Diabetes and yet literature on Diabetes (even pamphlets in doctor's offices) will point to biology.  Mexicans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, have a greater biological propensity for this disease.  I've often heard, "It's in our blood" from my Mexican family members, from doctors.  But is it?  

Michael Montoya's journey into the maze of the genome Diabetes project is an excellent response to this myth.  His book, Making the Mexican Diabetic:  Race, Science, and the Genetics of Inequality uncovers the contradictions inherent in placing race on biology without taking into consideration social, political, and historical constructions that are key to the "making" of a society afflicted with this disease.  

"Indian ancestry," writes Montoya, "is a central ideological feature of the diabetes enterprise. Evidence of beliefs about blood-based heredity was easily elicited from field office staff when commenting upon the causes of diabetes.  But so too were notions of social etiologies of diabetes.  When explaining the causes of diabetes, staff members explain that genes and life conditions together explain diabetes . . . 'Genes are passed from one generation to another, but basically it's our way of eating'" (98).  And how can populations of Mexican descent along the border or in working class neighborhoods take the time to exercise or have the means to maintain a healthy diet when a half dozen tacos or a hamburger with fries and a coke is half the price of a pound of organic spinach?  

T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell's book The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health supports Montoya's findings.  In this book, Campbell and Campbell look at how our fast food industry is slowly making us seriously ill.  But the genome project and the contradictory findings don't help clarify the problem of Diabetes.  It is not enough to simply say, "It's in the blood."  

"Genes do not cause chronic disease," Montoya writes.  "Genes in certain bodies under certain conditions contribute to disease susceptibility" (187).  This may explain why in a family of 3 children, two have diabetes and one will not develop the disease.  It is not simply about blood but about a number of other factors (diet, exercise, living conditions, etc.) having to do with societal and political constructions.  

Montoya's book which was just published (University of California Press) is an excellent study in how our society is creating a population highly susceptible to chronic disease-- whether or not you are of Mexican or Indian descent!