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That’s Democracy

March 13, 2017 — 2 Comments

Tanks rumbled past our house in the predawn haze. An armed soldier, visible only from the waist up, surveyed the road ahead from each turret. It was Thailand in 1986. A failed coup.

An army truck, the canvas flaps rolled up, slewed to a halt on the unpaved and muddy road at our neighbour’s locked gate. Armed soldiers burst past the terrified guard as he opened the gate. Screams reverberated around the compound and over the wall into ours. From my bedroom window I saw women, Cameroonians, slapped, pistol-whipped and man-handled into the truck. Money was exchanged and some were allowed to stay. It was Equatorial Guinea in 2004. A failed coup.

I have lived in countries where governments are corrupt. I have lived in despotic countries where, whether power has been taken violently or elections have been mired in irregularities, the leader has ‘a direct line to God’. I have never, thankfully, lived in a war-torn country.

Countries and cultures not my own have sometimes fascinated me, sometimes horrified me. But I have been able to compartmentalism the differences, without necessarily accepting them. In all the counties I have called home – twelve of them – I have prided myself on my ability to adapt to different environments, different political tenets, even when I might not have been entirely on board with those elected, freely. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

Relocating to America the first time in 1997, the year after Fox News came into being, I was struck by the intense political partisanship – there seemed to be no shades of grey, but there was still a civility. We lived in the suburbs, in a Republican stronghold and I learnt, mostly, to keep my opinions to myself. To respect the people around me who might not have had the same exposure to global cultures or customs, and therefore found it harder to understand those from different backgrounds. But I spoke differently and so, for the most part, I was accepted as a foreign liberal.

After a nearly three-year stint back in Africa, we returned to the United States and moved to a more flexible part of Houston – Downtown. In 2010 we shed our resident alien status to become US citizens. Texas has had a Republican governor the entire time I have lived here. There have though been both Republican and Democratic presidents. Some I have liked, and agreed with on both sides of the political spectrum. Some I have not. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

But the tenor has changed.

Until the week before the presidential election in 2016, I believed the American people would see through the bombast, the lies and complete lack of humility, and would reject the misogny and coarseness of a man attempting to become leader of the free world.
I was wrong. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

After the initial utter dismay, and after a dear friend pointed out I was in danger of becoming one of those people I despise – an intractable woman, I stopped myself swinging from stunned torpor to hysterical rantings, and prepared to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.

52 long days later wherein we have seen a rash of crass tweets, the clumsy roll-out of an ill-conceived immigration ban, a pathetic attempt to appease those wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act – an act everyone on both sides of the political divide agrees needs repair, the craven signing of the anti-abortion executive order, a lack of cohesive governance and the blatant mistrust of the security services, I say, in good Anglo-Saxon English, sod that. There are citizens who feel they have been given free reign on their behaviour. Who shout racial epithets before murdering an innocent Indian sitting at a bar. Whose Confederate flags flutter freely on the backroads. Who have the confidence to push through with seeming impunity laws against the LGBT community.

People in America are not mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again, but there appears to be little room for dialogue or diplomacy. Any president who hamstrings the people working for him is a person only wishing to surround himself with sycophants. With serfs so wary of their own position they are not prepared to question the master. Those who do, are dismissed – Sally Yates and on Friday, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. An independent judiciary is obviously not high on our president’s list.

Neither is draining the swamp – that much touted praise. Washington is rich with millionaires new to government – with people singularly unable to understand, or who have forgotten, how a family struggles to put food on the table, struggles to get adequate healthcare, struggles with education. Washington is drowning in a mire of unelected nepotism – what was called in Papua New Guinea – the wantok system. That is not democracy.

There might not be tanks rolling past my front door, or thugs in uniform pistol-whipping my neighbours, but the current political climate in the United States is divisive, is unpleasant, is unwelcoming. We are a nation much of the world looks at with amazement, and fear, for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, We the People, elected this president so I guess it is democracy. And yes, in 52 days I have become that intractable woman.

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Lost, One Culture

August 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

August in Texas is hot. Cumulus clusters float like candy floss across lapis skies. The beauty is as intense as the heat. A cloudburst delivers a brief respite – rain bouncing off the hard ground of the southern prairies in hard pellets.

Entering the gIMG_1801ates of the Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo just south of San Antonio, Texas, the seventh most populated city in the United States, it is easy to imagine the plaza filled with Franciscan friars, soldiers and men, women and children living their lives predominantly within the confines of the mission walls.

Pincered between the more aggressive nomadic Lipan Apaches from the North and by colonists from Spain eager to increase their footprint in the New World, those men, women and children were members of the hunter-gatherer tribes, known collectively as Coahuiltecans (Kwa-weel-tekens). Funded by Spain when prospects of riches north of the Rio Grande faded, the missions became the driver for the spread of Catholicism, though they did little to limit the spread of foreign disease.

Our screens today are filled with images of forced migrations – peoples fleeing war, genocide, politics and poverty. Some make it eventually to countries willing to share the burden of refugees, others spend years, sometime decades, in camps initially built to be temporary. Many have fled with few possessions, but in their souls they carry their culture – the essence of who they are.

With the years, particularly if the country resettled in is of an entirely different culture, the home culture becomes diluted. Becomes a marriage of cultures, a blending of mores. And yet high days and holidays are still celebrated, perhaps without the exact ingredients, but near enough to satisfy our instinct to recognize and belong. Over generations those cultures become evermore diluted until we are left with sometimes just the merest hint of our ancestry – a darker skin, an almond-shaped eye, or with words alone. I am German American. I am Chinese American, and so on. It has been a slow iterative process, which is occasionally reversed through sheer will and determination of a man or woman many generations removed – but that original culture can never be wholly reclaimed. Think Kwanzaa, celebrating an African heritage and created by Maulana Karenga in 1966–67 for African Americans. (See blog Dec 31st, 2010)

Imagine then the intensity of culture change for the Coalhuiltecans who, driven by the fear of bows and arrows from the North and European diseases from the South, placed their fate in the benign hands of men like Friar Antonio Margil de Jesús, founder of the Mission San José.

The five missions along the San Antonio River, all modeled on Spanish villages, gave protection from marauders but not disease. Many died. But their story is not decades in the making. Rather it is one of willing subjugation. By entering the mission gates, the Coalhuiltecans, in exchange for refuge gave up not just a way of life but dialects, religious practices – an entire culture disappearing essentially overnight.

From hunter gatherer, at one with the seasons, carrying supplies in intricately made baskets in their search of food, they became Catholic neophytes living by a bell pealing around the walled missions. Mass three times a day. Spanish and Latin became their language. In exchange for their freedom, skills were taught and the Coalhuiltecans became weavers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, farmers and soldiers.

Wandering around the plaza, ducking into the Indian living quarters, taking in the quiet beauty of the mission church, a limestone edifice built in the Spanish colonial Baroque style begun in 1768 when the mission was home to 350 Indians, there is a serenity I had not expected.

My thoughts jumped to modern-day camps, enclosed by razor wire, but built essentially to protect, or maybe to contain, the many, many thousands of inhabitants fleeing persecution. I doubt my descendants will walk those camps with a sense of peace, even though cultures may not have not been lost.

And I doubt there will be remarkable innovations left for future generations. Like the series of dams and aqueducts – the acequia system – which irrigated fields surrounding the missions with waters from the San Antonio River. A system still supplying farms today.

For some Coalhuiltecans the strictures of a prescribed life were too great, and they returned to their former way of living, only to die from the original threats. Lost, one culture. For those who remained a new culture evolved and became the bedrock of the Tejano. I am Mexcian American.

The August heat on the southern Texas prairies is intense. But rain will fall, to be collected in dams built under the auspices of Franciscan friars. What, I wonder, will be the legacy of our camps today? What will be the essence of the culture these refugees carry?

True GRIT

August 5, 2010 — Leave a comment

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