During our stopover in Santa Fe, my only goal was to visit a particular bookstore. Allá is a rarity: a brick and mortar Spanish language and literature store in the United States. It has been on San Francisco Street, a block off the plaza, since the 1980s. The bookshop nestles at the top of a steep set of stairs above the street’s touristy shops. You peer around densely filled shelves, stacks of books, art, and music to find the proprietor’s desk. The first time I stumbled on this establishment was in the late 1980s. Not yet a translator, I’d been idly thinking of trying my hand at it. I was a poet, and given my smattering of Spanish and interest in Mexico, had decided I should find a Mexican woman poet to translate, but had done nothing to act on the idea.
At Allá I faced shelves bursting with contemporary Latin American poetry. After grazing hungrily through those aisles, I walked out with Baniano and Bacantes by Elsa Cross, Mexican poet. My rusty Spanish couldn’t grasp complete meanings, but to my poet’s ear the rhythm of her verse rang true. I was fascinated by the Indian settings. In my staggering ignorance, I blithely decided these difficult, lyrical poems were where I would cut my translator teeth. I had no idea.
When I walked in this time, owner James Dunlap was in lively Spanish conversation with Adalucía Quan, an author/illustrator whose charming bilingual children’s book he was taking. Since Spanish was the language of the moment, I said, “Hola. Estoy buscando libros de Mónica Lavín y Agustín Cadena,” and was about to add, by way of explanation, that they were contemporary Mexican writers, but no need. Jim replied instantly, claro, over here, got on his knees in the next room and pulled a block of books from a corner shelf. The front row hid another. From that row treasures appeared: two early Cadena novels in shrinkwrap, and one by Lavín, along with her guide for writers. It was a time warp—books published fifteen to twenty years ago—but qué milagro that they were still there, tucked away. And what a delight, to say those names and have them recognized!
One of my regular complaints about America is our pervasive ignorance of other peoples and cultures. Except when I attend literary translator conferences, no one recognizes the writers I translate. I believe knowledge of other people’s literature promotes understanding, and such understanding dissolves the ice of xenophobia, which seems to have lately frozen so many of our hearts.
When we first heard the news about Paris, Phil exclaimed, “city of my dreams!” When the crowd leaving the soccer stadium began singing La Marseillaise, I cried: I have my own history with the French national anthem. But I was also moved to tears by Adel Tormos, the young Lebanese father who tackled the second suicide bomber in Beirut, sacrificing his own life to save so many others. Because of Paris, Americans who barely noticed Beirut now turn their backs on Syrian refugees. Certainly a terrorist might hide among them, but our vetting is extensive and refugee ranks include many more like Adel Tormos, defying fear, defying barbarism, taking risks and enduring hardships to find someplace safe for their families, their beautiful children.
A few novels by Orhan Pamuk or Rabih Alameddine or Hanan al-Shaykh, to toss off a few examples, will expand your view of Middle Eastern peoples. A poignant independent film, “My Tehran For Sale,” will make you ache with sympathy for those beautiful young Iranians, who only want the freedom of expression we take for granted.
In this country of immigrants, established in part for religious freedom, I take it personally that politicians want to refuse non-Christian refugees. I am a second generation American and one of my grandfathers came here illegally. I am not a Christian. No one has ever questioned me about either of those things. That fact makes me hopeful for us. A political analyst, discussing the terrorism threat here after Paris, said one factor that makes us safer is that the majority of our Muslim population feel welcomed and report anything they hear that might be a threat. Our own Islamic citizens make us safer, do you hear? And that they feel welcomed also gives me hope for the American soul.
Still, this nasty wave of racism and irrational fear is as ugly and inhumane as turning away a boatload of Jews (in the photo women and children wave happily from the ship’s rail, believing they are safe) or many states refusing to take relocated Japanese-Americans during World War II. Don’t get me started on all the ways and times since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848, that we’ve alternately solicited and encouraged, then abused and deported Mexican workers.
So however modest the event may be, finding Mónica Lavín and Agustín Cadena in a bookstore in the United States of America gave me a thrill. I consider it a sign of the porous nature of borders, no matter what walls may be built. I consider it a sign of our innate human desire to break down boundaries. I only hope such signs someday result in the triumph of charity over hatred, compassion over fear.