We drove up from LA and were greeted by the smell of a nearby forest fire and the sight of unruly stars; chaotic and in place like an incestuous family millennia in the making. What I remember most of the San Joaquin Valley is its glorious dirt: fertile land of fruits and poets, depleted by nuts and drought. I had the great honor to be a fruit, a poet and a nut during a month-long stay at the Doña Helen’s residency in Clovis, California. The residency was founded by Fresno poet Joseph Rios in honor of his late grandmother, Helen Ruiz, with the blessing of his grandfather Joseph Ruiz and his kin. Situated on the same block of Doña Helen’s birth, marriage and death, the house is the rare property that has remained within the same Mexican American family for nearly a hundred years.
On my first day at the house, Joseph Ruiz and Rios shared with me pictures and documents that traced an American story. There was an identity document issued by the Mexican Consulate from 1912 that pictured Joseph Senior’s father (one can assume he was fleeing the revolution back in Michoacan to work on the fields), there was also a deed for land purchased for a hundred dollars ten years late and some very charming pictures of Grandpa before and during World War II. I noticed that the soldiers had their trousers rolled up at the bottom revealing socked ankles, when I asked him about it, he confessed that not only was it fashion but also function, they would hide condoms and other goodies inside the crevices. Grandpa was stationed in Germany and was classified as white for the intent and purpose of war. When he came back home he bought a convertible car with the remittances his mother had saved, so when his next door neighbor, a young Doña Helen, wanted to go to the movies, she knew who to ask. The rest as they say, is history. American history.
I’ve never lived in a house longer than five years or a city more than ten. As a person with a lawless immigrant identity deeply engrained, I feel like a wild creature in the presence of those with fixed roots and permanent homes. Sometimes I long for my own, but most times I accept the ease and comfort of movement. As a writer working on a novel (a project that requires more than a long term commitment,) the settled land on which I was writing proved to be the place to take the project and the writer to the next level. Despite trying to have a morning routine, I found I became most confident and productive at night. I found solace in the pages of books under the citrus trees of the house, they became dear friends on days in which the only time I opened my mouth was to brush my teeth and eat. In the makeshift kitchen inside of the house I made mole with nopales, soups, different egg dishes and sandwiches with produce from the farmer’s market. I enjoyed finding the rhythm and daily dedication to writing, the act of remembering who I am.
Yet it was a great relief when Joseph’s cousins would come by to have a beer or take me bowling and reassuring when Fresno poet laureate, Lee Herrick, took the time to meet me for tea and listened to some of the things I was exploring in my work, and experiencing as a writer. Writing, the process of art making can be painful but it also has the power to heal. Great American poets have come out of Fresno and I got to meet the next generation at the residency’s reading at the Book Barn Bookshop in Clovis. I had the honor to share the stage with New Mexico native Marisol Baca, Fresno’s own Michael Medrano and Joseph Rios. I shared a poem and an excerpt from the novel I worked on in residency, and shared The Mango Poem film with the Fresno literary community; which brought me to meet David Campos, winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize, who also produces visual poems. Folks from Fresno State’s MFA program came out and were kind enough to invite me to their annual party hosted by the beloved and brilliant Connie Hales. Mia Barraza was kind enough to arrange for me to sit in her poetry class and share the film, it was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. Yet, despite all the rich contributions to literature to come out of the region, Fresno struggles with literacy in its schools. Alicia Olivarez, who also came to the reading, chose to return to Fresno after graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School and became an advocate to address this, and other barriers plaguing the region’s youth. To me, Mia and Alicia represent the strong flowers blooming in San Joaquin Valley despite the drought, they are the blessed carriers of change.
If you get lucky and figure out how to heal your wounds, you can also heal those of others. The trick is being brave enough to locate the wound and name it. Though sometimes, certain places require surgery. Stronger medicine. I left Clovis on the twenty second of October, happy with what I accomplished while there and grateful for all the people I met that became friends. I left for Mexico on a journey to heal my own roots and learn of earth and magic.
Part II The Earth Dance and Patricia