through the surface and into the center: the truth of existence, existence of particular persons in a particular place, persons who are the product, in fact the image of that place. We have no literature of Texas or the Southwest, barring five or six books. We have no definition. The Cotton Bowl, the Alamo, the Dallas or Houston rich, Texas Longhorns, the King Ranch are incidentals, and people who set their minds on such things as these as images of Texas are the walking blind. It is the lives that are lived that are a place. And you know how secret all lives are, yours and mine, how hidden and deep. The novelist and poet are especially constructed to mine them forth. . . . To get a literature of the Southwest, to get an image of the Southwest, we are going to have to have poems and novels of such high linguistic and intuitive capabilities as to be able to probe and release, in their own idiom reflecting the sky they are under and the land they are on, the past they come from and the present they are in the individual and communal psyches that, though they are at once all men, are also, and especially, of this time, this place. For my part I do not feel that this literature will be made in a mainly realistic nor, certainly, propagandistic mode. I believe it must use a language as highly charged imaginatively as the landscape it comes from and as harsh musically and idiomatically as its natives’ speech. It will be a literature that goes to the psyche, not the surface, and toward, on its own terms, Flaubert or Joyce rather than Dreiser. It will put an image into the nation’s consciousness as real and as imaginative as that we have of the South. It will be a world of its own. R. G. Vliet April 28, 1978 You Face the Wind Something about an old man crossing the street reminds me again. The way he walks, I think, bent forward at the waist, leaning into the heavy wind. . . . my father comes to mind. I can see the wide strap on his shoulder, extended to the long, white sack dragging behind. Before him, the long row of white cotton extends almost endlessly. He doesn’t look ahead, though, just continues, bent forward at the waist, leaning on the strap. His hands, calloused from picking without gloves, move softly between the plants and pick carefully and quickly. The soft, thudding sound of the cotton beating against the extended canvas sack tells him there’s a ways to go yet . . . he hasn’t finished. He is an old man. His face is worn and lined from days and nights of travel and arrival. And as I work beside him I begin to feel that the day he stops, or has to stop, he’ll die. I remember later than that day in the fields. He was already sick by then. He stood with his hands on his hips, watching the new machines devour the cotton as they moved along the length of the white rows. There was a look of disappointment on his face. “The west is gone,” it seemed to say. “Our work is over.” He walked inside, then outside once again. And in a year, two years at most, the strange disease set in, “an ailment of the old,” the doctors said. He died. We used to travel a lot then, in search of work. None of us was really trained for anything else. We would pick cotton around the coastal area, then around West Texas. In Crystal City, the spinach and the onions always helped out; in Lubbock and Plainview, the Panhandle, the hoeing was what kept us on our feet. Then back home a year of school for children who had worked all summer in the -fields. We worked the onions after school. No one was shedding tears when we’d arrived, and at first I wondered how they did it, picking onions, cutting off both root and stem, and not shedding a tear. Then I found out the secret you face the wind. The travel was nice. It’s an adventure when you’re young. We’d climb onto a truck and it would go for miles until we got there. The field would lay glistening in the sun, people would eat taquitos and talk among themselves, and we would start. At noon, the “mayordomo” would honk his horn and we would stop, lay on the cotton sacks and rest amid the plants, our shoulders aching from the morning pull. There’s a romanticism in it for me. I was the young. The others, some of them old, could see that if they worked long enough and gave me breaks to go to school, someday, they would no longer see me there. And that’s the way it worked. The old would bend their waists at morning, even before we arrived in the afternoons, and they would work, knowing we were at school making the work obsolete for ourselves, though not for them. School was no better, though. Rooms full of stereotypes and jokes that meant to hurt rather than heal. “Mexicans should work in the fields because they’re short and close to the ground.” An Anglo told me that. He stood there in defiance until I turned to him; he must have seen the anger in my eyes, my face. He ran to waiting friends and left the building quickly. If I saw him now, I probably would hate him just as much. Then trucks again. Or crowded cars. Our truck would fill up with the families wanting to change sites, or realizing the work was over, and we would move again. I was invisible to them all a child who worked was no particular phenomenon. It was a large truck, with canvas covering the back, from which the people would peek out to look at sunshine or the stars or other working people as we moved. Occasionally we’d stop during the trip. For food. For information. We found that lots of people would be ready to get off whenever we stopped. During the earliest hours of the morning, we would stop in some secluded town, in some spot furthest away from the corners of civilization, and they would amble over each other in the darkness of the morning and climb out the rear door of the truck. They would form small groups and talk, eating peanuts and drinking Coca-Colas, until it was time to get back on, and drive off to our destination. Our destination. Too big a word for what it was. Shacks, sometimes; usually labor camps with lots of other families there. Small one-room houses where we slept on the floor and played with toys made out of boards. \(I hear that’s “in” now: sleeping on the floor is good for you and toys made out of wood are natural. But it will never be “in” for would talk about where we would go next, where all the work was, and where they had been. I forget all that sometimes. And then it comes in swarms of mental images or words that someone said to someone in the fields. Then I remember the hopelessness of it all. The transferred hope that I’d escape only if the right amount of time was given to an education they always thought would put me elsewhere. Images of mothers following children halfway to school with small pieces of limbs in hand enforcing the educational requirement. Later, in high-school history class: “The migrants don’t see the need for an education. They only see the child as a potential worker.” I smiled, thought of senoras armed with threats for children who would walk too slow to get to school, and saw right through the argument. Then it occurs to me again: the older THE TEXAS OBSERVER 61
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.