December 20, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsReadingRemembrancesWriting

I Am George Washington Gómez: On Works of Significant Worth and Importance

CWoIky8WoAAvspn.jpg-large
The original (and now well-worn) copy that my mother gave me

 

I remember the time I brought Américo Paredes’s novel George Washington Gómez into my AP English classroom; my teacher looked at the cover, frowned and asked: “Okay… So is this an American or Mexican book?”

It was my senior year, and my fifty-year-old-something Anglo teacher, who saw herself as liberal and identified as a feminist, had asked the class to choose a book of “significant worth and importance”—that’s the exact phrase—and write an essay as our final paper of the year. Almost all the books my classmates chose were ones she’d read. Almost all were, inevitably, written by dead white men or women, meaning the usual suspects: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, the Brontë sisters. George Washington Gómez had been published in 1990; my teacher had never heard of Américo Paredes.

She read the title aloud, and my classmates, whom were waiting to meet with her about prospective authors of significant worth and importance, laughed out loud. She laughed too, and asked me: “Américo? Is that his real name?” Then, before I could answer, one of my classmates called out: “George Washington Gómez? Are you for real?” My teacher smiled at me, and nodded in agreement.

The next day, she told me she could not approve the book on the grounds that: (1) it was too “young” a publication; (2) the author seemed to be too “minor” for a work of “significant worth and importance;” (3) she had not read anything at all by this author (and reminded me she was quite well-read to begin with); and lastly, (4) she could not “get over” the “absurdity” of the title. My teacher first suggested and then assigned me the book Night by Elie Wiesel because: (1) she knew I was Jewish; (2) there had been a recent incident at school involving a guest speaker and myself; (3) she had read Night (as she was quite well-read, remember); and lastly, (4) I was obviously trying to rebel, because of reason (2), and reporting on Night was a better way to do it, as this was a “time-proven” work that was significant and important.

“But I’ve already read Night in Hebrew school,” I protested.

“Well,” she said brightly, “now you can read it in English.”

That’s not what I meant at all, I thought, but fell silent.

In the end, I was the only student who did not choose her or his own book, but I was probably the only student who figured out the real reason why she’d rejected Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez. She rejected it because deep down she had to keep separate two different names she couldn’t imagine coexisting in one person. Because the title of such a book sounded like a joke. Because it would distract the class from works of “significant worth and importance.” Because even though she knew I came from a Jewish father and a Mexican mother, and even though I’d begun writing my first personal essays about being mixed and negotiating a paternal Orthodox Judaism family and a maternal Mexican Catholic one, and even though she’d encouraged these essays, when we were past the rhetoric of multiculturalism and acceptance, it was a matter of either/or.

This meant either George Washington or George Gómez. This meant that, when it came to AP exams and college, I either choose works of “significant worth and importance” and succeeded, or I didn’t. And since I’d chosen wrong, she took it upon herself to choose for me. In the end, my teacher wiped her eyes but not the smile from her face as she said, albeit gently, that something like George Washington Gómez would not be a choice on the AP exam, and therefore, of no real help to me in the long run, though she was touched, truly touched, that I’d attempted “something” like “this” without, of course, explaining what she just meant by that.

* * *

 

“Miss Cornelia made it a point to call Guálinto ‘Mr. George Washington Gómez’… he knew Miss Cornelia was taunting him, and he came to hate his name, as well as the real George Washington who was supposed to the father of his country” (137).

–George Washington Gómez, Américo Paredes

 
My mother gave me the book. She wanted me to see a part of myself, the Mexican part of myself, in this book. Her maiden name is Gómez. I have an uncle named George Gómez. I have a cousin named George Gómez. The former has no middle name, and the latter’s certainly is not Washington. When she first gave me this book, I literally saw my family in its title. That was completely my mother’s intention. It was Esperanza Gomez’s intention.

Américo Paredes was not taught in my predominately Latino high school in San Antonio; Latino literature—in the words of my AP English teachers who taught mostly Anglo kids of this predominately Latino high school—while “colorful” and “rich,” was not “canon material,” and to be “college material” I needed to know “canon material.” In addition to Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, I needed courses in Latin, Calculus, and at least one course in the trifecta of the Bio/Physics/Chem II. The Spanish language and Mexican folklore, my mother and I were told, would get me nowhere.

Esperanza Gómez ruffled her feathers at this, but she did so in private. When she attended PTA meetings, my mother smiled politely when my teachers, who almost all identified as liberal and feminist, would mispronounce her name; call me Espie, she’d smile, trying to make them feel more comfortable. Likewise, my mother taught me to be accommodating: don’t speak Hebrew or Spanish in class or in the hallways; smile; don’t show too much skin; smile; don’t discuss religion; if they ask what your parents do, don’t lie but try to change the subject; smile; smile, so you can get to college and be free.

Freedom, for Esperanza Gómez, was getting to college, and from there she imagined one could do whatever one wanted. This is what she wanted for me.

I was rebellious, but I acted out only once I was off school grounds; at school, I did I was told. All went to plan until one day a guest speaker came into my AP Economics class. He was a nondescript, heavyset man who talked in a heavy Texas drawl; I remember he wore a sports jacket, a blue denim shirt and tie, dark jeans and cowboy boots, and that he operated out of a small town outside San Antonio. He went on and on about cattle and corn and pork futures; my classmates and I were on the verge of falling asleep until this phrase suddenly rang out his mouth: “Jew them down.” Suddenly we were all awake and everyone in the class gasped in astonishment, turning to look at me, including my teacher. I glared at the guest speaker who cocked his head to the side; he never broke from what sounded like a much-rehearsed speech, but I could tell he was sizing me up, slowly figuring out that I was indeed Jewish. I remember the look of A-HA in his eyes, and the big, buttery smile that came over his moon-shaped face. He even winked at me, causing my classmates to gasp again.

After the guest left, the teacher went on with our lesson like nothing happened. I sat there, refusing to take notes, and became more and more angry. When I confronted him after class, my teacher told me to not be so sensitive.

In other words, smile.

Well, I didn’t.

I went to one of the vice principals, and explained the whole story to him. He waited for me to finish, and then asked: how many of you are there here?

I looked around, confused.

No, I mean, how many Jews are here at my school?

I shrugged and replied: I think there’s a couple of others.

A couple, he said. Out of what? Almost 4,000 students?

I shrugged and said: I guess so.

And do you think they would have a problem here? Would you like me to call them in now, or do you want to speak for them too?

I was now very sorry I’d come to see him. I had no idea where he was going with this. I looked down at the ground. We sat there for a while. He sighed loudly several times. Then he asked if my mother was at home. No, I said, she’s at work. Where? He asked. She works at another school, I said. He asked for the name, and when I told him, he wrinkled his nose. He called the school, and while he waited on the line, he asked me if she liked working there. There was no time to answer because then he made me go sit outside when she came on the line.

I waited outside his office until my mother arrived, even though I had a test in another class.  I opened a book to study until the vice principal came out his office and asked me to put it away. It finally dawned me on me that I, and not the guest speaker, was in trouble.

When mother arrived, he turned it around us and asked: How is what Mr. So-and-so said a racial slur? Why, I’ve heard it many times. It’s just a saying. No, I think this is something else, he informed us. Now your daughter missed her Calculus exam. Because of this. Well, I’m thinking she wasn’t ready to take it. Maybe she’s looking for an excuse.

“My daughter is doing very well in school,” my mother said, “she would never—”

We are past that now, aren’t we? He cut her off.

My mother shifted uncomfortably, and nodded, as if agreeing with another question he’d not asked. She then nudged me and I nodded too. I was told to think about what was really important. I liked my classes, didn’t I? I wanted to stay in my classes, didn’t I? I wasn’t a troublemaker, was I?

I think it’s best she went home for today, he said, as if I wasn’t even there. In fact, he had been speaking as if I wasn’t there since I’d come back into his office.

So I was sent home. And it was as if both my mother and I were sent home. I didn’t tell her about the previous conversation I’d had with him, for fear she’d lash out at me. When we got home, my mother looked angry, and I thought she was going to punish me. Instead she took a deep breath, and asked me to make sure I could make up the test I’d missed. Smile, of course, she said, when you ask to make it up. I promised her I would.

Stay off his radar was the best advice my mother could offer me regarding the vice principal. She herself was not smiling. She went back to work. I studied and did my chores. When she came home a little later than usual, I was sure I was in trouble. That’s when she handed me a bag. Inside was a book: George Washington Gómez. She told me that she’d ordered it a while ago from a bookstore, and today, she’d finally remembered to pick it up.

“Have you read it?” I asked.

My mother looked at me, lips parted. Her eyes watered a little.

“No,” she answered, “But I was told by what it’s about.”

“What’s it about?”

“Something that someone like me would have written, if…”

“If what?”

To that my mother only nodded. She nodded as if agreeing with another question I should have asked long ago.

 

* * * 

“Hadn’t he heard the line somewhere? In his mind he went over the list of poets for senior English. No, not Longfellow, not Poe, not Whitman. He was almost sure the lines were his. But why write poetry?” (207)

–Guálinto on writing love poems

The visibility of a title like George Washington Gómez is a challenge to national historical memory. Américo Paredes links a U.S. national icon and ultimate paternal figure with Mexican/Mexican-American heritage, reworking the existing abstraction of established American heroism. In the novel, Paredes’s version of the America available to the Latino begins with the death of one nation (Mexíco), and a prophecy that the U.S.-Mexican border will determine, or rather divide, the ever-changing, ever-bewildered young George Washington Gómez, who the reader first meets as Guálinto. This is his childhood nickname. That intimate, most personal of names he first recognizes, sets a place for him at home and then in the world at large.

Like most teenagers discovering for the first time an important voice of their culture otherwise marginalized in mainstream literature, I wanted to read the author as the main character. But Paredes distances himself from Guálinto in several ways: Guálinto is absent from the beginning, still a promise inside his mother’s womb; Paredes’s use of third-person creates a separate disposition for his protagonist; his text mixes novel, biography, history, folklore and criticism, and their mixture unifies reality with fiction, allowing Paredes to create a world, and to edit and critique historical events. The reader is brought closer to personal details of Paredes’s own childhood when he writes folktales in the text, more casual and mysterious than his examination of the troubling history of the Texas Rangers. With the folktales, he captures or creates myths, and with the Rangers, dispels the myth of their supposed heroic, superhuman capacity for justice, as I was taught in my Texas History class, a required class for graduation.

Guálinto’s late father Gumersindo—a tragic, sacrificial figure who’d been optimistic about the Americanization of his people—becomes a combination of fact and legend for his son. Hailing from the interior of Mexico, he’s “taken in by such talk” of “love between all men and everybody being brothers” (a.k.a. the American Dream) while his “Border Mexican” counterparts “knew there was no brotherhood of men” (19) and that “South Texas still is Gringo land” (25), meaning hostile territory to anyone not Anglo. In attempting to guarantee a prosperous fate for his son, Gumersindo’s death must be concealed and obscured; his uncle, who Guálinto first admires and respects as a parent, possess a radical opposition to the violent takeover of the country, but must carry the burden of keeping the secret that Gumersindo was murdered by Texas Rangers.

Guálinto enters the American dream under illusions of patriarchal foundations: the same world presented to him as gift also murdered his father, and it would deny him vengeance to the very end. His father’s death serves as a warning that assimilating into this realm of justice leads to a destruction of the Indian side of the Mexican conscience, both fatally (for Gumersindo) and spiritually (for Guálinto). There is a moment in the novel when Guálinto falls ill and submits to a state of pure spirit, and physically heals outside the church of the dominant culture and organized religion, and in a more ancient, natural world. As his name “Guálinto” becomes a religious incantation, repeated by the curandera (healer) Doña Simonita, his bed, a ship-like cloud, accelerates him into an ethereal essence, and he “circle[s] the room— once, twice. The third time he floated out the window” (99). The younger Guálinto is carried off, experience an out-of-body transcendence that brings him closer to his home culture, his native culture, but like the illness itself, this is a temporary passing.

When he begins school, Guálinto enters a so-called integrated system where social/racial divisions still exist, registers late for classes, and is placed into the “low” class first. He is intelligent and studious, but comes from a Spanish-speaking home that will remain so, causing him to “hate the Gringo one moment with an unreasoning hatred, admiring his literature, music, material goods the next. Loving the Mexican with a blind fierceness, then almost despising him for his slow progress in the world” (150). Guálinto expresses this self-division when he fights himself in the banana trees, embodying both the bandido (Mexican rebel) and the rinche (Texas Ranger). When he enters high school, he defends Mexicans in Miss Barton’s class when a classmate claims that all Mexicans are naturally bandits, with a few exceptions such as Guálinto himself. While he takes this as an insult, he still strives to do well in the American system by striving to become valedictorians. He wants to gain acceptance of his classmates all the while proving them wrong in the very system that makes him uneasy in the first place.

Guálinto had to penetrate the system from the very bottom, and he did so young, by reciting (in a less guarded manner) a speech by the first president, George Washington, his namesake, his burden. He eventually comes to reject the idea of a Mexican as being an ancestral founder of the country, and reflects that one cannot consider himself both Mexican and a competent member of the Gringo-centric community. First he rebels against the Gringo, and stands at the threshold of adulthood as a separatist: at the Senior Party, he finds that Mexicans are barred from the very places they supposedly embody like the restaurant “La Casa.” His refusal to be identified and therefore, mistaken, as anything but Mexican shows a devotion to his family and heritage that one wavered when he was “ashamed of his house, [being] no palace” (157). When he rejects his would-be lover María Elena’s explanation to the doorman that his light skin qualifies him for the classification as a Spaniard, he reveals the imperialistic nature of the real world, one that Miss Barton cannot moderate or manage, as occurrences outside the classroom ideology defy the notion that everyone is equal in the eyes of democratic America.

It would seem Guálinto is successful in constructing an independent life for himself, but assimilation is a tricky beast: the more he succeeds, the more he becomes entangled and part of the dominate culture. We see this when he first tries to write a love poem for María Elena: “You who destroyed the flowers of my youth/ You who filled my declining years/ With remembrances and aching.” At first he is overcome with the power of his owns words before he succumbs to doubt: was he merely parroting existing (and European/Anglo) poets like Longfellow and Poe? Where was Guálinto in this language? Could it ever be his own? Could he make it his own? Without a language his own to express his longing, how could he express his other emotions? How could he express his true self? And is that self more Guálinto or George Washington?

The battle of these two selves never rests, and reaches its climax when Guálinto mistakenly kills his Uncle Lupe—unknowingly and self-defense)—which the school rewards him with a medal, remarking that he “captured a dangerous criminal so that justice would be done” (273). It is then he learns learns about the truth about his father’s murder at the hands of Texas Rangers, while at the same time he graduates high school where he is “reminded” that his Anglo “forefathers” fought against and “erased Mexican cruelty and tyranny from this fair land” (274).

In the end, he cannot reconcile these two selves, and decides what’s important is not finding his own voice, but survival and stability. He does not want to struggle for the sake of identity, for his people, for a mere idea. He attends college, passes the bar exam, legally changes his name to George G. Gómez and then marries an Anglo—a Texas Ranger’s daughter, that is—only to then commit the ultimate betrayal by the end of the book: spying on his Mexican-American, radicalized community of peers for the sake of “border security.” By fully leaving behind the Guálinto side of himself, he no longer considers fulfilling his destiny as a revisionist Mexican-American George Washington. As he insults his old, idealistic friends, George G.. Gómez is seen by his community as a traitor and sellout, and although he is successful, he does not, cannot, retain his heritage. He is a legalized bandido who has been metabolized into the existing social hierarchy. Very much isolated in his own body and the body of the Mexican-American, Paredes leaves the reader with the premonition that George will always fear that he will never fully “get the Mexican out of himself” (283). Furthermore, his marriage to a Texas Ranger’s daughter leaves him displaced in the battle under the banana trees, no longer both rinche or bandido, but one completely without individuality.

His name, in the end, mocks him.
 

* * *

“These were his people, the real people he belonged with. He would go back. Tomorrow night he would go back. He never did.” (247)

–Guálinto on leaving his old way of life behind

 
I was shaken when I read George Washington Gómez; it contains parallel secrets and the untaught histories of my own Gómez family, as it does for thousands of Chicanos and Chicanas all along the Border and in the U.S. It also revealed something about my mother I had never wanted to admit. For all her “smile” and “Espie” business, I’d always seen her as my father had: a tenacious, take-no-prisoners, won’t-with-no-B.S. kind of warrior woman. I didn’t want to admit that deep down, I understood she had been silenced and oppressed, quite knowingly, because there were times she had do what she did to survive. That she ate crow so that her daughter would succeed. That she knew I myself would have to sacrifice, conform, and constantly negotiate boundaries with the dominant culture at large. That she thought this would end when I got to college, but I encountered much of the same thought about works of “significant worth and importance” which I wrote about here, and invited other Cantomundo poets to join in the discussion.

I did discuss this book—not within the hallowed halls of academia, with my so-called liberal, feminist teacher and advanced-level cohort—but with my mother. For when I told her that my teacher had rejected the book, Esperanza Gómez bristled and said I could do both: write a paper on Night, which I’d already read anyway, and then I could discuss George Washington Gómez with her.

I groaned. “But that’s double the work.”

“Nothing wrong with hard work,” she snapped after a long day of working two jobs: one at a school and another at a department store. She sat down to soak her feet in a small tub that I’d filled with Epson salts. On nights like this, my father would still be at work, and my mother would be too tired to eat. I’d try to coax her into a PB&J, the only thing I could make without setting the smoke alarm off.

“Nothing at all wrong with that,” my mother went go on, pushing the plate away. “Look, look at me. Do you want to become like me, working for so little? While these healthy kids are jabbering away on the phones, ignoring the dressing rooms all day so they’re trashed by the time we close? I’m the reason we make quota every month, and then they go and search my bag.”

When my mother would tell me this, I’d feel her shame. I knew how much the bag-checking bothered her. “Every night. Because there’s thieves everywhere. I tell myself they check everyone’s bag, but then again, I’m not everyone. They thank me, for all the credit accounts I open, for all the sales junk I manage to get people to buy. They thank me for a wonderful day, and then they look unhappy when they have to look through my bag. But they don’t say it, see? They don’t.”

“What don’t they say?” I’d ask, though I knew what my mother wanted more than anything else. My lovely mother who’d be awake in the next five hours. During the day she worked with ESL kids in a school full of “problem” children who pass through a metal detector before first period. Children forbidden to open their lockers again until lunch. Children, my mother would say, who deserve more, even the boy who threw a chair across the room in frustration last week all because he was struggling with irregular verbs, because he told my mother he didn’t want to “sound like a Mexican” anymore.

I pushed the plate back to her mother’s chest. “Mama, what don’t they do?”

My mother looked straight ahead, at nothing. Her lips barely parted, she sighed, “They never say ‘sorry.’ They never apologize for having to doubt me. Please. Read the novel. Tell me about it. Chapter by chapter. That’s all I want.”

So I did. I read to her every night I could when she came home. Through every chapter, we talked and argued; most of the time, her own memories of the border were too fresh, the nerves too raw to touch. My mother would cry in front of me, which she rarely did. If he was home, my father would listen in, but did not join these discussions; that, too, was rare. By the time we finished the novel, my mother and I were closer, and my senior year was over. I’d been accepted to NYU on several scholarships. New York City and college were both now a reality. Unlike Guálinto, I promised my mother I would not turn my back on my Mexican heritage, or forget her family, the family that loved my Jewish father and had always accepted him, even when my mother had converted to his religion. She had stopped telling me to smile, and all the same, I managed to stay out of anymore trouble.

Then, a few days before I left for college, my mother and I were sitting in a bookstore café when we saw my former AP English teacher. Actually, she saw us first. She stared at us, as if not believing we were there. Then she approached us. She smiled widely at us; we smiled back. Why not? I was free.

“Your daughter dragged you in here, huh?” my teacher asked.

“No, I come here often,” my mother said.

“Oh, now that’s just great,” my teacher said, as if patting my mother on the back.

I was looking at my teacher now, through Guálinto-George-Washington-Gomez eyes. My teacher who thought herself so liberal and feminist could not see how she was speaking to my mother.

“So, are you still going to New York?” my teacher asked.

“Yes,” I smiled, surprised she’d ask that, but not surprised either.

Then, out of nowhere, my teacher said: “Oh, you’re going to hate it! I was there once. I hated it. Five months was enough for me. The people are rude and the winters cold and everything is so expensive. They’ll eat you alive! I didn’t think you were actually going to go. Do you have a backup school? Nothing wrong with having a backup school.”

My mother and I stared at her. We stared at her smart, grey bob and her bright blue eyes and her trademark loose linen pants and t-shirt that read in flowery script: “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.” I remember my teacher wore this shirt on the first day of class, removing her corduroy blazer so we students could read the quote more clearly. She asked us to explain what we thought it meant, and one by one, students offered up ideas that one should follow their dreams or be daring, all of which she pronounced cliché but well-meaning. I remember I didn’t utter a word, thinking how empty and vague was such a phrase. Now I could now see my mother reading it intently, and then looking up at my former teacher who looked flustered as our silence continued.

My mother turned to look at me and I could see she was biting back a smile and her shoulders were shaking slightly and suddenly both of us burst out laughing. All those years of careful-devised decorum and politeness went out the door within less than five minutes. We laughed and laughed and could not stop. Neither of us can remember how my former teacher reacted to this or when she left our table exactly, or how many people were in the café that day, that day we were neither traitor nor sell-out, that day perhaps lost among days of greater significant worth and importance, that small moment in time when my mother revealed herself as Esperanza Gómez in public, both to me and to the world, that moment we were both in cahoots and undoubtedly free.