“Amma” – published in Mujeres de Maiz 2015 zine

My mother’s skin has an earthy smell. Her golden wedding necklace chimes against her chest when she walks. Her face is too familiar to describe – dark hair, pale complexion, strawberry-shaped nose. Her fingers touch the metal strings of the wise goddess Saraswati’s own instrument, the veena. She gives us the tastes of spicy tomato rasam, the comfort of plain yogurt and rice.

Of all the senses, it takes the sixth one to capture my mother in words. The life of an immigrant is one of finding roots in foreign soils. Her role as mother is to anchor us in a culture that seems anchorless.

That anchor is our tradition, our religion. The kolam drawn at the threshold of the home with rice flour consecrates Mother Earth, and provides food for ants that otherwise might become pests. We offer flower petals during worship. Such rituals remind us of our connection to the Earth.

Natural processes include the pain of growing up, dandelion seeds floating on the wind. Years later my mother still bears the wound of leaving home, and now must face the wound of her daughters putting down roots in soil she did not choose.

The Earth has a way of healing wounds, with the slow march of seasons. I someday want to be a mother, though I know it is not the only component of my destiny. My own rituals will be forever shaped by my auspicious, wounded, bountiful mothers, grandmothers – my heritage. Thank you Amma.


grieving the Brazil nut tree

If you have ever traveled through nature with people who are attuned to its secrets, you know what I mean when I suggest that they can hear things most of us can’t. When my family spent three days back in 2012 in the Tambopata National Reserve – a vast tract of undeveloped Amazon rainforest in Peru – we were amazed at our guide’s abilities. We didn’t even notice the sound of water dropping, but he immediately recognized it to be a monkey’s subtle call; what we barely acknowledged as a piece of mud on the ground, he saw as a tarantula den. In the eco-lodge, we met individuals who had been transformed by their closeness to the rainforest. One employee, a PhD from Stanford, had discarded his old life and decided to teach yoga in the Amazon. He told me that the longer one stayed in a place like Tambopata, the more one’s powers of observation improved, and the more peaceful one felt.

The Associated Press reported on November 21, 2015, that as many as half of the Amazon’s tree species are threatened with extinction because of massive deforestation. Among these species in trouble are Brazil nuts and mahogany. When I read this, my mind immediately flashed to the tasty snacks they gave us on bus rides, rich Brazil nuts rolled in sugar, coconut flakes, and cocoa powder. My fascination with the Brazil nut, though, comes not from its taste but its story.

The Brazil nut tree cannot grow outside of the Amazon rainforest; the nuts are harvested by hand once they fall from the tree. But this is not for lack of trying to bend the Brazil nut tree to Western control. Our guide told us about how savvy entrepreneurs saw the Brazil nut as an opportunity for profit. They researched the conditions, shipped the seeds to plantations in different parts of the world – Australia, Canada – and waited. Crop after crop failed. After losing incredible amounts of money, they realized they were missing something: the ecosystem.

Brazil nut trees are one part of the complex organism that is the forest. The pollination of the Brazil nut relies on a particular species of bee. Once the nut drops to the forest floor, its dispersal relies entirely on the agouti, a mid-sized rodent we frequently saw scuttling through the eco-lodge’s grounds. It rains nearly every day in the Tambopata, and the detritus of the forest floor provides a unique set of natural fertilizers for the tree. An entire economy relies on the manual harvesting of these nuts, which also provide vital nutrition for local tribal communities.

When I see one line in a newspaper article that mentions that the Brazil nut could go extinct, I think of the vast ecosystem the Brazil nut is part of. If the Brazil nut tree dies, so too do the bees. The agouti will lose its source of food. The local economy will be disrupted forever. A traditional source of nutrition will disappear. The least important impact is the tourist who will not be able to eat her delicious coconut-coated snack, and yet feeling the sweet, fatty crunch of the nut in my mouth was my first direct, tactile connection to this ecosystem.

Going to the Amazon was an incredible privilege, one that most individuals outside of South America will never experience. It is a tragic fact of today’s human condition that we find it difficult to connect with communities and environments that we have never seen. Conceptualizing the loss of fifty percent of the tree species in the Amazon is perhaps too much to comprehend. The extinction of the Brazil nut is intellectually a tragedy, but emotion – grief – comes from our senses. My memories of the agouti and the tall, majestic Brazil nut trees – along with the other vibrant, incredible creatures we saw, from the prehistoric clawed Hoatzin bird, to the hanging fruit bat colonies, the giant kapok trees, the snapping piranhas, all of which are connected in ways I will never know – these memories are what make the tragedy sink into my heart.

the white working-class identity

A recent Christian Science Monitor article summarized something that’s puzzled me (and apparently sociologists) for years: “If America’s poverty is concentrated in the South, as data clearly show, why are those states the most reliably Republican, voting against the government assistance they seem to need?”

My favorite advice columnist, the Coquette, gives an excellent one-sentence response for why these people continue to vote against their best interests: “Because they’ve been institutionally conditioned to use their vote as a means of justifying their belief system rather than protecting their interests.”

The white, working-class population in this country has lost faith. They don’t have faith in the American government or in their ability to change their own circumstances. The mortality rate for middle-aged whites has increased between 1999 and 2013 because of a rise in “suicide, drug abuse, and alcoholism” – the root causes of which include fiscal uncertainty, stagnating wages, obesity and a wide host of other health problems, lack of opportunity and lack of education. Yet Obamacare signups are much lower in the South than they are in the rest of the country! Gallup found that 45% of Republicans “think rich people should pay more in taxes” – yet they continue to vote for a party that consistently privileges the 1%. Why?

This is about identity. The white working class in the South expects to continue enjoying all the entitlements of white privilege that the previous generations enjoyed, but it’s not working out that way. Society today seems to be launching an attack on their traditional lifestyles and values. The Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is constitutional. Mizzou’s old-school leaders had to resign because of racial insensitivity. It’s like, “We can’t even get our own jobs but the government might allow refugees in.” It seems like the colored people are out to steal their jobs, and along with that, their birthright to power.

It’s true that these individuals are exploited by the system, and they are most certainly the 99%. This group is disaffected and that experience is affecting their mortality rates. But what disappoints me is that the reaction to this frustration is to form groups and communities centered on hate and exclusion, rather than groups that foster a sense of community and inclusion.  Just look at the rise in popularity of Donald Trump. He’s anti-establishment in many ways, but there is no doubt he fearmongers. He is literally profiting from the fears of this community that they are losing power and the only way to get that power back is to build physical and figurative walls.

I think it’s time for institutions of the white working-class (churches, schools, etc.) to start examining the cognitive dissonance that lies at the root of their political choices. Alliances and coalition-building are much more effective tactics than Trump’s bombast. But to do that, the community has to stop seeing non-whites as threatening “Others.” Unfortunately, I don’t have too much faith that they’re interested in going through the difficult process of redefining identity – or that they have any good examples to follow in the media!