Christmas, 2020: A conversation with Sandra Cisneros

Photo: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus. stevepavey.com

by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

I am sitting under Tia Tere’s Christmas tree,
her first apartment in this, our new world:
my sisters by my side,
I wear a white dress, black boots,
an eight-year-old’s resignation;
Mae and Mitzy, age four,
wear red and white snowflake sweaters and identical smiles,
on this, our first Christmas,
away from ourselves.
– From Sandra Cisneros, “Christmas, 1970”

This year we are doing holidays apart. We are separated against our wills, grieving the danger of touch, the impossibility of embrace. Feeling the heartbreak: losing someone without holding their hand in their last days. Not filling the room or singing them home, as is our way.

And yet our families have lived this, or are living it now for more reasons than a virus. Our undocumented and incarcerated brothers and sisters, of course, have had many holidays like these. Many birthdays, many Christmases. Many funerals not attended. (One friend said, as the lockdowns rolled in: “America, welcome to my living room.”)

And yet, it is more than just a question of permission, or of documents. It’s about another kind of paper. Greenbacks. 

That is to say, poor folks have never had the luxury of doing what they please when they please. Whether it’s not getting the days off work, or not having the cash to travel, or something more bruising even yet. Being thrown off, thrown out, locked out, locked up.

Christmas, 1752 would have been my family’s poem. (Sandra, this is not a comparison or a parallel. This is not a competition, but an attempt at shared heartbreak, still held in our bones.)

Rebel peasants hunted and martyred in the Alps. Peasants who stood up to kings and popes, wishing to worship this homeless refugee baby boy for themselves without those who owned the land and charged rent and tithes.

Their grandchildren, having seen what they saw, kept their heads down and found their way to ships and to America. Farmers doing what they knew how to do. The quiet in the land, who quietly moved onto indigenous lands and plowed it up. Farmers who held their children close and held onto their German language for two more centuries until it was beaten out of them during the World Wars.  

Being displaced from our mountains, our gardens, our hamlets, our pueblos. Saying the final goodbyes when we are obligated, for ourselves or for our children, to try our luck in new lands.

The fury of capital speeding around the globe while we’re stuck on one side or the other. The fury of an avocado crossing the border, or a pair of Nikes, while people have to hold their breath in the bottom of a speeding truck, under the cover of blankets, under the cover of night.

We owe it to ourselves, to our people, to our class — to carry on the essential, beautiful, messy, heart-wrenching work of revolution, until no eight-year-old wears a look of resignation. Until no four-year-olds live in a place away from themselves.

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