The Latina Book Club is pleased to welcome back Stephanie Elizondo Griest. She has been around “the bloc” a few times and always returns with a great story. However, her new book ALL THE AGENTS AND SAINTS hits closer to home. Below is an excerpt from the book, followed by an interview with Stephanie. And, Mark Your Calendars! Stephanie will be in New York for a book signing on Tuesday, October 3, at 7pm at Bluestockings in the Lower East Side. We’ll see you there.--mcf
I straddle two cultures,
I also inhabit the space between faith and doubt.
– Stephanie Elizondo Griest
ALL THE AGENTS AND SAINTS
Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
University of North Carolina Press
Note: This excerpt, snipped from the final chapter, takes places at the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, which straddles the New York/Canada borderline. The author arrives at her friend Keetah’s house for a final visit, the night before a special Longhouse ceremony in honor of the first strawberries of the season. Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen is the name of the traditional Thanksgiving Address given by Mohawks before and after every meeting of significance. In English, it means “The Words That Come Before All Else.”
THE WORDS THAT COME BEFORE ALL ELSE
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest
I arrive to find Keetah standing at her kitchen counter, opening a bag of Maseca. Corn flour is the key ingredient of Mexican cuisine, too, I say. We could make tortillas. Tamales, atole, empanadas, gorditas!
Keetah smiles. “I had a gordita once. At Taco Bell.”
But tonight we’ll be making cornbread, she says. Into a giant blue bowl she sifts the corn flour, eyeballs in some Quick Oats, then mixes them together with the back of her hand. Into a vat of boiling water, she squirts a quarter bottle of Great Value Pancake Syrup, imbuing the kitchen with a delicious warmth. A basket of strawberries are hulled and tumbled into another bowl, where they get mashed into compote, drizzled with syrup, and then folded into the blue bowl. Pushing the mixture to one side, Keetah pours in boiling water from a kettle and forms a hot dough ball that she rolls into a patty. The trick, she says, is to wet it just enough so there are no cracks. Otherwise, the cornbread will break when you boil it.
There is something inherently joyful about dough-foods. How the recipes get passed down through the generations; how they are best prepared communally, with each person assigned her own task. The way your hands wind up sticky and your floor gets good and gritty. The pleasure of transforming something raw into nourishment.
Keetah says there is a special song for cornbread-making, as it is one of the Mohawk’s most revered foods. She sings a few rounds as we roll out the patties. The melody undulates, as if mimicking kneading hands in motion, and caresses, like a lullaby. One by one, we drop the patties into the vat of fragrantly boiling water and wait for them to surface.
* * * * *
It’s not easy riling Keetah’s little girls out of bed the next morning. However exciting a Longhouse ceremony might be for me, to them, it is an impediment to sleeping in and watching cartoons (a.k.a. church). Keetah dresses them in ribbon shirts and then packs a basket of bowls and spoons. I grab the pot of cornbread as we dash out the door and into her truck. Keetah’s eldest slides in a CD. Adele blasts forth, crooning “Someone Like You.” This awakens the girls considerably. We sing along at the top of our lungs as we charge down Route 37 toward the Longhouse. The ceremony started at 9, but we don’t arrive until nearly 9:30. Indian time, Keetah jokes. If so, we’re not the only ones keeping it. There are barely a dozen cars in the lot.
Gender dictates that we enter the Longhouse through the western door while males walk around the rectangular cabin to enter via the eastern door. Inside is a single, sweeping room constructed entirely of wood, from the polished floors to the bleachers along the walls to the high ceiling dotted with fans. Rattles made of turtle shells dangle beside a triangular window. Hanging pedestals are topped with feathered-and-antlered kastowa. There are two wood-burning stoves, one at each end. Beyond that, the Longhouse feels almost Quaker in its sparse aesthetic.
There is singing and there is dancing and there is chanting, and often all three at once. Two men keep the rhythm with rattles made of turtle shells while the rest of us dance in a long procession around the room. At first, I try to follow the footwork of the woman in front of me, but gradually realize that people are moving to their own internal beat. I do as well, relishing in the freedom. At one point, someone grabs my hand. I look down to find a girl who can’t be more than four staring up at me with unblinking eyes. She is wearing a little white sundress embroidered with strawberries. Her silky black hair is parted into pigtails. She seems to want me to lead her, and so I do, clasping her small hand in my own. Together we travel round and round the Longhouse, along with thirty, then forty, then sixty others. Someone makes a sound like “Yee-oh!” The rest of us respond in turn.
An hour into the ceremony, Keetah exits the Longhouse and I trail behind. Next door is an industrial-sized kitchen where women are preparing the day’s feast, pulping piles of strawberries and sliding them into a bucket of water. Keetah stations me with her Ista (mother), who is making corn mush at the stove. She shows me how to whisk the corn flour and water together until they take on a cream-of-wheat sheen, then add in strawberries and maple syrup.
“Has Keetah told you about Sky Woman?” Ista asks, peering at me through her owl-rimmed glasses.
I recite the Creation Stories I’ve heard, about how Sky Woman fell from the sky one day, landed on the back of a turtle, and walked about sprinkling sky-dirt that became earth-dirt beneath her feet. Ista nods approvingly, then adds another legend to my library. Sky Woman’s husband often tried to test her resolve. Once, he asked her to make corn mush without wearing any clothes.
“See how it’s bubbling?” Ista asks.
I glance down to discover that the mush pot has become a lava pit. A giant bubble bursts, singeing my hand with splatter. I yelp and lower the flame.
Ista laughs. “That’s what Sky Woman’s husband wanted to know. If she could endure the pain.”
No Sky Man for me, in other words, but that’s okay. Around this time next year, I’ll fall in love with a Sky Woman of my own, who heals instead of hurts. But that story is better saved for another day.
Back in the Longhouse, a girl is selected from each clan to distribute strawberry juice. I accept a cup and wait to see if a toast will follow. Sure enough, the chief rises to announce that the strawberry is a leader among fruits. When Sky Woman fell, this was the first fruit she found. Likewise, it is the first berry to reveal itself each spring, paving the way for all the other berries to come. Therefore we must honor this brave berry, giving it thanks for ripening yet again for our health and wellbeing.
With that, the chief tips back his cup. The rest of us do, too. The liquid is tangy but sweet, with just enough pulp to munch.
“But there is a contradiction here,” he says sternly. “We are drinking this healthy, nourishing juice out of plastic cups that have to be thrown away into a landfill that will pollute Mother Earth and eventually our children. We all should have brought our own cups from home!”
Ah, guilt. Not even the animists are spared of it.
Lunchtime. The women from the kitchen pull a long table out into the middle of the room and set it with every strawberry configuration imaginable: jam, shortcake, compote, muffins, mush, and juice, along with stacks of fry bread and several kinds of cornbread, including one speckled with kidney beans. Elders are invited to line up first, followed by guests, women and children, and then men. I carry a steaming bowl of mush back to the bleachers. Ista joins me.
“What else do strawberries signify?” I ask, blowing on a spoonful.
Holding up her cup of juice, she says, “You see its color? That represents the blood of the woman.” Pointing at my mush, she adds, “When you cut a strawberry in half, it also represents the woman. It grows the closest to the ground, so it is the closest to the earth, which is the Mother. That makes it feminine, too. The strawberry is medicine for the woman.”
Years ago, I helped my friend Rachél organize a “menstruation celebration” for teenage girls in Corpus Christi. We delighted over her idea to serve strawberry shortcake with red fruit punch, but when I shared this menu with others, they thought it kinky. So it’s gratifying to learn that Rachél’s instinct was right, that strawberries really do symbolize the feminine, and have been celebrated as such by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) since time immemorial.
After lunch, we dance again. As the turtle-rattles pound a rhythm into my brain, I feel increasingly elated. Men emit their “Yee-ohs!” Footwork gets fancier. Sweat trickles down our faces. Someone whoops; someone hollers. Not for a god. Not for a prophet. For a berry. Something that leaves behind sustenance instead of commandments. Something that offers a single interpretation: plant and water and harvest me, and I will return. Poison me, and I won’t.
One song ends and another begins. More rattles, different rhythms. Round and around the Longhouse we go. Drinking the symbolic blood of women. Eating the gifts of Sky Woman. Another whoop, another holler. Euphoria swirls through the procession.
The chanting stops and starts again. New song. New rhythm. Same motivation. The valiant strawberry. To say you “almost tasted strawberries” is to say you narrowly avoided death. The skyway above is lined with the fruit. You can pluck as many as you want from the patches.
Hours pass. Days, even. Then all too soon, the music ends. A final whoop, a last “Yee-oh!” and we all clamber back into the bleachers. The chief removes the wampum hanging on a nearby stand and holds it to his heart. Again, we are treated to the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, The Words That Come Before All Else. We thank the Earth Mother and the waters, the fish and the plants, the animals and the trees. We thank the four winds and the thunders, the sun and Grandmother Moon, the stars and the Enlightened Teachers. We thank the people. We thank the Creator. Ehtho niiohtonha'k ne onkwa'nikon:ra. And now our minds are one.
As we exit the bleachers for the last time, Keetah is stopped by a cousin. They talk a moment, then turn to me for introductions. When I mention being from the southern border, he rubs his chin.
“You heard of the Minutemen?” he asks. “They tried to come here five or six years ago.”
“Really?” I ask. “What happened?”
“The Border Patrol told them they’d get their asses kicked, and they left.”
He and Keetah exchange a knowing laugh. Of the many things I admire about Akwesasne Mohawks, this is chief. They own their own power.
Glancing at my phone, I am startled to see it is 2 p.m. We have been here for nearly five hours. My moving van arrives in the morning. I grab a broom and start sweeping around the women packing food, the men moving tables, the children eating popsicles. Gradually the crowd thins, until only Keetah, her daughters, and I remain. I return the broom to its corner. Keetah flicks off the lights. Together we pull the wooden door closed. When I search for a way to lock it, Keetah says there’s no need.
“Are you sure?” I ask, thinking of all the feathered headdresses and turtle-rattles inside.
She nods. “This is a sacred space. Our community respects that. We keep our doors open.”
We drive back to Keetah’s in the rain. No Adele this time. We want to preserve the resounding rhythms in our brains. There’s my car, sitting in Keetah’s driveway. I step out and embrace the girls, one by one. By the time I reach Keetah, I have grown so emotional, I don’t know what to say. In the past year, she has given me time, story, knowledge, friendship. She has shown me not only her self, but my own self. I still feel fractured somehow, but if I’ve learned anything at Akwesasne, it is that you can still be united while divided.
These are the words that come before all else: Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.
They are all I can say and everything I can say.
And so I do. #
©Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Excerpt use with permission of the author.
* * * * *
A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST
Q: Your first four books are a celebration of wanderlust, which has fueled your travels to nearly 50 countries. Why did you leave the open road for your hometown in South Texas in 2007, and what did you find there?
STEPHANIE: At some point in my early thirties, nomadism started existentially untethering me. Anything that could have diverted attention from my writing—a house, a partner, a community, a legitimately paying job, children, pets, plants—had been avoided for so long, it had slipped into the realm of the unobtainable. The bulk of my belongings, meanwhile, were scattered in attics around the world. Since nothing tied me down, I kept moving. Yet it was becoming apparent that if I never stood still, nothing ever would. So in 2007, I followed the magnetic pull of home.
To my surprise, the Rio Grande Valley had transformed into a death valley in my absence. Whole swaths of South Texas had been poisoned by petrochemical industries, ravaged by the drug war, and barricaded by a seventy-mile-long steel wall. It had become the nation’s chief crossing ground for undocumented workers as well, unknown hundreds of whom perished in the scrub brush while evading the Border Patrol. My sleepy homeland had become a major news story, and I responded the only way I knew how: by taking reams of notes.
Q: You spent seven years conducting investigative reporting in South Texas, about everything from environmental injustice and illegal immigration to the drug war, poverty, and the obesity epidemic. Yet your narrative is intensely personal as well. What do the borderlands mean for you?
STEPHANIE: The Texas/Mexico borderline not only bisects my ancestral land. It cuts through my family as well. My mother is Mexican and my father is Kansan. I have long suspected that growing up in a biracial family in the liminal space between nations created an inner fissure in me as well. All my life, I have waffled between extremes: gringa/Chicana; cosmopolite/cowgirl; agnostic/Catholic; journalist/activist; Type A/free spirit. The Aztecs coined a term for living in the state of in-between-ness: nepantla. That is how they described their struggle to reconcile their indigenous ways with the one Spanish colonizers forced upon them in the sixteenth century. More recently, the writer Gloria Anzaldúa turned nepantla into a metaphor for a “birthing stage where you feel like you’re reconfiguring your identity and don’t know where you are.” That is probably why my journey led me back home. After so many years of feeling split in two, I sought to finally fuse.
Q: And yet, All the Agents and Saints isn’t just a meditation about your own homeland. The second half documents life in the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne. What launched that investigation?
STEPHANIE: The writer John McPhee became a mentor of sorts in 2005-2006, when I was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton. At our last lunch, we talked about the various book ideas he felt he was running out of time to pursue. As a parting gift, he offered one to me: a comparison of the Rio Grande Valley and the St. Lawrence River Valley. I had never even heard of the St. Lawrence River Valley, but I gratefully filed away the idea. Six years later, I played academic roulette and was lucky to land a visiting professorship at St. Lawrence University in far upstate New York, just a few miles south of Canada. When I realized it was the exact same region John McPhee had suggested exploring six years before, my entire being shuddered. And when I started learning about the border struggles of the Mohawks of Akwesasne—who lived a 40-minute drive away—I frantically began taking notes.
Q: But what do Mohawks and Tejanos possibly have in common?
STEPHANIE: At first glance—nothing. More than 2,000 miles stand between our communities, and—with the exception of Catholicism—our cultures hold little of that ground in common. Mohawks traditionally subsisted on hunting, farming, and fishing in one of the coldest regions of the United States, whereas Tejanos tended cattle in one of the hottest. They are matriarchal; we tend toward machismo. We are fanatical about football; Mohawks don’t just revere lacrosse, they invented it.
Every time I visited Akwesasne, however, I experienced déjà vu. Practically every story I’d heard in half a lifetime in South Texas was echoed there. Just as my ancestors preceded our borderlines by centuries, theirs did, too. Many Tejanos do not speak Spanish anymore because our elders had it humiliated out of them in public school; ditto with Mohawks during their century of Indian Residential Schools. My vaquero (cowboy) elders lost their traditional lifestyle because of corporate buyouts of ranches. Mohawks can no longer support their families hunting, trapping, or fishing due to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Our fence-line communities are likely being sickened from the toxins released by the petrochemical industry; theirs, by General Motors, ALCOA, and Reynolds. Too many of our youth are imprisoned for smuggling; theirs, for trading. In borders north and south, we must contend with the trafficking of firearms right through our neighborhoods. We die in frightening numbers from diabetes caused by obesity wrought by poverty. We grieve the loss of our land, the loss of our culture, the loss of our dignity. The violations of deeds and treaties. The creation of checkpoints. The abundance of chokepoints. The Predator drones that so often target our own.
Q: At least the Mohawks don’t have a border wall!
STEPHANIE: Not yet! But they do have a series of bridges that link one part of their nation to another via New York and Ottawa. Any time they leave home—for school, for work, for groceries—they must check in with Customs, a process that can take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. And that enrages them—especially since most Mohawks refuse to acknowledge the border at all. They are a sovereign people who employ their own police force and operate their own library, museum, media, school, and court. They look not to Washington or Ottawa for governance but to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, of which they have been members for centuries. Even though we associate bridges with connectivity, their architecture can be just as oppressive as a wall.
Q: How did spirituality become such a powerful force in this book?
STEPHANIE: When I first started interviewing the Tejanos most impacted by the injustices I researched—refinery workers and activists, immigrants and drug runners, artists and historians—a pattern emerged. Betrayed by the government and neglected by social services, a surprising number had turned to the supernatural for solace. Time and again, I heard stories of talking trees and healing masses, of wooden madonnas who sprayed glitter from their heads and of Virgins who appeared on grain silos, backing up traffic for miles. The entire Rio Grande Valley seemed steeped in miracles.
When I began spending time with Mohawks—tribal chiefs and medicine women, Black Jack-dealers and social workers, pawnshop owners and clan mothers—I again heard stories that necessitated the suspension of disbelief. Like the time Kateri Tekakwitha (Native America’s first canonized Saint) emerged from the flour someone sprinkled while making dumplings, and everyone came running with their rosaries. Like the traditional Longhouse members who threw fistfuls of tobacco out their backdoors at the first clap of thunder. Like the time I watched one hundred men, women, and children dance and chant for four hours in honor of the first fruit of the summer: the strawberry.
When you live a few miles away from an arbitrary line that drops you into an entirely different consciousness with its own history and culture and references and rules, your mind becomes more receptive to additional imaginative leaps.
Q: What is your own relationship with spirituality?
STEPHANIE: Like many Tejanos, I grew up Catholic, and—despite my wildly divergent views on everything from abortion to the Vatican—I still claim to be one. It’s practically cultural heritage. I was also weaned on fantastical stories about curanderos who could diagnose what ailed you by tweaking your nose, about brujas wielding horsehair whips, about lady ghosts that wailed down by the river. An inner skeptic, however, was born in journalism school and nurtured in a succession of newsrooms. So that is another tension that animates this book. Not only do I straddle two cultures, I also inhabit the space between faith and doubt.
Q: Can you tell us about the book’s title, All the Agents & Saints?
STEPHANIE: Would you believe it was a typo? One morning, I was transcribing a Catholic prayer called the Confiteor that includes the line “all the Angels and Saints.” Only instead of typing the word “angels,” I accidentally wrote “agents.” For years, I had been struggling to find the right title for this book. A little electric current shot through my body when I realized I just did. For better or worse, (Border Patrol) agents and (Catholic) saints are the twin protectorates of our nation’s borderlands. It seemed apt to honor them in this way.
Q: What do you hope people will gain by reading this book? What is its takeaway?
STEPHANIE: Empathy, for starters. I want U.S. citizens to realize that to be a member of our borderlands is to forever reside on the periphery. It’s a region where your car will be searched, your identity questioned, and your allegiances tested on a back road so remote, no one will hear you when you scream. Because a borderline is an injustice. It is a time-held method of partitioning the planet for the benefit of the elite. Fortunately, we have legions of activists, artists, and faith keepers out there, petitioning on humanity’s behalf, but they need serious reinforcement from the rest of us.
Far too often we hear about the U.S. borderlands only from the politicians who dictate their policies from afar. Rarely do we learn from the descendants of the regions’ early inhabitants. In All the Agents and Saints, I align their stories side by side as testimonio, or a document of witness, of what life there is truly like. Because it’s time to stop sending more “boots on the ground” and start listening to those who are actually rooted there.
Q: What is next for you?
STEPHANIE: Wanderlust is calling once again. I’ve just been granted a sabbatical from my professorship at UNC-Chapel Hill for Fall 2017. I’ll be spending much of it on book tour, with stops across the northeast and southwest. I’ll also be hard at work on my next book, which explores the sacrifices women make for art. It’s research has already taken me to India, Rwanda, Romania, Cuba, and Qatar. Now I’m plotting where to go next.#