Bent to the Earth

Here is a scene of violence and inhumanity that feels torn from the front page of the newspaper or a report on the latest immigration raid outrage. But this is the kind of news that stays news because it keeps happening.

Bent to the Earth

They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,

would have to stop. Ruben spun

the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father

trying to show them our green cards.

They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,

and was free. There were no great truths

revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.

by Blas Manuel De Luna

The poet Blas Manuel De Luna was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and grew up in Madera, California. As a child he worked the agricultural fields alongside his parents and siblings. Bent to the Earth is the title poem of his first book, 2006. The father in the poem reminds me of the father in Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays.

Looking for images to put beside the poem I thought of Elizabeth Catlett whose linocuts, lithographs and oil paintings are such powerful tributes to backbreaking labor. At the University of Iowa she studied with Grant Wood who advised her to paint what she knew the most about. Catlett considered that she knew the most about being a black woman and her work focusses primarily – but not exclusively – on images of black women. Catlett grew up in Washington D.C. but – after visiting Mexico in 1946-7 on a foundation grant – she established permanent residency there in 1947.

In the Fields 1947 Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) 

The Sharecropper 1946 Elizabeth Catlett

We know the deprivations that exist in the black community and how mental and emotional frustrations lead to wasted lives.  If we can enrich the life of one black man woman or child then we have fulfilled our function as art producers.  Artists are the sensitive area of the community and can clarify so many things.  We can project the beauty of our people, the grace, the rhythm, the dignity.  We can explain frustrations and stimulate joy.  The artist must be an integral part of the totality of black people.

Elizabeth Catlett quoted in an article by Samella Lewis  in the IRAAA journal (then called Black Art) in Fall 1976  that focused on Catlett’s humanitarian spirit.

Asparagus Picker by Consuelo Soto Murphy.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) Sugar Cane 1931

Diego Rivera depicts a different kind of violence and injustice in this scene of agrarian class struggle where shades of skin color define the roles. There are those that do the work. There are those that supervise the work. And then there are those who enjoy the fruits of all that labor. There are those that harvest papayas and cut and bear the burden of the sugar cane. There’s a foreman on horseback and a landowner lazing in a hammock.

And finally Braceros  by Domingo Ulloa. A bracero was a Mexican laborer allowed into the US for a limited time as a seasonal agricultural worker. Literally it means one who swings his arms. The bracero program (1942-1964) provided temporary contract workers from Mexico to meet agricultural  labor shortages caused in part by the internment of Japanese tenant farmers. Ulloa drew on his visits to a bracero camp in San Diego County for this painting of faces separated from us by a barbed wire fence. And of course it brings to mind the images of Nazi concentration camps.

Domingo Ulloa
(1919 – 1997)

Featured image: “Suenos Humedos” (“Wet Dreams”) by Juan Carlos Marcias.

1 Comment

  1. I hope you tag or bookmark your poetry month posts so we can all come back to them at will. Every one of them is worth not only reading but re-reading.

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