Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Internment of German Americans in the U.S. Heartland

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I became interested in internment experiences of German Americans during the two World Wars when I found out that roughly 11,000 German Americans were, in fact, interned – a history few of us know. While none of my German-American ancestors were interned, one of my great-grandfathers, a German Methodist minister born in Germany, could well have been interned during World War I had flames of xenophobia had been whipped up more than they were, since everyone born in Germany were targets of suspicion. Over time, the xenophobia underlying the internments didn’t go away, but rather shifted to other groups, today principally Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims. Ironically, many people with German ancestry, unaware of our own history, participate in today’s xenophobia. This is why I believe that Critical Family History is, well, critically important.

So I was excited to discover Heartland: A Historical Drama about the Internment of German-Americans in the United States during World War II. Heartland, published by Sense Publishers in 2014, was written by playwright, dramaturg, and journalist Lojo Simon  and political activist and playwright Anita Simons. The play has won several awards, including Dayton Playhouse FutureFest 2008, and Long Beach Playhouse New Works Festival 2008. Sense Publishers recently released it as a book that can be read easily and used readily in schools.

The play tells a story of a German-born widow and her three children, living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Before he died, the widow’s husband had applied to employ prisoners of war through the U.S. War Manpower Commission. When the play opens in 1941, the family is notified that his application has been approved, and two German prisoners of war are on their way. The widow is thrilled, as she and the children cannot manage the dairy farm by themselves. As the story unfolds, the family gradually develops a friendship with the two German prisoners, partly because they share a language, and also because the two young men are good workers. But non-German townspeople begin to worry that the widow may be a traitor – she has become too close to the German prisoners of war, and speaks with them in German rather than English. She is arrested, then sent to an internment camp. She never recovers from the trauma of what she is put through.

The authors explain that they became interested in writing this play in 2005 after viewing a TV documentary about the internment of German prisoners of war, paralleling imprisonment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. They began researching German POW camps in the U.S., which led them unexpectedly to accounts of imprisonment of German-American citizens under the Alien Enemies Act, signed into law in 1798. The authors tracked down stories of German Americans who had been imprisoned, which they used to create Heartland.

Readers and family historians who want to know more about the interment of German Americans can consult the German American Internee Coalition, formed in 2005 for German-American and German Latin-American citizens and legal residents who were interned, and their descendants. There, you will learn, for example, where camps existed throughout the US and Central America that detained mixtures of German Americans, German Latin Americans, Italian Americans, and Japanese Americans.

If you are a teacher, there is much you can draw on. Heartland itself can be used in classrooms from high school on up. It is fairly short, and reads easily (although there is a fair amount of German dialog with translation available). The German American Internee Coalition provides curriculum guides for teachers. They are mapped against California's History-Social Science Framework, but could be used anywhere. The curriculum guide consists of seventeen lesson plans and three one-act plays. The lesson plans deal with issues such as the Alien Enemies Act, motives behind imprisonment, black lists, and stories of prisoners.

I believe this is a piece of U.S. history that all of us should know. To me, it demonstrates that none of us is safe from xenophobia, but also that our collective memory of imprisoning U.S. citizens continues to be eradicated, even when it's part of our own family stories. Perhaps if we knew our history better, we would be less likely to repeat it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: The Hummingbird's Daughter

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How would you approach writing a novel -- or even a short story -- about someone in your family tree? This is a challenge I have wrestled with, and I found it incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I feared straying too far from the facts I was able to find about my ancestors and their lives, concerned that my imagination might be taken as “truth” in the minds of readers. On the other hand, however, their lives seem to embody stories worth telling about what it means to be human in specific contexts. In The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea brilliantly straddles this dilemma as he “recounts the true story” of a distant relative, Teresita Urrea.

Luis Urrea’s deep insights into living a bicultural life, as was Teresita’s, probably stem from his own birth in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother. Currently Urrea is professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A best-selling author of thirteen books, he has published extensively in multiple genres, winning numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. 

The Hummingbird’s Daughter chronicles the first half of the life of Teresita Urrea, who Urrea grew up believing was his aunt, but later learned was actually a more distant relative. Teresita was born to an Indian mother and philandering Mexican land-owning father in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in 1873. She lived several years in the state of Sonora, then was exiled with her father to the U.S., where she eventually died in 1906. (A sequel, Queen of America, picks up her life after exile). 

The story is set in antecedents to the Mexican Revolution against president and dictator Porfirio Díaz. Teresita grew up learning to navigate the worlds of Mexico's Indigenous people and the landowners who descend from their colonizers. She learned arts of healing from Huila, a beloved Indian curandera. She identified with the People (Indians who worked the ranch), and more generally with the various Indian tribes she encountered, particularly Yaqui and Mayo, even though she came to live in the house of her father, with whom over time she developed a strong bond. A turning point in her life, and in the novel, is when she rose from the dead (or from a grave illness, depending on one’s interpretation), and became a healer working miracles. To the Indians, she was a saint; to Porfirio Díaz, she was "the Most Dangerous Girl in Mexico." 

Urrea tells her story through the genre of magical realism, which was how she was interpreted by those around her. He had considerable historical records to work with (explained in Author’s Note at end of book): writings by a friend of Teresita’s father who became a journalist in the U.S.; a tape-recorded eye-witness account of her; time spent with a distant relative who was medicine woman; a trunk full of documents, letters, and pictures related to her; many scholars who had studied and written about her; and considerable time immersing himself as best possible in the context of her life.

Urrea explains on his blogsite that the twenty-year process of writing this book was incredibly difficult, partly because he is a story-teller rather than a historian: “I had to learn a lot of things. I had to learn Mexican history, revolutionary history, Yaqui and Mayo cultural history, Jesuitical missionary syncretistic history, family history. I had to study with medicine people and shamans, midwives and curanderas. That’s a big load of study for someone who didn’t much like school. But fortunately for me, I had all this juicy mind-boggling story to play with.”

In my estimation, The Hummingbird’s Daughter masterfully synthesizes history, family memory, and story-telling. The book breathes life into the facts Urrea was able to amass. In the process, he tells a larger story of what he learned from Teresita’s life about love (between child and mentor; between a father and children born out of wedlock), spiritual power and healing, the ongoing injustice of violent conquest, possibilities of personal transformation, and human survival. 

I had a hard time putting the book down. When I finished reading it, I had not only learned a good deal about Mexican history in a specific place and point in time, while enjoying a well-told story; I also gained a sense of how I might approach deeper storytelling based on my own family history.