American Copia
An Immigrant Epic
Javier O. Huerta
(Arte/Publico Press /
University of Houston)
Javier Huerta first arrived in the United States in 1981, and when we catch up with him, he has just filed for American citizenship papers. He is tested for his English speaking and writing ability, and the INS officer, Inspector Stroup, asks him to write down the words, "Today I'm going to the grocery store." Huerta notes that "This requirement to prove proficiency in English as part of the naturalization process conflates citizenship and language."

    I was being tested not on my ability to speak and write English but on my love of nation, my love for America.

He tells us he was "rather offended by the simplicity of the sentence" since he had lived in America for twenty years as an "indocumentado" --- but of course he couldn't tell Officer Stroup that. What he did tell her was how to scan the sentence "as iambic pentameter" (he was an English major at the University of Texas) which is a perfect Huertian gesture, a typical bit of one-upsmanship that pervades this "Immigrant Epic."

Of course, at 110 pages, American Copia is not necessarily an epic in the style of Homer, say, or Tolstoi; and by the time he has gotten through college and gone off to graduate school at Berkeley, it would be difficult to call Huerta an immigrant (Mexicans would call him a "pocho"). American Copia --- the title literally means an American copy --- is not really about being an immigrant, but, much better --- it is about supermarkets (and supermarket shopping).

I must say I hadn't thought much before now about the epic nature of going to a supermarket, although I do confess that back when some of the enlightening drugs (like peyote) were still legal, my friends and I would get tanked up and head straight off to the Piggly-Wiggly (we found the name a gas) so we could get a gander at the fruit and vegetable departments (colorful!), the canned fruit salads and peas and beans (that symmetry!) ... and, most of all, to look at the odd humans who come to grocery stores after midnight (those eyes, those hunched shoulders).

These midnight stoner trips were enough to assuage the soul and to make us fall in love with America consumerism --- the bright lights, the interplay of tuna with, say, the Windex; the meats --- did you see the blood on those T-bone steaks? And the lights shining on the bacon?

Since those festive days, I have not thought all that much about the Homeric quality of my local Safeway or Albertson's ... although for a brief time there, in the early part of this century, I did become smitten with a song that popped up quite frequently on BBC's night program, "Late Junction." It was sung by a husky-voiced guitarist, one David Sylvian, who presented it with an improbable, excruciatingly slow tempo:

    Ask me, I might go,
    Why not take me with you?
    Ask me, I might go:
    Late night shopping.

    We can take the car;
    No one will be watching.
    We can lose ourselves:
    Late night shopping.

    Tell me what we need,
    Write a list of something.
    We don't need to need a thing:
    Late night shopping.

(Look this one up on YouTube. Nothing can convey the spooky effect of Sylvian's slow, beautiful, somewhat sinister style.)

§   §   §

Huerta's epic is bilingual, slipping back and forth between English and Spanish so that those who are not fluent in both languages might be uncomfortable. This, from a short play at the beginning about workers in a mercado. Mariela, one of the cashiers, is hectoring Hector, the bagger, to pay attention to another cashier, Nene, who has suddenly gone moveless:

    MARIELA: Y Tú, Hector. Dile unos de tus chistes [Tell her one of your jokes.]

    HECTOR: Es que she doesn't like my jokes.

    ROSIE: Just try it anyway.

    HECTOR: Hey, Nene, what does the corn tortilla say to the wheat tortilla?

         HECTOR waits for NENE to respond.

    MARIELA: What are you waiting for? Tell her the punchline.

    HECTOR: No te awheates!

[When I read this out to some of my Spanish-speaking friends, they went into gales of laughter. It's a terribly corny joke, in all senses of the word. Corn tortillas tortillas de maíz are the food of the people. Flour tortillas tortillas de harina are for folks who are somewhat better off. No awheatese means don't be sad. "Wheat" is borrowed from the English. So it means "don't be sad" --- but also "don't be wheat." I told you it was corny.]

Besides mini-plays and jokes and poems, Huerta manages to get in everything, including the kitchen sink ... the stove and refrigerator too, since so much of this has to do with buying stuff at the mercado and cooking it and eating it. Mixed up with all this we find:

  1. A Biblical chapter called "Sum of Our Love" which lists the marriages and resulting children of many of his relatives;
  2. An extended discussion of a local supermarket called "Wheatsville" the manager greets you with a smile, where all the clerks are smiling, but --- he notes --- none of the employees are wearing uniforms so they may be all around you as you are shopping, spying on you, seeing if you are shoplifting. Moreover, since the markup on "organic" or "natural" foods is so high, "low-income people of color do not find this store an economically feasible option;"
  3. In the midst of eating bonbons in a store called Andronicas --- North Berkeley --- ("They are good good,") he suggests that we read Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market.
  4. Huerta lists almost a hundred "grocery store poets," who, he states, "do not automatically know the work of other grocery store poets." The compilation includes the known poets like Amy Lowell ("The Grocery,") Allen Ginsberg ("A Supermarket in California,") Oscar Hahn ("Sociedad de consumo,") Robert Pinsky ("Pig-in-a-Blanket,") Bruce Springsteen ("Queen of the Supermarket,") John Ashberry ("The Skaters") --- along with the more obscure: Quraysh Ali Lansana's "Aunt Rubie Goes to Market," Barbara Schmitz's "Uniforms," Dara Wier's "I Write a Book," Eduardo C. Corral's "Ditat Deus," and Rachel Beck's, "Par Avion."
  5. A chapter, marked "Oráculo," has to do with the official FBI report (in Spanish) of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on 8 January 2011 in Tucson, Arizona;
  6. A bit of Huerta horn-blowing includes a "bio" that he wrote for the magazine Achiote Seeds which gives listings of his books and prizes and details of his life --- including, charmingly, a listing for "María, who is waiting for him to finish writing this bio so they can go to the grocery store."

§     §     §

I had my doubts about this one when I picked it up --- an epic on supermartkets, really! --- but I grew rather fond of it as I revisted it to write this review. Despite all the alarums and diversions, there are some nice touches here. Like about how his friend crossed over into Brownsville, Texas in 1988, and "how you climbed out of the third world and onto a Ralph's Supermarket parking lot, how you and the other 35 mojados rushed to the vans that were to take you to a cheap motel, how the Americans loading their groceries into their cars stared at you, how you didn't have the time to notice whether those stares rejected or welcomed you."

The most winning part of the whole book has to do with Huerta veering off course for a poem or a memory of his Tía Pera or some thoughts on food stamps (filled with legalese: "an entitlement program with eligibility guidelines set by Congress and the federal government paying for benefits while states pay most of the administrative costs") ... and then somehow he will get us back on track ("I always try to look my best, even if I'm going to the grocery store.")

And finally, in his acknowledgments, he gives "thanks to anyone who has ever gone to the grocery store with me."

--- Carlos Amantea
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