NDJ:6 Michael K. Harty, PhD

We Named You For Your Food

If there’s a “moment of comprehension” in this story, it came fifty years after the fact. Last year, in my efforts to mine my personal history for poetry material, I had been thinking about experiences on the school bus. For eleven years of my Texas childhood, twice a day I joined that self-contained rolling society, and it was the setting for many a formative episode. The bus was a kind of experiential lab where one learned, often in vivid ways, about status, power, and authority, about competition, generosity, trust, betrayal, and sexual mythology. Now, from the safe distance of advanced adulthood, all that might provide poem fodder. I’d been thinking about social stratification by seating priority; about bus-borne romances, real and imagined; about which atrocities were visible, and which not, in a rear-view mirror; and similar esoterica.

Around the same time, the news programs were dominated by talk of illegal aliens and the supposed threat they represented. A substantial part of the U.S. population seemed to believe we were being inundated by drug-smuggling, disease-bearing, fast-procreating brown-skinned hordes bent on bankrupting the welfare system and obliterating the English language. So for me, two lines of thought came together in memories of the Mexican children who rode the bus with my schoolmates and me. A few of those children belonged to settled families – hired hands on the larger cotton farms – but most were the children of braceros, seasonal workers who migrated up from Mexico for the growing season, might remain for the harvest, then moved on to other crops or returned south of the border. Often they would be camped in tarpaper shacks, converted chicken houses, or any other lodging their foreman could find that was cheap and close to the fields. The children too young to work were sent to whatever school was nearby, but rarely stayed long. I could remember them lined up at the bus stop on chilly mornings, their breath visible, wearing only thin shirts that might have been suitable a thousand miles to the south. I could remember their smell of wood smoke and cooking fat. I could remember teachers bent over them, urging them to pronounce words they hadn’t heard before while they stared down at the page, their cheeks darkening. And then I could remember how bravely and recklessly they ran the bases, taunting fielders in the language that was their own. I could remember jokes about Speedy Gonzalez and beans and chiles and the Catholic Church.

The school-bus poem I eventually wrote didn’t turn out as I had thought it would. It’s entitled, “We Named You for Your Food”.

The things we taught ourselves
to believe: you children of hot-blooded people
would not need coats. At recess
you liked to field grounders
bare-handed. You did not want to read with us.
You were slow. You were happy.
We knew to stay away
from your smell of woodsmoke and Catholicism.
Switchblades. Head lice.
An old purple bus with green
fenders and Mexican plates
stood among the shacks where our bus
(official yellow) came for you. Perhaps
someone lived in the purple bus. I never knew
anyone who looked inside.
Among your cousins and sisters,
eyes shadowed down and away, you climbed
the three metal steps like a mountain.
Silent in your seat you might have seen
fathers and mothers, older brothers
early in the fields, bowed
over cotton rows, leaning into the straps
of nine-foot bags dragging behind.

On the other side
we watched nondescript birds
flock to earth, gabble in bird language,
then rise together in a sentient cloud,
a flexing balloon held coherent
by secret alien signals telling all at once,
the season is over, it is time to go.

Perdoname, por favor, no he entendido.

I wanted that last line to be in Spanish; it says, “Please forgive me, I did not understand.”