The Value of a Traitor

lwcLast Friday, the Humanities House hosted members of the Latino Writers Collective from Kansas City. José Faus, Gabriella Lemmons, and Miguel Morales spoke about diversity and read some amazing poetry. It was awesome to hear so many references to my hometown, KC, and each of the writers offered different perspectives and advice about life and writing careers.

The humanities always get criticized for their lack of “practical application.” It’s tempting for us to act like we’re above practicality, and there is a lot of merit to the idea that the study of “what does it mean to be human?” should be an end in and of itself– hopefully it’s not too hard to figure out why– but we shouldn’t sell ourselves short; the study of human life from a non-objectifying standpoint offers an abundance of experiences and lessons that, wouldn’t you know it, carry over into human life itself.

The poetry of the LWC was a shining example of this. Their poems offered a range of new perspectives that the average Drury student, and probably many residents of Springfield, would not encounter in their daily lives. They helped show us what it was like to grow up poor and working the land in the Rio Grande Valley for barely enough money to get by. We learned some the different ways “chingaso” could be used, we heard about dancing with spirits on Dia de Los Muertos, and we heard about lots of different food, from traditional Hispanic dishes, to loving Jewish food, and drawing a map of Kansas City by following the diverse restaurants around town: barbecue, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Italian, Mediterranean, African, Mexican, Indian, and more.

While I was showing the writers around Drury, Gabriela noticed one of Dr. Schur’s posters advertising his new Literature and Ethics class. The poster read, “CAN LITERATURE MAKE US BETTER PEOPLE?” Gabriela pointed and laughed, saying, “Oh, of course it can!” It was the most obvious thing in the world to her– of course literature makes us better people. And yet, it’s not so obvious to some. If it was, Dr. Schur wouldn’t have had to tape up these obnoxious posters all over the place.

One poem the collective read to us was written by a police officer from KC who grew up in a gang. After his best friend was killed, he cleaned up and became a cop to help keep kids from following the same path that he found himself trapped in. Even though he knew that he was doing the right thing, he felt conflicted because he came from a neighborhood that had an inherent distrust of the police and other authorities. His poem reflected the conflict of trying to protect his community while also being called a traitor.

The poem contained a reference to “La Malinche,” who walked beside the police officer as he patrolled his neighborhood. La Malinche was a woman from the Mexican Gulf who was offered to Hernán Cortés as a concubine when he landed in the “New World”. The woman acted as an interpreter for Cortés, and ended up bearing his first son. According to legend, La Malinche closely accompanied Cortés and translated for him in an attempt to broker peace between the conquistadores and the Aztecs and their constituents. She wound up playing a large part in the destruction of the Aztec empire and the subjugation of its people, yet her son, Martín, was one of the first Mestizos, or those of mixed Spanish and Native blood born in Mexico from whom most Mexican people today have descended. She is simultaneously a traitor and the mother of the new peoples of Mexico. She has come to represent many things: motherhood, victims, traitors, and she is sometimes considered to be a precursor to La Llorona, the weeping woman who is condemned to wander the earth looking for her murdered children.

As Dr. Nichols pointed out, this reference added many layers to the officer’s poem. That single reference embodied his conflict and symbolized his hope to become a new role model for his community.

This is how literature can make us better people. All artwork is filled with layers upon layers of meaning; in literature, especially in poetry, each word can contain a rabbit hole that can pull you through history or show you the perspectives of other people that you might otherwise never consider. It can help us empathize with traitors and mothers both, and make us pause before passing judgment on either. It can make us hungry. And it can show us how to stop and examine a single word or reference for centuries of meaning that we might have passed over if we were to scrutinize them objectively.


From the Latino Writers Collective’s website:

The LWC helps hone/polish the work of its members for publication & fosters an environment where Latino voices in the Midwest can be heard.

The LWC’s mission is to foster an environment where the voices of Latino students, blue collar workers, professionals, and homemakers can finally be heard, contributing their experience and vision to the larger Kansas City community.

The Latino Writers Collective (LWC) is a group of Latino writers living and working in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Through bi-weekly meetings and critiques, the Collective helps hone and polish the work of its members for publication. In addition to creative support, the Collective organizes and coordinates projects for the larger community, including the Primera Página Reading Series, to showcase national and local Latino writers and provide role models and instruction to Latino youth.