What’s More American Than Erasure?

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Alyssa Oursler (Electric Literature) writes that Robert Lopez’s book Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere explores the loss of his family’s culture and language. Here are excerpts from her interview with Lopez.

A century ago, Robert Lopez’s grandfather Sixto left Puerto Rico for Brooklyn. Puerto Rico would have been a U.S. territory for decades at that point. “In theory, Sixto wasn’t an immigrant,” Lopez writes in his new book Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure, “but of course he was.” 

Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere is a collection of short essays illustrating the ramifications of assimilation and the way amnesia, at any scale, is difficult to see until it’s not, at which point you see it everywhere. “What’s missing isn’t just part of the story,” Lopez tells us. “It is the story.” 

Lopez’s nonfiction debut is simple in form but chock-full of complexity: his fragmented family history is sprinkled with loss and longing and parades and boxing bouts and tennis matches and myths and misquotes and vaporous memories. Lopez feels his lack of family lore is something fundamental he is missing, not unlike proper tennis footwork, though he manages to compete without it. “Maybe I’d have a better forehand if I spoke Spanish,” he quips.

In telling his family’s story, Lopez is, in some sense, telling this nation’s story. The history of the United States is brimming with erasure—both actively (a founding dependent upon displacement and genocide) and passively (in terms of what’s left out in the stories we tell). “That I was born Puerto Rican was happenstance, but that I have no connection to what it means is no accident,” Lopez concludes. Put another way: What’s more American than forgetting? 

Lopez and I connected to discuss assimilation, language, sports, and American culture.

Alyssa Oursler: In Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere, you chronicle your family’s “successful” migration and assimilation to the United States while reflecting on all that was lost in the process. Why is “successful assimilation” an oxymoron—and why did now feel like the time to write a book about that fact?

Robert Lopez: Assimilating into an adopted culture is the proper and respectful thing to do unless the assimilation includes some sort of repudiation or denial of one’s native culture and identity. One should try to assimilate if one decides to live in another country. Why choose that place unless you’re interested and invested in the language and culture of your new home? This should apply to everyone in every direction. But one needn’t deny the heritage left behind. 

The book was started during the last administration and their draconian immigration policies. And then seeing the response to Hurricane Maria …. Well, if not then … [. . .]

AO: You discuss police violence in the book. While your friend who was killed by police was white, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the relationship between racialized police violence and assimilation/erasure.

RL: Of course, racialized police violence is heinous and a problem that needs to be addressed. But when we focus too much on race, we’re missing the overarching (fixable) issue in play here, which is the militarization of police throughout the country. The cops who beat Tyre Nichols to death in Memphis were all Black, too. Was there a racial component in this case? Perhaps. Perhaps, though, too many cops and the culture of “policing” in this country is the problem and we need to get rid of them and replace them with a new breed of police who are trained to actually protect and serve communities rather than brutalize and kill people. Calls to “end racism,” while well intentioned and a worthwhile goal, are futile. It’s like saying “end stupidity.” There’s no way to accomplish it. [. . .]

AO: You offer several pointed, albeit brief, descriptions of the whitewashed suburban spaces you were raised in. How do you think the physical reality (or, in your words, “architectural atrocities”) of the suburbs encourages and/or depends on erasure? 

Aesthetic beauty or beauty of any kind doesn’t play a part in our day-to-day lives. All of these spaces and these attitudes promote and propagate a homogenous culture wherein we all become the same regardless of our disparate backgrounds. We’re all consumers. So, even if the strip mall has a Mexican restaurant next to a Middle Eastern restaurant next to a barbeque joint, it all feels the same. One would think there would be an acceptance or celebration of the individual cultures inside these places, but that hasn’t been my experience. The erasure is everywhere in the suburbs of New York City, in particular. [. . .]

AO: The book is made up of short essays with short paragraphs yet covers tremendous ground. Can you speak to the relationship between the cadence of the book and its subject?

RL: Like so many of us in this modern world, I see and experience everything in fragments. Originally, this book started as a series of braided essays, but then it morphed into a book length piece with fragments and diversions in any number of directions, but always tying into what the book is going after. I like your use of the word cadence because that’s always of paramount concern when assembling a book. Modulation makes the medicine go down, so to speak. Looking within and without, looking backwards and forwards, and all kinds of alternate side-angles, was critical in putting this book together. [. . .]

For the full article, see https://electricliterature.com/robert-lopez-dispatches-from-puerto-nowhere-an-american-story-of-assimilation-and-erasure

The book:
Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure
Robert Lopez
Two Dollar Radio, March 2023
280 pages
ISBN 978-1953387240 (hc)
Book review:
Flashes, Disconnections and Missed Connections: An Interview with Robert Lopez Regarding His New Book, “Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere”
Daniel A. Olivas, Latino Book Review, April 2, 2023

[Photo above by  J. Amill Santiago.] 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s