The town of Linares (pop. 70,000), in the landlocked north-eastern state of Nuevo León, is a two-hour drive south from Monterrey.
Despite my frenetic schedule (I was in the process of opening my latest restaurant, Windup Bird Cafe) I went to Linares because one of my favourite poets, Colin Carberry, who lives there with his wife- the translator and educator, Veronica Flores- invited me. The event was the inaugural Congress of Language and Literature, sponsored by Universidad Technologica Linares, an innovative and socially-engaged university with a former politician and scholar at the helm, Ángel Alberto Alameda Pedraza- a leader with genuine purpose. Other invited writers included Jack Harte, the brilliant Irish short story writer and arts organizer; Claudio Gaudio, author of the acclaimed novel, Texas; Halli Villegas, poet and publisher of one of the inspired presses in Canada, Tightrope Books; the award-winning Puerto Rican photographer and poet, Luis Cotto-Vasallo; and, of course, the Poet-Laureate of Linares, Carlotta Medina Gutierrez.
I arrived on an overcast day. My hotel room at the Hotel Hacienda Real de Linares, one of only three hotels in the town, overlooked a desolate main street. From my window, one could imagine a scene out of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana: a hint of something perilous and unexpected.
The writers were soon ushered from our hotel to the town’s civic centre, where an auditorium full of students, teachers, the Mayor of Linares, and other dignitaries awaited us. It was an extraordinary embrace and, like the others, I was profoundly humbled by the experience. It became clear that the people of Linares brought with them as much anticipation as they did hospitality.
Following the elaborate ceremonies, which included the singing of the national anthem and a modern mariachi band performing Mexican classics, I wandered the streets of Linares- something that was not recommended as part of our itinerary. People came out to greet me on the sidewalks- possibly to assist that rare sighting: an Asian tourist who may be lost- and I was moved by their kindness and quiet dignity. And even though the streets emptied as the sky grew darker, there was decorum, order, and a semblance of normality in the neighbourhoods.
On the second day, I was brought to a high school just within the borders of the town, an industrial area, to read from a short story- in English and Spanish translation. The student population came from poor families, mostly factory workers and farmers. They had more pressing affairs in their lives than to listen to some writer from a first-world country read. I understood this.
At the end of the reading, the Principal of the school asked me to speak to the students about living “the life of the pen and the mind”, both of which rang false to me because, quite frankly, I spent most of my waking days in Canada engaging in the tedious tasks around running restaurants. Besides, it was a posture that I was neither intellectually-equipped nor actorly enough to speak from with any conviction. I scanned the room and saw in the many faces staring blankly back at me the reflection of my own as an adolescent. Had I been born and raised in Mexico, perhaps in this very town, I could have been any one of these students and not the ones from the “other side of the tracks”. I began to speak as instructed, fleshing out the illusion of some wise man seated in a leather winged chair, pen in hand, and pondering the nature of the cosmos. Then I stopped in mid-sentence. The room grew still as I decided to go off script. I talked about about growing up in a government-subsidized housing complex, poor and hungry much of the time, and about the necessity to steal food because there was so little in the house; but that the food I stole was dictated by the commercials I saw on television and therefore invariably not healthy nor nutritious. I explained that I didn’t understand the “why” of my situation at the time, that none of my schooling included classes on food literacy- anything that would shed some light on the conditions in which I (and many others) lived; that the link between poverty and food insecurity (the lack of access to healthy, sufficient food) and- in my case- theft, was never exposed because it was in the best interest of multinational food and beverage conglomerates like Con-Agra, Monsanto, Kraft, and Pepsico to keep us all in the dark. (One girl in the back row started crying. Later, I found out that as I was telling my story, she was, at that very moment, thinking of what food she would be stealing on her way home from school. Her younger brother would be hungry when she got home.) Finally, I “instructed” the students that if they had to steal- and I knew many of them did with much shame- that they should set their eyes on fresh goods (fruits and vegetables being optimal) and to avoid the stuff they saw on billboards and television commercials. I also told them that on the way home with their stolen goods to stop by a book store and steal a book. After all, isn’t nourishing the mind equal to nourishing the body?
Always bitter-sweet this kind of “guidance”.
But I had hit a nerve. The room was abuzz with conspiratorial whispers. My reading was quickly forgotten and I was soon flocked by students who felt a much deeper connection with me and my being there. So did I . And although I felt morally ambivalent about telling these kids to steal (it smells like rotten self-justification), I knew that, in the end, commanding them not to do so, or skirting the issue, given their circumstances, was equally immoral. Hence the importance of food literacy programming in schools- from pre-school to post-secondary. Knowledge in and of itself lacks utility and does not create less thieves in society, but it does allow those who have it to organize better, to corral the troops and give them more effective ammunition to deal with the forces trying to keep them in the dark. This has always been so.
I left that school and those students feeling, if not vindicated, then that at the very least my story was not a mere exercise in narcissism (which it often can be). Here is a truth: our most powerful stories- the ones that can positively affect people- are those that are often shrouded in deep personal shame. I learned in Linares, with a group of young people who, like me during my youth, live in relative poverty, that by sharing such such stories, we can help alleviate that burden of shame others carry by giving it a name and narrative.