Friday, May 30, 2008

Looking for My Holy Grail

The year was 1989 and I was packed and ready to leave Cincinnati for the promised land of San Francisco, when my roommate and co-traveler bashed me upside the head with his Cuban heels in a drunken post-partying diva fight. I decided right then to drive my car in the opposite direction and get some perspective on how far down this dark spiral of punk existence I had fallen. So I loaded up my cat and dog and drove to Jacksonville, FL where I hoped to mend the relationship with my family which I have severed a decade ago. I could go back to school (cheaply) work part-time and mend fences at the same time. Then I would be truly ready to head for the west coast forever.

Showing up in the pink and pastel Florida town of Jacksonville, looking like 1980's Siouxsie Sioux was enough to make folks cross to the other side of the road when they saw me coming. To say that I did not fit in is no understatement. But I found a job and started school, continuing my major in Spanish Literature. The department at University of North Florida was amazingly dynamic and led by the incredible Dr. Lawrence K. Carpenter. Dr. Carpenter had gotten started on his path working for the Peace Corp in Ecuador after completing his BA in Linguistics in the 1960's. While building latrines for the Peace Corps, or whatever they were doing, he began learning and documenting the morphology and syntax of the 2 major language groups of the Andean people of Ecuador- Quechua and Aymara. Eventually he was recruited to work for the Peruvian government interviewing Quechua speaking victims of the state sponsored torture that had been going on. He was never able to talk much of these times, just to say that he had seen the darkness at the heart of man and it changed his life. After Peru lost interest in pursuing it's own abuses, Lawrence went back to Ecuador to work on behalf of the people there. He constructed an alphabet and lexigraphy for Quechua, began translating books into it, and persuaded the Ecuadorian government to open the first Quechua elementary school and to begin translating reading textbooks into the native language. He returned to the States to pursue his doctorate and eventually wound up as the department head of Spanish Language and Literature at University of North Florida, where he continued to help and sponsor the people of Otavalo, where he had become an honorary citizen.

You see, until the 1970's you could still legally buy a native child to work as a servant in your house. The society of Ecuador was divided into 2 classes- whites and indigenos, or Indians. If you had a lot of Spanish blood in you you were "white" and that meant privilege. But many times it comes down simply to dress. Native peoples of the area wear a distinctive form of dress and keep their black, straight hair quite long- the men wearing theirs in one long braid down the back. Now, if you want to be "white" you cut your hair short and wear western clothes. Mostly this would be the men of the village, who would cut their hair and learn Spanish in order to function in the role of trading with the whites and moving between the two worlds. Native peoples were not respected and were treated with open disdain, prejudice and their communities neglected by the government.
I got to know one man, Jose, who was raised as a "house boy" and was given, at age 16, the choice to return to his village. His owners had allowed him to attend school along with their own children and had become fluent in Spanish. He did indeed choose to return to his own people where he re-learned his native Quechua and started a weaving co-op (Otavalians are know for their fine weaving). Lawrence had become friends with him sponsored him to come to the States twice a year to sell weavings and garments and take the money back to his village. One testament to the benefits of Lawrence's work in Otavalo is the fact that Jose's daughter, Miriam, graduated from high school and attended college in Quito. How do I now all this, you might ask... Jose and Miriam stayed with me in Florida for a week during one of his visits, and I was able to speak Spanish very well in those days, so I talked for hours with them. I could tell you so much more about their incredible story, but that's for another day.

Lawrence was a very special man who was an incredible mentor to all his students. However, events of our country in those years would bring a few of us even closer. That year Bush senior decided to launch Operation Desert Storm. Now, Jacksonville Florida is a huge Navy town, and those dogmatic Southerners (remember, I grew up there) do not suffer dissent kindly. Due to anti-war bumper stickers on my car, I was run of the road twice by pick-up trucks full of redneck fanatics yelling "go back to Russia you commie-pinko-nigger-lovin-fag!
" I was called "stupid idiot" and other variations on that theme to my face on a regular basis while trying to express my opposition to the war by my co-workers. I was told that my job was in jeopardy if I didn't keep my mouth shut. You see, my own brother was in the National Guard and was one of the first to go over and the last to return. I worked at a hospital then, and many nurses had signed on about 6 months previously to the Navy Reserves to take advantage of a lucrative signing bonus (interesting timing BTW). As the war progressed, these nurses began to get called up and the crying began too. This did not put me in a good mood. My response was "hey you singed the dotted line and took their money, now sack up and go." When one nurse asked me to pray for her so she wouldn't have to go, I lost it. "What do you think, that your God will somehow favor you over my brother? That you are somehow more deserving of mercy than he is????? You call me stupid for opposing this war and now you want my sympathy? Do me a favor, save the tears and go do your job." This did not, as you can imagine, make me a popular employee. It was a tough environment and the few of us who did not jump on the rah-rah bandwagon would huddle together for support. At school, there were 7 such compadres- 3 professors and 4 students- and we met every Thursday night at the Student Union to drink beers and support each other. Funny, but now that I think on it, we sat at a round table. Hah! So these, my own knights of the round table, would gather together to feel safe in expressing our opinions to each other and spent many nights in total disbelief of what was going on around us. We would literally say to each other "We aren't crazy--- everyone else is crazy but it's not us" in order to try to keep our sanity. Lawrence was one of those knights. And over the next few months the seven of us clung to each other for support and sometimes protection against this rising tide of fanatic war fever.

One day Lawrence said to meet him in his office after school, he had something for me. I went and sat down in the chair by his desk. He handed me an old book, about 6 x 4 inches in size, it's cover of greying blue linen frayed at the edges, it's binding fragile but still holding together. "Open it," he said. I looked at the title page and read "Tratado y relacion de los errores, falsos dioses y otras supersticiones y ritos diabalicos en que vivian..." The font was old and full of flourishes, with the "s" that look like an "f". I could tell I was holding something very special and Lawrence was barely succeeding in holding back his excitement. "What IS this?" I implored. Geez, this was killing me, I could not imagine what he was doing. "This is just a transcription," he said, "the original is much, much older. This is the Huarochiri Manuscript. It has not been translated into English and I want you to translate a few chapters for your Senior Project."

Now, I was far from the brightest student in the Spanish department. True I had taken 2 years, but language did not come naturally for me and I could read, but I could not speak. My first classes were in Cincinnati and taught traditionally- grammar and memorization from books. When I got to UNF I was plunged into Lawrence's total immersion techniques. There was no English spoken. You would go into class and, for example, the teacher would say "go open the window Juan" You might have no clue as to what she was saying, but finally she would go over to the window and open it... "now open the window" and you would do it, repeating the words. We spend a lot of time walking about , running our hands through the grass describing how it feels in Spanish, touching things, learning experientially. Every Friday we had to stand up and give a speech in Spanish. I would sit in my car before class every Friday and cry, it was so hard. But my teacher finally told me, "You will never learn to speak until you let go of your fear for making a fool out of yourself. Learn to laugh at your mistakes, and then you will learn to communicate." There hasn't been a week that goes by in the ensuing 20 years that I do not repeat that advice to myself.

I was not the best student. I wasn't even the most dedicated.. I spent a lot of time in Jacksonville's only punk club, Einstein-a-go-go and I worked too. But here he was, entrusting me with this precious work. I was blown away. He went on to explain that the original of this document was written between 1600-1608 in Peru. One crafty Jesuit, Father Francisco Avila had a devious idea- if we learn the native people's language, we can have them tell us about all their myths, then use that knowledge to smash them. He set two of his priests to the tasks and we can tell by their annotations that these two took their role more sensitivity than Fr. Avila. They expressed that were painfully aware of what they were doing, that the systematic annihilation of this rich culture was troublesome to their conscious. Oh, if they only could know that the work they carefully attended to would turn out to be the one and only record of the religious beliefs of the Andean peoples of Peru. It's very, very moving, and reading through the chapters, you can hear the voices of those interviewed. Of course, this was not going to be easy. It's written in 1600's Spanish... it's as different to modern Spanish as Shakespeare is to the way we speak today. But it's the end of the semester, I have all summer to devour it and Lawrence and I will meet once a week until school begins anew. This book was so special to him and he was passing his passion for it on to me. This was a great honor and as our meetings progressed, I fell head over heels in love with this important manuscript.

Then Lawrence got sick. He could not make our meetings, but not to worry... this was some parasite that he had picked up years ago in Peru which had been slowly, undetectably eating some organ or another and the doctor's have everything under control. Weeks went by and he looked worse. Soon he stopped seeing anyone except his best and oldest friend, who stayed by his side. No one knew what was going on but he kept assuring us through her that he was getting better, not to worry. We believed him- I guess we had to. Then suddenly he was gone. Lawrence died. Oh my god, we were devastated, shocked and bewildered. And incredibly, indelibly sorrowful. His best friend then told me the truth about his illness... he had AIDS. No one knew. Lawrence, in this town, at this time, had to lead this double life, keeping his sexuality a secret. He would have lost his job and his work, his means to continue his support of the people of Otavalo, this was the most important work of his life. He could not tell anyone. My heart ached. If I had only known, I mean, geez, 9 of of 10 of my friends were gay, I could have supported him, let hi know he was not alone. If only he had known that I would be completely supportive! He did know, she said, but he could not risk it. But he knew. Here was this amazing man, dying like this, keeping this secret. But he did not die alone, he had his closest friends with him, and in the end, his family too.

The next weeks were a whirlwind of confusion. Jose and Miriam were on an airplane to Jacksonville and they didn't know yet that Lawrence had died. School was starting and the staff for the university had not had a clue as to the seriousness of his illness. Who would teach the classes was a first priority. And then there was the matter of Lawrence's possessions. He has an extensive and valuable collection of Incan and Andean pottery and textiles. He wanted, and it was our plan, to catalogue and donated these items for a memorial collection at the college in Lawrence's name. Once his (excuse me) redneck mother (reminds me soooo much of Dave's mom) learned of the value, all she saw were dollar signs. So his best friend, who he had named executor of his will, and his mother entered into a huge battle over the fate of this collection. Meanwhile the college board learned the truth about Lawrence's illness and were on the verge of rejecting the idea of a memorial to him because of that. The war was raging on and the round table no longer felt safe enough to meet in public. Everything was chaos and the whole thing with the board members being afraid to shame the university since Lawrence was now obviously gay was just too much for me. I couldn't take it anymore and began a disastrous decline that eventually led me to hit the road again to San Francisco. Eventually though, the board made the right decision, his memorial was created, Lawrence's mom settled for a split in the property, his collection of coca leave bags spanning 200 years remained intact. But the little book of Huarochiri tales was boxed and sold to someone. Life at that particular moment was horrible.. but it inevitably went on.

So now here I am in Madrid standing on the steps of Spanish National Library. For 20 years I have dreamed of this day... seeing the original manuscript seems like part of the task that Lawrence gave me... at least it's a dream he inspired in me, and I am nervous as hell. To see the original Huarochiri Manuscript... wow. I woke up early and went down with my Spanish dictionary to the cafe for a coffee. I decided to write out exactly what I want to say as correctly as I could, in case I was nervous and scatter-brained. When I finished, I went back to the hostal, got Terry and set off to get there as soon as it opened. I said goodbye to Terry on the steps and went in the doors.

First thing, there's two ladies at a desk. After I explained why I was there, they told me that I could not even look at the card catalogue without a library card. Fortunately I could get a guest pass with my passport... just head through the doors and go to security.
Getting through security means a complete search of my purse, which I then have to leave behind in a locker. I also have to leave my pen and Spanish dictionary. They let me take the paper on which I had written my explanation in Spanish, which I REALLY need because at this point I'm starting to really get nervous. Finally, through a metal detector and off to see if they will give me a guest card.

So I go up to the next desk in the next room, explain why I am there and get heads to shaking. "It's not possible," they tell me. I ask, "Please, isn't there a way to make a special case? I come from California, this is so special to me, I study this document in University, my professor died, I am here in his honor." The woman calls her supervisor and they begin looking at the computer, talking, making phone calls... 20 minutes later they give me a paper, stick a nametag on me that says "Visitor" and send me to the next desk. Here I give up my passport and fill out 3 papers. I'm starting to doubt myself. What did I think? I somehow had this picture that the document would be displayed open in a glass case and I would be able to stand there and stare at it, take it all end and leave in awe. What was I thinking???? I'm not too smart, I should have emailed, something. Well, I decided to just keep begging. I was here, all I can do is plead my case, all they can do is turn me down.

Then to my surprise, the first lady I talked to in this room walked over, whispered something to this current lady, and they upgrade me to "Lector." She tells me that "There's No Way you will get to see this document, it's in the Cervantes Room for rare antiquities, and you must have a special permit called the 'Investigator's Card.' For this card you must be a professor, a graduate student with a written letter from your university explaining your reason for studying the document or be a professional writer of some sort. Um, you don't have those things." No, none of those is me. But she feels sorry for me and said this "Lector" designation will get me into the room and I will be able to plead my case.

So here I go through another security check point. God, I feel like I'm entering the CIA inner sanctum or something. I'm directed into the Cervantes Room to a desk with an older woman sitting there who looks like a bad guy from a James Bond Movie. OK, now I am shaking. I can't talk, my voice is quivering. She says "No, it's not here, it's simply not possible." I show her my paper on which I wrote the document number that I found online a month ago. "It IS here, it must be here, here is the number," I plead. "No, it's not possible. You don't have the proper classification and it's not here anyway. Now go away." Now, I'm getting upset and can't even understand anything she's saying, I'm so nervous. Scared even. Oh my god, no... I'm starting to cry! Stop it, suck it up, grow some heuvos. Ugg don't fall apart now. I take a deep breath. "OK, I understand, but can't you just look? It's special. Can't you make a special case? I studied this document when I was in University, my professor has died, I'm here in his honor, please, I'm sorry I'm so emotional, this is very special in my heart." My Spanish is SO bad, my voice is shaking, I'm forgetting my words, using the wrong tenses, everything wrong. She messes around with her computer, gets up, goes to the next room, talks to this policeman looking dude, and crooks her finger at me... "Come here"

Then she digs out a huge book... "Here is the listing of all documents of the America's that are here in this library. If you can find it here I will consider your request." But it's not in there... I can't find it.
But wait, here she comes bac, this hard a-ss librarian has the second volume and she found it there for me! It's #3169, just as I had found online! Woohoooooooo! Now I have just one more step to go, I have to fill out 3 papers and take them to the police looking dude, and he's scary, but not as scary as the librarian torturess. So I fill them out and he takes me to a file and finds another number, I finish the papers and he takes them to talk to the other woman again. She's shaking her head. By this time I can't hold it back, I start crying. It's not going to happen, here I am and it's not going to happen. I can't stop, I can't hold back the sobs and every fucking professor in the room, doing their super serious professor thing on these rare documents, hundreds of years old, is staring at me. Maybe no one has ever cried in the library before. Silly me. I have to excuse myself and go to the bathroom and get it all out, get myself together, which of course means I have to go through all the infernal security again. But when I get back Mr. Policeman looks at me and smiles. He has good news... they have decided to let me see the microfilm. It is impossible for me to see the document but they will let me see the microfilm. Would this be agreealbe to me? I start crying again. "Thank you, thank you." He says "Sit down and wait." I sat. I waited. People stared at me. I waited 20 minutes. Then another woman in a lab coat and white gloves comes out and gives me a box. I can't remember how to work a microfilm machine, what if I screw it up? I'll be in jail somewhere. So she set it up for me and I was able to spend however much time I wanted looking at it.

So I did. I looked at the hand writing, the side notes, the corrections. It was so human. Hand written of course... I could discern the different handwritings of the two priests. I could see the care they took to try their best to get the stories of the people right. They crossed things out, made notes about the mood of the person telling their story. I strained to notice the worn edges of the paper, the stains, to soak up every detail I could possibly take in. Microfilm is in black and white, in the negative, and it's not the same as the real thing. But I decide that it's a gift, that I am SO lucky to get this close, to get this far, for these people to somehow be touched by my poorly spoken story. I felt blessed by their generosity when technically I had no right to be in that room. I made a few copies as a keepsake and wound the microfilm back, thanked everyone profusely, went through two more security checks, walked out into the sun to Terry patiently waiting on the steps. Oh, and I got to keep my library card! We went to celebrate over a meal and glasses of wine. It was a beautiful day and I was on cloud 9. The world was good

So there you are, the journey is complete, and I'm totally and completely fulfilled. It's a long story, thank you for reading it and allowing me to share my tale. Thank you Lawrence, thank you for giving me this precious dream and inspiring my journey of the heart. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

The Huarochiri Manuscript was translated into English and published in 1991, just one year after Lawrence's death and the year I arrived in San Francisco. You can read it courtesy of Google Books here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is quite the story Anile. And beautifully told.