The Sunday Rumpus Essay: This American Paradise

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“Paradise looks the same,” I tell the kids as we get out of the rental car at my Uncle Mick’s house. We’re exhausted from nearly 2000 miles of highway. The glare of lights from our tribal casino, The Paradise, is even more egregious than I’d remembered it. Uncle Mick’s yard has two red-and-turquoise domes hovering over a Walmart-size parking lot less than one hundred yards from his fence line. The Yuma Reservation is as ugly as ever, but it’s still kind of home.

When our children were little their Italian immigrant father, Simone, worked at the casino. This was after we decided to give up the roaming lifestyle, sell our RV, and settle down on the rez; before my tribe’s government built a second fancier casino called “The Q” along the highway to San Diego and we packed our kids up and left Yuma for good. Uncle Mick’s house was once Little Mick’s house, but when Little Mick was paroled after trying to shoot his neighbor, and went on the lam in Mexico for trying to do it again, Uncle Mick and Aunt Mona moved in to take care of the mortgage.

Aunt Mona opens the door, her chubby cheeks and megawatt smile falling into a feigned pout, she scolds my son, Julian, immediately, “Shame on you! You should have made your dad come with you. We haven’t seen you in so long!”

The house looks different. There’s a flat-screen TV. They have his-and-her recliners. The kitchen smells like cupcakes instead of crystal meth. I stand at the back window and watch a dust devil scoot across the empty parking lot. Drought, I think, remembering the news on the drive down from St. Louis: declining crop yields in California.

Uncle Mick appears. He’s shorter and rounder than I remember, but has the same long braid down his back, and the same double chin. He stares at my daughter. “Is that Woodstock?” he asks. I forgot they called Sonora Woodstock. I forgot how rich Aunt Mona’s mayonnaise cake was, and the way Uncle Mick muted the football game on TV when someone came in. I forgot the sound of the Apache cicadas humming in the chaparral outside.

When I left the reservation, I wanted to forget. The shooting at Little Mick’s. The tragedy that took Isaiah’s leg. Sitting on my uncle’s couch, I think of my motives in returning. I want to remember now because we need help with Julian’s documentary film, and I wonder if we’re exploiting Uncle Mick, Aunt Mona, and the rest of the family by asking. The nature of tribal customs and tribal politics means I was raised to be wary about sharing information (family stories, cultural reflections) with outsiders. So much has been stolen and appropriated, it sometimes feels like the last semblance of control we have resides in the privacy of stories.

I’m on this trip because Julian is working on an undergrad film thesis about incarceration in indigenous communities. After the rez we’ll drive to Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, an outfit that helps formerly gang-involved youth get jobs instead of jail, where he’ll interview ex-cons about restorative justice. I know he’s chosen this topic because he needs to understand the prison time my father and cousin served (five to ten years each), the epigenetic inheritance of pain, and the effects of colonization on our family.

The Yale Class of 1955 gave him a fellowship to make the film, but it was not enough to cover the entire project. I offered to drive and pay for the gas if I could come along and help with the interviews. I’ve always considered it my responsibility as a mother to help break the cycle of self-wounding in our family lineage. I’m not sure how well I did when they were small, but I’ve tried to remind myself that words are cheap unless I, too, stay engaged in positive forms of protest. It’s a boost to my confidence that an organization at my son’s school considers violence in indigenous communities a deserving topic. Such neediness demonstrates, of course, a fear of illegitimacy, a fear that suggests I am not yet healed and therefore needed this trip, too.

Uncle Mick and Aunt Mona want to know about Simone. When was the last time he visited my parents with me in Phoenix? I tell them last Christmas Simone and I had the car loaded down with luggage, the gifts, the kids, and the family dog. We were driving across the United States to visit my parents in Phoenix when a patrolman pulled us over, handcuffed Simone, and took him down to the Kiowa County courthouse to be booked for an expired driver’s license. “You got the department asshole,” the patrolman’s colleagues said as I paid four hundred dollars to bail my husband out.

Uncle Mick and Aunt Mona find the story hysterical. But then Uncle Mick says we shouldn’t be laughing because the abuse of power is endemic in Native country. Rogue cops versus rational people, or rational cops versus rogue people. He doesn’t overtly take sides. There are plenty of bad guys who aren’t cops, he knows this firsthand, yet the facts remain the same. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Imprisonment is a business, meaning someone paid for the barbed wire fence, and someone makes money off it, too. The United States is a very economically segregated country and poor people of color have always been disproportionately incarcerated. Young men are locked up, and when they get out, they are forced to return to the same problematic communities they started in. For parole purposes, they are thrown back to the neighborhood that produced the bad blood in a cycle of coercive mobility.

Prosecutors, judges, police, and legislatures promise to protect citizens and communities, yet by sticking to their definition of “bad guy” as “poor and brown” they actually increase crime and victimization. Meanwhile, white-collar tycoons rob us all blind and suck the planet’s bounty dry. Those of us lucky enough to avoid trouble with the law watch this sick triad of punisher, small crook, and big criminal acknowledging the fact that no one escapes the long reach of damage. Do I feel safer than I did before the prison industry started expanding in the ‘80s? We watchers get shot by cops and by citizens, in traffic and on the streets, at airports and schools, theaters and shopping malls. The history of violence in America is not going away under the government’s current policies.

Even before we let Uncle Mick know about Julian’s project, he says there was a shooting at the next-door neighbor’s the night before. BAM. BAM. Two shots. A lady screaming. He went to the window to look out and saw tribal cops—a married couple—busting out their front door on the other side of the street. Using their cars for cover, they trained their guns on Uncle Mick’s house. “It felt like I was back in Vietnam,” he says.

Aunt Mona came out of the bedroom to see what the hell. Uncle Mick was crouched behind the couch and told her to get down. The male cop sprinted across the street. The female cop redirected her barrel and disappeared behind an arriving cop car. More men-in-blue jumped out for the chase.

“That stupid lady was writing letters to a guy in prison,” Aunt Mona says. “Yuma police caught him over by the ashram.”

I notice how they talk about the neighbors like they’re strangers. Odd, knowing Uncle Mick was tribal chairman for sixteen years before retiring. Odd, knowing Aunt Mona still works for the tribal daycare and raised half the kids on the reservation. It seems impossible that they don’t know their neighbors.

Then I notice my Aunt Mona’s hands tremble as she places a nutcracker and a bowl of pecans on the table in front of me. I look at Uncle Mick and see a slight tic in his avoidant gaze. Aunt Mona asks for help making the beds. She shuffles over to lock the deadbolt and their avoidance of the neighborhood doesn’t feel odd anymore.

Later that night I jolt awake with a fever.

The nightmare is that I am sitting on a space shuttle on my way to an orbiting hotel. I am holding hands with a strange man. We disembark down a long tube, enter an echoing glass hall, and find a welcoming ceremony with Comanche, Mandinka, Navajo, Hmong, and many other nations joined together in dance. The women jingle as their lids of chewing tobacco—rolled into cones, and sewn to their dresses—dangle and knock. Male fancy dancers jerk their heads, bend their knees low, and spin. The drum beats, pounding in my head like blood. It’s a water drum, I know. I know that a piece of coal from a prayer fire was dropped into the water with a hiss before the instrument’s membrane was stretched to make sound. Feeling proud of this knowledge, I look towards the glass ceiling, wanting to see my Earth in the sky, but the moment I lift my face a portion of the blue and green surface explodes.

I yank away from the strange man.

“I have to go home,” I say. But he grips me tighter and pulls me towards the dancers where a space has opened in the ancestor’s circle. Struggling against him, I try to pull my hand free. I look down and see my skin is cracked like dry mud, old and ancient.

“It’s too late,” he says. “The apocalypse is over.”

I sit up in bed and throw the burning sheets aside. I have a fever and move to the corner of the room near the window. I rummage in my luggage for a dry t-shirt and see that it is still the middle of the night. The blue casino lights across the small stretch of desert are ablaze, illuminating the bedroom with an otherworldly glow. I can hear my laptop scanning for viruses, downloading a scheduled update in the dark.

Fifteen years have gone by since I last slept on the reservation. As a child I wandered through these rooms, ears lulled by the sound of blowing swamp coolers and cicadas, feet treading on linoleum washed in Pine-Sol, hands pushing aside heavy drapes hung to block the sun, their fabric faded in the light and heat.

In the nightmare it is as if the flames that eat the earth are caused by my prideful gaze, and the sentimental distance—my failure to be there for the fight—somehow amplifies the horror.

“You don’t want to go back,” the man in the dream said just before I woke up. I tuck myself back in between the sheets, and it’s as if I can still feel him dragging me by the arm. “You asked for this adventure,” he said.

*

The usher escorts Simone and me to our seats in a small community theater at the edge of the Navajo Reservation. We’ve left the kids at home, needing a night of entertainment, and it was Simone who wanted to see this show. As a European, his vantage point on American History has always struck me as odd. He loves old Westerns while I despise them. He claims at their best they save the American entertainment industry from hypocrisy (while at their worst they do real damage). He says when they feature violence, they trace the true story backwards, exposing North American for all the world to see.

If there’s a weirder entertainment genre than the Wild West musical, I’ve never seen it. The Legend of Pearl Hart is a song-and-dance fiasco about the last of the stagecoach robbers. I love Pearl, but even the song “Cowboy Drag” fails to inspire. When our cross-dressing heroine and her anarchist friend, Emma Goldman, belt out “Polka Dot Polka” the music hits a high, but I believe, overall, a contemporary playwright should do a remake a la Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson or Hamilton.

Pearl’s real-life rebellion is way better than the show. Preyed upon by a lying old gambler named Hart, she leaves home at the naïve age of sixteen. She wants a better life, and he, of course, promises Paradise. Instead she ends up scrubbing dishes, having babies, moving from town to town. They finally land in Chicago where she barks for Wild West shows at the World’s Fair. She sees Annie Oakley shoot. She hears suffragettes speak in the Women’s Pavilion. She sees a new breed of female, a breed she instantly recognizes. The suffragettes tell her that she can be worthwhile all alone, even without a husband, and so Pearl buys a gun and leaves the old gambler behind.

Imagine life for a “divorced” mother at the turn of the century. Pearl drags her kids from one Arizona mining camp to the next, looking for work at the edges of society. With Geronimo’s arrest the year prior, the Wild West has been tamed. This means few pockets of anarchy—few people willing to accept a woman like Pearl—remain, and when Pearl receives a letter telling her that her mother is dying, the suffragette’s Promised Land fades for good. “That letter drove me crazy,” Pearl writes after being arrested. “I had no money. I could get no money. From what I know now, I believe I became temporarily insane.”

When a posse tracks down Pearl after the stagecoach robbery, she realizes her gender makes her a novelty to the media, and she leans on her World’s Fair education in order to manipulate the press. Addressing reporters at the courthouse she claims “she could never be tried under a law she and her sex had no voice in making.” She becomes America’s favorite outlaw, and starts writing for Cosmopolitan magazine.

As it turns out, Pearl’s warden loves her as well, and he cuts a wall in her cell so she can run. This is how she gets caught and transferred to the higher-security location, The Yuma Territorial Prison. Situated on an outcropping directly across from the Paradise Casino, the Yuma Territorial Prison has the Colorado River on two sides, and invites rattlesnakes into its impossible-to-escape cells. Our pot-smoking, cross-dressing, gun-slinging Pearl suffers five years in this desert crucible, immersed in a large population of outlaw men.

Dad, Uncle Mick, and the rest of their brothers slept in the guard tower at the old and defunct Yuma Territorial Prison when their father went on drinking binges. This was before it was a museum, and after it was used by the local high school for classes. To this day, Yuma cheerleaders yell, “Go, Criminals, Go!” To this day, the good townspeople of Yuma purchase spirit-wear at a gift shop known as the Cell Block. I used to run around in my uncle’s practice jersey, the face of a hardened criminal grimacing on my chest. The mascot is a line drawing with a scowl like an upside-down Nike swish, a criminal who looks like he’s been busting up rocks for a lifetime.

The Wild West, the Final Frontier, the Last Stagecoach Robbery—our boundary with an imaginary unknown is always shifting, beyond which our personal versions of Paradise beckon. The version known as the Wild West died, and Pearl Hart’s name completes the list of those legends, at least the list before Dad and his siblings came on the scene. These stagecoach roads have stories.

From its weather, to its history, to its names, Yuma has always been the toughest of crossroads. Eisenhower’s Interstate System funded the Penitentiary Bridge. It spans the Colorado, and runs right by the Yuma Territorial Guard Tower, connecting our reservation to the city of Yuma and the rest of the States. We’ve become notorious for our frontline position in the immigration-drug wars, a literal graveyard for indigenous people willing to risk their lives for the empty promise of a better future. And yet we are not unique. Check any small town’s history and the story will be the same. It’s this country’s violent dream of freedom. War is a staple in the pursuit of Paradise, because people are willing to kill when they’ve identified what it is they think they need.

*

If you want a house on the reservation, you have to prove your blood-quantum (the census number they gave you as an Indian), put your name on a list, and wait. In the interim of paperwork after moving back to the rez, Simone and I rented a two-bedroom house facing an alley in Yuma. Our bedrooms were crowded against trees, their branches like a gangplank to the second floor balcony. Our two oldest children, Miquela and Julian, used an open cardboard box to sled down the stairs like snow.

I rifled through the classifieds, looking for furniture. We’d been back in Arizona for a couple of months and owned close to nothing. Simone and I slept on two egg-carton mattresses double-stacked on the floor. The kids used blankets. We hauled in a free piano listed in the classifieds with my Little Mick and another cousin named Isaiah’s help. If the kids felt any culture shock coming back from a three-month stay on the Italian Riviera, they showed no sign of it. They sledded until they bumped heads, and then put on swimming suits and went outside. I stood at the window and watched them spray each other with the hose.

This was all by choice. Simone said the kids had to live, at least for a time, on their home reservation. He was adamant that they learn about their heritage, and I couldn’t disagree, so the invitations to stay with his parents in Italy were declined. Other than airplane tickets, campsites for our hippie bus, and food made from scratch, we’d saved every penny and wanted to establish a home on our own terms. Our plan was to open the greatest northern Italian restaurant Yuma had ever seen. If Simone had to work at the casino—it was only for a time.

The day the tribe called to say our house was ready, we put on our swimsuits and joined the kids in their water fight. We would turn our new rez house into a personal paradise—no matter how broken the rest of the neighborhood ended up being. I would volunteer at the Diabetes Center on the reservation. I wanted to teach people yoga even if they thought it was weird. After our celebration we whipped up some egg and chorizo burritos before Simone had to go to work.

The kids and I drove him to the casino. He was working a swing shift, and his mood sunk on the way over. It was dull to tool around in a golf cart, cleaning casino aquariums, fixing broken sprinkler heads, putting ice in the toilets before dinner. His best job in three years was standing on a scissor lift, five hundred feet above Interstate 8, changing two thousand light bulbs on the Paradise Casino sign one at a time.

Braking to a stop in front of the casino, Simone jumped out to go inside. I jumped out to drive, and we kissed goodbye in front of the car. “Hang in there,” I told him.

A Cocopah chick named Patti came out to greet us at the curb. She was sweating and twitching with dilated pupils, obviously high on crystal meth. “Monkeys on your back?” she asked.

“Where else would they be?”

“Aren’t they big enough for school?”

“Yep!” Julian said. “But Mom let us quit.”

“You’re kidding,” Patti said.

“Nope,” said Miquela, my oldest, “and I saw a kid from my class at the park yesterday, and he said all the kids were saying I stopped coming to school because I DIED!”

She held her stomach and laughed.

Patti opened her mouth to protest my decision, but I cut her off. “Don’t,” I said.

I reasoned that the kids could read, bang on the piano, and study the desert flora. I’d read the educational philosopher John Holt and believed a substandard education would only stifle their curiosity and initiative. Sadly, no one on the reservation agreed with my rebellion. No one gave me credit for questioning the dismal status quo, for dropping out, or challenging the district’s poorly funded curriculum. All Patti and Isaiah saw was that I wouldn’t smoke meth. To them I was a goody-two-shoes and a weird kind of mother.

Isaiah appeared at the door. “What’s up, little man?” He grabbed Julian by the waist and tossed him in the air.

Patti brushed inside. “Your cousin is something else,” she told him.

Isaiah went to the table. He pinched some dry-looking weed out of a baggie, and started stuffing his pipe’s bowl. When I told him about our new house, he asked, “And Simone doesn’t mind living out here?”

“Why would he?” I asked.

He blew a smoke cloud towards Patti, “Well, that’s cool.”

“Let’s go, let’s go! Those slots are calling my name!” Patti tapped her fingers on the kitchen counter impatiently.

They congratulated me on our house and took off, ambling across the broken-glass-yard to the casino. I stood in the driveway watching them leave, hating the way they saw themselves as rebels. Sure, they hung posters of Che Guevara, Tupac, and Bob Marley on their walls. But in my opinion that was the laziest form of rebellion. They were falling in line with the cool kids while doing nothing to advance their lives.

paradise

For as long as I can remember I’ve been asking myself which types of resistance make sense. As I climbed into my car to go home and start packing, I thought about Patti and Isaiah gambling in the casino. I imagined them, sitting in front of the slot machines in the middle of the afternoon, sealed off from the world, closed up in their own compulsive desire. Casinos are built without windows and this is, of course, the Paradise’s strategy as well: Keep people happy and honed in on the machine, oblivious to the passage of time.

If Arthur Miller’s observation is correct—“Where choice begins, Paradise ends [and] innocence ends, for what is Paradise but the absence of any need to choose?”—then the name Paradise is perfect for a reservation casino. They are both places where people get stuck in their manufactured wishes and beliefs, forgetting they have the ability to choose, struggle, or change. They pull the handle and wait perpetually for a reward that never comes.

This new guy, Leonard, thinks he’s a badass walking behind the casino, making his way over to the party. I’m the female answer to him and his Sioux-style wrapped up cool in black boots. The music pumps loud and my feet want to fly, but I stay on the earth when I see him coming. He drives a red Ford Escort with tinted windows and has a tiny water drum like the kind they sell at Shush Yaz in Gallup hanging from his rearview mirror.

They built the casino in my cousin Mickey’s backyard with blue-neon lights and machines making promises of winnings. Included in your neighborhood ticket—a view of the traffic coming across the bridge from Yuma, and a Kenny Rogers concert you don’t have to pay to hear. All our friends come and we stand around the fire in the cool Sonoran night, laughing and talking.

They built the casino in my cousin’s backyard. The government gave us neat HUD houses all in a row and we call it Easter egg lane with pasty pastel colors lining the street. It’s ugly and we figure they want us to be happy, but not too happy. I got the shell of a cool blue and no one fights in my home but my cousin has the sick pale green of envy covering his walls and his girlfriend likes to get a running start when she punches him.

You don’t get to pick your home, you get assigned, and my cousin says he doesn’t mind the casino in his backyard. As a little boy, Mick was always agreeable. He had ear infections and a soft fat face. I squeezed his sweaty palm in mine and thought I would always take care of him. Then he grew into an Indian Paul Bunyan and took care of me. He left once for college in Kansas on a football scholarship—but he liked to beat people off the field for practice. They said it was against the rulebook and sent him home to Yuma.

They dug up the desert, brought in the construction crews, and built the casino in my cousin’s backyard, and the gamblers or drinkers may have been the ones. No one knows for sure. She’s just a little girl, coming home, crying, but refusing to say who. We knew right away what was wrong. She hid under her bed for hours, and we tried to hold Mick back but he bucked, his long black hair in my hands like reins, and we couldn’t stop him.

They built the casino in my cousin’s backyard and he went down the street with a rifle in his hand. We shouted for him to come home and sit his chubby butt down. He’s still a little boy to me. He really is gentle despite his size, big hands balled and fierce dark eyes. Don’t let his disposition for unhappiness scare you. He won’t sit sweat with any white man and talks a lot of bullshit, but underneath he’s still the kid with the earache and bright crow-like gaze.

They built the Paradise in my cousin’s back yard but he can’t see it from his prison cell in Southern California. He can’t see how the guys rake broken glass before parties so a game of tag can be played without the kids getting hurt. He can’t see the old iron barrel cut in half to make a grill or guess that Isaiah has started hunting again. He can’t know that we’re eating dove as we stare at the blue-neon lights or that we’re listening to Kenny Rogers bang on the Sonoran desert ceiling. At least he gets his per capita check.

“When’s Little Mickey getting out?” Isaiah asks. His memory is short as a Marine’s haircut. He doesn’t understand life depends on distractions. He always wants to talk about the past.

Leonard passes a joint. His job is to help me forget. My husband, Simone, is working inside the casino. He’ll hear about Leonard before long—smoke rises fast. I’ll play him, saying Leonard’s just a guy I met in rhetoric at Arizona Western College to imply that I like him. Then I’ll think about how it’s true, and wonder why I always pretend at equivocation.

“We’ll learn to argue like experts,” I tell Leonard, throwing my napkin onto the heat.

We watch as the lipstick stains catch fire on the red-hot grill. My kids yell—“Not it!”—and I imagine what I thought I’d never imagine again—a bit of fun coming from this blue-lit backyard with its star-muffled sky.

*

The thing about Paradise is this—yours can’t be mine, and mine can’t be yours. Paradise exists in the imagination, and imagination is our only privacy. The threshold to Paradise is pain, by which I mean Death is the ultimate renewal. There has always been violence, and there will always be violence. At least let us choose what dreams feel true.

The Conquistadors thought they’d found Paradise when they encountered my ancestors along the Colorado River. Bronze men and women with dreads that trailed behind them as they swam. Why weren’t they ashamed to be nude? Had these Natives refused Eve’s fruit, escaped the shame, and been allowed to stay in the garden?

The Spaniards didn’t understand. My ancestors had no obsession with innocence—likely because they had no pulpits. What they had was the desert’s openness and absence—the absence of any desire to censor Eve’s curves, her curiosity for snakes, her human tendency towards lust and violence.

A viceroy in Mexico City was raised on the Legend of Cibola: The Seven Cities of Gold. As a child, his mother snuggled his head on her breast, tracing the outline of his nose with her finger as she recounted the story of the ill-fated Narváez expedition; the four shipwrecked sailors who ate their horses to survive when everyone else had died; the honorable Cabeza de Vaca who staggered back to New Spain claiming he’d seen mountains of gold in a city up north. The viceroy never forgot his mother’s story, the softness of her breath, the way she traced his nose, and when he was a grown man he hired an explorer named Coronado to go and find his mother’s Paradise.

Thus, in those years when the Spanish were consolidating their hold on New Spain, and my homeland was becoming the bridge between Mexico and Las California, a second fleet, led by a man named Alarcon, was assigned the delivery of supplies to Coronado. He sailed up the west coast of Mexico and, failing to find the Cibola expedition, came upon the mouth of the Colorado River. He dubbed it El Rio de Buena Guia, or the River of Good Guidance, an ironic name given the fact that few Spaniards were open to advice from local fonts.

Christians especially were closed to new ideas, and this is how Yuma’s own witch trials began. A century before Plymouth Rock, Catholic priests arrived in our backyard. They said the icama, our dream time, made us devils. Imagine how I felt then, when I first read The Crucible as a teen, how sympathetic to the witches, how enthralled by Arthur Miller’s text:

When it is recalled that until the Christian era the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, that all gods were useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses; when we see the steady methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness—until redeemed—the necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church state.

As an emerging thinker, I was riveted by religious arguments. I asked myself whether all people tacitly accept certain types of sin. I wondered if differing views had only to do with where we stood in relation to the fence. Yet while I found Miller’s words liberating, my parents had sent me to Catholic schools, and it was too late to quit my dual education. I’d been inculcated by the concept of original sin, and remained fearful of my inheritance.

By inheritance I mean my ancestors clubbed Father Garces and Father Barreneche to death, and burned St. Thomas Mission to the ground. They murdered hundreds of Spanish settlers, viewing violence as a sign of spiritual strength. Centuries of resistance and killings followed, culminating in the Yuma Massacre, an event famously written about by Cormac McCarthy. I hear James Franco is adapting Blood Meridian into a film, and I wonder how it will feel to see my greats kill the Glanton Gang at the movie theater down the street from our home. I wonder if the script will note how the sheriff couldn’t find the gang’s gold. Dad says he played with a large nugget as a boy, until a fight with one of his cousins sent it down the outhouse hole.

The word “meridian” is a geographical term, referring to a line of longitude. As a child, I learned that the prime meridian, the zeroed out starting point, is located in England. As an adult, I learned that the bloody one runs through my desert hometown. I am also thinking of the word “devil.” The way Luis Alberto Urrea uses it in the title of his book about the Yuma 14, a group of immigrants who died trying to cross into our American Paradise. Almost all the people I love learned to drive on what the world’s intelligentsia refers to as The Devil’s Highway.

The violent threshold of Paradise. The desert as crucible. My homeland has always embodied these irredeemable histories, these all-encompassing fears, these dark human traits. Jesus resisted the devil in the desert. Walter White looks natural murdering people in the badlands. Pearl Hart looks beautiful slinging her gun. I bet Geronimo looks down from his poker game in Paradise and loves the image of himself silkscreened across the front of those Homeland Security shirts. The commander who killed Osama Bin Laden shouted over the radio—“For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!”—his voice trembling with the knowledge that he’d done everything in his power to get even.

As a desert people, we may never be able to escape these associations. As a country, we remain riveted, watching the actors evolve with a sense of déjà vu. We have cops instead of Calvary, slots instead of priests, vigilantes driving ATVs rather than horses. We are Americans. And this is our shared inheritance.

***

Rumpus original artwork by Tim Taranto.


Deborah Jackson Taffa was born for the Keepers of the Water Clan and the Yuma Nation in southeastern California. A mother, environmentalist, and current board member of the Missouri Humanities Council, she teaches at Webster University and WashU in St Louis. She can be found @deborahtaffa on Twitter, or in the Central West End, where she lives with her family, her dog, her raspberry bushes, and her bike. More from this author →