Letter From Houston: Let These Protests Bring Light to America

Daniel Peña on Black and Brown Voices of Hope

The news of George Floyd and Christian Cooper in the same day brings a clicking to your jaw, right at the back of your mandible. The sound is indigenous to your body, rooted in rage though you havent heard it in some years. Last time you clenched your jaw that hard was in Mexico City when you were 26 and you were marching and everyone you knew was healthy.

That riot in which you found yourself was by accident, which is to say it was planned: a Mexican plainclothes cop amidst a peaceful demonstration threw a bottle toward his colleagues in riot gear allowing them to spring into action. Suddenly, everyone could be detained.

And then a second bottle is thrown.

When that bottle explodes youre near enough to the fire to feel it. Close enough to smell the Molotov cocktails black plume, to glimpse the wooden doors of the presidential palace set ablaze in the Zocalo of Mexico City. You do not see the person who does it but you hear the whistles and jeers of supporters, a small crowd anxious to provoke a fight with police who dance in and around the flames.

The police avoid the worst of the shrapnel. They look weird inside of their skin, their faces not theirs somehow. And then the riot uncoils. They swarm from every direction. The meat connections of billy clubs on backs, skulls, skin. The wet crack of bottles on stone. The chemical rot of synthetic flame accelerant. And then the dry swish and grind of acrylic and rubber in action. Riot gear clacking on riot gear. Blood pounding your ears. Banners torn asunder. A Chinese sky lantern flickering into the green night.

Somebody has been releasing those lanterns all night. All night youve been naively thinking, wouldnt it be a fire hazard if they landed in the wrong place, should the mysterious atmospheres of Mexico City at more than 7,000 feet pull the lanterns back to earth?

It’s in a riot you come to the horizon of this epiphany: that in both countries, the darker you are and the poorer you are the more disposable you are to that country.

Youre a lapsed pilot but you still think of these things—air density, altitude, gravity, combustion. All of the lanterns are inscribed in Sharpie with the number 43 written on their sides. That number in commemoration of the 43 Normalista teachers from Ayotzinapa—Indigenous students—who were kidnapped and murdered. The coverup was facilitated by the Mexican government. Even then, the government’s complicity was apparent. And thats why you’re here.

Everyone knows they were murdered but no one says murdered. Not the government, not the demonstrators. They say, disappeared. Like theres a person-shaped hole missing in the world.  And thats the first time you think of those holes walking around. Not like ghosts—the way an American would see it—but like an echo. There but not there. Nowhere but everywhere. Not so much remembered as felt.

Between English and Spanish you wonder if theres a third language that connects the Mexican to American by way of trauma—a kind of cultural legibility. You think of the encuentro between the Zapatistas and the Black Panther Party. You think of Acteal, you think of Birmingham. “And it’s in a riot you come to the horizon of this epiphany: that in both countries, the darker you are and the poorer you are the more disposable you are to that country.

*

You remember that in the chaos you find an open lane. It is clear of bodies. You run hard into it. It is out of sheer luck that you are not confronted by a single riot cop. Or swung at for all you know. Or pinned down by a plainclothes cop of which there are many.

You remember that someone kicks a trash bag. A thousand mice are startled. They panic out into the street. They’re fast. You’ve never seen mice so fast. Not in Houston or in Union City. And they run between the plunging steps of protesters fleeing everywhere, into the lane that you’re running. And you kind of love them because it’s like they’re rioting too. Though you’ve always loved pests—they can’t be killed, someone has to love them. And their backs are so shiny with what you can only imagine makes the streets in Mexico City shiny—diesel particles and bits of tire and sun and oil and soot. The mice flow like water running under halogen light.

*

There’s a blue jay called Fred that visits your window in Houston during quarantine. He sits atop a squirrel-sized picnic bench (nailed to a fence post) you ordered from Etsy to support a guy who you read had been laid off during quarantine. Fifteen bucks for a fully built squirrel bench. Ten bucks for just the pieces in a media mail envelope. You opted for the envelope. You want to support the guy but you also like a deal.

The pieces came in a manila envelope along with soggy instructions and a bunch of nickel screws taped together. You had time on your hands. You were finished teaching and it was late May and the cicadas were coming out of their 17-year hibernation and rattling us into summer which in Houston smells like benzene pouring in off the ship channel. The tang of chemical in the air. That feeling in the back of your throat like you accidentally ingested aerosolized deodorant.

The bench was only two or three pieces but you got to use a power drill which made you look cool in front of your neighbors.

“Wutchya working on?” your conservative neighbor asked from 12 feet away. The one who drives a Corvette. He never wears a mask.

You didn’t know if you should say or not. The slightest hint of granola sets him off. And on top of that you’re a brown man in a red state with a professor gig and a German wife and basically a republican nightmare. And maybe it’s because you could die today or tomorrow—such is the feeling of quarantine—you’re just like, fuck it, man, and so you draw your line in the sand.

You’re building a squirrel picnic table.

What, he says. It’s like a picnic table for squirrels, you say. What? He says again. He tells you they’re pests. They’re going to invade our attics. He just looks at the bits of wood and screws and the little red cup you’re supposed to bolt into the middle of the table.

Everyone knows they were murdered but no one says murdered. Not the government, not the demonstrators. They say, disappeared.

Some things are just simply outside the realm of imaginations. This includes squirrels too who don’t know what to do with the bench. But that’s how you find Fred who knows what’s up. A picnic bench, some peanuts, an open invitation.

Fred visits twice a day. Once in the early morning and once in the early afternoon. On Saturdays he hangs around and watches Bundesliga through the window and you wonder what his little side eye sees. Fred’s got a cool haircut. Wings so blue they’re almost purple. But he can be ugly too. He makes this kind of predatory screech to announce his arrival, to scare off other animals about to take his peanuts. Nobody is coming for his peanuts. Either way the sound is ugly and frightening and silly at the same time and you like it. You wonder if Fred’s got a crew. You wish you could do this everywhere.

*

Its late-May and youre new to birding. Or bird-noticing as Jenny Odell might call it. Because thats all it really is: Noticing a sound. Darting your eyes toward the source of that sound. Noticing birds. Mostly, a judgement-free zone. A way of slowing down, being present, recognizing oneself as part of one’s bioregion which is just a fancy way of saying recognizing oneself as part of the land that you’re standing on. An idea Odell attributes to Peter Berg in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy which you’re digging and there’s only so much bad news you can take in a day. You gotta step outside. You have to enjoy the light when it comes. And so you step into the sun, take the heat. You watch your goddamn birds.

You’ve avoided birding thus far for the simple reason that America does not know what to do with the sight of six-foot brown men staring out into the sky in public. Just like America does not know what to do with buzzed brown or black men period (or even sober brown or black men). Or brown or black men in my neighborhood who run at night (thanks, Nest Cam and Glock armed Karens of Nextdoor.com).

It didnt terribly surprise you, for example, what happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park in New York City. Though it angered you just the same. A white woman weaponizing her whiteness to sic the cops on a black man for the sin of exercising his full citizenry.

It was maybe a week before that you saw a Cooper’s Hawk devouring a baby Bachmans Sparrow on the ground. The baby birds mother was dive-bombing the hawk who kept batting her away. Youd never seen that before—a songbird dive-bombing a bird of prey. A songbird suddenly becoming a bird of prey to save its baby.

You stepped in to scare the hawk with your size. The hawk made itself big. Up close you could see the baby was already dead. And as you got closer the hawk pivoted and flew off, the carcass dangling from its talons.

The next day you saw a Horned Owl trying to poach a nest of baby robins in Garden Oaks where you live, where you own a home. Just as you were about to try to scare the owl off a white couple, your age, came up to you. Demanded to know where you belonged, what you were doing, why you were looking into that tree. Were you going to climb the tree? Why were you going to climb the tree. Why did you notice there was an owl in that tree? Are you here often?

You let your white wife handle it. She knows how to disarm them with conversation and a smile. Her privilege gets you out of things sometimes. People like that shes German. They hear her accent, they like that theyve visited where shes from. She can always bend them to see what we see. Oh yeah, the dude says, HOA should do something about these owls. 

*

In a way that white lady was right because you were gonna fucking climb that tree. But only for the babies though.

*

You’re built for the heat of your native Texas. Hair so course that it sticks out like a broom to vent. Copper skin that’s never betrayed you with a sunburn. To be frank, you have zero connection with your Coahuiltecan heritage outside of living with the vague knowledge that technically you’re living in the homeland of your ancestors—they’re buried here. And Karens aside, you were here before anyone.

*

Where is a person from, anyway? How do you lay claim to a place? Is it just being there? Is it, as a drunk guy told you in Mexico City once, having been somewhere long enough to have buried a relative in the ground? Or is it, as the Texas Parks and Wildlife PDF on migratory birds suggests, just passing through? Nearctic-Neotropical migration. That means going south when it gets too cold, going north when it gets too warm. Going to where it’s just right. Where you can momentarily blip across a park ranger’s radar and suddenly you’re native to Texas and Mexico and California at the same time. Like the Red Bellied Summer Tanager. Or Danny Trejo.

*

You dont know why but you take a day trip with your wife out to the San Jacinto monument east of Houston. Where Texas gained its independence from Mexico in the battle of San Jacinto which was less a battle than a massacre.

Its hot, you over-hydrate, and you have to take a wiz. There are picnic benches everywhere but no bathrooms you can find. It’s either you or your wife who decides to venture further into the Mexican encampment, past the breastworks where Houstons army invaded. You think if you go far enough that maybe you can find a place in the woods.

None of the Mexican dead have names. They were never taught to you in school. There was no need to remember them.

You walk until eventually theres a placard that says, “End of Carnage” and you feel at peace taking a wiz there, beyond the battle field, maybe a dozen yards past the sign which feels less sacrilegious. In front of you theres a marsh. Just fish and more picnic benches on the other side (who the fuck picnics on a battle ground?) and the iridescent slick of petrochemical runoff from the Intercontinental Terminals facility which burned down last year and soaked the city of Houston in a plume of benzene. They drenched the fire in flame-retardant but the fire kept spontaneously reigniting. Everyone gets cancer around these refineries. The city, though, rationalizes that only Mexicans live around them.

The sign says “End of Carnage” but really it was where the carnage began. You only learn this after reading the small print under “End of Carnage” on the placard. Six hundred Mexican soldiers retreated into the marshland behind them, which still appears as solid land at first glance. Bogged down to the knee, they were essentially executed. Picked off one by one even after having thrown down their weapons to surrender, stuck in place. Everyone waited their turn. This went on for six hours.

Their bodies are still in that marsh. Still in uniform. In Spanish, you pray for them, you pray with them. You ask them for forgiveness—you didnt know. Youre so incredibly sorry.

And its then you realize you dont even know their names. None of the Mexican dead have names. They were never taught to you in school. There was no need to remember them.

Across the way, by the battleship Texas, a Mexican family is fishing in the petrochemical waters. You wave to them, they wave to you. You say, in Spanish, it’s hot. They say, yes, it’s hot. And overhead a crane flies into the marsh where the saltwater meets the freshwater.

*

For 70 days you’ve been so good at quarantine. You wear your mask. You wipe down your groceries. You cook dinner. You’re really good at compromising with your wife on shows. You feed Fred and watch him through the window. Sometimes he comes with a friend. Sometimes he comes alone. Sometimes you’re not there and your wife says, Fred came. And you realize that the days start blending together. Not so much disassociation as disconnect. Your instinct to look away, numb yourself from the rage. About Trump. About how this was preventable. About George Floyd’s murder, even as he was whispering with his last breaths that he couldn’t breathe, even as he cried out for his mother.

One day Fred comes and nearly flies into the window. His beak clinks against the glass like, snap the fuck out of it. And you do.

*

For more than 70 days you’re surrounded by no one but your wife. Then you’re surrounded by more than 60,000 people in the streets of downtown Houston accompanying George Floyd’s family from Discovery Green to City Hall. And though you’re a germaphobe and deathly scared of falling ill you march anyway. Your family came to this country for this exact reason, for you to exercise these exact rights. And though you come with rage you see how everyone around you has converted that rage into light. Everywhere there’s light. And in a single moment, a cacophony of moments of experiences distilled into this march, this moment opening up into infinity (as Jenny Odell might put it).

No one talks about that aspect of a march—the light. That light is not a miracle. Or accidental. That light is superhuman. Something greater than grace.

And this brings you to the second epiphany you’ve ever had in a march: who better to save America from itself than the black and brown people who still believe in it?

Daniel Peña
Daniel Peña
Daniel Peña is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer and Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. Formerly, he was based out of the UNAM in Mexico City where he was a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar. A graduate of Cornell University and a former Picador Guest Professor in Leipzig, Germany, his writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, the Kenyon Review, NBC News, and the Guardian among other venues. His novel, Bang, is out now. He lives in Houston, Texas.





More Story
Taking Lessons in Solitude from French Cinema The summer after college I discovered that my father had a second family, one he’d kept hidden from my mother and me. I learned...