a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
There is a crack in the sidewalk outside the house I lived in as a child that splays out like a spider-web, like some god dropped something very heavy on our neighborhood once and no one ever repaired it. We knew instinctively how to maneuver around it with our bikes as kids, remembered its dip when the snow had covered it. The crack covers only one square of the sidewalk – hardly a hazard – but its crumbling pieces will not hold on to each other forever. We knew that. We knew that eventually it would break up, would reveal the dirt underneath, like the gardens already growing through the hollowed out houses in Detroit one hundred miles south of us. If that once-grand city is now all metal skeletons and buildings that blow in the wind, what could ever save Saginaw, Michigan?
Here is what I know for sure about it: that it’s north of Canada, that my family moved there for the jobs in agriculture and stayed for the jobs in the auto industry, bees moving from plants to plants, that the city of Saginaw is only about eight miles across, but a river cuts deeply through it, dividing people into colors, opportunities and futures. I always said I would leave this place, that I hated it. But when people mention it I say “I’m from there.”
They came in waves: Mexicans, Italians, Hungarians. A labor force was recruited from various parts of the country in the 1920s to fill the growing number of auto ventures that tried to make a go of it in my tiny city: The Rainier, the Nelson Brothers Jumbo Truck, the Argo Electric vehicle, the Yale-8, the Jacox Steering Gear. Already Saginaw-built cars were being shipped to places as far away as Venezuela. And the workers? The 1920 census showed that Mexican immigrants were residing in boxcars and Hungarians were living in shacks on property owned by General Motors in Saginaw’s First Ward, an area that has returned to its shantytown glory in the face of harsh economic times. “Race riots” turned the area into a brawl. And later: White flight, sides chosen, the “us” versus “them” feeling that people from more harmonious cities sometimes don’t understand.
The current city of Saginaw was actually two cities before 1889, “Saginaw” on the West Side and “East Saginaw” on the other side of the river. Growing up a century later, it remained two very separate communities separated by water and everything else. The sought-after blue-collar jobs stayed on their own side, with the older houses and the traffic jams at 3 p.m. when the guys got off the first shift.
The Saginaw River is huge. Huge, I say with my head thrown back, my arms out to the sides. Massive. It is significance. It is meaning. It is water, which is a bad omen when you dream it. The river is everything. It is a border, a knife. A river that freezes so thick you can drive several cars onto it. A river so wide it has an island. A river so deep you can throw old washing machines or dead bodies in it – useful for a city the FBI ranked as America’s most violent five years in a row. Isn’t that something? We were never allowed to touch the river and I don’t know how to swim. But I still know how to drive on ice, how to make a car stop on it, know that sometimes you keep sliding.
I moved to California after college to take a reporting job and then decided to go to graduate school here. In California, I am surrounded by things that grow. Citrus in the dead of winter. Apples, like my Michigan. Blueberries, grapes, figs, peaches, walnuts, food for the world. I memorize facts about the Central Valley to drop into my news stories: “California’s $3 billion ag industry”; “the fruit and nut capitol of the world”; “80 percent of the world’s almonds come from this region”; “the state grows 25 percent of the country’s food.” In all those stories about economics or labor or food I want to scream “Value this place!” I come from a place that was destroyed, used up and left, and I’m afraid the same thing will happen here. It is hard for me to exist in both these places, where so much grows – food and profit vs. weeds and abandonment. I take from California what many do, a paycheck and inspiration. I left Michigan like the auto plants did. The companies collapsed, the assembly lines stopped moving, the cramped hands of my uncles were bought off in severance deals that may not last, and my cousins remain, few job prospects. Unions couldn’t do any more. All that banding together on our end had no chance against all the branding together on their end.
On a visit home, we drive from the airport through Detroit, gritty and familiar. There, the tunnel to Canada. There, old Tiger Stadium. There, the gap-toothed houses by the Institute of Arts. Detroit, they built a state on you, an industry, broke your back then left. All your children cities – Saginaw, Bay City, Flint, and the others, the others – are dying too.
Not far outside the city, we roll by barns, signs for porn shops, flat green everywhere. I am a passenger in the front of our van – the seat of honor – as my father drives us home from the Detroit airport. My family fills the back, a pack always, my mother dozing off and the kids yapping, giving me shit. I put up with it ‘cause I know they miss me and that if I told them to shut up, they would. I’m still the oldest. When we get home, they will show me their report cards and the books they’re reading at the moment, looking for my approval.
“See that? Michigan is beautiful,” my dad says motioning to the greenness outside. “California… I didn’t like it there.”
“Well, you were in the Marines, dad. I mean, you were at Camp Pendleton before they sent you off to Cambodia,” I say. “Our experiences are gonna be different.”
I see my father considering my point. “Too hot there,” he says finally, and we let our conversation die as my teenage twin siblings start barking questions in the mashed up English/Spanish we use only with each other.
“Ya,” my dad says, but not stern enough, never stern enough. He’s just not that kind of man. I don’t have many memories of him getting angry, or of ever crying, or of hitting us. I throw a look back at the kids and then an arm, catching my youngest sister in the leg. They giggle and head to the back to mess around with their devices. My mom sleeps and my middle sister reads her book.
“I am writing about home,” I tell my dad, like I have to, like I have to warn him, but my family has nothing to hide. Still, I feel like I don’t have the right, since I left this place a decade ago for college and never looked back.
I realize I am trying to repay this place that formed me. We roll along I-75, all of us quiet now, outside of us the blue running into the green thickness of woods. It is harder and harder to try to visit the home I knew, where I have left those who once got from their jobs this: some decent pay, medical and dental, this house, yes, this life, but also the notion that this was not the top, that there was hope their daughters could be outspoken and not have a job where they have to wear their name on a blue shirt all day. I write for you because no one else ever did, no one knows who you are, that you’re there – even if I’m not – in the middle of nothing, breathing everyday. No one understands what it’s like to be trapped in a city while people flee or that we’ve made our way here, found a church and friends here.
I had fallen asleep on the ride and my dad was nudging me awake.
“Remember how there used to be a house there? Look at how it’s grown over,” he says. “Mother nature always wins. We can’t do anything as humans that the earth is not going to take back.”
“Hmm?” I rub my eyes. “Eres un hippie, apá.”
He smiles, liking this. My dad carries a peace that makes it hard for people to believe that he had ever raised his voice, much less moved through the jungles of another country, carrying a gun and awards for excellent marksmanship.
Now, we’re driving through Saginaw’s Southside, where I lived until my high school years. My parents were anxious to move in time for me to be able to attend a better high school, not the one in my district with all its drugs, shootings and pregnant girls. It won’t matter where I go, I’d told them – I was always a gold-star girl. Don’t worry, I’m still gonna go to college. I’m still gonna get outta here.
I have a few scattered family members here and there – Florida, Texas, California – in states that make sense for Mexican immigrants to settle. But for the most part my family that is not in Mexico is in Michigan. I asked my dad once how it is we ended up here, in Michigan for God’s sake, how it happened that he was born in Mexico but his mother was born in Springfield, Illinois, a brown-skinned Midwest girl like me. But no one knows that part of our story; no one cared to ask my grandmother when she was alive. My mother’s side of the family is full of master storytellers who for better (history) or for worse (gossip) tell everyone everything, but my father comes from a quieter breed. All I’m left with is the assumption that we were migrant workers just like everyone else we know, that we have a story as common as anyone’s.
Sometimes I see us as everyone else sees us, as just another working Mexican family, the girls in gigantic earrings, the boys in Jordans, the mom a housekeeper. We’re real, real as any immigrant tale. I’m spoiled by California, where stereotypes persist but at least I’m not so rare. I have forgotten how we are looked at in Michigan, when we are seen at all. As a teenager, my response was anger and I’d throw my family’s accomplishments in people’s faces when racism made the mistake of touching any one of us. My dad fought in the Vietnam War! All my siblings and I graduated college! My mother and all her sisters are landowners! What have you ever done? Fights and discipline, but my parents had built our pride on Spanish language spelling tests at home, on trips to their hometown in Mexico, on knowing the music, food, dances and literature of our people. But for all of that, we still lived on the bad side of town, were on welfare and talked too fast, too loud.
Today, my neighborhood is silence. There are no bells ringing from nearby churches, no old ladies sitting on their porches, only empty lots where my friends’ houses were. Even I don’t come here at night, afraid of the desperation, the strangers that have replaced my people. Where did the clothes on the line go? The boys playing basketball in the street?
Every visit home, I drive through my old neighborhood, my own private ritual of grief. I miss the sweaty laughter of Southside summers. On those days, family and neighbors would hang out after work, driveways lined with good, solid American cars, the grills going. On those days, it was easier to be happy. It didn’t feel so wrong, so full of guilt to leave this little town full of cracks in the sidewalk. It felt absolutely correct to leave for a better part of town, for another state all together. It was absolutely owed to me, this right to leave a breaking place where people didn’t see me. And now we become unseen together, for there’s no evolution for a Rather Not city, for a place with such a stronghold emotionally but with roots so forced. What will I visit, now that we no longer live in that simple HUD house, so imperfect, so warm? My siblings were flung all over the country in a star burst; I bounce all over. We all do. It continues to be the way.
Olivia Muñoz [she/ella] is a writer and educator living in California’s Central Valley, where the sun beats down heavy and writers grow like weeds. She holds a MFA from Fresno State and has worked as a journalist, college instructor, and informal big sister. Her work reflects on intergenerational culture, on growing up poor in the Midwest, and on life’s miniature joys.