SAINT OF SMALL PLACES

 

            I was born into a thousand-year-old city.

            In the infamous 1996 essay of professor, novelist, and biracial scholar Dominik Jones, titled in a somewhat forthright manner as “The necessary postcolonial reclamations of indigenous Central American culture” he posited that: “The act of mystifying the ancient cities and empires of pre-colonized Central America is eurocentric. These locations were obviously real — for example, Tenochtitlan is now the center of Mexico City. In Peru, roads, walls, and irrigation systems constructed by the Incas are still in use today. And although white historians have widely rejected Luestra, a low-income secluded desert town with bad phone service in the wilder lands of South Texas as a possible site for Nochehuatl, there is, of course, the point of debate that white people were the ones to colonize Nochehuatl in the first place.”

            I have followed Jones’ work since I was very young, although he is merely a ghost now. In 2006, ten years after the publication of arguably his most controversial essay, while lecturing in Oxford, he clutched his chest and crumpled — wide, flat forehead and crooked nose slamming into the podium with a crack! as students screamed. He was thirty-nine years old and a native of Luestra. Although he never spoke Nochehuan, a Spanish fusion dialect serving as some of the most important evidence for Luestra as the site of Nochehuatl, and frankly, was half-white and white passing and very interested in speaking at fancy predominantly white lecture halls in fancy predominantly white colleges, he is still a canonized saint in our small city. Saint Jones — you can buy Novena Candles with his face on them, and they will burn for 7-9 days depending on your piety. He also died without a will, a classic Luestran, but his wife Martina made sure to funnel most of the book money from Jones’ several popular essay collections and novels written in his short life back into our city where this short life began. The Dominik Jones fund sent my cousin Izara to college when she got full tuition to Princeton but couldn’t pay for room and board. The Dominik Jones fund looms over us all as a wide-winged guardian angel — a grinning dark-eyed man following us, hiding behind his tortoise shell glasses — a man never granted the privilege to become middle-aged. 

            The main argument of contemporary American scholars against Luestra as the reincarnation of Nochehuatl is violence. In folklore passed down from centuries of oral tradition, Nochehuatl was Ciudad de la Paz, the Peace City. Today, we are known as a southern city where light and heat and blood are more ample than anywhere else in Estados Unidos. From border-related domestic terrorism to knife fights at the only public school in fifty miles, Luestra juxtaposes the vision of Nochehuatl with staggering brutality. 

            I don’t think that these scholars understand what they’re talking about when they reject Luestra as a city of peace. I see pockets of tranquility and grace in this city even in the midst of inhumanity — bouquets of bright yellow and red flowers at the altar of one of the disappeared daughters. The disappeared daughters are a name for the sixteen young girls in the city who have vanished over the past several years, their bodies never recovered. I am sixteen years old. My cousin Izara says that they would never have been swallowed up by men and the desert — stolen out of their homes to die, if it weren’t for the melancholy of the city. I say, how can a city of peace be melancholic? She says, Have you seen the Mission where they forced rosaries into our praying hands? Forbid us from our language and our gods? Have you seen the gentrification? The housing complexes burning down to make way for big businesses and rich people who will never come here? The city turns to violence because it knows no other way; it has received only pain for the last several hundred years. It is aching from the inside out. And I think of Dominik Jones, who wrote about this city and about looking one way but feeling entirely something else. I buy a Jones candle and watch the white wax pool. 

            Luestra, to this day, is built mostly out of second generations. Mexican, Costa Rican, Honduran, Panamanian, the list goes on. We’re half-white, half-brown, half-black, one quarter, one eighth, one third, none at all, English, Spanish, Nochehuan — no one even asks here, you just look at someone’s eyes and most of the time you can see the shadows of where they’ve been, or where their parents left. Religion is important too — you can’t cross Main St. without catching the glint of a metal cross or rosary, so much so that Izara once called us the epicenter of god-filled frenzy in Southern Texas, which I think is a little melodramatic. Regardless, there’s a certain open-mindedness that permeates the streets. I think that Jones would be flattered to see how he has been remembered — the English classroom at my school has a signed poster from his final book tour that he never got the chance to complete, covered with little cross stickers and rainbow stickers and heart stickers that people have snuck into the classroom and stuck on it over the years. Regardless of religion or love or birth or death or skin, he is our saint. He is everyone’s saint. All the book tour dates are covered up, now, and the only thing still visible is the author photo of him, smiling with his fourth novel in his hands. He watches over us from somewhere, I think, watches over our classes and churches and homes, but watches over our bars and alleys too, ever-resilient in trying to make this a safer place. We have tourist shops with his books and wear t-shirts with his face on them that say RECUERDE DOMINIK and THERE IS NOTHING SO REBELLIOUS AND BEAUTIFUL AS LOVING WITHOUT SHAME, a line from his last novel. The only reason why anyone ever come to Luestra is because of Dominik. We carry his essence, the last bit of his body left in the living world, inside this city.

            I would like to be an author and an intellectual like Dominik Jones someday, not because I want money or glory or to lecture at Oxford, although I don’t think that at his core those were his motivations. I would like to be like Jones because he made sure that people didn’t forget about Luestra and its ties to Nochehuatl, or any other small town or city in the vast rural nowhere of the South with stories that are easily forgotten. 

            I watched a TV interview of his from the year I was born, 2003, on a popular talk show where the host asked Jones if he would ever branch out to explore other cultures and locations in his work other than the ones that were very close to him, to which he replied, laughing: “I mean, I guess I could. I see many authors who write books about all sorts of different places and write them all exceptionally well.” He pauses. “Have you ever been to Luestra, though? No? Most people haven’t. I don’t just write stories based on Luestra and the area that I grew up in because it’s all I’ve known, that would be kind of unfortunate. See, I could write about anything, but I chose Luestra because Luestra has built me and it is cities like Luestra that seldom get to see themselves in narrative despite having such a rich background of myths and legends. I want people, especially young people who might be reading my work, from Luestra and other small places to know the beauty of where they are, even if there are problematic aspects of culture that need to be acknowledged. I think that is how progress happens.”

            At this, the host is quiet for a moment, and the camera pans to Jones’ face. His dark eyes are big and cowlike, and his glasses reflect the bright studio lights. He’s awkward and constantly fidgeting with his hands and kind of small, especially compared to the big talk show chair that nearly completely envelopes him, but his voice rises through the large studio like the pipe organ of a church — blasting loud and brave, calling everyone to repentance. Our holiest saint.