Where, and when, history happens

Donna Miscolta

April 12, 2017

When I was growing up I believed that history happened elsewhere – Plymouth Rock, the Alamo, the Oregon Trail. I never thought of National City, where I lived, as having a history. Even though we learned in fourth grade that the first Californians were Indians, the implication we received was that they had vanished with the progress of “civilization.”

Several years ago, my sister sent me a book called Early National City issued by Arcadia Publishing, the “leading local history publisher in the United States.” The book consists of old photographs with captions. I flipped through the pages, eager to see the places and faces of the early years of the city I grew up in.

What I already knew from Wikipedia was that National City, fifteen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, was once called Rancho de la Nación by Mexico, and before that El Rancho del Rey by the Spanish. Before that, the land was home to the Kumeyaay until the U.S. government drove them onto reservations.

As I turned the pages of Early National City, I looked at the faces of the inhabitants and I kept turning the pages and turning the pages, searching until I found evidence that brown people had lived in early National City because today its population is 90 percent people of color. Of the over 200 photos, only one shows non-white people. The Cesena sisters, Augie and Amparo, stand on the porch of their row house. What was their story?

My family roots in National City are shallow, my parents settling there in the early 60s, my father an immigrant and my mother the child of immigrants. But what about the Cesena sisters? How far can they trace the story of their family in this area? When the Spaniards grazed their horses there? When Mexico claimed it with its independence? Or was it when the U.S. took over the land as a result of the Mexican-American War, which by the way could have resulted in a more southern U.S. boundary if not for sentiments such as this one by South Carolina senator John Calhoun: “Ours is the government of the white man.” This was his reason why the U.S. didn’t take all of Mexico, says Lauret Savoy in her book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, winner of the 2016 American Book Award.

But brown people did live in these areas when the “government of the white man,” took them over, a glossed-over fact, an incidental detail hardly worth a mention in official accounts. The erasure of brown and black people from history is not news. But in uncovering lost or hidden stories, Trace is inspired by and uses the context of the physical terrain and its makeup, a natural approach for Savoy, a geologist. Because how does one study the land without also paying attention to who lived on it, laid claim to it? To who named it and wrote its history? One’s sense of belonging is tied to place. But what if ties to place have been broken, stolen, or buried?

“I’ve long felt estranged from time and place, uncertain of where my home lies,” Savoy writes in the prologue to Trace. What she did feel from an early age was a kinship to earth and sky. “In a neighborhood of few children, my reliable companions were sky’s brilliant depth and the tactile land.”

Savoy was born in California, “in the homeland of the Ohlone, which Spain claimed as a part of Alta California.” When she was seven, to her dismay, her parents decided to move the family back to Washington, D.C. They drove, stopping at national parks along the way, including the Grand Canyon, the wonder and serenity of which solidified her love of the earth and its landforms.

In Trace, Savoy takes us on a personal, historical, and geological journey to find evidence of her family in the different parts of America where her African American, Native American, and European American forebears might have walked. She looks for traces of herself in the names of places, in stories told, and in stories untold.

With regard to the naming of places, Savoy points out that explorers and colonizers relied on Native peoples to show them the way up mountains and through valleys, over rivers, and along edges of canyons. They drew maps and renamed the topography. Then they removed the Native peoples from the land.

Of those who colonized this land called America, Savoy says,

In their place-naming these newcomers not only set out to possess territory on the ground. They also lay claim to territory of the mind and memory, to the future and the past.

On a tour of Walnut Grove Plantation, one of South Carolina’s heritage sites, stories abound of the occupants of the big house. But in the outbuildings, Savoy observes the implements – “the smooth-worn handles of a froe and splitting maul” – and asks the guide, “How many people were enslaved here?”

The question is met with polite silence though earlier the guide had mentioned briefly that “some fieldstones mark the graves of family slaves.”

Avoidance lay within gentility and silence as the tour’s carefully framed story muted a larger human presence. Walking by so many untended, unnamed graves I felt as if part of me lay beneath fieldstones, buried by a whitewashed past. Those who once owned this land dared to own those forced to work it. It seemed Walnut Grove’s memory was fenced property, too.

In the Southwest, Savoy unearths more stories as she wanders the San Pedro Valley near Aravaipa Creek where Camp Grant once sat. In 1871, vigilantes massacred more than a hundred members of local bands of Indigenous peoples, mostly women and children. The early “official history” of the event was written by those who had done the massacring, among them notable Tucson citizens who founded the Society of Arizona Pioneers. Savoy counters that official history with three books that tell another story of Camp Grant, one which

recognize[s] other forms of remembrance, other conceptions of time, space, and life in these borderlands. Mexican corridos, Tohono O’odham calendar sticks, Ndeh _oral histories and traditions stand alongside those documents long privileged in scholarship. These three books show how the massacre and the mindsets behind it, both destroyed and created history.

Give me a story and I’ll tell you one in return, Savoy writes.

Interspersed with her descriptions of the land and revelations of their past and present inhabitants are childhood recollections, such as the time she was seven and on the car journey eastward, her family stopped along the way and she selected postcards to buy at the curio shop. The postcards were of landscapes she had walked or seen or hoped to see on the road trip. She stepped to the counter to pay, but the woman behind the counter ignored her, helping other customers instead until there were no more others to help and finally the woman took seven-year-old Savoy's money, then closed the cash register without giving change.

As a child, she differentiated between the safe and unsafe places to exist. “Safety lived in my room, in my mother’s arms, and outdoors on a land that never judged or spat.” She quotes Stanley Kunitz in his poem “The Testing Tree: “the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.” Her hope from a young age was that “despite wounds a sense of wholeness could endure. That each of us possesses a hardness – not harshness, not severity, but the quality of stone or sand to retain some core though broken again and again."

Recently, Seattle poet Quenton Baker, a panelist in a discussion on the role of art in confronting racism, responded to the question, How do you stay sane in the face of racism? “You don’t,” he said. “I break every day.” Perhaps it is this hardness that Savoy describes that keeps Baker and others like him from breaking entirely.

I read Trace after hearing Savoy speak at a writing conference in a session on the essay, in which she spoke of "literary geology" and how it gives us "metaphor and language to explore displacement and erosion of human experience over time." Her words and the passion with which she spoke them held me rapt. Her book has a similar effect – the hold is insistent, the tone contemplative. It is especially potent when it comes to Savoy's personal revelations such as this: “My greatest fear as a young girl was that I wasn’t meant to exist.”

In Trace, the landscape is passionately observed. The stories of those who claimed the land, those who were forced to labor on it, and those who were expelled from it are matter-of-factly delivered. From the land and its stories, Savoy recovers and pieces together displaced and eroded bits of experience that affirm the existence of non-white peoples and their history.

Savoy remarks that today hikers in Aravaipa Canyon might believe they’re treading pristine paths, unaware of the "tragic unnatural history and burden of violence" of Camp Grant. Even walking our neighborhood streets, we might believe that the layers beneath our feet yield nothing of consequence. But someone surely walked that land before us and someone before that and someone before that and on and on back to a time when it was just the land when as Savoy, the geologist, observes, “The American land preceded hate.”

Books in this review:
  • Trace
    by Lauret Savoy
    Counterpoint
    October 13, 2016
    240 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Donna Miscolta is the author of the story collection Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, 2016) and the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Follow her on Facebook or visit her website.

Follow Donna Miscolta on Twitter: @DonnaMiscolta

Other recent reviews

  • We Were Eight Years in Power
    by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    One World
    October 03, 2017
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
December 05, 2017

A fairy tale of New York

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Daughters of the Air
    by Anca L. Szilágyi

    undefined NaN, NaN
    260 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 30, 2017

The mourning pause

Sophia Shalmiyev

writes about
  • Afterglow
    by Eileen Myles
    Grove Press
    September 12, 2017
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound