Dream of a Different World
By Lea AschkenasMay 10, 2012
MARGARET RANDALL IS A feminist poet and writer, a professor and oral historian, and a social justice activist in the United States and abroad for the past half century. In 2004, she received the PEN New Mexico Dorothy Doyle Lifetime Achievement Award for writing and human rights activism, and in 1990, she won a Hellman /Hammett grant for writers who have been victimized by political repression. The experiences that earned her such recognition are the subject of the 2001 documentary The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall. While living in Mexico in the turbulent 1960s, she co-founded and co-edited El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a bilingual literary journal which for eight years published some of the most dynamic and meaningful writing of the era. In the 1970s, Randall lived in Cuba, working on a variety of projects with the island's revolutionary government. Then, in the 1980s, she moved to Nicaragua where she had the opportunity to witness and participate in another experiment in social change. When she returned to the U.S. in 1984, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered that she be deported because of opinions expressed in some of her books. She fought that order and won her case in 1989. From 1985 to 1994 she taught at a number of U.S. universities. Currently she lives, writes, and remains active in myriad social causes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 2010, while conducting research for a historical novel set in 1970s Cuba, I picked up Randall's book To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2010) and was struck by her wisdom and insight into the complex (and often contradictory) realm of social change — and the connection between personal and social change. I wrote Randall upon finishing her book, and she responded the next day from Uruguay, where she was visiting her son on his 50th birthday.
Randall and I met in person last year at a reading she gave at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. There, Randall shared poems (about U.S.-Mexico border issues, about the Chilean miners' catastrophe, about genetically modified crops) and entertained the audience, an intergenerational mix of activists and writers and longtime admirers.
Our interview was conducted soon thereafter, over the course of several lengthy phone conversations.
I began my activism in New York City just before moving to Mexico. I remember my first demonstration, in January of 1961, was outside the Portuguese Consulate, to support a group of Portuguese sailors who were trying to gain asylum in Goulart's Brazil. At the time, there was a dictator in Portugal, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. I don't know why I chose to be involved. I've often wondered why, coming from a middle-class family that was not particularly political, I've always had this awareness of injustice. Maybe it was a result of the incest perpetrated by my maternal grandfather. If a child very early on experiences abuse, maybe it makes that child more attuned to injustice as she grows up. And I think I was also influenced by my father, who spoke often of social justice and who was a very just man.
But in Mexico, years before the student movement of 1968, my sensibilities about social change were probably more informed by experiencing for the first time what it's like to live under dependent capitalism. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and it has these other countries in its range of influence. At the time I was in Mexico, before globalization, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the poles of influence. They had a series of countries that were dependent upon each of them. And so I experienced not just the economic but also the psychological effects of this domination. I remember this big billboard I used to see. It said, La Rubia de Categoria, the High-Class Blonde. I think it was an ad for a light beer. It was the commercial ideal of beauty in that country of dark-skinned people. I saw the psychology, what this does to people and how it distorts the relations between people. For example, I often took Sarah and Ximena, my two middle daughters, out together. Sarah was blonde and blue-eyed, and people would invariably stop me and ooohh and aaahh over her. Then they might turn to Ximena, who has black eyes and dark hair, and say something like: "Is this one yours too?!" When people and/or nations have unequal relationships, there is always some bitterness and jealousy. I found that the Mexican people resented U.S. domination while wanting to be like those from the North. It was a kind of love-hate relationship.
Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón and I founded and edited El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a bilingual literary journal. And this was the other part of my awakening. So many of the poets we were publishing were aware of these contradictions, so I was surrounded by this milieu of people who think, analyze, observe. I'm not saying you have to be a poet to do this, but just that these were the people I knew at the time. So when the student movement happened, I had already begun my political education. What the student movement did in my psyche was show me the lengths to which a government will go to destroy a movement that threatens it. That was an important moment in my developing consciousness. I didn't do anything special in that movement. I had no leadership role. I did what tens of thousands of others did. I worked with the information brigades. I did translation. But I think, as a foreigner, I was maybe more in the public eye, more targeted by the government.
The Mexican student movement started out with student protests about university autonomy and other issues that had to do with how much money the government designated to higher education. But very quickly, it embraced issues important to workers and other sectors. The Diaz Ordaz government was extremely repressive, and there was a lot to protest. As the movement developed, a number of student activists were killed. The first incident involved a high school. So the movement also then protested those deaths, which were of course denied by the administration.
The end of my time in Mexico coincided with the beginning of an incipient feminist consciousness. I began receiving all these progressive publications from the States. When the first feminist writings arrived, I was stunned. They completely changed my life. Like many women at that time, I thought that if a relationship I'd had with a man didn't work, it was probably my fault. But when I started reading these feminist writings, I realized these weren't just individual problems. They were social problems I shared with other women. They were about patriarchy, a misuse of power. The articles were written from many points of view and all kinds of philosophical stances. I found them very, very interesting.
That was the mistake of my generation. We thought: Oh, yeah, women's rights or racial equality, gay rights, we'll just do that later. We thought: The important thing now is to have unity to win the struggle. But those values of equality have to be built into the struggle itself. Women have to be completely equal in leadership with men to achieve a victory that ends up really attending to everyone's needs.
I can remember years and years in Mexico where my writing desk was in my bedroom and on the corner of my desk there was always this pail with diapers soaking in ammonia. It was the worst stench. My husband at the time was also a writer, not even a more published writer than I was, but he always had a studio. Talk to anyone in my generation and that's the way it was. The ascent of articulated feminism made us all question these things. Many women put their husbands through graduate school, and then the husbands often left. It was so taken for granted that men were central and women were Other, with a capital O.
When I lived in Cuba, I was a virulent feminist, and the man I was living with at the time talked the talk but didn't really walk the walk. On his behalf I should say that we had this agreement: When one of our children was sick, whoever had the least important work that day would stay home with the child. But the fact was that if he stayed home, his whole office would be outraged because they wouldn't meet a production goal. If I stayed home, it would be the most natural thing in world: the mother caring for her sick child. So, despite the Family Code, which was legislated in 1974 and stipulated that men take on half a family's housework and child care, and encourage and actively support their wives' work and studies, there was a strong residue of traditional values. Certain things changed, but these changes needed help.
Changing attitudes is basically about education. Changing law alone is not enough. Attitudes and prejudices must be reversed through school curriculum, through literature and film. But you can't just have these occasional films like Strawberry and Chocolate; you have to have 1,000 gay people on TV.
I went out one Friday after work to help harvest potatoes in the greenbelt around Havana, and the next Monday morning there were the potatoes for sale in my neighborhood market. There was this will toward justice, fairness, educating kids, everyone having enough to eat. It was so logical, so simple. Sure, we also stood in long lines for food. All those things we consider hardships, but they didn't matter. It seemed so obvious we were moving ahead. We had the sense that socialism was gaining ground — that the world was going to change.
On the other hand, I'm not trying to posit any fairytale myth of socialism. And I am aware that we made things simple because we saw things simply — we saw that there was one camp for social justice versus one for exploitation.
When I moved to Nicaragua in 1980, I noticed big differences from the revolution in Cuba. The Nicaraguan revolution had just come to power in 1979 while Cuba had gained its freedom in 1959. During these 20 years, feminism had become an international idea. And Vatican II had also taken place, with liberation theology's emphasis on the poor. These two issues were key. Cubans early on declared themselves Communist, and aligned themselves with international Communism, which was very progressive in terms of class, but quite backward in terms of gender. Communists assumed that once class differences were resolved, all other issues would resolve themselves. (That's putting it a little bit simplistically, but this was how things were seen in Cuba at that time.) In contrast, Nicaraguans drew on socialism, on communism, but they established the Sandinista movement, which was much more diverse. It was influenced by liberation theology because there were quite a few Catholic clergy involved. Nicaragua had Cuba as an example — good and bad. But Nicaraguan society is quite different from Cuban. Nicaragua has a big indigenous community. And then there's the Atlantic coast, which is English-speaking. There's just a very different mix there. All of that made it quite different.
Very quickly after I moved to Nicaragua, the U.S. stepped up its support of the opposition and funded the Contra war. Nicaragua faced a situation like Cuba had with the Escambray [a mountain range where the CIA funded counter-revolutionaries], but Cuba put this down very quickly. They were aligned with the Communist world, which enabled them to move forward in a different way. Nicaragua was much more vulnerable. With important U.S. support, the Contras eventually won. In 1990, the Sandinistas were voted out of power. It was a very complicated situation. In Nicaragua, I witnessed and participated in a type of social change that was more successful in terms of individual freedoms - freedom of expression, the press, elections and so forth — but, in the end, the revolution there failed.
I think this is one of the great problems in revolutions — how to balance openness with protecting the new system. Perhaps if revolutions were allowed to develop without outside intervention, this would be easier. But of course they are not, never have been. There is always some powerful outside force, often the U.S., that immediately starts pumping millions into a many-pronged effort to destroy the incipient project.
After the Sandinista revolution was voted out of power, a number of people in the Sandinista leadership tried to understand what had happened at different levels. I was in Managua in 1992 to do the fieldwork for Sandino's Daughters Revisited. One evening, I was invited to a discussion at the Cuban embassy. It was a meeting between several well-known Cuban journalists and several of their Nicaraguan counterparts, and the topic was freedom of the press. How much freedom of the press can be permitted in a struggling revolution? Of course, the ideal was that there should be total freedom of the press, and the Nicaraguan comrades, who had come much closer to this ideal than the Cubans, argued forcefully for as free a press as possible — with room for dissent of every sort. The Cubans agreed, but their unassailable argument against such freedom was expressed in their final words: "Your revolution has been destroyed, and ours still exists." This may be an oversimplification, of course, because I have always thought the Cuban press was quite dismal and could use a big dose of popular discussion and disagreement. But I think this story does illustrate how hard it is to strike the right balance.
Today we have the example of Uruguay, which suffered a horrible dictatorship in the seventies and early eighties — like its sister nations of Chile and Argentina. Afterwards, a group of Left parties and organizations joined to form what was called a broad front: el frente amplio. El frente amplio won the national elections for the first time about a decade ago. This was a period of time in which the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were trying to push neoliberalism down the throats of most nations in their sphere of influence. There was a big drive, for example, to privatize Uruguay's banking system, which had always been public. But the Uruguayans fought this very effectively. Bank tellers held massive public meetings. They agreed to take salary cuts if depositors would agree to leave their money in for a certain length of time. Through this kind of struggle, Uruguay was able to preserve its public banking system. This and other efforts have meant that while other countries went into bankruptcy or otherwise suffered terribly, the Uruguayan economy slowly got better. So Uruguay is an example of a country that is moving forward, not with a socialist model or any other "ism," but with ideas that prove to be working in terms of making life better for more people. Public health and education are well funded, poverty is being addressed, and Uruguay is the only Latin American country to have full legal rights for homosexuals.
Bolivia is also fascinating to me. They're not just using a socialist model, but an indigenous model of power, of managing power, of governance, and it's proving to be very successful. In Bolivia, they're going back to a collective way of decision-making, consensus rather than majority vote, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Whether these models will work in the long term, who knows. We have to wait and see.
The old Leninist model is as failed a model as capitalism. And I'm suspicious of the sort of all-powerful Fidel/Hugo Chavez model, because I think it leads to authoritarianism, a very vertical way of sustaining power. This idea of one man or a small group being in power for 50 years is ridiculous. Unless workers really own the means of production, unless women really speak for ourselves, and so forth, we cannot have justice. I think there are elements of communism, of liberation theology, and even of a free-market society that are positive, but we have to find ways to combine those elements into a model that brings better results, that can withstand the encroachment of superpowers like a U.S. that would like to own it all. That's one of the interesting things about what's happening in the Middle East now. Each revolution is different, even though we tend to lump them together, and the U.S. has designs on them all.
We say, "We're going to fight for democracy," but what is democracy? Is it something that these people want?
Not everyone wants democracy. The Zapatistas don't. They want their ancient forms of power sharing and consensus. The word "democracy" is used as if it means the same thing everywhere. Scandinavia has democracy, but it's very different from what we have here. In the U.S., we have a buy-and-sell system, and we call it democracy. Our elections are based on how much money and TV time a candidate has. A poor person can't even run for office in our country. Is that democracy? To me, equal access to education and health care is democracy. We don't have this in the U.S. Democracy is gender equality, racial equality, a small disparity between the people who own the most and those who earn the least, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. In the U.S., some of these things exist to a degree that's far superior to what they have in other countries, but others don't. Depending on who we are, we may be able to shout our opinions to the sky, but what does it mean in terms of real social change?
Democracy is a word that has become a farce. Two people may be talking about "democracy," but each may mean something completely different. It's become a catchall phrase. It's become meaningless. What does it mean to say we want democracy in the Middle East? Well, obviously, for a country that has a dictatorship, this would mean having elections. But do we want them to look like our elections? That's not democracy. In my mind, every country should have the political system it wants. We shouldn't impose our definition on others.
I was called into an office in the federal building in Albuquerque, where seven of my books were sitting on a table with passages highlighted in yellow Magic Marker. These included places where I'd stated beliefs that ran counter to U.S. policy abroad. And when the passages were pointed to, I naively said, "Yes, I do believe that," thinking: freedom of dissent existed here. In October of that year, instead of a green card (because I had unintentionally lost my citizenship when becoming a Mexican citizen in the 1960s), I received a letter saying I'd been denied residency and had 28 days to leave the country. So lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights generously took my case. For five years we lost in one court after another, but eventually we won.
The McCarran-Walter Act was passed in 1952 over Truman's veto. He was not a progressive person, but even he understood it was ridiculous. It had 34 clauses for which someone could be denied entrance to this country. When I came home, in 1984, I was denied under the Act's "ideological exclusion" clause. The actual wording was that my writing went "against the good order and happiness of the United States." Other clauses stated that you couldn't be gay, have a mental illness, or belong to a Communist, Socialist, or anarchist party, although being a member of a fascist party was not reason for exclusion. You also could not have "meaningful association" with members of such parties.
When I first started fighting my case, I had not come out, even to myself. Six months later, I did. But with my case, we were fighting for freedom of expression. If it had come out that I was gay, they could have fought me on that additional clause. My lawyers were willing to fight that too, but it would have diminished the freedom of expression battle we were waging. We felt it was important to fight it on that basis, so I tried to keep it quiet. Tons of people knew, but no one said anything. I'm sure the government knew as well. Norman Mailer, Alice Walker, Grace Paley, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Arthur Miller, and several other writers launched a counter case on my behalf — they sued the government on my behalf. Of course, it was increasingly painful for me and my partner to keep our relationship secret, but we wanted my case to set a precedent for others if we won.
I know it's a cliché, but queers and anyone perceived as different have a long way to go. There are still atrocious hate crimes. There are still Matthew Shepards. There are hateful churches. As we gain a greater presence, I think we'll also become more an accepted part of society. We are all different, but we want some of the same things — some of us want to be in the Army. Well, I don't get that. Some of us want to get married, and that doesn't interest me either, except in terms of the legal rights that come with marriage. There will be a day when we'll look back at the hate crimes and see them as we now see the lynchings in the South.
There is the fallacy within the U.S. recovery movement, the sort of spirituality-based idea that everyone must recover in the same way. I find that very misleading and not useful. That idea that we have to forgive, that we shouldn't judge. What do you mean, we can't judge? It is more useful for me to look at things in a political light, to compare it with nations. For some people, it is important to forgive their abuser. For some, it's important not to.
During the years I lived in Latin America, I paid little attention to my own needs, desires, phobias, and problems. I didn't dwell on any of that because, where I lived and at that time, it would have been seen as bourgeois, as self-indulgent. In these revolutionary societies, you didn't think so much about your own life; you were too busy trying to change society as a whole. When I came back to the U.S., I was still interested in changing society, but I also had that freedom to explore my own history and needs. This made it possible for me to enter therapy.
I often make a comparison between victims of childhood incest and small countries invaded by larger, more powerful ones, and this is something I feel strongly about. Again, it's the power issue, by a powerful individual against one who is weaker or more vulnerable, by a powerful country against a smaller, weaker one. And the damage done is similar: whether it is to nations or individuals, there is post-traumatic stress disorder, disassociation ... Often there is a simultaneous fear and love of the abuser. Judith Lewis Herman, a professor at Harvard, was one of the first to show how this plays out in an abused wife in similar ways to how it plays out in abused populations or countries. This connection was so important that it allowed me to look at power abuse at many different levels. There are so many more similarities than are commonly acknowledged.
I might be suspicious enough in my old age that I don't think anyone tells the whole truth.
To get my news, I go to a variety of sources, some because I think they are more truthful, others because they have a broader coverage. I go to The New York Times every day, not because I think it tells the truth, but it's a way to know the corporate and government take on things. I go to The Guardian of London, Al Jazeera English. I think they have a broader and more truthful take on world events. I go to La Jornada in Mexico, the left paper there. I go to Common Dreams, which collects articles from different places. I read headlines, and if I'm interested, I go deeper. I go to the Havana Times, an English-language publication from Cuba. It's quite critical of Cuba, and there are a lot of bloggers, some of whom are much too critical for my taste, and some of whom are about where I am. La Ventana is a wonderful online bulletin from Cuba's Casa de las Americas; it has a far-ranging coverage of literary and artistic issues. I read the Women's Review of Books. And I go to many literary and poetry journals, such as the Malpais Review and The Mas Tequila Review, excellent publications in my own city. I find much truth in poetry. I don't go to all these sites every day, and I try to limit myself to half an hour. Otherwise, I'd never get any writing or anything else done.
For too many years, although it's changing, most feminists didn't care that much about class struggle or what was going on in other countries. They were all wrapped up in this kind of spiritual, self-centered philosophy that doesn't interest me, that actually sort of irritates me. On the other hand, many leftists here and abroad pay lip service to feminist analysis but don't incorporate it into their own lives. I see feminism as not simply about women and gender, but about power.
When I published This is About Incest, I had an interesting experience. I have a friend named Judith McDaniel who's important in the women's movement in my generation. She wrote a book about the 12-step program, and then she went to Nicaragua and was captured by the Contras and kept for 36 hours in the jungle. She wrote this great book called Sanctuary, which was a departure from the sort of writing she'd done to that point. She wrote a "political" book. Well, I hate to use the word political because I think everything is political, but this was how it was seen. My incest book was also seen as a reversal from what I usually wrote, and because both our books had the same publisher and came out at the same time, we decided to develop a joint reading. We read from each other's books, and this seemed surprising to people. We wanted this meeting of feminism and socialism, and we wanted a performance that would showcase this. We were only invited to do two of them; this was the late eighties, and I think people on both sides — the socialists and the feminists — were not ready. Our joint reading was a failure, which is too bad because the two philosophies should not be mutually exclusive.
I really honor protest movements, maybe because I often have a tremendous feeling of despair about this country. I feel that in some sense we've just reached a point of no return. Just in terms of the environment alone, I think of all this extreme weather we've had. I feel people in power are betraying us, the Democrats almost as much as the Republicans. It's been such a disappointment to realize that, over and over in my life, I'm always having to vote against rather than for someone. And when I do vote for someone, as I did with Obama, the disappointment is so profound. I mean, how many wars are we fighting now — three, four, five? I don't know if Obama just has this personality defect where he wants everyone to like him, so he is so controlled by the military and corporate establishments he cannot do any of what he promised.
We have people here losing their homes and jobs with little access to health care, and fewer opportunities for real education. And the people who've stolen this from us enjoy complete impunity. There's the occasional scapegoat like a Madoff, but banks and corporations continue to abuse, and they retain the privilege to do so. I see that disparity so much more than I used to. Perhaps it's because it has become the norm. Perhaps it's because I'm less naïve.
Still, I hold onto the image of harvesting those potatoes in Havana, the memory that things can be simple and honest if people really want change. If we just stopped these wars, think of all the other ways that money could be used. It's not that I don't understand the complexities. I just think that often the complexities are constructed so change won't happen, so the special interests won't be compromised.
But I will continue to struggle because it is in my nature, and should be. I will struggle because I know it's the right thing to do. I dedicated Como la silla vacia to one of my grandsons because he's such a good person, and that's where my hope resides these days — in the innate goodness of human beings, certainly not in systems. I'm much more inclined to place my hope in people, even though we've generally failed ourselves so miserably. In the end, it's still the people who count, who can make change if we really want to.
Lea Aschkenas is the author of Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island (Seal Press, 2006). She lives in Northern California where she works as a public librarian and teaches poetry-writing with California Poets in the Schools. Visit her at www.leaaschkenas.com.
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