White Swan | poems & story on Yakama lands



I know this man, White Swan.
As a child he would visit me,
talk stories,
bemoan the losses
and the winterless years,
and smoke sweet grass in an aged pipe.
He would rub down the old horse
that lived in the field next door to our migrant camp.
The horse loved the handfuls
of sweet grass
he and I would pull
from the ground and feed to his hungering mouth,
ribs protruding, neighing like a colt.
White Swan’s grave
was covered over
by hop fields.
White Swan,
knew the directions
of his heart
and followed his people
into the red horizons.
White Swan lives as elder lost on Yakama lands
and he will only speak
to the migrant child and no other…

Migrant memory [story]

It was maybe 1949. I was with my grandfather, Purépecha, an indigenous bracero from Mexico, working the fields on Yakama lands, indigenous lands. That’s where we met White Swan.

White Swan was old, yet he seemed strong and walked slowly like his talk. He was old and slowly spoke a broken English interspersed with chuckles and smiles.

I was 9 or ten years old. I didn’t know who he was and he never bragged about his feats or his life.

White Swan wasn’t lonely; he loved his solitude. I knew where he would be every day late in the afternoon, early evenings, of the long summer days.

White Swan was there with the horse, who would slowly ramble over to the barbed fence and stick his head over and he and I would feed him grass pulled from the ground roots and all. I only talked with  him (really just listened to his stories) one summer.

I saw him standing by the edge of the dirt roads that were on the edge of fields and a few more time in town, called “Rolling Hills” in Yakama. White Swan said that his people were still rising through the leaves and plants being cultivated by Indians from other lands. He appreciated my grandfather; wished they could understand each other.

My grandfather did not speak English — only broken Spanish and fluent Purépecha (those are indians from Michoacán, a state in the southwest of Mexico). The Purépecha were the only indigenous nation that was never conquered by the Aztecs or the Spaniards. It would take U.S. capitalism’s predator ways to rip apart indigenous communities that were expert in agriculture and rob them of their resources and men labor power to finally defeat the Purépecha (this was in the 1880s), my grandfather was born in 1903 and while still a boy started migrating to the U.S. with his father, uncles and brothers to work in the U.S. Southwest.

My grandfather was recruited by the U.S. government right after WWII started along with some five million other Mexicans. It was the five million Mexican braceros, imported as wage slaves and who were mainly Purépechas from Michoacan, who ensured that U.S. was able to defeat the Nazis and Japanese empire.

The braceros cultivated crops, worked in the arms industries and held up the U.S. war economy. Then when we were in White Swans lands he was an undocumented worker, deportable and deported. White Swan saw his people in my grandfather’s face and hands.

Both were sunburnt, one by the freedom of the plains and the other by hard labor under an merciful sun. I am old now, older than White Swan was when I heard his stories and quiet laughter and much older than my grandfather who didn’t live much longer than White Swan who was his elder. Now I am sharing my story, migrant, indigenous, landless but not without my people, their spirit and their dreams.
That’s my great-grandson. The only one who listens to me. He is trying to learn to speak Purépecha, a language i myself never learned to speak because my grandfather feared the whites everywhere.
I did meet White Swan in the fields surrounding Rolling Hills. An old man, an old spirit, who was restless and no one (except the migrant child) would listen to him because he warned of infected horizons and lost peoples everywhere.

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