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El Paso Was Our Ellis Island

Special to The Times


Late in 1913, a young couple and their infant son left central Mexico for the southern border of the United States. Mexico had become a frightening and dangerous place during the Revolution, and the family's livelihood, training horses, ended with the theft of their stock.


The family did not undertake this journey lightly. The woman's parents had likely been murdered. She never spoke of it, but raised a younger sister along with her son. Their goal was a city more than 870 miles away — El Paso del Norte — the passage to the north through the mountains. The man and his father had already made the trek once, and been assured of jobs with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company if they brought back more workers. They called their neighbors together and said anyone who wanted to go with them was welcome; leave everything but what they could carry, and bring extra shoes.


The family started out on the train, but shortly the tracks were impassable because they had been blown up by the revolutionaries. The family walked.


And walked and walked. It was a nightmare scenario of death, of illness, of lack of water. Of hiding from the Mexican Army, which was seizing and conscripting men, revolutionaries and criminals taking advantage of the chaos. People died, and a baby was born. At the border, a kind American woman took in the party of survivors and nursed them to health in her own home.

Sure enough, the railroad gave them jobs. They were soon on their way to Kansas City, Missouri, to join a settlement of other Mexicans that had been growing since the 1870s. Washington state shares this heritage, as described by Dr. Erasmo Gamboa in his book, "Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West." This is a very American story. El Paso is our Ellis Island.


Historically, the United States has welcomed foreign workers when it needed labor, and expelled those same people when economic or political pressures dictated otherwise. La Matanza in 1915 and the 1943 Zoot Suit Wars are two examples of murder and expulsion when Americans or the American government sought to appropriate land or blame immigrants for the larger ills of this country. Need I mention the Indian Wars, which were, basically, slaughter?


Because of the U.S.'s practice of African slavery, other groups, such as the Chinese and Japanese, have suffered from the treatment of people as commodities to be owned or eliminated. The two World Wars taught us nothing. Humans are just as eager to kill each other now on a mass scale as we were more than 100 years ago.

My father grew up and worked hard to obtain an education a full generation before many, and I benefited from that head start; my family could imagine women with college degrees.


But generations later, we are still the "other." Demagogues like President Donald Trump whip up short-term support by calling on the crudest aspects of public sentiment. We enable his followers to own guns and hide behind a poorly interpreted Second Amendment. The gun industry consists of people who remain nameless and faceless even as we watch our children die. The fickle finger of madness is pointing at brown people right now, but when the Irish began to immigrate to the United States during the potato famine, they were not considered white: The railroads paid them even less than they paid Mexicans.


You can pretend that babies in cages, mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart or young black men shot by police officers has nothing to do with you, but it does. We are capable of better. We can imagine a safe place for all children, self-determination for women and a fully functioning democracy.


Stand up against evil. Or who will stand up for you?


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books, most recently, "The Deepest Roots," and lives in the Seattle area. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she was born in Compton and grew up in San Bernardino.

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New in Paperback!

Cover of book, which is a collage of people and gardens.

Contact: M'Bilia Meekers, Publicity Manager (206) 221-4994 / mmeekers@uw.edu

Timely Food Memoir of Bainbridge Island Forthcoming in Paperback UW Press will release The Deepest Roots by Kathleen Alcalá in February

"Alcalá explores [issues] relevant beyond Bainbridge's boundaries . . . from the meaning of a homeland to questions of who has power in the modern world and who has responsibility. . . . The stories raise[e] as many difficult questions as they answer."—Seattle Times

Seattle, WA—As friends began "going back to the land" at the same time that a health issue emerged, Kathleen Alcalá set out to re-examine her relationship with food at the most local level. Remembering her parents, Mexican immigrants who grew up during the Depression, and the memory of planting, growing, and harvesting fresh food with them as a child, she decided to explore the history of the Pacific Northwest island she calls home.

In The Deepest Roots, Alcalá walks, wades, picks, pokes, digs, cooks, and cans, getting to know her neighbors on a much deeper level. Wanting to better understand how we once fed ourselves, and acknowledging that there may be a future in which we could need to do so again, she meets those who experienced the Japanese American internment during World War II, and learns the unique histories of the blended Filipino and Native American community, the fishing practices of the descendants of Croatian immigrants, and the Suquamish elder who shares with her the food legacy of the island itself.

Combining memoir, historical records, and a blueprint for sustainability, The Deepest Roots, now available in paperback, shows us how an island population can mature into responsible food stewards, and reminds us that innovation, adaptation, diversity, and common sense will help us make wise decisions about our future. And along the way, we learn how food is intertwined with our present but offers a path to a better understanding of the future.

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a book of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

To request a review copy or set up an interview with the author, please contact M'Bilia Meekers by telephone at (206) 221-4994 or by email at mmeekers@uw.edu.

January 2019
360 pp., 7 b&w illus., 5.5 x 8.5 in
$22.95 / 15.00 paperback / ISBN 9780295999708
Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir; Pacific Northwest / History; Food


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Two small bright orange loaves set on a contrasting platter.
Persimmon bread based on a James Beard recipe.



The last house my parents owned, in Grand Terrace, California, had a persimmon tree. This meant that every fall, the counters, table, and window sills in my mother's kitchen were crowded with reddish brown fruit that resembled pincushions – round but sort of squat, with a large, star-shaped green bit at the top, the calyx, where the fruit had been attached to the tree.


My mother made them into breads and cookies that I associate with Thanksgiving. Any fresh fruit was loved in our house, and we were only too glad to go through the trouble of harvesting, ripening and baking with this odd fruit that doesn't behave like most of the other fruits in the western United States.


The reason for keeping the fruit on display was that persimmons are not ready to eat until they feel completely squishy, with the pulp loose inside of the pliable skins. Try to rush them, and you are met with an oh-so-bitter taste that puckers your mouth.


According to Molly Watson's blog, "The Spruce Eats," the persimmons we eat now originated in China, but were wholeheartedly adopted by the Japanese. Over two thousand different cultivars exist. Two are widely eaten, the Hachiya and the Fuyu, and the persimmon was introduced to California in the mid-1800's. I have never encountered a Fuyu, which is supposed to be firm and crunchy, like an apple, I suppose. I have never encountered one, having grown up with the Hachiya. There are four trees of them in Red Pine Park, the community garden where I grow our vegetables. They were planted by nursery owner Junkoh Harui, whose house used to stand at the location of Red Pine Park.


Last year, I admired the persimmons as they began to show some color. The fruit hides behind large, shiny leaves, and one must examine the tree closely to see the growing fruit. Unfortunately, the trees were completely stripped long before the fruit was even close to ripe, and I was unable to taste them. This year, I watched carefully and brought three home to finish ripening. They continued to stay a pale, rosy green, until our neighbors gave us a little vodka. Not to drink, but to soak a paper towel and wrap with the persimmons in a plastic bag to finish ripening. The vodka gives off dimethyl nitrogen, which ripens the fruit. Wrapping the persimmons up with an apple is supposed to work, too.


When I finally peeled the largest persimmon and scraped out the pulp, it was orange and gelatinous. The taste to me was okay, but not brilliant in any way. I went ahead and used a James Beard recipe to make persimmon bread. The recipe a little fruit-cakey to me, including a call for either brandy or cognac, so I skipped some of the dried fruit and added pumpkin seeds. As you can see, the loaves turned out a vibrant orange, and the taste was scrumptious. This is one fruit that seems made for baking. Here is James Beard's recipe at David Libovitz' website: https://www.davidlebovitz.com/persimmon-bread/ Thank you, David!


Like the apple, there is a persimmon native to North America, but it is berry-sized. The Native Americans told the settlers they had to wait until first frost before the fruit were sweet enough to eat. The Algonquins called these little persimmons putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, depending on the dialect of the tribe. I think people still eat them in the Eastern United States.







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Georgia O'Keeffe's Garden

View down the rows of a large vegetable garden.
The garden at Georgia O'Keeffe's home in Abequiu, New Meixico, one of the main reasons she purchased the property.


The leaves are changing, and we are experiencing an early, dry fall in the Northwest. September flew by before I could blink.


But in August, we visited New Mexico and the its sage-colored hills, rust-red arroyos, and the famous choice, "red or green?" referring to one's choice of chile on your food.


One place we visited was the painter Georgia O'Keeffe's home in the town of Abiquiu, about forty-five minutes northwest of Santa Fe. She had been looking for a property to buy, and when she saw this place, she was determined to own it.


Besides the amazing sky and wide open spaces, O'Keeffe was searching for a place to grow her own food. I don't think it was a fad or even widely thought about at the time, but it was one more thing of importance to the often-inscrutable artist. I am looking at the cover of a book called A Painter's Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe, by Margaret Wood, one of the many people who worked for O'Keeffe in her later days. In the photo, O'Keeffe is stirring a pot with her right hand, her left cocked at her waist, an almost-smile playing across her lips, as if to say, "Oh, go ahead, show me doing something unglamorous!"


When O'Keeffe first saw it, the land was owned by the Catholic Church; for generations before that it belonged to the Lopez family. The house was in ruins, but there was still a garden under cultivation. The people of Abiquiu kept up the vegetable garden, but just as important, they exercised the water rights associated with it. New Mexico water rights are governed by a strict system of acequias that might have been in place before the Spaniards showed up, as evidenced by the ancient trincheras still visible across much of the Southwest.


It took O'Keeffe ten years to convince the Church to sell to her, and there are many stories associated with the restoration of the house and property. At that time, she owned the property at Ghost Ranch, just up the road, but had to travel seventy miles into Santa Fe to buy fresh vegetables. Looking east and south from its perch above the highway, one recognizes the vistas that show up in the strong lines of her paintings, as well as the colors that signal we could not be anyplace other than New Mexico.


Wisely, O'Keeffe retained the family of the original owners to continue caring for the garden, sort of like Pharoah hiring Moses' mother to care for the infant found floating in a basket. Much of the produce is dried, canned, or frozen for later consumption, and I suspect, still sustains much of the town of Abequiu. The family continues to tend it today under the auspices of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum that now owns and manages the property.


The cookbook contains recipes that my mother-in-law from Denver would have recognized as somewhat Midwestern – watercress salad, eggs Florentine, orange gelatin. But it shows some Southwest influence like verdolaga (purslane), fried flowers, and yes, red and green enchilada sauce. There are bread recipes in the cookbook, but also recipes for biscochitos and sopapillas, both New Mexican specialties. O'Keeffe kept a grain mill and her cooks ground the grain for her breads. Wood describes poring over issues of Prevention, a healthy lifestyle magazine, with O'Keeffe, who was especially fond of buckwheat for its high protein and fiber content. While the photo shows O'Keeffe preparing a stew, I'm pretty sure she left most of the cooking to others.


O'Keeffe entertained frequently in the small but wonderful house, with its deep-set doors and thick walls. One room still has a "shepherd's bed," an adobe bench under which a fire could be built to keep newborn lambs warm. Stones she collected are everywhere. One of the people on the tour with us, a man in his late seventies or early eighties, recalled playing in the garden as a child, under the ancient blackberry tree and along the flagstone pathways, when his parents visited O'Keeffe. In her later years, O'Keeffe kept disagreeable chow chows as guardians and companions, prickly like O'Keeffe.


Walking through the house, one can just imagine O'Keeffe in a black dress and rebozo regaling her eastern friends with stories about local life as a storm sweeps dramatically across the landscape. They are nibbling at a plate of biscochitos and drinking tequila from tiny ceramic cups made especially for O'Keeffe. You know she is just waiting for everyone to go back to Santa Fe so she can greet the night by herself and sketch out charcoal drafts for another day of painting. Such is the romance of place.

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Is This My Beautiful House?

Couple walking down a forested path away from the camera.
At Bloedel Reserve.



Is this my beautiful house? as David Byrne asked. I am luckier than most of the people in the world, if luck is measured by things, comfort, access to food, and safety.


I spent May on a different island, concentrated on my writing. I produced a talk called Prentice Bloedel and the Idea of the Sublime, in which I explored the relationship of a timber magnate to the land he chose to preserve in – not its original state, which had long been changed – but in a state that makes it accessible to people more accustomed to streets, sidewalks and groomed paths. And yet, given the scale of these northwest woods, there is still something of the wild in it, something that goes beyond what can be described with words: the Sublime.


These days, I am acutely aware of my privilege, of the people who are desperately trying to save their children from the horrors of war. My parents were brought north from Mexico to escape a war in which 20% of the population died. My parents and their parents were welcomed into this country as productive members of society. While some of my relatives returned and some did not, we have been able to maintain our kinship patterns, which historically, have involved people traveling from north to south and south to north since long before any of us can remember. We are not rapists and murderers. We are workers, teachers, artists. We are bakers and farmers and housewives. We are people who cherish our children and long to give them a safe place to grow up.


Today, I cannot count the places in the world where waking up alive is a miracle. Each morning we are greeted by the rude, limited vocabulary of a man who realizes that he cannot outwit his enemies, can only hope to bluster his way past them. Mexico is angry. China is angry. Even Canada is angry! We feel the foundations of civilization tremble as teams of lawyers and bureaucrats work to roll back any progress we might have made both on the local and national level in terms of the well-being of the poor, the conservation of natural resources, and the improvement of the environment.


Not long ago, it looked as though we would succeed in cleaning up the air and water around us before permanent damage was done, but I think that milepost has come and gone with the suddenness of a freight train full of crude oil. I've marched through the streets of Seattle at least three times since the beginning of the year, defending women's rights, immigrant's rights, fighting off corporate interests that now overtly disdain the rights and environmental issues that go hand in hand.


Last week, a resident orca in Puget Sound, a member of the J Pod, delivered a calf that died within a half hour of birth. The mother, called Tahlequah by humans, has been carrying the body, by its fin or across her nose through the ocean for over nine days now. She is clearly grieving, whether or not in the same way a human mother would grieve. And I feel responsible. The J Pod has not had a live birth in three years. They are starving. In the meantime, I can go to the grocery store and buy salmon any time I want. How did this happen?


Then there is a forest with a walking path. Emanuel Kant said that the beautiful is small, measurable, but the sublime is beyond measure, even fearful, in its glory and magnitude. Despite the thousands of acres Prentice Bloedel helped to clear across North America, he underwent a moment of transformation that compelled him to share his experience with others. When Bloedel and his wife Virginia began to walk the relatively modest 150 acres on Bainbridge Island they purchased for their retirement, something shifted, something changed, so that he was moved to see the forest with new eyes.


This is the sort of transformation we need to undergo. We must see the forests, rivers and oceans with new eyes. We must see all people with new eyes, as marvels of existence, as deserving of as good a life as we wish our own children.


We each see a bit of the puzzle, or understand some of the science, or some of the economy. We tell ourselves and each other stories to justify our own places in the world. We must widen those stories to include a few more people, a few more places, until every person and place is held in esteem by someone.


These are the types of stories collected in my book, The Deepest Roots. After studying these topics and interviewing people about their stories since 2012, I am running out of excuses to call myself "The Clueless Eater." I am a little less clueless, although much of the pattern is still hard for me to understand. But I am ready to change the name of this blog to "The Deepest Roots," after the stories that sustain us through good times and bad, that tie us to our land, our ancestors, and our beliefs. I live in a storied land, meaning it has been cared for and nurtured both in physicality and in the imagination. Is this my beautiful house? Only if I work with others to keep it that way.

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History is an Act of the Imagination

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Hard Work

Image of a woman in a hat crouched over seedlings she is planting in a sunny garden.
Kathleen in her garden, Montrose Colorado, 1980.



Today is the first day of Spring, and I am sharing a very old photo of me starting one of my first vegetable gardens. This is in Montrose, Colorado, where we lived four years on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies.


On the downside, the soil was mostly clay, and we spent a lot of time trying to work in organic matter. On the plus side, we had a share of ditchwater from the Chipeta Water District, and it was as precious as gold in the arid, high desert climate.


Unlike the temperate maritime climate where we now live, Western Colorado had cold nights and hot days, even in the winter, when it could snow overnight and feel brisk but doable without a coat by midday. Our home was located a couple of miles west of downtown, on the lip of the Uncompahgre Plateau, in an area called Spring Creek Mesa.


We heated our home with a wood stove, and spent the weekends in the summer gathering wood from the National Forest. The air was so clear, that we could see thunderstorms advancing towards us from the Utah border, sixty miles away. The altitude was high enough that one had to correct recipes for baking. We now live at sea level, so I don't have that excuse anymore!


So I wish you well for your gardens this year. So far, we have purchased snap pea starts, and I plan to start some golden beets and carrots pretty soon. It looks as though our purple cabbage, which I planted quite late, made it through the winter, where it will join our chard and arugula in my Red Pine Garden plot.


I miss the camaraderie of my garden at The Rock Farm, but Phil Rockefeller tells me I can visit, and that one hive of his bees made it through the winter.


If you need some gardening inspiration, here are the delightful Toad and Frog, created by Arnold Lobel, sharing tips:

Frog and Toad in "The Garden"


Remember, it is hard work.



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Books I read in 2017

Ten Books I read in 2017
Books I read in 2017

History, poetry, geography, finding familiar sounds and rhythms in the language of others – these are a few of my favorite things. Colson Whitehead reminds us again how brilliant he is, Sherman and Claire write brave memoirs reminding us that their success as adults did not come out of an easy place, with helicopter parents meeting their basic needs. Julie Salverson documents the secret of a horrendous crime inflicted on First Nations people in Canada, and how they chose to respond, along with her own secrets. Emmy Perez and Laura Da’ stitch us to the land with words, while Lauret Savoy and Coll Thrush make us look again to see what we missed the first time. Isabel Quintero shows how difficult high school can be in its own right, yet offer shelter from impossible home situations. Rosalie Morales Kearns’ near future novel, in which women say ya, basta! could not be timelier.  Read More 
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An anchor

Trees on our property
This is the northwest corner of our property, facing south.

On the far left is a cedar cultivar we planted after a hundred-foot Douglas fir fell during a windstorm, its roots weakened by laminated root rot. We were lucky that it missed the house when it fell, and a neighbor volunteered to cut it up and haul it away for firewood.

Over the next couple of years, a madrone that had been intimately involved with the Doug fir slowly died, having been partially uprooted in the fall. It never quite recovered. We had to remove it, too, and now salal has spread to occupy the space and light once occupied by those two trees. The cultivar will never get as tall as the Doug fir, but it promises to fill out and provide screening from the street.

West of the salal is a younger madrone, leaning for the light,  Read More 
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Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy
Counterpoint, 2015

This book was recommended to me by Donna Miscolta when it first came out. I was too busy at the time to read it, but I just finished it a few days ago and have to share my joy.

Savoy, an environmental sciences and geology professor at Mount Holyoke College, travels the land with the keen eye of a scientist and the sensitive heart of a memoirist. Each place she pauses, she leads us in catching our breath and examining the land for its ancient presence, “grounding” us in the landscape before turning to her personal connections, or disconnections, to the land.  Read More 
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