~~I submitted this years ago to three different publications I think. Only one responded and then they never replied again after numerous attempts at contact. Ive not laid eyes on this since then. Rereading after so many years I can see why some might not take it–especially towards the end where I introduce the ‘man in orange.’ If I submitted this anywhere today, I’d take the ‘man in orange’ out or edit the hell out of him.
Walking to Liberation
There is a mythology of walking in the US. A mythology of moving. A mythology that says walking and moving are good. Something to engage in. Even admirable. The stories of Walden Pond, the Oregon Trail, and even Columbus liter our children’s education. An entire generation rested their identity on the movement into space, and the heroes of Manifest Destiny, better known as ‘walking for colonialism,’ Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, have taken their places on our coins and in our history books. My home state (and perpetual owner of the “fattest” population in the US title) of Michigan even rolled out the 10,000 steps program a few years back in an effort to contain the citizenry’s ever expanding belt size. If all us Michiganders just made an effort to take 10,000 steps every day, we’d all be fitter and healthier and happier.
Environmentalist’s answers to pollution and degradation often depend on movement in the outdoors–if we can’t stretch and move and find our humanity in clean air and quiet forests, where on earth will we ever find it? A long walk in the woods is where our souls are saved. John Muir sat in a tree just to see what it felt like to be a tree, for heaven’s sake. We need the outdoors so we can remember who we are.
But what happens when this mythology is proven to be exactly what it is? A mythology? A story? A lie even? A violent lie used to control and abuse a population of human beings whose bodies do not easily conform to or carry the labels of “citizen” or “hero” or even “fat person with a desire to be “healthy”? What happens when nature and walking and movement are used as a way to deny a person’s humanity rather than a way to figure it out? And what happens when it turns out the only way to “heal” from the violence of “walking” is walking?
I am walking down a long dusty trail. My feet are throbbing and my skin is sunburned. There are blueberries everywhere. So many left, even after all these weeks of picking. The setting sun sits warm and mellow on the top of the bushes and quiet Spanish sifts around the air as we all walk the mile back to the cars. There are younger and older children than me in the group. Even as we all are so tired it is hard to continue taking steps, a few of us still manage to push and poke at siblings or friends. One younger girl swings a bucket at an older brother. Parents scold and the brother laughs because not only is she getting yelled at, but she missed too. The day is almost over. We can hear crows in the distance. Soon, we’ll have a warm dinner and a soft bed.
It’s a nice time of the day.
In 2008, a fellow media justice activist and organizer, Jess Hoffmann, and I decided to begin a collaboration together. I had just come out of a really rough year of organizing and knew that any project I took up from that point on had to center on my health. Eventually, after much talking, we agreed we would each take walks in our own cities (Jess in Los Angeles, me in Ypsilanti, Michigan) and then post about what these walks brought up in us online. We would do it under the guiding principle of (re)thinking walking. Reconsidering what walking was, what it had become through the centuries, what it meant to each of us. We would put the project of walking itself under a lens.
Was walking really all it was cracked up to be? Was health as it was connected to walking? Was the popular goal of so many activists–to heal and be “healthy”–really what our goal should be? As organizers? as activists? What really were the politics of walking?
Watching the movie, Into the Wild. It’s dark and I’m alone. A rare and beautiful thing for me, mamí of two and life partner to one. The young white boy on the screen is naive. Beautifully so. Believes in people. Believes in women. Knows things can change. Knows nature has the answers. And yet, when he dies at the end, I don’t see beauty or feel horror or even sympathy. The beautiful white kid was stupid. He thought a few books could get him through Alaska. Could help him survive the reality of life.
I want to scream at the stupid boy; even Thoreau knew not to go running off into the woods by himself. He stayed within walking distance of town and was visited regularly at his cabin. He was experimenting with capitalism. Do you really need to buy what you are told to buy?
This kid, this stupid naive beautiful kid, was experimenting with aloneness. Do you really need a community in order to survive? Or can books suffice?
Only a wealthy white kid could possibly even think that these were questions that needed to be asked.
The first post I wrote was about Sacagawea, the native woman who was with Lewis and Meriweather on their explorations through the US. Walking that week had been a painful experience for me. Undiagnosed illness and normal working class stress on the body usually made it that way for me. I felt deep compassion for this woman, whose body probably hurt more often than it didn’t while she worked. Sacagawea almost died from pregnancy complications on the trip and suffered from a life long undiagnosed painful inflammation of her reproductive organs. Her pain was often so great it made it into the journals: “if She dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced.”
But as much compassion as I felt for her, I felt only frustration with myself. Why couldn’t I get up when I told my body to? Why was it getting so hard to force my body to do what I wanted it to do?
I began the (re)thinking walking series at a time when I was the most profoundly unhealthy I’d ever been in my life. And yet, I’d spent most of my life, since I was a small kid of nine or ten, moving. Physical labor. Picking blueberries, flipping burgers, waiting tables, delivering newspapers. This is the life of a working class Chicana and her family.
It was only after I moved into the still emotionally stressful but hardly physical world of academia that I figured out the everybody else didn’t start working at nine years old. That everybody else hadn’t been out in the fields or flipping burgers instead of hanging out with friends or studying for the next exam since they were kids.
And now, as an adult in academia, while others were out drinking and having a good time after classes, I was in my car, driving around for hours. Wondering. What on earth was I doing to myself? What had I been doing to myself? Who was I moving for? Who decided that I would be the one working for over a decade before these other people got their first job?
And why did taking a walk to “lose weight” stir up the same feelings of resentment that the realization that other people hadn’t been working their childhoods away did?
Soon, after putting an online invitation, another woman of color joined Jess and I on our ‘walk.’ She was a dancer and a woman with a disability–and she challenged us: why is there such an emphasis in so many of these walks on the pain? Does walking always hurt? Is it always painful? Is there never any beauty in moving differently? Is there nothing beautiful at all in difference? Or in learning to do things in a way that is different than what you expected?
At her questioning, I started to realize why it was often so hard for me to do much more than sit when I was supposed to be walking. Movement, or space (because I was finding they were both essentially the same thing,) is not our own. The right to not move is what makes moving important. And the right to not move is a right that many of us, especially those of us in the working class, rarely have.
Before I could ‘move’ in the name of health (and what was this ‘health’ thing anyway?), I needed to spend some time consciously and purposefully not moving. Reclaiming my body from the machine that had been feeding on it for so long, it was normal now. And by ‘not moving,’ I didn’t mean, “passed out on the couch after a 15 hour work day.” But rather instead, intentionally acknowledging what it feels like to not move at all. Paying attention to the stiffness that seeps into muscles and hips after long periods of no movement. Watching the world move when my presence was not a part of it. Imagining different ways to move. Wondering why the thought of beauty connected to my own movement was such an impossible thing to imagine.
He sits at the stretch of land between “claimed” and “wild” every Saturday morning with his gun and a mug of coffee. He wears his orange hunting coat and his steel-toed work boots. He has sun glasses that he never wears clipped to his coat pocket and sips his coffee with his gun cradled in the crook of his arm. He meets his fellow Patriots at the local gas station before they drive together to the outpost constructed to help with the “hunt.”
This man hunts “illegals.” Or, as I know them, my friends. My neighbors. My loved ones. He hunts them because his government has such a poor immigration policy and the US/Mexico border is like a sieve. And he needs the companionship his fellow Patriots offer and the desert is beautiful in the early morning hours.
As I’ve learned to be comfortable with different types of walking, I’ve come to realize how much of my moving depends on me facing down that man in orange. My existence as a US citizen is defined by the space neither of us have ever really been allowed to access, not really. My existence as a human being with the right to move in ways that I need to with joy and glory are defined by that space–just as his is.
I have never met the man in orange. I’ve never actually even seen him. But the people of my community are terrified of him. They know he doesn’t bother calling the police when he sees them, his finger goes straight for the cold curve of the trigger on his gun. Women take birth control for months before they cross over because they know this man rapes and there is nothing they can do to stop it. Men contemplate, will they fight or run when this man and his buddies see the group of Mexicans resting from the desert heat?
I feel sorry for this man in many ways. He is broken. Maybe in a different way than I am or the people of my community are–but broken nonetheless. And I know what that feels like, to feel incomplete. To ache for something more but not be sure what that elusive “more” really is. And he knows what I know. The secret: movement is what builds. New worlds, new communities, new life. Movement is where life is. Walking is what gives birth to movement.
But we sit on opposite sides of the desert and glare at each other because we both know the truth. Mythology makes us believe that our walking in the US is an act of freedom. An act of defiance and individualism. A heroic act. But in reality, walking, moving, taking up space, are all dangerous acts. Acts that can invoke such fear, they are carefully controlled by the nation/state. If movement is what brings life, movement must be controlled at the deepest most individual level. It must be something done to “lose weight,” or “find yourself,” or even “to ‘settle’ new lands.”
I am a US citizen, as are both of my parents. And yet, what does that mean, really? There is no other way to describe my father other than immigrant. While born in the US, he moved back and forth between the US/Mexico border in a way that is common and familiar to most people in my community. He knows two communities well enough to call both of them home. He is one of the people who has managed to cross that stretch of fiercely contested land and come out alive. He knows what sweat on the body smells like in the middle of desert heat.
It is a smell neither I nor the man in orange understand or have ever experienced. And yet, it is something that both he and I obsess over. It is a strong smell, pungent and wet, filled with knowledge. Knowledge about what happens in that space between two communities.
In spite of it all.
Control is intimately connected to movement. And because the outdoors–nature–is where control of movement happens, an environment based liberatory praxis can only begin to be built by looking towards and making leaders out of those whose control of public space in the US is the least secure: border crossers, homeless people, day contractors, sex workers, those with non-gender conforming bodies, disabled people, young people and even the fat people that are bullied and guilt tripped out of ever going outside ever. The people whose relationship to the land is not built on mythology or “finding oneself,” but on practicality and necessity. On human survival. Because what else is land there for? What other thing in the world could possibly be more urgent than survival?
I haven’t lost one pound since I began walking. Not one. And I don’t really think I found myself, not yet at least. But I do know that the existence of a poor fat brown girl is necessary.
And her movement–revolutionary.