To come to terms with one’s status as a survivor is to relive the moments that nearly ended one’s life. To collect those moments and offer them to the world is to relieve their weight on one’s mind so new possibilities in one’s life may take shape. Lisbeth Coiman, an Afro-Venezuelan poet and writer, has embarked on this process in a particularly relevant reading journey for working-class people in cities like Los Angeles, especially for migrants from Latin America.
All across the streets of central, east and south Los Angeles are people unsheltered, overwhelmingly Black, but also substantially Latino, lying on the curb through summer heat, and lingering like abandoned cattle throughout the day. When I noted to someone recently that according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, the official count of people living as such this year was upwards of 70,000, they gave me a higher estimate, which I found more credible: “It’s probably more like 200,000,” they said.
I wonder, for a moment, how many of the 200,000 in Los Angeles are survivors, or people who’ve suffered physical, mental, and other abuse at some point in their lives. In my work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth, I’ve come across more than only a few victims: teenagers whose parents were drug abusers, or teenagers who were molested by their family members at an early age; teenagers with inherent learning disabilities who were clearly discriminated against at schools before they were discriminated against in courtrooms, and teenagers who likely acquired learning disabilities as a result of abuse at home.
Lisbeth Coiman is also a survivor, whose first book, I Asked the Blue Heron, unwinds a mental and emotional journey for the author as she seeks to face a mental health battle on her terms and for her healing, to which the reader is invited. At 239 pages, by means of skillfully arranged, quick-moving chapters, Coiman’s book offers lifelines for any reader maneuvering through their own mental health battles at home, with family members, with lovers, and in the work of building a career. Coiman’s book also traces the process before, during, and after migration, although some notes should be made on the terms of migration today.
The term “immigrant” in popular discourse for many today still conjures images of people leaving the only places they know for others in search of “a better life.” However, such images tend to flatten “those places” of origin into cliches and two-dimensional stereotypes; the family was too big; there was no food or work; the local police forces were too deadly; a proper education wasn’t possible. While such cliches all have their bases on actual observable realities at some point, they actually only hold fragments of stories, not their roots or their ends.
Through four centuries in Venezuela, like much of north, central, and south America, the country’s cities and rural communities saw thousands of African slaves shipped in by Spanish colonial forces, during which myriads of African bodies intermingled and created families with myriads of Indigenous bodies. This process also took place while colonies became nations, and as nations became states, which in turn led to the state-governments we see today. As such, Coiman’s stories are not just those of an immigrant; they are also that of a witness to the journey that has formed the current American struggle with neocolonial capitalism, skyrocketing corporate wealth, worker losses of access to even basic health-care, and state and police violence against Black and Brown bodies.
Readers meet Coiman, along with her mother and father, and Coiman’s siblings, in the author’s teen years, during the late 70s in Venezuela, at a time when she falters in her role as a housekeeper for a family of seven while also struggling to complete a college education. Her role as a housekeeper might be said to be typical of women’s “places” in the home throughout Latin America, save for the fact that Coiman’s mother is an extraordinary figure; from the author’s early childhood into her young adulthood, her mother seeks to enforce absolute control over Coiman’s every action through sheer violence against her.
“Esta mujer floja nació pa’ puta,” Coiman quotes her mother as saying about her in her early teenage years.
By the time Coiman is twenty-one years old, her first pregnancy marks the beginning of a new life breaking into the picture, and thus in between the author and the rest of the world; Coiman has to survive not only for herself, but for the sake of her son, whose father is nowhere to be found, much like Coiman’s own father who, though technically present in the home, is woefully absent when her mother beats and berates her.
I have heard that “such was life” ‘en los tiempos de antes,’ whether in the countrysides of Venezuela or in the mountain-tops of remote villages in Oaxaca, particularly between mothers and daughters. But if the civil rights movement of the 1960s marked a struggle for justice which sixty years later appears just as out of reach, if not more so, what might one expect of economic and social conditions today in places once generally referred to as the “third world”?
In the United States, despite Trump and Stephen Miller’s brutal immigration strategies to slow down “globalization,” the lines between the first world and the “third world” have more than rung hollow over the course of a pandemic in which the U.S. ranks eighth among the world in deaths per capita, or per 100,000 people. Moreover, even as the U.S. and other governments continue citing the pandemic as reason to amplify border restrictions, the election of 2016 marked the first days of the United States’ sheer resemblance to the “young democracies” or even “failed states” its pundits once strictly condescended to, and which the U.S. government once assigned only CIA experts and military strategists to prop up dictators and death squads for.
While Coiman’s memoir does not focus explicitly on politics, there are clear political backdrops the author hails from, including the 1989 “Caracazo” in Venezuela’s capital, when a sudden spike in gas prices and transportation after a “structural adjustment package” imposed by the International Monetary Fund led to civil unrest. Protests and looting filled the streets of Caracas, where at the time Coiman was renting an apartment for her and her son. Then IMF backed president Pérez’s government responded with blunt force.
“Two blocks before my destination, I heard gunshots. The National Guard aimed their guns at a supermarket on the opposite side of the avenue. Like ants, people went in and out of the supermarket, carrying the weight of their loot.”
A generation after the Caracazo, in the U.S. police force and impunity against Black bodies are increasingly referred to by many as genocidal. With the increased ability to document police violence in the U.S., it’s also clear how police unaccountability here reflects that of states in Latin-America as far as Brazil, where police enjoy near total impunity for killing the country’s “mulattoes,” or Black or mixed-race people, the only difference in the latter being less “trials” or other symbolic gestures towards “fairness” as in the “first world.”
At the same time, whether in Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., or Portland, police backed by mayors and governors batter unarmed protesters and face virtually no accountability towards crimes against protesters; rather, they are only bolstered by officials’ stated commitment to “law and order,” which by definition reject any and every protesters’ calls for police de-escalation. In 2020, on the verge of a second Trump term, such triathlons of power inch closer to policies like that of 1989’s Caracazo in Venezuela, where estimates of those shot and killed by police forces range anywhere from 300 to 3000. Of course, neither Venezuela nor Brazil are the only Latin-American countries where police violence has eventually led to massacres. In Los Angeles, while El Salvador’s so-called Civil War during the 1980s is widely known, the nation of Guatemala’s story before the 1980s is also relevant.
From 1960–1996, government forces in Guatemala oversaw military dictatorship in the country following efforts by Indigenous peasants to reclaim agricultural land stolen since the early 1900s by the United Fruit Company (UFCO). The UFCO, originally based out of Ohio, is today known as Chiquita bananas, but in 1954, the former UFCO led a U.S. backed coup in Guatemala, deposing then democratically elected president Arbenz, and laying the foundations for 36 years of genocidal military campaigns against Indigenous populations in that country which took more than 200,000 lives, categorically those of landless peasants.
It’s given such police violence and corporate criminality in nations like Guatemala and Venezuela that many families continue leaving such countries, sacrificing their lives to take refuge under the veneer of civilization here in the U.S. Yet today, the lines between such “third world” nations and the “first” have been irrevocably blurred. Even if forgetting momentarily their witness to the administration’s draconian policies against immigrants over the last four years, families who escaped government death squads can now easily witness similar perversions of justice as that of “back home” with footage of police repression and genocidal practices against Black and Brown bodies in the “land of the free.”
Yet while states are the main actors in violence against Black and Brown bodies, I Asked The Blue Heron turns the mirror away from government officials and policies in the neocolonial era, fixing it towards the policies of home, enacted by families in much more private settings. And while the memoir’s cuentos might not be heavy on political theory, Coiman’s words still hang on to readers no less than the biting anxieties she describes, at times pushing one to wish with the author for only an end to the sometimes violent, sometimes exasperating bouts she spells out over her coming of age as a writer.
I Asked the Blue Heron also documents other issues faced by immigrant women in particular, including the issue of fair employment. While Coiman is clearly a tactical writer and storyteller, throughout the United States Afro-Latinas such as herself can be certain to find mostly scant options for full-time employment with commensurate pay for their work. In any case, Coiman continues onward, taking readers with her from one ‘home’ to the next, based largely but not exclusively on work, until the memoir’s riveting, life-sized conclusion.
In the final pages with Coiman, the author not only celebrates the course for a peace of mind despite homes uprooted by those around her, unfamiliar settings, and likewise only more people dissimilar to herself, but she regales firmly at the possibility that the only actual home may be the one streaming through her veins and memory. For this, Coiman successfully looks past the litany of political environments, and indeed past all the world beyond her control, to hold herself; as a reader, I found myself moved, inspired, and rooting for Coiman’s safe flight and return to wherever ‘home’ may next be. There is surely more forthcoming from her journey soon.