Friday, November 21, 2014


This morning I lit the yarzeit (memorial) candle.  My mother, Madgel E. Miranda, died on November 21, 2001.  She was only sixty-six years old by the calendar.  If we counted years by pain and hardship and grief, she was much much older.

Even though it has now been thirteen years since Mom passed on, I still find references to her in genealogy forums on the internet.  “New” messages, or new to me, as I retrace her research for my ancestors, still pop up, and it seems that everywhere I think of to search, Mom has already been there.  I kind of love that.  Love that our minds follow the same paths, that I am following behind her.  It makes her feel closer, as if she hasn’t really been gone more than a decade.

Things My Mother Taught Me

Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough;
baking soda polishes rings bright again.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

If hamburger’s sparse, cut with stale bread or a potato.
Take in strays.  Pay the vet.  Say amen.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Look the clerk in the eye over food stamps, as though
survival and revenge are close friends.
Four roads to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

Weed the garden when angry; kneel in each long row.
Zucchini’s one thing you don’t have to defend.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.

Drop everything and pick when the blackberries glow.
Write letters of protest.  Root for underdogs.  Like alone.
Four ways to payday: beans and rice, flour and Crisco.

Bring your mother home to die so your daughter knows
love is stronger than what cannot be forgiven.
Wear your silver and turquoise to knead tortilla dough.
Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.

(Deborah Miranda, The Zen of La Llorona)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Epilepsy Awareness Month: My Turtle Girl

"Epigenetics, a relatively new field in science, could help define the causes of Autism and offer up new modes of treatment for the disorder, as well as other diseases like cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression governed by the epigenome, the cellular material that sits on top of our genetic code. The epigenome does not change the genetic code inscribed in our DNA; rather, it activates or silences genes through the mobilization of molecules called methyl groups. These chemical changes are triggered by our environment. Toxins, pollutants, changes in diet, deficiencies in prenatal nutrition, and exposure to stressors alters the way our genes are expressed through the epigenome."  Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) 

I became a grandmother in March 2013, and it has changed me in all the ways that you might expect: I am now a drooling, grandbaby-picture-carrying, buy-that-cute-outfit-NOW fool.  Georgia is a real beauty, both in body and spirit, with her mom's beautiful eyes and skin and her daddy's sassy dark curls.  A glorious mix of North American and South American tribes (her father is Venezuelan), this is one awesome human being.

It took awhile for that glorious shine to dim enough for us to realize that somewhere around five months of age, Georgia was having some trouble with her vision; she also wasn't grasping objects, wasn't hitting the developmental milestones.  The pediatrician kept reassuring her parents that not all babies develop at the same pace, and to be patient.  But finally my daughter was able to catch an unusual pattern of movements on video, and take it to the pediatrician.  He had them at the Children's Hospital neurology department within an hour.  Georgia was having seizures.

To make a long story short (and it has been long, and working with doctors and the medical industry has been exhausting for my daughter, even in Washington State, which had health coverage well before the Affordable Care Act), Georgia was diagnosed with Infantile Spasms, a form of epilepsy. 

After trying several medications, which wasted precious time, one of them finally worked, and after that, a different one took care of a new kind of seizure (it's not uncommon for IS kids to have a variety).  "Whew, out of the woods," we thought.  She might have a longer path towards steady development, but at least the seizures were gone.

But Georgia's development continued to be slow, and my daughter kept pushing for more genetic testing (the first two tests had come back negative for any abnormalities); her Washington State insurance balked, as this is very expensive and there had been no results.  Finally, and blessedly, the genetic lab agreed to treat Georgia's test as research, thus freeing them up to do a really in-depth genetic search of both parents and the baby. 

They were looking for a recessive gene, something both Miranda and her husband might carry.  We thought, how could two people from completely different continents possibly have a rare recessive gene in common?!  But what else could explain Georgia's difficulties? 

ADSL.  Adenylosuccinate lyase deficiency.  It's a very rare condition - probably fewer than 100 people are known to have it right now - and it is, indeed, a recessive gene, carried by both of Georgia's parents. 

Hello, Creator?  Just what the heck are you up to??

Last night, I saw a cute photograph of a little girl Georgia's age on Facebook.  My sister-in-law, Nina, and I became grandmothers right around the same time, and it is a joy to share photos with each other.  But yesterday what I saw was a little girl standing up, playing peek-a-boo with an sweet little hat, looking into the camera and smiling. 

Sometimes it takes me by surprise.  I mean, my grief over my granddaughter's long struggle toward simple accomplishments like sitting.  Standing.  Holding objects.  Making eye contact.  Speaking.  I said something about it to Margo, my wife, who was sitting on the sofa with me.  She reached over and patted me gently.  She knew there was nothing to say.  One little tear slipped out of my left eye.  A deep, indigo sadness swept through me, quiet and unspeakable. 

Then I thought of how it must be to be Georgia's mother, and have to deal with all this rage and grief every minute of the day while still staying on top of multiple doctor's appointments, PT, OT, and eye specialist, medications, insurance, SSI, and a husband who can't work because he hasn't yet gotten a green card.  I thought about my daughter's reality, how much she loves Georgia, all of her determination that Georgia will be okay.  And I didn't let myself cry anymore.

Instead, I got out of FB and went back to work updating Turtle Girl Jewels.  This is a blog I made to tell Georgia's story, and to sell jewelry that I make as a way to supplement rent and utilities, developmentally-challenging toys and materials, for my Turtle Girl.  When I finished that, I pulled the bookshelf next to the sofa over to me, and out came the boxes of beads.

Making the jewelry is a meditation for me at the end of a day of teaching and talking and grading and prepping: I sit quietly on the sofa with my wife and we indulge in brain-candy TV, chat about our days, while I spread beads out and play.  Or pray.  Beading is a kind of prayer.  Other Native women I know are true beading artists: I am not even in their league.  But I love the feel of abalone beads, and the sound of glass and silver and wood and turquoise and jade clicking against each other.  And into each piece, I put a little bit of my love for my granddaughter.  A little of my hope.  A little of my determination.  And a little petition.

We never plan for catastrophe; no, not even those of us who have been through it already.  We never think it will happen to us.  Until it does.  And then we think, why me?  Why my child?  Why?

Some days I wonder, which ancestor did this gene come from?  My research turned up this interesting fact:  Recent data on the number of Native American patients seen for epilepsy per 1,000 persons indicate a high prevalence, more than double that for the United States as a whole.  Is that how this gene found its way to my daughter, and my granddaughter?  Did it come through me?  I have always thought of my ancestors, even (sometimes especially) those 'bad Indians' who broke laws and committed crimes (sometimes, against each other), to be my source of strength. They have guided me, spoken to me, taught me.  Taken me through some of my darkest moments by their own examples of strength.  

But did one of them carry this gene, too? Part of me wonders, is this genetic material the result of long-term physical, mental, spiritual trauma from disease, starvation, violence? (For an educational look at contemporary health care and Native epilepsy, read Closing the Distance: Native Americans and Epilepsy.)  I know that for California Indians, the introduction of a European strain of syphilis caused not just sterilization, but stillborns and genetic mutations; my great-great-great grandmother, Severiana, was born with only three fingers on each hand (and she was the only infant out of her mother's twenty children to survive infancy).  

In her article "Epigenetics: Scientific Proof of Historical Trauma," Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa, as well as pro-bono tribal attorney and a science professor) writes,  
Epigenetics may provide hard scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma among American Indians and link it directly to diseases that currently afflict us, like cancer and diabetes. The term "intergenerational trauma" has been used to describe the cumulative effects of trauma experienced by a group or individual that radiates across generations. For natives, intergenerational trauma has presented itself in the form of genocide, disease, poverty, forced assimilation via removal of children from their families to boarding schools, the seizure and environmental destruction of homelands, and other routes of European colonization.
Hopkins, whose son has a form of autism, goes on to add that 
We can use epigenetic inheritance to restore the action of our genetic code from one generation to the next. Once environmental stressors are removed and behavior is corrected, our DNA will revert to its original programming. We could cure diabetes through behavioral changes that allow our epigenome to operate correctly. The elimination of toxins and pollutants could greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and birth defects. Such modification of environmental exposures and behaviors will restore and even improve the overall health and capacity of our genetic line. As for my son, further research in epigenetics may soon decipher the specific mixture of genetics and environmental exposures that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Epigenetics.  Who knew.  When I read this article, I felt nauseous.  Sickened by the depth of what colonization can still do to us.  If our ancestors did carry this epigenetic scarring, I know it was beyond their ability to control - like so much of colonization.

I hope the Ancestors are watching over Georgia.  Despite her diagnosis, this kid is feisty, happy, and dear.  Sassy is her middle name.  (No, really: it is!)  Her personality shines even though she doesn't make eye contact.  She emits joy from every pore of her body.  She is usually a happy, smiley little girl.  Perhaps when she laughs, its because some ancestor is clowning it up for her.  Perhaps it is simply who she is: all love.

I don't know.  I wish I had answers for my daughter.  I wish I could be there every single day.  I wish I could make this all better.  That's what moms and grandmas are supposed to do, right?

Instead, I go to work every day.  I help my daughter with rent, utilities.  I bead at night.  I carry Georgia and her mom in my body with me.  I look at photographs of my mother and grandmother, both passed, and ask for their help. 

I understand, now, more about being human than ever before.  How much of life simply does not come with words.  How some things are a mystery, inexplicable, beyond us.  I'm beginning to understand that we can't understand everything, we can't make sense of everything.  We can't fix everything. 

This goes against all that I've ever learned about being human in the last fifty-three years. As a child of trauma, as someone who worked her way out of poverty, abuse, this - helplessness? - is a demon I'm not sure I will ever lay to rest.  I'm not sure I can simply sit back and love.  I am not a 'let go and let God' kind of girl.  I do.  I fix.

And I write, even when the words I need have not yet been invented.

It's Epilepsy Awareness Month.  Believe me.  I'm aware.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Letter from a Confederate General's Great-Great-Granddaughter

November 1, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I write to recommend that the faculty of Washington and Lee University vote to suspend classes for Martin Luther King Day. 

I tell you this based on my experiences as a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area in California; but I also recommend suspension of classes in my other, less-visible identity as a direct descendent (on my mother’s side) of Confederate General Richard Montgomery Gano, a man who held, bought and sold enslaved people.  Gano is my Great-Great Grandfather.

My Confederate inheritance is neither as visible as my Native American identity, nor is it something that I have given much thought to – until coming to W&L ten years ago. 

I want to try to tell you what it is like to negotiate these two identities as part of my argument for suspending classes for MLK Day.

As a woman who presents as "different" - that is, not white -- I have experienced my share of micro-aggressions here on campus and in our small town: the time that I was stopped by a staff member from entering a Dean's luncheon because "this is only for professors," or the several students over the years who have asked me to explain how they might prove "some Indian blood" and get scholarships for grad school (and no, for the record, I received no money for any higher ed efforts - not undergrad or grad school--there is no 'free education' for Indians in the United States).

None of these incidents came out of intentional mean-spiritedness; but they were all part of a pervasive, uninformed cultural world view that is deeply exhausting for those of us whose lives are directly affected.  Now in my eleventh year at W&L, I find myself worn down by such incidents, large and small. 

Faculty debate over whether or not W&L should cancel classes in honor of MLK Day reminded me that somehow, I have lived fifty-three years without making the connection between having a Confederate General for a Great-Great Grandfather, and wondering whether or not this ancestor owned human beings.  I knew that General Gano was considered a Confederate hero; I knew that he had famously collaborated with General (and Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation 1862-1866) Stand Watie at what is considered to be the greatest Confederate victory in Indian Territory, which took place at Cabin Creek during mid-September 1864, when Stand Watie and  General Richard Montgomery Gano led a raid that captured a Federal wagon train and netted approximately $1 million dollars worth of wagons, mules, commissary supplies, and other needed items (Native involvement in the Civil War was all about trying to hang onto land and sovereignty - it didn't work).  Talk about complexities piled on top of complexities!

Ignorance – it’s so easy to ignore, isn’t it? General Gano crossed my mind like a great big gray elephant in the sky, and for the first time, it hit me: he was from a wealthy Southern family.  The Ganos must have participated in the enslavement of black human beings.  Why had I never thought to look? 

Within five minutes of entering the search terms “General Gano Confederate slaves” into Google, I uncovered mention of my Great-Great Grandfather in The Federal Writers’ Project archive. His name came up in the interview of Hattie Mason, a Black woman who was enslaved.  Hattie and three of her siblings were “given” to Richard M. Gano’s wife Martha as a wedding gift; Hattie and her siblings traveled with the Ganos from Kentucky to Texas as enslaved people in that household.

In 1936, the year after my mother was born, Hattie Mason told a woman from The Federal Writers’ Project,

Let me tell you, I am ashamed of the relief I feel at reading this brief narrative, which seems to put my Great-Great-Grandfather into the position of a “good master.”  (Wait.  Did I just write that?)  Of course, earlier in the narrative, Hattie also tells the interviewer that when her brother married a woman "belonging" to a neighboring farmer, that brother was sold to the neighbor. Hattie may not have seen enslaved people “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of having family members sold away like livestock.

Look, I just did it: the classic “passive voice” that creates historical ignorance with one hand and historical trauma with the other. 

Revision:  Hattie may not have seen enslaved people “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of seeing my great-great-grandfather sell away a member of her family like livestock.

What do I do with this information?  How does it change how I think about myself as a woman of color?  Should I be ashamed of my Gano ancestry, which comes to me through my beloved grandmother?  Should I hide it, never speak of it, emphasize instead the Native Ancestors from whom I have always drawn such strength?  Even my “bad Indian” Ancestors  -- thieves, alcoholics, murderers -- have been examples of resistance and survival to me.  But what do I do with a Confederate General who participated in the enslavement of human beings?! 

Not incidentally, a little more research on my part reveals that Harriet Mason, aka "Aunt Hattie," was also interviewed by Sue Higgins around the same time, and gave a more realistic account of her enslaved childhood, adding that upon being moved to Lexington at seven years old by her "old missis" - away from her mother - Harriet tried to run away to get back to her mother.  She says, "Mas'r Gano told me if I didn't come the sheriff would git me.  I never liked to go to Lexington since."  Read between the lines: "I never liked" clearly means, Harriet was punished so badly that she couldn't even consider running away again. Harriet Mason also told Sue Higgins that at one point, her missis had her brother Sam "whoop" Harriet, and noted, "Every time he hit me, I hit him.  I wasn't feared then.  I didn't know better."  She does not go into detail about how she finally did "know better," but it is clear that she was "taught" not to resist when she continues, "I used to say I wished I'd died when I was little."  The heart-broken person who spoke those words could not tell her whole story; instead, she gives us this image of a life so painful, she wanted to disappear.

Why would Harriet get two such different accounts of her enslavement by my Great-great Grandfather Gano's family?  Personally, I can think of many reasons, ranging from the personality of the interviewer, the timing, her sense of security, and a lifetime of self-censorship surrounding anything one told a white person.

This week, I have realized that this new information allows me to feel compassion for the ways in which the American educational system have failed us all. 

This week, I had to imagine another kind of life for myself, a life in which my father’s Native American legacy was absent or did not become part of my identity – a life in which my Great-Great Grandfather’s role as a Confederate General and as an owner of enslaved people might have been held up to me by my family and my culture as a model of courage, loyalty and empowerment.  If General Richard Montgomery Gano had not moved from Texas to Illinois, and if his son Daniel, my Great-grandfather, had not moved to Nebraska, and if Doris Gano, my grandmother, had not moved to California, where my mother was born and where she met my Native American father, I might very well have been a child raised in ignorance, unaware (and not needing to become aware) of inequality, injustice, and the ugly foundations of this country -- because it is certainly not something I learned in public school.

Instead, history happened.  History put me in a body that could not pass as white, and the mysterious thing we call identity resonated with genocide rather than Confederate generals.  It’s really scary when you start to think of genocide as a lucky thing to inherit.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But my position as a mixed-race woman really does give me insights and experiences that many mainstream, straight white people do not have – at least, about race.  

And for that bloody gift, I am grateful.

In California, fourth graders still make cute little mission dioramas with “Mission Indians” adoring the Padres and working the fields, while “restored” Missions play a huge part in Southern California’s tourism economy; this, despite the fact that we know the Missionization of California Indians killed 90% of the pre-contact population and laid the groundwork for ongoing poverty, suicides, sexual violence and illiteracy that plague California Indians today.  California Indians were bought and sold in Los Angeles and other hubs throughout the Gold Rush and long past the Emancipation Proclamation. The Educational system in California fails students from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that California’s history and wealth is built on the backs of dead Indians.

Sound familiar?  In Lexington, we are still arguing over the legacies of the Confederacy's past, using euphemisms like “antebellum” and “state’s rights” while encouraging tourism that perpetuates a mythology much like that of my home state.  Children here are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that Virginia’s history and wealth is built on the backs of enslaved people, and that historical trauma is perpetuated by a multitude of intentional and unintentional forms of racism.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating that we shame the descendents of Confederate soldiers or families; I am not visiting the sins of the fathers on their children. But I am asking why our educational system allows some students - mostly, white-identifying students - the privilege to to ignore a painful, unjust history while other students - mostly, students of color - must live with the Historical Trauma after-effects for their entire lives. And nobody questions this system.

So for me, honoring MLK Day with the cancellation of classes as we do for many other honorable causes is a no-brainer.  Sometimes it's as simple as being able to say: my university honors the struggle for civil rights and equality for people of color the same way it honors its white heroes.  Would that help when I struggle to attract students to literature classes featuring predominantly non-white authors?  or when I enter a faculty meeting and scan the room for another person of color?  or when I counsel a glbtq student being teased because of "dressing like a boy"?

Actually, yes.  Yes it would.  It wouldn't bring about world peace or cure cancer, but it would sure make it easier for me to walk around a little less burdened by the history of this place; it would make it easier for me to recruit job candidates and answer their questions about the atmosphere and culture of Lexington and W&L; it would help me breathe easier when I meet with prospective students of color; it would feel like my colleagues care about my well-being, the well-being of under-represented students, and the well-being of a university entering the twenty-first century with an agenda for reality.

It would make it more possible for me and other non-mainstream scholars to come, to stay, to educate, to recruit, and to continue making W&L an outstanding institution.

But it would also do something important that we often overlook in these discussions:  it would allow us to educate our students, all of our students, with clarity of intent and purpose, about the realities of life in this country for all people.  It would help create better citizens, stronger scholars, and more aware human beings by removing ugliness from hidden corners and from beneath invisibility cloaks.  A legal, officially recognized holiday for a Black man who fought against the legacies of enslavement is a way of accepting the responsibilities which being a citizen of the United States requires, and of teaching those responsibilities to our mostly privileged students.

Putting MLK Day on W&L’s calendar puts our struggle against inequality on the map, on the academic agenda. It acknowledges our awareness, officially recognizes our efforts, in the same way that other historic efforts are recognized. 

Put aside discussion of the logistics for now.  We juggle logistics every day; it’s what we get paid to do.  We’ve got a university full of smart people who can find a way, make a way.

What matters is this:  What is the right thing to do?


Deborah Miranda

Dr. Deborah A. Miranda, John Lucian Smith Professor of English
204 W. Washington St.
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450