A Short History of San Antonio by Charles G Lauder, Jr.

One of the things I like about doing PP, is learning from the poems – not only the universal themes that have been the mainstay of poetry, but predominantly the history, past figures critical to left wings movements, whether at the global level, or in their own country at a particular time. I tend to be more interested in figures who fought against power, than those who went on to hold it (although being in power is the harder job, as countless leaders have shown in their failure). The lives of people like James Baldwin, Rosa Luxembourg, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Audre Lorde are fascinating in the paths they took to try to change the structures of power, and arguably did so in the more difficult pre-Internet, world war and revolutionary times.

Poets thus far on Proletarian Poetry have covered a number of prominent, yet sometimes not so well-known individuals who tried to hold power to account. Ian Duhig’s poem about the Mexican revolutionary Manuel Palofax who advised Zapato; Malika Booker’s lament to Walter Rodney, the Guyanese academic activist who was assassinated in a car bomb; Matt Duggan’s poem about Wat Tyler the 14th century leader of the peasants’ revolt; Catherine Graham’s poem about the writer Jack Common feted by George Orwell; John Mole’s poem of the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare; Lemn Sissay with Sparkcatchers, about the Bow Matchwomen’s strike, and Jon Tait’s Kinmont Willie, a 16th century border raider against the English. Then of course there are the poems about people, (relations, friends of poets) who led so-called ordinary lives, yet did extraordinary things when looking back from our comparative prosperity and safer lives.

I’m very pleased therefore to add another such poem to the site, with Charles Lauder’s A Short History of San Antonio, which in fact brings the two aforementioned aspects into one; as Charles explains, ‘it started as a personal tale of my great-grandmother’s pecan tree but as poems often do, expanded into one also of Emma Tenayuca (pictured) in the Pecan Shellers Strike of January 1938, her life as a union organizer and fighter for workers’ rights (especially Mexican women).’ As Charles refers to her, she was also known as La Pasionaria (the Passion Flower), like the more well-known (in Europe at least), Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party after her role in the Spanish Civil War and coined the phrase, ‘no pasaran’ (they shall not pass). The juxtaposition of these OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof stories two women in Mexico and Texas, is so impressive in connecting the personal with the more general sweep of history, and makes for a great read.

Charles G Lauder, Jr, was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in the UK for the past seventeen years. His poems have appeared internationally and he has published two pamphlets: Bleeds (2012) and Camouflaged Beasts (2017). ‘A Short History of San Antonio’ is part of a new series of political poems. He is also the Assistant Editor for The Interpreter’s House.


A Short History of San Antonio

Sixteen men in dungarees and Zapata moustaches,
the dustiness of their skin revealing
how long they’ve been in Texas,
drink coffee on the newly built
front porch, legs dangling over the edge
while the foreman’s wife hangs doors,
strolls along the garage’s tin roof
hammer in hand, looking for loose sections.
This will be her house, this tree
her personal supply of pecans.

                                        (barefoot La Pasionaria eats ice cream
                                        with her grandfather in Plaza del Zacate
                                        after Sunday morning mass at St. Agnes’s,
                                        listens to an anarchist read newspaper accounts
                                        of revolution in Mexico, of the FBI snatching
                                        and deporting radical leftists, of the Klan’s plan
                                        to parade through the city; it will be a few years
                                        before La Pasionaria organizes her first strike,
                                        spends her first night in jail, two hundred of them
                                        in a space meant for sixty)

Underneath this canopy, the foreman’s wife thinks,
there will be a patio of crazy paving
with places to sit and drink iced tea,
a red-and-silver two-wheeled barrel
flavoring pecans overhead with barbecued
pork shoulder and chuck roast; in October
the tree will throw down a gauntlet of pecans,
their husks like swollen wrinkled yellow eyelids
that must be peeled back, the shell heel-smashed
or delicately cracked over a tin baking tray.

                                        (La Pasionaria discovers Thomas Paine
                                        and Karl Marx, marches and demonstrates
                                        for Mexican women rolling cigars, sewing clothes
                                        in dirt-floor homes lit by kerosene lamp
                                        with no running water or electricity; she learns
                                        about those in white aprons and thin cotton dresses,
                                        with their Si and ¿Baño, por favor?
herded onto long benches in airless rooms
                                        facing a line of washed-out oil cans and piles of pecans
                                        that must be spun into gold by day’s end)

The foreman’s wife doles out pecans piecemeal
to children and grandchildren like an advance
on an inheritance to see what they make of it,
returning at Christmas with pies and candied yams,
sugar cookies and snickerdoodles,
served after mass to East Coast cousins
with a la mode tales of stupid Mexicans
and an admonishment that ‘a pee-can
is what you keep under the bed in case of emergency.’

                                        (twelve thousand women gather in the park
                                        chanting La Pasionaria’s name; she organizes
                                        pickets, hands out leaflets, ladles soup;
                                        police and Anglos fear the West Side tide
                                        is turning from brown to red, storm picket lines
                                        with bricks and bats while the Klan burn effigies;
                                        the union fears she is too much a communist
                                        and puts a man in charge to end the strike;
                                        the shellers get three more brown pennies
                                        and someone to fix the scales
                                        while men roll cracking machines
                                        into the spaces where they used to sit)

The foreman’s wife has to tear down
and rebuild the garage for being two inches
over the property line, her hammer stained
with the squirrel that bit her son’s calf.
On the garage walls, she hangs
old license plates, tools, and a bathtub
for making gin. Sometimes, she stays up
all night playing cards. She makes
her grandchildren hold the chickens
while she wields the axe. As a widow,
she transforms the house into a duplex,
takes in tenants. Her great-grandchildren
find her on the garage roof mending leaks.

                                        (La Pasionaria runs through an underground tunnel,
                                        as protestors storm the auditorium, rip out seats,
                                        smash windows, where she was just speaking;
                                        she tries to find work, but even under an alias
                                        she is known; she flees to the West Coast
                                        for twenty years; when she returns, she discovers
                                        murals of herself on the walls of laundromat, gas station,
                                        elementary school; she teaches literacy
                                        to Mexican children in the old barrio;
                                        mourners bring pieces of steel to her funeral)