El Troomp: the pinata

Leaving Guanajuato, the book, and explaining Donald Trump to Mexicans

I swear, the longer I stay in Guanajuato the harder it is to leave. But tomorrow the plane is taking off with or without me; my six weeks is up.

I’m writing this afternoon in Café Tal. Best coffee in town, perfect coffee shop vibe. The windows are open, a cool breeze is drifting through, and the endless parade passes by on the street: faces, voices, colors, snatches of conversation in that musical Bajio accent. I’m nostalgic and I haven’t even left yet.

I realized this morning that I haven’t blogged about the book during this trip. That’s mainly because the day-to-day stuff doesn’t seem that interesting: get up, make coffee, eat some breakfast, then start digging around in the manuscript, tweaking some sentences, deleting others, playing around with descriptions and passages of dialogue, then sometimes tossing what I’ve done because I decide the original is still better.

It’s tedious, a lot more tedious than writing the original draft. The best analogy I can conjure is that re-writing a book is like a big home renovation project. Once you start taking stuff apart and pulling down the old structure, things can get very complicated very quickly.

When I got here, I’d hoped to be more than halfway through the revisions by the time I left. My best guess is that I’m maybe a quarter of the way there. That’s largely the result of all the second-guessing I’m doing when I take out the literary crowbar and start pulling chapters or paragraphs apart. The little stuff – tightening up the language, changing the rhythm of dialogue – is pretty straightforward. But the big stuff, like altering a character or the relationship between characters, has ripple effects through the rest of the book. It is not to be done lightly.

I’ll start re-thinking a character’s essential personality or worldview, then I’ll start re-writing stuff, and then I start thinking about how much of the rest of the novel will change as a result. Then I stop and re-read random chapters featuring that character later in the book. And I see stuff I really like – stuff that would have to be cut or drastically re-written if I alter the character too much. Do I really want to ditch all of this?

I have to remind myself that I’m new at this. And re-writing is proving to be the toughest part of the process for me. It’s put-your-head-down-and-slog work. When I was writing the first draft, I’d catch these waves of energy that would carry me through eight-hour days. Re-writing can make my head hurt after a few hours.

I’m glad I’m in Mexico for this part, it’s kept things fresh for me. The chapters that are set in Mexico keep getting new layers and new details, stuff I’m jotting down in my little notebook every time something catches my eye (or ear) on the streets.

Which brings us to Donald Trump (how’s that for a transition?).

I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump, and I sure as hell didn’t plan on talking about him down here. But at least twice a week, someone – a waiter, a bartender, a taxi driver — learns I’m from the U.S. and wants to know what I think about “El Troomp” and all that stuff he said about Mexicans.

They don’t share their own opinions of Trump, maybe because I’m a stranger and a gringo. Mainly, they seem astonished/worried: Could he win? Could he be president?

No, I tell them, he won’t be the president. Not a chance in hell.

But what do I know? Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota – Minnesota! I just don’t want to believe that the dark nativist streak that’s always been a part of the American dialogue on immigration could actually produce a president in the 21st Century.

The Mexicans who ask me about Trump don’t sound outraged – being dissed by their wealthy neighbor is an old, tired theme in Mexican politics. They seem more fascinated and horrified that a candidate from a major American party (who’s leading all the polls) has ditched all the usual tropes about undocumented immigrants –they’re ignoring our laws, draining services, taking jobs from Americans, etc. — and unleashed the ugliness beneath: they’re really just horrible human beings.

He’s wrong about Mexicans, of course – do I really need to say that? Just like the nativists a century ago were wrong about my Italian ancestors: They’re poor, they’re uneducated. They crank out babies by the dozen. They’re criminals (mafiosos! Look what Al Capone’s done to Chicago!) They won’t learn English. They’ll never assimilate.

Rinse, repeat. The Germans, the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians – they were all going to overwhelm (or dilute) America with their strange language/religion/customs.

Until they didn’t.

Xenophobes never change their tune. And they’ve been wrong about every immigrant group for more than 200 years. Anyone still want to kick out the Irish?

Trump’s paternal grandparents were German immigrants, who arrived long after a noted American publisher wrote this screed about the Germans he thought were ruining Pennsylvania: “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation … few of their children in the country learn English … the signs on our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German.”

He went on to say that unless the incoming Germans could be diverted to other colonies, “they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Ben Franklin (who had published America’s first German-language newspaper 20 years before his rant) was wrong about the Germans. Just like Donald Trump is wrong about Mexicans.

“Is that really what people in America think about us?” an 18-year-old bartender asked me a few days after I got to town.

Some Americans, I told him. But not nearly enough to make Donald Trump president.