Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Saturday, May 22, 2021

"You Read What You Want to Read. I Don't Know Why."

"...I think because you never had to see what I have seen." 

The miniseries Centennial, based on James Michener's novel, is excellent. It is one of the few adaptations that, in my humble opinion, surpass the original (you, too, will be grateful to the screenwriter who shaved some 5 billion years and 100 rather ridiculous pages off the beginning of Michener's book). Centennial is a biography of a place, namely, Centennial, Colorado. It begins in 1797, and progresses through the mid-20th century. Watching these mere 12 episodes will give you a sense of the continuity of our country and its people that I have not experienced in any other work.

Michener was a Democrat. He even ran for Congress once (which he regarded a serious career mistake.) He was an FDR Democrat, and a JFK Democrat. For younger readers, that is the kind of Democrat that embraced the principles of Martin Luther King, Jr., and would not readily understand why 21st century Democrats feel the need to distance themselves from those principles. 

Racial tension and reconciliation is a major theme in Centennial. America has had problem with these things. But Michener also offers perspective. For Michener, there were worse things than commonplace racism. Things like brutal tyranny, violence, and war.

I love the following scene about Tranquilino, growing old in the 1930s, but who was once a young man bitter at his uncle Nacho for leaving his home Santa Ynez for Colorado in the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution, living under military occupation, his people forced to work in the mines. Tranquilino even shot a man in a firing squad when demanded of him by the general. But he refused to shoot women, and so he fled. And then found good but friendless Centennial farmer Hans Brumbaugh, and he worked hard for Hans, and they became fast friends, and when Tranquilino left to fight in the Revolution and away from his adopted home of Colorado and his friend Hans, it broke Hans's heart, and when Tranquilino came back to find his friend had just passed away, it broke his heart, too.

And that sets up this moving scene at his son Triunfador's cantina, having returned after a white man harassed Triunfador's sister in town and the sheriff almost arrested Triunfador for stepping in:

Father: "I'll get my money when I finish my work."

S: "A burro's work. And that's the only reason they let us stay here. We make them rich, and the little money they pay us, they steal back from us by raising prices at the stores. Our money is welcome, but we are not."

Mother: "Triunfador, you make it sound so bad."

S: "It is bad."

F: "There is no war." 

S: "There's a war against us." Pulls out newspaper clipping and reads: "Hilario Guttierez, a Mexican farmer, on a farm near Eagle Pass, made approaches to a white woman, and was duly lynched." 

M: "If he hit the woman and threatened her--"

S: "Mama, he didn't hit her. He smiled at her. Maybe he said, 'Ay, ay, ay, muchacha.' Not even as much as the--as the Anglo said to Soledad. And for that--for that, he was lynched." 

F: "In Colorado, he should know not to say nothing like that to Anglo women. " 

S: "The word I'm talking about is 'duly.'"

M: "'Duly.' What does it mean?"

S: "It means, in the natural order of things. Because he was a Mexican, he was naturally lynched. Naturally lynched!" 

F: "I don't know this Guttierez. I don't know what he did to this woman."

S: "Papa--"

F: "Neither do you. You read what you want to read. I don't know why. I think because you never had to see what I have seen."

S: "You don't see what's going on around you."

F: "I have seen women like our sister and mother turned into savages--killing with guns and knives to keep from being killed. I have seen them buried in holes in the ground. 200, 300 who went to war. I have seen your own brother blown up into so many pieces, I don't know how to begin to bury him. They don't blow up the trains in Colorado."

S: "Papa--"

F: "Here, there is no need for war. We do not work like a slave, seven days a week in the darkness in the mines, in the darkness, only to make Don Porfirio more rich...and General Terrazas more powerful. In Colorado, we can see the sun rise, the sun goes down. We do not step in the gutter when the strong man comes around. I don't care, not even for the sheriff. And we get paid. In Colorado, you can have a place like this, a place for all of us in the winter when the work is done in the fields. Good food. Musica. A place to be together and warm when the snow is outside and in the street. A place, Triunfador, to make winter the best time of the year. The best time."

S: "I don't see how you can see the good in everything." 

F: "I'm always looking. You will see, mijito, you will see. It is good here, and it will be even better. This place, your place--this will make it better. You will see."


You may choose to see the bad in anything. It is easy if you try. But if we wish to find anything good, we must first cultivate the desire and skill to look for it. The younger generations will always give us vigorous and angry Triunfadors, who scour the news looking for injustices, and struggling against those they perceive to stand against a more perfect world, which we can achieve if only we had a little imagination. But the Triunfadors depend on an older generation of Tranquilinos, who have learned that those who think things can't get any worse, have no imagination at all.