Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of walls and robots: The future of immigration

Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego

Even before Donald Trump promised to build one, U.S. popular culture was preoccupied with walls—most famously the Wall in Game of Thrones that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings. Contemporary depictions of zombies are set amid fences and fortifications that recall both current and projected architectures of border enforcement, as in World War Z and The Walking Dead. A recent Comic Con allowed fans to interact with actors made up as zombies in a sort of chain link labyrinth that, while based on a Georgia prison from the show, might also suggest the fortification of the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, or any number of immigrant detention centers. Meanwhile, the Fox mini-series Wayward Pines is about a small town in Idaho surrounded by a mysterious wall that not only protects it from degenerate, carnivorous humanoids (derisively called “aberrations” or “abbies”), but that also keeps its residents inside and in line.

Read alongside these examples, Trump’s wall can be seen as a speculative fiction. Recalling Samuel Delany’s definition of science fiction, the future projected by Trump represents a significant distortion of the actually existing security state with its miles of fences, drones, high-tech surveillance, networks of detention centers, and mass deportations. But whereas popular culture mediates the migration security state in dystopian tones, Trump paints his wall as part of a future utopia, but not only because it promises to keep Mexicans out.

The idea of hermetically sealing the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall that Mexico will pay for is widely regarded as impossible and even many of Trump’s biggest fans don’t really believe it will happen—but they love him for dreaming that dream anyway. The wall is thus a utopia in the etymological sense of “no place,” but its appeal lies in what the dream of a wall represents. Imagining the wall is less about excluding non-U.S. workers altogether and more about disciplining them. As speculative fiction, the wall is built out of such racialized and gendered dynamics of subordination and humiliation.

In Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance, I argue that speculative fictions in literature and film—works by Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, Alex Rivera, and Beatrice Pita and Rosaura Sanchez—mediate, in revealing ways, histories of conflict involving migrant workers in California. This is in part because workers and employers have historically fought for conflicting visions of the future. On the one hand, I analyze “agribusiness futurism,” or capital investments in the dream that future technology, especially forms of automation, will result in a utopia of profits undeterred by worker demands. In practice, however, automation led not to the exclusion of workers but to the ramping up of production in ways that required even more. New technology did, however, provide the rationale for deskilling and wage reductions, supplemented with heavy doses of police and vigilante violence that I call, following Carey McWilliams, “farm fascism.” Like the wall, agribusiness technology was historically aimed not at excluding non-white, noncitizen workers, but at disciplining them for better exploitation. So I wasn’t surprised when, in an apparent reference to the Bracero Program, Trump drew a parallel between his employment of foreign guest workers at his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club and the practices of California grape growers, or when at a recent campaign speech in Fresno he was greeted by fans holding signs reading “Farmers for Trump.”

On the other hand, I also analyze “farm worker futurism”—efforts by farm workers and their allies to use technology, especially visual technologies like cameras and computer screens, to imagine other worlds beyond exploitation. From the late-1940s grape strikes in the San Joaquin Valley to the early 1990s, when the United Farm Workers helped organize a fast in solidarity with janitors at Apple Computers in the Santa Clara Valley, Farm Worker Futurism engages the dialectic between agribusiness and farm worker futurisms in visual culture. In opposition to forms of agribusiness sovereignty partly secured by domination of the visual field, farm workers have claimed what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “right to look”; thus, studying their visual culture enables the reconstruction of a subaltern “counterhistory of visuality.” Viewing agribusiness from below reveals how farm workers and their allies have appropriated visual technologies to imagine better worlds and project different, more egalitarian social orders.

Starting with the image on the cover, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer is threaded throughout Farm Worker Futurism. As the director explains, he

basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States (and Mexico) if they keep going the way they’re going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven’t seen before: the U.S. from the outside . . . In this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It’s kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.

In Rivera’s near future, the border has been closed and water in Mexico has been privatized behind a giant dam. The water company in the film suggests not only contemporary efforts to privatize water in Latin America but also the large-scale, state-sponsored water projects such as dams and canals that have historically fed California agribusiness. Recalling Star Wars and the destruction of the Death Star, in the climax of Sleep Dealer, three working-class Mexican characters commandeer an automated drone in the U.S. and fly it across the border to destroy the dam. As if anticipating Trump’s wall, the film thus concludes with a utopian fantasy of seizing technology from below, in opposition to state-supported corporate enclosures.


Curtis Marez is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of Farm Worker Futurism, for which an online companion "Cesar Chavez's Video Collection" is available. He is also author of Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, the former editor of American Quarterly, and past president of the American Studies Association.

"In Farm Worker Futurism, one comes face-to-face with the techno-fascism that was routed around daily by the collective actions of laborers who hacked the future with anticipatory illuminations and critical disturbances. This is not science fiction, but it is futurity-as-history that drives science fiction into the present for activist, artists, and critics. Curtis Marez has written a unique and highly accessible book that calls on us to perform the speculative seeding of the future as farm workers to make new worlds grow now." —Ricardo Dominguez, University of California, San Diego

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ann Treacy: Fiction is woven of fact, history, and hard work.

Ann Treacy holds her family's past close, and features this image in her house.
Her grandmother, whose story figures into Treacy's latest fiction, is pictured dressed
in white. 

Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure here.


The Search for the Homestead Treasure is a middle-grade novel about a Swedish boy befriending a Gypsy boy on a farm in Goodhue County, Minnesota, in 1903. It seems I’ve been “pre-writing” this book all my life.

My grandmother was a young girl in 1903 on a Minnesota farm. She feared large horses, and had a sister, Annie Koehnen, who died of diphtheria in 1893 at the age of eight. Life expectancy for Americans in 1903 was forty-nine years. Children commonly died from diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, and measles. My family's details and more have simmered for years, distilling into this work of fiction in which fourteen-year-old Martin Gunnarsson tries to hold his family together on the homestead where his Swedish ancestors died of diphtheria during the Civil War. Martin’s life is complicated when Pa suffers a logging camp injury, and again when he befriends a Roma boy, Samson—and cannot let his family know. Martin discovers his Aunt Cora’s diary, penned 40 years before and hinting at a family treasure. But what exactly is he looking for?

When I was growing up, an old family photo hung in our living room (pictured above), and now hangs in mine. My grandmother is the youngest child, wearing white in front. Annie is the pencil sketch in the middle. This photo would have been taken sometime between 1900 and 1910—a momentous time in US history, though I also think of it as a quiet time.

During that first decade of the century, following the depression of the 1890s and before the world went to war in the teens, President Theodore Roosevelt governed a country of 80 million people (compared with roughly 323 million citizens today). It was a time of many firsts. The first World Series (a best-of-nine series) was played in 1903, with the Boston Americans winning five games to three over the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year, Orville and Wilbur Wright made aviation history with their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Farmers still mostly used horses, although there were some automobiles—about eight thousand throughout the country.

I wanted to bring alive historic details for young readers, including what farming with horses was like; the difficult work of rock and stump clearing; and pumping all the water needed to fill a bath tub, then emptying the tub by hand. Today kids think that "working out" means exercising. With few social or government programs, our ancestors who could not afford to feed their children often sent to them to “work out” as free farm help, where they labored in exchange for food and board.

Many nations of the world have nomadic people known by various names as Gypsies, rovers, walking people, and travelers. Gypsies came to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, when many Europeans immigrated. For all of her 101 years, Grandma Minnie (who was born in 1896) spoke of her childhood fear of Gypsies who roamed the rural countryside. She blamed them for the theft of anything from clothes off the line to kidnapping. Whereas Grandma would never have spoken to them or gotten closer than seeing Gypsies perform tricks in town on a Saturday night, I used to wonder: what if you could get to know one of the Gypsy children personally?

This chair belongs to a former neighbor of Treacy's,
whose family set this chair outside their dwelling and
offered goods to the traditionally nomadic Roma people.

The Roma history in Minnesota intrigued me again when I was in college, helping an elderly neighbor clear her attic. We discovered an ancient chair, pictured above, which belonged to her grandparents. When Gypsies were in the area, they set the chair outside their cabin with chickens tied to it, or left fresh loaves of bread on it, believing that by sharing enough they would not be stolen from. The Roma did not have the habit of knocking on doors, and had different ideas about distributing wealth. The Minnesota Historical Society suggested I read farm journals for background information, as rather little is recorded of Gypsies in Minnesota. Perhaps they shunned photography, and newspapers of the day tended primarily to report their presence in an area as a warning, such as this August 15, 1895, account from the Red Wing Daily Republican:

A number of gypsies who have been in camp near this place for the past few days, canvassed the city yesterday, begging money and making themselves a nuisance generally. Some of the merchants say that it required close watching to keep them from carrying away articles in their spacious pockets or bundles which they carried with them. A trained bear and monkey, and the singing of antiquated songs by young girls, were some of the methods used to attract attention and draw pennies from the pockets of our citizens.

This story could have been set in any Midwestern farming community. Traveling Roma (commonly referred to as Gypsies from a mistaken belief that their ancestors came from Egypt) immigrated to North America when most European immigrants came. From the late 1800s until the mid-twentieth century their traveling lifestyle brought them from town to town and farm to farm throughout the states, territories, and provinces of North America, where their culture often clashed with others, including other immigrant groups. Yet despite cultural differences, children and young people have a way of developing friendships through shared experiences.

This piece was adapted from the Author's Note that appears in The Search for the Homestead Treasure.
Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure!
Deadline: July 14, 2016.

Ann Treacy is author of The Search for the Homestead Treasure and coauthor (with Margi Preus) of A Book of Grace. Her writing has appeared in Lake Superior Magazine as well as Highlights for Children magazine. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Marshall Avenue near Finn Street (Marshall and Finn are horses in the novel). She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Author Michelle Cliff dies at 69

Cliff's writing serves as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world.

The University of Minnesota Press is deeply saddened to hear of Michelle Cliff’s death. Cliff embraced her many identities as a light-skinned Creole, a lesbian, and an immigrant in both England and the United States to prove the intersections of prejudice and oppression. She never shied away from difficult themes of colonialism, race, gender, and sexuality and balanced her powerful messages with a personal and lyrical writing voice. Able to transcend the genres of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, Cliff’s writings serve as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world and how to bring attention to suppressed voices.

The Press extends its sympathies and condolences to Cliff’s friends, family, colleagues, and students. We are proud to have published If I Could Write This in Fire (2008), Everything Is Now: New and Collected Stories (2009), and Into the Interior (2010).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Minnesota boxing legend Scott LeDoux stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali

Scott LeDoux, also known as Minnesota's Rocky, stares down Muhammad Ali
before their five-round exhibition in December 1977.
Image courtesy of the family of Scott LeDoux.


Scott LeDoux loved talking about Muhammad Ali. He fought the champ in a five-round exhibition in Chicago in 1977. LeDoux and his manager visited Ali at his California mansion and watched movies together. And LeDoux loved telling the story of Ali meeting Scott’s first wife, Sandy.

“How did he get you?” the champ asked Sandy LeDoux.

“He got me when I was young,” she told Ali.

LeDoux’s introduction to Ali came in February of 1964, when Scott was a teenager. Cassius Clay, the brash Olympic gold medalist, fought the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in Miami that night, and LeDoux listened intently to the round-by-round recaps on his Philco radio. I was 13 at the time and remember crawling under my covers with my transistor radio, rooting for the charismatic challenger against the evil Liston, all the while trying to contain my excitement from my parents, who assumed I’d gone to sleep.

Like many children of the 1960s, Ali would become one of my heroes—and it all started that night. Years later, I met Ali—and promoter Don King—in a New York hotel elevator, a surreal experience, to be sure. But sharing an elevator with Ali and sharing the ring with the champ were two very different experiences. And LeDoux couldn’t wait to go toe-to-toe with Ali, even if for only five rounds in which Ali wore headgear, oversized gloves, and about 20 extra pounds.

This is what he told Ali at a press conference promoting their exhibition:

Float like a buffalo
Sting like a tank
You couldn’t hurt me
If you were swinging a plank
You may be big
You may be fast
You fight me
You’ll end up last.

To which Ali replied, “Not bad for a white boy.”

This is the essence of what attracted me to LeDoux. It started in 2007, when I worked as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and LeDoux was an Anoka County commissioner. The county was bidding for a stadium that would house the Minnesota Vikings, in Blaine. I was at the Minnesota State Capitol, covering the evolving story. LeDoux never ducked a fight and rarely ducked any questions. He became a source.

But I wanted to know more about a stadium that, ultimately, would be built in Minneapolis. There were more important questions to ask LeDoux.

“What was it like to get punched in the head by George Foreman in his prime?” I asked LeDoux.

“Why would you ask that?” LeDoux responded.

“Because,” I told him, “I’ve never met anyone crazy enough to suffer through that.”

LeDoux told me that Foreman bloodied his nose and opened a 12-stitch gash above his left cheek.

“George Foreman hit me so hard my ancestors in France felt it,” LeDoux told me—and anyone else who asked.

That’s how the seeds for my biography of LeDoux, The Fighting Frenchman, were planted. LeDoux was a boxing historian who loved telling boxing tales. More often than not, when LeDoux regaled me with boxing stories, the conversation always floated like a butterfly back to Ali.

LeDoux loved to tell the story of Ali agreeing—in principle—to fight LeDoux for the title and how the dream unraveled when Ali lost his championship to Leon Spinks, the young Olympian who took a pounding from LeDoux when LeDoux and Leon fought to a draw in Las Vegas.

The title fight with Ali never materialized—not even after Ali reclaimed his crown by defeating Spinks in a rematch. But Ali remained a presence in LeDoux’s life. Ali was ringside at the old Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, when LeDoux fought Larry Holmes for the title in 1980. And LeDoux was part of the undercard when Ali fought for the final time, in the Bahamas.

Through the years, Ali and LeDoux continued to occasionally cross paths, thanks in part to LeDoux’s charitable work or his travels as a ringside announcer for ESPN. LeDoux, who died in 2011, said he last saw Ali in 2006.

When you examine their careers, it’s hard to place Scott LeDoux in the same category as Muhammad Ali. The last person who would do that was LeDoux, who reminded doubters that he wasn’t a cheap date. But he wasn’t Ali. When you hear the title “The Greatest,” you think of Ali and only Ali.

Yet, during the days following Ali’s passing, I could not help but marvel at how fate linked the careers of LeDoux and one of the dominant personalities and athletes of all time.

“Guys like Ali have it every night,” LeDoux said. “Guys like me have it once or twice in a career.”


Paul Levy was a writer for the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune for thirty-five years. He has written for the New York Times, ABC News, the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, and Mother Jones.

"Nobody ever gave 100 percent like Scott did. You can argue about his technique, but not his heart and effort. Of course, after every fight he lost, he’d say, ‘He never touched me,’ or that it was a lucky punch."
—Bob Lurtsema, Minnesota Vikings legend

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Carelessness and fate: One man's survival on the open sea

Built to haul enormous cargo tonnage to ports all around the Great Lakes, the Morrell
was one of only a handful of 600-foot freighters at the time of her launching in 1906.

An excerpt (modified from the Prologue) from the forthcoming book Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell and One Man's Survival on the Open Sea by Michael Schumacher.

We are giving away advances of Torn in Two. Sign up for a chance to win here.
Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

Dennis Hale pulled his car into the Bethlehem Steel plant just in time to see the Daniel J. Morrell reaching the Buffalo breakwater on Lake Erie, a short distance from the plant's Lackawanna loading dock. It was eleven in the evening of November 26, 1966. Hale, a twenty-six-year-old watchman on the bulk carrier, had missed the boat—quite literally—on other occasions, but never with so much riding on it. If he failed to make this last trip of the season, he would be forfeiting his annual bonus, vacation pay, and extended vacation pay, adding up to a loss of six to seven thousand dollars.

Hale had not been home for Thanksgiving. He could have accepted this as part of the downside of working on the lakes late in the season, but when the Morrell was sailing on the return trip to Lackawanna, New York, the boat's master, Captain Arthur Crawley, learned that the Morrell would be required to return to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, for yet another load. The Morrell, along with her sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, would be substituting for the stricken vessel. The additional voyage would be the Morrell's thirty-fourth run of the shipping season.

There was no reason, other than carelessness and bad timing, for Hale's not being on the boat. When the Morrell had arrived at Lackawanna, she could not immediately unload. Two freighters were ahead of her at the dock. Hale viewed this inconvenience as an unexpected opportunity: his Ashtabula, Ohio, home was only three hours away, and since it took nearly eight hours to unload the average freighter, he estimated that he could drive home, see his wife and spend the night in his own bed, and return to Lackawanna in plenty of time to be back onboard the Morrell before she sailed for Minnesota.

Hale left as soon as he found someone to cover his watch duty. John Groh, a twenty-one-year-old deckwatch on the Morrell, hitched a ride with him.

Hale, it turned out, miscalculated how long it would take to unload the boats—and Crawley's determination to leave the docks as soon as possible. The Lackawanna-Taconite trip was a long but familiar haul. This one promised to be a little rougher than most.

Weather forecasts called for stormy weather on Lake Erie, and Crawley ordered water added to the Morrell's ballast tanks. The extra weight would allow the Morrell to ride lower in the water, giving her better stability. The smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie was notoriouis for the ferocity of its late-autumn storms.

As soon as they knew they were stranded, Hale and Groh visited the Coast Guard station and radioed Crawley. Crawley had little choice but to accommodate the two tardy crewmen. Already short-handed in his crew, Crawley wanted the two onboard. The Morrell, he told them, would be taking on a load of coal the next day at Mullen Dock, near Windsor, Ontario. Hale and Groh could rejoin the crew at that time.

Hale assured him that he would be there.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advances of Torn in TwoSign up for a chance to win here. Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

In addition to Torn in Two, Michael Schumacher has published three previous books about the Great Lakes: Mighty Fitz, about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald; The Wreck of the Carl D., about the loss of the Carl D. Bradley; and November’s Fury, an account of the Storm of 1913, the deadliest in Great Lakes history. Dharma Lion—his acclaimed biography of Allen Ginsberg—will be reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press this summer. He recently edited The Essential Ginsberg and is currently writing an account of the 1968 presidential election, also to be published by Minnesota. He lives in Wisconsin.

"Michael Schumacher's latest book is tragic, gripping, and hard to put down. He captures the fury of the Great Lakes as a winter storm rips a steel hull in two and tosses the crew into the lake’s cold, dark maw. What happens next is a true survival tale."—Cary Griffith, author of Savage Minnesota and Lost in the Wild

Thursday, June 2, 2016

In 1920s Minnesota, Prohibition created moral dilemmas, violence—and opportunity.

To be alive is to take risks every single second of every single day.
—from Mary Casanova's Ice-Out


The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advance copies of Ice-OutSign up for a chance to win here! Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.



As with my earlier novel Frozen, the inspiration for Ice-Out's setting comes from where I live on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. Perched in our 100-year-old home, I gaze across the bay at the lift bridge that joins Minnesota and Canada. It's easy to imagine an earlier time during Prohibition when trains with concealed casks of Canadian whiskey rolled through this sleepy village of Ranier. When federal agents discovered a railcar with Canadian whiskey, they rolled the confiscated casks onto the frozen shore and shattered them with axes. Recognizing a different kind of opportunity, locals rushed in with cups and buckets.

In the early 1920s, Ranier and nearby International Falls formed the backdrop for a compelling cast of historical characters and events. A wealthy industrialist was determined to turn the watershed into a series of hydropower dams. A budding environmentalist fought to stop him. A corrupt sheriff known for taking bribes was dismissed by the state governor. The newly appointed sheriff and his deputy, overly zealous to stop bootlegging, bent the laws to their own ends. To the outrage of locals, for example, a bootlegger was shot in the back as he crossed the river, returning to Canada; the sheriff claimed the bullet ricocheted off the water. When two bootleggers were arrested on Rainy Lake, one man begged not to be handcuffed and lost his life when the law enforcement vehicle went through the ice; the remaining bootlegger was blackmailed into secrecy. A kingpin Ranier bootlegger with ties to Chicago won the devotion of his many employees, who chose to serve prison time over testifying against their employer. As a rivalry between this bootlegger and the sheriff escalated, the unthinkable happened: on a routine arrest at a shack for check forgery, the sheriff and deputy were shot and killed.

Owen's character—a young man trying to support his family and establish a business amid the ambiguous moral standards of his hometown—is shaped largely from stories about my own father. Born in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the Depression, my father's early years were hardscrabble. As a boy, and at his mother's instruction, he trailed his father from bar to bar to gather his father's loose change. To earn money for groceries, he raised, trained, and sold white rats. Owen's journey became a way for me to explore my own father's drive for success and his determination to create a different life for himself. I wanted to explore the nature of ambition and what propels us. Owen's father tells him: Everything comes at a price. When does ambition blind us to costs along the way? In the end, Owen must confront hard choices—and the truth—in order to understand the restorative power of love and the true measure of a man.

On this northern frontier, Prohibition created opportunity. Bootleggers smuggled high-quality whiskey via trains, Model T's rigged for rough terrain, small airplanes, and boats. Poised to transport booze from Canada to a thirsty nation, a cottage industry exploded, and with it, accompanying violence, moral dilemmas, and countless untold stories.


Mary Casanova is author of more than thirty books for young readers, ranging from picture books like Wake Up, Island to novels like Frozen and Moose Tracks. Her books are on many state reading lists and have earned the American Library Association Notable Award, Booklist Editors' Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. She speaks frequently around the country at readings and library conferences. She lives with her husband and dogs in a turn-of-the-century house in Ranier, Minnesota, perched on the Canadian border.