“Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at time like horrible judges.”
-Julio Cortázar, Axolotl
I want to talk to you about axolotls, but in a way I can’t. They have to be seen. I’ve only seen one in my life, at an aquarium 2,831 miles away from their ancestral home at Lake Xochimilco in Central Mexico. There is one other lake where axolotls once lived, Lake Chalco, but it no longer exists. I’ll get to that soon.
There’s something in the face of an axolotl that is blessedly human – or, perhaps, there is something in the face of human beings that reflects the beauty of axolotls. Their neotonic bodies and knowing expressions transcend any notion of age or era. Ominously primordial, with their slow gait and mournful gaze, axolotls feel less like animals and more like manifestations of the Earth itself, incarnations of the rivers and lakes of their perpetual youth.
I first learned of them through Julio Cortazar’s story quoted above. I encourage everyone I know to read it. It’s a beautiful piece, full of incredible prose and disquieting sensuality. It’s also a requiem for these little salamanders. Even in Cortazar’s time they were dying, being found more in aquariums and fish tanks than the bodies of water where they had lived for millennia. The ancient lake Chalco, once the center of early Mesoamerican culture, is gone now, drained to prevent flooding in new housing and business developments. Xochimilco is a shadow of its former self, existing mostly as canals and shallow, oil-slicked pools. Pollution, urban sprawl, and encroaching industrial development will rid the world of wild axolotls soon. Look into the face of an axolotl. It carries the judgment that we deserve.
In Nahuatl, the intricate and beautiful language of indigenous central Mexicans, axolotl means “river monster.” And now the Nahua people are being slaughtered, exported as modern-day slaves and driven off their land. The axolotl is dying with them.
I know this because I was the child of a mother who dedicated her life to the plight of migrant workers. A white woman herself, she learned Mexican Spanish while living in Tucson, Arizona. When she moved with my father to the Seattle area, she ignored the complaints of religious patriarchs and helped lead a church for immigrant families. Through her efforts, and through the kindness and generosity of those who she introduced me to as a child, I developed a deep and abiding interest in Latin American culture. My mother was the one who first introduced me to Julio Cortázar, Laura Restrepo, Elvia Ardalani, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ángeles Mastretta. She taught me about Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara. She called me mi amor – she still does, sometimes, when I call home after too long an absence – and she taught me that things don’t have to be this way.
Being the child of an activist is often like sailing in a glass-bottom boat – you see down into the dark and the cold, but you stay above it, dry. You see the brutality swirling beneath you, held back by the shield of your youth and privilege, the loving barrier my mother erected to keep me from seeing clearly at such a tender age. Under the pretense of visiting a friend or helping a neighbor, she would disappear for a night and be back for breakfast. It was always clear to me how tired she was. I could see it in her face, even as a child. Regularly I would come along with her to visit brown-skinned strangers and listen as they exchanged hushed whispers in Spanish. My mother told me to play with my father while they spoke, and I did. Once or twice I remember waking up at home to find them folding their blankets and pillows after a night on our couch. I know now that if I could see those scenes in my mind as they really were, and not as a child saw them, I would recall the scars, the bruises, the hollow stomachs and weary eyes.
Of course, I learned later that these were not house guests but refugees, battered by husbands or hunted by boyfriends. I discovered, years after the fact, that my mother’s midnight visits to the mobile homes and shacks outside the dairy farms were not for pleasure. She was delivering medicine. She was translating for emergency services. She was begging a mother to take her children and hide for one night in a motel. I never had to witness the suffering she dealt with daily. My mother guarded me, as did my skin and my wealth and my gender. I escaped the violence. My mother didn’t.
My mother was raped, at least once. If there were other times, she’s chosen not to tell me. I was shocked when I first heard, but now realize how absurd my astonishment was. Around the world, there’s a one in three chance that a woman will experience sexual violence or domestic abuse. Double that for indigenous women, at least. Most female activists I talk to say even these estimates are too low. When my mother sat me down on her bed and told me about the man who raped her, I felt an overwhelming urge to find and kill him. I wanted to end his life. I’m proud to say that I still do. I don’t think I’ll ever lose my hate. I pray every day that I don’t.
Every two minutes in this country, a woman is raped, and I hope I don’t ever go two minutes without letting that fact overwhelm me with fury. Every day, tens of thousands of children starve on their own land while globalized corporations steal the fruits of their labor, and I hope I don’t ever take a bite without remembering that. Every step I take is on indigenous land. Every road I drive down is built on the mass grave of sixty million American bison. Every cell phone call I make disrupts the travel patterns of migratory birds. Every piece of clothing I wear is stitched by the weak to make money for the strong. For all of this, I pray I never lose my rage, but I pray for more than that. I pray that the rage I feel will propel me to fight. Every moment I sit by and despair, feeling sorry, the Earth dies a little more. If my mother taught me anything, it’s that we don’t have time for self-pity. We don’t have time to congratulate ourselves for our sorrow. It’s not enough to remember, to see clearly. What matters is action. The trees, the rivers, the animals, human and non-human, they don’t have time for us to sit and cry. So if we cry, and we will – we should – we have to cry while fighting on.
My path to activism began when I learned that axolotls were dying, when I learned my mother had been raped. I’ve discovered a lot since then, thanks to Andrea Dworkin, Leonard Peltier, Lierre Keith, and others. I know more now. But what keeps me going in this war against civilization is not scholarship or theory – it’s the twin curses of agonizing empathy and belly-deep hatred, the two beating hearts that keep every warrior alive. It’s the look on my mother’s face. So yes, I’m fighting for the Earth and every living creature on it. But sometimes, in the darkness and the despair, that’s too big. Sometimes I can’t bear the weight of the planet on my shoulders. It’s too much. It’s overwhelming. It’s scary and stressful and impossible to wrap my mind around. But the little stream I just found a few miles from my house isn’t, so I’ll fight for that. I’ll fight for David, the indigenous man I met last week who is homeless on his own ancestral land. I’ll fight for my mother, for the battered women who shared the living room floors and couches of my childhood. And I’ll fight for the axolotls. They need me, and I’m here.
A special thanks to my mother for allowing me to discuss her experiences. If you would like to share this essay, know that she encourages her story to be told.
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