Gustavo Milhojas

"My name is Gustavo Milhojas. I was born in Chinique, El Quiché, Guatamala, in 1960, the year hell came to that country. I arrived in the United States on November 14, 2000. Before that, I resided in México...

I came to the United States to earn more money for my children. They are living with a family friend now while I'm here. I did not think of it so much as a choice as an obligation. It is my obligation to provide a good life for them. My son is in college now, and my daughter will start college next year at Universidad Veracruzana in Orizaba. This makes me happy because I believe it means they will both get to do what they want to do. There are not many people who can say that. 

I thought it would be very difficult to cross. It was after September 11 and the security was supposed to be high. I crowded with a group of men into the back of a van with tinted windows. We were all on the floor, under a heavy black burlap blanket and, on top of that, a lot of empty cardboard boxes that were meant to look like freight. We drove right up to the checkpoint. A guard examined the driver's papers, which were legitimate. The guard did not know we were in the back of the van. He did not even look. The driver simply told him he was transporting construction supplies for a job in El Paso. There was a long pause. All of us in the back held our breath, waiting to be discovered. And then the guard let the driver through. That was it. It was almost unbelievable to me. 

I found a job as soon as I could and began sending money back to my children. I started off in a mattress warehouse, dragging mattresses down metal ramps at the back of the store and loading them onto delivery trucks. When a mattress was defective, sometimes, one of the employees kept it. The bed I have today is from that job. 

For a while, I worked at a canning factory were we packaged chiles and salsa. It wasn't very clean. There were maggots everywhere. The owners blamed the conditions on the workers. Besides that, I didn't like standing in one place for ten hours. We got only one break for fifteen minutes. 

Now I have two jobs. Five mornings a week I work at the Newark Shopping Center movie theater, cleaning the bathrooms and the theaters. I make sure there's toilet paper in the stalls. I mop the floors. I have a wire brush I use to clean the sinks. In the evenings I work at the Movies 10 movie theater in Stanton. That job is harder because there are so many theaters. If too many movies finish all at once, it's a challenge to clean the theaters before the next group of people comes in. I have been reprimanded for leaving an empty cup in the seat arm. Usually I don't have time to go home between my shifts, so many times I eat popcorn and soda for dinner. 

But I am very grateful for these jobs. They allow me to send money to my children to pay for their schooling. When both of them graduate, I would like to go back to México to be with them. My wish is that they'll do something worthwhile with their lives, something more important than sweeping popcorn. I have done what I can for them. I would like to see them give something back."

- Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans, 2014

(Red Country Reading List)

Arizona, May 2017

pink = where I went

This was my first time in Arizona. My only prior connection to the state is ancestral. It is the state through which my maternal great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico.

Susanna (whom I'm named after) and José Robles came to the U.S. in 1917, after a flood devastated their ranch in Hermosillo, Sonora. With hopes of finding work as day laborers, they crossed the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their three children. They eventually settled in Los Angeles. My grandmother, Guadalupe, was their youngest of eight surviving children. I found myself thinking about Susanna and José a lot on this trip; about how the narrative of three generations and exactly 100 years has made my experience of this country so different than theirs.


I flew into Phoenix and stayed the night in an Airbnb - a bedroom in Paul and Harry's home in Scottsdale. Paul has a nice little patio garden in front, which he keeps as tenderly tidy as he does the rest of the house. I asked them the name of the lovely flowering tree in front and Harry spent the good part of an hour trying to find out for me.

We talked about being gay in our different generations and different parts of the country. Harry is originally from Boston and Paul Bangkok, but they moved to Arizona together from southern California. They do Airbnb with the extra bedroom in their home as a way to fund their love of travel. 

I told them I was hoping to see some giant saguaros on my way out of Phoenix and they said I should go to the Desert Botanical Garden; that even if I didn't go inside I could see a lot wandering around the grounds. On my way there I drove through rock formations that looked other-worldly in their terra cotta skin folds and craters. I got out and went for a walk. Bushes with little yellow flowers were in bloom. I admired a giant, weathered saguaro standing its ground in the hot dry quiet, then looked up and found a grey bird with red cheeks sitting inside it, blinking at me. 


The entry fee for the Desert Botanical Garden was $25 so I did not enter and just looked around the grounds like Harry suggested. Their saguaros and succulents were the well watered, flamboyantly blossoming cousins of the toughened ones out in the desert. 

Harry and Paul said that for Mexican food I should eat at Carolina's sometime during my stay. (They told me the neighborhood it's in is often featured on the nightly news because of shootings and recommended I go in broad daylight.) I stood in Carolina's lunch line with a truly diverse crowd that seemed aglow in the comradery that is natural in a situation where you get excellent food for under $5. I thoroughly enjoyed my tacos, rice, beans, and salsa. 


Then I walked around the neighborhood.


Before I left town I stopped by a Mexican grocery store, Los Altos Ranch Market. It reminded me of the store I used to go to with my Grandma in California. 

I took my time driving to Cornville (near Sedona), where I would stay that night. I came across the biggest, happiest saguaros I saw on my whole trip - in a mobile home park in Wittmann, where people have made lovely desert gardens around their homes. 


More scenes between Phoenix and Cornville:


There were confederate flags up on other structures around that little church. 


I arrived in Cornville in the evening and met Maggie, who hosts people in rooms in her home and in tents on her property through Airbnb. She signs her correspondences "Maggie + the Critters." The critters include horses, dogs and cats - all of whom are as sweet and welcoming as Maggie, who gave me a warm hug upon meeting me.  


In the morning she introduced me to her horses. Her beautiful mare Reiny nuzzled me for biscuits. 

Maggie's place is appropriately named Peace Tree Sanctuary. My plan had been to get up early and spend the day exploring the famous sites of Sedona but instead I spent the morning enjoying this special place. 


A little waterfall runs off a canal that goes through the property. From the little creek produced by the waterfall, Maggie has rigged up an irrigation system with PVC pipes to different parts of the land.

I also enjoyed other less functional but still purposeful arrangements. 


Maggie told me about Sedona, as had two dear friends in Seattle who lived there for a while and were eager for me to visit. Originally a sacred place for many Native American tribes, Sedona is now a hot spot for the New Age community. Maggie explained that Sedona and the surrounding area have powerful spots of energy, generated by the earth itself, called vortexes. I was primed for an experience in a magical landscape! 


As it turned out I only had about two hours in Sedona. Maggie told me about a swimming hole in Oak Creek Canyon so I decided to spend my time there, at Grasshopper Point. It was a beautiful drive through the canyon and then a short hike down to the swimming hole. When I got to the beach I stumbled onto a party in progress. Young men drank beer and ate Doritos and played loud country music that occasionally tried its hand at rap. I was there, in my swimsuit I'd clumsily changed into in the back seat of my rental car, but I wasn't there. I was swimming in the cold clear green water at the foot of steep red rocks. I was a fly on the wall at a frat party. 

Scenes driving from Sedona to the Grand Canyon:


One of my dorm-mates from undergrad lives in the Grand Canyon (!) and she invited me to stay in her home there. Miranda and her husband Todd are both employed by the National Park Service - Miranda as a Wildlife Biologist and Todd as an Interpreter. They have a wonderful three year old named Theo, who decked herself out in her finest - hair styled with baby powder - to water plants and paint rocks. We read books together in the evenings. 

In the morning I drove a few miles and parked at the visitor center, then walked to the edge of the south rim. 

Vast many-colored beauty!

I was struck with the standing-under-a-starry-sky feeling of floating between infinite bigness and crushing smallness. 

A very persistent squirrel attempted to join me for lunch. My girlfriend in undergrad was a wildlife major and so by extension I was schooled enough to know not to be swayed by this mammal's cuteness and enable its self-destructive habit. A man taking a picture a few feet away saw me using my chip bag to make noise and shoo the squirrel away and looked at me reprovingly and said "Little guy's just hungry." In defense of my hard-heartedness I offered, "The wildlife biologists in my life taught me not to feed them." He said, "But we're regular people, not wildlife biologists. We don't have to do what they do." I didn't know what to say to that. 


I had thought I'd do a half-day hike and being someone who likes ample water and snacks, ended up with a rather heavy backpack. I felt virtuous rather than excessive (that came later) and validated by the signs everywhere that ask accusingly, "Did you bring enough snacks and water?" as in YES YOU and then provide graphs and charts to show you that YOU DIDN'T. Unlike the assumed average Grand Canyon visitor, I probably had enough water and snacks to reach the bottom of the canyon and back. 


I knew altitude sickness was a thing but somehow thought that since I was young (i.e. younger than many of the hikers I saw bounding up the canyon with ease) and relatively in-shape (not true) and not a tourist (huh?) I would not experience it. I was stumbling around with my too-heavy pack for not very long before I got quite queasy. I kept trying to walk away from the bathrooms only to have to walk back... each time like, WHAT is going on? Look at all these tourists that do not appear to be sick! Miranda and Todd reminded me that night that I live at sea-level. And that altitude sickness is a thing. And I admitted that one's altitude and related sensations are none of them contingent upon one's motives for being in a place or the means by which one arrives there.

Anyway, I had a nice day walking around the rim near the bathrooms. I got to see the sunset, a magnificent gift I hardly believed I got to receive simply by being there. There are small gifts everywhere that don't care if you're worthy of them, but usually you have to look for them. This one was unabashedly grand, and it found me; jumped on me and pulled me in. And it glowed. Many shades of tangerine and lavender. Before driving back to Miranda's I sat in my car where I had cell service and called my family at home. I was about to start the car when a couple rode their bikes past my parked car. The guy asked the girl "How's your stomach now?" and she said, "Oh, better. I guess I just really had to fart." I was glad to know others were having gastro-intestinal reactions to the splendor. 


The next day I drove east to the Watchtower at Desert View. The Watchtower is a structure that was conceptualized, designed and overseen through all stages by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter in 1932. 


Colter wrote a book that functions as a manual for understanding her creation for a very specific audience: [male] tour bus drivers and Grand Canyon guides. Despite being an excellent resource on prehistoric Southwestern architecture, the book has the feeling of a personal letter; its first words are a salutational "Dear boys." Beyond the act of creating this building, it was of great importance to Mary Colter that it be understood, and she didn't trust her luck that someone else would do the job of interpreting and educating for her. So she wrote a book. I grew more fond of her with every page I read. She wanted her work to be experienced in context and known for what it is as well as what it isn't: it is a unique, modern-era building inspired by prehistoric ruins of the Southwest; it is not a replica or restored relic. 


The Watchtower and its surroundings were a visual feast with unexpected surprises around the back of the building, such as cinderblocks on a tarp covering firewood, a pink barrel on stilts, and walls with nooks and crannies. 

On the ground floor of the watchtower, Navajo weaver Florence Riggs (Deer Spring Clan: Mother's Clan, Mexican Clan: Father's Clan) was sharing her process. I asked if I could sit with her and watch her and if I could take her picture. She said yes and I sat on the floor while she worked. It was surprisingly quiet in the room. 

Wall paintings by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie cover the interior surfaces of the Watchtower. Climbing the stairs to the top is like moving through a painting. 


The experience reminded me of the interior painting spaces I've had the privilege of putting my body in in Florence - the fresco-filled churches and monastery cells. The difference was that in Florence, I stood on the firm ground of years of Art History classes. Here, I was completely unprepared and mind and heart experienced an earthquake and tumbled around a little. 


Feeling successfully not nauseous and bathroom-bound on this day, I then took a short hike to Shoshone Point. This hike isn't advertised or described anywhere in the park and there is no sign marking its trailhead. I'd read about it in a library book about the Grand Canyon before my trip, and then Todd told me it is one of the best views of the South Rim. After driving too far down the road and doubling back, I found the trailhead and went on the walk through woods that opens up at the edge of the canyon onto this view, which I had entirely to myself. 


I asked Miranda to tell me about her job as a Wildlife Biologist in the Grand Canyon. She does some field work, some office work, some educational work, and a lot of strategizing and negotiating the intersections between humans and wildlife, which she has some great stories about. Once, a rattlesnake was hanging out at the front door of the visitor center; she used a "snake grabber" (!) to move it to safety. Another time a park visitor took a bat off a wall in the bathroom, brought it into the gift store, and handed it to the cashier. The visitor disappeared and the store keeper had to get a rabies shot. Miranda brought the bat out of the gift store and released it. She told me about these encounters like they were just ordinary days on the job. It was so good to reconnect with this friend after 20 years.

IMG_3873 copy.JPG

On the day I was to fly out of Phoenix, I left the Grand Canyon a different way than I had come so that I could visit Wupatki National Monument. Days ago in Cornville, Maggie had given me some rosemary from her garden to put on the dashboard of my rental car, which smelled strongly of new car smell. The rosemary released its smell as it cooked in the sun and was a comforting presence over the week. 


The Wupatki Pueblo is the remains of a village from the 11th century. It was a kind of multi-use building whose modern-day equivalent might be a multi-storied apartment building with some Airbnb rooms and shops below. People from different regions would meet here to work, play, and gather for spiritual reasons. 


I was especially taken with the blowhole. 


The Blowhole is a human-made (11th century) portal to a naturally occurring crack in the earth of unknown depth and proportions. Depending on the quality of the air pressure outside, warm or cool air will flow in or out of the blowhole, creating wind. Standing over it is like feeling the earth as a body next to you, breathing. 

Mississippi & Louisiana, February 2017

pink = where we went

I had never been to Mississippi or Louisiana before. I think I wanted Mississippi to be my first state for this project because of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam." My imagination had latched onto Mississippi as the heart of a protest song. Anna and I cashed in our frequent flyer miles, with a special uncle to stay at home with our boy. This started out as a single-state trip but at the last minute turned into two states when I realized how much there was to see in Louisiana just over the state line, and that it would be smart for me to visit two states for the price of one plane ticket when possible. But doing both states in four days was rather harried and I'm going to try not to do that again.  

We flew into Baton Rouge and spent the night in this little Airbnb cabin in the woods in St. Francisville, LA.


The next day we drove on bridges across vast swamps to Breaux Bridge, LA. We went to the visitors center, and I asked the woman working there where she thought I should go if I wanted to get a sense of this part of the state. She told me about Lake Martin, and wanted to show me pictures on her computer of what it looks like in the spring; she seemed disappointed that I was going to see it in winter, and not at its best. She said, "It's so serene out there. So beautiful." She's lived in Breaux Bridge her whole life. 

We had a picnic lunch and then went on a ride in boat through Lake Martin with a man named Shawn. Shawn and his dad Butch have a business giving swamp tours. 


I asked Shawn if he grew up around here and he said yes, and that this lake (not technically a swamp, he told us) was his classroom. His dad studied Zoology and Botany and taught him everything he knows. 

He told us about the biology of the lake, about the animals that live there, and about the history and culture of the area: about duck hunters and Cajuns and swimming habits of local youth (not afraid of alligators); about the birders who come faithfully every winter and sit in lawn chairs in hopes of seeing the bird we just saw, but rarely do - a vermillion flycatcher. I didn't even try to take a picture, and instead just watched this quick small flying flash of pure bright red darting through the blue sky.

Alligators aren't active hunters. They just wait for their food to come to them, while lounging and soaking up sun through these crazy bumps on their back. Shawn knows which mama alligator with her kids live in which part of the lake. (Males don't stick around.)


Duck hunters build structures to hide behind. Shawn tells us that people eat what they kill, and that the ecosystem depends on the hunters to stay balanced. But he is not pleased with what gets left behind. 

Near the end of the tour, we were admiring a bird that Shawn was saying makes many trips back and forth to Mexico. Then he said, "Don't tell Trump! He'll build a wall for the birds!" We laughed, and I wondered if he had different jokes for people from different places. 

I was so gobsmacked by this place that I completely forgot about my project. I did not take notes. I had this man alone on a boat for two hours and did not ask him about any other place I should go, not even where we should go for dinner. I later realized that as silly as this was, it was good. I had been in the place and not thinking about a different place. 


After the boat ride we drove to Lafayette, had dinner and headed over to our Airbnb. The map lady in my phone led us astray into the wrong neighborhood, and thank heavens she did, otherwise we would have missed this marvel.

This (3D, moving) thing is in the middle of a neighborhood (?), and in better shape than most of the houses around it. As you can see, it is at ground level (!), so apparently meant to be experienced on foot!

So far we have struck gold with our Airbnbs! Why stay in a hotel again? This one had a little goldfish pond in back. 


In the morning we chatted with our friendly host on the porch. When I told him about my project and asked him to tell me which places we should go, he talked about the land itself; how the Mississippi River has shaped the region by making the soil near it rich and fertile. I thought about the landscape in a new way after that conversation. We said we were thinking of going to St. Martinville, and he said if we did we should go to St. Martin de Tours church, the town's historic Catholic church. 


Inside was a sculptural shrine that I recognized as a recreation of the grotto in France where St. Bernadette had her vision of Mary. I particularly enjoyed the pretend rocks.


Next to the church is this trophy/monument to white American stories. 



We headed up route 61 to Natchez, Mississippi. Nearly there, we got out and looked at Mammy's Cupboard, which I'd read had good biscuits but was closed.

the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

Mammy's Cupboard

Mammy's Cupboard

There was a note on the door saying there had been a family emergency. (The next day we were told that it used to be called Black Mammy's, and that it really was a shame that it was closed when we were there.)

The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

When we got to Natchez we wandered around a little bit. Coming from winter in Seattle, I was enamored of the flowering bushes everywhere. 


Sunset on the Mississippi! 

Our Airbnb was a pink house built in the 1800's just a few blocks from downtown Natchez, owned by a composer. There was a baby grand in the living room. While we sat on the front porch eating breakfast, people drove by waving and shouting "How y'all doin!" 

In the morning we went to the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. When we walked in the director, Darrell White, greeted us and asked how we wanted to structure our visit. Did we want to walk around looking at stuff and find him if we had any questions? Or did we want him to give us a private tour of the museum? I told him I am a painter doing an art project about place, and would love to hear whatever he has to tell me about Natchez. He said, "Sit." So we sat. He spent well over an hour with us. Shortly after we began our lesson, two ladies in elegantly coordinated dresses, hats and shoes came in and sat down and joined us. They are regulars.

We learned a lot in a short amount of time. I took notes furiously. Natchez was one of the most violent and active territories of KKK activity. Guns were legal as long as they weren't concealed; people had guns on them like they do cell phones now, just hanging out of their pockets. There was a group in Louisiana called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. When their kids were threatened and attacked for going to school, the Deacons told their kids to fight back. They would go to school with the kids to make sure they got in and out safely, and they intimidated the Klan with guns. It worked. This inspired people in Natchez to get guns and defend their kids and community with force, if necessary. (This was mid 1960's.) They had more guns than the KKK. It worked. The KKK leader put a 90 day moratorium on Klan activity until they could figure out what to do with the "niggers in Natchez with the guns." 

He told us about Nellie Jackson, who had the most successful, longest-standing African American business in the city's history - it thrived for over sixty years. She used to bail civil rights fighters out of jail, and to help members of the black community in need. I asked, "What kind of business was it?" Darrell White, deadpan: "A brothel." 

In the 1990's Miss Nellie turned away a white man because he was drunk; she had strict rules that she upheld to protect her girls. That night he set her house on fire. Miss Nellie died a few days later. 

I asked him if the house was still there. He said yes, but it's nothing to see. I said I really wanted to go there and he seemed perplexed. I persevered and he told us what street it's on and the cross street.

We had to hurry off (which I regret even more in retrospect than I did at the time) because that day was our only chance to see a nearby cotton plantation. Before we left, he showed me the sad state of his cotton basket that has been picked clean by museum visitors. He gave me a note to give to the owner of the plantation asking for fresh cotton. 

Frogmore Cotton Plantation was just a half hour west over the state line. Learning about slavery and the Civil War as a child, cotton took on this mythic quality for me; as though all of the human suffering that took place at that time was somehow related to the nature of cotton itself. I had never seen it growing in person and felt like I needed to, to satisfy this narrative that lingers, as nonsensical as it is. 


When I was reading about the different plantations, I was surprised to discover that few of them devoted much space or time to communicating the realities of slavery. We chose to visit this plantation because it is particularly invested in telling the story of the people that lived and worked there as slaves. We joined a tour of about ten people and walked through the grounds, the slave quarters, overseer's house, and cotton gin. At one point, the woman leading the tour was showing us a typical piece of clothing worn by the slaves. It looked like a sack and was made of lightweight cotton. The woman told us, "Now, the men had one muslim for day and one muslim for night. The women just had one muslim, period." I still don't know if we should have said something. 


We went and saw the earthen remains of the Natchez Indians. There are mounds covered with nicely trimmed grass. I had a hard time looking at them without imagining the lawnmower that goes over them. 

The mounds were used for different things. One was for the home of the chief; each new chief's home was built on top of the former home and the mound got higher with each generation. Some were for burial, and some for ceremonial use. 

We drove a bit of the beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway which starts in Natchez and runs diagonally across the entire state into Alabama. It is an old path, originally made by animals, then used by Native Americans, then eventually paved over. There is a part of the trail that is preserved called the "Sunken Trace." It was an amazing mammalian experience to walk on an intentional path of earth that has been walked on by so many beings for so long.  


We didn't eat out much and mostly got food from the grocery store to prepare at the house. That night at Natchez Market, the woman in line behind me said she liked my striped pants. I guess the way I said "thank you" communicated that I wasn't from there, because then she asked me where I was from. The cashier joined in easily, naturally, and they asked me how I liked Mississippi and Louisiana. I said I particularly liked Natchez; that I wasn't just saying that. The cashier said she wishes she could go to Seattle. She said she'd never been anywhere outside Mississippi except Georgia. 


The next morning we stopped by the river and then a cafe to get Anna a biscuit. After the young guy behind the counter gave her the biscuits, she asked where she should pay for them. He said, "Aw, I ain't gonna charge ya." Wow! They came with a little container of butter mixed with apricot jam.   


We drove around looking for Miss Nellie's house. It's a white house with red shutters in a quiet neighborhood. Next door there was a family - three generations, I think - sitting on their front steps in the sun. When I got out and went up to the house, they watched me curiously. I got the feeling that people don't ever go there looking for Miss Nellie's house, and that I was intruding. By way of explanation for our presence, I said "Is this Miss Nellie's house?" The woman got up and said, "Yes Ma'am." I looked at the house like it was something to see and took a few hasty pictures while they watched me. When we left, they waved goodbye, and we waved goodbye, and they watched us drive away.


I had the very clear feeling that I was making some kind of mistake during this interaction, but did not know what it was. I thought the mistake was my mere presence there; that I had intruded on this family enjoying their morning. Now, after having had the help of some friends processing this and other interactions on this trip, I wonder if the mistake was not staying long enough. Maybe I should have gone over and introduced myself and told them what I was doing there; offered to share my story as I was entering theirs. 


We drove south and east past Woodville. This is what residential trash cans look like in rural Mississippi. They were empty and dotted the roads lit up by the sun. They're maybe 3 feet cubed. 

Driving down country roads we came upon a makeshift cemetery on a stretch of hilly land on the side of the road. A few of the gravestones were handmade. 

We were going to Clark Creek Natural Area, where we had hoped to have time for a short walk. There were several school buses in the parking lot and as we started walking down the trail we met in dreary, exhausted succession many preteens straggling up the hill. Nearly all of them asked us how much longer it was to the parking lot. When we told them, some were visibly relieved and a few glared at us like teenagers should. "Only 3 more minutes! You're almost there!" then "Only 10 more minutes!" then "Just like 20 minutes!" then, to ourselves, "Damn this is a steep hill. Maybe we should turn around." The teachers with the kids were maybe in their twenties and were giving constant, loving encouragement. I found myself relating so much to both the kids and the teachers. I remembered feeling like that on family hikes - at the end being hungry, thirsty, tired and complaining and my mom pushing me up the hill. 

On our way back to the Baton Rouge airport we stopped at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville. The gardens and grounds are beautiful. Fluffy mounds of pink flowers on green bushes, trees dripping with Spanish moss, little fountains in the middle of geometrically patterned hedges, gazebos, benches in lush alcoves. I found it completely impossible to separate it all from its meaning; not that I think I should try.