I buy too many books. Most of them spend weeks, if not months, on my bookshelf before I even read them. One of my recent buys was a marked down copy of Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. I’d never read any of Vowell’s work before, but had listened to a few of her quirky takes on US history as a contributor to This American Life. I decided $4 was a good price for stories about presidential assassinations.
I took Assassination Vacation with me on my family vacation to Cozumel. There was nothing historical about our trip (save for visits to Tulum and Chichén Itza), no US presidents and definitely no assassinations. However, it was a family vacation and you can’t rule out a little family-cide.
I didn’t have much time to read about the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley while we traipsed around Cozumel and the Yucatán Peninsula. However, I found myself reading a lot during the arduous trip home. I read aloud some of the weird connections during the chapter on Lincoln to Adrian, who got stuck sitting next to me on both flights.
By the time we touched down at LAX, I was hooked.
Now, let me admit something. I like history. History (or social studies) was one of my favorite subjects in school. In eighth grade I made a black top hat, dressed in drag and donned a fake beard to portray Lincoln for Mrs. Isaacson’s class. I don’t remember if I recited any of Lincoln’s famous speeches, but I did read a lot about his assassination. Little facts stuck in my mind like useless trivia. I still don’t know why I didn’t major in history, probably because everyone else was a history and Chicana/o Studies major and I didn’t really feel like taking History 1, Western civilization.
As soon as I finished Assassination Vacation, I did what I usually do when I decide I like an author, read everything else she published. I tracked down Vowell’s other publications through the LA Public Library online database. I picked up Radio On: A Listener’s Diary, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and requested Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World from another LA library, which I just finished reading today.
Vowell’s other publications didn’t let me down. In fact, I liked her even more when I read this passage in Radio On
I have a soft spot for Sousa only because of a misspent youth decked out in a dorky hat in the low brass section of the marching band, not because his punchy rhythms are meant to shoot my hand over my heart. The clichéd signifiers of Independence Day, especially the militaristic anthems, have nothing to do with me, my life, or why, despite the violence this country has wrought in the name of peace and freedom, I remain somehow proud to call myself American (p. 103).
I could identify with her feelings about Sousa. I feel guilty for humming along to Sousa’s Semper Fidelis, the Marine Corp anthem, when I think about the line “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” But Semper Fi was always so fun to play when I was that “youth decked out in a dorky hat in the low brass section of the marching band.”
I can’t relate to the last five words of Vowell’s Sousa confession. I don’t ever call myself American, unless I have to fill out an immigration form to enter Mexico (ironic, I know). This isn’t a byproduct of being a MEChista or a Chicana/o Studies major. In fact, I can only remember once in 5th grade when I had a weird sense of patriotism. That feeling quickly faded as I came of age in the 1990s and immigrants — particularly undocumented Mexicans — became California’s scapegoat for the recession. So it’s all Pete Wilson’s fault I’m not assimilated as much as Samuel Huntington would like.
Or you could blame my parents. After all, in first grade, my mom was the one who sent me to school dressed like a waitress at a Mexican restaurant on September 16th, Mexican Independence Day.