Interview by Lara Lilllibridge
Cecile Pineda is an-award-winning Chicana novelist, memoirist, theater director, performer, and activist who felt misplaced throughout much of her early life. Her father was an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and her mother was a French-speaking immigrant from Switzerland. Pineda, born in New York City, felt culturally disconnected from both of her parents, while also ill at ease in U.S. culture. In her life, we see the strange intersection of immigrant politics, troubles with ethnic identity, and the instability of family ties.
In Entry Without Inspection, Pineda brings it all together, reconciling her past (much of which she had to piece together from vague memories and parental clues) while tracing how she formed her own identity through prose and theater in the absence of known roots. But as Pineda discovers, her life story doesn’t belong solely to her but is interwoven with those of her families, whether biological or chosen, and of the world around her. Because of this, Pineda’s memoir features parallel stories, that of her life running alongside and being informed by those of other immigrants.
Pineda traces her story while also documenting the work of the first whistleblower to reveal an immigrant death in detention, in 2009, with the storylines converging to reveal the lasting consequences of U.S. immigration policy. She explores the ripple effects of these policies over generations, revealing the shocking truths of marginalization and deportation. Pineda exposes both the cultural losses and the traumatic aftereffects of misguided U.S. immigration policy. Entry Without Inspection is a truly American story in all its historical and emotional complexity, one in which personal ethics and political commentary are necessarily and inextricably interwoven. (University of Georgia Press)
Lara Lillibridge: First of all, I wanted to ask you about the structure of the book, which is so unusual. You have these two really distinct threads. How did you decide that this was the best way to tell your story?
Cecile Pineda: There are actually three threads. The third one being that from the beginning, I wanted to include excerpts from my fiction and nonfiction. And the reason for that is that a colleague of mine asked me a very interesting question when she was doing a chapter in her book about my work. Her name is Marissa López, she teaches at UCLA. She asked me, ‘how did your theater impact your fiction, your writing?’ And I thought that was a very important point to try to clarify. So, that’s kind of a little bit how I started.
And it was a long process. Many drafts, okay, many, many drafts although the current wisdom is that the first draft shows you what the book is about—but no, there are many more drafts before you know what the book is about and particularly in this one, and I’ll tell you why.
I’ve always been very shy of writing about myself, I don’t really think it’s an interesting subject, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve deferred it until very late in life. I now have a certain perspective; I couldn’t have told you this when I was 30 years old. But now I can tell you, and I think as women’s history goes, it’s a very important life to document. Because I was born on the cusp between a period where women traditionally stayed home, and women had just begun to strike out into public spaces. But because no biographers came breaking down my door, I determined to write my own story.
And of course, I also determined from the very beginning that I would include excerpts from my work. I realized that, with the American obsession with celebrity, the life story of a two-bit nobody would be of absolutely no marketable value. At first, the impulse to include the thread having to do with immigration was simply an impulse to include the first nonfiction writing I’d done. But as I worked, I began to realize how deeply my own life had also been impoverished by that story—the dawning realization culminated in an active search to overturn my father’s refusal to share any details of our past or his own origins with me.
I published my first nonfiction in 2009, when I interviewed Jean Blum. Now why is that significant? Well, Jean Blum is the first whistleblower that drew attention to a death in detention.
The New York Times got on the stick finally, when there was a Freedom of Information Act release two years later. And The New York Times did a report that included that at that point, there had already been 106 documented disappearances in immigrant detention. I’ve seen those files, and a number of causes of death as reported by the examining coroner was asphyxiation.
CP: Oh, yes, indeed. Although Jean Blum had the American dream life, she had struck out in her 70s and done this remarkable work. I wanted to include it because I felt that was a very significant part of my work, and then I started to work on developing this narrative of immigrant detention. And I began to realize that it had very seriously impacted my own life, because my father had deliberately withheld from me all details of our past and all details of his life prior to coming to the US at the age of 16. Although I was parented, essentially I was an orphan in the sense that I never knew from whom or where I came.
LL: You had no people.
CP: Yeah. And that, you know, looking back, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this at the age of 30, or even 50. But looking back now, I can see the tremendous cultural impoverishment resulting from the choice he made. And it’s particularly ironic because he was a linguist. He was an intellectual. And he was very much interested in the history of the Spanish speaking world.
LL: Yet, you spoke French at home, right?
CP: Oh, yes, well, because my mother was French-speaking. And because she categorically stated that she was unable to learn Spanish. And therefore my father said, ‘Oh, well, then we’ll speak French at home.’ So that was the language that we spoke. I have no idea what his acquaintance with French was before he studied at Harvard. He studied linguistics at a time when Harvard was the go-to place for linguistic philology. But you see, his grandfather was French.
LL: That’s so curious.
CP: At the time I was married, I was 27. And we went honeymooning in Mexico and visited my cousins in Mexico City. My cousins told me that my grandfather was half-French and told me his father’s name, so I knew how to find my grandfather. I knew his name and I knew his father’s name.
LL: You have a quote that I loved so much that I wrote it down here. It says,
…eventually it gave me the idea that if people could somehow map the movements of related languages, they would figure out the path of human migrations long before people thought of writing anything down. Somewhere in there, language and landscape and the story of how people got to where they were got all mixed up together.
And that just goes along so well to me with what you’re saying about your own personal family,
CP: I cannot tell you how deep that goes. It’s a very deep feeling. And I’ve had it from very early on. I finally addressed that issue in a nonfiction work called Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World. I ask the question, what is there about the West, about Europeans? And particularly about America, that is so wedded to violence and warfare? Is there something in the remote past that would explain such a thing?
I didn’t enter that project with a predetermined idea—I never do. I never know how it’s going to end. I used research from archeology, from anthropology, from linguistics, and animal behavior and natural history and theatre.
To more or less embark on that question, I read all of the work of Marija Gimbutas. She refers to a Kurgan invasion, which occurs mas o menos, 3000 BC. This was an invasion of the Yamnaya, stockmen from the steppe. That’s now part of what we call Russia, but of course, then it was pre-history. Well, this is the story of Cain and Abel, basically. The original European population at the time were hunter-gatherers, and they had also begun to practice simple agriculture. But these were stockman, they needed more land to graze their animals. Within 1,000 years, they had completely swept over the face of Europe.
And what’s wonderful about the story I’m telling you is that the hypothesis I advanced when the book was written has been confirmed scientifically now through DNA—that research has recently been completed at Harvard. There was an article in the December 14 New Yorker called, “The Skeletons at the Lake,” about an obscure lake in the Himalayas, and embedded in that article is a mention of David Reich’s research. So I went to the source—I’ve just finished Reich’s book, Who We Are and How We Got Here, and it shows that the original European Y-chromosome has been replaced by the chromosome of the Yamnaya people who were Kurgans.
So what we gather now is that there must have been a massive massacre of male people, either that or they were prevented from reproducing, and that women were enslaved and forced to procreate the offspring of the Kurgans—that’s right in the message of the bones.
CP: Oh, it’s totally wow, and I can’t tell you how I felt about discovering that, you know, there was now scientific corroboration of a hypothesis that I basically advanced in 2016 when the book was published. Actually, I started working on that project in 2013. But it was published in 2016.
LL: When you say ‘stockmen’ do you mean herders of animals?
CP: Yes, probably sheep and goats. And also, they were the first to bring the wheel to Europe, because as herders, they needed wagons.
CP: They brought wagons and of course, they brought weapons and warfare, they brought patriarchy, and Sky gods, but the most important, and the most lethal weapon was Proto-Indo-European language. And through generations, language is the conduit of the world view held by the people who speak it.
Because all of us speak Proto-Indo-European-descended languages, except for four.
LL: Which four languages? Do you know, off the top of your head?
CP: The exceptions are Hungarian, Finnish, and one more and I don’t quite remember. Maybe it’s Anatolian, which is now extinct. But Hungarian for sure. And Basque, which is very interesting. Because the Basque Country, you know, that’s literally the end of the road—once you get to the ocean the invasion can’t proceed any further. Well, until 1492, when there is the technology to go invade elsewhere, and massacre the indigenous population of the Americas. And that’s where my story comes in. Yes. It’s quite remarkable.
LL: Interesting, very interesting.
CP: Oh, yeah.
LL: And how interesting that, you know, something that you were working on so long ago, other people are proving it for you now. I just read a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
CP; Yes, I’ve heard of it but not read it.
LL: She’s an indigenous writer from Canada.
LL: One of the things she talks about is that if you go all the way back to our creation stories—the creation story common in North American indigenous peoples about Sky Woman coming down to the earth and the animals gave her everything she needed. It was a life in harmony. And then when you take the Biblical view, where Adam and Eve are thrust out on their own, and they’re forced to go take dominion over the land—the whole creation story is one of violence in a way, and not about living in harmony, but about taming the land. And she talked about how just the belief system through all the generations created two very different kinds of people, the conquerors and the people that lived in community with each other.
CP: Stable people. You know, that’s very interesting, I think, so much is embedded in those mythologies. My book Apology to a Whale talks about how humans learned from animals.
LL: I’m going to have to look that up. That sounds absolutely fascinating.
CP: Yeah. I wrote three works of nonfiction prior to this one. And I think that of the three I think that Whale is the work that I stand by most emphatically. It’s written, as you pointed out with Entry Without Inspection, it’s written in crots. And I’ve adhered to that approach pretty much throughout my career. There’s almost no sequential writing except in Love Queen of the Amazon. There’s nothing really adventurous about that novel. Well, there’s one little section that is a little bit –a slice of good bologna in the midst of the white bread. It’s a fun book, okay, it’s very fun. It’s sexy, and so forth, and Americans love that. But, but all my other work is written in crots.
LL: I personally like when I’m surprised by the form of a book. I think you’re primed to pay closer attention when it’s not just a linear story. Each segment or braid builds on each other in a different way, and it makes you think about the work as a whole. I feel as if Americans value moving quickly, speeding through life. Just looking at your table of contents, you have like the left side and the right side, and it primes the reader to slow down and pay attention and see what there is to learn from this work.
CP: That’s the wisdom of it. And, you know, it’s a mosaic in the sense that with art, the human eye has to combine the mosaic—it’s the same with Cubism. The human eye combines them at a distance in a different way than it sees them close up. There’s a kind of collision, let’s call it, and the three strands in this book rub against one another. And they create a third force that is very much more energetic and inviting to the reader because I think it respects the reader. It allows the reader to ponder and to ask, Well, what the hell is this all about? It’s a teaser in this book, because you don’t know at first where it’s going. But eventually you find out, the railroad tracks merge in the distance.
LL: Did the editors give you any pushback about the form?
CP: I have never allowed people to interfere with my work. The one thing I feel very secure about, and that I always have felt very secure about, is the quality of the work. And I have had help, as you know.
LL: Reading the book, I was struck with how really true to yourself you were, and both at a time and in a family that was not encouraging of women having a voice and becoming an artist.
CP: I thank you very much for saying that. But I’m not all together as rosy as we might like to think. There were five years in my life, where basically, I chose—it was very unconscious, but it also it was conscious—I chose to live a lie. That’s not being true to yourself. There are many single mothers who said ‘enough’ and walked out. I did not have the courage to do that. My children were too young. So it’s not altogether true. I just want to make sure that we understand that.
But I feel so privileged because I’m one of those very rare women whose fathers paid attention to us. And I venture to say that there are almost no women who have come to some kind of prominence who have not had attention from their fathers. There’s a wonderful memoir, When Memory Speaks by Jill Ker Conway. She was the child of a sheep herders in Australia, and she became the president of Smith College. It’s superb. And she points out that she had tremendous attention from her father, she had to because she was her father’s co-worker on the ranch. If she fell off a horse when she was seven years old, that was tough luck; she had to figure out how to get back on because she was alone in the outback. And that’s just one example.
LL: Umm, hmm.
CP: So you know, I was very privileged in that way. And I was deeply privileged because I had a fabulous godmother. In a certain sense she was really the mother of my heart. She went to bat for me several times when my family was entirely too oppressive in my life as a young adult coming up as well as a college-aged person. I’ve also been very privileged by my three male mentors, who were Jewish, and who were all affected by the Holocaust.
LL: I thought that was a very interesting theme, or sub-theme throughout your book was how many people that were important to you were affected by the Holocaust.
CP: You know, that’s not quite an accident. At that time in New York City there were no Mexicans. And even if they had been, I don’t suspect that my father would have hung out with them. Because he was an intellectual and really his nation was his books. And that’s another place where I was very advantaged. You know, I came with the dead weight of all that European culture. At Columbia, and Barnard there were a number of people who had been in concentration camps. So it’s not entirely accidental that that happened. And of these three Jewish people who were so important to me, one includes my husband.
And you know, when a relationship is that deep, you inherit that person’s history as well, and particularly when your own history is absent, it fills a void, and it has colored my life and my work.
LL: Speaking of your husband, I wanted to talk to you about names because I think names are very important. Personally I’ve been divorced twice so I’ve had three names. I had my father’s name growing up, but my parents were divorced and my mother took her maiden name back in 1976, when nobody went by their maiden name. So in my family of origin, we had all of these names. And, you know, I just think names are such a female issue. You wrote,
I would take my husband’s name. At the time, if I pondered it at all, I considered that it would provide a welcome erasure of a troubled past. That I was putting the search for my true identity on ice never once occurred to me.
And I did, too. I mean, my first husband was Italian from a very large family and I just sort of embraced his cultural identity. I came from a small family with no extended family in town, very few cousins at all.
And I also related to having a troubled childhood and wanting that fresh start, to no longer be associated with my family of origin. And then, when I got divorced, I was very happy to take my name back. And actually, my first husband, the only thing he asked for in the divorce was that I give him back his name. He did not want me to keep his name.
CP: That’s very rare.
LL: Yeah. And then, I thought it was really interesting that then you asked your son’s opinion, when you got divorced, on what to do with your name, because when I got divorced, the second time, I also had two children, two sons, actually. But they were one and three years old, so they didn’t get to have opinions.
CP: Mine were not that young and yet you see, they were not old enough. They were 12 and 16. They were amazingly heroic. I mean, what they basically said is that if Dad feels he has to leave, that’s what he should do, and the only thing I don’t like is to see my mother in tears.
CP: As I said, they were 12 and 16. So of course, I was going to ask them as a courtesy and as a gesture of respect to them. And they were too young to say, sure, take it back. You know, they weren’t going to do that. They said, ‘we would like to feel that we had two parents.’ I could argue with that, but that was their perception, not mine.
LL: You know, as my sons have gotten older, one of them has expressed a sort of sorrow that our names don’t belong together, that we don’t have that one family one name thing, and I felt terrible as a mother about that, but I couldn’t bear to keep it.
CP: Mine were young, you know. This submerging of women, their voice and their existence, and the importance of their caretaking perspective needs to be corrected—the custom of submerging one’s identity behind a husband’s name is no longer appropriate, but erasing one’s history is likewise inappropriate.
I like the Icelandic surnames which reflect both authenticity and a refusal to submerge gender, and the Russian accommodation, where the male names end in –ski, and the female names in –skaya. So in both languages, although you do lose your name in marriage, what you don’t lose is your gender.
But I am very proud of my maiden name. I don’t want to erase my history because that’s what I come from. But it is a colonial name. It was bestowed on thirty Zapotec Indian children in 1746 by a well-meaning Spanish woman. She gave them her name, and had them baptized to save their immortal souls from the white man’s Hell. That’s how, our original name was lost in 1746. And there’s no way to really trace it.
LL: I’m amazed that you were able to trace it back that far.
CP: No, no, I had help. Let me tell you, it’s a colleague who teaches in Bloomington, Anya Peterson Royce, and she married into that clan. She’s an anthropologist. She’s written about Zapotec burial customs, and so forth. And she authored the article I found on the internet about my grandfather. So I got in touch with her. And it’s through her good graces because she has access to the archives of Juchitán, my grandfather’s place of origin.
LL: How wonderful that you just looked her up and that she was willing to help you.
CP: You know why? Women.
LL: And see, I was going to say women helping women!
CP: Yes. There’s a whole different attitude. Not including people like Maggie Thatcher. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Indira Gandhi. Not all those hyenas. But people whose minds have not been colonized by patriarchal mythology and patriarchal myths, thank God.
LL: And you said this in the emails we exchanged back and forth leading up to this interview, that the Mexican way is one of graciousness and generosity.
LL: Absolutely. That’s my experience in life. You know, I’ve not lived in Mexico, but I’ve been in Mexico a number of times. I did teach in San Diego for a brief time, and I had all sorts of students, including many working class Americans and many Mexicans. The smallest thing that I did for my Mexican students, I’d get a thank you, I would get an acknowledgement. It was very touching. And they were not rich people. I mean, it cost them just send me a little card or something, so no gifts, but a little acknowledgement. That’s a sweetness and it means so much.
LL: Just taking the time to say the words is a gift.
CP: It’s that you pay “right attention’ as Arthur Miller wrote. Yeah.
LL: That’s beautiful.
LL: And you found a generosity of spirit towards your parents, in a way…
CP: You know, that’s true.
LL: You found a peace.
CP: Well, here’s the thing. I think it’s Lincoln who said that after age 40 you have the face you deserve. I heard that and I didn’t want a cranky face. I didn’t want the burden of hatred. I didn’t want the burden of resentment. That cripples a life. And you know what? It cripples a person’s health, too.
LL: They say forgiveness is healthiest for you, even more than for the other person.
CP: I’m a fundamentally very lazy person. I work very hard, but I’m fundamentally deeply lazy. And I didn’t want to carry that burden.
LL: Do you have any secrets for how you were able to lay it down?
CP: Well, you come to a certain awareness as you get older, you have children of your own.
LL: I think in my life having children made me see my parents differently, made me see them as humans that were struggling with their own pasts and their own issues. You had this line,
“…my parents’ cruelty may have had very little to do with me, an insight that would come to me only in adulthood.”
And that, to me, was very much true, but I couldn’t see as a child. It was only as an adult that I could see my parents as flawed humans. I think writing helps too.
When you’re trying to tell a story that’s well rounded and fully fleshed out, you have to have some kind of sympathy for all of the people in the story, you have to get some kind of perspective. Here’s the exact quote, I underlined it:
Recognizing his bent figure, even at that distance, made me realize how old and weary he had become. It no longer made me sad. I simply accepted our estrangement as a fact of life.
CP: I was a very young woman, probably 25 or so. But the perception about my mother came with writing this book. I had forgiven her, but I never understood her, because I didn’t take the time, and because I really didn’t like her very much. So I never paid attention. I never asked the question. When I published this book, I thought, and oh, wait a minute, your father’s all over this but your mother, she’s the silent presence here. What about her? How can you explain her?
Well, guess what? She went throughout her entire life, mourning the death of her two little sisters. It’s right there. And when I came out the wrong color with the wrong eyes. Well, that explains everything. She had to be in her 80s to tell me that my eyes were beautiful.
CP: And it knocked the socks off of me when she said that.
LL: it’s amazing that she finally got to that point and was able to say it.
CP: She finally did, and I just wept. It was too much to hear it that late.
LL: Before we go, do you have any advice for any writers struggling to believe in their voice, or the importance of their words?
CP: I shoot myself in the foot with that question. For example, I once said on a teaching job interview that everyone is born knowing all the things a human needs to know, and for creative writing, I offer the same: the study of creative writing is a scam. The only way really to learn to write is to read—read the very best, hardest hitting, uncompromising, vulnerable writers, and start with Beckett.
LL: Let me ask you one last question: is that you on your book cover?
CP: Yes. That’s me in the heart of the labyrinth at Knossos. It was taken by my husband, Felix, in 1974. I would never have left that marriage—I really did love him. But he felt he needed to go. I did not fulfill his expectation of what a woman needs to do, which is, quote, to take care of men. And I did you know, but even so it was not easy. It was his hunger. It had nothing really to do with reality, it had to do with his formation, because he was farmed out as a child. He never knew a mother’s love until he was 10 years old. Yeah. So you see, it had to be the way it was. There is no bitterness on my part.
LL: We all end up not where we plan to be, but perhaps where we need to be.
CP; Absolutely, and that answers another one of your preliminary questions, which is, how did you choose this theme? My perception is just the opposite. The theme chooses the writer. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I never do. I never know how a book will turn out. That’s the fun part. And I feel that if it interests me, it’s going to keep the reader reading. That’s the secret.
LL: To me, that’s the kind of writing—when you’re immersed in your story and you can’t set it down and you can’t stop thinking about it. Even if it’s a hard story, you’re obsessed with it. You don’t know where it’s going, and you’re discovering it as you’re writing.
CP: That’s the bliss right there. Yes. You’re just… you’re making the connections. Well, this has been a pleasure. Let’s do it again. I’ll have to publish another book.
LL: I think that’s a good plan! Thank you so much.
About the Author:
CECILE PINEDA was the founder, director, and producer of the Theatre of Man and is the author of several books, including Face, Frieze, and The Love Queen of Amazon. Her novels have won numerous awards, including the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. She is also a professor emerita of English at San Diego State University. Find her online at Cecilepineda.com.