Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop at Southwest Bakersfield Library in Bakersfield, California.
When I was eight, my parents packed all five of us kids into an old, avocado-green station wagon and drove us to Bakersfield to pick onions. Once there, we toiled in the vicious heat, snapping enormous green scissors, filling coarse brown sacks with dusty white onions. One foreman came by every so often to halfheartedly shoo us kids off the field. Within minutes after he disappeared, we’d run back to our parents to help with the onion picking or the dragging of sacks that inevitably grew heavier with each added onion.
We were supposed to work the fields for several weeks that summer, but at night while we camped out and fought over the bare mattress laid out at the back of the station wagon, we beseeched our parents to take us home. The smell of onions permeated our clothes, skin, and hair. It burned our eyes and lingered on our tongues. After a few days, my father shook his head in defeat, saying we were the worst workers he had ever seen. As we drove out of Bakersfield, we waved goodbye to the onion fields from the rear window, promising never to return.
Thirty-three years later I’m in Bakersfield again, standing before a group of workshop participants at Southwest Library. It’s a small, ethnically diverse group of nine and their ages range from twelve to sixty. Some of them have aspirations of memoir writing; others have come simply to practice writing. I share my onion story as a means to discuss memoir writing (how place, sound, smell, and taste trigger snapshots of what we’ve lived). We do several exercises to probe into the personal stories archived in their bodies.
One exercise asks participants to write about a memorable place. Another asks them to use one of Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes as a springboard to write about their names. Both exercises produce intimate recollections, and it is through the sharing of these intimate recollections that we connect with one another.
Maria, the library branch supervisor, reveals a long-kept secret. “Well, you see,” she says “my name isn’t actually Maria.” The name was given to her by a group of Catholic nuns in the Philippines and it stuck. A great beginning to a memoir. Maritza, from Guadalajara, Mexico, was named after a character in a Brazilian soap opera. And Gene, the middle-aged man whose Mexican parents didn’t speak a word of English, was named after Gene Autry, the American performer known as the "Singing Cowboy." As Gene shares his story, his wife leans into him and mumbles, “I never knew that.”
Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.