The Need to Come to Terms with American Complexity

Photo by Lorenzo Tlacaelel,

            After years of living in Boston, New Haven and New York, Pappy was a bit perplexed that he was moving back to the country.  Of course, upstate New York is not the same as the Nevada where he grew up.  But he knew that upstate New York has a lot more in common with Nevada than it does with coastal cities.  And, after many years of organizing and educating in black and Latino urban communities, and hob knobbing with the upper middle class—and occasionally the one percent—in law school and in non-profit fund raising, he had mixed feelings about returning to his roots of being ensconced among simple country white folks.

            The thing about long drives, especially with one’s wife and kids asleep, is that it leaves a lot of time for pondering.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing.  A man can get into a lot of trouble with too many thoughts, as stories spun internally, and hammered into the mind from external sources in the past, can threaten to create intertangeled vines threatening to strangle.  And so, in his pondering, Pappy couldn’t reconcile the competing strains of thought in his head.  On the one hand, he knew it was the right thing to do—knew he was being “called”—to leave the world of law, politics and non-profits to focus upon ministry, because he knew it was something that the late Pappy, Sr. always wanted.  And he knew even more strongly, that Pappy, Sr. was not comfortable with the increasing notoriety Pappy was achieving, and with the increasing amount of time he spent with white shoe lawyers and corporate executives.  The elder Pap always knew that such folks turned their noses up at him and those like him.

            Thus, in one way, this move felt authentic to Pappy.  It was a move back to his roots where, perhaps, he truly belonged.  But he also knew this was bullshit, as he felt that he really never completely belonged anywhere—certainly not in the cultural vapidity of elites, but also not on the Carson City Ranch where he was raised.   He had always been, as scripture says in 1 Peter, an alien and stranger in this world.   His life—going to elite academic institutions, moving east, falling in love with a Black woman, studying many religious traditions and practicing his faith in many different types of churches—had been defined by trying to come to terms with this sense as an alien.  And this latest move to try to authenticate his existence back on the Red side of the Red/Blue divide was a continuation of this journey.

            “Simmer down Pappy,” he told himself internally as he stole a glance in the rear view mirror to see what it looked like when he pushed his prickly mustache up his nostrils.  Well, he knew what it looked like as he did it often: but he just liked to remind himself how crazy it looked as he experienced the tickles up his nose.  “You make too much of all this existential stuff.  I mean, why couldn’t you just relax and enjoy the fruits of all the hard work you put in.  I mean why the fuck would someone who graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Law School move to Podunkville to make $30,000 a year as a pastor and live with a bunch of country hicks”—Red Necks, as his coastal friends would call them and, as he would be reminded, they proudly call themselves. 

            He felt the need to focus on his breath, as a surge of heat from anger and anxiety traveled through his arms, muscles and shoulders.  This was also a product the chronic pain born of fibromyalgia presently exacerbated from the long drive.   And so, he watched his breath, and tried to notice the ephemeral, impermanent and illusory nature of his thoughts, as he learned from his meditation teacher.   Easier said than done.  But, he did begin to calm down slightly.  And, he remembered complexity.  He remembered his own complexity.  He remembered that the country folks he knew growing up, were good folks, but flawed folks-like many others he had met in different settings.  He remembered that he was a country white boy with a Spanish last name, with an Ivy League education, married to black woman, with two fuzzy headed biracial children and a black and white cat.  He remembered that he is a conservative socialist pro-life evangelical Christian pacifist who owns ten guns, with a Buddhist meditation practice.  There is something truly beautiful about not fitting in anywhere.   It means you can fit in everywhere.   And it means that those people invisibly hidden within the folds of cultural nuance are not invisible to you.

            Yeah, that’s right: white boy with a Spanish surname.  Pappy Sanchez III.  Okay, Melvin Sanchez III.  Pappy isn’t on his birth certificate.  But he, his father, and his grandfather were all called Pap or Pappy by those who loved them, and they encouraged others that they met to call them by such moniker as well.  For the first Pappy, it began when he had his first child, Pappy Jr., but for Pappy Jr. and Pappy III, they were known as Lil’ Pap, Pap or Pappy all their lives.  Perhaps this is because Melvin Sanchez sounds like such an absurd name.  But Pappy Sanchez sounds, perhaps, no less absurd.   But it is the iconoclastic absurdity of the latter name that always appealed to Pappy III.

            According to semi-verified family lore, the beginning of the Sanchez family line as a model of American complexity dates back to the year of the 49ers—1849.  That is the year that Jose Maria Silva Sanchez had sex with Adeline Boughton and, in 1850, Joseph Mary Sanchez (Little Joe) was born. Joseph Sanchez was the grand father of Melvin (Pappy) Sanchez I.  Jose Maria Silva Sanchez was born to a well-heeled Californio family that traced its lineage back to the Spanish conquistadors that conquered Mexico, and, in the early 1800’s were sent to California by the Mexican governor to help govern the territory, earning a 250,000 acre land grant in the then-verdant central valley for doing so.  But family tradition knew that such Spanish lineage before 1849 was not pure, and that the Sanchez’s were American mulatto from the get-go.  19th century letters still possessed by Pappy’s socially awkward cousin Larry—the sandal and white sock wearing family historian and archivist—have Joe describing himself and his father Jose as short, round, and brown, revealing their mestizo mingling of Spanish and Native American.  Cousin Larry excitedly confirmed this fact as soon as cotton swab DNA tests became widely available.  Pappy always felt pride in this heritage, although he wished he had inherited more of the brown, and less of the short and round.

            Jose’s family was kicked off of their land by prospecting American squatters in 1848, forcing Jose and his brothers to get what work they could with gold mining teams to support the family, earning meager slave wages comparable, much to their shame, to the pittance paid to full-blooded Native Americans doing the same work.  But Jose got caught up full in the prospectin’ life.  The song California Humbug captures well the life Jose lived in 1849:


The preacher will preach one day in the week and cause the sinners to tremble

he reads the bible all day but when it's dark with rogues he's bound to assemble


Oh the miner works hard with shovel and pick till his body is feeble and tender

and he goes into town at the end of the week and spends all his dust on the vendor


The miner lay himself down to sleep and the fleas jumping around him while overgrown bedbugs over him creep and leave him a little bit less than they found him[i]


One Saturday Jose lived the life of the rogue and went into Grizzly Flats to get up to no good and spend his week’s wages.  After several whiskeys and a steak that chewed like horse hide, he spent his last few coins to spend some intimate time with Adeline, a daughter of a whore from St. Louis, who had made her way west to escape the business and her reputation, but whose opium habit had other plans.

            A few weeks after that encounter, one of the gentlest Adeline had experienced, her body started whispering about her pregnancy to her.  Unlike usual in such circumstance, Adeline could not bring herself to use an abortifacient.  Perhaps it was because she no longer wanted to experience the extreme nausea and abdominal pain caused by the turpentine-based “medicine” she usually was given; perhaps it was because she had been spending too many mornings lately listening to the one preacher in town that was not a client in dim light; or perhaps it was because the gentle, round and brown client had made an impression upon her and, although there was no way to tell for sure, the timing worked out right. . .

            It turns out that Jose had also been listening to the same chaste preacher, known by local Indians as Elu-wasahast-kua (“He Who Sleeps at Night”).  So, when Adeline told him that she was pregnant, and that it may be hers, Jose resolved to make an honest woman out of her, no matter whom the father was.   So, Jose and Adeline were married in the woods by Rev. “He Who Sleeps at Night,” and they ran off to the Sierra Nevada mountains to live off the land and raise Little Joe who indeed turned out to be. . .short, round and brown.

            Pappy looked again in the rear view mirror of his family’s F150 pickup, and was quite pleased that his scruffy red, brown and gray beard, and his long curly brown hair, continued to grow.  He knew that his country hipster look, with tattoos, earrings, prospector hat, skinny jeans and suspenders, was a bit contrived.  But, in some sense, he didn’t think it any more contrived than any other look, and it seemed authentic on the young blue grass and folk artists he liked from North Carolina, Nashville and Austin.  He also knew that this look, and his family history, and his own history, had led him to this moment, and to this particular leg of his journey.   And he sensed that this part of his journey was also related to the increasing bitterness of the culture wars in America, and the way in which dividing the country into two sides threatens to eliminate its true depth, beauty and unity.

            But Pappy had just enough gray hairs in his beard that he knew not to make too much of what all this meant at that moment.  He had to surrender to God’s will, and let it all unfold organically.  If he tried to figure it all out up front, as was his wont, it wouldn’t work out right and he would continue to be tormented by loneliness, his most faithful lifelong companion.  And so, he took a breath, watched it, and let all of his thoughts, all of his history, and everything in the world, just sit there.  And although it had always, and probably would always, pester him with great angst, Pappy felt momentarily blessed that he didn’t fully belong anywhere.


[i] Matthias Gohl, Lyrics California Humbug, available at, The West : original soundtrack ; traditional American and Native American songs and instrumental music, New York, Sony Classical (1996).