The Cherokee are not originally from Oklahoma. Settlers forced
them to disappear west, into air and sky, beyond buildings,
beyond concrete, beyond the rabid land hunger. There was
a trail. There was despair. Reservations carved out of prairie
grass, lost space and sadness in the middle of flat dirt. We landed
in March 1980. We knew nothing about the Cherokee.
Settlers from the South, driven by opportunities and education,
looking for the gold and gifts of immigration, we hid our Spanish,
the shame of accents and poverty, immersed ourselves in cowboy
ways. In school we learned English, read about open, endless
land, a territory there by divine right for those willing, chosen
to till and build, for those exiled, broken out of other lands.
Every spring the second grade celebrated the land rush. Half of us
immigrants flung across the globe, we wanted to be part of the story.
We gathered in costume behind the chalk line in a field across from
Westbury elementary. Girls in calico skirts, bonnets, ruffled blouses.
Boys in straw hats, borrowed cowboy boots, chaps strapped with toy guns.
Parents and picnic lunches waited on the sidelines. The cap gun popped.
The second grade scattered wild, stakes in hand running, ready to claim
our piece of promised land. My parents celebrated the land rush twice,
two of us old enough to live into the strange alchemy of assimilation.
I learned later our stakes professed death, bloodied limbs, hacked up
hearts, bodies crushed, taken from the arid land with the wave of a flag,
the pulsing stampede of wagons, the firing of the starting gun,
disappeared with every second-grade spring picnic.
Two million acres of territory taken in the first land rush.
My immigrant confession: I have ached for my Oklahoma childhood,
my territory story, when the land gave again, held a promise of country
after exile. I have mourned the second-grade land rush, the look on
my parents’ faces as we galloped into yellow grass, screaming breathless
in joy and wildness, when they imagined an America big enough,
wide enough, whole enough to let us in, whole enough not to break us.
Added: Thursday, February 6, 2020 / Used with permission. M. Soledad Caballero’s poem was awarded Second Place in the 2020 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest, sponsored by Split This Rock. Richard Blanco lent his generous acumen as judge for the contest.
M. Soledad Caballero is Professor of English at Allegheny College. Her scholarship focuses on British Romanticism, travel writing, Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), and interdisciplinarity. She is a CantoMundo fellow, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net, has been a finalist for the Missouri Review's Jeffrey E. Smith Poetry Prize, a finalist for the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, and was winner of the 2019 Joy Harjo Poetry Award sponsored by Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. Her poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, the Iron Horse Literary Review, Memorius, the Crab Orchard Review, and other venues. Her first collection won the 2019 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and will be published by Red Hen Press in 2021.