It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.
One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.
How the Story Works
The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.
The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:
I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”
“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”
The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:
My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.
The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”
Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:
Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.
He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?
Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”
Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:
- Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
- Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
- Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
- Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
- Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
- Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
- Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
- If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.