In a Tennessee town called Cosby, out by the Smoky Mountains, there’s a place that used to be a restaurant, called the Front Porch. By day, it’s an art gallery and an event space, but everyone who knows the space well tells me that nighttime brings another presence into it. Her name is Aline Guzman, the restaurant was hers until she died.
She walks the halls at night, from the front gallery to the stove to the side rooms and back again. She sits in the kitchen, where she used to cook, and closes her eyes and smells hot pepper and frying onions, nopal, carne asada. She opened it as the first Mexican restaurant in all of Cocke County; she called it the Front Porch (why not at least Pancho’s Porch, her daughter argued) so that Cosbyites would come and see what she had to offer. It was her life’s work: open from the 1980s until about 2013, and a favorite for the Cosby community.
Aline liked to serve up fusion dishes, the better to accustom local folks to the sweetness and spice of Mexican food. Hamburgers with a twist - maybe with nopal cactus on them. Quesadillas that are just like grilled cheese, really, just try it. The place became famous for bluegrass on the back porch, every weekend. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that once in a while, a group would come through and play some old fashioned norteño - northern Mexican country music, mostly ballads about losing your girlfriend, losing your money, losing your dog, maybe even losing your truck.
Aline Guzman was a newcomer to Appalachia. Now she’s a part of its history. There’s a rumor about rural places that they don’t change, but seeing as this country is an imperialist construct that’s only 250 years old to begin with, I’d have to disagree. Rural America can change fast. When Aline Guzman opened her restaurant, that was the only Mexican food to be had in most of Tennessee; today almost every town has its own Front Porch, and most of them don’t even bother to serve hamburgers. In 2018 almost everybody knows what an enchilada is.
Static views of the region are prevalent not only outside of Appalachia, but within it, turning the gnarly and twisted paths of time and change into a flat circle. Appalachian culture, especially when commodified in tourist pamphlets and museums and fancy food festivals and unsavory Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Theatre, looks like it’s right out of the 1930’s. Like things haven’t changed at all since the first whack at the trees and the first load of coal ever dug. A photographer friend of mine, and North Carolina native, mentioned to me once that they were so sick of all the old pictures of a lonely and elegiac Appalachia: a single bike on a rotting porch, a somber child with a cigarette. Always a picture of one person or none, a picture of things falling apart; often black and white, even though color film has existed for about seventy years now. Like people aren’t here being queer, making strange new art, going to clubs, dying their hair purple, walking dogs, being loved and hurt and sad and happy with one another and with the place they’re in, facing the future and planning to thrive in it.
I’m a futurist in my work. I work on an issue that would have seemed strange to me many years ago, when I was drawn into movement work by tales of poisoned water and dynamited forests, by valley fills and slurry ponds. I wanted to work on water and land, but the rural people I worked with understood that the tapestry of change in Appalachia was complex; they wanted to be a part of the future, to shape it, to add their ideas into the chaotic and beautiful digital mess that crosses oceans and borders like they’re nothing. We decided to work on broadband access- work that involves understanding wires and cables and signals, the flows of data that cross what is poetically known as the backbone; the lines of copper and glass that crisscross the country and the world like a great skeleton. We understood that you can work with the earth and honor the past, and that also, in order for people to live good lives in Appalachia, we can and should understand technology, how to operate it, how to own it and make it ours. This work is about the past, which is something we can remember and hold; but it’s also about how the past was not always ideal, and the worst of it has brought us to the worst of the present.
I’ve been reading a book lately, called Emergent Strategy, a sort of movement self-help book. The author, adrienne marie brown, says: movement work is science fictional in nature. We’re talking about futures that we can only imagine - and we’re working backwards from there. Besides, movement work is augmenting reality, isn’t it? Changing a world that’s resistant to justice, by sheer will and people power? We believe reality is malleable, that structures that uphold the world can shift and even topple. As Ursula K. LeGuin, a science fiction writer, once said: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Anyhow, Aline’s still there, at the restaurant, while Cosby changes around her. I don’t know what time is like to a ghost, but I imagine it all seems to be going very fast. Appalachia changes like anywhere else, through industry and capital or democratized knowledge and cooperative economics; our job is to shift the balance, through organizing, through collective action, towards a just economy that might resemble the past but might also be something new entirely.