My Chicano father’s story of war and loss, in countless ways, articulates my concerns about the impact of pollution on my children and me. He suffered from the effects of Agent Orange, a toxin weaponized during the Vietnam War. When I was born, I emerged with a skin defect that produces epidermal thinning and blistering on sun-exposed areas. I’m proof of the consequences of my father’s exposure and the continued consequences of 20th century U.S. foreign policy.
My father’s war experience and my genetic inheritance — courtesy of these imperialist efforts — express how our bodies can be coded with the consequences of political bad acts. My mother’s account of my infancy speaks to how a body comes to be racially understood and legitimized through visuality. For my aunt and neighbors, I was “seen” or comprehended as “White.” My body was initially perceived as “not belonging” to a Chicano family. Placed alongside my Chicano family’s brown skin tone, mine was perceived as foreign and could be regarded only as a result of adoption.
Daily, I interrogate how environmental pollution, then and now, affects my genealogy and psyche. It is how I was introduced to ideas about identity and politics, and my relationship with the environment. It began one day when I was a year old, when doctors felt it was safe to reveal me unblemished to the sun. I was dressed in a Sunday suit as my parents proudly walked me to the neighborhood park.
My mom watched my father play baseball, while blankets shielded me from sunlight as I sat in a stroller beside her. Meanwhile, our nosy White neighbors asked my mother when my family had adopted a White child. When she checked on me a brief time later, she was horrified to find my fingers and face traced in veins, my skin blistering from the warm spring breeze. Upon seeing my sunburned white skin, my Chicana aunt quipped, “Whose honky baby is that?”
The consequences of war and pollution have followed me like a dark cloud.
It began with my father’s exposure to Agent Orange. Used in Vietnam to destroy crops and ground cover, Agent Orange contained a toxic byproduct known as dioxin. The most common and evident effects of dioxin exposure result in skin abnormalities including acne-like eruptions, changes in skin pigmentation, and lesions caused by photosensitive skin, known as porphyria cutanea tarda. My brothers, their children, and I live with types of these “abnormalities.”
After returning to the United States, my father subsequently lost his skin’s pigment. As if it were a perverse sky, his natural dark tone began to cloud over until chalk-white splotches covered much of his skin. This was the ’70s; he pursued recompense from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and was denied. Not until the early 1990s did the VA admit the exposure to the defoliant during the Vietnam War was the cause of physical, sometimes terminal, ailments and began treating for particular ailments for qualifying veterans. Not until 2007 did the U.S. Department of Defense send funds to the Vietnam government for environmental remediation and related health or disability activities. Ironically, the VA website’s list of potential birth defects from Agent Orange exposure reads, “There is no evidence of birth defects in the descendants of Vietnam Veterans resulting from Agent Orange exposure.”
In 2017, the National Birth Defect Registry released a broad study linking Agent Orange to multiple “defects”: acne-like skin eruptions (chloracne), scoliosis, and a range of disorders, from attention deficit to learning, behavioral, and emotional.
Despite the ever-expanding catalog of physical and mental disabilities resulting from Agent Orange exposure, my father has yet to receive reparations. While women who served in Vietnam may possibly receive compensation for birth defects in their children, spina bifida is the only birth defect related to Agent Orange exposure in male veterans the VA recognizes. The passage of the PACT Act, which extends VA benefits to those exposed (and their families) to Agent Orange, burn pits, and other toxic substances, is a necessary step in the right direction.
Year by slow year, I have struggled with the radical genetic consequences of Agent Orange exposure. But I’m also deeply aware of my positionality and privilege. My father left Vietnam after the war; the people of the Mekong Delta could not. To this day, they navigate environmental damage and generational trauma born over decades since the unaccounted-for tragedy of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam.
As I open my window to let in the breeze, its cool pricking goosebumps on my skin, I turn on multiple air purifiers. Though not as easily burnable as I was in infancy, at 45, I’m still sensitive to sunlight, and I keep my curtains closed. I sit at my desk to write a poem and dwell on what I’m breathing, what is invisibly settling on and being absorbed by my skin. I imagine the spiraling helix of my DNA slowly modified over decades by toxins our sciences have yet to comprehend. I think of a government in denial of its actions.
I think of experiences over decades of my life, of my scoliosis, of my neurodiversity. I think of the unforeseeable consequences of yesteryear’s political choices my children will one day have to contend with as they surface from their skin.
A Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, J. Michael Martinez is the author of three poetry collections, most recently “Museum of the Americas,” with a fourth, “Tarta Americana,” forthcoming from Penguin Press in fall 2023. A multimedia artist, Martinez is an assistant professor of poetry at San Jose State University’s MFA creative writing program.