Review: Richard Vasquez. Chicano. NY: Harper Collins Rayo. 2005. ISBN 9780060821043; ISBN: 0060821043
I made two mistakes* about Richard Vasquez’ novel, Chicano. The second is reading the back cover blurb and Daniel Olivas’ review. The first is waiting thirty years to read the novel.
Menso me. Uau, Richard Vasquez’ Chicano is a stunningly fine page-turner of a novel that everyone interested in Unitedstatesian literature deserves to read. If the novel must take an ethnic label, call it one of those sui generis “great American novels.” Which, of course, makes it also chicano literature.
The back cover blurb says something about “the tradition of Upton Sinclair touched with authentic color and understandable bitterness.” Which is a mistake. Chicano has nothing to do with The Jungle, and certainly none of the droning political proselytizing of that novel’s failed final pages. And Daniel Olivas notes “the novel stumbles … when Vasquez attempts to ‘explain’ Chicanismo to his non-Chicano audience.” Which is reading too much into the title. Chicano is not about chicanismo nor racism. It’s a love story that revolves around human stupidity and betrayal, and how those impact people who happen to be Mexicans and Chicanos.
This is not to deny the vital importance of the characters’ Mexican heritage. Vasquez has crafted a family saga rooted in the Mexican desert, California rural farmworker colonias, and late 1950s East Los Angeles.
The first 120 pages offer a sweeping telescopic history of happenstance leading to a family’s migration into the agricultural United States. Not until the 125th page does the term "chicano" enter the book's vocabulary, at the point Julio, one of the two main characters, arrives in Los Angeles.
The story follows the tragic history of two people who lose moral compass. Vasquez doesn’t make a case that Mexican Chicanos inherently tend to alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction and unprotected sex with pendejos. But Julio and Mariana, in varying degrees, elect those behaviors. Those who do not taste these forbidden pleasures don’t interest the writer. Raza with kindness in their hearts, or who speak good English, attain “mainstream” solidity like business managers or migra, pop up as plot foils, then are forgotten as the writer pursues his moralistic version of family values: Julio in all his rottenness, gets only jail time in a token of revenge by the whore who helped rescue him from endless toil as a fruit picker. Poor Mariana, who represents the best of her generation—smart, articulate, insightful—has to die from a back alley abortion as the consequence of her pridefulness in seducing a cowardly man, who happens to be a rich Anglo college boy cad.
Political conservatives like to whine that raza politics is all about victimhood. These tipos surely need to read Chicano. If there’s a theme Vasquez absolutely denies, it’s that these characters are victims of anything. Greedy, ugly, anglo racists may be ubiquitous, but are little different from the exploitative hacendado, the rapacious bandidos, or imperious soldiers three generations back in Trainwreck. Julio's fall comes as result of his own evil nature. Mariana's case is more complicated, perhaps a consequence of her isolation from both cultures. Happiness comes in being self-possessed, like the illiterate grandfather back in Irwindale, or the mother who runs off with her girlhood boyfriend from el rancho, who appears in rags upon the death of her drunken husband. Now there’s a love story begging to be told.
I hope you have already read your copy of Chicano and I haven’t disclosed anything you might consider a “spoiler.” Ni modo. Richard Vasquez, qepd, has given us a novel so rich in detail and cultural awareness, that readers and critics will enjoy years of discussion. I wish I’d read it years ago. I hope you'll read it and join La Bloga's discussion.
*The mistake reflects my preference to react to a work on its own terms, uninfluenced by a third party.
Hasta, raza, and fellow readers.