Friday, February 23, 2007

Oldies But Goodies

Manuel Ramos

These reviews were first aired on Denver radio station KUVO, 89.3 FM, back in 1993 (Drink Cultura) and 1997 (Woman Hollering Creek). Must be feeling nostalgic, but sometimes you just have to look over your shoulder to see what lies ahead. Some of the observations in my reviews may be dated, but the books remain essential reading and core items in the Chicano Literature canon.

At the end I have an announcement about an opportunity for a scholarship to a writers' conference this spring at the legendary Algonquin Hotel in New York City.

José Antonio Burciaga
Joshua Odell Editions, Capra Press, 1993

This book is a quick tour through Chicano history, mythology, politics and food. The chapter titles hint at the broad nature of the writing in this collection: The Joy of Jalapeños, All The Things I Learned in School Weren't Necessarily True, A Mixed Tex-Cal Marriage, Piñatas, and The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes. Each chapter is a concise treatise on its chosen topic. With personal observation, family stories, and humor, these essays are tidy snacks of Chicanismo laid out for the reader to breeze through quickly and then ponder for as much time as required.

Burciaga treats with respect even mundane elements of life in the Southwestern United States. By doing so he provides a valuable document on the attitudes of people who, as he says, fought the yoke of the gringo oppressor while aspiring for equal opportunities.

For example, his chapter on The Great Taco War is, at first glance, only a short and funny commentary on the plethora of fast food outlets that have turned to offering Mexican food. Burciaga is initially amazed that a Taco Bell would open in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Mission is an enclave of Mexican and Latino influence and the home of world-famous taquerias that offer exquisite tacos and burritos to hordes of customers who often wait in lines that twist out the door and around the corner. But, according to Burciaga, the Taco Bell is doing quite well. He is put off by the strange menu that was created exclusively for the restaurant chain -- Enchiritos, Mexican Pizza, and Cinnamon Crispas. But he also notices that there are a large number of poor and low income people enjoying the creations, including seniors on fixed incomes, young vato locos, a nursery school class, and immigrants who speak not a word of English. The food is cheap and, as he notes, different and tasty in a funny sort of way. There is something important about the fact that fast food chains have recognized the drawing power of Mexican food and that almost all of them now offer a burrito or taco item.

Burciaga compares the Chicano people to the Aztecs, who have a saying: The Spaniards conquered us, but our culture conquered them. He also observes that there is passive resistance to the loss of our mestizo culture at almost every level of Chicano life, even if it is something as benign as defending the Mexican national character at a time when it is clear that Chicanos are no longer Mexicans. Burciaga concludes in one of his stories that to live on the border is to inhabit two worlds, two cultures, and to accept both without diminishing the integrity of either. He goes so far with this idea that he states, without embarrassment, that, culturally, he has as much of the gringo in him as he does of the Mexicano.

Drink Cultura is a friendly, funny, literate reflection of Chicano life in North America. I found it informative and educational, as well as authentic. I believe that any one, of any race or culture or generation, can enjoy this book. It provides insight and, in a curious twist that I doubt Burciaga intended, it also sheds much-needed light on the commonalities of human nature, rather than the differences that too many of us dwell on when we become embroiled in discussions or race, culture or nationalism.

Sandra Cisneros
Random House, 1991

Sandra Cisneros's first collection of short stories, The House on Mango Street, was published in 1984 and immediately secured her place as an important writer. Her lyrical prose and intensely personal voice captured the very human qualities of her colorful characters, especially those of Esperanza, the young girl modeled after Cisneros and her childhood in Chicago and on annual family treks to Mexico City.

Cisneros has a sense of irony and a wonder about life that fill her pages with emotion, melancholy or joy that rings true in the heart of her readers. Her stories are imbued with cultural references but they are accessible to all readers, simply because they are so well-written.

Woman Hollering Creek was published in 1991, more than seven years after her first collected effort at short fiction. She has said that her writing takes a long time, and that if it were easy, then she must be repeating herself, something she struggles to avoid. I try with every book, she says, to push myself to new heights, which also means that I've got to stumble and fumble and learn, knock my head against the wall doing it. For readers, the result of all this stumbling and fumbling is an exciting short story mix that stirs up the right feelings.

Cisneros excels at character sketches drawn with an exquisitely fine line and soft touch. Her characters dwell in the world of the mundane and routine until her prose turns them into symbols for all that is basic in us, all that is real.

There is, for example, in the story entitled Mericans, Micaela, the young girl who waits with her brothers for their grandmother outside an old church in an ancient Mexican village. The grandmother, the awful grandmother as she is known to the children, painstakingly prays for everyone in the family, including those who long ago gave up on religion. Meanwhile, the children have a little fun with some North American tourists who mistakenly think the children are Mexicans, only to be abruptly surprised when they hear the children speak English.

And then there is the tragic Cleofilas, the heroine of the story Woman Hollering Creek. Cleo is a woman from Mexico who was transported to Texas by her new husband, where she quickly became a victim of an abusive marriage. Cleo escapes only when a young Chicana givers her a helping hand and who, along the way, redefines the myth of La Llorona, the woman who for centuries has cried for her murdered children. In this story, Cisneros has given us a new image and posited an entirely new question that twists the old myth until it is almost unrecognizable: What if La Llorona isn't crying, but hollering for joy? The story asks why it is that for so many Latina women the only choices seem to be pain or suffering? Cisneros answers that question with with and pathos. She refuses to accept old and stale versions of life and, instead, offers her own unique vision. She reveals to us our own humanity in terms that we have not always been willing to accept.

Woman Hollering Creek is not a replay of House on Mango Street, nor is it the longer novel many of her readers were eagerly anticipating. Woman Hollering Creek stands on its own as an excellent collection by one of the best short story writers in North America.

Thanks to an extremely generous anonymous donor, two full-tuition scholarships to the 2007 Backspace Writers Conference will be awarded to writers whose work shows exceptional promise, and who have completed a novel and are actively seeking an agent to represent their work.

Tuition scholarships cover the conference registration fee, travel expenses to and from New York City, and hotel accommodations (May 30 - June 1).

Applications must be received between January 15 and March 1, 2007. Winners will be notified by April 15, 2007.

Applications will be accepted via email only. Get all the details on this page.

Next week, something new.



Emmy said...

Two great books. Thanks for posting reviews. I enjoy teaching them both.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you -- I also have used these in class and they are winners with students.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Drink Cultura is one of my favorites on the subject of being Chicano/a. And I love that you mentioned his use of the quote about the Spaniards, truer words were never spoken. And this volume of Cisneros does not get enough play, IMHO. She continues to inspire me, if for no other reason that she keeps tackling new genres.

Desert Chicano said...

I was looking to get "Drink Cultura" the other day pero they were out of stock at the book store. I ended up getting "The Revolt Of The Cockraoch People" by Oscar Zeta Acosta