Monday, January 12, 2009

Showing the past, present and future of human existence

Alejandro and the Fishermen of Tancay (University of Arizona Press) by Braulio Muñoz

Guest review by Kathleen de Azevedo

When one thinks of Peru, one might imagine the Andes and its ancient Inca ruins nestled on high oxygen-depleted hillsides. However, author Braulio Muñoz in his poetical new novel Alejandro and The Fishermen of Tancay (University of Arizona Press) takes us to the modern Peruvian port city of Chimbote and shows us the lives of fisherman and how these humble yet noble people struggle with the gradual environmental changes that threaten not only their livelihoods, but their souls. This book is not one of those nostalgic tomes of life-as-it-once-was. Muñoz has written a heartbreaking yet brave tale of our time that is both about Peru and about all of us.

The narrator of the book addresses his story to an absent listener, Alejandro. We do not know much about Alejandro nor the narrator until the end (which I will not reveal, but herein lies the weakness of the book: the relationship between the two is fascinating but we only know of its full extent in the final chapter). However, we get a sense that Alejandro is modern and lives far away and perhaps is young and distracted. The narrator, who has seen many changes befall his community, reminds Alejandro of how things were in the past and what life has become, and urges that that “we must follow the threat of remembrance and recall not only what you saw and felt, but also what others saw and felt for you or with you.”

The city of Chimbote and the surrounding rocks of Tancay and the sea are teeming with beings both of flesh and spirit. The ways of ocean fishing are as varied as the fish which are harvested. Those fishing for chita (grunt fish) stand on dangerous rocks and drop lines into the churning water below. Those preferring mojarilla (croaker), fish from the pier. Some fisherman stand on the beach and hurl baited lines into the oncoming waves. There is no competition among the men; there seems to be enough fish and ocean for all, even for the dead. The almitas, spirits of people who have perished, wander the beaches as do the pre-Columbian gentiles. However even these ancient beings are being destroyed by progress as there are fewer people to remember them.

The community is threatened by both acts of God and Man. A big earthquake dismantles much of Villa Maria, the shantytown section of Chimbote, where most of these people live, but no earthquake is as destructive as human greed. The fishmeal industry pours putrid yellow sludge into the ocean, producing a “smell of boiled fish that [sleeps] in your hair.” The military takes hold of Chimbote as does prostitution. Corruption and pollution go hand in hand with the heartbreaking disintegration and “slow death” of “everything going to hell . . . the turtles, crabs, cachemas, sand sharks . . . trying to save themselves from the yellowish water.”

A theme the narrator gently reminds us is one of patience. It takes patience to tell stories and patience to fish and patience to tend to human need. It takes patience for nature to replenish itself. Muñoz wonderfully shows of how the lack of patience destroys, not only the ways of the fisherman, but their value system and identity. “Remembering” in this case does not mean yearning for the past but rather “polishing our memories” to find what kept us alive in the first place.

Alejandro and the Fisherman of Tancay is a short book with small chapters, each chapter a snapshot of a moment in time. Read together, these fragments show the past, present and future of human existence. The writing is beautiful and lyrical and expertly translated from Spanish to English by Nancy K Muñoz. The two languages are woven together seamlessly as shown with description of how “when the moon was full, their shirts of cotton covered with fish scales would glow.” In a lot of ways, the novel reminds me of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, though the issues in Muñoz’s work are more complicated and more in keeping with the issues good Latin American literature explores.

Of course, poor communities such as the inhabitants of Chimbote have lived unseen in the shadows of our modern world, but these people are wise men and women who saw the future long before we did. Now we face the same world they have been struggling with for so long. Our lack of patience has resulted in our current environmental and financial wasteland and we too, need the advice of these fishermen. This book is painfully current and valuable in contemplating our own legacy.


Kathleen de Azevedo’s novel of Brazilian immigrants in the U.S, Samba Dreamers (University of Arizona Press) won the 2007 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award. You can find out more at

◙ Over at Art Ltd. magazine, George Melrod writes about the artist, Salomón Huerta:

In an identity-obsessed “Facebook” culture, in which the majority of the population seems fixed on displaying themselves to the rest of society in as many different formats and media as possible, Los Angeles painter Salomón Huerta, over the last decade, has seemed no less intrigued by the joys of obfuscation. His first widely recognized body of work, exhibited at Patricia Faure Gallery in 1998, featured the backs of men’s heads, neatly bald (or shaved), presented against flatly graphic, pastel colored backgrounds. Without reference to the usual primary indicators of personality—their faces—viewers were forced to project their own conjectures of identity onto the elusive portrait subjects. Who are they? That depends: who do you think they are?

Huerta’s most recent works are if anything bolder and more overtly obscured: portraits of Mexican wrestlers, their faces covered in vividly graphic masks. Posed variously, from steeling themselves for battle to grimacing in mid-fray, from defiant to defeated, and presented in larger-than-life scale, at up to four by five feet, Huerta’s fighters exude emotional intensity even as they defy traditional expectations of what portraiture should depict. Yet one cannot deny the bravura aspect of the work, both in the melodramatic posturing of the fighters, and of the painter’s own ambition in grappling with them and pinning them (at least in spirit) to the canvas. One difference, however: unlike the previous portraits, these characters are clearly—ostensibly—Mexican.

“American culture has Superman and Batman, but you can only see them on a screen. Mexican culture has these guys, but you can actually meet them,” Huerta explains. “They each design their own mask. Some of the them fit their identity so strongly, you don’t want to see them without the mask ... They go to a guy, tell them what they want: ‘I want it to be like a sun, or like lightning.’ Then they fit it to their head. You have a funny shaped head, you’re going to have a funny-shaped mask.”

To read the entire piece, go here.

[Pictured: “Untitled (Wrestler in Coffin),” 2008, Oil on canvas, 61" x 48" x 2"]

Helena María Viramontes’s powerful and evocative novel about East L.A. during the Vietnam era, Their Dogs Came with Them, was recently released in paperback. With the economy being what it is, lower cost paperback editions offer welcome savings, no? Indeed, I’ve heard several booklovers recently say that they will not purchase a particular new hardcover book until it comes out in paperback in order to save money. Indeed, even though this hurts my own bottom line, when friends and family tell me that they want to buy one of my books, I remind them that the Los Angeles Public Library carries all of them. If you want to see whether your favorite book is carried by the libraries in your neighborhood, you can go to WorldCat and do a search by state (if you want to do a countrywide search, once you’ve found the book you’re interested in, type in “U.S.” instead of “CA” or whatever other state you had in mind). In any event, if you did not buy the hardcover edition of Their Dogs Came with Them in 2007 due to the price, now’s the time to purchase it in paperback.

Speaking of East Los, Hector Becerra, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, tells us about East L.A.’s movement toward becoming a city by obtaining enough signatures to begin the process:

East Los Angeles is proudly known as the community that sparked a Mexican American civil rights movement, gave birth to Los Lobos and jump-started low-rider car culture.

But for all of its notoriety and close-knit feel, East L.A. has never been a city. Rather, it’s an unincorporated area governed by the county Board of Supervisors.

But on Friday, the community took a major step toward gaining independence. County officials announced that backers had gathered enough signatures for the cityhood process to formally begin.

To read all of Becerra’s piece, go here.

This news reminded me of Luis Rodriguez’s wonderful short-story collection, The Republic of East L.A. Luis was ahead of his time.

◙ Award-winning writer Rigoberto González reviews A Dolores Huerta Reader (University of New Mexico Press, $27.95 paperback) for the El Paso Times where he notes, in part:

Dolores Huerta, internationally recognized civil rights leader and activist, is a name inextricably linked to the United Farm Workers movement as well as to many other significant social and political struggles since the 1950s.

"Yet despite her important historical role," writes Mario T. García in his introduction to [the book], "she has not received the same type of coverage from historians and journalists as César Chávez."

This groundbreaking reader is a first step to changing that.


"A Dolores Huerta Reader" presents a complex portrait of a greater-than-life figure who continues to march, protest, advocate and educate after all these years. This is an inspirational glimpse into the life of an American legend. García's praiseworthy project does indeed fill an inexcusable void until a more comprehensive biography appears in print.

Read the entire review here.

◙ Just got word from Los Angeles Times columnist, Al Martinez, that his column will end on January 19. Martinez currently blogs here so I'm sure that he will let us all know the details. This is very sad news. But it's also very confusing. Is Martinez too old for the Times demographics? Perhaps he needs to get some plastic surgery, a little liposuction, and start a line of designer gowns that both Oprah and Britney would kill for. If this news upsets you, drop an e-mail to the Times at (Jamie Gold is the readers' representative). If you haven't read a Martinez column, today's piece is a moving example of his work: he writes about his daughter's fight with cancer. Finally, I note that Kevin Roderick of LAObserved has been covering the Martinez story and all other matters of concern to our city. Stay tuned.

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

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