Saturday, October 31, 2009

Same Old Sh_t, different pendejos

Top 10 Reasons Not To Wear A Culturally Appropriating Halloween Costume
(with thanks to Freddie Fagula, a Facebook friend, for the initial text)

10. That shit is tired and you’re more creative than that. You can be anything.

9. You don’t wanna be “that guy/that girl” at the party.

8. You won’t be endorsing a history of domination, colonization, and genocide through your flippant, cartoonish, or stereotypical portrayal of cultures other than your own.

7. People of color won’t have their night ruined by your costume.

6. No one else will have their night ruined by your costume.

5. People who you’ve never met won’t take one look at you and decide to avoid the ignorant person who would wear THAT.

4. Your odds of getting laid will be dramatically increased because you won’t have offended half of the people at the party.

3. You aren’t an unfeeling jerk who likes to insult and hurt people.

2. You won’t be asked to leave the party because you are a white person dressed in black face or as a “native,” a Nazi*, Mexican, Indian, gypsy, geisha, Orthodox Jew, Arab terrorist, sheik, or hula dancer, etc.

1. You are an awesome, deep, conscientious individual who understands the importance of respecting the life, experiences, culture and ethnicity of people different from yourself.

*Yeah, I know it’s not technically “appropriating” but please, not okay.

Here is how wikipedia defines cultural appropriation: Cultural Appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Obviously, there are many ways to create an offensive costume that may not be pointed out above or fall into the cultural appropriating category. If you’re wondering whether your costume will offend someone than it probably will. If you’re still thinking about wearing it, ask your more thoughtful friends to weigh in on it. I realize this is a multi-faceted topic deserving more attention than once a year on Halloween, but this is as good a time as any to bring it up.

I believe it’s healthy for people to want to transform themselves, and Halloween encourages that. It gives people a sense of possibility. It’s a creative outlet in a culture of full rules about who can make legitimate “art.” It’s the extra nudge one may need to let go and be someone else. Even if it’s just for a laugh. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t want to deny anyone. What I do want is a Halloween where one persons liberating costume is not another persons insult to their life, experiences, culture, or race.

Please give it some thought and don’t be “that pinche pendejo/a” on Halloween.


Lisa Alvarado

Friday, October 30, 2009


By Manuel Ramos, copyright ©2009

The only suit I owned, a dark blue pin-striped job with out-of-date, too-big lapels, was warm and itchy. There were many people at Artie’s funeral who were not dressed in suits or sport coats, not even ties. But I wasn’t like that. I believed that death deserved respect and the best way I knew to give respect was to dress like the occasion mattered. Apparently, there were others in Artie’s circle of friends and acquaintances who felt the same way since I wasn’t the only one sitting and kneeling in the pews under too many layers of clothes.

Judging from the mourners in the old Catholic church, Artie circulated among a wide and varied crowd. There were guys like me – blasts from his past and his wild youth. We wore the funeral look, stressed and worried, that said, “How much time do I have left if Artie’s gone already?” Then there was the money crowd – realtors, lawyers, a few bankers and developers. These men and women dressed neat and professional, nothing out-of-date about their outfits, but stress and worry played on their faces, too. Deep down, under the uniforms and costumes, we all harbored the same fears.

After the services, Linda Cisneros Baca, the widow, hugged her children and accepted the condolences of the crowd outside the church. An older woman in a faded black dress huddled near Linda and the children – Artie’s mother, I assumed.

The hearse had been loaded with Artie’s body and the procession to the cemetery waited for Linda, the children, and the mother. When I got the chance I walked up to her and extended my hand.

“I’m very sorry, Linda. If there’s anything …”

She pushed away my hand and gave me a quick hug.

“Gus Corral. It’s been forever. Thank you for coming. I know you and Artie were good friends, back in the day.” Then she moved on to the next person in line.

Linda appeared to be holding up well. She was a tall woman. In high heels and a simple black dress she appeared to tower over many of the people who commiserated with her. A few strands of gray punctuated her dark auburn hair. Almost indiscernible wrinkles floated around her mouth. She looked worried, of course, but I couldn’t help but notice that she projected health and vigor. She stood straight, no slouching, and her legs were sinewy and toned – a runner’s legs.

Her daughter and son stood behind her; the boy seemed angry, the daughter cried quietly but insistently.

I started to say something to the older woman standing next to Linda but she frowned and then whispered, “Gracias.” Her eyes were bloodshot and occasional sobs escaped her throat. I moved on to my car.

I followed along in the funeral procession to the cemetery where the mother completely fell apart. Her anguish came out in loud curses and threats, in Spanish, against God and whoever was responsible for her son’s death. She draped herself across the coffin as it was about to be lowered in the ground. Two men gently dragged her away but her hollering filled the background and cascaded across the dark green lawn. Linda drew her children closer and waited with them until Artie’s coffin had disappeared. She led the son and daughter back to their car, her arms wrapped around their shoulders. The girl kept looking back at the burial site; Linda and the boy stared straight ahead.

I admit that I was affected. My throat tightened and a deep, swirling uneasiness took root in my gut. It’s not like I had any special reason to feel sorry about Artie. His surprise visit had been the first time I had seen him in years, and the only motive he had for talking with me was to try to rope me into his scheme to get rid of his blackmailer. Other than that, Artie Baca hadn’t any use for me since we had been arrested together, hundreds of summer nights before. But the hysterical mother and the grieving children and the essential waste of Artie’s life could not be ignored.

I joined the crowd at the Baca home, a nice place near Sloan’s Lake about twenty minutes from the cemetery. The Southwestern architecture was complimented by Southwestern furniture, Indian pottery, and bright wall colors. An amazing picture window took up most of the space of the front wall of the house. The Baca family had a great view of the lake, picnickers and boaters. I imagined that at night it was equally as impressive, especially with the city lights reflected in the murky water of the lake.

Jealousy got the better of me as I strolled through Artie’s house with a paper plate of blue corn chips and artichoke dip in my hand. We had been the same age, we graduated from the same high school, neither one of us had gone to college. He lived in one of the nicest houses in a very nice neighborhood; I camped out, literally, in the back of a second-hand store. Men and women with money and influence were upset at his death and their grief looked genuine; I couldn’t get a half-hearted “good morning” from my ex-wife. Artie enjoyed the good life with a beautiful wife and handsome kids and enough money to afford paintings or sculptures or jewelry from the latest Santa Fe favorite; I had no kids, I drove a used and noisy Subaru, and any extra cash I managed to hold onto at the end of the week went for a few beers at the Holiday or another dive just as bad.

Then I remembered that I was still alive, eating Artie’s food in Artie’s house while lucky Artie had just been laid to rest in the warm earth minus critical parts of his skull and brain. My jealousy pang turned into a greasy burp and I felt better.

I settled in on the back patio sitting with a group of people who had attended North High when Artie and I had both been students. I didn’t recognize most of them but two were familiar: running partners from those years when who you ran with was one of the most important decisions you could make.

“Yo, Gus, how the hell are you, old man?” That was Pato or Shoe, depending on the mood of the evening. Tony Vega, somewhat of a basketball star on a team that couldn’t win more than two games a season.

“Shoe, good to see you.”

“Too bad it’s under these circumstances, eh? Real sorry about Artie. What a trip, eh?”

“You mean that he was murdered and the cops don’t know shit about what happened?” That was Ice (every mob had an Ice back then) Zamarippa, legendary music man – he could sing, play the guitar, and dance like Astaire smothered in green chile, smooth but spicy. I had always liked Ice, even though he was an Oakland Raiders fan – I never understood that – but he had left town to find fame and money in the music business. I had heard that he had returned and worked for the City and County of Denver, taking care of parks in the summer and driving a snow plow in winter.

“The cops will nail someone for this,” Shoe said. “He’s a player now. Look at this house, man. They can’t let his murder go without an arrest. Now if it was you, Ice, or Gus there, well …”

“Or you, pal,” added Ice. “Far as I heard, you ain’t shit either.”

“Whoa, man. I got it going, you ain’t been told?”

“No, I ain’t,” Ice laughed. “How about you, Gus? How you been? We never see you anymore.”

“I don’t get out much. Can’t afford it. In case you haven’t noticed, the economy sucks.”

They both nodded and their faces got all serious for a sec.

“Somebody told me you work for Sylvia. How’s that going?” Shoe asked and he must have thought he was sly, but a smile crept into his words. Tony Vega had dated Sylvia before she settled for me. I had assumed he had taken her out after our divorce; hell, maybe before, for all I knew. He had to be wise to all the dope about Sylvia and me and our current arrangement. One thing I did know was that there was plenty I didn’t know about Sylvia and the breakup of our marriage.

“It’s all good. Meaning I don’t have to see Sylvia that much. I manage her shop, supervise sales, keep the books, handle the marketing, take on extra help when we need it. I keep busy, that’s most important to me.” Okay, I got a little carried away but isn’t that what we all do when we get around the old crowd? Tell me you never did that.

Shoe and Ice glanced at each other and it was obvious we all knew I was full of it. But these guys were my homies – they didn’t say anything. They had been through their own hard times, and one thing we didn’t do was kick a brother when he was down, unless it involved a woman, of course. That goes without saying.

I changed the subject.

“What do you think happened? I mean, for Artie to get shot like that and then dumped like he was a sack of garbage? That’s hard core. Someone really had it in for him.”

“Artie was into stuff, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Ice said.

“Yeah, the guy screwed people,” Tony added. “I don’t want to speak bad about the dead, so I won’t. And this isn’t the time or place. I’ll just say I’m not surprised either. You remember what Artie was like in school. Add a dozen years to that, a lot more money, and a lot more ambition, and you can see why someone might have wanted to blow his brains out.”

Shoe stopped and looked around in case someone other than Ice or I heard him. This time Ice rolled his eyes at me. “That’s harsh,” I said. We let it drop.

We talked for a few minutes more. I let them know that a pair of policemen had visited me about Artie, and they were surprised but not too much. “That’s what cops do,” Ice said. We asked about classmates, predicted great things for the Rockies and Broncos and Nuggets, except Ice, and when I said I had to leave, they also decided to go. Shoe and Ice agreed to call me so that we could hang out in lighter circumstances.

I looked for Linda to say goodbye but I didn’t see her. Many people had stopped by to honor Artie Baca and the house had taken on an awkward party atmosphere. I thought Artie would have liked that, especially the fact that he had a good crowd turn out for him.

I did see the mother, who sat in a recliner with a wet towel wrapped around her forehead and temples. She mumbled to herself. I steeled myself and approached. I should tell her goodbye, I thought; say something before I took off.

She was praying. She opened her eyes. I extended my hand; I didn’t know what else to do.

“Hijo,” she screamed.

I jumped backwards and tripped against a coffee table. I lost my footing on the waxed hardwood floor and fell directly on my back, knocking the breath out of my lungs. The mother stood over me, crying and praying. “Hijo,” she screamed again.

Linda appeared at her side. “Carlota, cálmate. That’s not Artie. Artie’s gone. Calm down. Go to your room and rest. Take a nap.”

Linda’s son grabbed the old woman’s hand. “Grandma, let’s go. Come with me; it will be all right.” The grandmother quieted. She hugged her grandson and let him lead her away. I struggled to my feet, breathing again.

“I’m sorry, Gus. Carlota thinks she sees Artie everywhere. Any man the same age – any Mexican-looking man. She’s having a hard time. Artie was her favorite.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I just wanted to say goodbye. I was leaving.”

“Let me walk you to your car. We haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“Sure.” I was a bit surprised but I figured she was being overly polite because of Carlota’s antics.

“And we should talk, Gus. About Artie, of course. There are some things I want to ask you.”

“Whatever I can do, Linda.”

We walked across her precisely xeriscaped yard: neat bushes, flowering cactus, clumps of grasses with hints of red and yellow, a path made of blue and charcoal concrete pavers that zigged and zagged around flowers, plants, and insects.

“I hadn’t seen Artie for a while, you know.” I thought I should clear that up at the jump.

“That’s what I assumed. Then the police told me they found a check on Artie made out to you. That’s one of my questions.”

She stopped in the middle of her front yard. Bees darted in and out of brilliant purple sage. A hummingbird flitted around a feeder. The day had become hot and oppressive. “Why was Artie going to give you a thousand dollars, Gus?”

That damn check. Money I didn’t want; payment for a job I quit before I started. More trouble than it was worth; a thousand dollars of questions and suspicions from cops and a widow.

“Artie stopped by Sylvia’s shop a few days before he, uh, he was …”

“He did? To see you?”

“Yeah. He wanted me to do some work for him. I said yes, but then later I changed my mind. “

“He hired you? Doing what? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been any good. We both know he wasn’t a boy scout. I hope he didn’t drag you into one of his schemes. You changed your mind?”

“Yes. I decided I didn’t like what he asked me to do. So I was going to tell him he should get someone else. But I never got the chance.” Then I lied. “I didn’t know he had already written a check for the job. Not until the cops told me.”

She looked at me hard, doubting, not believing. Too many details didn’t sit right. First Artie Baca hired Gus Corral – unlikely. Second, I had second thoughts about the deal after I had agreed to do it for a thousand dollars – even more unlikely. Third, she didn’t know anything about the arrangement – did Artie let her in on all of his plans?

“What was it, Gus? What did Artie want with you?”

“Ah, Linda, I don’t feel good about this. I don’t want to cause any trouble. Artie’s gone, can’t we just leave it there?”

A bee buzzed near my ear and I jerked away. Linda swayed backwards in reaction to my sudden move. I grabbed her and supported her until she found her balance. She shook but under my touch her strength was obvious.

“Tell me, Gus. Don’t I have a right to know? The police are looking at you. They think there might be a connection between that check and Artie’s killing. I know that’s nonsense. I told them that. But they won’t let it go. You may be in trouble. I can help, if you need it. I just want to know what Artie was up to. I’m his wife, you have to tell me.”

Her voice had gradually reached a higher pitch. She bit her bottom lip and then chewed on the fingernail of her left little finger. Tears filled her eyes.

“All right, all right.” I gave in. “But remember I had decided not to do the job. I couldn’t go through with it.”

She waited in the sun for my explanation. And then I lied again.

“Artie wanted me to spy on you. He wanted me to watch you for a few days, without you knowing. He wanted me to learn if you were having an affair. I guess he thought you were seeing someone else.”

She puckered her lips. She coughed into her fist. The cough turned into a snort, then a laugh. She laughed quietly, but she didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t stop laughing but the laughter was silent, kept within herself. I turned away and then I heard a loud and harsh laugh coming from her. And for the second time in a few days a woman laughed at me as I walked away.


That's it from sunny Southern California, where in one week I: visited East L.A. College where I watched a free screening of The Chicano Wave, a PBS movie about Chicano music that featured everyone from Flaco Jiménez to Cannibal and the Headhunters; at the same movie I listened to a great set of music by the legendary Chicano band Tierra; checked out Los Fabulocos at a casino in Commerce that had no slot machines; visited the tiendita at Plaza de la Raza; tried to find Lucha Corpi's new book at the Plaza Mexico Librería Martínez (Death at Solstice not in yet); bought Chicano Soul at Cultura Latina bookstore (proudly still displaying a cover of Gods Go Begging signed by Alfredo Véa back in 1999); and last night I was entertained and enlightened by R. Crumb. And this during a "cold spell." A guy could get used to this.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

New Regular Columnist: Jesse Tijerina. The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya.

Blogmeister's Note: Today we welcome former La Bloga Guest Columnist Jesse Tijerina as La Bloga's alternate-Thursdays writer.

“Let me begin at the beginning. I do not mean the beginning that was in my dreams and the stories they whispered to me about my birth, and the people of my father and mother, and my three brothers,” writes Anaya. “But the beginning that came with Ultima.” Anaya’s character of Ultima has toppled barriers and transcended time; she is as infinite as the landscape of weathered llanos along the Southwest. And fortunately for us, Don Rudy continues to craft such memorable characters.

Widely recognized as the Godfather of Chicano Literature, Anaya’s prolific writings have breathed life into the canon of American Literature and abroad for nearly four decades. Although revered mostly for his award winning first novel, “Bless Me, Ultima,” and his pioneering quartet of Sonny Baca mysteries, Anaya has also penned a mixture of short stories of the highest order. In, “The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories,” fans, for the first time will have the pleasure of indulging into a supreme collection of 18 stories spanning thirty years.

The stories in, “The Man…,” some previously published in the ever elusive and long out of print, “The Silence of the Llano,” may very well showcase Anaya at his finest. Intermingled with poignant folklore, religion, magic, and spirituality, readers of all walks of life now have an opportunity to join Anaya as he travels among people and places not often found in his novels. Undeniably influenced by the cuentos of his youth, Anaya’s stories cease to be merely words in print, but rather voices which will echo long after the book is shelved. In the title story, The Man Who Could Fly, we are reminded of the power of magic by way of an ill-fated loss of a rancher and his land. My personal favorite, B. Traven Is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca, features a writer who finds his muse in the enigmatic legend of B. Traven, the author of the classic, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” In what likely will be considered the most touching story, The Silence of the Llano, introduces us to Rafael, a ranchero whose life is shattered in the wake of his wife’s death while giving birth to their daughter; it will take sixteen years and another tragedy until they both find closure and solace. Que Viva Anaya!!!

The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya; University of Oklahoma Press, 2006

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books for Día de los muertos

Just a Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book
Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

In this version of a traditional tale, Señor Calavera arrives at Grandma Beetle's door, ready to take her to the next life, but after helping her count, in English and Spanish, as she makes her birthday preparations, he changes his mind.

Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book
Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

As Señor Calavera prepares for Grandma Beetle's birthday he finds an alphabetical assortment of unusual presents, but with the help of Zelmiro the Ghost, he finds the best gift of all.

Uncle Monarch And the Day of the Dead
Written by Judy Goldman. Illustrated by Rene King Moreno.

Upon the death of her beloved Tio Urbano, who has taught her that monarch butterflies are the souls of the dead, young Lupita gains a deeper understanding of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, as it is observed in rural Mexico. Includes glossary of Spanish terms and facts about the Day of the Dead.

Ghost Wings
Written by Barbara M. Joosse. Illustrated by Giselle Potter.

While celebrating the Days of the Dead, a young Mexican girl remembers her wonderful grandmother who sang songs, made tortillas, chased monsters away, and loved butterflies.

Festival of Bones / El Festival de las Calaveras: The Little-Bitty Book for the Day of the Dead
Written and illustrated by Luis San Vicente.

San Vicente lets children join the celebration as they watch the skeletons rock, rattle, and roll those long old bones as they get ready for the biggest event of their social calendar. A short and fun essay, directed toward young readers, will explain this important Mexican holiday.

Maria De Flor/ a Day of the Dead Story: Una Historia Del Dia De Los Muertos
Written by Max Benavidez. Illustrated by Maria Elena Castro.

This is a story about a girl named Maria who was born with a beautiful birthmark in the shape of a flower. Her cousin hears stories about Maria and dreams that she visits her family in Oaxaca on the Day of the Dead. The book is illustrated with colorfully painted animals, a smiling moon, cups of chocolate and silver flowers, symbols of Maria's favorite things.

Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book
Written by Jeanette Winter.

Every year Don Pedro and his family make papier-mache skeletons, or calaveras, for Mexico's Day of the Dead fiesta. From Angel and Doctor to Mariachi and Unicornio, each letter of the alphabet has its own special calavera. Come dance with them in this unusual ABC book inspired by a real Mexican family of artists and the many colorful folk-art traditions surrounding the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Includes a glossary of Spanish words and an author's note.

Clatter Bash! A Day of the Dead Celebration
Written and illustrated by Richard Keep

Rhyming text presents traditions used to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

Los Bloguitos' Second Anniversary Celebration

Illustrated by Mara Price

Los Bloguitos is turning two this week. Come and celebrate with us at
¡A celebrar!

René Has Two Last Names/ René tiene dos apellidos

This Saturday in the middle of the Halloween celebrations my new bilingual book will be out. Go and trick or treat at your favorite bookstore and take a look at my new book. If it is not there, ask for one or many copies.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers

Gonzalo Celorio. Translated by Dick Gerdes. Austin:U Texas Press, 2009.

Michael Sedano

I am glad I am not a drinker. Money pours out to buy noxious chemicals that pickle a brain. The body gives out, the mind goes. Over time.Then there's la cruda, that enervating measure of accountability for a night's drinking.

But the bars! The booze! The ritual of the bar crawl and its rules: one beer and tequila chaser, then move along to the next spot. And if one delays and doubles the dose, ni modo. The feet know where to step next to reach the goal, another favorite spot out of many.

That hangover hit retiring professor Juan Manuel Barrientos hard. He's slowing down after twentyplus years as a university professor and one heck of a party the night before has pushed him to his limit and here he is the morning after, pushing his endurance once again. It's all downhill from here, literally.

Juan Manuel's life is out of control and he doesn't admit it. Instead, he hides behind professorial airs and alkie theories to justify drinking. Here is an extended sample to give you a flavor of the drinker's worldview and the style of this translation:

beer is simply a chaser for the tequila, because one of its ingredients, yeast, serves as a protective layer to the stomach lining. As a result, when you rigorously knock back a shot of tequila, an act sustained by the oldest ritual in Mexico, the liquor splashes on top of a foamy cbshion that protects our insides from irritation and acidity. And judging from the academic vocabulary that you usually use for explaining even the most mundane topics, your students would listen to you attentively-well, they would've listened to you had they been here today-similar to the way they took notes and listened to you lecture about Sor Juana's "First Dream" or baroque pilasters.
However, at the bar they served you three drinks-a mug of beer, a shot of tequila, and a sangrita chaser. You're alone, Juan Manuel, so you can knock back three or four drinks, one right after the other, which cures hangovers once and for all. And you can do it without having to talk to anyone around you. Bur you must restrain yourself and hold back as much as possible, because you still have several more stops to make. Right off the bat, you reject the sangrita and take a long sip of beer, which is tequila's best friend. Satisfying your thirst, the beer allows the tequila to concentrate on its own energy, strength, and nuances. Just imagine trying to quench your thirst with tequila. Well, you'd be dead by now, Juan Manuel, because your thirst is insatiable, boundless. You take a second swig of beer and ponder the tiny double ting of pearls that forms on the surface of the tequila. Judiciously, you sprinkle salt on a slice of Iime. Then you pick up the shot of tequila, raise it in a toast that the mirror behind the rows of vodka and gin bottles reflects back at you in a friendly way, and down it in one gulp, like yestetday at Casa Pedro, and like every day, as always, down the hatch, burning all the way down. Jesus! Tequila isn't to be savored. It's supposed to go straight down, no swishing it around in your mouth, because the good feeling it produces comes afterward, when you exhale, when its vapors resurface from below, from your stomach, in your breath. It's then, and not before, when the lime with a dash of salt blends sharply with the tequila, because in reality you're supposed to inhale tequila in the same way you inhale smoke from a cigarette. Tequila is a drink that you inhale. After quivering for a moment, you immediately feel a rush, a loss of body, and then everything returns to notmal. And there's nothing like tequila to cure a hangover. pg30

The lies and elaborate reasoning have become a lifestyle of the old professor. Today--how could he know?--will be his final hangover and the novel will track his final day bar by bar until the novel's ironic ending, in the same bar where it begins. Readers will be mystified how the irony arises. Was he that hungover he didn't see his student in the bar? Vice versa?

Gonzalo Celorio's novel takes its name from the Mexican National Anthem, as illustrated below in another of Juan Manual's drunken ravings. Celorio calls a reader's attention to the allusion early in the day. Readers want to make sense of the allusion, not just owing to the novel's declivitous story but beause the pun takes on added punch in the novel's last events.

“Y retiemble en sus centros la tierra,” meaning “And let the earth tremble at its centers." Here, it was as if the earth had several centers, that is, as if the center-the epicenter-equally distant from other centers, configuring the circumference, and giving the center precisely its condition of centeredness, according to its definition, was not just one but many centers. It wasn't a rhetorical figure, like the one that multiplies the essence of the nation or its destiny in order to make it sound more sonorous or emphatic-the destinies of the nation, the essences of the homeland. No. The idea of several centers was something else. Explaining the phenomenon to Jimena and Fernando in that unbearable professional tone, you say that to you the anthem's original version says "antros" instead of "centros," that is, caverns instead of centers. Haphazardly, the songwriter González Bocanegra must have transcribed some of the letters in such a way that they were interpreted differently, and since then, have become a part of the official record and the public domain. As a result, "And let the earth tremble at its centers" should have been "And let the earth tremble in its caverns," because back then "antros" didn't have the connotation that it has today, that is, dingy, disreputable bars or dives, like you would have wanted it to mean, but only the innermost recesses of centers, that is, caverns, caves, or grottos. "And let the earth tremble in its caverns" meant just that, its caves and grottos. So, why not say, "And let the earth tremble from within?" That doesn't sound so bad, does it? The verse would be longer and more fitting for the rhythm of a national anthem, you exclaim while gesticulating wildly. This is crazy! We've had to add syllables to every verse forever and ever in order to make them fit the music: [heaven] ha-has given you a soldier in every son. Do you see what I mean? Mexicans, at the cry of wa-war, / prepare the steel and the ste-eed / And may the earth shake at its co-ore / to the resounding roar of the-e cannon. Like any other anthem, ours is a fighting, warlike, violent hymn, bur we've had to stutter, adding syllables, to make it work.

Bolstered by the strange pleasure he got from the combination of tequila and philology-centers, caverns, and dingy bars-Juan Manuel Barrientos walked to the Tolsá Plaza, so secret yet so magnificent. 35

Readers will enjoy the translator's skill in creating fluid prose in English from Celorio's anything but straightforward prose and abrupt time and scene shifts. As with any translation, it would be fun to review the original with the English. I look forward to the day a publisher elects to bring readers facing page text to double the pleasure and help answer nagging questions. For example, the unusual style of the narrative, particularly Celorio's heavy reliance upon second person narrative addressing his character as "you" immediately raises the question, "tu" or "ud."?

Travelers to Mexico City will want to carry the novel along. It opens with Juan Manuel parking at Bellas Artes and preparing to give his students an architectural tour of the historic centro's unknown treasures. You'll get a fabulous, though sketchy, guided tour of the area around Garibaldi Plaza, Bellas Artes, el Zócalo. It would be fun to follow, up to a point, Juan Manuel's footsteps.

English majors and other critics may be tempted to see parallels in Juan Manuel's story to the title character in Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell. They share the plot of progressive degradation and oddball character, so some readers may wish to re-read West with an eye on Celorio's Mexican horizon. I intend to.

All in all, readers who enjoy Mexican novels, who love el Defie and have walked its streets and boulevards, will find this impressive work a lot of fun.

My gosh, that's the final Tuesday of October! A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except you are here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga. With DDLM around the corner, not to mention treats or tricks, costumes and screamingly happy tykes, there's tons of fun happening between now and next Tuesday. Enjoy your share.


La Bloga welcomes your comments and observations on today's or any day's columns. Simply click the comments counter below to share your views. When you have a column of your own, a book review, a report on an arts or cultural event, remember La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. Click here to discuss your invitation to be our guest.

Pepper Spray

A short story by Estella González

I see ya baby, Felipe thought as he sorted out his share of the mail. From behind the giant U.S. Mail bins, he watched Angelina standing in line with some tall white guy, kissing his face, stroking his hair like he was some kind of pet dog. Angelina walked out the door to a little green Miata with white leather seats.

Sitting there like you’re ready to take off into that So Cal sunset, he thought as he watched her through the slit of glass and metal that was supposed to be a “window.”

Who does she think she is? Just because she’s going to UCLA now. Angie’s as dumb as a stick but smart enough to get her new boyfriend to buy her that sweet little car shaking its own little round ass when it takes off out of the parking lot. Probably the gabacho’s car.

Felipe finished sorting, lifted the mail bag strap over his shoulder. It was barely nine and already his shoulder muscles hurt like he’d been carrying the mail bag for three hours.

Yeah, yeah she’s got those Guess jeans going on making her Mexican ass look all heart-shaped and bouncy.

“Hey Felipe. Quit looking out that window,” Patrice yelled.

Shit. Nothing here but a bunch of ugly women, Felipe thought. Better get his ass out to the old neighborhood anyway. Here came Patrice with her new wig trying to look like Jody Watley. Ya ni la hace. She looked more like Bob Marley with her little fuzzy moustache. Jesus Christ. He had to find a better job. Soon as Felipe got his Associates degree he’d be lookin’.

“Hey Felipe, wanna go out to happy hour with us afterwards?” Patrice said.

“Can’t,” he said. “Gotta finish some work for class.”

“You too old to be going to college.”

“Don’t even talk old woman. You must be 50 at least.”

I know you’re only 30 bitch, but don’t start in on me, he thought. He got enough of this shit from Mom with her “When you gonna get married? Am I ever gonna see my grandkids before I die? What was the point of having you and Carlos?”

Thank God his mother was asleep when Felipe got home. Poor Chuck. He was the one who heard it when she was awake. Maybe he should get in on that lottery pool these postal losers set up. Damn, he thought as he started the mail truck. He should’ve gone back to school sooner.


Was that catfish he smelled? Goddamn! Mom didn’t cook catfish. Must’ve been Chondra. Was she here? Probably in Chuck’s room fucking his fool head off. Not bad for mayate food. Better than Mom’s cold refried beans and stale tortillas. No beer, no tequila, just the same ol’ orange Kool-Aid in that yellow Tupperware thing Mom’s had since he didn’t know when.

“Con una jodida! Turn off that light!” Mom yelled.

“I’m gonna watch a little TV Mom.”

“It’s 12:30.”

“I know.”

“Don’t you have to go to work tomorrow?”

Felipe popped in the latest episode of “Robotech” and lay on the couch imagining what the lead female character would look like in real life. Before he could imagine how big her tits would be, he heard his brother’s door open. Chondra walked into the living room in her raggedy old underwear. She could put a shirt on at least.

“Hey Chon.”


She sat on the couch across from him. What did she want? Was she gonna try something? Maybe he would take her up on it.

“How was work?” she asked.

“Same ol’ shit,” Felipe said.

“Ya like the fish?”

“Pretty good.”

“Angelina called.”

“Yeah? What’d she say?”

“Getting married.”

No way, Felipe thought. He just broke up with that mocosa six months ago. Who’d she find to marry?

“She wants you to go. Ya goin’?”

Bet she does so she can rub it in my face, Felipe thought. So what? She was only a kid. That’s all she ever wanted, some guy to take care of her. And she was always trying to talk with some English accent, like she was Madonna or something. Her mom made some good birria though.

“I said are you goin’?” Chondra asked.

“You don’t have to be so loud. Where’s Carlos?”

“Asleep. He said you’d go.”


“’Cause she’s marrying some white guy you both knew in school, Steve something.”
So she was marrying that guy. Well, fuck her then.



“Hey Tony. Here’s your bills.”

“Aww dude. How about some good mail?”

“How about this Victoria’s Secret catalog?”

“Now you’re talking,” Tony said as he shoved the magazine into his pants.

“Just says ‘resident’ but I think it’s your neighbor’s.”

“She’s a babe. Speaking of babes, I heard your ex is getting married.”

How did this mofo find out about Angelina? Chingado! This neigborhood’s too small.

“She’s hooking up with Steve Bitchett,” Felipe said.

“Bitchett? Aw, you mean Pritchett. The guy who used to wear high waters?”

“Imaginate! Who would’ve thought she liked that geekazoid.”

“She liked you,” Tony said.

Low blow. True, Felipe was into “Robotech” and “Star Wars.” And yeah, he went dressed up (but only once!) like a Jedi Knight to L.A. Con and sure, he stayed up all night watching the “Star Wars” trilogy but he wasn’t one of those Trekkie weirdos. And he wasn’t into Rubick’s Cube or chess like this Steve guy. Let her marry the gabacho cabrón.

“If you go, I’ll see you there,” Tony said.

“You goin’?”

Felipe’s bag almost fell off his shoulder.

“Adela’s known her since high school so, you know, I gotta go,” Tony said.

Felipe nodded and started walking toward his mail truck.

“Are the other guys going?” he asked.

“Only Mario,” Tony said adjusting the magazine. “He’s the best man.”

So even the best quarterback that played for Garfield High School was going. After leaving Tony’s house, Felipe drove to the next stop on his route, Han’s Liquor Store. “Han Solo” Felipe used to call him until Han got his mail order bride from Korea. She looked just like a doll. One time Felipe made a play for her but she pushed him away, real strong. “Nooooo!” she yelled.

And then came Han, with his broomstick like he was a witch. Felipe backed out of the tiny store and swore to himself he’d never bother her again. But that cute little China doll never came out of her doll house in Monterey Park and worked Han’s store again. For a while, Felipe thought she’d gone back to Korea or died. Turned out she had a baby.

One time, while he was doing his route, Felipe saw her pushing this baby carriage. He almost caught up with her but she saw him and took off across Atlantic Boulevard. Didn’t even wait for the light to turn green. But good ol’ Han got over it. This was during the riots, after that Rodney King mess. They were mainly happening in South Central but a little bola de pinche mocosos tried to start something up in Felipe’s neighborhood.

“Go away!” Han yelled at them, holding up that stupid broom. “Call police!”
Felipe could see the broom shaking and the sweat shining on Han’s forehead. And those chamacos started walking up to him. One guy, El Sleepy, started doing a little duck walk, stretching his eyes.

“Ching, chong chink,” he sang as he walked like a penguin. “Ching, chong, chink.”

When Han was about to swing that broom, Felipe walked up in front of the boys.

“Get the fuck outta here mailman,” El Sleepy said.

Then Felipe pulled out his regulation pepper spray. Cobra and Jelly Beans stepped back.

“Orale chamacos,” he said. “Step off or you’ll be crying like babies in a couple of seconds.”

When Felipe saw Cobra reach into his pants, he let them have it. Jelly Beans took off but Cobra and El Sleepy just screamed and cried. Then Han started beating them with his broom. He wouldn’t stop even though Felipe tried to grab the broom. As soon as the cops came, Felipe pulled the broom out of Han’s hands. Instead of hauling those punks away, the cops called the paramedics to clean those guys up. Felipe couldn’t believe that shit. Then the cop started grilling him about why he used the pepper spray.

“Self defense man,” Felipe said.

“How about the chino beating those kids up with a broom?”

“They’re lying.”

The cops finally took Cobra and El Sleepy away. Han went inside the store and turned off the lights. When Felipe heard his car coming out of the drive way, he thought for sure Han would stop to shake his hand. But naah, Han just took off. Drove back to his pretty China doll wife in Monterey Park. But after that, anytime Felipe dropped off Han’s mail, Han gave him free Cokes and let him sit under the air conditioning during the summers. As Felipe handed him some letters, Han showed him the rifle he kept under the counter.

“No more broom?” Felipe asked.

“Fuck broom,” he said. “Nobody mess with me now.”

“Just don’t shoot me, okay?” Felipe picked up his bag and started walking back to his truck.

“Felipe!” Han yelled.


“Have a drink sometime.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Felipe said. “Sometime.”

“Maybe tomorrow?”

“I have a wedding tomorrow.”

Then he said something in Korean.


“Congratulations,” Han said.


Sitting in one of the booths in the back of the Silver Dollar bar, Felipe snuggled up to Mauve, trying to see if he could get worked up over her like he used to with other girls. He hadn’t been laid in seven months and jacking off didn’t cut it anymore. So, did he want to take this girl to Angelina’s wedding? Mauve had nothing on her. Bad skin. Fat ass. She had nice hair though.

After a couple of beers, Mauve was getting friendly. But when she put her hand on his knee, Felipe jumped up and went to the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face.

“Goddamn she’s ugly,” he whispered. Not enough beer in the world to make this girl sexy. Felipe thought of Han’s wife, with her small feet and clear, glowing skin. Maybe it was time for him to get a mail-order bride for himself. He remembered some guy had paid $5,000 for a Russian girl who looked like a model. Real old guy too, with no hair and green slimy teeth. Felipe looked at his hair. Not bad. It was graying out but at least he wasn’t pelón. And his skin. Blaagh. What did Mom call him? Cara de naranja. He saw a tomato stain on his white shirt. He’d love to have Mom wash it but she’d let him have it about being a slob and how no woman was ever gonna want him.

“Go to the pueblo,” she kept saying. “You’ll find someone decent who’ll love you for taking care of her.”

Felipe didn’t want to end up like Don Emilio, that old guy on his route, living alone in a stinky house with no grandkids. Tony’s house smelled too, but at least it smelled like kids and a wife, not dogs and sweat. Plus Tony’s house was nice with furniture made of glass and wood that his wife picked out and kept shiny. Did Felipe really want to pay for a wife? Maybe one of those video dating services or the personals would help.

“Maybe you’ll meet somebody nice at Angelina’s wedding,” Mom said.

“I already met somebody nice.”

“You mean pizza face? Ay que fea.”

Like his mother was Michelle Pfeiffer or something.

“How did you meet Dad?” Felipe asked.

“Through your Tía Ofelia. She introduced him to me at your cousin’s baptism.”

“I don’t go to baptisms.”

“Maybe you should.”

Felipe thought about asking his sister Berta for advice but she was good friends with Angelina and he didn’t need both of them knowing that he was alone and desperate. When he got back to the booth there were two Jack and Cokes sitting in front of Mauve.

“Thought you might want another round.” She smiled then giggled.

Felipe sat near the edge of his seat. From the corner of his eye, he looked at her boobs practically falling out of the low-cut tank top.

“I’m a little tired today.”

“All that walking, huh?”

“You know how it is for us mailmen.”

He sipped his drink and got up. Mauve slowly drank hers until Felipe sat down again, his leg on the outer edge of the booth. Mauve slid over to him, grabbed his face with both hands and tried to kiss him. Felipe stood up and wiped his mouth.

“C’mon. I’ll take you home.”


Two fucking hours. Who has a wedding for two fucking hours? But Felipe should’ve known. Before they broke up, Angelina was always talking about her “dream” wedding, like she was Barbie or something, telling him how she wanted to “do it right:” Big Catholic church, 10 bridesmaids, 10 groomsmen, priest, altar boys--the works! She got the ideas from those magazines. Hijole! When she first showed him that Bride magazine, he couldn’t believe it. They actually sold those things with picture after picture of some chick looking drugged out in her big white dress.

“No way,” Felipe told her. “No way am I paying for all that.”

“But my parents can’t afford this.” She pointed to this dress by some chink named Vera Wang.

“Tough shit,” he said. “I’m a mailman, not Donald Trump.”

“But you can take a loan out.” And she said that with a straight face.

“You take a loan out.”

It was pretty much over after that. Angelina didn’t wanna date this poor Mexican slob of a mailman. So now she was hooking up with Steve, one of five white guys in his high school who was a total geek. Felipe guessed Steve got some kind of a real job after UCLA.

And when the priest asked if anybody had any reason why these two dopes shouldn’t be “joined,” nobody said a damn thing. Nobody thought there was a problem. But Felipe did. Hell yeah he did. But what was he gonna do? This wasn’t “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and he wasn’t Hugh Grant that’s for sure. Felipe gripped his little can of regulation pepper spray in the pocket of his gray slacks. It felt warm and friendly. How many times had it saved his ass?

When Steve raised the veil from Angelina’s face, Felipe took a deep breath. She still looked 17, all fresh and pretty. He couldn’t stand to look at Mauve, who was leaning in so close he could smell her sweat brewing with her perfume.

“I love her dress,” Mauve whispered.

Before the priest ended the ceremony, he pointed to the blank wall above the giant portrait of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

“The bride and groom would like to share with you through pictures the reasons they fell in love.”

Journey’s “Faithfully” whined through the speakers while on the wall, slides of Steve and Angelina as kids popped up. When they flashed a picture of Angelina in her prom dress, Felipe’s heart busted. He asked her to that prom but she’d turned him down. So he went “stag” with his Tony and Mario and watched her dance with some kid from another high school. “Rhythm of the Night” was the theme and the DJ kept playing that song by DeBarge every five minutes. For years after the prom, whenever he heard that song, he flipped the radio station.

The next slide nearly killed Felipe. It was the picture of Angelina at Huntington Beach. He could tell part of it had been cut off and knew why. It used to be him sitting there next to her, throwing his head back laughing. She was smiling up at camera guy. By the time the next picture came up, Felipe was crying.

“I always cry at weddings too,” Mauve said leaning her head on his shoulder, wrapping her arm around his.

Was it the slides or Mauve with her pizza skin face leaning on him? Or maybe it was Han’s China doll and her baby? Whatever it was, it was enough to make Felipe break out his pepper spray for the second time in a month and spray the bride and groom as they walked down the aisle. And then it was like Han with his broom. Felipe just kept spraying even while the best man and a groomsman tried to push him down into the red carpet. Some of the spray got into his eyes. But he kept pressing on the button until he heard the little “ssst” of he empty can.

Around him, women screamed, men yelled, little kids ran up and down the aisle and from all this mess came the cops. This time, instead of dragging off punks like Cobra and El Sleepy, they cuffed and dragged him screaming out of the church. The cops threw Felipe on the sidewalk where they waited for the paramedics to wash his eyes out.

“Why’d you do this? Who are you? Where’d you’d get the pepper spray?” they yelled at him.

Felipe twisted around like slug sprinkled with salt while the sidewalk burned through his clothes. As he lay face up on the sidewalk, Felipe heard Angelina whimpering and Steve cursing. For a second, he thought he heard Mauve laughing. Sirens down the street got louder and louder. And for the first time since that day at the beach with Angelina, Felipe smiled into the sun beating on his face.

[Estella González was born and raised in East Los Angeles, which inspires most of her writing. Her work has been anthologized in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature published by Bilingual Press, and Kaleidoscope published by Pima Press. Her writing has also appeared in literary magazines Puerto del Sol, Sandscript and Eleven Eleven. She is working on her first novel. “Pepper Spray” first appeared in Sandscript.]

◙ I received a nice note from the poet, Francisco Aragón, editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007). The poetry anthology gathers, for the first time, works by emerging Latino and Latina poets in the twenty-first century. Francisco told me that his “two-year trek” touring with the anthology will be winding down in a couple of weeks in New York City at Poet's House's new home in Battery Park. He'll be having a panel discussion on Thursday, October 29, at 6:30 p.m. with several contributors to the anthology (Brenda Cardenas, Gina Franco, Urayoán Noel and Rich Villar) which Francisco moderate. Then, at 8:00 p.m., they will be having a reading featuring Brenda, Gina, David Dominguez, and Scott Inguito. You may visit Poet's House website for more information. The event is co-sponsored by Letras Latinas, the Guild Complex and the ACENTOS Foundation, with support by the National Endowment for the Arts. Congratulations to Francisco and all of the contributors to this groundbreaking anthology!

Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer living in New York City, interviews the poet, Paul Martínez Pompa, over at on Critical Mass. Martínez Pompa is the author of Pepper Spray, a chapbook published by Momotombo Press in 2006. My Kill Adore Him, his first full-length collection, was selected for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize in 2008.

◙ Check out the latest on

Latinos in America, CNN and Refocusing the Immigration Issue

Latinos for Peace on Facebook

Health Net Launches Salud Medicare

TOP Ten Ways Gringos Celebrate Day of the Dead

The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) cordially invites you to a presentation by Chicana/o Studies Professor Robert Chao Romero on"Corridos, Huapangos, and Mambo Cha-Cha-Cha.” Professor Romero will present a diverse line-up of songs from the CSRC's online archive of the Arhoolie Foundation's Frontera Collection. The professor will explore songs from the Corrido, Afro-Cuban, and Mambo Cha-Cha-Cha genres, amongst others. The Arhoolie Frontera Collection is an online digital archive of Mexican and Mexican-American recordings that was launched by the CSRC last March.

DAY: Wednesday, October 28

TIME: 12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.

PLACE: CSRC Library (144 Haines Hall)

COST: Free Admission

◙ That’s all for now. I still hope to post some photos of the Latino Book & Family Festival but I’ve been buried with my day job, getting ready for the book launch of my new short story collection, putting final edits into my novel, etc. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Into the Beautiful North with Luis Alberto Urrea

Olga Garcia Echeverria

Imagine this…

Undocumented immigrants risk their lives to venture into the U.S.

But they don’t do it to clean houses, mow lawns, pick crops nor to pursue the ever-elusive American dream. Instead they come to recruit and take fellow immigrants back home.

Sound surreal and somewhat unexpected?

Well, this is what a small band of young, charismatic characters set out to do in Luis Urrea’s latest novel, Into the Beautiful North.

Urrea’s narrative begins with bandits riding into Tres Camarones, a bucolic village in Sinaloa, Mexico that’s been depleted of its male population. The men have vanished North in search of work, leaving behind a community of mostly women, children, and elderly individuals.

It’s the 21st Century, so when the narco-bandidos arrive they do so in a large police LTD with tinted windows, cruising down the Tres Camarones’ streets “like a jaguar sniffing for its prey.” These outlaws suck on cinnamon toothpicks and praise Kanye West and Diddy, while sneering at the village’s outhouses and skinny dogs.

Enter the main characters and defenders of the town: Nayeli, a 19-year-old soccer star; Tía Irma, the matriarch and ascending mayor of Tres Camarones; Verόnica, a Goth shrimp peeler; Yoloxochitl, a pin tender at the three lane bowling alley; and Tacho, a gay owner of a Taco Shop and Internet Café. Together these unlikely heroines and hero sets out on a mission—to go into “Los Yunaites” and bring back some of their men to help fight off the scalawags threatening to take over their village.

Unlike Urrea’s previous works, Into the Beautiful North is a playful fusion of fiction and reality. “In fiction, you are only answerable to your own limitations,” says Urrea who admits he set out to write a border story very different from any other he’d previously done. And he does create something quite distinct--his narrative is part modern-day immigrant odyssey, part parable, part comedy, with characters that could easily take center stage in a graphic novel. Take Atόmiko, for instance. "King of the Hill. Baddest of the trash pickers. The master of the dompe, known by all, feared by many. He wore baggy suit trousers cinched tight at his narrow waist, a sleeveless white undershit. His tattoos...Zapata on his right biceps, the yin-yang symbol on his left shoulder" (121).

Some critics, however, haven’t been too fond of Urrea riding off freely into the fiction sunset. One writer from the San Francisco Chronicle writes about Into the Beautiful North, “With this book, what once was a terrible rite of passage for slews of dirt-poor Mexicans has become quick, easily digestible—even cute—fare. This is Border Crossing Lite” (June 2009). This same critic also accuses Urrea of letting the champagne bubbles of previous accomplishments go to his head. I found this last statement humorous.

Personally, I like the idea of Urrea exploring new literary frontiers and sipping on champagne as he writes. He deserves it. He’s worked in trash dumps in Tijuana and found poetry there, among the “malodorous volcanoes” of garbage. His investigative journalism has given us the grueling details of border poverty and border injustice in books such as By the Lake of Sleeping Children and Across the Wire. He’s sorted through the remains of the desert dead to be able to honor them and guide us through their heart-wrenching journey in The Devil’s Highway. Urrea has long been known for his serious border material. So is the expectation, then, that Urrea only write dark, tragic stories about the border? Border Crossing Heavy. Por Vida?

That would suck. Especially since, as Urrea himself says, “Not all border culture is harsh. We border people laugh a lot.” This is true. I've heard horrific border-crossing stories, but I've also heard comical or lite ones. Like the story my parents told me of crossing the border once on a bus. They were sitting way in the back and neither of them had papers. When the border agents boarded the bus to check documents, my mother freaked. She was sure that she and my father would be dragged off the bus like several of the other passengers. But my father instructed her to stay calm and to just say "Ah-meh-rikan ci-ten-zen." They only had a couple of minutes to practice these two English words in whispers before the agents reached them.

According to my mother, her and my father's English miraculously came out perfectly or at least well enough to fool the White border agents. Of course this is difficult to believe since 40 years later neither of them can pronounce the two words very well. But according to both of them this is the way it happened. So, myth or reality? The point is the border's not just a place that bleeds death and injustice, it also bleeds mythology, cuento, testimonio, and yes, even humor. These are the things Urrea is playing with in his novel and that amplify our view and understanding of the border and the people who cross it.

Although Urrea’s narrative is marked with humor, there's a definite political undertone running throughout the narrative. Similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? the humor is meant to reveal something deeper about the political forces of the times. In O Brother those political forces are the Ku Klux Klan (representative of an extended White Southern and racist population). In Into the Beautiful North those political forces are ICE Agents, camouflaged soliders, deportation holding cells (representative of the country's anti-immigrant legislation and sentiments).

Aside from it being radically different from anything Urrea has previously written, the prose is so clean that I felt I was galloping through the pages—I read it in two days and I’m a slow reader. As always, Urrea's details are rich and poetic. But most engaging of all is the actual physical and emotional journey of the main character, Nayeli. She's faced with repeated obstacles, but she is strong, feisty, and ultimately driven by a desire to not save only herself but her entire village. This is Ulysess or Odysseus, but undocumented inmigrante style y con un buen sentido de humor.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with a very busy and touring Urrea earlier this month. Here he is sharing some of his insights on his book, "Illegal Alien" Halloween costumes, and Lou Dobbs.

What inspired the idea for the novel?

All novels need a motivator to set the story in motion. It amused me to imagine a reverse migration scenario, and it fit the feminized heroes’ journey to give them a quest. Like the classic quests of ancient literature, they have to go to a dangerous foreign place, often at night, to return the prize to save their homeland.

What were your intentions when writing the book?

My task was to make mainstream readers who are unsympathetic, if not hostile, to the undocumented and find themselves rooting for them. What it was meant to do was to be the most subversive book I ever published. I dreamed that I could make the Lou Dobbs crowd root for undocumented women and gay men before they knew what they were doing. I launched ITBN as my most revolutionary project to date.

What has the response to your gay character Tacho been?

Interestingly, I got a comment from a Mexican politician; he said Tacho represents the best of us. Again, subversion. But also celebration. Years ago, in the village that became Tres Camarones I met the real Tacho. I have always wanted to honor him and I knew if Lou Dobbs hated the undocumented, steam would come out of his ears at an undocumented gay hero.

What about your main character Nayeli? Who or what was the inspiration behind this young heroine of the novel?

I would like to say that Nayeli was invented out of whole cloth; it would make me sound like a real genius. But you know, there are hundreds of Nayelis. The women who struggle with these issues are heroes. In their own small ways, in each of their days, they must be masterminds and warriors. We simply refuse to see them. Also, there is a young woman in Tijuana named Nayeli. That's where I got the name and her physical description. And she was a soccer star.

I’m dying to know what you think about the “Illegal Alien” Halloween costumes that are being sold at different stores?

The illegal alien costume...hmm. You know, if it were a Paul Rodriguez joke, we'd laugh. But it isn't. Is the context the problem, or the suit? After all, it's a spaceman. But dressed in a cartoony "Mexican" outfit. Don't like it.

Any thoughts on Lou Dobbs?

Lou Dobbs. Wait, I just had a nausea attack. Urp! I'm OK now. Look, Dobbs uses the basest forms of wicked propaganda and disinformation in a cynical way. He knows what he's saying is bullshit. But he sees himself as a patriot...or not. I will tip my hat to that asshole's championing of the workin' man. I agree with him about the laborers and the suffering middle. But to lay that onus on the Latinos is bogus, and he knows it's bogus. Gee, let's see--it was once those dirty Europeans, wasn't it? Ben Franklin didn't want the Germans messing things up. We hated Irish workers, too. Italians. Freed slaves. Chinese. Does anybody remember "the yellow peril"? Eh? Now it's the Browning of America. But, you know, America was pretty damned brown before 1492! Don't get me started on Lou Boobs. If he really cared so much, he would dedicate a few weeks, no, a few days, no a few hours--all right, I'll take one single stinking hour--to discussing Title 8 immigration law. Just one hour. I offer the invitation to Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh, as well. One hour explaining to Americans what, exactly, "illegal" means. I will kiss Dobbs on the air if he does. But first, he has to show that it is not a criminal law, that it is a torte and contract civil law, that it is the same law that governs speeding in traffic, and that he has sped and is thus an illegal alien and ought to be deported.

What do you think about the current campaign to get him off CNN?

I deeply dislike the cynicism and racism of the lying and propagandizing on that show. However, I am nervous about censorship. If I silence Dobbs, am I then to be silenced? It's an American trade-off, isn't it. That bastards can say whatever they want to, and we have to hope we can, too.

Can you share what you’re currently working on?

I'm writing the sequel to Hummingbird's Daughter right now, but I am also preparing two new books of poetry after a ten year absence. I also have a graphic novel coming out early next year based on my short story, Mr.Mendoza's Paintbrush. It's being drawn by an amazing muralist out of Brooklyn named Christopher Cardinale ( He actually went down to the small town where the story is based so the artwork is really representative of that part of Mexico.

For more information on Luis Alberto Urrea and his work:

For more information on "Illegal Alien" Halloween Costumes:

For more information on the Anti-Lou Dobbs campaign: &

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Enforced school-year hiatus already begun

In the coming months, Saturday readers will hopefully be treated to more piquant and regular postings than usual, since the onerous burden of being an elementary school teacher in the Denver school system is more than this viejo can manage, while at the same time meeting obligations as Saturday's bloguista.

Of course, all teachers, particularly those of the U.S., are overburdened. In my state, education also has the distinction of being some of the most under-funded and under-equipped nationally. It's doubtful things are going to get better, as noted in an article from the Denver superintendent's "State of the Schools" address (9/09):

"Enrollment . . . is now the biggest it's been in 35 years with more than 75,000 students. Still, Boasberg says the district may look at cutting up to $30 million through the next school year because of the sagging economy."

Pero, ya basta with the self-indulgence. But by way of explanation, I don't go on my school-year hiatuses(i?) simply because I have no time; none of us do. What I find difficult to counterbalance is the exhaustion from district requirements (11 hrs. a day, 6 days a week) on one side, and the literary and creative stamina to simultaneously post to La Bloga, on the other. I want to give La Bloga my best but find myself giving only what's left over.

Anyway, you'll occasionally be treated(?) to posts from me, but in the meantime I'll be trying to recruit guest posts from those who have more stamina, or at least, youthful zeal.
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Five semi-parting thoughts:

Dads, be around more as a role model for your son. Otherwise, he'll only have videos, video games or video-playing friends to build a hero from.

If you want him/her/it to succeed, take the video game away from your kid. Now. Or never buy him one.

Raise your kid to drink white milk; choco and strawberry varieties have two or three times the sugar and salt. They'll drink leche blanca if you teach them it's better for them. Honest.

Treat your kids to pecans, walnuts, almonds, trail mix, dried dates and other fruit. They can actually learn to love it. If you gotta do cookies, try ginger snaps and graham crackers, when they're on sale.

If you pass a teacher on the street, lift his chin up, straighten his shoulders, then remind him that if he's a good teacher, that's all he needs to be; getting a life can wait till retirement.

Anyone interested in guest blogging for Saturday, or even doing more of a contribution, E-mail me at rDOTchDOTgarciaATcyboxDOTcom


Friday, October 23, 2009

Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Edited by Jorge Hernández
Tezontle, 2008

The Big Read has selected an impressive list of books for its literary programs and reading events. Many of the authors are familiar and expected: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Willa Cather, Rudolfo Anaya, Zora Neale Hurston, Edgar Allen Poe. Novels prevail, with some poetry and a couple of plays thrown in the mix. The unexpected but welcome selection has to be Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories. And wouldn't you know it - the fiction in this anthology is superb.

The editor's Introduction proposes that "perhaps literature is the best lens through which to observe Mexico's soul. And of all genres, perhaps the short story is the vehicle best suited for rendering snapshot scenes, actual places, words that have been shared by generations or forgotten by time, and above all, flesh-and-blood portraits of Mexicans that are perfectly credible -- even when they're no more than inventions of ink on paper -- whose biographies are eternal, precisely because they've been read." I agree. The editor has done a marvelous job of selecting stories that offer “snapshot scenes”of Mexico’s soul. This slim volume indeed portrays a land and people authentically, with passion, agony, insight, and smooth prose that blisters the heart.

One reason I enjoyed this collection is that the short story is my preferred format for reading. A well-written or well-told story has the ability to capture a truth, a reality, an essence that, when finally revealed, is powerful and beautiful, accomplished with a rationing of words and no waste of skill. The author has to “start late and finish early.” He or she has to have the ability to cut back and trim, to get to the core of the tale without excess or fat. The reader has to trust the writer and participate; fill in the gaps, make the assumptions and complete the thoughts that are essential to the narrative but not necessarily found on the page. And both must believe in the essential humanity of the characters so that when the final sentence is reached, writer and reader can sit back and say, with appreciation, “that’s the way it is and that’s all there is.” Each of the 20 stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows satisfies in all these ways, and more.

I’m not as familiar with Mexican fiction, especially short stories, as I should be. I’ve read Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Paco Taibo. I periodically re-read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Other than that, my education is lacking any real understanding of the history and evolution of Mexican fiction. Sun, Stone, and Shadows provides a broad sampling of some of Mexico’s greatest writers, thus improving my knowledge immensely and painlessly. The writers selected for this anthology include well-known masters such as Fuentes, Paz, and Rulfo, as well as revered or lesser-known names including Alfonso Reyes, Martín Luis Guzmán, Rosario Castellanos, Juan José Arreola, and Sergo Pitol. The framework for selection limited the stories to works of authors born in Mexico from 1887 to 1939. They are, as noted by the editor, a sample of the best Mexican literature published during the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into five sections: The Fantastic Unreal; Scenes from Mexican Reality; The Tangible Past; The Unexpected in Everyday, Urban Life; and Intimate Imagination. In these sections the reader meets every class and variety of Mexican, a “kaleidoscope” of “flavors and colors” as Hernández writes. The effect can be overwhelming.

For example, Carlos Fuentes is represented by Chac-Mool, a sinister fable based on a journal of a doomed, middle-class man who dares to “collect” a life-size statue of the god of rain and thunder. This trip into the fantastic plays out against the ongoing clashes between Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past and its struggle for modernization. Needless to say, the story does not end well for the office bureaucrat.

One of my favorite pieces is The Mist by Juan de la Cabada. The storyteller says that ever since he became rich he hasn’t been any good at telling stories. And then he launches into a story that holds the reader in a firm, relentless grip. On a foggy and rainy night, and against his better judgment, the man helps out “four miserable Indians, the kind you recognize immediately as being prototypical construction workers: half industrialized, half men of the fields.” He provides a ride, but soon regrets his benevolence. The oldest Indian mumbles almost incoherently, questioning how deep the rain will seep into the ground, trying the rich man’s patience. The author might have taken the story in a predictable direction, but, instead, in six short pages he manages to reveal a profound tragedy that is personal to his characters, of course, but also one that stamps the reader’s mind with “the mist, the mystery, the darkness of the road.”

A bit further into the book we meet The Medicine Man, lord of the Caribe Indians of Puná, created by Francisco Rojas González. The narrator is some type of observer, an anthropologist perhaps, who describes a visit with the Kai-Lan, chief of the Puná, and the chief’s three wives. In straightforward detail we read how a flood almost destroys the village, and how the chief is forced to create one new clay god after another in his attempts to ward off the rushing river. On the surface, a simple, parochial story; and yet – universal themes of jealousy, pride, luck versus opportunity, and humanity’s conflicting relationship with the natural world shine through González’s story.

These 20 stories present soldiers, poets, lovers, dying old men, and coming-of-age young women. There are existential puzzles, revenge plots, and bloody slices of history. The triumphs, failures, and contradictions of the Revolution are presented in stories such as The Carnival of the Bullets by Martín Luis Guzmán, and Permission Granted by Edmundo Valadés (another favorite if for no other reason than that justice finally is served, albeit belatedly and ironically.) Humor, often black, is found in The Dinner by Alfonso Reyes, Cooking Lesson by Rosario Castellanos (a mighty protest against the old Mexican machista, as noted by the editor), Tachas by Efrén Hernández, What Became of Pampa Hash? by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and even in the ultimately bleak, The Shunammite by Inés Arredondo. Bittersweet nostalgia has its place in The Square by Juan García Ponce and August Afternoon by José Emilio Pacheco.

As you no doubt can tell, this book was a revelation to me. I recommend it highly and suggest you pick up a copy soon; at $10 it’s more than a bargain.

And so, all that got me to thinking about other categories of “great short stories.” For example, how about 20 Great Chicano Short Stories? Totally subjective and bound to produce fistfights, bloody noses, and impaired egos, what stories written by Chicanas or Chicanos in the past 50 (?) years would you put on such a list? H-m-m-m …