Friday, September 02, 2005

Music of the Mill, A Few New Books and A Plea

Manuel Ramos

In this post: Luis J. Rodriguez, Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martin Limón, and Katrina Relief.

Music of the Mill
Luis J. Rodriguez

What could be more natural than a Chicano working class novel? In fact, saying "Chicano working class" is almost redundant. Work (hard, sweaty, mind-numbing work) and Chicanos go hand-in-hand. It’s a little surprising that there haven’t been more novels that directly deal with the labor aspects of Chicano life or that at least have the working class atmosphere. Dagoberto Gilb’s fiction comes to mind, as do the stories in Michael Jaime-Becerra’s Every Night Is Ladies’ Night. And, for sure, the classic farm worker literature of Tomás Rivera and Helena María Viramontes would qualify.

In any event, Music of the Mill by Luis J. Rodriguez is working class to the core. The book tells the story of the Salcido family over three generations, beginning in 1943 in northern Mexico and finishing almost in the present in an L.A. barrio. The family patriarch, Procopio, finds work in the massive Nazareth steel mill, and thus begins the hate-love relationship between the Salcidos and the mill. When at last the mill shuts down, the family has sent almost every male in the family to work in the mill. And without the mill the family flounders.

The book is rich with descriptions of working in the mill, especially from the millwright’s perspective. Rodriguez places the reader in the day-to-day toil of the workers. Rodriguez knows the heat, noise, danger and intensity of the mill (he was a steelworker in the Bethlehem Steel Plant of Maywood, California), and he conveys his knowledge in clear, crisp prose, almost as hard as the steel produced by the mill.

The story eventually centers on Johnny, Procopio’s son. A former gang member and ex-con, Johnny finally straightens out, with the help of a good woman, of course, and much of the book is taken up with his struggle for necessary reforms in the working conditions inside the mill, and with his fight against corruption in the workers’s union. Rodriguez presents a varied and intriguing cast of secondary characters: Communist organizers, Ku Klux Klan thugs, the first women steelworkers, union bureaucrats, corporate criminals, Mexika activists, pintos, workers of all races and ethnicities, and many more. They all come together in a story that rings as true as the pounding of a forge from the 32-inch mill onto red-orange steel ingots.

The final section of the book departs from the previous story line; in fact, to accent the departure, it is presented in the first person point-of-view of Johnny’s daughter, Azucena. For me, this was the weakest part of the book. I understand that the story had to go into the long-lasting effect of the closing of the mill on the community and families who had worked in it for years. But once the story leaves the mill, it meanders through drug abuse, domestic abuse, criminal life on the streets, and children who fall by the wayside (even though they have what appear to be the greatest parents and supportive family) before a semblance of balance is restored in the Salcido family.

Even so, Rodriguez has crafted a book that should sit on anyone’s list of required reading if for no other reason than that he has given a strong and valid voice to the working men and women of an industrial era that has vanished for good. Rodriguez’s book ensures that their lives and struggles will not be forgotten.

New Titles For The Fall

Almost time for the fall books - it's good news when the books start rolling from the presses. Here are a few, many more to come:

Ana Castillo has two new works, both published by small presses.

Here’s what the Wings Press website says about the play, Psst...I Have Something to Tell You, Mi Amor: "Sister Dianna Ortiz traveled as a missionary in the early 1980s to the highlands of Guatemala, where she taught Mayan children to read and write. On November 2, 1989, Sister Dianna was sitting in the garden of her convent when she heard a man behind her say, in Spanish, Hello, my love. We have some things to discuss. She was abducted by this man, who together with others transported her to a jail where she was brutally tortured. One of her torturers ––their boss, in fact –– was a North American, probably associated with the US government in some capacity. Miraculously, Sister Dianna escaped by leaping from a car in which she was being transported." Castillo has paid homage to Sister Dianna with two versions of this new play.

Her second book comes from Curbstone Press. The book is a verse novel, Watercolor Women, Opaque Men. The press blurb for this book says, "With a remarkable combination of tenderness, lyricism, wicked humor, and biting satire, Ana Castillo dramatizes her heroine’s struggle through poverty. Urged on by the gods of the ancients, the heroine, known only as Ella or She, narrates stories that illustrate what it means to be a marginalized brown woman or man at the threshold of the 21st Century."

As we've noted previously here on La Bloga, Wings Press also is publishing a book of new poetry (after fourteen years) from Lorna Dee Cervantes, Drive: The First Quartet. The book is set for shipping in October, 2005.

Martin Limón returns after several years’ with a new book about his Chicano military cops in Korea, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, entitled The Door to Bitterness. Limón has created a unique and exciting series (this is the fourth book about George and Ernie) although the books are few and far between. So it’s encouraging to hear about this new one. "What lingers longest in George and Ernie’s odyssey is the grinding poverty, pride and moral compromise they find in1974 Korea ... [and] acrid insights on the dehumanizing force of the lasting American presence in Korea." (Kirkus)

Katrina Relief
Finally - please do what you can for the victims of Katrina: donate to a relief agency, give blood, support events like the blog for relief day (go to this site or Lorna Dee's blog for more information ). Here are some numbers and links:

Red Cross – 1-800-HELP NOW or online at
Salvation Army – 1-800-Sal-Army or online at
Bonfils – 303-363-2300 or online at
America’s Second Harvest – 800-771-2303
AmeriCares – 800-486-4357
Catholic Charities USA – 303-742-0828
Feed the Children – 800-627-4556
Humane Society of the United States – 202-452-1100 or 303-781-4418
United Jewish Communities – 303-322-8328
United Methodist Committee on Relief – 800-554-8583


Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

What a fantastic review on Luis Rodruiguez's new book! I, too loved Music of the Mill. The Door to Bitterness is a great detective novel (see my review of it on AmoxCalli).

msedano said...

most informative. thanks. i spent a couple of college summers in kaiser steel's fontana plant. i gotta read this one. ever better reading news: a new korea CID novel from limon. i was in korea 69-70. limon paints accurate portraits of a lot of stuff i remember.

Why "music"? I worked for a time in "the slabber,' that 42 inch mill pounding ingots into two inch plate. I thought of Hell, rarely carrying a tune.

daniel olivas said...

excellent post and a fine review of rodriguez's novel.

Manuel Ramos said...

You are all welcome. Music? One person hears a symphony, another hears Spike Jones. Ear of the beholder, I guess. You all know Martin and Graciela are related, primos or something?

Anonymous said...

Simón, Ramos, that was good work, all the way around.


Gustavo said...

Thanks for the recommendations..I will definitly check out those books.

Anonymous said...

Nice job on your blog site! Keep posting away.

One of today's hot news topics is about Gardening.
AWSOME Gardening
website! Please come and check it out. Enjoy!