Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Review: Richard Vasquez. Chicano.

Michael Sedano

Review: Richard Vasquez. Chicano. NY: Harper Collins Rayo. 2005. ISBN 9780060821043; ISBN: 0060821043


I made two mistakes* about Richard Vasquez’ novel, Chicano. The second is reading the back cover blurb and Daniel Olivas’ review. The first is waiting thirty years to read the novel.

Menso me. Uau, Richard Vasquez’ Chicano is a stunningly fine page-turner of a novel that everyone interested in Unitedstatesian literature deserves to read. If the novel must take an ethnic label, call it one of those sui generis “great American novels.” Which, of course, makes it also chicano literature.

The back cover blurb says something about “the tradition of Upton Sinclair touched with authentic color and understandable bitterness.” Which is a mistake. Chicano has nothing to do with The Jungle, and certainly none of the droning political proselytizing of that novel’s failed final pages. And Daniel Olivas notes “the novel stumbles … when Vasquez attempts to ‘explain’ Chicanismo to his non-Chicano audience.” Which is reading too much into the title. Chicano is not about chicanismo nor racism. It’s a love story that revolves around human stupidity and betrayal, and how those impact people who happen to be Mexicans and Chicanos.

This is not to deny the vital importance of the characters’ Mexican heritage. Vasquez has crafted a family saga rooted in the Mexican desert, California rural farmworker colonias, and late 1950s East Los Angeles.

The first 120 pages offer a sweeping telescopic history of happenstance leading to a family’s migration into the agricultural United States. Not until the 125th page does the term "chicano" enter the book's vocabulary, at the point Julio, one of the two main characters, arrives in Los Angeles.

The story follows the tragic history of two people who lose moral compass. Vasquez doesn’t make a case that Mexican Chicanos inherently tend to alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction and unprotected sex with pendejos. But Julio and Mariana, in varying degrees, elect those behaviors. Those who do not taste these forbidden pleasures don’t interest the writer. Raza with kindness in their hearts, or who speak good English, attain “mainstream” solidity like business managers or migra, pop up as plot foils, then are forgotten as the writer pursues his moralistic version of family values: Julio in all his rottenness, gets only jail time in a token of revenge by the whore who helped rescue him from endless toil as a fruit picker. Poor Mariana, who represents the best of her generation—smart, articulate, insightful—has to die from a back alley abortion as the consequence of her pridefulness in seducing a cowardly man, who happens to be a rich Anglo college boy cad.

Political conservatives like to whine that raza politics is all about victimhood. These tipos surely need to read Chicano. If there’s a theme Vasquez absolutely denies, it’s that these characters are victims of anything. Greedy, ugly, anglo racists may be ubiquitous, but are little different from the exploitative hacendado, the rapacious bandidos, or imperious soldiers three generations back in Trainwreck. Julio's fall comes as result of his own evil nature. Mariana's case is more complicated, perhaps a consequence of her isolation from both cultures. Happiness comes in being self-possessed, like the illiterate grandfather back in Irwindale, or the mother who runs off with her girlhood boyfriend from el rancho, who appears in rags upon the death of her drunken husband. Now there’s a love story begging to be told.

I hope you have already read your copy of Chicano and I haven’t disclosed anything you might consider a “spoiler.” Ni modo. Richard Vasquez, qepd, has given us a novel so rich in detail and cultural awareness, that readers and critics will enjoy years of discussion. I wish I’d read it years ago. I hope you'll read it and join La Bloga's discussion.

*The mistake reflects my preference to react to a work on its own terms, uninfluenced by a third party.

Hasta, raza, and fellow readers.



daniel olivas said...

interesting points but i still don't fully understand how you can truly "read a work on its own" without reference to anything else. no piece of fiction exists in a vacuum ... we don't exist in a vacuum. and some gente will read book reviews to help determine whether a book is worth reading (in other words, folks such as i). the vasquez novel is indeed rich in detail and quite fulfilling as literature despite its few lapses. but i read it because i knew it had a history and was an important landmark in chicano literature. as usual, you offer interesting and thought-provoking insights. and because of your review, i'm sure others will pick up the novel!

Anonymous said...

I avoid blurbs and reviews usually, but sometimes it's not easy. So, I sorta understand Sedano's point. Seems to me they're as reliable as sportscasters' spreads on NFL games.

I can go with Olivas, too, especially once you get to "know" and trust a reviewer.

Bloga visitors maybe "know" Olivas and Ramos from having read their books and many reviews. I assume that can be appealing over the long run, building ties with an audience, consistency, familiarity.

It must almost be Turkey Day, because I may not be making sense.

Have some good days off.


msedano said...

i endeavor to avoid reviews and 3d party critical work, i.e. "try". daniel has a good point--these things are ubiquitous. i admit, when i find a new title and author, i look at the dustleaf to see what the writer says about the piece, and if i find that convincing, likely i'll take it with me.

Rudy's got a good point; some reviewers are systematically mistrustful. i never read the LA Times' critics prior to attending the Taper or a concert. These guys are truly full of b.s. and themselves, but i repeat myself. One chamber music concert I loved, the guy's review complained how old the audience was, nothing about the performance.

isolating myself to the maximum degree possible allows me and the text to sit together and see what the text, has to say.

Aaminah Shakur said...

Personally, I tend to not want to read reviews because they may "color" my own perceptions. In this case, I probably would have never found this book if it weren't for the review, LOL. So I read part of your review and now I have to go find the book...after I read it and have my own thoughts, I'll come back and read your review and see how much we agree (or not). :) Thanks for the suggested reading!

lupe said...

I read this book over 20 years ago. I was only 18 and I did not read any review on it. (no internet at that time). I fully understood the novel. I did not read the back cover, I just opened the book and started reading. My father had the book signed by Richard Vasquez, which is why I decided to read it. It is one of my favorite books in the world, next to Jane Eyre.
I think I'll read it AGAIN! Love it.