Monday, August 28, 2006

Memoir travels maze of sex, family and self-acceptance

Book review by Daniel Olivas

What makes a writer?

This seemingly simple question can elicit many complex answers and even more questions. Case in point: Rigoberto González's poetic and heartbreaking memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (The University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 hardcover).

González is an award-winning author of poetry, fiction and children's books. He is also a book critic contributing regularly to the El Paso Times.

How did González, the son of migrant farmworkers whose first language was Spanish, become González the writer? Answers begin to emerge from his painful assertion of himself as a gay man in a culture steeped in machismo.

González tells of his journey into adulthood and a life of literature in a nonlinear fashion, moving back and forth from childhood to adulthood, Mexico to the United States, self-loathing to self-revelatory empowerment.

The book begins in Riverside, Calif., in 1990. González, as a college student at the Riverside campus of the University of California, has fallen in love with an older man who, as symbolized by painful yet beautiful "butterfly" marks he places upon González, brings both tenderness and brutality to the relationship. The unnamed lover cheats on González and doesn't hesitate to beat him up to establish his superiority over his young man. At times, González believes he deserves such brutality.

Other times, he is grateful to have escaped the oppressiveness of his family and its legacy of dropping out of high school to work in the fields. The escape comes in the form of literature. A sometimes-callous, sometimes-tender teacher named Dolly lends the young González a poetry book and works with him to subjugate his accent. And the fire is lit: "I became a closet reader at first, taking my book with me to the back of the landlord's house or into my parents' room, where I would mouth the syllables softly, creating my own muted music."

González then suffers the death of his mother when he is only 12. Compounding this loss, he is shipped off to live with his tyrannical grandfather. His own father -- who abuses alcohol and carouses with women --eventually starts another family, further alienating González. Again, books prove to be González's salvation, eventually leading to his surreptitious and successful application to college.

González remains closeted in both his sexuality and intellect, realizing that neither facet of his identity would be understood or appreciated by his family.

In the midst of scenes from his college life in Riverside and his adolescent exploration of sex and literature, González recounts a long and agonizing bus trip with his father. He leaves Riverside and travels to Indio, where his father lives, so they can begin their journey "into México, into the state of Michoacán, into the town of Zacapu, where my father was born, where my mother was raised, and where I grew up." This passage home takes on a special aura because González will turn 20 while there. Throughout the trip, González longs for his lover while seething with an almost uncontrollable anger toward his father. Throughout, he wonders if this trip was a mistake or a necessary part of becoming an adult.

What makes a writer? Obviously, talent is a necessary ingredient. And in the case of González, add to the mix hard work and a burning desire to be heard. Ultimately, it is a mysterious alchemy.

In any case, Butterfly Boy is a potent and poetic coming-of-age story about one man's acceptance of himself. There's no mystery in that.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

◙ The Premio Aztlán Literary Award 2006: Call for Submissions!The Premio Aztlán Literary Prize is a national literary Prize, established to encourage and reward emerging Chicana and Chicano authors. Renowned author, Rudolfo Anaya and his wife, Patricia, founded Premio Aztlán in 1993, and the prize was reestablished in their honor in 2004 by the University of New Mexico Libraries.

A prize of $1000 will be given to a Chicana or Chicano writer for a work of fiction published in the 2006 calendar year. Authors who have published no more than two books are eligible for the prize. The winner will be expected to give a reading at the University of New Mexico Libraries in April 2007.

Publishers should submit a letter of nomination and authors should submit a letter of interest and resume. Letters should include appropriate contact information and be sent with five copies of the book by December 31, 2006 to:

Premio Aztlán Literary Prize
University Libraries, Dean's Office
MSC05 3020
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131

For questions, contact:

Teresa Marquez, Curator
Chicano/Hispano/Latino Library Program
(505) 277-0582

Before submitting, please visit the Library’s website and click “Premio Aztlán.”

Francisco Aragón informs us that Brenda Cárdenas' poem, "Empty Spaces," from her chapbook, FROM THE TONGUES OF BRICK AND STONE (Momotombo Press, 2005), was be featured at Poetry Daily ( on August 26, 2006. This will be the first time that a Momotombo Press poet will be featured here. And speaking of Francisco, Jack Foley, the host of Cover to Cover on KPFA 94.1 FM, Berkeley, CA, will broadcast on September 6 at 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. part one of his interview with the poet/translator whose new book, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press), moves between the cities of San Francisco and Madrid and between the languages of English and Spanish. Part two will air September 13. The show is available in podcast, as well. Go to KPFA’s website for more information.


SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Aug. 14 -- The University of California at Santa Barbara issued the following press release:

Helena Maria Viramontes, a writer and professor of English at Cornell University, is the recipient of this year's Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature, given annually by the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival and Santa Barbara City College.

Considered one of the country's premier Latina writers, Viramontes is the author of "The Moths and Other Stories" and "Under the Feet of Jesus," a novel about a migrant farming family, which is now in its fourteenth printing. Her new novel, "Their Dogs Came With Them," will be published in 2007.

She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the John Dos Passos Award for Literature. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and her writings have been adopted for classroom use and university study.

With Maria Herrera Sobek, associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and academic policy at UC Santa Barbara, Viramontes is co editor of two collections: "Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film" and "Chicana Creativity and Criticism."

"Viramontes is one of the most innovative and poetic of contemporary Latino writers in the United States, and one whose work deserves even greater recognition," says Mario Garcia, professor of Chicano studies and history at UCSB, who is the organizer of the annual Leal Award.

The award is named after Luis Leal, professor of Chicana/Chicano Studies at UCSB, who is internationally recognized as one of the leading scholars of Chicano and Latino literature. He will celebrate his 99th birthday this year....

Previous recipients of the Leal Award include Oscar Hijuelos, Rudolfo Anaya, and Denise Chavez.

All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadre at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!

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