Friday, March 02, 2007

Cottonwood Saints

Manuel Ramos

A review of the award-winning New Mexico novel, Cottonwood Saints, then a few bits and pieces of news, and a contest!

Gene Guerin
University of New Mexico Press, 2005

Gene Guerin's family saga has been awarded the 2006 Premio Aztlán and the 2007 Mountain & Plains Regional Book Award for Adult Fiction. The Denver-based author says in the book's Acknowledgments that Cottonwood Saints is a work of fiction but it is based on forty handwritten pages of reminiscences by his mother, Margaret Ortega Guerin. "Without her memories there would be no book." To add to the feeling of authenticity, the book's cover photo is labeled Margarita's first communion, courtesy of the author. Yet, Guerin confesses, also in his Acknowledgments, that he "assumed the novelist's prerogative of exaggeration, fabrication and manipulation for the sole purpose of a good story." And a good story it turned out to be.

Guerin takes his time with his tale. There is no hurried narrative, no clipped or abstract language to indirectly evoke a feeling or set a scene. The emotions and descriptions are spelled out, the details are abundant and the pace is leisurely, although there is plenty going on in these pages. The book covers the years from 1913, when Margarita Juana Galván is born, until the Epilogue in 1990. In other words, Margarita's life parallels the major ebbs and flows of the turbulent Twentieth Century.

In her early years she enjoys a bucolic, almost fairy-tale existence with her loving aunt, Adela, and devoted servant, Nasha, in a magical life close to nature and the spirituality of Nasha. But that existence is temporary and eventually she is thrust into the harsh reality of her hard-working but poor parents who struggle through difficult times in Las Vegas, New Mexico and Denver. Margarita's life becomes a series of encounters with hunger, racism, and illness, as well as a constant state of conflict because of her strained and distant relationship with her cold, bitter mother. Only when the family returns to Las Vegas where the father somewhat successfully operates a lumber business does Margarita start to come in to her own. Her intelligence, independence and ambition collide with her mother's dark view of life and her neighbors' resentment and jealousy. These are central themes in Margarita's life -- unfulfilled dreams and failures by those she trusts.

Married life brings with it more pain and disappointment. Her husband, Miguel Galván, is a dozen years older, an industrious, solemn man intimidated by his more flamboyant and reckless brothers. He is described as the victim of "bad timing" that began on his birth date, January 2, 1901, "a day late to bask in whatever celebrity was attendant to being a New Year's baby, and more significantly in this case, a New Century baby. ... Christmas and New Year are over. No one wants any more parties. No one wants to give any more presents. Who wants to celebrate anything on January 2." He works diligently and faithfully as a butcher in the business he owns with one of his brothers, but only Margarita sees that the brother takes advantage of Miguel. The brother and his wife live the good life with new cars and treasured refrigerators, while Miguel and Margarita can barely make ends meet. But the most tragic event in Margarita's life is the loss of her favored son, Miguelito. That death haunts her and clouds the rest of her life and the life of the son who was born after Miguelito, Michael.

The book finishes with the story of Michael's tortured years
as an alcoholic priest and the final sad acts in the life of Margarita and her husband Miguel.

The tapestry of the Twentieth Century flaps in the background of Margarita's story, and Guerin appropriately touches on the integral role of the New Mexican Hispanos in such events: World War I and II, especially the heroism and sacrifices of the New Mexico National Guard when the Japanese overran the Philippines; the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic that killed forty million people worldwide including thousands in New Mexico; Ku Klux Klan marches in the streets of Denver, shouting hatred and hostility against all non-whites; a boxing match held in Las Vegas between Jack Johnson and a great white hope from Pueblo, Colorado; the economic and social devastation of the Great Depression. The history accurately frames the day-to-day plots and subplots in Margarita's life.

There are many sad and tragic events in this book -- betrayal, murder, fatal accidents and deadly diseases. A few lines from the book exemplify the sadness: "From the age of nine to the age of twelve, Margarita Juana had occasion to cry every day. The general cause of her misery was her exile to the lumber camp of her father, Leopoldo. The immediate instrument of her pain and sorrow was her mother, Tamar." But this is not a sad book. It is a very human book with all the drama and melodrama that humans require in their lives, and then some.

At its heart this book is about the essential strength and dignity of hard-working, unpretentious people. In that way this book compares
favorably, in tone, depth and sweep, to Luis J. Rodriguez's family saga of steelworkers in Twentieth Century Los Angeles, Music of the Mill (Rayo, 2005). The New Mexican rural poor of Cottonwood Saints overcome hardship and tragedy; raise families and provide for their children against all obstacles, natural and man made; they love, hate and disappoint; they overcome or succumb, yet they manage to leave something to pass on, something to cherish, in the same ways as Rodriguez's urban working class characters also survived and endured. They lived stories that cried out to be told. Guerin has done that with this book that he dedicated to his mother. These are the stories that have to be preserved.

Wednesday, March 21, 7:30 pm, Historic LoDo
Mario Acevedo will read from and sign X-Rated Blood Suckers (Rayo), the sequel to his debut Felix the Vampire detective novel The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. Those of us in the Denver area are already planning to attend. See you there.


I pass on the following news about the Pistolera video from Daniela Capistrano, Director and Producer:

"The Pistolera video Cazador that I directed/produced will debut [February 28] on METV in Austin, TX on the show Sonido Boombox. They have it posted on their show calendar:

"The video will also be included in a DVD compilation about immigration marches around the country. The company is based in Vancouver, CA and is being spearheaded by Frank Lopez, formerly of Democracy Now! in NYC. It will be distributed to pro-immigrant groups in April around the country to get them amped about the marches that are to take place this May. I am very proud of this and hope it inspires many.

"The video has also been sent to: LA TV, Mun2, MTV Espanol, World Beats, and Democracy Now!, and New York Noise.

"Will keep you posted as we get more adds.

"Here is a preview link to the actual video (lots of bar/tone in the beginning, you have to wait a bit):

Daniela Capistrano"


I am offering a free lifetime subscription to La Bloga to the first person who can tell me the author of the following lines of Western Haiku:

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
it closed anyway.



Anonymous said...

I know the answer, since I just read his book, but I'm going to jack you around about it, 'cause I want a bigger prize.


Anonymous said...


Manuel Ramos said...

Rude - there ain't nothin' bigger than La Bloga

Anonymous - I like your answer, but no cigar. Anyone else out there got a guess?