Friday, August 31, 2007

Working Class Heroes

Manuel Ramos

To commemorate Labor Day and the beginning of a long weekend for many of us, here's a review I posted a couple of years ago about an excellent example of working-class literature.

Music of the Mill
Luis J. Rodriguez

Rayo, 2005

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, without a doubt, 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 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 (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. Rodriguez’s book ensures that their lives and struggles will not be forgotten.


1 comment:

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Perfect Labor Day review. Gracias.