Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cibolero by Kermit Lopez - a review

I'll start by going out on one of my habitual limbs to say I'd nominate this one for the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. No, I don't think it's as passionately written as last year's winner, Across a Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande, but hell, she raised the bar so high, authors are going to be scrambling for some time to catch up with her.

To quote from Kermit Lopez's website, Cibolero "is a tale of sorrow and terror, hope and triumph, set against the backdrop of 1800's New Mexico. Antonio Baca, a former cibolero, or buffalo hunter, pursues his daughter's kidnappers in Post-Civil War era New Mexico and Texas. Cibolero is a fictionalized account of the Hispanic experience before and after the conquest of the Southwest by the United States." (Go to the publisher IUniverse website for a more extensive account.)

Press like that made me want to read Cibolero; it sounded intriguing. But I confess I soon grew more intrigued by the historical references the author used to develop his story. In truth, there's such a wealth of this, the novel should more rightly be categorized as historical fiction.

Cibolero proves that you Chicanos've come a long way, Bebé. Categoried on the back cover as a "Western"--rather than some "ethnic" labeling--it's got all the elements that once accompanied John Wayne on the screen. Cowboys, Indians, horses, shoot-em-ups, cross-prairie chases--the Western culture in detail by an author who knows his history, even researching his own family's history to lace into this novel.

Anyway, as a Western it's got your bad guys, the Texas Rangers, and then your real evil bad guy, Calhoun, son of a wealthy slaveholder rancher; the hero, Antonio Baca; and the quest, to rescue his daughter Elena, Captain Travis Russell, the head of the Rangers is a mixed-up gringo with some morals who won't go along with all the rape and pillage ideas of his men and is the only thing standing between Elena and a gang-raping or two before certain death. His role raises the gringo to co-protagonist with the Hispanic Baca, something we don't usually get from raza writers. I loved that.

The whole cibolero backdrop to the novel introduced an aspect of our history I'd never known. The high plains of New Mexico, el Llano Estacado, serves as the principal scenario, adding to the novel's unique perspective. Likewise, Lopez gives us extensive insight into the plains culture, including details about the omnipresent cibolero lance used to hunt the buffalo, now destined to serve a different purpose.

Using the back-story to Antonio Baca, as a typical New Mexican Hispanic, Lopez interweaves most of the significant economic, historical and political events of this part of the Southwest. Of course, it's a story with plenty of ugly parts, some still denied by the apologists of U.S. history. Especially the parts about los pinches rinches, the Texas Rangers.

There's not many problems with this book; I found the prose, dialogue and plot enjoyable. My initial reaction to the opening was that it felt "slow," especially given how much I think I already know about New Mexico, history, etc. I finally came to the conclusion that Lopez couldn't avoid it: the pace of that writing reflects the time, place and culture he's sharing. A New Mexico tale is not something to be rushed. At least, that's my take on that.

[image courtesy of the author's website)

The only historical bone I've got to pick with Lopez is that Anglos from Texas are referred to as "Texans." Texicans is what they loved to go by before 1836 and some time after; of course, maybe it's there, and I just missed it.

Now for the bad news: Lopez's historical accuracy may be what keeps his book from reaching a wider audience. In a county where the majority don't notice that their President's WMDs wear no clothes, how popular can the truth be? Readers who read Westerns assumedly are looking for escapist literature. (Readers of historical fiction might not be so much.) Being confronted by the ugly truth of what your ancestors did to the Southwest--Mexican citizens, the indigenes, the buffalo and the land--probably won't let them escape enough to enjoy the story. I'd recommend the publishers reclassify and rewrite press about the novel to attract more an historical-fiction audience.

Okay, so the Premio Aztlán committee is probably going to ignore my opening remarks (Amazon has one reviewer who gave it five stars), but today at least you can easily purchase a "Western", some escapist literature, written by one of us. Remember the old days when you couldn't? To boot, you'll get a more realistic account of los pinches rinches than you get in Texas public schools.

Lastly about the book, several times when reading it, I had flashbacks of Tell Them Valdez Is Coming. It always bothered the holy pinche out of me that Kirk Douglas portrayed such a cowering Bob (sic!) Valdez who, yes, later became the shoot-em-up hero, but still--. Hollywood has yet to fully make that up to us, and giving Lopez an option would be a good way to start. (N.B.: the only redeeming value to that movie was Lancaster's response to what did he used to hunt: "Apache, before I knew better.")

About the author's name: I had the same questions you do: is this his nom de plume, did he legally change it, or, what were his parents smoking? That's some not-so-critical info I'd like to have seen on the author website. Also, a historical bibliography and way to contact the author would be nice. It does have a short streaming video on the book that's worth checking.

Rudy Ch. Garcia


Anonymous said...

You peaked my interest. Where can I get the book.

Anonymous said...

Click on the IUniverse link in the post.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Yes, I agree with your assessment of the novel. I enjoyed it very much. It sort of reminded me of "Bless Me, Ultima" in terms of's okay for stories to take their time. Gracias for writing this review.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Now you've done it, hermano! Welcome back and we better see more of these cogent, succinct and informative reviews.

Anonymous said...


Good comeback and a good review. It's been a long time since I've read an "oater," but this is one I intend not to miss.

Dan Thomas

Anonymous said...

Just like my dad used to tell me "You know why you have to review something? Because you didn't view it right the first time." Nice review. RE: Valdez is Coming - I believe that Burt Lancaster played Bob - not Kirk Douglas.

Pocho Joe

Anonymous said...

I come from original pioneer stock and remember my TATA telling me stories of the ciboleros. I look forward to reading the book.