Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Review: Daniel Cano. Death and the American Dream. Final Report: National Latino Writers Conference. Notes.

Daniel Cano. Death and the American Dream. Tempe AZ: Bilingual Review Press / Editorial Bilingüe, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-931010-54-2 (cloth) 978-1-931010-55-9 (paper)

Michael Sedano

Charley Trujillo leans into his story. The historical Tiburcio Vasquez had been a fluently bilingual upperclass scion of a Californio familia on the mid-19th century Monterey peninsula. Vasquez ran afoul of the clash of cultures--perhaps because he was too good at moving in and out of his hispanoparlante cultura and his equally educated Englich, I think—and went on the lam from la jura. Escaping a feared Mexican-killer lawman, Vasquez was pinched in West Hollywood by a local posse. In the newspapers of the day, Tiburcio’s personality won the day, but the jury hanged him anyway, no hard feelings, in 1875.

Trujillo, the author of Soldados, and Dogs From Illusion, writes with straightforward power about Chicanos in Vietnam, so his upcoming documentary film on this California legend should prove to be equally compelling. My conversation with Charley at the National Latino Writers Conference highlights the little-known, or mis-known, early history of Chicano culture in California. These people had stories; had newspapers, writers, an information culture, and that was a hundred years ago. So large a story, so small a memory.

Against that historical amnesia comes a much-needed historical novel, Daniel Cano’s
Death and the American Dream. Next year marks the centennial of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, along with a starting point in the chronology of Mexican immigration into California. In Death and the American Dream, populated by an unusual protagonist supported by strong women, set against a convincing historical landscape, Cano treats his reader to six years in the life of a fugitive from the Mexican revolution who settles into a Mexicano community, not in East L.A., but a barrio that occupied today’s Brentwood on the tony west side.

Any title with “American Dream” in it has to be writ large, and the main problem with
Death and the American Dream is it is writ too short. With success of this novel, it could become one in a series of historical novels tracking the conflicted biculturalism of that revolution-driven Chicano diaspora, in the person of Pepe Rios, who is not yet thirty as the novel ends in 1920. Pepe would be around 80 in 1970, the height of the Chicano Movement. It would be interesting seeing how Cano gets us there.

In 1911, eighteen year old Pepe Rios thrashes away from battle in Juarez to safety on the El Paso del Norte shore, where locals have set up picnics to take in the Mexican fireworks. Soldiering with Pancho Villa, Pepe gets tangled with the federales and believes he’s betrayed both his Villista compañeros and the feds, and killing his brother. Unable to tell his mother of his own role in the brother’s death, Pepe’s guilt launches him into headlong flight from the welter of confusions surrounding the battle and likelihood of execution by whichever side catches him first.

Crossing the river, Pepe kills an opposing soldier. Moving toward California, Pepe gets involved in killing a white man. Then Pepe’s best friend Seferino disappears into the hands of Los Angeles police and dies a suicide because he had it coming. These are the deaths that weigh heavily on Pepe—a son’s debt to his mother; the gallows; class and ethnic aporia--just as he’s about to get his first real taste of the American dream. The year is 1915. Pepe’s changed his name to José San Juan, and after years of subsisting on a steady diet of hard physical labor, San Juan—Cano always calls him Pepe--finds a dream job as a cub reporter at Martín Algodón’s newspaper, El ababar.

Cano puts strong women into Rios’ life. For his part, Pepe is not one of those “el hombre domina” tipos but willingly seeks his woman mentors. Ángela, the severe boss and cultural coach, continues where the priest left off back on el rancho, training the student’s mind. The alluringly beautiful Camilia, who years earlier has mentored Pepe Rios in passion, now his publisher’s wife, has gotten Rios/San Juan the life-changing break. Eusebia, a troubled woman, mother, and intimate confidant, disdains Pepe’s social whorl.

Mentored by seasoned bilingual veterana Ángela Durón, a writing career opens to the skilled letter-scribe and habitual diarist. Pepe hungrily takes to Ángela’s training. Secretly, he hopes one day to investigate Seferino’s murder, expose corruption, and bring a measure of justice to his “Just Us” excluded gente. Cano is spare but effective establishing the pervasive brutality of cop v. comunidad of the period, the Them and Us still extant. There’s no whining in Pepe’s bitterness. Cano allows Pepe and his neighbors seething outrage, moderated for similarly outraged readers by the dramatic irony that Pepe’s role is to be a tool. On one hand, the capitalist running dog Algodón keeps a willing Pepe on a financial leash. On the other hand, the anarchists cynically exploit Pepe, playing his ghosts against his better judgment, driving him to despicable and dangerous acts.

Language is no barrier to the monolingual Pepe. His beat is the newspaper’s society pages and occasional hard news piece. Los Angeles’ Spanish-speaking upper crust society opens to San Juan. Movers and shakers who love seeing their names and faces in the paper welcome the writer into their society, and Pepe’s a natural bon vivant and surreptitious interviewer. He gets good stuff that Ángela turns into interesting copy. Even without his own byline, other editors clamor for the reporter’s news. The money helps. With advanced skill, and notoriety, come danger. Ricardo Flores Magon comes to town to publish the famous
Régeneración. In hot pursuit: the cops, the feds, the Mexican feds, judges, anglo media. Magon will eventually get 20 years that cost his life.

Home life offers little comfort to the fatigued and deeply stressed reporter. He’s out late at fancy events, often, in the company of attractive women who seem available. His wife aspires to none of Pepe’s social graces. Her values rest in her home, family, and gente. Eusebia recognizes her indianness as polar opposite to what draws Pepe out of the home. She understands her role. She brought her own children to marriage with Pepe. She knows as does he, that Pepe settled on her, still haunted by the memories of another woman. She recognizes the constant presence of the glamorous ex-lover, Camilia, in Pepe's career.

Cano’s description playing the two women against each other illustrates the dysjunction of Pepe’s torment. His wife has just looked into a mirror noting proudly her Amerindianness:

Pepe saw strength and beauty as he looked into her eyes—not a woman’s socially accepted beauty—bright eyes, curved lips, or shapely body—but something deeper, a chasm that lulled and puzzled at the same time, an enigma that transcended the flesh. Where Camilia, his ex-lover and now the wife of his employer, radiated beauty, intelligence, charm, grace, and poise, Eusebia exuded simplicity and dignity. She existed like the morning sun, a cloud, a wave, a puff of dust, or a blade of grass.

In an interesting writer's tack, Eusebia suffers mental illness. Deep bouts of depression leave her confused and angry. To his credit, Pepe doesn't blame Eusebia for her illness. He doesn't help her, merely tolerating her absences when depression seizes her and family life goes around her. To Cano's credit, he doesn't blame Eusebia either. Conventional writers would say, "pobre Pepe, married to a crazy woman." Eusebia has values, integrity, and thinks critically. Her illness is a fact of life that she manages as best she can. But the illness appears to be winning and we begin to lose Eusebia as a character. This mental illness motif adds interest and value to an already involving story, a unique instance of a good book doing good.

I understand that Eusebia has to play third fiddle to Ángela and Camilia. They stand for power and social mobility; Pepe's chosen slice of the dream. Eusebia connects to home, earth, fecundity, fragility; things Pepe takes for granted, or ignores. And Death and the American Dream, after all, is Pepe's story.

Pepe's workdays and nights bring him superficial contact with strangers. His only close personal connections include Eusebia and a friend he knew in the old days. Lacking much outlet, Pepe seethes in constant outrage at restrictive covenants in housing, heavy-handed lawmen, resentful English-speakers, his publisher’s willingness to publish lies that curry favor with industrialists and anti-unionists of both the US and Mexican governments. Already intoxicated by rubbing up against big shots, he doesn't notice his increasing taste for booze. 

Pepe / San Juan becomes ensnared by the Magon movimiento. Ángela is one of the conspirators, and all along her mentoring has been directed toward Pepe’s recruitment. She reels him in like a fish on Santa Monica pier where Eusebia and Pepe met. The mentor tantalizes and torments Pepe with details of Seferino’s capture and suicide, with knowledge of that long-ago and far away killing. Pepe/San Juan becomes a spy for the Magones. When Ángela asks Pepe to use the publisher’s wife to spy on her husband, Pepe fails to recognize the organization’s manipulativeness. Instead his moral center spins ambivalently between getting the elegant former lover back into the sack, and betraying his obligation to Eusebia and their children. Tellingly, Pepe cannot make a convincing enough case for his wife’s side, but ends up driving the would-be lover into a towering rage that shatters their ties forever. Pepe is absolved of his responsibility to take effective action one way or the other. Is this as good as it gets?

Death and the American Dream is Cano’s second Pepe Rios novel. The eponymous 1991 title from Houston’s Arte Publico calls out “find and read me”, to learn how this current story fits into Cano’s earlier Rios story, and to observe a writer’s growth. This one’s a masterwork so the comparison will prove useful. While at the library, Daniel Cano’s Shifting Loyalties stands tall alongside Charley Trujillo’s as a must-read in United States war literature, and that of Chicanos in Vietnam combat.

The ending of 
Death and the American Dream will leave readers shaking their heads with surprise and mixed, mostly conflicted, emotions. Historical fiction has to follow the script, so there are no happy endings for Chicanas and Chicanos in 1920. Already the two older Rios boys are school dropouts; if it were 2009, they’d be skateboarders and asshole taggers. But it’s 1920 and the one is in and out of trouble, the other puts in hard physical labor but has begun spinning out of control. The older daughter has begun her own life, picking fruit up the central valley. Her kids will be in their seventies and eighties today, WWII veterans, Korean war vets, too, if she has as large a family as her mother. And medication is helping Eusebia's illness. But then, those are stories for another novel. Daniel?

Final Dispatch from Alburquerque...National Latino Writers Conference Wraps With Promise

I have been remiss and a poor guest in delaying thanking Carlos Vásquez and the National Hispanic Cultural Center for inviting my participation at the 2009 National Latino Writers Conference. Thank you, Carlos, Greta, Katie and the staff of the National Hispanic Cultural Center for a multi-faceted gem of a conference. 

I presented a workshop on reading your work aloud and attended workshops on writing poetry, novels, cultural journalism, screenplays, memoir, children's picture books, and panels featuring publishers, editors, and agents. Saturday morning, I observed the interviews between individual writers and a publisher, editor, or agent. Present a quality work, make a convincing presentation and the writer takes another step toward publication.

Vásquez limits attendance to fifty writers. People attend from across the nation and literary ascendencias. Mexico and Puerto Rico gente attend in good proportions. This year included at least one Colombian, a couple Salvadoreños, and gente I didn't get to meet from otros países. Enrollment cost is a well-kept bargain secret, but transportation is extra. As a result there's a good contingent of New Mexico writers. The conference draws a multigenerational group, from college freshman to retirees, from ex-Marines to ex-GIs. Collegiality is probably the second-most valuable experience writers take home from Alburquerque. It is a hotbed of Chicana Chicano Latina Latino stimulating literary discussion. 

Food service at the NHCC is unsurpassed. Registration includes breakfast, lunch, and banquet. Fruta, pan, burritos, salsa, come fresh to table. Main dishes taste and look good, presentation enhanced by attentive servers who don't let anyone down, even gente with food allergies and vegan writers. The conference program should list the mug shots and names of the key staff in that kitchen. ¡Ajua¡ to the cooks and servers.

Attention to detail--exemplified by the menu, the promptness and ease of getting everyone served and seated, but seen in all facets of programming--accounts for the smooth flow of the two and a half day literary festival. CPT rarely rares its head, events run on time. In the case of Open Mic, to the second. 

Scheduling features tracks for fiction, poetry, movie, children, young adult writing, and the critically important panels. Two or more subjects are workshopped during ninety minute periods. Writers elect a course of study, following a topic or instructor, or sampling broadly as a way of enlarging their writer's repertoire of genre. Workshop presentations range from hands-on writing sessions to lecture-discussion variants.

Some instructors recognize the obstacle of offering more than token feedback and abandon the hands-on notion altogether. Reyna Grande, for instance, breaks a novel into five elements, then uses a metaphor of painting a canvas to discuss writing a novel.  

Demetria Martinez does explication de texte, asserting that artifacts from everyday life are the stuff of memoir, then reading from Mother Tongue, where Martínez validates her assertion. 

Some workshop leaders elect to conduct writing exercises, filling paragraphs or lists to fit schemata of a play, or a character, or a poem. Valerie Martinez, for instance, outlines a view of poetic sensibility, then distributes  magazines and trinkets to foment vocabulary exercises that, who knows, could be, become, a poem? 

There truly is not time to read or get feedback on one's exercises. Workshop leaders who engage enrollees in a lot of writing invariably collect the work and promise to read and get back to the writer. Thankfully for some, a modicum of feedback comes at the tail end of the ninety minutes. The best prepared writers, preferring the focused feedback of considered reading, as opposed to extemporaneous first impression, have mailed manuscripts in advance, for their Saturday interview. One improvement Vásquez and organizers might consider is widening this tarea  model, with workshops springboarding from exercises completed prior to arriving.

One improvement definitely not worthwhile would be upping the limit on enrollees. This would be disastrous to the already minimal feedback provided in workshops. Worse, more gente would profoundly alter the personalized character of this warmly collegial, culture forming event. Aside from this, the NHCC staff is severely stretched to provide portable video projectors and audio for PC and Mac systems. For now, the conference is small enough to videotape, or videoconference. Interposed media like those is a far better method for enlarging the National Latino Writers Conference audience.

I placed my own presentation on "reading your stuff aloud to audiences" on my Read! Raza website. Using video from the 1973 Festival de Flor Y Canto, I illustrate important considerations writers plan for, whenever they get the opportunity to present their work to an audience. This is a talking script, not the fleshed out presentation, which I extemporize a la brava. This is the kind of workshop that would benefit from the tarea model. Bring the writer to Alburquerque with a rehearsed 10 minute reading. Meet in 3 or 4 person workshops for an hour and a half. Videotape, critique, revise, do it again (the next day). The drawback is not doing the illustrated lecture, which is so much fun owing to having so wonderful an audience. Sadly, I did not take my audience's photo.

Among the highlights of the conference is the Keynote Address. Last year, Rudolfo Anaya addressed the shape and place of Chicano writing. This year's speaker was the seminal critic and anthologist, Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. This Keynote, and the reading by the Premio Aztlán awardee, should be videotaped and distributed through the NHCC's website. Thankfully, we have the Web.

Here are four excepts from Dr. Ortego's address, titled,
La Tarea Y El Trabajo: Summary And Assessment Of Contemporary Latino American Literature. Click here for a full-text PDF of Dr. Ortego's address.

Over the years that I knew Tomas Rivera, the Chicano author of Y no se lo trago la tierra—first recipient of the Premio Quinto Sol Award in 1972—he would say of his writing, “Ta cabron la cosa,” meaning the task of writing was not always easy. Still, se require el trabajo, the writing must be done. In that sense, all of us who write—especially those of us Latinos who write about our experiences as Latinos—somos trabajadores de la raza. As Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician and philosopher put it in the Meaning of Persons (1957): We are not free of the task, but neither are we free of its responsibilities. The task (la tarea) looms large before us but the work (el trabajo) must be undertaken to complete the task. And what is that task? For us as Latinos and as writers that task is not just to add our literary voices to the chronicle of the human condition but to testify to the presence of our people in that chronicle. That task is formidable, even daunting, but not insurmountable.

. . . .

Given this distinction, the state of Latino American literature today is extraordinarily vibrant made more vibrant by the pulse of Latin American literature. Of course there's a connection. Somos primos. Representing "various Latino nationalities" as Carlos Vasquez has described the participants of this conference, Latino Americans are attuned to the pulse of Latin America. The reverse is not always true. Latino American writers are not as widely recognized in Latin America as Latin American writers are recognized in the United States. Few Latino American writers find their works translated into Spanish for a Latin American literary public. While there is a significant number of Latino American writers who write in Spanish, they are not lionized by that Latin American literary public as Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Jorge Luis Borges--to name but a few--are lionized in the United States.

. . . .

The point is that the term “Latino Writers” most often directs inquiries to Latin American writers. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that few Americans outside of Hispanic literary specialists know very much about U.S. Latino literature today. To be sure, there are successful U.S. Latino writers like Sandra Cisneros Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez, Piri Thomas, Miguel Algarin, Nicolasa Mohr, Achy Abejas, and Angel Castro. In the main, however, when pressed, uninitiated Americans will ask quizzically: Are there U.S. Latino writers. Who are they? What this points to is the woeful ignorance of Americans about U.S. Latinos despite their long historical presence in the United States. This also points to the woeful inattention to and neglect of Latino Americans in the daily mainstream of American life.

. . . .

In 1970 I sent a piece of fiction entitled “The Dwarf of San Miguel” to John DiStefano at the New England Review. Within a week he called me excitedly hoping I hadn’t commit-ted the story elsewhere. It was a good story, he said, and he wanted to publish it in the very next issue of the New England Review. I didn’t tell him his was the 21st journal I had sent it to. The 20 previous rejections told me they liked the story but that the beginning needed work or that the middle didn’t quite hold the story together or that the ending needed something punchier. For me this epi-sode confirms that a piece finds its publisher and that a writer must hold firm in trusting his or her art. Of the million words I’m sure I’ve written by now I don’t write with a publisher or a reader in mind.

Next year marks the tenth iteration of the National Latino Writers Conference. La Bloga is happy to announce the opening of registration, so be alert for los datos in November or December.

Rigoberto Gonzáles Reviews YA Novel in El Paso Times.

Dan Olivas didn't get a chance to remind readers of Young Adult literature to catch Rigoberto's take on Diana López' Confetti Girl, a novel of a parent's death, adolescent stirrings, with a generous helping of comedy, Gonzáles find it a satisfying book, concluding, 

López weaves Lina's bilingual and bicultural upbringing into the narrative seamlessly, giving young Latina readers an added element to connect with.

"Confetti Girl" is a satisfying read that belongs in the distinguished company of such young-adult Texana titles as Claudia Guadalupe Martínez's "The Smell of Old Lady Perfume."

Click here to review the entire piece.

La Bloga Guest Columnist This Thursday

La Bloga's Tuesday sign-off reminds readers La Bloga welcomes comments on the daily column. Simply clicking the Comments counter below launches the comment program. La Bloga also welcomes Guest Columnists. This Thursday, Lisa Alvarado is happy to share the column with Lydia Gil, a cultural journalist working for the Spanish news agency Efe. Lydia is covering Luis Urrea's reading of Into the Beautiful North at Denver's  Tattered Cover.

A busy Tuesday for me, for you, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.



Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you for this succinct summary of the conference. It was a pleasure meeting you! My hope is that the presence of small press publishing options will continue to be enhanced in future editions.

Elias said...

Maistro Sedano, thank you for this review of Daniel Cano's - I agree - excellent novel. I agree that the appearance of the historically significant presence of Magon and the PLM in Los Angeles is a significant contribution to Chicano Literature. Only Luis Alberto Urrea's "The Hummingbirds Daughter" and Pynchon's 1100 page+ tome "Against the Day" are recent novels that see the remarkable in Magonista/PLM pilgrimage into the Southwest. I agree that the strong women characters are central to the novel, and according to the histories, are accurate portrayals of Chicana/Mexicana active participation in the pleito rhetoric of journalism (See Cristina Devereaux-Ramirez' excellent "Ocupando Nuestro Puesto: Mexican Revolution Women Journalist"). Angela Duron is as charming as she is chingona and dangerous. I don't agree with your romantic assessment of Pepe - i.e.. "Instead his moral center spins ambivalently between getting the elegant former lover back into the sack, and betraying his obligation to Eusebia and their children." At the risk of sounding like a dog, I felt this a real moral crisis mixing politics and romance. The choice to revere the "fictional" Seferino, over the real-life Mexican government agent, was as poetic moment; Cano signs off with fitting allegories... like the PLM anarchists revolutionaries, like Ricardo Flores Magon, Pepe Rios chooses to stick to principles and dreams rather than acquiesce to silence, government corruption and the comfort of apathy (non-participation). Like Magon, he refuses to betray his principals and dreams. “Some may say I was a dreamer, a madman, but none may say that I was a coward, a traitor to my thoughts” (Magon). So the novel ends with this reflection, Pepe Rios writing in his journal, about writing stories, not being silent, honoring the fiction/ideals above the fact of corruption … conclusion punctuates remembering and dignity.