Monday, May 03, 2010

Crime writer takes new direction in new novel about El Movimiento

By Daniel A. Olivas

In his latest novel, King of the Chicanos (Wings Press, $16.95 paperback), Manuel Ramos paints a gritty and convincing portrait of Rámon Hidalgo, a fictional leader of the Chicano movement. This is a must-read chronicle of one man’s struggle against oppression as well as his own personal demons.

But Ramos is best known for six previous crime novels most of which feature the fictional detective, Luis Móntez. Despite winning critical and popular recognition for these works of fiction, he decided to move in a decidedly different direction with the creation of civil rights activist Hidalgo.

“The idea for King of the Chicanos has been with me for years,” Ramos told me recently. “Just the fact that it took me ten years to write attests to the difficulty I had putting the story together.” Ramos added: “I believe that writers and artists are historians -- that we are the preservers of a history that otherwise will be lost. I urge old friends and younger students to tell the stories that they know -- their communities, their families, their own lives.”

In the novel, Ramos weaves in the names of actual writers such as Rudolfo Anaya, Lucha Corpi, Alfredo Véa, among others. He includes a character, Roberto Urban, who is befriended by Hidalgo and who eventually becomes a writer himself. I wondered why Ramos included writers in his narrative.

“The times I write about in the book were an era of political and social unrest, but they were also periods of Chicano cultural renaissance and rebirth,” explained Ramos. “Everything from music to art to poetry to fiction writing underwent massive change and Chicanos were in the forefront of redefining American culture. I happen to believe that writers played an integral role in the changes and reformation of society and so they are included in a book that attempts to talk about some of those changes.”

Hidalgo is such a perfectly drawn character -- a man simultaneously damaged and noble -- that readers could be forgiven for believing that Ramos based him on a real person. “He is a total figment of my writing,” said Ramos. “As they say, any similarities to actual persons are coincidences. If readers think Hidalgo is based on a ‘real’ person, I take that as a compliment. I want him to be as real to readers as he is to me, his creator.”

The novel does raise many questions, including: Is the Chicano Movement dead? Ramos did not hesitate with his answer: “The Movement is not dead, absolutely not.” He explained that it “may not be called the Chicano Movement, and I think that term has come to mean the politics and agitation of a set period in history, but there are wonderful and exciting things happening every day that call on the stamina and courage of Chicanos and Chicanas, just like in the days of El Movimiento.” His conclusion: “I do believe that the legacy of El Movimiento has not been forgotten and that the spirit of those times continues in a myriad of ways.”

Ramos demonstrates through this remarkable and vital novel that the Chicano Movement is alive and well.

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

◙ WORKING FOR OUR YOUTH: Professor Frederick Luis Aldama of Ohio State University has been busy on many fronts including as the director of L.A.S.E.R. Established in 2009-2010, L.A.S.E.R. (Latino & Latin American Studies Space for Enrichment and Research) sponsors activities and events that study Latinos within and across the Americas with the aim of bringing together students, staff, and faculty from across the Ohio State University. The main mission of L.A.S.E.R. is to promote state-of-the art research and exchange in the field of Latino and Latin American studies. With an eye toward building bridges internationally, L.A.S.E.R. provides a program that incorporates both the research focused on Latinos in the U.S. as it interfaces with the social, cultural, and historical realities of those inhabiting the Americas.

◙ GREGG BARRIOS REVIEWS JOHN PHILLIP SANTOS: Over at the Los Angeles Times, Gregg Barrios offers an eloquent critique of The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire: A Tejano Elegy (Viking) by John Phillip Santos. Barrios is a poet and playwright who lives in San Antonio. His play Rancho Pancho premiered two years ago at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

◙ THE LATEST ON LATINOLA: You should already be in the habit of checking out each day for the latest in literary, social, political and artistic news. Here are a few recent stories you might want to check out:

The Ox-Bow Incident by Rodolfo F. Acuña

Award-winning Latino Broadway Comedy Celebrates 15 Years in LA! by Susie Albin-Najera

TOP 10 Ways for Latinos Not to be Racially Profiled in Arizona by Al Carlos Hernandez

L.A. County Arts: Paid Internship for College Students

◙ SUMMER COURSE: Álvaro Huerta, who is a Chicano Studies Research Center visiting scholar at UCLA and frequent guest contributor to La Bloga, will teach “Urban Planning 141: Planning for Minority Communities” during the summer 2010 term. The class addresses the socioeconomic problems that affect racial minorities in America’s inner cities. It will focus on equity issues and solutions (such as social justice campaigns and grass-roots organizing) that are spearheaded by students, scholars, community members, non-profits, and policy makers. Huerta is the author of several recent publications, including “Enough with Draconian Anti-Immigrant Laws!” (Santa Monica Mirror), “Racism on Campus: What Post-racial America?” (CounterPunch), “President Obama Should Fight on Many Fronts” (The Progressive), and “Republicans’ Hypocritical Criticism Cannot Continue” (The Daily Californian).

◙ GO CUBS! No, not those Cubs. I’m talking about Loyola High School in Los Angeles, where I spent four wonderful and important years. After my recent Vroman’s Bookstore reading, a senior at Loyola, Jeffrey Butterfield, interviewed me about my latest short-story collection and other topics. The result of Jeffrey’s journalistic energies appears in the online edition of Loyola’s newspaper, The Loyalist Online. You may read his piece here. I also want to note that Jeffrey has accepted UC Berkeley’s offer to begin as a freshman this fall. Congratulations, Jeffrey!

◙ THAT’S ALL FOR THIS MONDAY. In the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


Anonymous said...

Good morning, Daniel and Manuel. I always enjoy reading your individual columns, reviews etc. What a treat to read two of my favorite authors this morning! Gracias y abrazos. Lucha

Daniel Olivas said...

Gracias, Lucha!

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, Lucha and Daniel - two of my favorite authors.

Francisco Aragón said...

Thanks for this post and for linking the review to John
Phillip Santos' new book. He'll be joined by Lorraine López for a featured reading at AWP in DC next year.