Monday, February 21, 2011

Víctor Martínez, A Remembrance

By Rigoberto González

This is all I can offer through the sadness of our community’s terrible loss:

Parrot in the Oven. I have taught the book to my college students a few times, and I’m still floored that it has become a required text at many high schools across the country. In the opening chapters, Manny’s father, drunk and out of control, attempts to shoot his family with a rifle. Life for the fourteen-year-old doesn’t get any easier as each chapter delves into the troubles that lurk at every turn, from gang violence to teenage pregnancy. There is a shocking scene at the end that I’ll let readers discover on their own, but this image continues to haunt me this many years later.

There were two things about Parrot in the Oven that I particularly appreciated: one was the subtitle on the cover--“Mi Vida”--splayed out in loud Spanish; the second was the portrayal--finally--of a dysfunctional Mexican family, certainly a reality I could relate to. I was a college student myself when the book was released and received, a year later, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 1996. Not long after, when Gary Soto was helping me put together my chapbook for his Chicano Chapbook Series, he kept recommending the book and I tired of reminding him that I had already read it. But this told me plenty about Gary’s support for and pride in Víctor.

I always wondered why Víctor never published another book. I posed this question to Gary once when I ran into him in Arizona because he was my only connection to the reclusive writer. Gary’s tone had changed by then, expressing disappointment over that fact. “But at least he wrote one damn good book,” he added.

A few years ago, I found myself in San Francisco again. One of the two people I made sure to visit was my Salvadoreño friend, fellow children’s book author, Jorge Argueta, who had translated my children’s book Soledad Sigh-Sighs into Spanish. Jorge is an eccentric, lively man who is even shorter than me and who drives through the streets of San Francisco like a maniac. On this particular joyride he decided to show me the San Francisco that few people saw--this included the free clinic for Native Peoples (where Jorge got his dental work done), and the home of the mysterious Víctor Martínez.

We parked across the street from Víctor’s apartment and Jorge called him down on his cell, telling him that I had flown all the way from New York City just to meet him. We elbowed each other and laughed when we noticed that it was almost noon and Víctor looked like he had just woken up.

“What were you doing?” Jorge asked.

“Writing,” Víctor responded. We didn’t believe him and he laughed with us some more.

We spent the next few hours driving around. Víctor took us to see the famous Grotto, a writers room where he was in charge of distributing the mail. His room looked more like a bedroom with an old couch that had been used more often than the small squeaky chair behind the desk.

“You must do plenty of writing here too,” Jorge quipped as we left.

Víctor took our teasing in stride. He seemed like a person who was an easy target as evidenced by the woman at the coffee shop who poked fun of his cowlick while he ordered a Diet Coke. But for the next hour or so we simply exchanged stories about the writers we all knew, filling ourselves in on who had published what and where they lived now.

“And what about your next book?” Jorge suddenly asked, winking at me from across the table.

Unfazed, Víctor simply responded, “It’s coming. Believe me, it’s almost here.”

As we dropped Víctor off at his apartment, Jorge suggested we call up another loco writer who lived just up the street, Guillermo Gómez Peña, but he wasn’t at home to my dismay because I had never met him either. Instead we said our goodbyes, but not before Víctor ran up to his place to give me a book of poetry he had written--so Parrot in the Oven was not his only book!

That afternoon, Jorge and I sat down to lunch at a local dive in the Mission and compared notes, both of us still suspicious about Víctor’s productivity. Jorge echoed Gary’s sentiment: “But at least he wrote one damn good book!”

I thought about what I could offer in terms of a positive comment since it had really been a treat to meet him finally, so I said, “And another thing: Víctor’s much better looking in person. Who the fuck took that horrible picture on the book jacket?”

Our bowls of pozole arrived and I blew into the stew. The steam vanished into the untenanted air.

February 19, 2011

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