Friday, January 05, 2018

Overlooked? Or Discovered?

The new year rolled over our collective consciousness with alarming speed, at least to those of us who are shocked that major retailers, in failed attempts to attract the online dollar, already have set up Valentine's Day displays. Hey, I haven't finished the Halloween candy yet.  Can we just take a breath and smell the air freshener?

So I came up with a short list of stuff from 2017 that might have been overlooked -- with all the political craziness going on, sometimes we miss out on the finer things in life, like a good air freshener.  Plus, a thing or two that I encountered for the first time in 2017 and that deserve a mention, even if they weren't created in 2017.

This list is totally subjective ("totes sub" as they say in the coffee shop), so feel free to add to the list with your own undervalued, overlooked, or recently discovered gems.


Tommy Castro & The Painkillers

Stompin' Ground

Blues rocker Castro came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Jose, CA, among "street-tough Mexican Americans and ... counter-culture hippies."  He listened to blues and rock favored by hippies, and soul music blasted from lowriders (see below) by Chicanos.  He added the socially-conscious music of the day and, as the liner notes say, "Tommy's own sound was born."

This latest project is a tribute to the people and sensibilities of what he calls a "simpler time" in his anthem to San Jose, My Old Neighborhood, a song that might take anyone back to their own simpler time when "we all understood just where we stood in the old neighborhood."  The collection of music includes its fair share of opinion about what's happening all around us these days -- check out Fear is the Enemy and Enough is Enough.  And if you want to groove, dance or just move your butt, try Soul Shake, Further on Down the Road, or Them Changes.

Never can have too much music, right?


Obsidian Ranfla Series by Carlos Frésque
How many people would say Petersen Automotive Museum if they were asked to name a place where a culturally-relevant exhibition of Chicano art was on display for a year? Probably not the first response that comes to mind. But that may change now that the Museum features The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración.

The Museum's website says this about the exhibition: "The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración examines the diversity and complexity with which 50 artists visualize, celebrate, and interrogate the lowrider car through vehicles, paintings, sculptures, and site-specific installations. The lowrider car (ranfla) inspires many artists, but it is especially celebrated by Chicana/o artists throughout the Southwest. Symbols of cultural pride (corazón), and icons of everyday life experiences, lowriders also embody the formation of multicultural communities through a passion for a specific form of car customization. As “canvases of self-expression,” lowriders serve as the basis of artistic creativity (inspiración), inspiring generations of artists to engage with their iconography, performativity, and aesthetics."

Visit the website to get a taste of all that corazón and inspiración,  especially in the lowriders, but, really, you have to see these beauties up close and personal.  I'll add only that one of the pieces in the show comes from the collection of Flo and Manuel, and we are quite proud of the Obsidian Ranfla by Carlos Frésquez.

The Museum is located at 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. The exhibit is scheduled to close in July, 2018.


The Denver Museum of Nature and Science sponsors intriguing and popular main exhibits, vigorously promoted. Shows such as Ultimate Dinosaurs or Amazing Machines get plenty of play in the press, and they are well-attended. But smaller exhibits often miss out on the publicity. An example is the current exhibit (it runs until August, 2018) entitled El Alebrije. The exhibit is unique but tucked away in a corner of the massive museum. A museum guide volunteered to show us where the exhibit was located; she admitted that it was difficult to find in the building. 

Even so, the exhibit is worth the effort. As the museum explains on its website:

"The Denver Museum of Nature & Science features the new display, El Alebrije: Una historia en común, brought to Denver in collaboration with the Museo de Arte Popular and the Mexican Cultural Center of Denver with support from the Consulate General of Mexico. The alebrijes are beautiful, brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures depicting wild and mythical creatures, handcrafted by artisans in Mexico."

The pieces on display are fantastic, playful, frightening.  They touch an empathetic nerve of anyone whose grandfather or aunt or next door neighbor regaled the neighborhood kids with stories of la llorona or el cuqui or even the creature from the black lagoon.  The craftsmanship is precise, beautiful.  Go take in the massive dinosaurs -- no denying that they are impressive. And then compare Dinosaurio by Flor and Abud Xuana.  You won't be disappointed.


Jazz Noir was released in 2014, but I didn't come into contact with the music in this collection until Christmas, 2017, when I opened a gift from my brother Michael.  Thank you, bro!  Sixty songs taken from classic film noir -- great concept.  If you appreciate movies like Touch of Evil or Sweet Smell of Success, you will enjoy this compilation.  If you like your jazz with an extra edge, you will submerge yourself in this CD.  If you read noir or hard-boiled crime fiction, you should have this music.

The liner notes explain:  "Film noir, literally 'dark film', attracted the brightest and best of jazz talent.  Jazz was the perfect choice for a movie genre that often challenged society's taboos and questioned its morality.  Jazz, like film noir, breaks the rules."

Among my favorite selections are the Miles Davis pieces taken from the soundtrack for the 1958 French flick, Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud (Stairway to the Gallows.)  Harlem Nocturne is here, of course, this time performed by Duke Ellington.  Also included, music from Man With the Golden Arm, The Wild One, The Asphalt Jungle, and others, plus TV shows like Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip.


I read my first story about the Mexican private eye (detectivo particular) Mariano Mercado years ago when I unearthed a June,1948 edition of the pulp magazine Dime Detective.  I found it in a used book store that specialized in Gold Medal paperbacks and collectible first editions of various kinds of crime fiction.  The magazine attracted me for a few reasons.  It was published in the same year I was born.  It was called "Dime" Detective but the cover clearly announced that it sold for fifteen cents.  But most intriguing, it contained a story by D.L. Champion entitled The Shabby Shroud

And that interested me because the main character in that story was Mariano Mercado, most likely the first Mexican P.I. to appear in a pulp magazine, or anywhere else, written in English.  Between 1944 and 1948, Champion published at least eight Mercado novelettes in Dime Detective.  The detective was quirky but tough.  Often underestimated, he usually was the smartest person in the room.

Until recently, the stories were difficult to find (my copy of Dime Detective is falling apart) and I hadn't read several of them.  This past year, for Christmas, I was given The Complete Cases of Mariano Mercado, Volume 1 (Altus Press 2016), which contains six of the stories.  This type of collection is invaluable to a guy like me who wants to know everything there is to know about the history, roots, and trends of Chicano Noir and the rest of the broad spectrum of Latinx Crime Fiction.  Now, where is Volume 2?

And that's it for the first Friday of 2018.  Celebrate.  Meditate. Create.


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in 2016 and was a finalist for the Shamus Award in the Original Paperback category sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America.  He is hard at work on his next Chicano Noir crime novel.

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