Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Brick that built Pasadena.

Classics Revisited:
Review: Alejandro Morales. The Brick People. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988.
ISBN: 978-0-934770-91-0

Michael Sedano

The Brick People possesses remarkable currency, thirty years after its 1988 publication. A sweeping historical novel in the family saga genre, Alejandro Morales’ Southern California novel stands alongside a Gore Vidal historical novel for arresting detail and exciting plotting.

Unlike Vidal’s founding fathers characters, Morales’ gente are the anonymous Mexicanos whose skill and labor made the Simons family rich from a world-leading brick empire in the early 20th century. At the same time, issues of immigration, labor justice, equality, identification persist continuously making the novel a signpost in U.S. literary history, a critical metric for how far or little the civilization has advanced-.

The Simons plant is a plantation. In the guise of taking care of their Mexicans the company builds houses, stocks a company store, gives credit, brings in a Priest, a teacher, a doctor, a symphony orchestra for the kids, electricity. Trucks take over from horses, construction demand increases, the plant ramps up capacity. More workers come, those winning the mayordomo’s favor get work.

Two camps of Mexicanos staff the brick factory, Simons’ hand-picked assistants versus the working families. The bosses hold onto their authority through the generations. Among the workers, first generation characters become elders as a vigorous middle generation takes the novel’s center stage. The third generation comes into its young adulthood as the novel closes. The Simons generations are dying off, losing interest.

Material success comes to all three camps, the anglos, the administrative raza, the workers, each less than the other.

The ugly-faced boss has such wealth he starts a familia on the side. His wife lives with the bitter duality. The mayordomo can afford two homes as a highly compensated employee whose brick-making skill matches his loyalty to his employer. A worker, Octavio, supplements his brick labor as a successful gambler. Working swing shift then gambling until morning tortures his wife, Nana.

Morales assembles a collection of critical events to advance his narrative of raza against the odds and getting their asses kicked. This is not a happy story because that's not how the history took place. The author holds reality at arms length and injects imaginative recreations that advance various themes. In the early chatper Simons paterfamilias tours Mexico where he watches a mayordomo casually rape a fourteen-year-old then apologize for not offering. Simons empathizes and resolves to be a kind owner of these industrious docile people.

Making millions of bricks to build Pasadena reflects highly coordinated labor and resource management. The Simons company gets contracts, expands, adds gente and the Simons community grows, an isolated encampment of Mexicans safely removed from anglo Montebello at the northern boundary of the plant.

The Brick People go to World War II. In this respect, there’s no red-lining, a GI is a GI. Except raza soldiers fight harder than other Unitedstatesians. Morales’ narratives here include some of the writer’s most powerful expressions. The power of the history drives the narrative:

Terrible news came to Simons when Amalia was told by an Army captain that both her boys were lost at sea. Pascuala and Gonzalo Pedroza never said a word when they were told that the Wally was missing in action in Sicily.

On June 2, 1943, Wally Pedroza, after witnessing his company commander and nine enlisted men die and realizing that his company was helplessly pinned by German machine gun fire, picked up a BAR and became a one-man destruction squad. Firing from his hip, he moved on the enemy and put out two machine gun emplacements. Wally took two shots to the stomach but still kept advancing forward. ¡Ya estuvo cabrones! ¡Ya me agüitaron! ... Wally headed towards a third machine gun. Grenades exploded around him as he moved forward. Wally threw a grenade and wiped out the machine gun nest. He advanced and killed seven more of the enemy. After one hundred yards he confronted a fourth and a fifth machine gun. Wally was instantly hit by what seemed to him a ton of fiery pins penetrating his body. He squeezed the trigger of the BAR for one long eternal burst. Silence and blackness fell on him forever in a small innocent Italian town.
Wally Pedroza was proud of the Aztec blood that flowed through his veins. And once pushed against a corner, pinned down and used to the life of the underdog, used to fighting unimaginable odds and uphill struggles, and having a lot of huevos, Wally could on reason one way and that was to throw chingadazos. He was not going to wait to get his butt kicked. ... El Wally Pedroza no se va rajar . .. He would kick ass. He would do it for the United States of America, for his raza, for his barrio Simons, for his homeboys and homegirls, for his sisters and brothers, for his father and mother. Wally was not going to wait around for someone else to do the job because before he went he saw that every man around him was frozen with fear.
"jYo no me rajo!" Wally Pedroza ran forward into millions of butterflies. 252

Perhaps owing to Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit, Alejandro Morales’ narrative of the zoot suit riots rings with familiarity. Both accounts are, of course, based in actuality. Morales employs both narrative and reportage to flavor his recreation of the historical milieu.

The historical narrative of the 1940s mirrors today’s newspaper front pages:

Time and history would later write about the days after June 7, 1943, when the movie theaters were invaded and every zoot suiter the military boys could find was dragged out to the street and beaten senseless; when cripples were attacked; when children were viciously taken from their parents and stripped of their clothing and battered with sadistic frenzy and joy; when the Mexican barrios were in constant turmoil; when thousands of Mexican mothers searched frantically to locate their missing sons and daughters; when the Anglo– American population, the government representative and the press applauded the Neo – Nazi actions. 256

The researcher’s reportage captures today’s equally adamant resistance:

“A mí nadie me va a decir lo que puedo vestir. Tengo el derecho de llevar lo que da la gana,” a Simons youth declared.
“My three carnales are fighting in Europe, ese, and nobody is going to tell me what to wear,” a fourteen-year-old girl said.
“A mi no me importa si me echan en la cárcel pero no me quito el zoot suit y no les hablo ingles,” a thirteen-ear-old boy said. 257

Today’s readers deserve to visit, or revisit, this historical fiction, to meet the families who buy into management, or struggle to unite in a Union. Morales doesn’t offer a rosy picture when company defeats the strike and the Simons workers run off the outside organizers when the strike fund evaporates. Later, corruption destroys a cooperative store and the gente just can’t catch a break.

Renting a home or apartment in East LA or Montebello today means high rents and being accused of gentrification, at some addresses. Union organizer Octavio is blackballed and evicted from Simons company-owned housing and can’t find an address. No Mexicans allowed, that’s why there’s a Simons.

Wait! The Brick People is no ordinary family saga historical novel. Morales has fun dipping his pen into his surreal inkpot. Characters whose evil gives them power and success get their due. Thick infestations of crawling brown insects eat their way out of the carcass of one of the Simons brothers. The same plague lurks in the bowels of a wino’s home, mourning twins killed by the drunken driver. The mayordomo decays from the heights of power through petty corruption to the lowest position on the boss hierarchy. Gonzalo’s face melts into a hideous mask.

Wait again. The Brick People is a richly detailed work. The section on the Chinese massacre, for example, deserves study for its high drama but also the ugly history told. Homeless camps and survival during the Depression offer vivid tableaux. A funny baseball vignette makes the asshole Gonzalo a good guy for at least this scene.

Thirty years doesn’t make The Brick People a classic. Superb storytelling, imaginative use of familiar history, incisive insight into a specific group of raza workers while illustrating enduring elements of cultura and gente, these elements make The Brick People a classic novel of U.S. literature.

Mail Bag
Early September Reading in Riverside

The Inlandia Institute wasn't around when I lived in the Inland Empire. Too bad, because the programming of the cultural institution is a fresh breeze in an historically stodgy, stagnant landscape.

Nowadays, Inlandia isn't alone. Mention Riverside and The Cheech Marin art museum has to come up, too. But Inlandia is an active, going concern. The Cheech is still fund-raising.

La Bloga friend Ron Arias reads from a novel-in-progress in the upcoming afternoon "Conversations at the Culver" near the historic Mission Inn. For details view the September menu after you click this link.