Thursday, October 04, 2018

Cockroaches in Living Rooms around the World

Daniel Cano

Papa and Baby Cockroach 1948
     I’d already done a three-year stint in the military, one year in Vietnam, a life changing experience, for sure. Once home, I had a passion to—gulp…know the meaning of life, since I’d seen so many needlessly taken. I believed that books held the answer.
     It was 1969. My best friend’s death, on my last day in-country, weighed heavily on me and ignited a passion to understand everything about Vietnam. I read voraciously, about its history, politics, and culture, asking myself why hundreds of thousands innocent Vietnamese died, farmers, villagers, their wives and children, what we call today “collateral damage.” I learned what many college-educated students my age already knew: politicians and weapons industries duped the American middle class again, just like in Korea, leaving behind 55,000 dead Americans and their broken families.
     Between sessions with the “lotus eaters”, and trying to start a family, I searched for peace in the writings of Gandhi, Buddha, Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Juan de la Cruz, Teresa de Avila, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Augustin, Merton, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Luther, and other popular philosophers of the ‘60s generation. I sensed a profundity in their words I wasn’t prepared to discern. I enrolled in community college and majored in English, figuring, I’d learn to decipher the coded language and find life’s meaning in the classics of Western culture.
     In the early ’70’s, English departments fawned over British writers and, except for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, gave short shrift to American writers, just as Spanish Departments eschewed Latin American and Chicano writers.
U.S. Army Cockroach, 1967
     I read Beowulf, Chaucer, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Austen, Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Conrad, Forrester, and, of course, the giant, Shakespeare, or what I could understand of him. As a 1950’s Mexican kid from LA’s suburban westside, a budding musician-athlete, and a C average, sometimes B, student, at best, my parents understood the value of education and sent me to Saint Monica’s Catholic High School, where the Irish Brothers of St. Patrick, tenacious as pit bulls, forced us to study, regardless of our varying mental capabilities. So, in college, I, at least, knew how to study. But what set me apart from other students, even the most brilliant, was my desire to learn, even as I worked 40 hours a week, took night classes, and raised a family—talk about non-traditional.
     One day, wandering through the college bookstore, I picked up a slim book of poems, the Crazy Gypsy by Omar Salinas. After the foreignness, and, yes, literary genius, of the European writers, Salinas was familiar, his words resonated, yet, I didn’t know enough to gauge whether he was a “good” poet or not. Did it matter? There were no Chicano literature classes in 1969-’70 to guide us through the forests of syntax and diction that clouded our intellectual journeys.
     I visited bookstores, everywhere, looking for novels by Mexican writers. I don’t mean Mexican nationals, like Fuentes or Paz. I say Mexican because through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the name Chicano hadn’t yet caught fire everywhere. There was little immigration from Mexico or Central America, so if someone called you a Mexican, or if you called yourself Mexican, it meant U.S born. It wasn’t confusing. Japanese kids were Japanese. Italian kids were Italians. Anglo kids were American, and kids of Mexican descent were Mexican…still Americans all.
     In private, my father called his friends Chicanos, but never in public. There were few African-American kids on the Westside, except in pockets of Venice, Santa Monica, and Culver City, so James Walker was just, well—James Walker.
     I figured local bookstore must have a slew of books by Mexicans. In Westwood, across from UCLA, I found a fairly large, commercial bookstore. In a tall stack lining a wall, I started my search, row after row, until I finally hit the V’s and spotted the name Vasquez, Richard, and his book Chicano. Then, I read the name Villareal, Jose Antonio, and his book, Pocho. That was it, two lone straws in the proverbial haystack. John Steinbeck’s book had more about Mexicans than the rest of the books in the store put together.
     After I transferred to Cal State, I once again immersed myself in the classics, both British and American, some Russians and French. Dominguez Hills was a newer, smaller campus, split between the wealth of Torrance, Rolling Hills, and Palos Verdes Estates and the racial rumblings of Watts, Compton, and South-Central LA, barely ten years after the Watt’s blowouts, our professors keenly aware of the significance. CSUDH was non-traditional, like us.
     A school of 7,000 students, the professors shot for quality over quantity. They only assigned as much as we could realistically read in a quarter, unlike universities where professors assigned thousands of pages, ignoring the fact no one could possibly read it all in a semester. If our teachers assigned a book, they expected us to read it, and it wasn’t easy to hide in a class of only 25-35 students.
     I minored in Spanish and jumped at the opportunity to study at the University of Granada, for a year, family in tow, but, finally, the chance to do nothing but study full-time.
     In 1977, two years after Franco's death, under Granada's magical spell, I encountered a new world of literature and understanding. Though my reading comprehension was lacking, I sensed an affinity to Castellano and its scribes, with names like mine, my family, and friends, names like Vega, Ortega, Unamuno, Villa, Lorca, Alberti, Hernandez, and, of course, the great Cervantes, their Shakespeare, who, by the end of the year, I was reading in the original.
     Once back in the States, my years in grad school passed quickly, six to ten students in a class, inundated by the material, sparks of insight lighting my way. For my final thesis, to prove to the academy I deserved a degree, I considered examining Chicano writers, even though I’d not taken one course in Chicano literature, nor do I remember a course being offered, and if it was, usually, it was the possession of the Spanish department and wouldn’t satisfy an English requirement.
Grandpa and soon to be zoot suit hermanos cucarachas 
     I decided to research the portrayal of Chicanos, Chicanas, and Mexicans in the works of American writers. Little did I know then the reason Thoreau spent the night in jail was, yes, he didn’t pay his taxes, but he didn’t pay them because he was protesting the U.S. war with Mexico, or what Walt Whitman called one of the most unjust wars ever fought.
     After searching through the card catalogues and stacks of various university libraries, I realized that too many American writers used Mexican and Chicano characters in their novels and stories, so like any good student, I narrowed my thesis and settled on the representation of the Chicano(a) in the work of John Steinbeck. After all, he was my father’s favorite writer.
     I’d already read much of Steinbeck’s work, so I set out to examine everything else written by, and about, the famous American writer, looking at how he portrayed Chicano culture in his work.
     I was aware that in the late 60s and early 70s, Chicano literary critics and activists took the position that Steinbeck’s work was racist, especially his portrayal of paisanos in Tortilla Flat. Maybe, I was too sympathetic, or romanticized the California writer’s life, but I considered him a hero for supporting the working class, even upon threats of death.
     I set out to show any negative portrayal of the Chicano(a) in his novels and stories had more to do with the time he was writing rather than outright racism. I focused on three books by Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat, the Wayward Bus, and Pastures of Heaven, mainly the short story “Flight.” I used his other books as secondary sources, and I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that Steinbeck had a romantic notion of his paisano characters (Chicanos), and even though he sometimes portrayed them as lackadaisical and alcoholic slackers, he also portrayed them as humane, intelligent, skillful, and hardworking, like Jesus Maria Corcoran, who pops up in various books, and Juan Chicoy, the Chicano protagonist in the Wayward Bus. How many American writers in the ‘30s and ‘40s placed Mexicans or Chicanos in the crucial role of protagonist?
     I received my degree and chose to forgo a doctorate. I wanted to begin writing fiction. Pursuing a doctorate was, for me, simply an excuse to keep from writing fiction. However, like everyone who writes fiction, I needed to survive financially, so I became a university administrator then a teacher.
     My MA thesis, though, started me on a lifelong quest to see how Mexican and Chicano(a) characters are portrayed in books by American writers, for example, TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain (1995). From what I recall, though Boyle sympathized with his Mexican characters, ultimately, they appeared as crazed animals, victims of the wealthy, living in the Topanga Canyon’s desolate creek beds, not a healthy representation.
Grandbaby Cockroaches 2016
     Today, there are so many novels and stories by U.S. writers that contain Latino characters, it’s hard to keep track. Oh yeah, with 1980s mass migration from Mexico and Central America, we all became Latinos. Even if among us, we know the differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.
     Through it all, one issue made itself clear. As a novelist, my books, and books of many Latino novelists who publish with university presses, have probably been read by a few thousand people, and many of those readers are family, friends, and university students.
     I’d guess even the most widely read Latino writers have managed to attract 20 to 30,000 readers, at most. Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer prize winning Mambo Kings (1989) might possibly be one of the widest sold books by a Latino writer. He placed his immigrant Cuban characters into the homes of hundreds-of thousands of readers. Victor Villasenor, Richard Rodriguez, Luis Alberto Urea, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo haven’t done so badly.
     Of course, we can’t count bestselling writers like Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, or Garcia Marquez. Their characters and books are Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian, not American.
     TC Boyle consistently attracts hundreds of thousands of readers, in English, and in translation, worldwide. So, his Mexican/Chicano/Latino characters enter the living rooms, backpacks, and psyches of readers around the world, from Amsterdam to Kenya.
     Recently, I picked out a book by Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, from the “free” book rack in my local library. Now, consider, Connelly has sold 60 million books in 40 different languages. Any one of his books is bound to, if not sell, at least reach, millions of readers worldwide.
     The Wrong Side of Goodbye follows Connelly’s protagonist, ex LAPD detective Harry Bosch, to his new job working with the SFPD. No, that’s not San Francisco PD but San Fernando PD, serving the Latino heavy, working-class valley community. Connelly’s novel is a stew of Latino characters and Latino references, from Vietnam to Dodger Stadium, the streets of Los Angeles and San Fernando to San Diego’s Barrio Logan and the founding of Chicano Park.
     Connelly has put a lot of “cockroaches,” as Zeta would say, millions, in fact, into the living rooms, backpacks, and psyches of readers around the world. Fortunately, Connelly portrays his characters respectfully and humanely; though, we never get to know them beyond the limits of his intricate plot structure. They remain mostly one-dimensional as we learn little about their families or culture, not really Connelly's job.
     However, at least Connelly, who uses Los Angeles as the backdrop for many of his novels, lets his universal readership know that LA is as much a Mexican construct, as it is an Anglo one. Yet, as stated, what I find intriguing is the sheer volume of books he, and U.S. writers like him, pump out, and how many Chicano/Latino characters fill millions of households across the globe.
     Imagine, a “cockroach” in the hands of an Aussie preparing to head into the outback? How does this reader even go about understanding a character with the name Bella Lourdes, or the reference to Chicano Park? Does he understand what Fernando Valenzuela meant to Chicano LA? No matter, Connelly’s story moves forward smoothly whether the readers get the reference or not.
     Still, it seems to me that Chicano/Latino scholars might want to research this massive field of literature, if they haven’t already. Shouldn’t we pay attention to how other writers are representing us, to all corners of the world, cockroaches spreading and surviving everywhere?


msedano said...

not too long now, anglo scholars are going to take up the chicana chicano literary cudgel and beat some sense into east coast and midwest critics and booksellers. the only catch is, raza have to buy our books en masse.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

wow tour de force daniel- much enjoyed this one-thanks

Daniel Cano said...

Forgot to mention the millions of new baby cockroaches born of immigrant parents already flooding the U.S.