Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Cuesta's Quest for Missing Farmworker

Review: John Lantigua. REMEMBER MY FACE: A WILLIE CUESTA MYSTERY. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1-55885-907-4 

Michael Sedano


Let’s not call Remember My Face “problematic,” let’s call this detective yarn a cop-out. And no, not because Willie Cuesta, the Cuban-American private investigator formerly served Miami’s finest, and relies on a super-cop mentor for strategic grounding, and because we meet good cops. Let’s call Remember My Face a cop-out because it lets some really serious issues punch you in the gut then pulls a switcheroo and makes itself into a story of individual evil.


The story--a Spanish-speaking private eye tracking down a missing Mexican farmworker—takes us down an immigration exploitation rabbit hole of deep South corruption mixing wingnut political machinations and heroin.


The story skillfully introduces its characters effectively and spins the plot with interest. Readers will find the storyteller’s voice offers a reliable narrative and insightful reading of good guys and bad guys. It's a fun read, not a hard read. When you learn a fact, it’s a fact. When a bad guy dissimulates, you know it. 


Note, however, the author does like to toss in misdirection, and that’s some of the fun. For example, the incredibly hot daughter of a villain, comes looking for Miami action, and while she’s breathing hotly into Cuesta’s ear, he’s raising a reader’s suspicion the villain sent his daughter to Mata Hari the dick. (Give a woman credit for knowing what she wants).


There’s a lot of grey coloring perceptions of Cane County. Quite a number of folks open-carry in a mixture of defiance and entitlement--women wear rhinestone automatics in designer holsters, for example, and pick up truck rear windows wear gun racks. Those Mexicans get here illegally, but the harvest isn’t going to get done without all these Mexicans coming in and turning things around, so the big labor contractor is a pillar of the community.

The name Cane County may be alluding to Jean Toomer's seminal novel Cane. Lantigua seeds the writing with numerous allusions such as to song lyrics. Except for some of the local color descriptions, the allusion just sits there, but it's good to remember Toomer.


Some stuff is invisible, in Cane County and everywhere else. For instance, it’s really easy to disappear a worker. This deeply serious fact is part of the cop-out of the novel. Cuesta discovers this enormous problem right under our noses, and it’s a plot device, not a causa.


People, recruited from deep down in Mexico and Central America, land in Florida at the end of a coyote trail. These anonymous souls work with false names and follow the seasonal pisca, month to month like the wayward wind. If some man goes off without a word, that’s it. Maybe he went to California to get work? Maybe he found good pay, but not in the fields? Maybe he found a mate and settled down somewhere? All they know back home is the money stopped arriving and there’s no food.


Maybe a right wing zealot kills these men for fun and racism? Wouldn’t it be a kick in the head if, amid the decades-long struggle of the Immokalee farm workers, a novel tackled the facts of that head-on?


Then again, maybe Florida’s politics of hate has nothing to do with the fun of reading Willie Cuesta’s mystery, despite using a landscape screaming with actual real-world injustice?


Remember My Face, despite the evocative title hearkening the burdens of sending money back home, isn’t really about those issues. They’re the background and don’t have to be more.


In a large sense, that’s O.K. Like Dick Cheney during Vietnam, the novel has other priorities. For one, there’s a strong purification motive operating within Remember My Face, a Cubano-Mexicano rapprochement.


There’s little love lost between some Cubans and some Chicanos. Fidel Castro popularized the term “gusano” describing Cuban capitalists who fled the island rather than serve the revolution. Chicanos, quick to pick up a colorful slur, found a sizeable conservative Cubano population whose politics earned “gusano,” making the term part of the lingua franca of political speech. That’s the kind of language that lands a person in Facebook jail.


Author John Lantigua and Arte Publico work to dissolve ethnic boundaries entre raza. The Cuban-American dick, hired by a flag-waving loud Cubana, finds lethal danger in search of a missing Mexican. Noble and brave, the Cubano saves the day for a couple of Mexicans in an unexpected happily-ever-after resolution of the original case that opened the rabbit hole we went down but didn’t touch the sides.


Having a Cuban exile sugar-plantation owner with a decent heart play an honest role in one of the novel’s multiple climaxes, is another offering of cultural amistad. That his trusted employee is deeply involved offers a token to the disbelief that such a character could exist.


Black folks get caught in the middle with the short end of the stick, and aren’t left out of the book as allies. Willie Cuesta discovers disappearances of black workers, too. And finds a cooperative black labor broker to fill in important plot points. The labor contractor is useful in the author’s instructional motive telling about serious, and real, consequences of migrant farm labor so essential to the economy people look the other way from the desmadres.


Among the more interesting tactics Lantigua employs in his informative mission is having the farm owner characters be the voices who explain how readily disappearable--and thus exploitable—is Mexican migrant labor. These people know what’s going on and they’re that cold-blooded about it. 


The reader wants to see the landowners get theirs in the end. Lantigua uses the reader’s prejudice to set up the seduction scene, and to goad suspicion the dowager plays an enthusiastic role in the bloodshed. The grower image numbers among the many expectations Remember My Face raises, then doesn’t necessarily deliver. 


In the end, it’s a regular murder mystery, remember that. There’s fun in what you expect to happen, what you know could happen, then you the reader get to watch action unfold for its own sake and what happens, happens. You read the novel you have, not the novel the author could have written. Remember My Face is a fun read for when you want just relaxation for a few hours. That's what mystery writing's all about.

Order Remember My Face from your local Independent Bookseller, or publisher-direct at this link.


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