Friday, November 05, 2021

Chicano Noir and the Struggle for the Soul of Luis Móntez

In 1998, Mystery Readers Journal (MRJ) called for articles about The Ethnic Detective, which meant the publication was looking for content about fictional ethnic detectives from authors who featured such detectives in their books. The topic turned out to be timely and extremely popular. The numerous responses required two issues of MRJ, reinforcing my perception that "ethnics" of various nationalities and colors were prime subjects of 1990s crime fiction.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of these books were written by white authors.  

By 1998, I had published four novels featuring my Chicano lawyer (and amateur detective) protagonist, Luis Móntez, and I was flirting with the concept of Chicano noir.  I entitled my essay Chicano Noir and the Struggle for the Soul of Luis Móntez.  It was published in MRJ, The Ethnic Detective, Part I, Volume 14, Number 2, In that same issue, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera published a piece entitled Life Imitates Art, and Martin Limón presented Mexican Eyes.

With all the changes in publishing and the book world in general in the last ten years or so, and the encouraging number of crime writers of color who are getting published these days, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the MRJ essay that I wrote near the beginning of my writing career. Here, then, is Chicano Noir and the Struggle for the Soul of Luis Móntez from twenty-three years ago.


Mexican Americans are one of the most visible ethnic groups in this country, and one of the most misunderstood. Generally considered to be immigrants, the irony is that many of us have roots that were planted in the Southwest centuries before any Englishman set up camp on the banks of the James River. Passionately patriotic, Chicanos nevertheless can exhibit a strong detachment from the United States. The war between the United States and Mexico changed not only the map but also the identity of hundreds of thousands of people. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848 gave the US control of the Southwest, and almost overnight the Mexican settlers had become strangers in their own land. The descendants of those settlers, as well as more recent arrivals from Mexico, make up today’s Chicanos. Chicanos are proud of our mestizo heritage and our Mexican ancestry, as well as our American citizenship, and, yet we often believe that we are not accepted as Mexican by Mexicans or as “American” by Anglos. The duality of our experience—the search for a “place”—has been at the core of several Chicano and Chicana novels, and now has made its way into crime fiction.

Luis Móntez grapples with the concept of “fitting in.” The barely solvent attorney prowls the murky underbelly of Denver and is thrust into high-risk situations by his friends or clients. He carries an almost palpable need for defining his identity.

Luis grew up in Denver when it still had a small-town attitude. He easily makes his way around the neighborhoods where he strutted as a young vato loco, a streetwise kid. But by the early 1990s, he is too old to strut or believe in myths. He endeavors to succeed as an attorney, but he realized years ago that he would never be one of the “good ole boys.” His companions are leftovers from the days of Chicano militancy, when the Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement, was in full bloom. He still has scars from those battles.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz takes place when Denver is on the brink of becoming what the city fathers call a “world class city.” Old haunts give way to the wrecking ball in the interest of a lower downtown facelift. The buzz is about the new baseball team, and everyone pitches a scheme for making fast money. Móntez, suffering badly from a mid-life crisis, is just as anxious as the next guy for the first pitch of the first season. It is so American of him to covet season tickets, and so Chicano of him to understand the reasons why he should not buy into the baseball frenzy.

Luis’s mundane existence is rocked when he is asked for help by three friends who haven’t talked to him for several years. A judge, a director of an inner-city recreation center, and a loose-living, on-the-edge hustler are the target of threats by a stalker who has dredged up the twenty-year-old murder of Luis’s best friend, Rocky Ruiz. Ruiz had been a leader of the Movimiento and his killing had literally and symbolically ended the movement for the four remaining rebels. Teresa Fuentes, a smart and sassy attorney from Texas, walks into their lives and Luis, among many others, falls hard. The story includes references to civil rights history, Chicano traditions and family connections, and the gap between three generations. In getting to the bottom of the death of Rocky, Luis has to confront his own role in Movimiento history, his failures, and his inability to work out a truce with his father, a man with vivid memories of the Mexican revolution.

The Ballad of Gato Guerrero takes Luis from Denver’s bright lights south to the eerie and rural San Luis Valley, an almost holy place often described as the spiritual home of Colorado’s Chicanos. Felix (Gato) is another old friend with a checkered past. He’s taken up with Elizabeth, the battered wife of Denver racketeer Trini Anglin, and together they have run off to hide in the Valley. It’s left up to Luis to guide them through an obstacle course of hit men that meanders through a Chicano music festival in New Mexico, fishing in San Luis, and the dead-end violence of gang warfare in Denver. The mystery for Luis is not only who did the murder, but also who was murdered.

The Last Client of Luis Móntez begins with an unfamiliar feeling for Luis: He has won a very big case and his client’s sister is ready to celebrate. The grisly murder of the client and the disappearance of the sister propel Luis into an ever-expanding sinkhole of corruption. Suspended from the practice of law and on the run from the police, Luis surfaces in San Diego, in Chicano Park, the site of Chicano murals, demonstrations, and lowrider gatherings. Eventually, Luis returns to Denver and his old northside neighborhood, where, among feuding family and untrustworthy policemen, against a backdrop of swanky Cherry Hills and a Bar Association black-tie affair, he confronts the killer.

Damaged from his experiences in The Last Client of Luis Montez, Luis vacations in Mexico. However, before Blues for the Buffalo is finished, the attorney forced into the role of detective tangles with upper-crust Hispanics who are searching for their lost and wayward daughter, and with hard-core Chicano literary types who take their poetry very seriously. Luis teams up with “Rad” Valdez, a young but efficient private eye who doesn’t have a clue about Chicano history but who, regardless, is flashy enough to win over a few hearts in the barrio.

Luis Móntez may always search for himself, never finishing the fight to claim his rightful place, but he’s a loyal friend, a decent attorney and deeply imbued with cultural pride. He just stumbles across too many dead bodies.



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. His latest is Angels in the Wind.

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