Monday, November 28, 2022

My father’s Quiet De Luxe typewriter: Chicano stories that the world will never read


By Daniel A. Olivas

“Pop would have wanted you to have it,” said my older sister as she handed the case to me. “Because you’re the writer in the family,” she added, though this explanation was quite unnecessary.

The “it” is a Royal Quiet De Luxe that reportedly was Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter of choice. The Royal Typewriter Company manufactured its popular portable model from 1939 until 1959, the year of my birth. My late father, Michael Augustine Olivas, purchased it sometime after he had returned to the United States in 1952 after serving two years as a Marine during the Korean War. I surmise that this 17-pound typewriter was a prized possession for this son of Mexican immigrants who worked in a factory and had dreams of becoming a published writer.

Sadly, those dreams would remain unfulfilled to the end of his life in 2020.

As with many immigrant families during the 1950s in my old neighborhood a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, my parents were able to start a family, purchase a small house, and buy a car on the sole salary of my father’s factory job while my mother focused on the hard work of primary caregiver to their children, who would eventually number five over the course of a decade.

My father worked the nightshift at an electric turbine manufacturing company. He told me that when I was a baby—their third child—he would set his typewriter near my crib and work on a novel, short stories, and poetry. Pop joked that all that typing near my young self must have destined me to the writing life.

I imagine him now, a handsome young man in his late 20s—younger than my own son—clacking away on that Royal Quiet De Luxe with dreams of becoming a published writer like the authors he loved: Fitzgerald, Cather, Maugham, and of course, Hemingway.

Pop’s old portable typewriter is a beast of a machine in all its mid-century glory. The light-brown metal casing complements the green keys and space bar. The ivory-colored letters, numbers, and symbols still stand out brightly against the green beds of the keys, which dip slightly at their centers to allow fingertips to nestle in comfortably. And the smell—oh, that smell!—when I open the case: The pungent tang of typewriter ink emanating from the ribbon ignites a flood of childhood memories. I love that metallic, inky scent. It reminds me of my father.

What happened to Pop’s typed pages? That was a mystery to me until about 15 years ago. I had a book reading at Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore for a short story collection, and my father attended. When it came time for audience questions, Pop stood, arms behind his back, and introduced himself as my father. Everyone nodded, smiled, appreciated that this man offered his son the support of his presence. Then he said softly, “I used to write, too.”

The audience again nodded, smiled, and perhaps became a bit puzzled about where this was going. I grew nervous, not certain what Pop was planning to say next. He continued: “But it was trite.” I took a breath. And he added: “Nothing important. Nothing like what you write.”

 “I wish I could read your stories,” I said, not knowing what else to offer.

He waved his right hand slowly to brush away my desires. “I burned them all,” he said, punctuating the end of his story with a smile that was far from bitter or morose, just accepting. He then sat, and the room fell into a thoughtful silence. I could not bring myself to ask why he took such final action in destroying his creative writing.

But a few years later, when my parents were visiting me and looking at my various books and literary journals in our family study, I asked Pop why he had destroyed his pages. As my mother looked on with trepidation, my father explained that his writing had been rejected repeatedly by publishers, and he decided that he needed to move on with his life. That meant he focused on getting his college degree and master’s and eventually getting a job where he wore a suit to work.

I so dearly wish Pop had saved his writing. I think about what he wanted to express through fiction and poetry. The question of what he wrote about was clearly a painful subject for Pop. I tried a few times to find out what stories and sentiments he tried to tell through the written word, but he never offered more than a wince and vague responses.

I do know this: My father was a proud Chicano who loved his culture and people. My suspicion is that the publishing industry in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was many times less hospitable to Chicano literature than it is today—even with the structural racism that BIPOC and other underrepresented writers still face and battle.

And that is a heartbreaking conclusion. A conclusion that means my father’s voice will remain in my memory and not in the printed word. A voice thatI believe—would have enriched not only his family but also the world at large.

[This essay first appeared in The Writer Magazine.]


Anonymous said...

Daniel Olivas, kudos, you've managed to describe, put onto clear perspective, something that was not meant to exist.
Moreover, you inspire me to share this episode.
When I returned from the service I enrolled at Santa Monica College. There,I signed up for a writing class. My first piece "adventure" assignment
described the birth of my son and I received high marks. I thought that writing was going to come easy. The Chicano movement influenced me to write about that, I was certain people would be interested. Boy, was I wrong!

Al Manito said...

I've always believed that when one of us [i.e., Mexicans] writes from the heart, the product is never trite but speaks to things that have long been repressed, both us as a people, but what we have to say as persons. I can't help but think it would be publishable and eloquent.