Sunday, November 23, 2014

The King and Queen of Comezón

The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press), by Denise Chávez, is a sometimes hilarious, often raunchy novel that enlivens the characters from a fictional small town in New Mexico, yet it also has an uneven narrative flow that may frustrate readers.

The Fiestas of Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre consume the tiny town of Comezón. Arnulfo Olivárez, an old man dying of cancer and a babyish buffoon, dresses up in an ill-fitting charro suit to attempt to lead the festivities. His eternal comezón is “to love those who didn’t love him, and to have those he didn’t love so much love him so hard.”

Chávez applies this metaphor of the comezón—an itch akin to desire, yearning, unrequited love—to all the characters in one form or another, a tactic that can be revelatory as well as repetitive. Juliana, the disabled daughter in a wheelchair, yearns for Padre Manolo Rodríguez, who in turn desires the well-endowed Juliana, not to mention a return to his native Spain. Lucinda, the wild other daughter, yearns for Ruley Terrazas and to discover the secret behind her real mother. Doña Emilia yearns for her husband Arnulfo to love her and be faithful to her. Don Clo yearns to be like the good man Rey Suárez, the proprietor of the Mil Recuerdos bar, where everyone is also waiting for something to happen.

Amid all of this yearning and waiting are reminiscences, discussions, and arguments where Chávez often focuses on meando or peeing, pañales or sanitary napkins, chones, “that strange fish juice and the powdery acrid smell of crotch,” “thighs dark con el chorro de sangre,” farts, culos, and so on. Sometimes these raunchy references are rip-roaringly funny, yet they also seem occasionally gratuitous, as if the vulgarity is inserted to create levity and movement in a narrative that sorely needs them.

This points to the central narrative problem of The King and Queen of Comezón: most chapters read like character studies rather than parts of an evolving story. The reader, instead of moving forward with a story, must follow lengthy back stories in each chapter—indeed, entire chapters that are back stories—about why a character is who he or she is, what happened in the past, and why it matters to a character’s portrayal. But not much is happening in the narrative present: we are simply learning who these people are.

Emblematic of this narrative problem is when Emilia locks herself in her room, not feeling well: it takes seven chapters to break that door down and to find out why it matters. The reader also feels a comezón, and it’s for a story where action primarily determines character.

A subtler issue with the novel is the constant shift in perspective and voice, not only from chapter to chapter, but paragraph to paragraph, and even within paragraphs. The reader jumps around in Arnulfo’s head for a few moments, only to find him- or herself in Juliana’s head unexpectedly, or Emilia’s, or Padre Manolito’s. Narrative momentum is lost with such haphazard, unexpected shifts in perspective and voice.

Chapter Sixteen, “The Confession,” is an excellent chapter in which Juliana confesses her love for Padre Manolito, and he reveals his conflicted feelings for her. The tension palpitates on the page, the suspense is unleashed through dialogue, and action determines the strength and self-knowledge of Juliana. If only the rest of the novel had been like “The Confession.”

Denise Chávez is an important chronicler of life on the border. She writes about the gritty peccadilloes that make us who we are, as well as the greater sins that condemn us. Those Chávez characters who rise above their lot in life, particularly independent and self-aware women, deserve our attention and admiration as readers.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 23, 2014.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Letter from a Reader

Hello Sergio,

I wanted to reach out to you and share how much I relate to the personal essays in Crossing Borders. I am currently an undergrad student at the University of California, Irvine studying Spanish with an emphasis in Education. Like the majority of immigrant families in California, my family is originally from Mexico. Del Norte del país, estado de Durango to be more specific, just like your family.

I truly admire how much involvement your parents had in your education growing up. Most importantly, I admire you for carrying those family values and raising Aaron and Isaac the way you did. Unfortunately I grew up with a single mom, who worked until late hours of the night to provide for my siblings and me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be grateful for the sacrifice she’s made for our family, but she had very little involvement in my educational path. And as I continue on this path, I see our relationship growing more distant. Like you and your mother, my mom and I always had a really good friendship, but being away from home has made it difficult to relate to each other’s lives.

I see myself growing apart from my mom, my comfort zone, and for what purpose? I am surrounded by Asian, Middle Eastern, and white students who walk around like they have their lives figured out. Upper-class students who pull up to the parking lot in their Audis, Mercedes, Lexus; they would never be able to relate to my family’s financial situation. They would never know what it’s like to sleep in the living room because their family of six can barely afford a two-room duplex located in what’s considered the “ghetto.” Yet here I am, reading over your personal essays and reflecting on my decision to cross this border. My decision to continue with my educational goals, even if it meant growing apart from my mom, and her contribution to my Mexican identity. So more than anything, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone.

I truly want to make a difference in our Mexican-American/Latino community. The families in our community need to make a change and be more college-oriented. We need more families like yours. More parents like Bertha and Rodolfo because a “Mexican accent” doesn’t stop them from getting involved in their children’s education. And for the parents who do not have the time to get involved like my mom, at least get them to understand the importance of a higher education.

Anyway, I hope you get to read this really long message. Even if you don’t respond, I just want you to see the impact your personal essays had on my personal life. Thank you and I am definitely interested in reading more of your work!

Alejandro Favela

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Alejandro, I've read and re-read your letter several times. I write for readers just like you, and I can only say thank-you for writing such a wonderful, heartfelt letter to this writer. Every writer who toils alone for years deserves a letter like this, which gives him encouragement to keep writing. And yes, you are not alone. I am with you, if only from afar.

I think it's a difficult journey we are making, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be making the journey. I think you should be proud of your mother (as I am of my parents) for what they could teach you, about hard work, sacrifice, friendship. She may not understand everything you are doing now, but make an effort to get back into her community, to teach her about what you know now and why it matters to you.

I know you will find others who assume their position in life, who seem so much more sophisticated than you, who will never understand the poverty you grew up with. I know I did. Take it as an advantage, the advantage of being real, the advantage of knowing good people exist in all strata of life, the advantage of not being easily consumed by things. I have met so many people who assume they are right simply because they are rich. You show them otherwise. As a teacher once told me, "You show them that a Mexicano can beat them with his mind!"

Yes, you are right that I am trying to write about the great values we have in our community, through books like Crossing Borders, and how to translate those values in other settings beyond where we grew up. That's what will move our community forward, in my opinion. I believe we should also criticize those values that are not helpful to us, and leave them behind. I want this conversation to occur in our community, so that we can be self-reflective, so that we can improve ourselves, so that we can be proud of ourselves, yet without being idealistic or romantic about our community.

Thank you for reading my work. You made my day.

Saludos,
Sergio

www.ChicoLingo.com

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas 1963: Context and Questions

Dallas 1963 (Twelve, 2013), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, takes the reader back to the city of Dallas and to the years before that fateful day on November 22, 1963. In this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, this important book raises several fascinating questions.

To what extent was Dallas already the “City of Hate” before the assassination? What role did conservative figures play in creating this paranoid milieu? How does this environment in part mirror current conservative attacks against President Barack Obama? Did the hateful environment in Dallas contribute to, or encourage, or explain Kennedy’s assassination?

The Dallas of 1960 is a city where the Ku Klux Klan once had its national headquarters, the current mayor had once been an unabashed KKK member, and important statues celebrate Confederate heroes. The Dallas Morning News is led by publisher Ted Dealey, who refers to Washington, D.C. as “nigger town” and joins oilman H. L. Hunt in supporting the belief that the United Nations is creating a world socialist system. For them, JFK’s support of Medicare is tantamount to “sweeping dictatorial power over medicine” and will create government death panels. This is Obamacare’s déjà vu.

Joining these powerful citizens is Rev. W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who sermonizes that JFK’s Roman Catholicism is a “political tyranny” that threatens the very fabric of the U. S. of A. Meanwhile, General Edwin A. Walker resigns from the military, finds Dallas politically hospitable, and gives speeches to adoring local crowds where he exhorts unleashing nuclear holocaust on the Soviet Union, even at the price of millions of casualties stateside. Super-patriot Walker wants to overthrow the “totalitarian regime” of Kennedy, and files to run for Texas governor in February of 1962.

Stirring this toxic stew, and exploiting it, is Representative Bruce Alger from Dallas, the lone Republican in the Texas delegation, and an arch conservative. During a visit from Lyndon B. Johnson on the eve of the 1960 election, Alger leads a “mink coat mob” that attacks LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson. A sign in Alger’s hands reads “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.”

Later when U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson visits Dallas in October of 1963, Frank McGehee, the Dallas founder of the National Indignation Convention, adopts the tactics of conservative intimidation by leading a mob to disrupt Stevenson’s speech. One protester, a Dallas insurance executive, slams a placard on Stevenson’s forehead.

Oddly, Lee Harvey Oswald is a relatively minor figure in this book, a Socialist sympathizer who nearly assassinates General Walker in April of 1963 and later kills Kennedy. This is odd because Dallas 1963 repeatedly hints that the hateful conservative milieu in Dallas somehow portended JFK’s assassination. But how exactly? Was Oswald drawn to Dallas because of its conservative fanaticism, and so he decided to combat it there? Why did he turn the rifle instead on JFK? These questions and any others explicitly linking the right-wing hate in Dallas to what happened on November 22, 1963 (at least the official and most likely version of events) are not answered in this book. We are left to make these links somehow on faith.

Dallas 1963 is a meticulously researched book that brings you back to a place and time beset by a mass or even class psychosis, where innuendo and wild accusations gain currency, where zealots sound reasonable, and wild and murderous ideas are taken seriously, and acted upon. The dark side of democratic rule, too often, is the rule of the mob. When that mob has power, money, news media, and well-spoken leaders, then the most inhumane acts can be perpetuated by societies in the name of what is ‘right.’ Dallas 1963 will help readers gain a perspective that resonates with the caustic politics that have unfortunately become the norm today.


(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 3, 2013.)

Readings and Appearances

Reading of excerpts: Crossing Borders: Personal Essays

Take a look at a recommended list of books for children and young adults, novels, nonfiction books, poetry, and short story collections at LiteraryLatino.com.