Monday, May 24, 2010

King of the Chicanos

Today I finished reading a wonderful novel, King of the Chicanos (Wings Press), by Manuel Ramos, which was published a few weeks ago.  Ramos has written several crime fiction novels, and so the prose is tight and clean and the plot moves quickly.  But the importance of the novel is its focus, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the questions which arise about whether the movement continues today, in other forms, in other venues.

Most of the events described in King of the Chicanos take place before my time, when I was in grade school in El Paso.  But these events, and particularly the issues of the protagonist, Ramón Hidalgo, resonate today.  The unabashed support for racial and ethnic profiling of Arizona’s new immigration law and that state legislature’s attack against ethnic studies programs demonstrate that we are in a Back-to-the-Future moment.

The fight for respect, for being treated as equals, for pride that lifts us to become better citizens, was a fight fought by our predecessors, and a fight that needs organization, commitment, and passion again today.  Hidalgo is a natural leader who is animated by the police's brutality against Chicanos, by the establishment’s disenfranchisement of Mexican-Americans, from politics to literature.

Can we say we have progressed so far that these issues are not relevant today?  Of course not.  I would argue, in some cases like Arizona and the media’s stereotypical portrayal of undocumented workers and even American Latinos, that we have regressed to a worse state of affairs.

But what takes King of the Chicanos to a subtler, more complex level is Ramos’s unstinting portrayal of Ramón Hidalgo’s mistakes as a leader and flaws as a human being.  There is vicious infighting in the organization Hidalgo leads; personal conflicts trump organizational imperatives.  In one sense, this is the limitation of ‘familia,’ of not taking the organization beyond a personal level, to a more professional, perhaps politically powerful level.  Hidalgo is also self-destructive in a way, womanizing his way out of a marriage with an excellent partner whom he never ceases to love.

Lessons learned, I kept thinking, as I finished the novel.  Yes, there are important lessons learned in King of the Chicanos.  This work should be read by many young, and not-so-young, activists who are tired of being stomped on by the likes of Jan Brewer and Rush Limbaugh.  We need more than raw passion this time.  We need to be focused, and we need to be bigger than ourselves, and we need to be a political force that can translate our power to the ballot box, to legislatures, to the courts, and eventually to mainstream American culture.

I also want to point out, in my literary realm, how our struggle continues.  We need more books by and about Chicanos, and not just the version of ‘Mexican-Americans’ assumed in New York or Austin.  But to have that, to have more quality books published by small and large publishers about Chicanos, we need to buy more of our books, we need to educate our community about our stories, and we need to keep telling our stories, in every corner, in every town, until we are heard.  But first we need to listen to each other.  Only then will others turn around, and pay attention to the literary commotion and debate that is ours.

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.