Pale Yellow Moon by Antonio Zavala
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017, 152 pages, $11.99, ISBN-13: 978-1544640693
So now, after years as Chicago Mexicano/Chicano performer and playwright, as well as reporter and commentator for several Chicago Latino newspapers, journals and the like, Antonio Zavala has delivered on producing his long-awaited first collection of short stories, Pale Yellow Moon. This is a group of fifteen works of varying theme, length, style and intensity, providing us a panorama of the author’s thematic and stylistic turns, inclinations and orientations. Many of the stories are marked by dark humor and irony reflecting on local, U.S., Mexican and global concerns and pointing to many directions for future work. Like all collections, it is an uneven group, with some pieces weaker or stronger than others, some more or less developed, more or less successful. But the overall effect is of a writer who has lived enough years to have much to say and still enough time to fulfill the promise he shows here.
I want to take the reader through all of the stories, but I want to order my account not according to the one Zavala has provided but by an order which I’ve already anticipated above and which may highlight the deeper resonances and implications of each work and the overall collection.
In this spirit, the stories fall into four categories: (1) nitty gritty stories dealing with Chicago Mexicans and most prominently, Pilsen; (2) stories dealing primarily with Mexicans in Mexico; (3) stories dealing with Mexicans and other Latinos in the U.S. ; and (4) stories with a strong fantastic, futuristic and perhaps even science fiction bent enabling readers to reach from their present horizon toward worlds and times beyond.
The book has a whole group which fits this definition — Chicago centered stories, we should that become the latest in the long list of works in English by Chicago Mexicans, works that belong to what we have elsewhere designated as Chicano writing in Mexican Chicago.
The first story “Bless You Nelson Algren,” provides a fine beginning to the series and the book as a whole. We start by watching writer Nelson Algren as he bike pedals home through Chicago streets, as our young protagonist JuliánParra, encouraged by his school teacher (she may be Italian), begins to think about becoming a writer. Julián sits with his sons-of-immigrants buddies in the high school, cafeteria talking about girls, but thinking about how to stay out of the draft, about Viet Nam, Cuba and Ché Guevara but also about Nelson Algren and becoming a writer.
What’s noteworthy in this great little opening is its joining the Algren materials with those from the author’s own life to provide the basis for a story that is richer and more complex than its simple, straightforward narration might suggest. We can here anticipate our author’s growth from that young wanna be writer kid into a kind of Mexican Algren activist writer of the poor and down and out — those who have learned to expect little from the American Dream and who have to find their reasons for living in each day and moment of their lives. “There’s nothing out there that I like,” says Julián, voicing the view of how many Chicago Mexican kids of his time? “All our parents work in factories, so what is out there for us, maybe just more misery?” (13-14).
Julián actually meets Algren in a scene that is perhaps all too emblematic, as the iconic Chicago word spinner tells him he must be disciplined and not sell out if he wants to be a decent writer. In fact, Julián eventually beats the draft and goes to the University of Iowa, where Algren had actually taught in the University’s famous creative writing program. As if sensing the Chicago writer’s aura or spectre around him, Julián says hello to his new life, with his benediction, “God bless you Nelson Algren!”
The story has fine scenes especially about the lives and expectations of minority kids, but it may seem too locked into memoir to succeed fully as a fiction with all four legs. Nevertheless, as an overture to the other stories, it works quite well even as it also anticipates the problem of story versus narrative that both drives and yet sometimes haunts some of the other stories throughout this text.
Another overture, “The Artist X 5,” appearing late in the book, is “dedicated to all the artists [the author has] met in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.” Here, the narrator-artist describes five of his paintings and thereby gives us some sense of the kinds of art he has trying to develop even as he remembers the African-American Chicago teacher who inspired him to express himself, and as he philosophizes some about the meaning of artistic representation. The first painting he presents is a car at rest; the second of a commuting woman worker; who seems to be struggling to survive; the third is “Sunburst” with “a lot of red and yellowish strokes and with some light blue ones.” Fourth comes a Malinche figure somehow in tribute to Rufino Tamayo; and the fifth is of a determined Hispanic worker, probably undocumented, by the name of Ramiro. These varied images represent the work not only of one but of several of the Mexican and other Latino artists who have emerged in Pilsen; they also represent both the limits and extension of their artistic imaginaries, and also, by implicit refraction, of Zavala’s own imaginary, with two figures representing Chicago and Pilsen, one his travels to the broader U.S. world, another Mexico itself and finally, the “Sunburst,” representing the artist’s imaginative forays beyond our currently knowable world.
The very next story, “The Cabaret Mambo” is a good remembrance of a time and world now gone from Pilsen, Chicago and indeed Mexico City. The problem here is that the substantial, underlying story doesn’t seem to get told. And it isn’t that there isn’t one to tell — not so much about the mambo-cine world Zavala presents on the surface — the café, its owner, the world of Perez and Lila Prado — but the story of a man who, like the hero in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (itself modeled on Hemingway’s Moveable Feast), gets trapped in a prior era, reliving a prior imagined love, unable to live a life beyond memory and imagination. That’s the story.
“The Mornings of Galatea Cano” starts promisingly enough as we learn of an older Mexican Pilsen widow who enjoys reading books about revolution in Russia and the Americas, and who even reads Marx, if only in the popular version developed by the Mexican comic book artist Rius. In the course of the story, we find how she has difficulty getting the subversive books she enjoys and is finally visited by a Chicano FBI agent who finds little enough of suspicion in her apartment, but warns her about her future reading habits — this the feeble results of an investigation, and perhaps a story, that reaches a dead end.
“The Days of Darius Client” tells of an elderly Black security guard who was once a freedom rider during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Now a lonely old man working in a rough Chicago south side neighborhood, Darius befriends a young Mexican, Lorenzo, and tells him of the civil rights movement days in the U.S. south and elsewhere, pointing to the gains accrued, but also how people have forgotten. Lorenzo makes a parallel with the recent immigration marches in Chicago saying, “there were so many people, literally thousands! But later it was as if the marches had never taken place, nobody wanted to get involved anymore.” Both agree that the struggle uniting and representing those who are exploited must continue. Some people may try to stop forward marches toward justice, but, as Darius puts it, “Them wheels never stop.”
“The Case of the Chinatown Fortune Teller” is a fine Chicago-style film noir narrative involving a Pilsen-based Mexican detective hired to solve the murder of a Balkan Chinatown dwelling fortuneteller. Hired by the victim’s niece, our detective hero works with Chicago Mexican, Italian and other officials to discover that the murderer was a local-based Mexican drug smuggler who relied on the fortune teller’s predictions to tell when he could safely deal with given shipments, but kills her when she fails him. The story ends with a suggested fortune telling of a possible romance between our detective hero and the fortuneteller’s niece. Zavala could develop a whole series of stories about this one detective and his city beat.
The Drone Conversation” presents a young and older man meeting on the el and later in a Pilsen coffee shop as they discuss drones, the ethics of their use, and their part in creating the future in the U.S. and the world. This story takes us back to “The Artist X 5,” in projecting us from Chicago and Pilsen toward the larger world beyond — a matter that will re-emerge in all the subsequent stories, but especially in Part 4 below.
Here it would be best to proceed in roughly chronological order, as the author provides us three key looks at Mexicam life and history, which are germane to migrations in future periods.
“75 Miles to Villa Guadalupe” is told as a report supposedly written soon after 1848 by a U.S. soldier to his superiors recounting his mission to a small northern Mexican town where he has to inform those living there that they now live in what has become part of the U.S. His job is to assess the situation in the town, offer some help and give the townspeople the choice of staying in the U.S. or moving south of the new border. Many decide to stay and even more decide to go, choosing the difficult life they have known over the uncertain one they would come to discover if they stayed. Of course even many who stay will attempt to hold on to their past, even as modernity speeds the march of change.
“Cenobia’s Flight” portrays the growing organized violence in Ciudad Juárez, as it affects a young woman and her daughter. Facing sexual harassment in the maquiladora where she has been working Cenobia, as well as her daughter, are in danger from a gang of thugs who demand protection money from the owner of the department store where she now works. When two of the thugs kill the owner, a group of women help mother and daughter cross the border and find asylum in a small town near de Kalb, Illinois.
When I begin reading a Chicano story that mentions the goddess Coatlicue, I usually turn to the next page or look for another book to read. The temptation to tune out came again with Zavala’s story “The Apparitions of Coatlicue”; but I guess I felt obligated to stick around; and after a few ins and outs, I got with what turned out to be a story of a drug lord whose fall comes when his minions come upon and kidnap three eco-tourists in a sequence leading to the capture of the drug lord by a local Michoacán policeman. As the narrator notes, “The fire of myths and legends is too difficult to extinguish once it has ignited the imagination of an entire people.” Still I wonder if the core matter in this story has been developed with the detail it requires.
“A Ghost in the Chicano House” takes us to Zavala’s student days in Iowa City, as first mentioned in the opening story of the collection. The story tells how a ghost is seen by students at the University of Iowa’s Chicano Student Center. We get to know the many different Chicanos who represent the center — even their home lives before college and their student interactions as in the years of the Chicano movement as it came to Iowa. Finally one of the students has a dream in which the Chicanos move to a new center; and then, sometime later, the students receive a letter stating that their house will be torn down to make room for a new Business College. Nevertheless they will in fact have a new center, which, they hope, will not be haunted.
Inspired somehow by a Bob Dylan song, “Postcard of the Hanging” is a perhaps surprising story of an accident wherein a Mexican driver hits the son of a city father and, miracle of miracles, the town sheriff and even the boy’s father actually protect the Mexican from some racist town-folk who want to do him harm. Still, the story portrays the precariousness of the Mexican’s situation in the U.S. and the solidarity of his Chicago Mexican compadre, who drives the long distance to help him get out of town without getting hurt.
If the fear of Chicano and Mexican discrimination seem overcome in these first two stories, such fears are confirmed in the third, “The Fear of Being Ridiculous Club,” which is perhaps one of the two true gems of the collection, a story that could readily appear in an anthology of Chicano, Latino or more generally, U.S. fiction. Here, Mistral Da Silva, a former circus clown who has immigrated from Portugal to a town in Massachusetts, comes up with the idea that people who are … afraid of being thought of as ridiculous” can learn to do more wholesome or even absurd things “so that their fear of being ridiculous goes away.” At first, the idea is a huge success, and a healthier social environment emerges in his town. But then some right wing anti-immigrant descendants of prior Anglo immigrants go to the ridiculous extreme of attacking more recent Latino immigrants to the point that Mistral decides to dissolve his club and indeed return to Portugal taking one of his more progressive Anglo disciples with him.
Here we only have two examples, but the quality of both (and above all the second) suggests that we should have more in this direction.
First, “The Sight and Excitement of the Bars of Mars” is a charming if in the last analysis disturbing report about inter-planetary immigration to new tourist hot spots on Mars in the wake of calamities on earth and other planets. But this fine story about man’s impact on the world is just the windup for what is perhaps the tour de force of the entire volume.
“Welcome to the Universe Flo de Carlo,” Zavala’s comic tale takes us back to Chicagoland to present what seems to be a Mexican wife and her Anglo husband Dick living in Maple Park Illinois in the year 2085. Flo and Dick are both relatively happy with their U.S. and Illinois lives, though Flo reminds how millionaires control all and how the powers that be have wreaked havoc on the environment and the earth as a whole. Hearing of a new Milky Way space cruise venue, Flo is hot to go, but Dick prefers the Grand Canyon, even though it’s been all too recently somehow destroyed — maybe even nuked. And soon we find that almost half the planet has been destroyed or negatively altered.
This story, also worthy of anthologizing, is clearly written very recently. So the narrator tell us that
By the year 2072 the two-party system had gone out of style so to speak. Now there was only one political party and it was called the Unicorn Party. The idea for the party had been hatched in the corn-fields of Iowa during the presidential primaries. Nelson K. Debrys, a presidential candidate, was credited with its creation. The only platform that was needed, he said, was to keep America strong, the budget low and the corporations running all the way to the bank.
We are presented with a catalog of new devices and finally we’re told of Flo’s farewell to Dick and their cat, and the many incidents that make up her voyage to Mars and elsewhere, as we go with Flo following her further and further into outer space, where she is finally unable to keep her promise of fidelity to Dick as she mates with a masterful alien from Feronia. But in spite of this small picadillo, and all the problems she and other passengers encounter, she finally makes it back to earth, back to her beloved cat and Dick, and back as well to Maple Park and Chicagoland after all
This review of all the stories in Zavala’s book shows the significant reach he has achieved as well as the many directions which his future work can go in portraying Mexicans and Latino in Chicago, Mexico and elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that, aside from his Algren opening, his best stories are not the ones centered on Chicago or Pilsen, in spite of some good work there. This is not to say that he should not work this vein, which he certainly knows the best. But surely the Mexican and satirical futuristic dimensions away from Chicagoland especially cry out for more — even if in the long run they all return home. And we can only hope he moves along the four pathways he has signaled as well as others.
All this said, this review cannot end without pointing to certain difficulties with the overall text. The first is posed by our very regrouping of the stories, which would have all benefitted by this or perhaps another ordering to make more clear the coherence of the overall effort. As suggested a few times, another problem is a lack of fuller development, and deepening perspective in some of the pieces. To render a memory or set forth a few details is not enough to give a story its full body; there is work to be done, binding the elements, cutting repetitions and, it must be said, proofreading the whole with greater care.
As a late entrant into fiction production myself, I know the anxiety to get the work out and the problems to which it can lead. In general, Chicago Latino writers writing in English, perhaps even more so than those writing in Spanish, need careful editing, and they need real publishers and editors, and not just copy proofers and printers behind them. Our visual artists have lacked a real agent and promoter since Dina Bertincini and Aldo Castillo left town; the gallant efforts of Len Domínguez and others have not been enough. And in spite of the efforts of several cultural actors, Chicago Latino writers have had no apparatus providing a framework for developing and promoting their work. One would hope that some one on his or her own, or in some generous institutional frame, could provide the minimal infrastructure to forward Chicago Latino culture in and beyond these Trumpish times.
We can only hope that the quality of the best efforts by Zavala and others will shine through to the point that a more adequate system emerges leading to a spiraling level of achievement for Chicago Latino art, literature and culture as a whole. In the meantime, may readers find and enjoy this book, and may Zavala continue writing his stories.
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his second book of fiction, Martín and Marvin.