Pilsen: The Literary Neighborhood of Raúl Dorantes

Juan Mora-Torres Publicado 2017-07-29 10:07:53

De zorros y erizos by Raul Dorantes
Editorial El BeiSMan, 250 pages, July 2013, $15, ISBN 1467568589

The production of immigrant novels in the U.S. parallels the ebb and flow of the nation’s immigration history. It grew by leaps and bounds during the age of open immigration, mainly from 1880 to 1930, and trickled down to a few novels after 1930. Up to 1970 almost all immigrant literature dealt with the European immigrant experience in the U.S., ranging from economic hardships to the difficult choices made in becoming American. The past four decades have seen a second wave of immigrant novels, a direct result of the immigrant population growth (13% of U.S. population today). Encouraged by multiculturalism, today’s literature reflects the choices that Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Cubans and many others make in becoming hyphenated Americans. Unlike much of the earlier immigrant literature of 1880–1930 that addressed the collective experiences of immigrant workers, a good portion of today’s literature focuses on the trials and tribulations that highly educated immigrants and their children face in negotiating their entrance into middle-class, mainstream society.

De zorros y erizos (Of Foxes and Hedgehogs) is Raúl Dorantes first novel and the latest Spanish-language immigrant novel on Latino/Mexican Chicago, a subfield of Latino/Chicano literature that is unknown to literary critics and the larger public. (In Chicago there are approximately thirty literary works that have been published in Spanish). He borrows the title from a Spanish-language magazine published in Chicago in the mid-1990s, which took it from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin argued that there are two types of writers and thinkers; the hedgehog who knows one big thing and the fox who knows many little things. There are no profound thinkers or writers in Dorante’s novel and, perhaps, his intention is to let the readers decide whether his main characters are hedgehogs or foxes in the choices of the type of life they make for themselves in Chicago. It is a thought-provoking novel that merits much discussion.

More often than not, good novels begin with a captivating first sentence (“Maman (mother)died today”; “Llegué a Comala porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre, un tal Pedro Paramo.”). Dorante’s second sentence sets the tone of the novel, “Se hallaban en la ciudad, según ellos, para transgredir una vida dedicada al negocio y casi nunca al ocio.” (“They were in the city, according to themselves, to transgress from a life committed to work and almost never to idleness”). Work and idleness are woven into the narrative as the key determinants in the choices the characters make in giving their lives meaning. What all the characters have in common is that they are not subordinated to wage labor.

The novel revolves around Jacobo, the narrator, aninnocent young Mexican immigrant who came to Chicago “para aventurar y vagar,” as Mexican migrants used to say inpast decades. Without financial resources, he finds unfulfilling work as a short-order cook in a restaurant in Pilsen. He has big plans. Wanting to see the world, he expects to earn enough money in Chicago to take him to his next destination, Alaska. With a journalism manual in hand, he also wants to be a journalist and make a name for himself. The first step in that direction is to search for an interesting story, which he believes he finds in Xul,a homeless artist and veterano of Pilsen’s vida loca. Jacobo is fascinated by Xul’s “me vale madre” lifestyle and his unrealistic final project in life: to establish a cemetery for immigrants in Chicago, a resting place before the long journey to Mictlán, the spiritual world of Nahuatl religion. Accordingly, the cemetery needs a sacrificial lamb—who will be the first to be buried? Only Xul knows and he will announce the name later. Until then, Jacobo predicts the four candidates that have the highest probability of dying; La Tongolele, Mauricio, Piotri, and Rodrigo, a gang member. Xul’s prophecy is fulfilled. I will not spoil the mystery by giving the name of who dies in the end.

As opposed to traditional plotting, the novel is based on episodes taking place in and around three holidays in the mid-1990s; July 4 (U.S. Independence), September 16 (Mexican Independence) and October 12 (Columbus Day in the U.S. and Día de la Raza in Mexico). Two decades of time are condensed in these three days, an awareness one gathers by the mentioning of big events, such as 9/11 (2001), the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina (2005), and small ones such as the conflicts of the eloteros (corn vendors) with the City of Chicago’s ordinances (1997 and 2012).

Dorantes uses Jacobo, the aspiring journalist, as the optic into the world of Pilsen, a neighborhood that has served as port-of-entry for large numbers of Mexicans since the 1950s. Jacobo encounters many characters in Pilsen and a couple of possible topics worth writing about. With much time in his hands, he has the absolute freedom to write on any theme of his choosing. He takes many notes. Is Jacobo going to be a hedgehog or fox?

The novel is about Jacobo’s encounters with characters belonging to two different social groups living in Pilsen:la fraternidad and los paisas.In spite of shared commonalities— Latino/Latin American “cultural heritage,” Spanish language, and immigrant status—the groups are strangers to each other, as they would have been in their native countries where their paths would likely not have crossed.

Sharing a pedigree that binds them together, la fraternidad is a clique of bohemians. They attended universities, grew up in medium-sized and large cities like Irapuato and Montevideo, and had middle and upper-middle class upbringings. They came to Chicago “para aventurar y vagar,” just like Jacobo, and to “triunfar (make it).” They claim to be artists and intellectuals of some sort who read zorros y erizos, the Spanish-language literary magazine. They came to the U.S. legally and under their free will. Given their class make-up in Latin America, one assumes that they are light-skin, perhaps criollos or castizos if one uses the old Spanish colonial system of classifying people.

Not tied to work and family responsibilities, they have much spare time and spend countless hours socializing, gossiping, watching films until morning, and discussing literature, film, and the state of the world. As bohemians they drink much; as intellectuals and artists they produce little. Essentially they are R-rated versions of the characters in the t.v. show Seinfeld. Quite a few episodes could be made around their lives, such as the faked death of Mauricio, and on the meaning of Carmen’s cadenita (gold necklace). Jacobo finds their poeta maldito lifestyle appealing. Are they hedgehogs or foxes? Will the naive Jacobo end uplike them?

In contrast to la fraternidad, los paisas are undocumented workers who mostly labor in the “informal” sector of the economy: yonkeros (metal junk collectors) and eloteros (food street vendors). For lack of a better name, some had labored as enganchados (contracted by day labor agencies) and as jornaleros libres (like those found in the parking lots at Home Depots’ throughout the country). Apparently most came to the U.S. under the duress of poverty, unemployment, and the absence of opportunities in Mexico. One assumes that most did not complete high school and are dark-skinned. Not tied to wage-labor and having to support family under conditions of illegality, the eloteros andyonkeros do their best to find fulfillment in their work. Although he does not socialize with them, Jacobo comes to know their world. He takes notes for a future article. Are they hedgehogs or foxes?

Dorantes came to Chicago in the late 1980s. As a dramatist, poet, and journalist, Dorantes has emerged as one of leading literary figures in Chicago’s growing Spanish-language literary scene. As his first novel, De zorros y erizos is informed by the events and individuals Dorantes has encountered since arriving in Chicago. His characters are composites of people he’s known.

Dorantes demonstrates that he is an active listener and observer. He captures Chicago’s Spanglish (which is different from New York’s and Los Angeles’) and the accents and slang from Pilsen, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. He also uses humor. When Mauricio plays a practical joke on friends (faking his death) and declares that he is malo, Xul responds that Mauricio, “no puede se ser bueno y menos malo.” When a discussion takes place on what name Condolesa, the leftist in the clique, would give to a daughter, Piotri said “Lenincita” and “los mártires de Chicago” if they were twins.

Dorantes knows Pilsen. As an example of his powers of observation, he dedicates almost two pages to a laundromat scene, noting that Pilsen contains twenty-one laundromats. This observation might appear insignificant and tedious to some readers. Unlike the “respectable” Northside neighborhoods where the laundromats are few and dry cleaners many, the laundromat is part of the identity of Pilsen and other immigrant barrios. He also tells us that the solos, the immigrants without spouses or mothers, do their laundry on Sundays and Chona, a woman who teaches them the secrets to washing and folding clothes. Along this line and in brief passages, he gives the reader a tour of the places where Pilsen’s homeless find rest and peace; laundromats, churches, and the Rudy Lozano Public Library.

The reason for pointing out laundromats and homeless resting places is that the novel provides insights into the social spaces of Pilsen. Good literature can be read in many ways. As a historian, I value insights into the culture of public space where poor people gather. I also recognize that good literature captures the complexities of the immigrant experience better than sociology (could it be quantified?) and history books (where is the evidence?). Bearing that in mind, I want to highlight three additional points that students of immigration and Latinos will find intriguing in De zorros y erizos.

First, although the term “immigrant” covers all people who were born outside of the U.S., not all immigrants are molded from the same clay. Take the case of Hondurans and Argentines living in the U.S. Other than the fact that almost two-thirds of these populations are made up of immigrants, the differences among them are many according to census data. For example, 40% of the Argentinians have a least a B.A. degree compared to 8% for Hondurans; 11% of the Argentinians live in poverty compared to 33% of the Hondurans. In all likelihood, Hondurans have a much higher percentage of undocumented immigrants.

The class, educational, and racial differences between la fraternidad and los paisas existed before their arrival in the U.S. Although Dorantes hints at this, he does not develop these differences that are central to the Latino immigrant experienceas factors shaping his characters. Continuing on the issues of difference between immigrants, he does not take full advantage of the importance of legal status in the development of the characters. To begin with, it would appear that most members of la fraternidad arrived at O’Hare airport while los paisas entered illegally through various points, from the Rio Grande to the Sonoran desert of Arizona. Once in Chicago, those differences are not erased but instead continue under different forms, giving la fraternidad a greater arsenal for survival in this country than that of los paisas.Their most important weapon is their legal status. The legal-illegal dichotomy means much in determining what he/she could and could not do. Legality provides security; illegality, the feeling of insecurity—that at any time you might be deported.At this moment of mass deportations, I’m sure that, if given only one choice, most yonkeros and eloteros would choose relief from deportation over the “long path” to citizenship.

Second, the novel is full of hints related to how the concept of “class” is changing before our very eyes. The cosmopolitan “bohemians” of la fraternidad may or may not be aware that they are undergoing a process of déclassé, a downward movement of their class status. Another weaknesses in the novel is that Dorantes does not provide much information on their motives for coming to Chicago. Yet, if they had been transported a couple of decades earlier in time, the idea of migration would not have crossed the minds of Latin America’s middle and upper class (unless they were being persecuted). They would had been people of status in their home countries, members of the intelligentsia; a couple would had been professors at provincial universities, Carmen would had been a published poet touring the literary circles of Guanajuato state, Tomása recognized musician in Guadalajara’s jazz scene, and Condolesa a commentator in a daily or aCentral Committee member of a small Trotskyite party (and, perhaps, after that as a “political exile” in Mexico City, New York City, or Paris).

Tomás exemplifies the process of declássé. He arrogantly repeats that he studied jazz at one of the best music conservatories in Guadalajara. Given his training, he expected automatic entry into Chicago’s vibrant jazz community. However, jazz musicians and club managers dismiss his talents and he instead winds up working odd jobs, from busboy to performing at a Mexican restaurant where the clients repeatedly requests “La bikina.” There is a sense of disappointment and disillusion in Tomás’ failure to “make it,” to be recognized as a virtuoso of fusion jazz by Chicago’s music community. Rejection does not go well with people who are status-conscious, a condition deeply ingrained in Latin America’s class system. 

The working class status of los paisas, on the other hand, also undergo change. A decade or two before the mid-1990s, los paisas would had found good paying industrial work. That was one of the reasons for the coming of many Mexican immigrants to Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. After de-industrialization, the growth of the service economy demanded more immigrants: cooks, maids, construction workers, janitors. Many found work in day labor agencies that proliferated in the 1990s. Dorantes’ workers are not the wage-laborers but rather “self-employed” individuals, mainly eloteros and yonkeros, the characters that Dorantes does not develop as well as the members of la fraternidad.

Martín Coronel, the yonkero from Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán, is one of the better developed paisa characters. He also serves as a good example in understanding change within the working class. He entered the U.S. illegally and worked in factories, including a long stint as a day laborer where he worked with his wife. After his wife was let go and he could not support his growing family with a meager salary, he bought a pickup truck and became a yonkero, an occupation dominated by people from Martín’s hometown. He is undocumented, drives without a drivers license, and with wife and young child makes the daily run through the alleys of Chicago collecting metal and other junk ofvalue. Being a yonkero provides him with an income to support his family and spend time with them. In his spare time,he learns how to play his Yamaha Digital which he found in an alley. Unlike Tomas, Martín is flexible in adjusting to the changing economy, finds value in his work, and is happy.

Ryszard Kapuscinski reminds us that “the condition for survival, therefore, is humility vis-a-vis one’s destiny.” In view of the many obstacles that the undocumented face, their one advantage that they have over everybody else is that they are well equipped with survival skills. They have cultivated these skills from an early age.They are flexible and pro-actively adapt to new circumstances as Martín did and will continue to do in the future. Is Martín a hedgehog or a fox?

The thirdpoint is related to the meaning of the barrio. Chicano and Latino novelists tend to romanticize the barrio as an organic cultural community where working people find shelter from a hostile environment. Dorantes informs us that the barrio is made up of all kinds of people: homeless, yonkeroseloteros/paleterossolos, gang members, artists, activists, wage-earners. It is also full of tensions. The eletoros, for example, are not wanted by the established businesses and have issues with the City of Chicago’s ordinances. To defend themselves against the comerciantes, the police, and health inspectors, they organized a dues-paying union. Even within the union tensions arise among the eloteros over agreed prices for food products, competition over viable street corners, and how many carts members should be allowed to own. This is great material for a dissertation or book on a sector of the informal economy. As mentioned above, Dorantes knows Pilsen well and what is absent are the tensions that gentrification has generated. This is an oversight in light of the fact that the Pilsen of today is different from the Pilsen of twenty-years ago when the novel takes place and gentrification was already at work.

It is my impression that Jacobo learns to be a fox. He comes to reject the temptation of living the life of a poeta maldito, enters an existential crisis, and reaches the conclusion that, “El periodismo ha de ser roommate de la literatura y de la vida. Si no comparte el espacio íntimo, las crónicas se quedarán cortas y los reportajes no habrán de fluir en las carillas de los diarios. Serán textos desalmados.” This is good advice that also applies to other disciplines.

De zorros y erizos deserves to enter into dialogue with Chicano, Latino, and Chicago neighborhood literature, an arduous task due to the difficulty of reaching the readership of these literary genres. It is published by a small press committed to publishing good works in Spanish but without the financial resources to circulate it to broader audiences. Moreover, it is written in Spanish, a “foreign” language whose “serious” readers are the few highly educated Latinos, usually immigrants, and the few Spanish-language courses offered at universities. I’m sure that Dorantes is well aware of this, and by writing in Spanish, he is making a statement. In spite of the possibilities of reaching a broader audience if it had been written in English, he writes in Spanish and Spanglish because it is the language that best captures the Mexican/Latino immigrant experience and De zorros y erizos has done that well. Non-Spanish language readers of literature should follow the lead of Dorantes’ eloteros and yonkeros; to be flexible and adapt to a changing world. Learning Spanish would be a good start in that direction.


Juan Mora-Torres. Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. A former Teamster, he has worked in the agricultural fields, canneries, and as an adult education instructor. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001), and he’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte (I’ m Going North): The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. The Making of the Mexican Border won the Jim Parish Book Award. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.


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