South Chicago, Commercial and 92nd Streets. Photo by Chuckmas Photos
In a note on The Last Laugh and Other Stories, written for Publishers’ Weekly soon after the book’s appearance, an unnamed reviewer points out certain qualities of the overall text which echo ones I mention in last month’s presentation in El BeiSMan, as well as other qualities I have yet to underline. So the reviewer writers:
In these 11 fictions … Martínez-Serros fashions spare, unadorned prose to create a … an evocation of one minority group’s struggles in a specific time and place. Significant characters, settings and themes recur throughout, including … exacting fathers and tolerant, nurturing mothers; and pervasive poverty and prejudice. [However,] several powerful pieces focus on one family, the Riveras, particularly the father José María and his two youngest sons Lázaro and Jaime. Martínez-Serros’s debut is not always graceful, and his voice is sometimes unremarkable. But he is unfailingly devoted to his characters, and the strongest stories burn with a gritty, intense realism. (July).
This description certainly works for stories treated in El BeiSMan last month and now in this issue. But whereas the first two stories deal with two boys who have to enter and risk themselves in basement and dump-site versions of hell to find at least possible route toward superation, the stories we analyze here have to do with the effort to enact the process I have identified as central to Chicago Chicano writing and Chicago Mexican life: the actions of transplantation and cultivation in the forging of new and fruitful futures in relation to an idealized Mexican world left behind, and the grim, almost surreal Southside Chicago world to which the characters have come. The result is the configuration of what Michael Innes-Jiménez, drawing on others, has characterized as a “third space” achieved at least by some of those steel mill barrio mexicanos whose descendants continue to make up a significant sector of the overall Chicago Mexican population.
If “Distillation,” discussed last month, shows a Mexican father hoping to compensate for his lost means of sustenance in Chicago’s inhospitable landscape by scavenging off the land, the more complex and enigmatic story, “The Killdeer,” shows the same father seeking to reestablish his planting relation with the land and to win over the winter world by cultivating a milpa in an area that does not seem to be far from the dumping land of the earlier story. Indeed, this story is clearly marked by similarity and difference from the previous one in that we have the same triad —the father and two sons— again venturing out across the city in search of survival and betterment. Only, now there is some sense of advance, symptomized by the movement from scavenging to planting, and by the improvement of transportation, as the scooter-cart of the first story is replaced by a bicycle. Perhaps more central, however, is the fact that while the milpa planting harkens back to the pre-capitalist/pre-agri-business Mexican world, it nevertheless is now joined with a more modern motif, central to the psychic economics of many stories — the U.S. emphasis on competition.
Thus, the story begins with an evocation of a reborn spring world of April, but soon brings in the more questionable motif:
They went in April when the weather had warmed . . . They went to clear and hoe the land, to get it ready for planting, and to get a jump on the others (55).
In one sense, José María, the steelworker father seeking to resist his worker fate enjoys working his milpa as an act of recalling a past Mexican life of planting and pre-industrial status:
José María, like other Mexican immigrants, had cleared several acres, turned them over with a hoe and worked the simple magic that gave him corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, coriander and much more. It was more land and richer than any his father had cultivated in Mexico. He took it, worked it and felt like a landowner (57).
Tending the milpa, working it, sacrificing for it, is José María’s driving obsession of surpassing the possibilities of his Mexican past. In this sense, the milpa functions as what Juan Bruce Novoa has called an axis-mundi or “retrospace.” However, the effort is not that of simply some reactionary replicating of the past, but rather fending against one modern future for the sake of another. The world he seeks to create is clearly one opposed to his steel-mill dominated reality which he fears his own sacrifices and efforts will not enable his sons to escape. So his efforts are harsh, unremitting, a virtual war drawing upon past norms, past sources of strength to battle against the probabilities inherent in his situation as a Mexican in Chicago turf:
José María paused to observe his sons. They would grow up one day and the thought of their working in the steel mill tormented him. He slashed the earth but could not still his foreman’s voice — “Your sons will work for me too, Hoezay, you’ll see.” He slashed harder, faster, angry with his foreman, and himself, for having brought his sons to a life of possible entrapment in the mill (59).
And yet, José’s deep-seated, hateful anger leads to a violent action not only against the earth, but his sons as well. Even more so than in “Distillation,” he drives them, forcing them to work long hours, denying them any chance of respite or play as if his loving concern for them has been rechanneled in function of the historical period’s chief motifs of depression and war — into a war for the souls of his children in which the children may be victimized even in the winning.
It is of course a war that is onerous to the children, who seek to rebel into play, diversion, fantasy and projection, even when these activities are ultimately structured and given form and direction by the very realities they seek to evade or transcend. Their own struggle to survive becomes very much one with their father, projected through a series of mediations that emerge from their surroundings, perceptions and associations and that become centered on the question of the identity of “The Lone Ranger.” First, Jaime, whose “full knowledge” from his experience in the previous story had been related to seeing his father naked in the bathroom, in this story observes him urinating and goes through a process of identifications that create a virtual metonymic chain:
The man turned to see where the boy was and the boy saw it in his hand — thick as a hoe handle, the head large and ruddy. Jaime smiled, wondered if his would be like that some day, hoped it would be bigger. The splashing stopped. José María turned around, reached for the jug, raised and tipped it, taking long drafts. His “Ahh” told Jaime he had finished. “Be careful putting it back,” José María warned, handing the jug to the boy (60).
Almost immediately, Jaime daydreams about leaving the milpa, about traveling on a train to somewhere else, imagining his favorite songbird, the meadowlark, tell him to “run away,” to go home, to throw his hoe away, to be a man. That evening, he talks to his Spanish speaking mother about his worry that their milpa work will make it impossible for him to go see the last installment of a serial movie about the Lone Ranger — the installment when the Ranger’s identity will be revealed. He asks her to intervene, but she says José María won’t let her interfere (“You know how he is . . . It’s his work and yours,” she explains ) and urges him to try himself, though without showing any weakness. Lázaro, his father’s apologist, tells Jaime there is no sense to his trying to get off work because his father wants to get through planting the milpa, and to thereby maintain his peer reputation as the best milpero. Complaining bitterly about the threat to his investment in U.S. popular culture images which are for Lázaro no more than “made up” fairy tale stuff, Jaime, unable to eat his tacos during break time at the milpa, tired of working and heartsick about the film, finally asks his father if he can go to see his movie. Predictably, the father refuses, saying “The Lone Ranger, mierda! Look at me! I’m the real Lone Ranger! And you’re the real Tonto! Now eat!” (67).
Immediately on finishing their lunch, a stranger appears — a Mexican with black clothes and a black hat. “Look, there’s your Lone Ranger,” said the father, watching the man, a Mexican like himself, mark out his boundaries and begin to work a milpa of his own. The father and sons never speak to this stranger, but view him as a figure of competition and mystery, giving him the additional nicknames of “Black Hat” and “Copycat.” This last apodo is perhaps the most revealing. For they see him as imitating their father and his work. In effect, the “Lone Ranger” seems almost a projection of their collective imaginations, out of the U.S. film Jaime is not allowed to see, into their milpa world as a rival or doppelganger of their father, able somehow to challenge his supremacy and even question his values and authority.
From the first day, José María sees the stranger as a rival against whom he races to complete his work and to outdo at every turn. Jaime also sees him in relation to his father, noting his different, more even way of working and resting, and deciding his way is better. “He works and rests. I coulda seen the las’ chapter of the Lone Ranger” (70). In fact, the Lone Ranger is virtually the Hollywood stereotype of the Mexican “bad dude” (a kind of Zorro figure) — but he is also the Mexican turned Anglo individual seeking to compete with others who are both helped and hindered by family ties and imperatives. He is in effect an American Mexican competing with, criticizing and possibly even negating the way the Riveras live and work, and indeed causing each Rivera to see him as he will. The doubling effects and associations reach a point of crystallization as the boys observe the father and Lone Ranger eyeing each other without talking, and watch the latter begin to follow the more experienced milpero’s lead. “Copycat!” shrieks the outraged Lázaro. “Why’s he here?” To which Jaime answers, “He’s a good worker, looks like Pa when he’s workin’, walks like him too” (71). This identification perhaps lends a special significance to Lázaro’s saying the Lone Ranger “dresses like somebody died.” But José María looks at his rival in function of his own life, seeing the casita his rival has built (as big as, but newer and better built than, his own) and projects out of his own values and aspirations, to wonder if the Ranger won’t bring his family to live there just as he brings his family each summer. Meanwhile Jaime smiles “seeing how much he was like his father and how different” and hoping he had a son his age (71-72).
The chain of associations leads on a destructive path that will potentially endanger all relationships. Wishing to escape the milpa and his family to the world of the YMCA, angry at his conformist brother, Jaime desecrates the land and their whole planting activity by uprooting a planted tomato and striking his brother. For some minutes, Cain tomato-wars with Abel, as a black bird of death wheels above crying “Kill dee, kill dee.” Finding them out, José María beats them and forces them to stay in their casita over night. Jaime imagines his brother dead and laid out in a wooden box. Guilty for starting their fight, he thinks, “I’m the one who should die” (75), and wishes he was grown up and beyond the wrath of his father.
Some days later, Jaime’s anger and defiance deepen as Lázaro and he are beaten brutally for losing a wrench important to their work; and his own rebellious refusal to cry only provokes the father to worse punishment. The mother sees the boys’ swollen and welted bodies but does nothing; the boys commiserate with each other, Lázaro saying, “Guess you can’t be the Lone Ranger now” (81). And Jaime complains bitterly that his father has no right to beat them so. “He’s our father!” Lázaro protests “in disbelief.” “No right at all! He coulda killed us,” Jaime insists. “When you’re married an’ got kids, you’ll beat ‘em to teach ‘em too,” says Lázaro, confirming the doubling of repressive patriarchy at the root of the story. But Jaime insists blasphemously that he will not get married and will not have kids. Lázaro makes the core excuse: “Maybe somebody said something to him at work. You know how he gets when they ask him if we’re gonna work in the mill” (82).” But Jaime refuses this. “I ain’t forgettin’ . . . I’ll never let him forget, never!”
Jaime’s anger and potential rebellion against his father rooted in the struggle over the identity of the Lone Ranger reaches continuing the point of constituting a virtual existential rebellion parallel to the one portrayed in Tomás Rivera’s ...y no se lo tragó la tierra. While there are no direct references to divine justice, and the nature of God the Father, the relationships are implicit and the rebellion perfectly clear. What is so striking of course at the end is how, instead of being able to rebel directly against his father and against the pattern of authority that the steel world has seemingly intensified instead of dissipated, Jaime projects his rage and violence against The Lone Ranger himself. “Think he’s got kids?” Lázaro asks him. “Yeah, bet he beats ‘em too,” Jaime answers (82). Now, blaspheming first against the milpa, calling it the “damned place” where they are always “bustin’ our balls,” Jaime curses, “Chíngate, Lone Ranger,” and proceeds to burn down his shack, as the black bird of death wheels overhead screeching “Kill dee.” “Why’d you have to do that?” asks the shocked Lázaro. “What’d the poor guy do to you? . . . It ain’t right,” he adds, echoing Jaime’s earlier concern with justice. “I did it, I don’t know why,” Jaime’s answers, unable to explain the process of violent associations which have led him to this act and which express the patriarchal violence which this young Mexican has learned and internalized. But then, “dimly he sensed that something momentous had happened.” And Jaime shouts, “Goddamn copycat! You shoulda been yourself, ‘steada someone else! (84)”
“Just what they want,” says Luis Valdez’s pachuco to Henri Reyna, “Two Mexicans killing each other.” It is not clear to what degree the early mexicano population in Chicago turned to political solutions in the face of their problems. It is also not clear whether Martínez Serros’ vision marks the exception or the rule. But here, in this story, as in many others, the violence done to Mexicans does not lead to organization and unity, but rather a repetition of patterns of competition and violence within the Mexican group itself and the refashioning of older cultural norms in ways that involve great distortions in relation to initial connections and significations. This story bears out the most negative patterns of compulsive repetition — a virtual inability to transcend hardship into some other sphere, a reproduction of violence as a mode ultimately of maintaining a kind of equilibrium with an unbalanced world.
Mexicanos, José María, Lázaro and Jaime, as much as the Lone Ranger himself, in an effort to resist the negative forces around them, become “Americanized” by compromising their identities, converting their struggles for sacred space into turf wars, fighting enemies from without while allowing them to grow within themselves. In this respect, the Chicago ambiance, however different from East L.A. or South Texas, reproduces some essential features in terms of identity, space and ambition. Mexicanos pursuing the American dream do so without forsaking even as they transform their cultural norms. The ability to foster more positive communal solutions to the problems they face is rendered problematic in a story where young boys are subject to their fathers without any hope of successful intervention by their mothers and with little hope of positive transcendence. The black killdeer circling “shrill and triumphant” above the milpa, another simulacrum of the Lone Ranger, replaces the much loved meadowlark of Jaime’s imagination, and provides a lasting image of the victory of death forces over life, fertility and positive becoming.
South Chicago: Mexican Independence Day Parade. Photo: Chicago Historical Society
A more positive, if not unproblematic, resolution is that which we find in the brief and paradigmatic parable, “Jitomates.” Jaime, the narrator of this story tells how when he was in high school, his mother almost systematically and without protest gave up to a neighbor her big jars of carefully-prepared jitomates used from salsa picante, only to receive commercial cans of tomatoes in return. There is perhaps more frustrated exasperation than either rage or ironic distance in the son’s attitude toward what he clearly sees as a very unsatisfactory transaction which undoubtedly symptomizes for him the disadvantages of the overall acculturation process in Chicago/U.S. life. Perhaps too symbolically, he tells us how one of the best jitomate jars somehow reminded him of the marbles of his Mexican childhood; and then notes how “There was something else . . . that drew me to [the jar], but I couldn’t pin down what it was.”
By creating a kind of mystery, Martínez Serros points to some of the deeper levels of his story. The marbles themselves may evoke some kind of imagined pre-Conquest utopian world. Then reflecting on the vulnerability of the jitomates in the “dead of winter,” he reconstitutes the typically Mexican transformations of pre-Conquest religious motifs in function of Catholic ritual, as he goes so far as to explain how they “were the cuerpo of the salsa picante [the mother] prepared daily, the martyr who offered essence and color to her arroz, the round flesh that melded flavors in the deep pot of her caldos, the peacemaker in her frijoles borrachos. Outside of their jars they gave in to endless, dutiful transfigurations” (124) even as they become Christ-like “martyrs” to Chicago’s most death-threatening winter days. So it is that in cultivating the jitomates and accepting all the responsibilities and obligations that come to him in the effort to maintain the transformed elements of his part, he has perhaps found the key to the endless transformations that might well mark the life even of a Chicago Steel Barrio Mexican.
It becomes clear that the holy, symbolic jitomates, initially embodying the transculturation from pre-Hispanic to Mexican frames, have gone so far in their Midwest transfigurations, transformations and transactions, as to displace maíz as the central fact of life, the center of urban agricultural production, still able to give ethnic flavor even to their clearly inauthentic Chicago imitations — but only through the most careful tilling and cultivation. In effect, the most sacred Meso-American indigenous space, the milpa, the place of corn cultivation — or axis mundi — of traditional Mexican life, is now an indoor jitomate patch. Growing the jitomate plants have somehow become more important — and even, “a war,” says our narrator, whose life metaphors have themselves been transformed by World War II and the war of life in Chicago; and he describes the struggle he, his brother, again with Biblical name, Lázaro, and his father wage (with other milperos along the railroad lines) to convert their Chicago attic into a winter garden and grow the cilantro, onions and other plants essential to their cultural reproduction.
Finally, however that reproduction and the resurrection which is the ultimate goal, depend on one further and humiliating requirement: the gathering of horse manure from the city to provide the necessary fertilizer for the jitomates. As the boy and Lázaro scoop up the best dung-cakes they can find, they receive taunts from the passersby who, perhaps implying some racial slurs, ask if the boys might be planning to eat shit. Of course, this is what they have indeed been doing throughout their young Chicago Mexican lives and what, it would seem, they must do, if rhey are to succeed at all. Indeed when the fertilized jitomates are “buried” and then finally sprout, our narrator cannot resist referring to the process as a resurrection that has taken place, applying now a nautical, perhaps lakeshore metaphor in which the leaf-winged jitomates are seen as “green ships, masts pointed heavenward, sails stretched, would come in with a full-bodied cargo of memorable, sensuous almost-spheres, firm and red . . . All his from a miracle that came to pass in a dung heap.”
A former Chicago steel mill. The photo shows the base of a former quenching tower. The long-gone apparatus above would pour down water, cooling the newly-made coke. Now, graffiti artists have found a secret canvas inside the bases yawning concrete mouths. Photo by Lee Bey/ WBEZ
Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.