BECAUSE A 1,954-mile stretch of land connects the US to Mexico, and because two-thirds of the Latino population in the US claim a Mexican heritage, the world just south of the border becomes inextricably woven into the American experience for Chicano writers. The majority of Chicano novels are set in the Southwest, and though the struggles and conflicts of their protagonists differ dramatically, the works share an awareness of Mexican culture, Mexican-American identity, and the political nature of class and immigrant status. This legacy was set in motion by some of the early Chicano novels now considered classics of the genre such as Pocho (1959) by José Antonio Villarreal, ...y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971) by Tomás Rivera, and Bless Me, Ultima (1972) by Rudolfo Anaya. More recent examples include Into the Beautiful North (2009) by Luis Alberto Urrea, Dancing with Butterflies (2009) by Reyna Grande, and Ocotillo Dreams (2011) by Melinda Palacio. Since immigration continues to be a hot-button issue in the contemporary social arena, and as the US Latino population grows exponentially, Mexico will only continue to nurture the Chicano writer’s imagination. As an unassailable presence (and influence), Mexico certainly casts a long shadow over three recent novels: Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano, Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez, and The Five Acts of Diego León by Alex Espinoza.
Set in Houston’s historic Magnolia Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería is easily the most buzzed-about Latino debut since Justin Torres’s We the Animals (2011). Like Torres’s book, Lotería is comprised of brief chapters that string together a series of memories that eventually coalesce to present a startling portrait of a troubled family and childhood trauma.
Zambrano’s protagonist is Luz Castillo, an 11-year-old who has been taken into protective custody. A threat weighs heavily over her shoulders: getting transferred to Casa de Esperanza, “where they take kids when nobody wants them.” In the beginning, very little is offered in terms of backstory. All that is known is that Luz has been through a horrific ordeal, Papi’s in jail, and that he “punched because he was a man, but we hit him too.” Luz is reluctant to open up to her counselor Julia or even to her aunt Tencha, the only relative who comes to visit. Instead, in order to locate her own voice, Luz shuffles a deck of lotería cards (her go-to coping mechanism), places them face down before her, and then allows the random order to dictate the direction of her narration, which she logs into a private journal.
Each of the 54 cards (53 in Luz’s deck — one is missing) bears a colorful image that becomes a memory trigger. For the 11 year old, these snapshots are sometimes obvious connections: “El Paraguas” (The Umbrella), reminds her of running out into the rain to get soaked deliberately; “El Melón” (The Melon) reminds her of the time her father took her shooting, using melons for target practice. But each of these recollections also becomes an opportunity for Luz to unveil a small piece of the more complex puzzle that will finally answer the burning questions: What exactly did Papi do to land in jail? Where is her mother? Why is her sister Estrella in the hospital? Is this yet another horror story about abuse? The answers might at first appear predictable, but mid-novel, Zambrano begins to throw a series of curve balls that will shock and surprise the unsuspecting reader. And at this point, Lotería becomes a suspenseful page-turner.
As a device for controlling the rate of revelation, the lotería cards are well chosen: the images are simple and within reach of this young girl’s life experience, guarded disposition, and maturity — she must tread cautiously toward the truth. Zambrano captures a convincing and quite moving portrayal of a preadolescent girl, and at its best, the cards function in three ways. They keep the plot moving forward — in “La Bandera” (The Flag), a distressed Luz declares, “I have to believe that if I keep [writing] it will be for something.” They uncover another layer of Luz’s emotional range — burdened with impatient adults all around her, Luz flips over the card with the image of “La Sirena” (The Mermaid) and instantly wishes she was her, “because wherever she lived nothing and no one could touch her and she could swim wherever she wanted.” And they showcase Zambrano’s lyrical language — in “El Cantarito” (The Water Pitcher), when Luz is allowed to visit Estrella in the hospital, she states, “I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling.”
In another clever move, Lotería is paginated so that turning the pages mimics the way Luz flips over the cards. At the end of each chapter, the reader comes across the back of the next card — a blue pattern true to the original design. Readers unfamiliar with the so-called “Mexican bingo” may not grasp this game’s communal and cultural importance. It cannot be played with a single player — hence Luz’s sense of isolation and need to call forth the other “players” in her social circle; it connects her to her family’s homeland; and it was designed to be played by those who can or cannot read, connecting her to the full community. Luz has been educated in Texas schools, so her Spanish is primarily oral, but she can still memorize songs and many of the riddles that have been passed down through the centuries since lotería first became popular in the New World — yet she’s embarrassed of her Spanish because she “look[s] Indian.” As the only one in her family born north of the border, she has to make a very grown-up choice — go back to Tamaulipas, Mexico, with Tencha, or become a ward of the state. Luz is not only in the middle of a legal battle, she’s also in the middle of the push and pull of national identity.
Two previous attempts have been made to employ the lotería as a sustained trope in a fictional narrative: Lotería: And Other Stories (1998) by Rubén Mendoza and ¡Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Card (2004) by Nina Marie Martínez, but neither project had the shelf-life that Zambrano’s compelling and powerful first novel is likely to achieve.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) is with certainty one of the iconic books of the 20th century. As the most recognizable of the texts that defined the postwar Beat Generation, it has held up as the ultimate story about, among other themes, the search for the meaning of life. In the opening chapter of this autobiographical novel, Sal Paradise travels to Denver and then San Francisco, where he takes a temporary job as a night watchman. Restless and still stinging from his recent divorce, he suddenly changes course, heading south on a bus to Los Angeles. It is on this journey that he meets and falls in love with “the Mexican girl” a.k.a. Terry (as in Teresa, shortened to Tere), whom he follows back to the San Joaquin Valley in central California, where they shack up and make a short-lived attempt at a relationship until his peripatetic nature takes over, and he heads east to New York City alone.
Half a century after the publication of On the Road, Tim Z. Hernandez, haunted by this blue-eyed Mexican field worker who taught Sal Paradise how to pick cotton in Sabinal, discovers the true identity of Terry and writes Mañana Means Heaven, a fictionalized account of the encounter told mostly through the Mexican girl’s point of view, about Bea Franco (née Renteria), a green-eyed Mexican field worker who taught Jack Kerouac how to pick grapes in Selma.
Born in 1920 and the daughter of Mexican farmworkers, Bea becomes a casualty of the Repatriation Program that deported approximately two million people of Mexican descent between 1929 and 1939 — an estimated 60 percent of whom were US citizens like Bea. At 10 years old, she simply takes a train ride with her family back to Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato, where her father dreams of making a home. But very quickly she learns that “plans rarely, mostly never, work out” — a creed that will haunt her own fate. By 1947, the Renteria family has returned to the backbreaking farm labor in Selma, and Bea is now Mrs. Franco, mother of two, and trapped in an abusive marriage.
Fleeing the troubled relationship, Bea sends her young son to stay with her brother and sends her baby daughter to her sister in Los Angeles, and as she considers her next step at a bus terminal in Bakersfield, she meets and is charmed by a young, handsome white man who has dropped out of college in order to study the world off the page, to get “intentional about life.” From the woman’s point of view, this quick courtship is less of a hookup than Kerouac’s short story “The Mexican Girl” (integrated into On the Road) made it out to be. In Hernandez’s patient and respectful rendition, Bea’s desire for Jack is part of her escape from her many plights — from her husband but also from her father, whose unfulfilled dreams are exorcised through his constant humiliation and verbal abuse of his family. Additionally, as Jack later learns, there’s her exploitation as a Mexican laborer, the lack of job security, and the discriminatory practices of the local authorities and hospitals. For a few pleasure-driven days, Bea ensconces herself in Jack’s arms and his sweet words: “Tender little spells, about her ears, and how against his lips they were like oysters. Words comparing her shoulders to other soft things of the sea, like sand dollars or dunes.”
But from this whirlwind romance comes another possibility, fueled by Jack’s naïveté and idealism. “There are lots of lonely people in this world,” he tells her, “and who are we to ignore that the universe put two people, two small souls like you and me on the same path?” Suddenly, Bea begins to imagine herself with Jack in New York City — knowing that, among other things, “it would be better for the kids.” But just as her father found out the hard way, dreams cost money, so they head back to Selma to pick up her son and toil the fields in order to “scrape together a few bucks” before hitting the Big Apple.
The next stage in the book chronicles Jack’s efforts to acclimate to the “peasant life.” He witnesses first-hand the “mask of hunger” and the dire conditions in which Mexican farmworkers make a living, writing down notes every once in a while, presumably for future reference. As a white outsider and lover to a married woman, Jack gains little ground in endearing himself to the community, though to Hernandez’s credit, his representation in Mañana Means Heaven comes across as sympathetic. When Jack utters to Bea, “Tomorrow, baby. Tomorrow’s gonna be our day,” despite the fact that they’re not saving any money, the reader wants to champion that faith and the transgressive relationship.
After Jack is brutally attacked by Bea’s estranged husband, the couple agrees it’s better for him to head to the east coast first, to pave the way for Bea’s eventual arrival with her two children in tow. Bea writes to Jack, reminding him that she’s serious about going, and though Jack does write back — “two letters in answer to [her] several” — whether or not he actually intended to keep his promise becomes arguable; about a month after his departure from Selma, Jack vanishes from Bea’s life, giving Bea’s words a tinge of sadness when she writes: “I hope you’ll never forget this poor gal, cause she will always think of you.”
Hernandez gives incredible depth and dimensionality to the love story of Jack Kerouac and Bea Franco. Even if the reader cringes at Bea’s desperate attempt to locate Jack in Denver, for weeks staking out a hotel where he was supposedly staying before shipping out with the Merchant Marines, and even if the reason for Jack’s silence remains unanswered, the fact remains that this brief romance was important enough for Bea to move forward, knowing that she was capable of loving, of enduring the incredible pain of a dissolved marriage and heartbreak, and of accepting that, at least for a while longer, her future was among her fellow Mexican farmworkers, her dignity fully intact. Indeed, her survival “had nothing to do with leaving, and everything to do with returning.”
As a biographical novel, Mañana Means Heaven is well researched and exceptionally executed, allowing Bea Franco to soar with grace beyond Kerouac’s opening chapter of On the Road.
The inspiration for Alex Espinoza’s The Five Acts of Diego León is the Hollywood movie star Ramón Novarro (1899-1968). Though Novarro’s tragic death — at the hands of a pair of brothers posing as hustlers — reduced his journey to just another Hollywood scandal, it bears acknowledging that Novarro, a Mexican-born closeted gay man, had a notable career in the film industry (in the late 1920s to mid-1930s in particular), playing opposite such legendary actresses as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Myrna Loy. The fickle industry, however, quickly tired of its “Latin” leading man, and Novarro’s career took a nosedive. The actor spent the rest of his life accepting smaller roles and making infrequent appearances on television. He would not make major headlines again until his murder.
Thankfully, Espinoza generally stays away from the public persona and instead constructs a more complex story about identity — how one young man adopted a false name — “A name he would spend his life inventing, then becoming, only to lose himself in the riddles and the lies” —just as Novarro, before he became Novarro, was once José Ramón Samaniego from Durango, Mexico.
Diego León is born in 1905 to a family of modest means in the small village of San Antonio de la Fe in the state of Michoacán. His father is of P’urhépecha ancestry, and though his mother is from a well-to-do family from the state capital, Morelia, Diego spends his early childhood connecting to his indigenous heritage through his great-aunt Elva, who assures him, “This is what you’re made of.” The harmony of those early years is disrupted by the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Diego’s father enlists with the revolutionaries for a period of four years. And while he’s gone, poverty and disease nearly decimate the town — Diego’s mother becomes one of the casualties. Diego’s father, heartsick and broken, realizes he cannot raise a child in such conditions, not when there’s another resource available. So he sends him off to his maternal grandparents in Morelia. Elva utters her prescient wisdom: “You’ll be back. Maybe a little different. A little changed. But you’ll come home again.”
Reluctant at first, Diego’s grandparents quickly realize that this child is their only heir, so they primp him to fit into high society. They order him to remain quiet about his P’urhépecha lineage, rename him Diego Sánchez, and ask him to claim that his father was a wealthy French banker. Grateful and eager to please, Diego adopts his grandparents’ values, growing into a mannered and devout young man who agrees to an arranged marriage to the daughter of aristocrats. And just when it appears he will continue living his “pampered life,” two influences change the course of his destiny: his secret love for the arts, encouraged by his private tutor who recognizes his singing and dancing talent, and the next stage of upheaval within the country — the Cristero Rebellion (1926-29), an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to regain power and influence in government affairs.
In a move that begins to shape a rather distasteful picture of the young man, Diego jilts his fiancée and dashes his grandfather’s hopes for an heir to the family business. In the cover of night he escapes: “It was up to him to break with tradition, to stop allowing the whims and influences of unseen forces to dictate his life.” He witnesses first-hand the savagery of the religious war, and it only justifies his desire to flee to the paradise called Hollywood and “get lost in the masses of people who were flocking there to become stars.” His fair skin, exotic looks, and charm will help him pass as an ambiguous “Latin” since he’s also entering the territory where landlords openly discriminate against Mexicans, and businesses expect Mexicans to use the back door entrance.
After a few years of playing the role of “starving artist,” Diego’s desperation intensifies. Though he receives word about the failing health of his grandfather, the death of his father, and the heartbreak of his blindsided betrothed, nothing sways him to return. In fact, it all strengthens his resolve, and he becomes ruthless, betraying the only friend he has in town by stealing an audition opportunity. He also willingly submits to the sexual whims of William Cage, head of production and finance of the movie studio that eventually offers him a contract and kick-starts his career.
The only misstep in Espinoza’s narrative is in trying to convince readers that Diego was indeed a latent homosexual. Before meeting and falling in love with Cage, Diego had only one platonic crush on his childhood friend; but after meeting Cage, he becomes obsessed, possessive, jealous, and even vindictive when he’d see his lover walking arm-in-arm with a starlet. It makes more sense for Diego to simply see Cage as an opportunity, despite his own sexuality, since there’s not much more he can compromise, having abandoned or betrayed those who cared for him. That list is quite long: his grandparents, his fiancée, his father, his only true actor friend, and the woman he’s pretending to have a relationship with, Fiona, a make-up artist. Represented as a closeted homosexual, Diego (now Diego Cortez, screen idol) only becomes more emotionally erratic and unlikeable. He might have redeemed himself had he confessed that the true reason he left Mexico was not to follow his dream but to hide out and avoid humiliation and exposure by his social circle. In Diego’s own words: “When I perform, I can become anyone other than myself. It makes me feel like I belong to something more.”
What Espinoza does accomplish quite admirably, however, is in capturing the historical period. He gives readers a glimpse inside old Hollywood’s movie culture and temperament, and he captures the persecution of Mexicans in California during the Repatriation Program. It’s an intriguing contradiction: as the studios envision making more money tapping into the movie-going markets in Spain and Latin America by making Spanish-language films with Diego Cortez, the industry sits idly by as its own stagehands are rounded up in immigration raids. By this point, Diego is so lost in his newfound identity that he declares himself disinterested in politics, even naively accepting the newspaper’s justification for the deportations: to control the lice infestation.
Shaking Diego out of his deep fantasy world is a tough act, but Espinoza manages it well. With Cage’s proclamation that “the Latin thing’s over,” that it’s “no longer exotic, it doesn’t sell,” Diego’s left wondering, “Who will I become?” And though it seems Diego will be completely shattered, having invested so much time and energy to this short career, a few unexpected reality checks allow him to find his way back to the person he had been suppressing during this entire performance: Diego León.
More than simply a morality or cautionary tale, The Five Acts of Diego León is a challenging follow-up to Espinoza’s superb debut Still Water Saints. Both novels showcase a risk-taking writer who investigates the question of identity in thought-provoking and poignant ways.
Despite the fact that a troubling trend begun in the state of Arizona is threatening the future of Mexican-American and Chicano Studies Programs in the academic setting, the literary field is thriving, not as a push-back to contentious policies, but as an intuitive response to the cultural climate. The value of these books is not in the answers they provide, but in the questions they ask. In Lotería, did the over-reaction of the police contribute to a tragedy that shattered the Castillo family? Did the long-standing tensions between the authorities and the working-class citizens of Magnolia Park contribute to the avoidable tragedy? In Mañana Means Heaven, what of the exploitation of undocumented Mexican labor, which continues to this day? In The Five Acts of Diego León, when is ethnic identity a desirable commodity? When is it a detriment to a person’s safety, future, and well-being? Though these novels don’t build their stories around these political issues, the politics of Mexican identity are inexorable and clearly embedded into the narrative. But so too is the American social landscape and American identity a critical feature of this literature, as it has always been. It’s impossible to read these novels outside of their bi-national context — that’s what makes them Chicano — and is what enriches the experience for the reader.
Rigoberto González is the author of thirteen books and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He's on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle and is currently associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.