MACEO MONTOYA grew up in Elmira, California. He graduated from Yale University in 2002 and received his Master of Fine Arts in painting from Columbia University in 2006. His paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions and publications throughout the country as well as internationally. Montoya’s first novel, The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Review, 2010), was awarded the 2011 International Latino Book Award for Best First Book and Latino Stories named him one of its Top Ten New Latino Writers to Watch. Montoya is an assistant professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis, where he teaches the Chicana/o Mural Workshop and courses in Chicano Literature. He is also affiliated with Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA), a community-based arts organization located in Woodland, California.
Montoya has now published his second novel, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza (University of New Mexico Press). In it, he tells the story of the hapless Wopper Barraza, who, after his fourth drunk driving violation, is deported to Mexico, even though he has spent most of his life in Woodland, California. This sets him on a strange and often hilarious odyssey to Michoacán, where he reimagines himself with help from his new love, a young woman named Mija. Montoya manages to balance humor with pathos as he challenges our views on immigration, gender roles, and politics. This is an engaging, candid novel that establishes Montoya’s position as one of our more eloquent social commentators.
DANIEL OLIVAS: What was the inspiration for your protagonist, Wopper Barraza?
MACEO MONTOYA: I live in Woodland, in northern California, and its sister city is La Piedad, Michoacán, Mexico, which is where a large number of Woodland residents immigrated from. A few years ago, I heard about a friend’s brother who got his fourth DUI and had his papers revoked as a consequence. He was deported to Mexico, and the only place he knew to go was his father’s hometown, which was just this tiny rancho outside of La Piedad. I heard he raised sheep or goats. Anyway, the story stuck with me. I kept wondering what that experience must have been like for him, the day to day but also the impact on his psyche. The experience must have changed him, but how?
Around the same time I was working with youth in Woodland on a community mural project. Slowly, through casual conversations, I learned that half the kids were undocumented. This blew me away. I had absolutely no idea. They’d lived in Woodland almost their entire lives, it was the only home they knew, and yet at any moment that home could be stripped away. On the surface, these youth led very normal lives, and yet in actuality they lived this remarkable existence entirely beyond their control. I created Wopper Barraza to explore this tension — an average kid despite his troubles suddenly caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Where would he end up?
Undocumented immigration permeates the lives of your characters, not just that of Wopper Barraza. While many writers have tackled the political and social issues of this topic, you have done so with a great deal of humor. Why did you decide to dose your narrative with often hilarious situations and characters?
I think it goes back to the extraordinary, even absurd, circumstances. These lend themselves to humor. Whenever you encounter the unknown, the unexpected, or the incongruous, mishaps and misunderstandings are bound to happen, the stuff of good comedy. Wopper’s identity is inextricably linked to Woodland. When he’s deported, everything becomes foreign and strange, a potential pitfall. I’m definitely not the first to employ humor in this scenario. In fact, Daniel Venegas’s The Adventures of Don Chipote, written in the late 1920s and which some consider the first Chicano novel, details the comical misadventures of a naive Mexican immigrant as he confronts the strange ways of El Norte. Of course, my story reverses this immigrant narrative, but the impulse is the same: a need to laugh at ourselves.
I come from a family of storytellers, and I grew up hearing very painful stories — about abuse, violence, broken homes, poverty, racism, shame — but they were always told to make you laugh. Here you are cracking up yet a part of you almost wants to cry because you realize it was your dad who suffered through this, or your tío, or your grandma. There’s something very powerful about that, certainly cathartic, and I feel fortunate that this mix of the tragic and the humorous found its way into my own voice. I’ve always felt a need to tell stories that our society too often overlooks or ignores, stories of marginalized peoples overcoming hardship and loss — these are what move me to create — and yet when I sit down to work at my computer I want to laugh, I want to make others laugh.
Wopper Barraza succeeds in Mexico in large part because of the woman who becomes his girlfriend, Mija. She is almost a classic “powerful woman behind the powerful man.” Could you talk a little about how you developed this sometimes perplexing but very interesting female character (including naming her “Mija,” which means “my daughter”) and what her actions say about the role of women in Mexico?
The novel is told through multiple narrators. The only two who never speak are Wopper and Mija (until the very end). In a way, they represent the unknowable, the characters everyone else is trying to comprehend. The novel is driven by perceptions. Everyone in Woodland views Wopper as your average loser, but when seen through the eyes of the characters in Mexico he becomes a mysterious figure who emerges out of nowhere. This change in perception allows Wopper to transform himself, to become someone new.
Similarly, Mija is trapped in a small town. She’s clearly capable of doing more than take care of her father and work as a washerwoman, but when she attempts to do so, she’s perceived as a gold digger, a conniver, even a witch. It’s these perceptions that ultimately challenge their relationship because Wopper allows them to influence his own understanding of Mija. And of course everybody is wrong. How we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, is fundamental to how we operate in the world. What stunted Wopper in Woodland was his inability to imagine himself as being anything other than what he was. For Mija, who possesses not only imagination and the wherewithal to act upon it, she’s stunted by others’ inability to see her as anything other than “mija,” the poor farmer’s daughter. Her name, though tinged with affection, represents an afterthought, and she’s anything but. I see this less as a commentary about the role of women in Mexico, and more as an exploration of why so many bright minds, on both ends of the diaspora, fail to reach their full potential.
For me, the border is inconsequential here. The roots go deeper than 1848 [the end of the Mexican-American War leading to the annexation of the Southwest including California], and it’s probably a much longer conversation to be had, but I think a lot about the legacy of colonialism, the damage that’s been done to us, but also what we do to one another, as a community, where instead of focusing our energies on helping each other flourish, we succumb to negativity. Yes, a community is represented in this novel, but each character is very much alone. I know I wrote the story, but I still wish it were different.