An Interview with Alejandro Morales Regarding His New Novel, “River of Angels”




NOVELIST ALEJANDRO MORALES, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Simons, the company town of the Simons Brick Yard #3, bordering Montebello, California. After earning degrees from Cal State LA and Rutgers University, he eventually became a professor in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Morales’s fiction, dating back to his debut novel, Caras Viejas y Vino Nuevo (1975), often explores the lives of Chicanos and Mexicans too regularly marginalized or altogether ignored by history books and literature courses. His reputation as one of our most innovative and acclaimed contemporary Chicano writers is secure. Two years ago, the Stanford University Libraries acquired his papers. And this summer, San Diego State University Press published The Flesh-and-Blood Aesthetics of Alejandro Morales: Sex, Disease, and Figuration, where Marc García-Martínez presents the first full-length study (in English) of his oeuvre. Morales’s latest novel, River of Angels (Arte Público Press), explores the taming of the Los Angeles River through the lives of two very different families.

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DANIEL OLIVAS: What inspired you to focus your energies on a novel centered on the Los Angeles River and its history?

ALEJANDRO MORALES: After finishing The Captain of All These Men of Death, a novel that primarily takes place in Sylmar, California — at Olive View Sanatorium during the World War II years — I started looking for another subject, something that would jump out and seize my interest. At the time I did have other projects — short stories, novels that were in different stages of development — but I needed to find a person, an event, a structure that would reach out from history and call on me to write its story. A friend invited me to attend a reading at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. It was crowded when we arrived. I escaped into a hallway and found a series of photographs of the crews that built the bridges that crossed into downtown. They posed before the bridge that they were building. I peered into the photos searching for a Mexican face among the men. From that time on, those photos registered in my memory and wouldn’t let go — what I saw, heard, felt from them. I began searching for information about the river and the workers who built the bridges. I came across the word “porciúncula” (a small portion, a little place) that was part of the name of the City of Los Angeles and in the original name of the river of Los Angeles. I read “porciúncula” as a metaphor for Los Angeles, evolving from little places, sites along the river, and extending in all directions, where even today people invest time and work to improve and to keep their little porciúnculas.

Environmental concerns factored into where the diverse populations of the city lived in relation to the river, but race and ethnicity were always considerations, always important to the residential organization of the city. In the 1900s and 1920s the pseudoscience of eugenics had influence on the decision-making of the political and cultural powers that governed the city. The ideology of eugenics is a primary mover of River of Angels’ story, where two young people from different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds fall in love and become targets of those afraid of the changing demographics of the time.

It’s obvious that a great deal of research went into the writing of this book. Can you talk a little bit about that process and any surprises or pitfalls you encountered?

The research consisted of delving into as much information as possible about events, places, demographics, individuals, local mythology, construction, eugenics, etc. I found a large amount of material in scholarly books, articles, newspapers, magazines, and newsletters from historical societies, letters from friends in Italy, photographs, and conversations with local historians while visiting Los Angeles sites like East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, La Plaza, Hancock Park, San Fernando Valley, Calvary Cemetery, Watts Towers, Los Angeles River, and Juan Matias Sanchez Adobe. Pitfalls? I still wish I had found payroll sheets, ledgers identifying the workers who built the Los Angeles bridges.

What was the editing process like?

Editing is the fun part of publishing a book. It usually takes me three years, more or less, including the research, to write a first draft. After the first draft is finished, I pass the manuscript over to Carol Penn. She suggests revisions, changes, additions, or more research. We meet once or twice every two weeks until we have a manuscript ready to send to the publisher. My last two books took about two years to edit.

Editing, while fun, is nonetheless a demanding task for the publisher and the writer. There are times when the publisher suggests that certain sections need to be eliminated or revised or that more research is needed. For example, I like to use Spanish in my books, but the majority is usually taken out. These editing questions are resolved through the process of negotiation, as the publisher and writer do revisions that might take weeks or months. For example, the original manuscript of River of Angels was much longer until some scenes were deleted. Also, most of the Spanish dialogues were translated into English (though some Spanish was left in the book).

I am never satisfied with a book, but after years of working on it I have to let it go. And even after it’s published I find things that I would take out or change. As I heard somewhere, a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.

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Daniel Olivas is a regular contributor to LARB.


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