The Chicano experience — culturally hybrid, marked by the realities of American history, roots extending into Aztec Mexico — helps fuel radical, internationalist writing. In one of the strongest poems featured in the new Huizache, “The Sound of An American Flag on Fire,” Nikolai Garcia creates a visceral statement about a working class crushed by the system, likening the sound of a burning American flag to “the sound old men make at night / as they’re sleeping on the sidewalk” and, in a line recognizable to most Angelenos, to “the sound of air escaping your mouth / after you get the notice / that the rent is increasing.” And then, reaching across the world with the poet’s most disturbing image, he writes “[i]t’s the sound an Israeli bomb makes / after it lands on the heads of Palestinian babies.”
The borderlands divided by the Rio Grande have always stirred the wordsmith’s pen. Novels such as The Devil in Texas by Aristeo Brito and The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes have used the gritty, almost enclosed world of the Texas-Mexico border as setting and springboard. The poetry and short stories in this issue of Huizache use the Southwest as a backdrop to explore the more microcosmic, intimate experiences, and realities of Chicano life. Some are mysterious and dark, some are honest and endearing.
Two short stories by Octavio Solis evoke life in the El Paso–Ciudad Juarez border zone. The first, “The Want,” is a noir-like tale of a lonely man seeking the physical comfort of a woman amid a lonely El Paso Christmas. As the narrator drives out seeking someone, anyone, Solis evokes the atmosphere of that unique city in the evening — “It’s about 2:00 in the morning. A purgatory of empty streets, at every intersection a population of one.” El Paso, as anyone who has lived there knows, is a city that can feel like a ghost town for those without a car. When the narrator offers a ride to a pregnant girl out of charity, only to discover she’s a prostitute, Solis writes the character’s shock and self-loathing with a naked honesty.
Solis’s second story in the issue, “El Segundo,” is an evocative recollection of working-class Chicano life in Segundo Barrio, the El Paso neighborhood notorious for its gang activity but also full of vibrant Latino culture (the area still boasts a few remaining Chicano murals of unique beauty). Solis writes passages of Steinbeck-like power: the narrator’s mother remembers him as an infant accidentally drinking turpentine, having confused it for milk, and the narrator himself remembers “my baby brother dying in a rathole tenement with the monster in the black suit.” All this is set in a city where American and Mexican culture fuse, where the Virgen de Guadalupe stands vigil in a US city. The reality of individuals reared in the republic’s forgotten corners is evoked with poetic intensity, as when Solis describes local children as “barefoot in their soiled bibs and Dallas Cowboys t-shirts, age-old resentments set deep in their black eyes.”
In between these tales and expressions of experience and history are wonderful works of visual art, linocuts by fantastic, Los Angeles–based Chicano artist Daniel González. One of the stories, too, combines images and narrative in a haunting way: “The Making of an Angel” by Aida Salazar, who hails from Oakland, tells the story of a mother who loses her infant child and then decides to make a portrait of the dead infant, a tradition in Mexico known as making “Angelitos” (Little Angels). Within the text are included real Angelitos — portraits from the 1940s — truly memorable images of parents next to their dead children. These historical images, in the iPhone era when photos are taken even more for granted, still have great power — the power to sustain an individual through tragedy by preserving one final image of a deceased loved one. And Salazar, by telling a story about a Mexican tradition, produces a narrative with universal force, because pain and memory belong to everyone.
And of course there is the poetry, some of it very stark in its drive. “Only I Can Call My Mother a Bitch,” by Dominique Salas, has a profound angst in its reflective lines. “Drunk, she told me she didn’t recall me in the story / She just awoke to the singe of her fingertips / and the singe of where they yawned her skin open,” writes Salas, ending the poem with the unforgettable line of “she awakes from anesthesia / knowing blank static as her daughter.” “Mestizo” by New Mexico’s Joaquín Zihuatanejo contains the kind of fierce, anti-clerical imagery found in the works of poets like Roque Dalton or the mid-20th century Surrealists. “I watch as they take the Host. Swallow Him. Let Him dissolve into nothingness. Break Him. Bite Him,” writes Zihuatanejo, later adding a moment that would make Luis Buñuel smile knowingly: “They step aside, drink from the chalice. Some drink longer than others, longer than they should. Father frowns when they do.”
The work in Huizache sings, dances, and roars with a fierce literary energy. It celebrates all that is beautiful, perceptive, and visceral about the Chicano arts. The balance between poetry, narrative, and visual art creates an enrapturing reading experience. Like all great art it has a universal power that demolishes artificial borders between wherever the reader comes from and where the text comes from. It is American art in its purest, most human form.
Alci Rengifo is a writer based in Los Angeles who has written on numerous topics including film, cultural criticism, politics, world events, music and literature. He is currently living in East Los Angeles.