Unlike Aesop’s fables or the tales of the Brothers Grimm, my abuelita’s stories didn’t have edifying or cautionary morals and the villains didn’t necessarily come to satisfactory bad ends. The little boy who accidentally boiled his grandmother alive while bathing her in a metal tub simply ran off to his next adventure. La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunted the waterways of Mexico drowning any child unfortunate to cross her path, never got her comeuppance; she’s still out there.
My grandmother’s stories had a peasant earthiness. There were no palaces, castles, or enchanted forests, no princesses, knights, or evil queens. Her stories were set in the small, isolated villages and dry, sparsely vegetated landscape of the part of Guanajuato where her father farmed his small plot of land. Her protagonists were, like her own family, the poor of Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century: the men in homespun white shirts and trousers, the women in calico dresses and rebozos.
Such magic as existed in her stories came either out of Catholicism or had the whiff of pre-Christian, indigenous naturism. There weren’t any sorcerers with peaked hats and glittering robes, but the face shadowed by a sombrero you encountered on a lonely road at night could belong to el Diablo. The skies were not filled with dragons, but that rabbit standing on its hind legs in the field was no ordinary creature — it was a spirit animal.
My grandmother’s stories steeped me in the culture, geography, and consciousness of her Mexico. They preserved in me a sense of being Mexican even after I’d been schooled out of the Spanish that was my first language and had left the semi-rural Sacramento barrio that immigrants like her had made into a Mexican village. Her tales are one of the strands that still tether me to Mexico 100 years after my family was driven out of Guanajuato by the chaos of the Revolution. The stories she spun at her kitchen table of the Mexican countryside drew me into the web of that world, made me a Mexican.
I thought of my abuelita and her stories as I read Daniel A. Olivas’s latest book, How to Date a Flying Mexican, a collection of previously published and new stories. I hesitate to call them short stories because they had for me the same tonalities as my grandmother’s folktales. In his introduction, Olivas himself acknowledges that “after almost twenty-five years of writing short stories of various genres, I realized that many — though not all — of my narratives fell within the world of magic, fairy tales, fables, and dystopian futures.” In the same introduction, he sets himself a task as a writer: “I attempt to express the beauty and complexities of my culture rooted in Mexico, the home of my grandparents. Moreover, inaccurate descriptions of my culture are too common, and I believe I have a moral duty to correct those depictions through my own storytelling.”
This deeply textured, sensual collection more than accomplishes Olivas’s self-proclaimed task of rendering the beauty and complexity of Mexican and Mexican American culture in its fabulist, folkloric stories. Just as it transported me back to my abuela’s kitchen table, it will have the same resonance for all of us descendants of Mexican immigrants, whether we arrived five or 100 years ago. Olivas uses the tropes and touches upon the themes of what Mexican intellectuals call México profundo, the Mexican soul.
His stories are set in Mexican towns and villages, in contemporary Los Angeles and the historical Mexican Los Angeles. Common to almost all of them are moments of what most readers might call “magical realism.” But that term is misleading to the extent that it categorizes such writing as a sui generis 20th-century literary invention of certain South American writers. As I pointed out, this genre, if that’s what it is, arises from the Catholic cosmology of visions, saints, and miracles, and from older indigenous naturism. “Magical realism” isn’t a literary gimmick, it’s a consciousness shared by many cultures south of the border, prominently including Mexico.
In the title story, Olivas braids together the mundane and the magical and sets the tone for the rest of the book. Conchita, the fiftysomething protagonist, has taken up with Moisés, her recently widowed neighbor who she discovers can fly (though he insists it isn’t flying but levitating). Her dilemma: Should she keep his secret or tell, and if she tells, whom should she tell? Moisés doesn’t care one way or the other. He offers an explanation for his gift with a mildly snarky nod to Los Angeles’s New Age culture: he took up yoga and Transcendental Meditation after his wife’s death because it he had “fallen out of balance.” One night as he “sat in the lotus position while chanting [his] mantra,” he levitated.
As Conchita lies in bed with Moisés, the ghost of her dead mother appears, smoking a cigarette, and remarks, “So, mija, your new man flies, eh?” This somehow leads her mother to recollecting a lover who “could do things with his mouth” that “could make me fly!” Conchita is tempted to reveal the secret to her sister, Julieta, but stops when Julieta gets sniffy about Moisés’s meditation practices: “What kind of man meditates? What’s wrong with saying a rosary? It works for all good Catholics, right? A good rosary and I’m ready for bed and a good night’s sleep.”
The theme of Catholicism recurs when Conchita Googles levitation and reads about the life of a 17th-century saint, Joseph of Cupertino (an actual saint, look it up), who could also fly. He was, it seems, “slow witted” with a “violent temper,” and Conchita thinks: “Such miserable lives these saints lead. […] Clearly that’s why they become santos.” The moral of the story? “[Y]ou should learn to accept your lover’s special talents even if they’re annoying.”
This matter-of-fact fabulism characterizes the other tales in the book. So, of course, the devil, incarnated as a woman, takes up residence in a cave in 18th-century Malibu, from which she runs the rustic village that becomes Los Angeles. As the centuries pass, she abandons the cave and, in 1986, submits “a building permit application with the California Coastal Commission so that she could build a luxurious townhouse not far from Johnny Carson’s beautiful home. The Coastal Commission stipulated a few conditions, but her application was granted. And La Diabla very much enjoys life in Malibu at the beach.” In another Devil story, the Prince of Darkness offers an old Mexican widower the return of his wife in exchange for his soul but has to rescind the offer when the widower reveals he converted to Judaism, his late wife’s faith. The Devil apologetically explains that, because the Torah makes no direct reference to Heaven or Hell, “my hands are tied.” “Rules are rules,” he says.
Readers accustomed to fiction that probes the psychological depths of its characters may not find these stories to their taste. Though not ciphers, the characters in fables are entirely externalized: they act or react, but they do not reflect. But then, how much do we need to know about Cinderella’s inner life to appreciate her adventures? Olivas’s tales share that trait — there may be tragedy, but there isn’t much angst. Things happen and the characters accept them, whether it’s the appearance of a magic chicken or a mysterious café.
This raises another, larger question that goes to the heart of the contemporary literary scene: is the largely white establishment, with its loudly proclaimed commitment to “diversity,” prepared to put its money where its mouth is when confronted by work by a writer of color that doesn’t pander? How to Date a Flying Mexican is a beautifully realized work that comes out of the depths of the Mexican and Mexican American cultural experience. What it’s not is American Dirt, a work of trauma porn by a white writer that reinforces Mexican stereotypes and sold more than two million copies. Olivas’s book is commendably published by the University of Nevada Press, but why isn’t it being published by one of the big commercial houses and given even one-10th of the fanfare that accompanied Jeanine Cummins’s execrable book? One suspects that it’s because the literary gatekeepers who ostensibly herald the #ownvoices phenomenon are only really interested in those voices on which they can make bank.
This is a shame, really, because one of the concluding stories in the book, “Los Otros Coyotes,” should be required reading for anyone concerned about this violently xenophobic moment in our history. A dystopian alt-history, “Coyotes” imagines, all too realistically, that Trump imposed martial law in 2020, suspended the election, and succeeded in the coup he attempted on January 6. He builds his wall, replete with murals commemorating his life, and proceeds to deport all undocumented Mexican immigrants, separating them from any native-born children. The 10-year-old protagonist, Rogelio, is given 30 seconds to say goodbye to his parents from behind a plexiglass partition. “Because the president prohibited the installation of microphones and speakers, the good-byes would consist of silent, tearful pantomimes: mouthed expressions of love, promises to behave, vows never to forget.”
Rogelio and his teenage sister, Marisol, are packed off to live in Los Angeles with their aunt Isabel, who (the story observes without comment) was granted amnesty under Ronald Reagan. Before he leaves, Rogelio is given a shot, an “inoculation,” he is told; in reality, it’s a microchip. As he awaits his turn to see the nurse, “he could hear the recurring audio loop of the president’s voice blaring out over the intercoms that spotted the ceiling: ‘I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively […] and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.’”
In Los Angeles, Marisol joins a resistance group, Los Otros Coyotes, whose immediate goal is to smuggle children like Rogelio across the border into Mexico to reunite them with their parents, a kind of reverse Underground Railroad. Why are the children separated from their parents in the first place? The leader of Los Otros Coyotes, a tall, luminous, nonbinary figure called Vivaporú, explains to Rogelio: “Pues because they need us as much as they hate us. […] The country desires young people to grow up and then take the jobs that need taking.” Rogelio tells Vivaporú he wants to be returned to his parents — Mirasol will remain in Los Angeles to work with the group on the “Reconquista.”
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that “Los Otros Coyotes,” with its echoes of George Orwell and its feet planted firmly in the muck of post-Trumpian America, is terrifying and — time will tell — maybe even prescient. You must read it.
And you must read the other stories too, because How to Date a Flying Mexican is a masterly work by a writer with a mission.
Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.