IN 1997 I attended Bouchercon, an annual mystery writers’ convention, in Monterey, California. Rudolfo Anaya, Lucha Corpi, and Manuel Ramos were on a panel titled “Guns and Salsa: Latino Mystery and Crime Fiction.”
Rudolfo Anaya is best known for his canonical Bless Me, Ultima, a novel that is simultaneously mystical and gritty, set in his native New Mexico. This author of a contemporary classic was there to speak about his protagonist, the private investigator Sonny Baca, and how Sonny kept returning in his dreams and demanding that his stories be told.
How had I never known of Lucha Corpi? As I listened I learned that her 1992 Eulogy for a Brown Angel introduced the Gloria Damasco series, a Chicana Los Angeles detective, with all the struggle that entails, investigating a murder that occurred during the Chicano civil rights struggles.
Manuel Ramos talked about his debut novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, which had been nominated for an Edgar. As he spoke of his writing, he discussed his career as a lawyer, his advocacy, and the long, long roots of Mexicans in Denver.
I was in awe, stunned. My people were there, front and center. Eloquent, intelligent and always, always aware of the subtext of their genre, the socio political subtext of all their writing, they entertained, sparkled, educated. They were everything I hoped one day to be. Afterwards I approached Manuel Ramos to gush and share my appreciation and admiration; I found I was too moved, too choked up to speak. Embarrassed, I fled.
In 1993 Manuel Ramos gave the mystery world Luis Montez, the conflicted protagonist of his Edgar-nominated The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, but even before then he was writing and publishing short stories. In the years since then he’s written seven more novels, won awards and accolades for both his contributions as an attorney and as an author, and has also had the energy to co-found and regularly contribute to La Bloga. Known as “the Godfather of Chicano noir,” he was writing and publishing his stories before there was a label for them.
Ramos’s recent collection The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories spans his writing career, from poetry, flash fiction, and historical fiction to a short story with the character that inspired the protagonist of four of his novels. (We find the prototype for Montez, a conflicted lawyer on the verge of burning out, in “White Devils and Cockroaches.”) The collection spans fantasy, poetry, noir. Ramos explores issues of the border, identity, violence and slights from outside the community, as well as within. Ramos’s stories are thought-provoking and unpredictable. A dead pan wit, filled with self-awareness but never self-pity.
Grouped by theme rather than chronologically, we read as Ramos explores the tropes and intersections of Chicano/noir where he twists and fuses them. Calacas? Sure, we’ve got ’em, and this is center stage in the title story. Its theft has our narrator navigating the colorful past of his family and the poor decisions of his lusty sister; it appears Pancho Villa’s skull comes with a death warrant.
Gorgeous Latina in distress? Check: “Murder Movie” features an A-list Hollywood Latino couple, but is the Mexicana a femme fatale or femme victim; is she playing our aspiring screenwriter, pleading for survival, or something else?
La Llorona makes a cameo, in “La Vision de mi Madre,” while the deeper point of this story, and “Outpost Duty,” is illuminating the forgotten sacrifices of lives to now-forgotten wars.
These may sound a bit bleak, perhaps heavy on the fatalismo Mexicano, but there are inspired moments of quirky wit and sardonic humor. From the bitter noir protagonist: “I hated the town, but that wasn’t El Paso’s fault. I hated myself and that meant I hated wherever I woke up. That summer it was El Paso.”
Ramos excels at the evocative summary of a lifetime of experience in pithy lines, as in: “He was the school bully, then the neighborhood gangster and eventually he passed through reform school and the state penitentiary.” And: “Luis nodded but, as usual, his father lost him. He had heard the story of Danny many times. Emilio’s eyes filled with sadness as he spoke of his dead brother. The boy was puzzled by the man’s insistence on remembering.”
For some of us outside of the mainstream, whether it’s literature or life, there is a constant search for reflections of ourselves or our experiences, our memories, our emotions. For those of us who are never Mexican enough or American enough, even interactions with our own gente are fraught if we feel our code-switching skills are sub standard. Navigating dominant culture communities, our observational skills are on red-alert: what are the rules here, how should I navigate this situation, what is the appropriate way to respond? Am I going to be found wanting? In Ramos’s “Bad Haircut Day,” we read
I thought I looked respectable in my one and only blue suit and thin gray overcoat. I pushed against the glass revolving door of the building where I wanted to work and caught the reflection of my slightly overgrown hair on top of my ears. Too ragged for a first-year associate in one of Denver’s largest law firms, especially for a first-year associate in one of Denver’s Largest law firms, especially for a first impression of a second generation Mexican American trying to break into big time lawyering.
His relationship with a gifted barber is going to take a turn, a twist, then turn again.
Many of Ramos’s stories linger long after they end; and often they contain depth charges that explode in the reader’s mind after the story has ended, as in “Kite Lesson,” and the true cost of a $500 day’s work in “When the Air Conditioner Quit.” At times the endings are enigmatic and elliptical.
The author can be playful about identity, “Among my friends, Hispanics means Mexicans with money,” as well as serious. In “2012” a character muses to himself, giving voice to the thoughts of so many of us:
Why do you persist in thinking in racial terms? You have been hobbled for as long as you can remember by covert restraints, imposed by outside antagonists or adopted by you in defense. What is worse — the hobbles or the waste of time contemplating their origins?
Anaya, Corpi, and Ramos are still writing and exploring those very themes — identity, social injustices, outside forces — while their words bring communities out of the shadows of obscurity into the light of the pages of their publications. Ramos, prolific, articulate with his continued activism demonstrated on La Bloga, says on that website, “I can't escape that old searching for a place where I belong (Aztlan?).”
Start with this collection, and you will find Manuel Ramos and his novels belong on your book shelves.