ALEX ESPINOZA, the youngest of 11 children, was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in Los Angeles. After graduating from the University of California, Riverside, he earned an MFA from UC Irvine’s Program in Writing. His fiction has appeared in anthologies and literary journals including Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire (Heyday Books, 2006), Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), Huizache, Silent Voices, and The Southern California Review. He has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, the Los Angeles Times, and the American Book Review. Espinoza is an associate professor of English at CSU Fresno where he teaches literature and creative writing.
In 2007, Random House published his first novel, Still Water Saints, which was named a Barnes & Nobel Discover Great New Writers Selection. The novel was released simultaneously in Spanish, under the title Los santos de Agua Mansa, California, in a translation by Lilliana Valenzuela.
This spring, Random House published Espinoza’s second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León, which focuses on a Mexican immigrant who reinvents himself as a film star just as sound was being introduced to the movies. Espinoza not only offers a richly detailed glimpse behind the sets and costumes of Hollywood’s early days, he also explores the not-so-hidden bigotry faced by non-white actors as well as the studios’ ham-fisted attempts to keep some of their biggest screen idols firmly in the closet.
Espinoza will be reading from and signing The Five Acts of Diego León at The Last Bookstore, 453 S. Spring St., Ground Floor, Downtown Los Angeles, on June 12th at 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Your debut novel, Still Water Saints (2007), had a contemporary Southern California setting. The Five Acts of Diego León spans the years 1911 to 1936 with the action happening in Mexico and Hollywood. Why did you decide to leave the here-and-now and travel back in time to events occurring long before you were born?
ALEX ESPINOZA: I’d always been curious about the experiences of actors and actresses of color in Hollywood during the Golden Age of cinema. The way “ethnic” film stars were continually cast as “the other” and how identity and culture were often refashioned in strange and bizarre ways in the movie industry was a motif that I felt begged to be explored. While completing the edits of my first novel, I happened to come across a piece about Ricardo Montalbán in the Los Angeles Times where he was discussing his experiences in Hollywood and the frustration he felt at continually being cast as the “Latin Lover,” forever exotic and sexually charged. I then found The Bronze Screen, a great documentary that looked at the contributions of Latinos and Latinas in Hollywood. It made clear to me that we had a hand in the formation of the industry from the very beginning. For example, in 1910, D.W. Griffith shot In Old California, a silent melodrama about the state’s Mexican past; it was the first movie ever to be filmed in Hollywood.
There were many biographies and autobiographies written by and about Latinos/as in the nascent days of the film industry. Nina Revoyr’s great novel The Age of Dreaming, about a Japanese-American silent film actor, showed me that there was definitely an opportunity to explore the taut relationship between identity and culture for artists even further. Because the film industry’s views of race and sexuality were much more demarcated — and less nuanced than they are today — back in the 1920s and 1930s, I chose to set the book in that timeframe.
DO: The novel follows Diego León from a rural village during the Mexican Revolution to Hollywood where he breaks into movies. He struggles with identity from an early age as he feels the tug of his indigenous ancestors, the P’urhépecha, while trying to climb a socio-economic ladder that his aristocratic grandparents have planned out for him. Diego also confronts his homosexual feelings for his best friend while attempting to hide it by dating women. So, we find Diego reinventing himself in many different ways. Could you talk a little about your desire to explore cultural and sexual identity?
AE: With regard to culture, I wanted to examine the tensions between the indigenous and the more Europeanized mestizos in Mexican society at the turn of the century. Diego’s father is a campesino of P’urhépecha heritage and his mother is from an affluent mestizo family. This polarity, and the tug and pull it provokes, in many ways is the heart of the book. He’s a “dark-skinned indigeno” to his grandparents, and thus a source of shame. One of the very first things they do is reinvent his identity, creating a fictitious European upbringing for him that they feed to their aristocratic friends. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Diego discovers a deep-seated animosity towards Mexicans (it was very common for businesses at this time to post signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans allowed,” for instance) and passes himself off as French and Spanish. Ultimately, Diego is reinvented again, this time by studio press agents who create a very ludicrous bio for him (very fun for me to write, by the way) that claims he’s the direct descendent of a P’urhépecha king who ruled western Mexico before the conquest. There are also many references to Diego’s healthy physique, because in 1930s Los Angeles the city was systematically rounding up Mexicans and forcibly deporting them, claiming they took jobs away from hard working Americans and carried diseases. Sound familiar? Contracted studio actors like Diego were portrayed to fans as healthy Mexicans with strong moral convictions, who hailed from good families, who had great bodies and shiny teeth and hair. These weren’t the dirty and diseased Mexicans. Actors like Dolores del Río and Ramon Novarro were Mexicans that you could fantasize about.
Regarding sexuality, one of the actors whose life and career had a huge impact on the way in which I approached Diego was Ramon Novarro. In Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, author André Soares brilliantly delves into the life and passions of the actor. What surfaces is a heartbreaking and tragic story about an artist who spent much of his time and energy cultivating a persona — abetted by studio executives — based on male bravado and a strict adherence to family and church, all of which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Novarro was a troubled soul, prone to bouts of excessive guilt and excessive drinking, who hid his sexuality. He was tortured and murdered by two male hustlers in his Hollywood home in 1968. But then, there’s the case of William Haines, an openly gay actor whose career was cut short because he refused to deny his sexuality. When, in 1933, he was arrested while soliciting a sailor, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: either concede to a “lavender marriage” or continue his relationship with his partner, Jimmy Shields. Haines chose the latter and was subsequently fired by MGM, his contract terminated. Nonetheless, William Haines and Jimmy Shields ended up having very successful careers as interior designers and antique collectors. Their client list included Carol Lombard, Marion Davies, and George Cukor. They were close friends with Nancy and Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California. Of Haines and Shields, Joan Crawford once said, “They were the happiest married couple in Hollywood.” The two were together for over 50 years until William Haines’s death in 1973. Shortly after, Jimmy Shields, grief stricken over the loss, committed suicide. He couldn’t conceive of a life without his “Billy.”
When I came across the experiences of someone like Haines, it validated the idea that there were actors in Hollywood who were perfectly content with their sexuality and who went on to have very solid and fruitful careers. In my research, I also found information on the burgeoning gay subculture in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. So, while these subjects were “taboo” to some extent, they were also tolerated in strange ways on both sides of the border.
I didn’t want to portray Diego as a “gay victim,” a tragic casualty of the studio machine, so using Novarro as a touchstone was a bit problematic. But Novarro’s experiences as an actor of color — doubly “othered” by ethnicity and sexuality — who is born into a hyper-masculine culture, coupled with his strict Catholic upbringing, tugged at me. All of this fed into my desire to explore the interplay between culture and sexuality. I guess Diego ultimately comes to the realization that in a place like Hollywood, one can never be both gay and Mexican, that one of these signifiers must concede to the other. And I think this is something that still happens today, this strict adherence to reductive binaries when examining issues of identity, especially for artists. A perfect example of this is the press someone like inaugural poet Richard Blanco experienced. Gay websites labeled him the “first openly gay inaugural poet” and Latino websites called him the “first Latino inaugural poet.” But he’s both gay and Latino, yet few in the press took this angle. Allow me for a minute to use myself as an example here to further emphasize this point. Both of my novels, my second especially, explore issues of sexuality. I’m a gay writer (yes, I think I just outed myself in print!), and I’ve been with my partner for close to 13 years now. Yet, I find that the gay literary community hasn’t fully embraced what I do. Yes, I’m gay and Latino and disabled and a proud Angeleno writer living in Fresno, California, which is as far away from Los Angeles as anyone can possibly get. I’m each of these things, yet we can’t [except in LARB — Eds.] be all of them at the same time. But I’m digressing. On to the next question!
DO: What source material did you find in researching the Mexican Revolution and the early years of the movie industry? Did you visit the actual sites where the action takes place?
AE: My good friend Gabriela Jauregui introduced me to a family friend in Mexico City who curates an archive of old photos, telegrams, and documents that date back to the Cristero Rebellion and the Mexican Revolution. I spent several balmy afternoons pouring over these fascinating bits and fragments of history. The early part of the book takes place in the highlands of Michoacán, the state my family hails from, so I also spent time there, visiting many of the villages along the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro and absorbing as much as I could about Diego’s, and my own, P’urhépecha blood, learning the legends, customs, and language. For the Los Angeles and Hollywood sections, I poured over books on everything from architectural trends of the 1920s and 1930s to old maps of the Pacific Electric Railcars to the inner workings of Central Casting. I learned how to talk period slang, the ingredients for making an orange phosphate, and how to achieve the perfect marcel wave. The research is always one of the most exciting parts because you never know what you’ll unearth. The smallest and most “insignificant” detail could end up cracking the novel open in profound ways.
DO: One plot point concerns films that were made for English-speaking audiences during the day, but come night, Mexican and other Latin American actors and directors took over the sets and made the same movie for the Spanish-speaking market. Had you known this before researching for the novel, or was this something you learned earlier?
AE: It was a fact I learned while watching the documentary I mentioned before, The Bronze Screen. A Spanish language version of Tod Browning’s Dracula was filmed at night, using the very same set, once the English crew had vacated the premises. And this was done because the advent of sound made it harder to export films to foreign markets like Mexico and Latin America, whose appetite for American films was increasing. With silent films, all companies had to do was change the intertitles — which served to highlight key plot points and jog the storyline along — from English to Spanish, say. With sound came dialogue, and in the days before dubbing, the only solution the major studios could come up with was resorting to filming two versions of the same movie. That detail became a source of fascination for me. I thought about the strange parallels between these troupes of Spanish-speaking actors and actresses coming in at night to film, claiming the studio spaces while everyone else slept, and the more modern-day custodians who clean our offices, the unseen hands that wipe down our computer screens and empty our trash cans; my own mother and two of my brothers were janitors at KTLA for many years.
It was too potent an idea not to somehow use in The Five Acts of Diego León, so in the novel, Diego is cast in the Spanish-language version of a film about a female vampire terrorizing an Eastern European village. He ends up filling the same role on the other production when his English counterpart is fired. His versatility — and his ability to perform in both languages — leads to his “big break.”
DO: Did you watch older films to assist you in writing the novel? Any favorites?
AE: I tell people that one of the best things about working on this book was that it gave me the excuse to up my cable package to include Turner Classic Movies. I watched a ton of old films, focusing mainly on those produced during what I lovingly refer to as the “awkward” early years of sound, the late 1920s and early 1930s. There’s Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, which is fun to watch. Another of my favorites of this period is Anna Christie, starring Greta Garbo, her first talkie. Another good one is 1931’s Mata Hari, again starring Garbo. Ramon Novarro’s also in this film; he plays a fighter pilot named Alexis Rosanoff. It’s a riot to watch Novarro, who’s supposed to be Russian, delivering all his lines in a pronounced Spanish accent. Then there’s a great silent film directed by King Vidor called Show People, starring William Haines and Marion Davies. In it, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a young woman who heads to Hollywood, determined to make it big. What made it so interesting for me was that, even in those early days, Hollywood was already parodying itself. The picture was filmed on an actual studio lot with Peggy bumping into real film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and even Marion Davies herself. It’s very self-referential, providing a unique look at the way the studio system worked at the time.
DO: How did you come upon the structure of the novel, which is in five “acts”?
AE: Originally, the novel included a great deal of metanarrative embedded within the story. I created a fictitious filmography for Diego, listing all the movies he made, from his first to his very last just before his death, each complete with brief synopses. For example, in Attack!, a 1950s sci-fi B-movie, Diego plays a scientist called in to help a small desert community being terrorized by a cockroach that grown freakishly large after being exposed to radiation from a nuclear bomb test. He plays a rich Spanish businessman in 1940’s Hot Tamales, a screwball comedy of mistaken identities. He’s the voice of a talking turtle in The Butterfly Princess, a 1990s animated film based on the legend of Erendira, the 16-year-old P’urhépecha princess who taught herself to ride horses and led her people into battle against the Spanish Conquistadors. All of these were part of a film festival focusing on the life and career of Diego León, being screened in a movie theater in contemporary Los Angeles with an unnamed Mexican-American male viewing them. As the festival progresses over the course of several evenings, he ruminates on his life and family and comes to terms with his own sexuality. Also sprinkled throughout the main acts and these “screenings” were bits of fictitious ephemera, including telegram correspondences, letters, excerpts from the travel guide an American reporter who Diego encounters is reading, and several pages of the script of the female vampire movie.
Ultimately, though, my publisher feared that all this would prove too distracting for readers, and so they were weeded out. But I have all of this material now, and my aim is to produce a more experimental project which takes The Five Acts of Diego León as a palimpsest and examines Diego’s career in Hollywood through the eyes of two viewers: a film historian and my unnamed moviegoer.
DO: When did you start writing The Five Acts of Diego León? Did the process differ much from your first novel?
AE: Immensely. I wrote Still Water Saints in chunks over the course of several years, as an undergraduate at UC Riverside then a grad student at UC Irvine, between my jobs folding Marilyn Manson T-shirts at Hot Topic and grading comp essays. That book morphed and formed itself over a great deal of time, and it wasn’t until just before I signed my contract with Random House that it revealed itself clearly. From the get go, I knew The Five Acts of Diego León would be a big and sweeping novel, fully realized in my head once I sat down to write it. I took the advice Lisa See once gave me. She said, “Write a thousand words a day everyday. Don’t stop to edit. Just write.” That’s what I did. And slowly and surely the story rose to the surface and I began to polish and hone it.
It was, in many ways, the worst possible time to begin a novel. I had just taken the teaching job at Fresno State and had moved up here with my partner and our dog. It was summer, so it was outlandishly hot out; the temperature reached triple-digits for over an entire month without breaking that first year. My mother was slowly and painfully dying, and I, the youngest of her 11 children, had been placed in charge of making all medical decisions for her. And through all that commotion, through the heat and death, the department meetings and collapsing university budget, the drives up and down the Grapevine in the rain and snow and fog, I wrote. I just kept writing, determined to finish the damned thing. And I did, thankfully.
DO: Did you work with an editor? If so, how was that process?
AE: I started working closely with Millicent Bennett, who is very smart and intuitive and immediately put me at ease. When Millicent left Random House for The Free Press, the wonderful Lindsey Schwoeri stepped in and assumed the reins. Lindsey was also incredibly smart and judicious when it came to editing this book. I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of eyes. And her big heart and sharp mind were engaged fully with this novel. She understood the project in ways I didn’t and aimed to steer me in that direction, but she was never prescriptive either. She knew that when I fought to keep something, it was for a good reason, and she trusted my instincts. That’s what great editors do, I think. They see the book in ways we sometimes can’t, and they’re courageous enough to tell us this, even if it means we might get angry. But they also know when to step aside and let us take it somewhere else. Surprisingly, we all ended up very happy with the result. Anyone lucky enough to work with either Millicent or Lindsey will know what I mean. They made me a better writer, and I can’t thank them enough for this.
DO: You’re an associate professor of English at CSU Fresno where you teach literature and creative writing. How did you juggle a full-time teaching commitment with completing the novel?
AE: I hardly had time to catch my breath when I first started. Between department meetings, service, classes, theses, and a host of other things, I felt in way over my head. And things didn’t smooth out right away, either. As I said earlier, my mother got sick and passed away the first six months I was in Fresno. The following academic year, the other two full-time fiction writers teaching in our MFA quit. I was left all alone to teach a full load of workshops, each with insanely high class caps. This was the year of mandatory furloughs, so I also found myself making considerably less. There was a jump in the number of fiction applicants vying for spots in our program. I had panicked graduate students, many of whom I’d never worked with, contacting me, asking me to chair their committees. It was a nightmare.
I wrote through all of that, because it kept me sane. You make time for the writing no matter how busy you are. You never wait for the moments of calm. If you wait, they’ll never come, and so you’ll never write.
I put the writing first, above all other responsibilities. I don’t believe in burying it at the bottom of my list — after I’ve taught and prepped for classes and attended meetings — and coming to it at night when I’m tired and frustrated. Everything else waits when the compulsion to finish something (a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter) is so intense that you simply have to complete it. And my partner Kyle is very good at keeping me focused, reminding me that my writing is what matters. Plus I’ve got a strong and vast network of friends and allies — both near and far — who continually inspire and push me.
DO: What are some of your favorite books (fiction or non-fiction) about Hollywood? Did they inspire any aspects of The Five Acts of Diego León?
AE: Yes, in fact. One of my favorite novels is The Day of the Locust, and there’s a scene where I pay homage to West, when Diego is running through the back lots of Frontier Pictures, the fictional studio in the novel. Another book that helped me glean many wonderful facts about old Hollywood and aided in shape the novel is Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary: Her Private Letters from Inside the Studios of the 1920s. In it, Valerie Belletti, secretary to Samuel Goldwyn, recounts in a series of letters to her friend Irma her experiences observing the day-to-day activities in and around the studio. The letters are full of great anecdotal details and rich with gossip and rumors. My wonderful former colleague here at Fresno State, Lillian Faderman, co-authored Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, which helped me in accurately depicting Los Angeles and Hollywood’s gay subculture of the 1920s and 1930s.
DO: Your website says, “As always, he is at work on his next book.” Do you want to share anything about that book?
AE: Here’s what I’ll say about my next two projects. I’m currently engrossed in the high-flying, acrobatic world of Mexican lucha libre for one book, and conspiracy theories, alternate universes, the rapture, meth addiction, and the Salvadoran Civil War of the
1970s and 1980s for another.
Daniel Olivas interviews writers regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books.