Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tom Dodge review of HECHO EN TEJAS for the DMN


ANTHOLOGY: Mexican writers give a fresh take on Texas

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 18, 2007

By TOM DODGE / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

For literary insights into Mexican life and culture, students of prior generations had Ernest Hemingway's The Pearl and assorted stories and books by John Steinbeck. While these were sympathetic insights, they portrayed Mexicans as cunning idlers, natural artists or lovable thieves. If they worked at all they were fishermen, bus drivers, soldiers, farmworkers and the like, all worthy occupations but hardly indicative of an entire culture.

Texas history books of that era never revealed the fact that Texas Mexicans defended the Alamo and fought with the Texans at San Jacinto. Certainly we never heard that Mexican soldiers in these battles believed they were fighting for their country. Neither did schoolchildren learn that the Texas Rangers, in addition to the good they did, gave rise to the Mustang Grays, a Ranger company notorious for murdering innocent Mexicans in cold blood.

There were no writings in the classrooms of Américo Paredes, a Texas-Mexican historian. His life of Gregorio Cortez, With His Pistol in His Hand, refutes the inaccuracies and stereotypes perpetuated by Texas historians such as Walter Prescott Webb.

It is one of 131 selections included in this extraordinary book of Texas-Mexican writings compiled by Texas author Dagoberto Gilb. His introduction is a paean to a heritage in which joy is found in:

"... An avocado green bedroom and baby blue dining room. Respect wrapped in a black shawl, patience scratched into a wooden toy trinket, love in a piñata or paper flower, work in polished boots and huge buckles, saddles or beaded car-seat covers, hats of hard plastic or straw. Strength in simple mashed frijoles seasoned with oregano, ajo y cebolla, in a hot flour tortilla puffing upon a cast iron comal. In the pico of fresh serrano chile spooned into a taco and gordita, from a shiver of sweet from a leche quemada candy, in the sigh that comes from the first sip of horchata or agua de jamaica."

The selections begin with the journals of Cabeza de Vaca and end with the works of young Texas writers such as Cecilia Ballí, Macarena Hernández (who writes for The Dallas Morning News) and Oscar Casares. They represent not only the work of some of Texas' finest poets and fiction and nonfiction writers, they also include lyrics by Tejano musicians, 20 pages of photographs by Gregorio Barrios Sr., and 20 plates by painters including Luis Jimenez, Manuel Acosta and Gaspar Enriquez.

A place of birth and brief biography of the artist accompany each selection. They matriculated at the best universities, though their parents often spoke only or mostly Spanish and were members of the working class. In other words, they dreamed the American Dream and made it a reality. Their work is a tribute to the traditional values of family and hard work that some members of the American middle class declare are missing from their lives.

There is an absence in these pages of the pretentious experimentation for its own sake that controls much of American poetry and fiction today. These artists had no time or inclination for posture. They were, and are, struggling, striving and under siege, evidenced by John Rechy's "El Paso del Norte" in 1958:

"The hatred in much of Texas for Mexicans. It's fierce. (They used to yell, Mexicangreaser, Mexicangreaser when I went to Lamar Grammar School ... ) Many of them really hate us pathologically, like they hate the Negroes, say, in Arkansas. Here it's the bragging, blustering bony-framed Texan rangers/farmers/ranchers with the Cadillacs and with the attitude of Me-and-God on My ranch. ... They don't really dislike Mexicans in Texas if they're maids and laborers."

By 1992 the attitude has softened, but the elegant simplicity of diction and theme remains throughout the stories. In Tomás Rivera's "The Night Before Christmas," an agoraphobic mother desperate to get her children Christmas gifts is falsely arrested for shoplifting during a panic attack. Such is the fear shared by strangers in a strange land. And Tony Díaz, in his 1998 story, "Casa Sánchez," shows the Mexican family adopting American behavior by staying indoors and mingling its own harmonious cacophony with the random images and sounds of the television.

As the selections move into the 1990s and 2000s, the dialogue turns rawer, and family life further imitates America's alienated ways. In "I&M Plumbing" by Richard Yañez, nursing homes enter into Mexican life. In "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation," by John Phillip Santos, a character states: "When we were on the other side, in Mexico, they taught us to respect the older ones. This is gone now. No one respects the old people."

Well, some still do, and many still respect art. But probably not enough to prevent this book from being banned somewhere. That will be its highest recommendation.

NPR commentator Tom Dodge, www.tomdodgebooks .com, lives in Midlothian.

Hecho en Tejas
An Anthology of Mexican Literature
Edited by Dagoberto Gilb
(The University of New Mexico Press, $29.95)

Several authors will take part in "Un Dia de Cultura – Hecho en Tejas" at the University of Texas at Arlington on April 12. Watch the "Author Tours" listings for details, or call the Center for Mexican American Studies, 817-272-2933.

Fort Worth's Rose Marine Theater, 1440 N. Main St., will sponsor a separate event, "Hecho en Fort Worth, Palabras del Barrio" at 7:30 p.m. April 13; visit or call 817-924-9188.

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