Into the Mainstream: An Essay From the American Book Review

“We” — meaning Chicanos, Mexican Americans — “are constantly on the lookout for bits of recognition that tell us someone has noticed that we really do exist, not just as a backdrop for immigration policy discussion, or as another of the tourist attractions of the Southwest, but as an active part of American Culture.” In his introduction to the March/April American Book Review, guest editor Ricardo Gilb explains that this special issue focusing on “The Latino West” is “a celebration of Mexican American writing as it exists right now.”

There are contributions here from Yxta Maya Murray, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dagoberto Gilb, Lisa Alvarez, and others, writing on such literary artists as the Hernandez Bros., John Rechy, Gary Soto, Alfredo Vea, and Tim Z. Hernandez. “For some, this issue will be an introduction to a new literature,” Gilb writes, “and they, I hope, will be inspired to look further into it. For those who know the literature, it will be an introduction to some new views on our writing, an invitation to a vibrant conversation.”

The following is a piece of mine also published in that issue. Originally titled “Into the Mainstream,” it is, ostensibly, a review of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, but it’s really an initial attempt (on my part) to figure out who the hell we’re writing for — an uncertainty that plagues all writers, not just us mexicanos.

Into the Mainstream

In an unremarkable room in the back of an upstairs office in a building not too far from the BART stop in El Cerrito, dozens upon dozens of songs are being digitized every day. The songs are Mexican and Mexican American, sung and recorded and produced by artists both in the U.S. and Mexico. They’re drawn from a pool of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, ranging over several decades and representing every conceivable form of Mexican song there is. Mariachi, norteno, rancheras, corridos. Everything.

This is the work of Chris Strachwitz, the founder and owner of Arhoolie Records. Arhoolie puts out all kinds of American roots music—lots of Cajun and blues and zydeco music—but it’s Strachwitz mind-boggling collection of Mexican and Mexican American music (there’s a temperature-controlled room downstairs holding it all) that is perhaps most remarkable. Nothing like this exists. As part of the work of the non-profit Arhoolie Foundation, he and a board of directors including Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Linda Rondstadt, and Billy Gibbons are committed to seeing that the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican-American Recordings are maintained and available to the public. That’s why all of the songs in the collection need to be digitized. Only a fraction of what the collection holds has been transmogrified into bytes. That’s why not too long ago Los Tigres Del Norte gave a chunk of money to the Foundation, to help the work continue.

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The room where all the digitizing and cataloging happens is warming up. It’s early afternoon on an unseasonably hot day. In the kitchen just outside, lunch is being made. Something is sizzling; cumin perfumes the place. Meanwhile, more music is played. There’s a digital recording of what may very well be the first mariachi song ever pressed. Free of polish, the song is haunting and embodies the essence of the campo – plaintive, candid, and defiant. Another song is played. Here’s a woman singing from the point of view of a wronged man, agreeing mujeres can be ingrates, treacherous. At some point, it can’t help but be spoken that when this collection is finally digitized, you will have here a trove for Mexican Americans to get lost in, to literally hear where they come from. All this artistry is waiting for an appreciative audience to absorb it, for perhaps even a few people to be possessed by it and drive them to create something new from it. Somewhere out there will be a mexicano Gram Parsons, a smart and talented kid at ease with his or her place in American society, comfortably middle-class, maybe, but for sure versed in high and low culture. And this Frontera Collection will be what sets him or her aflame. It can’t help but be spoken, This music will be ready in time for a wide audience that doesn’t exist yet, but it is coming.

* * *

For whom do you write? What are you trying to do, trying to relate? At bottom, the role of the book critic is to be an explicator of texts, conveying to curious readers what an author is trying to do in a given story, or novel, or poem. You are not unlike a foreign correspondent trying to understand and relate how things work somewhere else, revealing the ideas behind why they do what they do in some other place. You are assuming, of course, that your audience knows very little of the land you are reporting from. There are people in that audience who are not ignorant about where you’re writing from, but they are very few. Or perhaps, for other reasons, they don’t matter as much. So you focus on writing for the mostly ignorant but (one hopes) hungry to be informed.

Consider the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (Norton, 2,489 pages), whose general editor is Ilan Stavans, perhaps the closest thing this country has to a Mexican American public intellectual who is known to people who just aren’t Mexican American. (Though, as with all public intellectuals, it’s not as big a public as one would hope to be reaching.) The work is mammoth in physical heft and scholarly scope. It includes writing stretching all the way back to the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived to colonize this part of the hemisphere, to today. Nearly every Spanish-speaking group that has lived in what is the United States is represented, from Chileans to Spaniards, Peruvians to Mexicans. Like all anthologies, there’s much to like about what’s there (including Cabeza de Vaca is inspired, as is having Williams Carlos Williams), some stuff you think it’s OK, and work you wish was included there but wasn’t (Daniel Orozco’s stories, Jessica Abel’s comics). But the success of the anthology rests in its very existence. With this anthology from Norton, the publisher of all of those authoritative, referenced-till-ragged anthologies of American and British literature, a milestone has been reached. Latinos—and implicitly, Mexican Americans—matter to American literary culture.

The value of the anthology is in how deeply Stavans and his editors delve into the many works that could be called Latino literature, which here include nonfiction, poetry, songs, drama, as well as comics and folklore. And the bounty of their catch is magnificent. All this prose, all this verse, laid out gleaming and succulent, a feast for the reader. But for which reader? Anglos? Latinos? Americans of all ethnicity? Ostensibly, the book is for everybody, but how it would be received would vary, wouldn’t it? You would think among Anglos it would be a wake-up call, compelling evidence that Latino writers have long been vital. For Latinos, it would be an undeniable validation of their contribution to American letters. For everybody else, a variation of the American experience in which they can find stories that echo their own.

Or maybe the book’s true audience doesn’t exist yet. Maybe it’s a door cracking open, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come.

* * *

We’re at a lunch with a successful author, a solid writer and a generous man who can appreciate what it means not to be white in publishing, what it means, even, to come to the world of literature from a working class background. Lunch is at his sumptuous hotel, in a refined, airy restaurant. He’s telling a story. While being shepherded around during a book tour, his publicity escort makes small talk with him. She’s chauffeuring him. Somehow they get to the topic of race, and somehow, in her blessed ignorance, tells him with all sincerity how stupid Mexicans are. Excuse me? he says. Yes, she says. They’re just not bright. They don’t read. He arches an eyebrow at us. And that’s coming from an educated person, he says, a person in publishing.

Change “Mexicans” to “Puerto Ricans” or “poor whites” or “Native Americans” or “African American.” It pretty much comes down to the same thing: the perception that a whole lot of the same people do not read, and the implication that there’s nothing to be done about it. The thing is, she’s right. We don’t read, not in any numbers that would guarantee a book dealing with what you might call Mexican themes and characters a huge audience. But it’s the American way. A whole lot of white people — educated, materially comfortable people — don’t read, either. A lot of books — the vast majority — don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t.

So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?

* * *

The most intriguing section of the anthology is the one titled “Into the Mainstream: 1980 to the Present.” It’s the final section of the anthology, but is in actuality a beginning. Taken together, the names found here represent authors that have reached a national audience, including Isabel Allende, Oscar Hijuelos, Dagoberto Gilb, Junot Diaz, Daniel Alarcon, Richard Rodriguez, Francisco Goldman, Julia Alvarez, Luis Alberto Urrea—even the Hernandez Brothers. Some of these names—Hijuelos, Gilb, Goldman, Alarcon, have made it as far as The New Yorker, and—as with the song about New York City—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. It means you cannot be denied. It means white America is reading you, or should.

“Into the Mainstream” is right. We’re at the mouth of the river; we have yet to fully map it, to leave our lasting mark on it. We’re also among writers who aren’t Mexican American but whose stories have meaning for us, who if you just tweak a few details, that’s our story. Junot Diaz’s fiction about visiting the DR as a kid are recognizable to me, Francisco Goldman’s writing is true and near, and Daniel Alarcon’s rendering of turmoil is all too apt for anybody who has family in Monterrey, Tijuana, or Ciudad Juarez.

There are so many of us going into this together, so many voices joining a chorus. So many more voices to come, singing for each other, for everybody, really.

* * *

Who is this essay written for? For everybody, it could be assumed, but the truth is, no. It’s for people who on first reference know who Los Tigres Del Norte and Gram Parsons are. It’s for a readership that already understands that a large reason for why Mexican Americans don’t read is because of lousy schools and rotten opportunities to enter—and stay—in the middle class. (You can change “Mexican Americans” to “Puerto Ricans” or “poor whites” or …) It’s for people who upon reading the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature think, We know everything about white middle-class America, but they know so little about us. But you all know the demographics. You know we’re heading to a time where one out of four Americans will find nothing exotic or “other” about much of what’s in this anthology—for that to happen, they would most likely have to come across a story about a Mexican American family living in a gated community in Orange County and who spends their Christmases in a high-rise condo in Manhattan.

Maybe there’s a Latino Michael Chabon or Dave Eggers out there who will read these authors within this anthology or a la carte, and be a bridge, absorb these intelligences and be set aflame. Maybe the question of whom we’re writing for will be, ultimately, irrelevant for entirely different reasons.

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