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Chicano History Brick by Brick : THE BRICK PEOPLE by Alejandro Morales (Arte Publico Press: $9.50, paper; 300 pp.)

September 18, 1988|Margarita Nieto | Nieto is a specialist on Latin American and Chicano literature and coordinates the Minority Creative Writing Program at Cal State Northridge. and

In 1905, Walter Robey Simons founded the third of eight brick factories on land that today comprises Montebello and a corner of Commerce. In the 50 years from its founding until its demise in 1952, Simons Plant No. 3 produced the building materials for many Southern California landmarks including the Walt Disney Studios, UCLA's Royce Hall, parts of the Uniroyal Plant and materials for the reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Boasting in its heyday of being the largest brickyard in the world, its contribution to the social history of urbanization of Southern California goes beyond the number of brick and tiles used to construct downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Along with the plant, Simons constructed a self-enclosed company town with a store, post office and school in which workers immigrating from Mexico lived with their families. Through segregation and paternalism, Simons Plant No. 3 became a microcosm of the divisive social order that dominated Southern California during the formative years of the early 20th Century.

In "The Brick People," Alejandro Morales' first novel in English, the red common brick stamped Simons is a metaphor for the Anglos and Mexicans who worked and lived together at Simons Plant No. 3. Based on the intriguing wealth of material associated with the plant's 50-year history, Morales again returns to the interplay between historical fact and creative fiction that had been the basis of his 1983 Spanish-language novel, "Reto en el paraiso" ("Menace in Paradise"). A professor in the department of Spanish at the University of California, Irvine, Morales' first two novels, "Caras viejas y vino nuevo" ("Old Faces and New Wine") and "La verdad sin voz" ("Truth Without Voice"), published in Mexico by Joaquin Mortiz in 1975 and 1979, were the first novels to be written in Spanish and published in Mexico by a Chicano writer. They introduced the mixture of historical, mythical and imaginative dimensions that Morales continues to develop in this novel.

Through an omniscient narrator, the novel presents a chronological and linear synthesis of local and personal history through characters drawn from real life. Morales graphically describes violent scenes, particularly those dealing with massacre or murder. However, the plot centers on the founding of the plant and the development of its town and relates a series of episodes ranging from a retelling of the Chinese Massacre in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s, Simons' journey to the Hearst Ranch in Mexico, power struggles between Joseph and Walter Simons, and finally Octavio and Nana Revueltas' story and their struggle to survive the benevolent paternalism of Simons Plant No. 3.

Initially, it seems that the novel's guide is Rosendo Guerrero, the plant foreman, an immigrant from Guanjuato. He has mysteriously arrived in California led by his intuitive knowledge of a pre-Columbian cosmic "mandala" that he also uses to lay out the physical features of the brickyard. His story foreshadows another reference to the magical, the curse evidently cast on the Simons by Dona Eulalia Perez de Guillen, heir to the Rincon de San Pascual Land Grant, on which the Simons later built their homes. Rumored to be 155 years old at her death and forced off her land, legend has it that her body disintegrated into millions of large brown insects after her death. The Simons in turn, will choke to death on a plague of the same insects.

Echoing Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Oscar Zeta Acosta ("The Revolt of the Cockroach People,") this metaphor of rancor begins preparing the reader for the socio-historical themes concomitant with the Magically Real. You are almost led to believe that Morales is about to revise history and erase chronological time through myth and imagination to follow the metaphor of the oppressor and oppressed.

But no. Morales, instead, allows time to become a mere record of a historical past, trapping both the narrative and the reader in an episodic and linear novel abounding in characters and events bordering on the predictable. Perhaps the problem lies in the dominance of the narrative voice and the lack of character development.

In a Sept. 23, 1983, article in the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Escalante reported on five years of research undertaken by Montebello resident Ray Ramirez on the history of the Simons Plant and of a planned 30-year reunion of the community that once lived there. While "The Brick People" serves as an introduction and reminder of the stories and narratives surrounding the plant, it is obvious that it only begins to scratch the surface of this segment of Southern California history.

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