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WEST WORDS

Mapping out the borderland

Chicano A Novel Richard Vasquez, foreword by Ruben Martinez Rayo/HarperCollins: 438 pp., $13.95 paper

October 30, 2005|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is at work on a study of the biblical book of Revelation and its role in American politics and pop culture.

IN 1970, when Richard Vasquez's "Chicano" was first published, the Mexican American civil rights movement -- a struggle for the visions and values embraced by the term "Chicanismo" -- was in full flower. His novel can be seen as a courageous effort to define and interpret that term. Now, on the 35th anniversary of its publication, "Chicano" has been reissued in English and Spanish editions and sheds a new and different light on the same phenomenon.

"Perhaps more than any Chicano writer in his time, Richard Vasquez made a herculean attempt not only to 'explain his people' to others, but to reconcile the contradictory signs clashing in the soul of Chicanismo itself," the author and journalist Ruben Martinez observes in a perceptive essay that opens the new edition. "And of course he failed in this regard [but] it was an important failure, maybe even a magnificent one."

"Chicano" is a work on a monumental scale, unfolding in the first two-thirds of the 20th century and illuminating a neglected aspect of the U.S. immigration saga. Vasquez tells the story of the Sandoval family, whose patriarch, Hector, crosses into the United States to escape the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution; his children and grandchildren are forced to confront a different kind of social and cultural turmoil as the multigenerational novel moves forward in time. When it was originally published, the novel, one of the first to deal with the lives of Mexican Americans, was likened to the work of Upton Sinclair, and Vasquez clearly hoped it would find a place on the same shelf with such epics of the American experience as "The Grapes of Wrath."

Vasquez, who died in 1990, was himself a symbol of success in the immigrant story. A veteran of World War II, he worked as a boxer, grape picker, construction worker, cab driver and newspaperman. (He put in a stint at the Los Angeles Times.) In August 1970, he covered the Chicano antiwar demonstration in East Los Angeles, during which his colleague, Times columnist Ruben Salazar, was slain by a tear-gas canister fired by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

In what sense is "Chicano" a failure, as Martinez bluntly asserts? He is not speaking of its literary merit, although the book certainly has its shortcomings as a work of literature; rather, he observes that "Chicanos were not magically re-cast in the white American imagination, nor were Chicanos suddenly relieved of their identity questions." This is a failure that should surprise no one. But Martinez does point out that the book was notably successful in mapping out "an essential territory of American cultural, social, economic, and political geography: the relationship between white and brown in the American Southwest, particularly in the city of Los Angeles." We're shown, for example, the many ways in which the Sandoval family is battered by the stresses of life in America. Hector becomes an alcoholic, his wife returns to Mexico with an old suitor, his daughters fall into prostitution. Only one of Hector's children, Neftali, realizes the American dream -- by helping to establish the town that will one day become the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale, a feat that was actually accomplished by the author's grandfather.

"Neftali decided to run for public office and become the town zanjero," Vasquez writes, shedding light on an era in the region's history when the supply of fresh water depended on open ditches. A zanjero was the "keeper of the ditches," whose "main duty was to see that the channels remained intact, that no children played in the water, that all dead animals were promptly removed, and that each cistern was kept full, yet no water wasted by neglecting to divert the flow when a cistern was filled."

Even after four generations here, however, the Sandoval family is still afflicted. Sammy Sandoval is a drug addict at 16, and he falls in with a trafficker who teaches him to inject beneath the tongue to hide the needle marks and who conceals his contraband inside Mexican ceramic figurines ("the loaded Aztec gods," as he puts it). Like his forebears, Sammy, too, stands on the far side of a racial divide: "I been doing a little business with some high-class Anglo swingers," he tells his supplier. "It's safe over there, and these kids pay twice what I can get for smack around the East Side here."

Sammy's twin sister, Mariana, is pregnant with a baby fathered by David, her aloof Anglo boyfriend. She recognizes immediately what David means when he describes her as "exotic": "Exotic means alien, doesn't it?" she says. "You'd never take me to your home town, would you.... I mean, even if you were in love with me." And she yields to her boyfriend's urgings that she visit a backroom abortionist. "David, it should have been so different," she mourns, and he thinks, "Thank God! I'm out of this mess."

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