Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Bitter? Maybe

While we’re on the topic of Rigoberto, I must say that his review of my book in the El Paso Times turned me on to a writer from El Paso I’d never heard about—Estella Portillo Trambley. I had no idea Portillo Trambley even existed and I’m FROM El Paso. I can’t believe my high school English teachers didn’t assign her book “Rain of Scorpions” in class. I even made it through UTEP without knowing her works. I think I’d be a completely different person knowing that someone who taught in El Segundo wrote award winning books and plays. Imaginate, a third-generation Mexican American teenager reading a book written by someone who grew up in the very same city she grew up. I might have taken the fiction writer path much sooner in my life having read a book that was so important that I was assigned to read it in class right along with Shakespeare and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Okay, so I got on the Portillo Trambley bandwagon late in life. What’s new? Am I bitter, well, maybe, but I’m glad I’m aboard now. Portillo Trambley’s prose is the kind of literature I love. Stories filled with tight dialogue and sparse descriptions. It’s the Juan Rulfo kinda sparse—no pretension, clutter, or wasted words. Every word on the page advances her story.

Her tales give a complete picture of the men and women not given a voice in Texas literature, the people we live with, love, know and root for in our own families. Men like Chucho and women like his wife, Juana in “Pay the Criers.”

This, my favorite story in the collection, is a case study of a co-dependent relationship, if you’ll pardon the 12-stepese, and in it Portillo Trambley tells a beautiful story, of a family living in Juarez, Mexico that could just as easily have been El Paso, Las Cruces or Ames, Iowa for that matter, that explains why women stick it out with “shiftless” men. It’s done without being preachy, judgmental, or sentimental.

Portillo-Trambley’s stories and in particular the story of Chucho, Juana, and his mother-in-law, Refugio, reminds me of Luis Jimenez’s art work. In so much that the images or stories she constructs are true to life and not always appealing, but real, bold, revealing. It is in the truth and revealing where the beauty of the piece lies.

In the story she gives a complex portrait of Chucho, a man, who upon his mother-in-law’s death described her as someone “who had died like a warrior in the midst of the daily battle for bread. The old woman’s life had been nothing but work…. She had been a tiger, wearing a shawl, carrying a rosary in her hand, ready to pounce on him for being what she called ‘shiftless.’ ”

True to his mother-in-law’s description Chucho, coaxes the money for her funeral out of his wife’s hands and spends every centavo. But because Portillo Trambley understood what makes a fundamentally good story, well rounded characters, and gave me a glimpse into Chucho’s psyche through his internal monologues, meeting with his friend Chapo and his wife’s conversation with her friends, I grew to understand and even like the man. Like him so much that like his wife, Juana I rooted for him to do the right thing and even hoped/prayed while reading the story that he would change his fundamental nature.

Speaking of which, Portillo Trambley’s life in El Paso and some help from my father made me aware of what it is I love about El Chuco. She taught in the El Paso public schools and my father was in her history class at La Jeff. What he remembers about this award-winning author and I quote, “Yeah, she wrote books. What I can remember is that she had great legs and we were always dropping our pencils trying to look up her skirt.” This attitude is what I hate and love about El Paso. It sums up an El Chuco native’s core, how we know so much, and yet, don’t take ourselves too seriously. A way of living people either get or don’t. My father then went on to tell me how her “escorpion” story was good but that he didn’t like reading plays.

It really is crime that her revised collection of “Rain of Scorpions” is out of print, especially now, when American culture is so entangled with the Mexican. All of the United States is becoming like the El Paso I grew up in, where we don’t know where Mexican ends and American begins. Hers is too important a voice to leave lingering on a shelf. It needs to be in as many hands and minds as possible, not because she was a feminist, activist, or school teacher but because her stories touch on the healing power between the love of men and women and how the Chicano culture is the culture that is going to connect the traditional to the new. She has been quoted as saying that Chicano literature is “a bridge between the old and the new, between the primitive and technological. The Chicano can cement tradition to changing trends; a restructuring toward universality; the new American, the cosmic man.”

And in Chicano literature her book is the bridge between the pastoral musings of Antonio in Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me Ultima” and the urban Chicanos that Dagoberto Gilb writes about in his books. “Rain of Scorpions” is where the two worlds meet, mix and morph into the modern day Chicano. This woman, not only defined the new Chicano, but “left a map for other” writers (be they Chicanos, halfies, mixed or steps who grew up in Mexican households, again, it’s difficult to pinpoint where Mexican begins and American ends) to follow or make new paths, “left a map” for us writers to find our “own green valleys.” “Rain of Scorpions” is a prophetic tale that everyone in El Paso should read, especially now with all the change taking place downtown and with the reopening of ASARCO.