Lively Local Color

'Chicano Sketches' provides a slice of mid-20th-century Hispanic and Tucson culture

A couple of years ago, in a collection of essays about her mother and her writing, novelist Amy Tan lit into book critics. She distrusted them, she wrote; they'd be like her misapprehended friends who talked her into suffering through Babette's Feast. If critics were to have any credibility for her, they should have to present credentials: What movies do they like? What dogs? And what other books?

In an effort to answer that, I actually slipped a little personality précis into my review of that book. Though that got no more author response than any non-précised review, Tan's point stuck, and it periodically rises--like with this new Suárez collection. To trust the verdict, the audience deserves to know what hat the reviewer is wearing.

Chicano Sketches looks a lot like a textbook. It's from the local university press; it's introduced with author background and biography; it has a full bibliography and is informatively footnoted. It has a section on historical context and analytical discussion with such phrases as "a polemical term, the perspective espoused" and "an open-ended concept, a vehicle to synthesize disparate identities." Sounds like serious scholarship.

I am not, however, a serious Mexican-American lit scholar; I'm an English teacher with a short attention span and a taste for reading about crowded ethnic scenes and eccentric characters, narrated with a slight political agenda and definite sense of humor. And I can't wait to get Chicano Sketches into the hands of my students.

Mario Suárez (1923-1998), the son of a tailor and a seamstress who immigrated to the United States after the Mexican Revolution, grew up in Tucson. While he developed an interest in writing at the UA, he couldn't support his family with it. Increasingly involved in Mexican-American causes, Suárez relocated to California and ended up teaching writing and cultural studies at Cal State Polytechnic in Pomona. He was a prolific writer of op-ed pieces, curriculum and politics-related prose, but produced only these 19 short pieces in fiction.

The collection is comprised of 11 previously published and eight non-published stories. Of the published stories, eight appeared between 1947 and 1950, but the others seem related in theme--the "invisible" Mexican-American--and setting--the barrio--with perhaps a loose, mosaic novel in mind.

"El Hoyo" ("the hole"--which contains the first documented use of the term "Chicano") sets the stage for such a work. An evocative, realistic description of the Tucson barrio in which much of the action of the other stories occurs, it paints the scene and peoples it with lyricism and irony: "While the term chicano is the short way of saying Mexicano," Suárez writes, "it is the long way of referring to everybody ... the assortment of harlequins, bandits, oppressors, oppressed, gentlemen, and bums who came from Old Mexico to work for the Southern Pacific, pick cotton, clerk, labor, sign, and go on relief."

Suárez then narrows to individuals in the subsequent stories. "Señor Garza" sketches the life of workplace life of barber/philosopher Garza, whose shop draws "all that is good and bad." In "Cuco Goes to a Party," college student Procuna (Suarez's admitted alter ego) joins Garza and two buddies on a drinking, fighting, passing out and pissing binge that raises class issues and ends up costing eponymous Cuco his marriage to out-of-class Emilia. "Loco Chu" is a street person pachuco who irritates passers-by into giving him nickels and eats gratis at the Chinese restaurant.

From gentle observations to more didactic and political statements, Chicano Sketches provides a slice of mid-20th-century Hispanic and Tucson culture. With a focus on the poor--and those outside and within the culture who oppress them--these stories reflect a significant cultural sensibility. Picaresque, not profound or always PC (see "Las Comadres," which seems to celebrate the benefits of wife beating, or the references to rooster- and bull-fighting), they're nonetheless fiercely sympathetic snapshots. Be warned, though; it's hard to finish "Trouble in Petate," Suarez's longest story. Once you've warmed to central character Pepe, "a fortunate man" with a forgiving rooster, a devoted dog, an undemanding donkey and an indulgent village girl, you know that going to Petate ("straw") City will set your hero's fortune into painful, irreversible reversal.

So, the critic who came to this book--and liked it--is the high school teacher. Others should like it, too, if they're entertained by polished prose, quick character shots and lively local color. Expect zoot suits, enchiladas in heaven and zipoltes (buzzards) who "can never be peacocks."