The Five Acts of Diego Léon by Alex Espinoza

Alex's Espinoza's second novel, The Five Acts of Diego Léon, is a riveting story of a young Mexican immigrant striving to make it in 1930's Hollywood. Following the success of his 2007 debut, Still Water Saints, Espinoza's book charts transnational, historical terrain to tell the story of its eponymous protagonist. The story begins in rural Michoacán in 1911 where young Diego is raised by his mother and Purépecha speaking great aunt while his father joins the fight against the dictator Porfirio Díaz during the Mexican Revolution. Diego is eventually sent to live with his wealthy grandparents in Mexico City. There he is groomed to be a proper middle class businessman, but is drawn to singing and troubled by his own desires that conflict with the proscribed heterosexuality of his family and society. Seeking to escape a stifling life, Diego flees, eventually ending up in Hollywood.

The novel's strengths are its rich historical backdrop, clear prose, and deep character development. Diego lives through the Mexican Revolution, witnesses atrocities of the Cristero Revolution, experiences the dehumanizing treatment of Mexican migrants at the U.S. border and racist "repatriation" of thousands during the 1930's and achieves his career success just as the film industry transitions from silent to "talkies." These historical elements enrich but do not overpower the storyline, the novel remains devoted to Diego's personal and career exploration. Espinoza's prose is crisp and compelling. The inclusion of telegrams between Diego and his family in Mexico and copy from industry newspapers ground the novel temporally and offer greater context for Diego's environs.

I was most impressed with Espinoza's bold decision to create a complex and multifaceted protagonist. readers may sympathize with Diego's internal struggles, but he's not a wholly sympathetic character. While attempting to break into the industry, he makes questionable moral choices and I found myself relieved rather than disappointed when some of his intimate relationships did not end happily ever after. The fact that Espinoza is able to sustain a reader's interest and continue to develop Diego, such that the character's actions and decisions continue to surprise us until the end of the 301 page novel, is a testament to the author's gift as a storyteller and writer.

The Five Acts of Diego Léon will be appealing to a diverse array of readers. Those interested in Mexican American, Mexican and/or immigrant history will appreciate the topics covered, ones not often broached in contemporary Chicana/o literature. People who appreciate Hollywood, film or L.A. will likewise find themselves appreciative of the ability to glimpse this history through Diego's eyes. A character whose sexuality remains fluid and somewhat undefined, Diego satisfies our need for an increasingly diverse portrait of sexual identities and behaviors. Ultimately, this is a story of personal searching, of the complex interplay between structural constraints and personal agency within which we all exist. This is a novel that will stand the test of time and add to the greatness of contemporary American, U.S. Latina/o, and LGBT literature.

The Five Acts of Diego Léon is available in hardcover from Random House.

Read more about Espinoza and his work at his exquisite website: alexespinoza.com

 

 

An Indigenous Peoples's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014) is an invaluable contribution to anyone interested in U.S. history, U.S. indigeneity, settler-colonialism, or post-colonial and liberation movements. The book manages to be both comprehensive and concise; Dunbar-Ortiz maintains several narrative threads while covering more than 500 years of history. Both those new to U.S. indigenous studies as well as those well-versed in the field will learn from and appreciate this book.

I found myself engrossed in the text, compelled by Dunbar-Ortiz's clear prose and ability to synthesize many sources and perspectives. Frequently I gasped or shuddered in horror at sections that described the slaughter of indigenous individuals and communities or absorbed cynically the justifications for genocide uttered by U.S. soldiers and politicians. For the purpose of this review, however, I will concentrate on three aspects of the text I found particularly striking, unique, and helpful:

 

1. As I mention above, the text has a narrative thread - the linking of U.S. settler-colonialist violence and genocide to ongoing U.S. militarism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism in our present moment. This concept is clearly articulated and supported throughout the text and offers an vital lens through which to evaluate current U.S. military and foreign policies and to remain cognizant of the ongoing process of settler-colonialism and its repercussions. In Chapter Three, Dunbar-Ortiz describes the Scots-Irish settlers who functioned as the foot-soldiers of colonial incursion in the 18th century as executors of "counterinsurgent warfare...which formed the basis of U.S. militarism into the twenty-first century" (54). Applying the phrase "counterinsurgent warfare" to 18th century activities offers a much-needed context for evaluating the ongoing War on Terror and explaining how colonial war has been at the heart of the U.S. nation-state since its inception. Later in the book Dunbar-Ortiz exhorts us to understand how "strategies and methods" used against indigenous peoples were employed abroad, from Europe to the Caribbean to Africa (162). Her perspective is bolstered by indigenous veterans as well; Chapter Ten quotes Seminole Nation Viet Nam veteran Evan Haney who compares the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai to the massacres of indigenous peoples in the U.S. This comparison was also made by a newspaper that placed photos of the 1968 My Lai massacre alongside those of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 (192-3).  Nowhere is the link between contemporary U.S. militarism and imperialism and the historic and ongoing decimation of indigenous peoples more apparent, however, then in the U.S. Army's term "Indian Country."  Used to designate "behind enemy lines," the phrase "[reminds] us of the origins and development of the U.S. military, as well as the nature of our political and social history: annihilation unto unconditional surrender" (193). Those who would feign shock or outrage at the criminal excesses of current U.S. military policy - from the torture of detainees to the rampant rape of civilians and soldiers alike - would do well to consider the original mandate of the U.S. Armed Forces - the annihilation of indigenous peoples.

2. A second aspect of the book that was valuable and consistent was Dunbar-Ortiz's attention to class inequity and its role in settler-colonial endeavors. The author encourages us to bear in mind class when considering the colonizing of the U.S, as she writes: "as we look at the bloody deeds of the settlers in acquiring and maintaining land, the social class context is an essential element" (55).

She  explains how the closing of the commons in Europe in the 15th and 16th century displaced and further impoverished a peasant population, leading to a group of people "available to serve as settlers in North American British colonies" (35). She continues: "In this way, surplus labor created not only low labor costs and great profits for the woolens manufacturers but also a supply of settlers for the colonies, which was an 'escape valve' for the home country, where impoverishment could lead to uprisings of the exploited" (ibid). This comprehensive perspective on the role of capital accumulation furthers our understandings of the links between capitalism, state-backed violence, and the theft of indigenous lands in the Americas.

3. A third and final aspect of the text that I found particularly useful was the emphasis on the density of indigenous cities and towns, and here I must admit my own settler-colonial influenced ignorance. As a Chicana who has visited and marvelled at the remains of Aztec and Maya cities such as Tenochtitlán, Xochicalco and Palenque, I had allowed myself to believe that the absence of similar structures in the U.S. indicated a lack of densely populated cities. I, like many born and raised in the U.S., had absorbed the dominant imagery of indigenous peoples as semi-nomadic communities - an image rooted in Hollywood depictions of Plains Indians in which certain characteristics of certain nations came to stand in for representations of the majority of indigenous nations. As a descendant of Spanish colonizers and indigenous inhabitants of what is now New Mexico, I knew about the existence of what the Spaniards termed "pueblos," but hadn't considered how these cities related to other indigenous settlements, or the large number therein. Thus, I paused when theIntroduction explained that the current population of nearly 3 million indigenous people, members of 500 federally recognized communities and nations, "are the descendants of the fifteen million original inhabitants of the land, the majority of whom where farmers who lived in towns" (10). The description of indigenous people as farmers who lived in towns challenged the racist and settler-colonialist viewpoint of history I had unwittingly accepted. I appreciated the text's correction to my own incorrect understanding of the civil organization of many indigenous peoples, something that was bolstered by the frequent naming of indigenous cities and towns.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has made a truly essential contribution to the field of U.S. history. Lest you think this is a book only by and/or for indigenous peoples, listen carefully when she explains that, the title notwithstanding, this is not a book that puts forth an indigenous perspective on U.S. history because "there is no such thing as a collective Indigenous peoples' perspective, just as there is no monolithic Asian or European or African peoples' perspective" (13). Rather, "This is a history of the United States" (14).

For more about Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and her work: www.reddirtsite.com

Edward P. Jones: The Known World

Earlier this year, I read Edward P. Jone's Pulitzer Prize winning 2004 novel The Known World. The book was described to me as one "about slave-owning African Americans" and while that slightly sensationalist aspect about the text is true it can't possibly capture the beauty and complexity of the book. The story more or less centers on Henry Townsend, born in slavery but bought into freedom by his father, who grows into a prosperous and cold landowning, and human-owning businessman. While this aspect of the story may draw you in, the beauty of the writing, the complexity of the story, and the sheer vividness of the lives and personalities that inhabit the text are remarkable. Reading the book was like entering into an alternative world, I found myself living alongside the characters while I read the book and missing them when it ended.

Nina Serrano's Heart's Journey: Selected Poems 1980 - 1999

Nina Serrano's Heart's Journey: Selected Poems (1980 - 1999) is an indispensable addition to contemporary U.S. poetry and a collection that is as artistically moving as it is politically engaged. The poems in this collection, as the title indicates, span two decades (1980 - 1999). This time period, however, covers world-wide change, and personal, artistic, and political developments in the life of Serrano and her compañer@s. Poems touch on issues ranging from menstruation and menopause, to marriage, to love, and political upheaval in the U.S. and Latin America.

Having learned of Serrano and her poetry through her involvement with Nicaraguan solidarity during the Sandinista Revolution, I was most drawn to those works that touched on the latter issues. The section "This Place: Nicaragua Nicaragüita The Sandinista Revolutionary Project 1979 - 1989" offers readers the poet's perspective on the revolutionary movement that toppled 40+ years of a U.S.-backed dictator. The poems present intimate knowledge that exhibit a true love and appreciation for "A new society that proclaims self-determination/even when surrounded/by a nuclear enemy navy on maneuvers" (43). Such poems reference U.S. aggression, Nicaraguan resistance, and U.S. solidarity. "A Song for Ben Linder" is a beautiful tribute to the young man who was murdered while he was working on a micro-hydro plant in the remote regions of Nicaragua.  Those not familiar with Linder, the Sandinista Revolution, or the dozens of other important people and events referenced are guided by notes at the bottom of works which direct readers to web-links with more information. In this way, we can appreciate the beauty of the work and learn more about the people and events that inspired them.

Political poems contain both despair and hope. "fear.../It will all mean nothing" the speaker of "The End of Faith" declares, laying bare her sorrow at the 1989 Nicaraguan elections that marked the end of the revolutionary era. In "On the Assassination," written in the wake of the murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the poet wails "oh my city/oh my people." "Ode to Spring" juxtaposes "Iraq soaked in blood" to "tiny shoots/unexpected pink and yellow" in Oakland. The enduring sentiment, however, is one of respect and admiration for those who have struggled and faith in what has been and will be accomplished. Referencing again the end of the Sandinista revolution, the speaker of "Blue Lullaby" writes "Don't cry  baby don't cry/We lost but we did survive/we are still alive.../We live for the blossoming of victory/and the fruits of triumph" (47).

Many poems function as snapshots - of friendships, events, places. But the poetic voice is able to offer both a portrait of a person or moment as well as connections to larger ideas and processes. "Hendy Woods in Summer" is one such work. The speaker calls attention to her present physical and temporal location but then references her place in a larger family, society, and world. "I write on this tree product paper," she writes, grounding readers in the redwoods of northern California. A few lines later she muses, "I am an urban woman born in a cement world/of a mother born in a cement world," contextualizing herself within a lineage of women. But nothing is permanent the poem reminds us, ending with "This place has looked different/It will look different again." These excerpts typify one aspect of Serrano's poetic talent - the ability to move from specific to universal contexts, to pay close attention to that which is in front of us without losing sight of the ultimately ephemeral nature of life.

Those from the Bay Area will enjoy the many references to San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding environs that make up the section "This Place: USA." "San Francisco Autumn Early Morning" and "Song for Oakland" will provoke homesickness in any northern Californian or the need to visit for anyone not familiar with the area.

Readers will also appreciate the poet's perspectives on family and aging found in the sections "Death be Not Proud," "Descendants," and "Milestones." Here we can appreciate Serrano's tributes to the friends she has lost as well as her own deep love for her family.

The collection is enriched by Serrano's original artwork - which adorns the cover and appears throughout the text.  

Find out more about Serrano and her work here: http://ninaserrano.com/

Against the Romance of Community by Miranda Joseph

I am a few chapters into this really smart and really relevant text by Miranda Joseph, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona. I'm always nervous to describe a text - worried that I'll describe it differently than the author would want it described - but I'm finding Joseph's insights and claims - which come from both engagement with Marxist approaches to production and activist experiences - to be a welcome and much-needed perspective on many things that I think about - namely, the often unquestioned belief in "communities" as progressive political places.