This is another book I was supposed to have read for a class that I never got around to, only due to a lack of time. As I began reading I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of place Domingo Martinez created. The book is a memoir set in South Texas and begins by documenting the upbringing of his Mexican grandmother on his father’s side who eventually marries a Mexican-American man on the North side of the border. The hardships that befall her during her childhood and marriage serve to make her into a rather hard-shelled woman, and Domingo tells us that she ultimately kills her husband by withholding his insulin from him, but it might have been an accident, the author adds as an after thought.
The whole book is like that – one poverty-stricken life after another falls to circumstance. Martinez is particularly good at painting images of the people of Brownsville in all their emotional and psychological disfigurements. He seems to understand that this is what extreme poverty and extreme racism does to a community, yet as the book goes on I couldn’t help feeling that he still blamed these people – his people – for their own misfortunes.
I had mixed feelings about the book. I loved it up until the latter half when he starts to discuss this family members with a more condescending voice. I think the low point of the book is when Martinez takes a beating from his Uncle, a barrio king in his own right, who has hit his own low point. His Uncle, who has been demoted from his legitimate role in a trucking business to serving as a muscleman for a drug smuggler, is the first to tell Martinez and that him and his family act snobbish towards the community. Martinez does a good job of depicting his Uncle as someone who really got served a bad hand in life, yet while the man is beating the crap out the author for his loud mouth, shit-talking ways, Martinez the narrator refers to him as a “stupid dumb beast.” I get the feeling that the authors family’s references to his young man self as a Chihuahua aren’t unwarranted.
When Domingo gets arrested as a teenaged hooligan he says he “knew enough to feel totally humiliated, to be completely ashamed of where I came from” (283). This is where Domingo and I had to part ways. He holds Mexican machismo as the ultimate unhealthy staple of the culture, and acts as if it singlehandedly discredits the Mexican culture. Machismo is an old fashioned form of unwarranted male pride, but I believe there is nothing wrong with a little bit of pride as long as you have earned it. However there is something wrong with loud-mouthed boys who blame the people who raise them for all their problems. I think at some points in the book Martinez could use a little pride – and a little personal responsibility.
It is fine to want more for yourself than the barrio lifestyle, but to dismiss the accomplishments of generations past as beneath you always, always sounds pretentious to me no matter who it is coming from. After all, the actions and survival of your parents and grandparents are what got you here in the first place: You might not like them very much, but you owe your life to them so you better know when to shut your mouth.
The high points of the novel are when Domingo touches on his relationship with his brother Dan. In one chapter he describes the scrimmage Dan gets into with Ted, a black city kid from Chicago who, up until that point, had been Dan’s friend. The author describes the outcome of the fight being “city versus farm, and the city had conned its way out of a sound beating at the hands of the farm” (178). Ted turns up dead after getting involved in much darker activities than schoolyard fighting, and the chapter ends with Dan’s respectful attendance at his funeral. It’s a beautiful chapter.
Ultimately, the book felt like a lot of family and personal therapy with some essays missing the mark completely. But I’m not sure it was the book I didn’t like, so much as the person who was writing it.
Overall Score: 5.7 – There are better memoirs by better Latino authors out there.