The weekend is upon us and we've got a full plate - page goals to meet, interviews to transcribe, miles to ride - so we're getting a jump on. But we're pleased, as always, to present another of Dan Olivas' fine reviews to tide you over for the weekend until we're back Monday with the return of the LATBR Thumbnail. A bientot!
By Mario Suárez
Edited by Francisco A. Lomelí, Cecilia Cota-Robles Suárez and Juan José Casillas-Núñez
University of Arizona Press
REVIEWED BY DANIEL OLIVAS
In their introduction to Chicano Sketches, the editors assert that the late short-story writer Mario Suárez “represents a unique case of an early Chicano author who remained faithful to his original purpose of creating a distinctively Chicano literary space.” How early? The first eight of the nineteen stories included in this collection were first published by the Arizona Quarterly between 1947 and 1950. The “distinctively Chicano literary space” Suárez created was grounded in the harsh realities of a barrio in Tucson called El Hoyo (literally “The Hole”) which the editors term “an urban wasteland.” Suárez, who was also a journalist, social activist and educator who relocated his family to Southern California in 1958, possessed a sharp eye for quotidian human experience. He populated his “sketches” (his term) with preening pachucos, avuncular barbers, unrepentant womanizers, chisme-loving comadres, clever swindlers and many other examples of humanity.
Suárez did not romanticize the Chicano experience; indeed, he acknowledged such social dysfunctions as alcohol abuse (“Cuco Goes to a Party” and “Loco-Chu”), indolence (“Kid Zopilote”) and economic struggle (“The Migrant” and “Los Coyotes”) while celebrating the beauty of Chicano culture (“Mexican Heaven”), human kindness (“Doña Clara” and “Señor Garza”) and the work ethic (“Something Useful, Even Tailoring”). Quite often, Suárez relied on biting irony and comedic juxtapositions to illustrate his characters’ vices and virtues.
In the first story, “El Hoyo” (first published in 1947), Suárez set the stage for his following sketches. In it, he defined the term “chicanos” (lower case his) by equating it with the Mexican dish capirotada which can be fixed in innumerable ways: “While many seem to the undiscerning eye to be alike, it is only because collectively they are referred to as chicanos. But like capirotada, fixed in a thousand ways and served on a thousand tables, which can only be evaluated by individual taste, the chicanos must be so distinguished.”
The editors unobtrusively annotate this posthumous collection (which includes eight stories never before published), offer insightful historical context and thematic analyses, and include several wonderful photographs of Suárez and his family. Combined with a touching foreward by one of Suárez’s children and a biographical introduction by the editors (one of whom is Suárez’s widow, Cecilia, who passed away in March 2004), Chicano Sketches is an invaluable contribution to the study of Chicano fiction and gives Suárez his due as a seminal figure in Chicano literature.
Daniel's Web page can be found at www.danielolivas.com. He is currently editing an anthology of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers; visit his Web page for guidelines. This review first appeared in Southwest BookViews.