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Book Review

Author
Victor Martínez
Book
Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida
Publisher
HarperCollins
 

Chicano Literature: A World of Cultural Activists, Not Writers

Jorge Chino

 

FEW Latinos are nominated for the National Book Award: Victor Martínez is one of the few. On November 6, Victor came back from New York City with the Young People's Literature Award for his first novel Parrot in the Oven: Mi vida.

Framed with a mosaic of powerful family relations and love, the novel tells the life of a 14 year old boy who wants to be firme, a boy who survives by doing what he is supposed to do in an environment of economic and social decay. "My family practically made up its own community, and I really enjoyed having this extended family around me," says Victor Martínez in an interview with Juan Felipe Herrera.

Sitting in his apartment in the Mission District in San Francisco, 42 year old Fresno-born Victor explains to me that he doesn't want to be read only by Chicanos but by everyone. He says, "the dominant ideology in Chicano culture is resisting the dominant culture. But there are other ways than resisting. And who the hell is the 'dominant' culture anyway? White people? The struggle is not resisting outside forces but in sustaining the source of who you are and creating yourself over and over."

Martínez believes that while writers from other so-called minority groups are becoming nationally successful, Chicano or Latino writers want to stay committed to their social activism. "The problem with our literature is that it is not born from aesthetics, it is born from politics. The politics use the culture for self-enhancement, and that is not good. It was good in the sense that it was self-affirming. A lot of our writers are actually political activists," says Victor about a literature that is slowly making it into the mainstream with names like Sandra Cisneros, Lucha Corpi, Gary Soto, Francisco X. Alarcón and many others.

 

Between aesthetics and politics

On a Saturday afternoon, Victor Martínez, talks about competition, marketing, his fellow writers, and the lack of criticism in the Chicano literature. "You know that the lack of criticism is what broke Chicano movement apart. There were certain contradictions in the Chicano movimiento. One was the role of women. Every time women complained like, 'Hey, you guys are all the leaders and we are cooking the food for the benefit.' Guys would say: 'Look, lets not start fighting, we have our enemy over here, the White guys.' They couldn't resolve that and created tensions."

"You know why I get mad about poets like Alurista, even José Montoya (whom I love, he is a god as far as I am concerned)? Because they didn't build inroads into the society. They didn't criticize. Every time they spotted somebody who was criticizing, they stopped him. They shut him up. They would say: Our enemy is out there. Everybody just be quiet. Follow me."

"I was a political activist for a long time," Martínez says. But Victor suffered a transformation when he realized he would better serve the community by creating art. "I said to myself: 'you know what? I am a writer. That is what I am. I am a poet. You have to be an artist first-not a political activist.' [But] you can be both. Pablo Neruda was an artist first. César Vallejo was an artist first, Juan Rulfo was an artist first."

 

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida

There are books that once you start you don't put down -not even to go to the bathroom. Victor's novel is one of those books. On a Sunday morning I went to a café by the ocean to read, and I didn't go back home until I read the last page.

Victor portrays two worlds and two cultures existing and interacting in the same city, workers and bosses using one another. The book closely follows young Manuel's reflections, weaknesses, changing ideas of a street-wise boy who tries to do the right thing but ends up giving in to the situation. In this Chicano world where no one receives encouragement from anybody, Manuel is always being put down. However, the reader always feels the love, the sense of family.

"For days I suffered the joy and terror of wanting to go to Dorothy's party, and knowing that it would be a big mistake. It was like a loose tooth you keep wiggling with your tongue, slow and deliberate, teasing the pain. The pain, however, wasn't in my mouth, but inside my chest. I fought against it. I'd stare hard into the mirror and order myself over and over to be strong be a man! But then a cold fluttering would begin in the pit of my chest

I was trying to be casual, so that Nardo [my brother] wouldn't catch on and tease me, but he knew something was up and snatched me by the arm. "Hey, don't stick your foot in shit in there. You know what I mean?"

"No."

"It might stink."

"Oh."

 

WITH a lot of courage and patience, Victor Martínez has written a book that stands tall and firme, a smooth portrayal of a world that he knows well and turns into art. Intensely original, Manuel does feel like he is an oven, almost burning up inside but managing to stay cool with a few scratches. By the middle of the book I was committed to Manny's life. I wanted to defend his life and take the blows he was getting when he was initiated in a gang. This is definitely a brave book by a brave author whose time has come. Enhorabuena, Parrot in the Oven is hot, a genuine piece of art.