Thursday, September 5, 2013

North of the Rio Grande - Edward Simmen

Ed Simmen belongs to that sort of Texans that is about to disappear: he is a person who tries to build a bridge between Mexico and the United States instead of pretending that Texas is unique in the Universe. The highest points in Ed's academic career were North of the Rio Grande, a compilation of short stories written by Mexican-Americans in the United States, and Gringos in Mexico, which simlarly collects stories written by Americans living in Mexico. 

I will not talk about Gringos in Mexico here. Maybe I will do it someday. I will only let the reader know that, while Gringos in Mexico includes some "big names" like Kerouac or Jack London, the only professional writer included in North of the Rio Grande is Stephen Crane, who is not even  Mexican-American but happens to be one of the first American writers to use Mexican characters. The difference between Gringos in Mexico and North of the Rio Grande is evident: at the time both books were published (1980's), Americans saw Mexico is a friendly exotic place next door where it was possible to do stupid things without fearing any legal consequences; for Mexicans -particularly poor Mexicans-, the United States was the promise of a better life. The possibilities of having a young promising American writer going to Mexico were as high as the possibilities of having a young Mexican manual worker crossing the border in the opposite direction. American artists used to go to Mexico, whereas Mexican workers used to go to the U.S.; the quality of the artistic outputs produced by each community was obviously different.

And that's probably the main feature of North of the Rio Grande: the book is fantastic as a documentary but fails miserably as an artistic product. With few exceptions, the stories contained in North of the Rio Grande are full of clichés and, probably worse, are actually quite amateurish. The classical image of a drunk sleepy Mexican laid on a cactus and wearing a big hat and a sarape leaving everything for mañana permeats most if not all of the stories the book. Most of the authors presented in the book would be completely forgotten if not for Ed's efforts to go to obscure university quarterlies trying to find chicano writers regardless of their quality as writers. 

Try googling names like María Cristina Mena, Sandra Cisneros, or Carlos Flores. The first entries will probably be Facebook or LinkedIn pages of some random people, but at one point, these three names belonged to leaders of opinion and somewhat recognized writers among the Mexican-American community. In fact, the profiles of the authors is probably more interesting than their stories: sons of illegal immigrants who had to work as handimen and study at the same time, went to college, and eventuallly got a job as a community college professor; not bad for a first generation immigrant. The problem is that such a background hardly allows for producing high quality literature. In a way, North of the Rio Grande reminds us that there are too many people who want to write and to few people who want to read.

Despite being composed of mostly boring stories, I would still like to recommend North of the Rio Grande. It has a lot of value as a historic document: also, as the Mexican-American communities integrate into the mainstream American community, terms like chicano or people like Cesar Chavez will be part of the past. And it's always more fun to learn about the past using novels and short stories than History books. 

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