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Gregg Barrios Review: Latinos in Lotusland

October 19, 2008

Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature

Edited by Daniel A. Olivas

Bilingual Review Press, $20 paperback, $30 hardcover

In citing the present Latino population of Los Angeles County at 4.6 million, the Los Angeles Almanac adds an arch footnote: “A late 19th Century editorial in the Los Angeles Times predicted that the ëMexican’ population in Los Angeles would disappear by the early part of the 20th Century.”

Latino writers might be hard-pressed to find solace in this. For in the world of mainstream publishing, they are still barely visible. And in the more rarified literary quarterlies and best stories anthologies, they are an endangered species.

Daniel A. Olivas edited this collection with this in mind. Yes, there is a respectful nod toward established and overlooked writers, but the lion’s share of its 34 stories comes from previously unpublished writers — some seeing their fiction, their byline in print for the first time.

Long overdue, “Latinos in Lotusland” is a literary GPS guide to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, aka the city of Angeles as seen through Latino — mostly Mexican American and Chicano — writing.

And, oh, the places they will take you.

Among this reader’s favorites:

In Mario Suarez‘s “Kid Zopilote” (written in 1947), a Chicano youth leaves his home in Tucson, Ariz., for California and returns a zoot-suiter, a pachuco. Unlike Octavio Paz’s infamous essay on the pachuco, Su·rez accepts the Kid as an early clue to a new postwar order.

The Tucson police incarcerate the young pachucos, shaving their ducktails and shredding their threads. The action earns the approval of the Latino familias. “I am glad it happened to you,” The Kid’s mother gloats.

In “Daylight Dreams,” a Guatemalan immigrant smitten by a young woman on his daily bus ride finally gets the courage to talk to her. But fate steps in and the courtship is lost in translation.

In “Dia de las Madres,” an extended family bickers during a long ride with the dead mother’s ashes in the back seat. In “LAX Confidential,” a Mexican American Joe Friday comes face to face with the ghost of long-disappeared Chicano novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta.

A post-punk/slacker lifestyle fuels “Gina and Max,” while “Adriana,” with its Gloria Trevi/Chalino S·nchez bad-ass chola ‘tude echoes Michele Serros or Los Bros Hernandez in the barrios.

In “Act of Faith,” a woman on the verge declares her cheating husband dead. She buys a coffin with a papier-m‚chÈ figure and proceeds to have a wake and a body burning for the “deceased.”

“Ghetto Man” centers on 13-year-old homeboy Artie who channels his inner superhero by defending classmates against barrio and ghetto bullies. An epiphany of sorts occurs when a religion teacher asks him to explain the Holy Trinity.

” ëAt the end of Soul Train, Don Cornelius . . . always wishes everyone peace, love, and soul. And I think he’s talking about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ ”

“Cement God” is a paean to the generation that built their lives and homesteads through hard labor. When a young man asks, “Grandpa, who made the sidewalks?” He replies, “I did.” For the young man, his abuelo becomes a role model, a hero in his eyes.

This story dovetails with a chapter from Richard V·squez’s 1970 novel, “Chicano.” The excerpt focuses on a young cement worker as he joins the construction trade union to live his dream through hard work and in the pride he takes in the L.A. freeways and high-rises he helped build.

In “Driven,” two Southland strangers share a ride — each driven to find refuge or redemption in the nearby City of Angels: “Looking up, all I see are the smooth edges of skyscrapers sharp as blades cutting up the sky, the stars. The street names: Alvarado. Olive. First. Flower. I stick my head out the window. Catch a scent. A memory. A trace.”

“Latinos in Lotusland” is a movable feast that bears witness to the incredibly talented writers that reclaim Los Angeles as their own.

Gregg Barrios is an independent journalist and playwright who lives in San Antonio.

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