MARIO THE WRITER
and His Family
His story is their story,
lived generations apart
By JOYCE KIEFER
Our extended family moves in one by one around the large table covered with a red checkered cloth. As more people enter the room next to the hotel restaurant, the early arrivals move down the chairs so everyone can have a seat. Soon about 40 people have slipped in and chairs are set up in the adjoining alcove.
We have come together in Tucson, Arizona, for the third time since 2001, the year our matriarch Carmen turned 100 years old. She lives in town in the same house where she raised her children. The rest of us drive or fly in from a half dozen states.
The first time we got togetherin the same resort-style inn a few blocks from the citys historic barrio--we celebrated Carmens centenary and the discovery of cousins we hadnt seen since childhood or, in my case, ever before. The second gathering two years later cemented our feelings of relationship. With this gathering around the table, our third reunion would show us the realm of our shared heritagethe writing talent of our kinsman Mario Suarez and the local culture he celebrated through the stories in his recently published collection, Chicano Sketches.
Mario doesnt sit at the head of the table. He passed away in 1998. His talent and its recognition are represented by our familys guest, Patti Hartmann, the acquiring editor of University of Arizona Press. She accepted the manuscripts of Marios published and unpublished stories posthumously and compiled them in the first book devoted exclusively to his work. Most of his writing was done in the late 1940s.
Carmen, who is Marios mother, sits directly across the table from Patti. At 104, she is succumbing to Alzheimers. But she knew why we were there: Mario escribiÛ, she repeats. Mario wrote.
Her son Ruben tells what it was like to share a bedroom with a brother who wrote. It was impossible to sleep as Mario pounded his tales out on a typewriter. From Age 12 he wrote stories, even movie scripts, sent them out and got rejections.
Mario loved people and would chat them up at bus stops and at the park downtown. His favorite ground was El Hoyo,, a barrio of immigrants--mostly Mexican, some Chinese--where the land slopes to the Santa Cruz River a few blocks from downtown Tucson. Mario and his family lived across the river.
Like Steinbeck did with Tortilla Flat. Mario populated his literary El Hoyo with a variety of characters who struggled with poverty and their own pecadillos but were seldom beaten down. They straddled the line between the culture of their roots and the American one of their present in the post-war years. Zoot Suiters tried out their urban swagger. Comadres (as Mario called the wives of compadres) gossiped in the back alleys, surely across Arizona fences made from ocotillo sticks cut from the desert.
The compadres gossiped at Senor Garzas barbershop. The Senor started out in business by shearing dogs at his home in El Hoyo. Mario had Garza explain that although the shop was on downtown Congress street, since it was situated on that part of the street that decidedly slopes, it is in El Hojo. Senor Garza (the name means heron) was a real person named Bernardo Cajero. Ruben used to get his hair cut at his shop. Cajero eventually became a state legislator and helped obtain free textbooks for the school children of Arizona.
Marios own father was enterprising when it came to fulfilling the interests of his children. He exchanged his skills as a tailor for lessons from a guitarist for Mario, from a magician for Ruben and from a tap dancer for their sister Lettie.
The book of Mario's stories,
published after his death.
As a teenager Mario joined the Navy shortly after the beginning of World War II. When he returned he enrolled at the University of Arizona and continued to write, this time under the mentoring of an English professor. He got a job in a bar. After work he went upstairs and wrote down his observations of the patrons. His first El Hoyo stories were published by the Arizona Quarterly in 1947.
Later he went to New York to seek publishers interest in a novel based on his El Hoyo characters. He was turned down because he was an unknown and because his subject matter was judged to be of little interest.
Years later Mario became renowned as the first writer to use the term Chicano in literature. In his sketch called El Hoyo, he wrote: Its inhabitants are chicanos who raise hell on Saturday night, listen to Padre Estanislao on Sunday morning, and then raise more hell on Sunday night. While the term chicano is the short way of saying Mexicano, it is the long way of referring to everybody. Pablo Guiterrez married the Chinese grocers daughter and acquired a store; his sons are chicanos. So are the sons of Killer Jones who threw a fight in Harlem and fled to El Hoyo to marry Cristina Mendez. And so are all of themthe assortment of harlequins, bandits, oppressors, oppressed, gentlemen and bums who came form Old Mexico to work for the Southern Pacific, pick cotton, clerk, labor, sing, and go on relief.
His stories have since appeared in numerous anthologies. They have been read and discussed in university classes throughout the country. A few years ago, at the Stanford Bookstore, I found his name keeping company with those of Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Arturo Islas, and Sandra Cisneros in a collection called North of the Rio Grande.
Mario married, had three children, and turned to writing polemical essays as an advocate for the Mexican-American community. He became involved in the growing Chicano movement when he moved to Southern California. By 1970 Mario had become a professor at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He taught Chicano studies, southwest history, Mexican history and culture. He also taught basic writing skills. Some of the students he encouraged in the skills course became published fiction writers.
He himself wrote little fiction once he left Arizona.
The morning of the day we discussed Marios book, I took my daughter and her husband on a walk through El Hoyo. As the heat sizzled toward the mid-90s, we explored the streets lined with brightly trimmed small, adobe houses. A dog telegraph announced our coming in a variety of barks that shot through the fenced yards along the block. The faded words on the outside wall of an abandoned grocery store could still be read. The place also sold postales and novenas. Prayer flags fluttered from several porches. Tiny green leaves sprouted from the ocotillo fences.
Ruben, who has served on the boards of several urban renewal projects, explained that speculators forced the denizens of El Hoyo out of their homes. Now the barrio is part of the Southwest boom. The abandoned Elysian Grove grocery store sold a few years ago for $200,000 and a few weeks ago for $700,000.
As all of us gather this reunion afternoon to think about Marios legacy, Patti Hartmann tells us with a book of their own, his stories have become immediately accessible to the academic community. Scholars will analyze them in theses and dissertations. One critical essay already published devotes 6,000 words to communal identity as expressed in Marios stories.
But the strongest impact of Marios work will be on his extended family. He holds up a mirror to our cultural heritage. His resourceful characters could be his parents; his brothers and sisters; and us, his cousins and descendants. We, like they, celebrate the same emotional as well as cultural core. Those we have embraced through marriage celebrate with us as they offer their own backgroundsGerman, Slavic, Jewish, Italian, Irish.
When the discussion comes to a close, Marios niece Stephanie announces that the children will read the short story Senor Garza to the group. Her 10-year-old daughter begins. Others continue, each reading a paragraph. Marios 9-year-old grandson says Garcia instead of Garza but no one corrects him and he reads on. Then Stephanie asks the cousins to continue the reading and points to me.
I wonder if Patti, the academic press editor, has ever sat at the table with the extended family members of one of her writers and watched them reach out to his fiction as part of their own story.
©2005 by Joyce Kiefer. The photo of Mario Suarez is the property of the author. All rights reserved. The cover illustration from "Chicano Sketches" is courtesy of the University of Arizona Press.This column first posted June 27, 2005.
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