“GRAB A DICTIONARY. IT'S easy. You at home — play along. The $64,000 question for tonight: What the hell are we speaking?” And so begins the probing in Luis Alberto Urrea's slim but dense memoir, Nobody's Son, in which he traces the genesis of his own fractured identity, and dissects the American landscape with the help of word origins. By uncovering the linguistic influences of other cultures on the English language (twerp is Danish, yo-yo Filipino and beef jerky Spanish), he challenges the notion of a cohesive, collective American “face.”
In seven essays, told from the point of view of an observant boy, Urrea leads us through his past, from “Tijuana Wonderland” — where, as a sickly 3-year-old with tuberculosis, he crossed the border — to the San Diego ghetto where he quickly learned the potential of words to both unite and divide. His parents — an Anglo mother of English, Scottish and Hungarian descent and a Mexican father from a small mining town in Sinaloa — declared their own “race war” on each other. “The fact of them was as unlikely then as the fact of myself seems to me now,” Urrea muses. Racist taunts (“Greaser!” “Spic!”) were more easily absorbed — and deflected — with the discovery that English is, in fact, “a quilt work of words . . . The tongue seems to know no race.”
Out of place in both parents' ethnicities, Urrea embraced the fluidity and inclusiveness of language and found “home” as a writer. A poet-novelist-essayist-playwright, he toys with literary structure in Nobody's Son, and the book suffers — intentionally — from an identity crisis. The essays range from loose, impressionistic “snapshots” to more traditional short stories or straightforward memoir; the voice swings from first to third person; the tenses shift from past to present. These inconsistencies are a bit jarring, and some of the stories are significantly more engaging than others; but the writing is consistently tight and passionate, and all the stories share a sardonic wit and perspective.
If language is a defining characteristic of culture, race and ethnicity, then, Urrea asks, “Who are we?” In the end, he answers for himself: “I am nobody's son. But I am everyone's brother.”
HARRY GAMBOA JR. began his education wearing a dunce cap with S-P-A-N-I-S-H written on it, placed ceremoniously on his head by a teacher trying to shame him into speaking English. This experience of retaining sanity under insane circumstances served him well years later when, as a leader in the East L.A. student walkouts of 1968, he demanded an education that provided opportunities beyond the ability to read a manual, join the Army and fight in Vietnam. As an activist, Gamboa learned the impact, malleability and absolute ridiculousness of the media and used it as fodder for a 30-year career of creating art through language, images and performance.
In the 1970s, along with the artists Gronk, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez and actor Humberto Sandoval, Gamboa co-founded the East L.A.based experimental performance-art group Asco (“nausea” in Spanish), and produced low-budget “no movie” events in which a “film” would be staged and photographed in stills — in one, Gronk, prone on First Street, played the last dead gang member before a truce. Asco later became notorious when Gronk, Herrón and Gamboa spray-painted their names on the front wall of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after being told by a curator that Chicanos don't make “real art.”
An exile from both the mainstream L.A. and Chicano art worlds, Gamboa is an ideal model for the politically active cross-media artist. Though his focus is specifically Chicano — dual cultures, assimilation, urban decay, adverse social conditions, all articulated through a maze of words from English to Spanish to slang-filled Caló — his work avoids the compartmentalizing tendencies that killed the identity-politics movement in art. Gamboa is not interested in authenticity or biology, but in “the ABC's of an impoverished existence: altruism, bullets and crying.”
The majority of Gamboa's projects have existed for a specific moment in time and then disintegrated, had a run or were not performed at all. In Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa Jr., editor Chon A. Noriega collects ephemera gathered from Gamboa's three-decade-long, dadaistic career. The book includes interviews with artists, poetry, fiction, collaged images, documentation of public and staged performances, photographic portraits of Chicano men, and political writings, including an essay on public schools reflecting on his son's first year of kindergarten. Taken together, they effectively portray Gamboa's extreme articulation — as sharp as the switchblade in a cholo's pocket — of the “phantom culture” of Chicanos in East Los Angeles. Like a loud banging on trash cans, screaming questions into the urban landscape, Gamboa asks, “Why live in these conditions? Why produce? Why live?” In the context of urban hysteria, he is an observer of the extended-play apocalypse who refuses to become numb. Urban Exile should be viewed as a primer for avant-garde practice in the shadows of the decay and celebration that are simultaneously pushing urban America into the new millennium.
IN HIS 1995 EPITAPH FOR a Peach, farmer David Mas Masumoto eloquently detailed his year-long struggle to save the family's Sun-Crest, a peach that despite its superior flavor was deemed unprofitable by agribusiness. Now, in this poignant sequel, Masumoto pieces together the circumstances surrounding the transplantings his family has undergone: from his grandparents' emigration to America, through his family's internment during World War II, to his fending off present-day threats to the family farm — weeds, worms and debt. As does the first book, Harvest Son demonstrates that Masumoto is most at home writing about what he does most of the time — working the land. (Even the act of sweating can sound lyrical in this man's hands.) He is understandably less at home in his grandparents' world, where, for instance, he confuses the words for the two systems of Japanese lettering, Katakana and Hiragana, grafting them together to form Katagana. Unfortunately Masumoto is more tourist than guide, his analyses superficial at best — particularly of Japan. In Hiroshima, where his Great Uncle Nomura would not answer his questions, a cousin “bowed, then whispered with her face looking downward, 'We have lost much.'” Masumoto fails to reflect on this critical and powerful moment, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions. The territory covered in Harvest Son is rich, but one comes away from it with the feeling that there is plenty of ground unfarmed, begging to be turned.
MARTIN GOODMAN doesn't pretend for a second that his biography of Mother Meera, an Indian mystic said by followers to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother, is an objective one. This book, after all, is the former devotee's second attempt at a Mother Meera biography — after reading the first version, she demanded that he destroy it, and he did. The new book is still largely a biography, bookended by somewhat disjointed recollections of Goodman's own interactions with the mystic. Although he thanks a friend in the acknowledgments for “help[ing] the book shed its anger,” it reads as a personal sorting out of the author's disillusionment, caused by Mother Meera's condemnatory remarks about homosexuality — Goodman is gay — and the destruction of the first book. He seems unable to narrate the good beginnings to his relationship with her without allowing the later disappointments to intrude.
In this light, it's difficult to accept as a dispassionate weighing of evidence either the opinions of unbelievers or the account of Mother Meera's “uncle” — a man who, obsessed with finding “a child from his village whom he will promote to world renown,” finally alights on the young girl who will become Mother Meera. While occasionally fascinating, Goodman's story is too shaded with hurt to allow us to share his initial joyous discovery of her gifts, and thereby understand his final judgment of Mother Meera: that she is, despite everything, “an open door through which we can see and meet God.”