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Chicano Chicanery (Daniel Chacon)

April 23, 2010

I read three stories from this collection: “The Biggest City in the World,” “Aztlán, Oregon,” and “Too White.” While all three were about different characters and had very different premises, there were some common themes running through them.

In “Aztlán, Oregon,” the idea of institutionalized racism is really highlighted. The main character, a reporter named Ben who was once a gang member in Fresno but has since moved and become an anchorman, decides that he’s going to do a radical political report on Chicano gangs. However, when he tries to talk to the gang members about the political conditions that may have contributed to their involvement in the gang, they shrug him off and continue talking about their own versions of the American Dream (wanting a decent house, a nice wife, etc.). Chacon focuses on the relationship between gang activity and contemporary American society, taking a critical look at the different ways kids (well-meaning kids, at that) end up involved in gangs. The issue comes up again in “Too White” when the main character, Joey, is forced to end his friendship with a white boy named Kenny in order to save his life. As Kenny rides away on his bike, Joey takes the beating that was originally meant for his ex-friend, only for Joey the beating takes on an entirely different meaning as evidenced by the last lines of the story:

“Through blurry eyes, I saw three figures standing over me. Then I felt the kicks all over my body, and I heard laughter. Then a sire. The cops were coming. They were all beating me, David, Johnny, Gilbert. I was the first to be jumped in.” (134)

For Joey and his friends, there doesn’t appear to be a way to bridge the racial divide between characters. The only solution is a violent reconciliation. Of course, in “Aztlán, Oregon” the violence that ends the story is of an entirely different nature: Ben beats up his supervisor (Brad) in a sort of cathartic outpouring of all of the emotions he’s been keeping down in this city where he feels lost.

What, then, am I to do with “The Biggest City in the World” in light of these other two stories? In a similar manner, this story ends with the protagonist — a timid college student named Harvey Gomez — taking a cab ride to various locations in Mexico City when he knows he is flat broke. He makes a decision that will simultaneously allow him to experience his cultural heritage and also mean becoming a thief/cheat. Well, in many ways this is related to the other stories in a very significant way. Like Ben (who feels that he’s lost his Chicano-ness) and Joey (who tries to navigate the gap between whites and Chicanos), Gomez begins to figure out what it means to him to be truly Mexican. After losing his wad of scholarship money — a symbolic event that translates to a disconnection between Gomez and the Western institution — he ends up being recognized by the cab driver (an “authentic” Mexican) as a “real” Mexican (this after Gomez’s statement that he likes mariachi music).

Chacon’s collection, from the three stories I read, seems to have a very specific political mission. The prevalence of gang issues and conflicting ideas of what it means to be Mexican, Chicano, or American are also critical, and Chacon seems to be writing for an audience who is struggling to work through these issues themselves.

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