Dagoberto Gilb writes a timeless Chicano tale in ‘The Flowers’
By Carlos Rodríguez Martorell
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Wednesday, February 20th 2008, 4:00 AM
“Not that many years ago I would go to a house in the neighborhood…”
Thus begins Dagoberto Gilb’s recently released “The Flowers” (Grove, $24), a coming-of-age novel about Sonny, a 15-year-old Mexican American growing up amidst an outbreak of racial violence.
But the when-and-where of the story purposely remains as elusive as in the first sentence.
“I guess it’s probably Los Angeles — it just so happens that I grew up in L.A. — and it resembles a riot in [the neighborhood of] Watts in 1965,” says Gilb.
“This isn’t a story about the past. To me, it’s about now,” adds the award-winning author based in Austin, Tex.
In “The Flowers,” the owners of the building where Sonny lives — mistakenly named Los Flores — are trying to prevent blacks from renting. At the same time, Mexican tenants are barely tolerated.
“There are different kinds of racism,” says Gilb. “We [Mexican Americans] are invisible, we don’t matter.”
The author says he’s recently witnessed a growing hostility towards Mexicans. “This anti-immigrant [movement] is literal, but it’s also code for all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so strong.”
One of the book’s most poignant stories is Sonny’s relationship with his mother, Silvia. She’s not loving, she barely cooks and she’s detached from her son — definitely not your typical Mexican mother character.
“I think that’s because everyone is so used to stereotypes and that’s really what I’m so sick of,” says Gilb. “Why does the mother have to be making tortillas? Let’s stop it! We don’t have to be wearing sarapes or huaraches or sombreros to be Mexican-Americans.”
A self-described “physical writer,” Gilb says that Sonny’s adventures are very close to him.
I’ve seen a lot of writers that play right out of their mind, their imagination. And I think I don’t have an imagination,” he jokes. “I have to have some experience, something that I have touched, felt.”
Gilb is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, including “The Magic of Blood,” which won the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Award. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 2003 nonfiction collection, “Gritos.”
The son of a Mexican immigrant and an Anglo father of German descent, Gilb was for years a construction worker and a carpenter before becoming a writer.
“How did that happen to me?” he says of his literary career. “I am constantly thinking I should be the super at a construction site. I was a construction worker for 16 years, 12 of them in unionized rises. There are things I liked but when I was there I was always thinking, ‘God, I wish I could write a story and sell it for $100.’”
Gilb’s constant battle against clichés prompted him to publish, in 2006, “Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature.”
“We’re so disrespected, so invisible, that I thought, well, let’s start with Texas, where the largest and oldest Mexican American community is,” he said.
The anthology covers some 130 writers in the Lone Star State over five centuries, starting with Spanish conquistador Álvaro Cabeza de Vaca, “sort of the first Chicano,” he says, with a smile.
“It’s a portrait of the community,” says Gilb. “You can see your drunk tío, your weeping aunt… You hear all the stories. I didn’t necessarily pick the authors’ best works, mostly I suited the needs that I saw. I wanted somebody to write about jalapeños.”
Interestingly, he doesn’t see the relations of Mexican-Americans and Texas only from the point of view of the oppressed.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t think Texas is as racist towards Mexicans and immigrants as most of the country. Texans really love Mexicans, they love Mexican culture, architecture and food. They understand how valuable the workers are…
“You can even see it in this jerk of a president, George Bush. He reflects that specific thing about Mexicans: He doesn’t have a bad attitude.”