Meet the Aztec Love God

Novelist Tony Diaz stirs up a Latino writers movement in Houston and, in some respects, becomes his own main character

When Tony Diaz was in fifth grade, he helped his father buy a car. One Saturday after the chores were done, they went to see a man in their southside Chicago neighborhood. On the way, Tony's father impressed upon his son the importance of buying a good car, for a good price. The car would take Pop to and from his job at the railroad yard. The car would be crucial to the existence of Tony's family. "I want you to pay attention," Tony's father said, afraid of getting ripped off.

Pop inspected the car, a blue two-door Buick LeSabre, inside and out. Tony considered what a good show his father was putting on, pretending to know something about cars. Tony's father, who spoke only Spanish, had told Tony exactly what to ask the man, who spoke only English. "If this car is good," the studious 11-year-old said to the man, "why are you selling it?" And, "What sort of problems have you had with the car?" As the man answered, Tony studied his face carefully to see if he could detect any hint of a lie. When the man took them for a ride, Tony watched closely as he pumped the brakes, not sure if such behavior warranted suspicion.

Tony took his job very seriously: He was not just a translator, but the guardian of his parents' interests. After all, Tony's father had never been in a classroom. When Tony was born, his parents were migrant cotton pickers, but they had settled down and now sent their youngest son -- whose eight, much older siblings had already left home -- to a Catholic grammar school. There, they expected him to learn not just arithmetic, but how to achieve the American dream. Without getting ripped off.

Young Tony became a prodigious navigator of the adult world. He conducted transactions at the bank. He called the gas company when there was a problem with the service. He wrote notes to excuse his own absences. Once, an older cousin tried to write one, translating exactly what his mother said: "Tony is not feeling well. And that is all I have to say." Tony knew that the Spanish expression "es todo lo que puedo decir" sounded wrong -- defensive -- in English. He rewrote the note.

As one of the few Mexican-Americans at his school, Tony delighted in speaking Spanish in front of his teacher, who couldn't understand. He also excelled, winning gold stars and being singled out to write the annual Christmas story. He noticed when his older relatives couldn't read as well as he could, and he delighted in that as well. "I always respected my father," he says. "Always, completely. But I knew he couldn't help me with my homework."

So Tony learned early on how to do a close read, how to know if a phrase was out of place. He paid attention to language, and learned to love it. "I did have a certain sense of importance and a certain vision of myself," he says. "Because I could read and write, and I could see the immediate impact." That understanding led the 30-year-old Diaz to become a writer -- he graduated from the University of Houston creative writing program in 1994 and his first novel was published in May.

But just being a writer was not enough for Tony. He wanted to share the power of the pen. As one of the few Latinos to go through the UH writing program, Diaz noticed that the virtually all-white program had very little to do with another major literary force on campus, Arte Público, the largest nonprofit literary press in the country and the largest publisher of works by Latino authors. Moreover, when Diaz taught writing classes at community organizations such as Talento Bilingue de Houston and the Chicano Family Center, he saw talent that needed development, but that probably wouldn't feel at home in what he calls a "compartmentalized, departmentalized" academic setting. Because of his work on immigrant issues, he knew there was a Latino activist community in Houston, not to mention some 560,000 Hispanics. "Everybody's almost touching," Tony thought. "They just need that spark."

And so Diaz set out to start a "Movimiento Literario Latino en Houston," beginning with a monthly reading series. His friends advised him that there weren't enough writers, or for that matter listeners, to make a movement. The owner of the Chapultepec Mexican restaurant agreed to let him use the hall next door. In the '80s, when someone else had tried to start a Latino literary group at Chapultepec, only a dozen people had shown up, so the owner put out a dozen chairs. Diaz thought he was going to need more than that.

Half a year later, "Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say" attracts standing-room-only crowds, as well as dozens of writers.

"Tony's one of the greatest things that's happened in the literary scene in Houston," says Nick Kanellos, a University of Houston professor and director of Arte Público Press. "And as far as the Latino scene-- this wouldn't be happening without him. He's a catalyst. He's just done it on his own. He went out and did it."

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