By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Diaz says he realized in school that "the old multiculturalism is fantastic, and I needed that to get into college ... but it has kind of spent itself. Under the old multiculturalism, it's that if a Latino gets published, okay, that's one check mark we can check off. The African-American gets published, the Asian, we're done.... Old-school tactics-- marching, legislation, suing, legalese -- that's not the way the American imagination should work....
"It's about freeing the American imagination," Tony continues, riffing on one of his favorite concepts. "If I can provide a 3-D version of a Latino, or a new version, that takes us from thinking in one dimension. Because [otherwise], we really all are caricatures. This machine that dictates what will get transmitted across the country, it really is making cartoons of us all."
A fourth grader, I touch my father's
mourning his slow death, a cancer death
of cells from cylinders of tobacco, lung thieves
of the body, loopholes of fatherhood.
--Gerardo Quiroz, at Nuestra Palabra
The Aztec Love God is a perennial, if mutable, figure in Tony's writing. In his master's dissertation, a short story by that name became the germ of a play, performed by students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where Tony taught English for a couple of years. That developed into a novel, also titled The Aztec Love God. The Aztec Love God is the stage persona of the novel's protagonist, a fledgling standup comic and high school avoidance expert.
Last March, Tony wrote an editorial for the Houston Chronicle about a phenomenon he calls "Sombrero Hysteria." Sombrero Hysteria ensues when fights over political correctness interfere with ethnic pride. Or, as Tony wrote, "when the language you use to articulate your politics uses you instead." For acute cases of Sombrero Hysteria, Tony wrote, the only remedy is the Aztec Love God, who is "the embodiment of a cultural view that comes at you from all angles, all levels, all audiences, and weds the best of several possible worlds."
Essentially, this is Tony's mission statement. The Aztec Love God is the Superman to Tony's Clark Kent, and he specializes in wedding disparate worlds. Take the creative writing program, directed by Kathleen Cambor, and Arte Pœblico, directed by Kanellos. Asked about the lack of relationship between the two, Kanellos shrugs and smiles. "What they do is quality, quote unquote. What we do is ethnic, quote unquote," he says.
There is a historic tension between "quality" and "ethnic." When Stanford University changed its literary canon in the '80s to include minority authors, the Wall Street Journal called its editorial "Stanford Slights the Great Books for Not-So-Great." A true postmodernist, Diaz goes to great lengths to erase, circumnavigate, ignore and otherwise neutralize that tension, preferring not to get bogged down in what has often proved to be a fruitless debate. His tactic is to mix chocolate with peanut butter: He's asked Cambor and Kanellos to serve on Nuestra Palabra's newly formed board of directors; both say they are looking forward to it.
Whenever Tony's career as a teacher and writer gets a boost, the Aztec Love God's mission gets a boost as well. Even his book, though it was selected by Ishmael Reed to win the Nilon Prize for Minority Fiction, seems less important as a piece of literature than as a resume item that gives credibility to Diaz and, by extension, Nuestra Palabra.
"I needed to have the book out there," he says. "Otherwise, I would have just been some college kid doing a reading series."
This year, Diaz is a visiting scholar of the UH Center for Mexican-American Studies, which will give him the financial wherewithal to conduct a free workshop for some Nuestra Palabra writers. When he first saw the office assigned to him, Tony phoned the Press. "Something's happened," he announced conspiratorially. "My office, it's huge! And they said I could hire a research assistant.
"That means ... Nuestra Palabra takes over campus!" Tony shrieked.
The Aztec Love God is a god for the '90s: He looks good on TV. His brawn (Tony's friends quote Steve Buscemi's line about "the biggest Mexican I have ever seen") gives him the look of a prosperous politician. He often wears a dark suit and tie or his trademark collarless button-down shirt. Stray spikes of gel-stiffened, longish black hair fall artfully across the smooth moon of his face. His eyes are so huge, you can make out his contact lenses, tiny islands floating on limpid lakes of color. Like a sultry Latin film starlet, he sports a mole above the right corner of his mouth.
When his book's prize was announced, one Spanish-language paper called Tony "a new force in literature." Univisión, the Spanish TV channel, featured him in their "Nuestro Orgullo" (Our Pride) spot, which is aired repeatedly. "They were treating it like it was a fucking Pulitzer Prize, you know what I mean?" Tony says. "Which means my name got out there. That's practical. And that, to me, is my gift. I have these delusions, illusions. I am easy prey for muses and misfit spirits. But I'm also very, very practical."