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Anyone plugged into the Spanish-language media in this city is familiar with Diaz, who in his fervor to be a role model is constantly doing radio, TV and print interviews. Earlier this year, Tony's publishing house, FC2, in Illinois, told him to stop the media blitz until his book was actually printed. He didn't. They told him to hold off on readings. He's done four or five in Houston alone, including one at the Mexican art gallery Casa Ramirez.
"They're thinking old school," Tony says of FC2. "Old school is one writer, one book. Who cares? I want to hear about that once, and that's it. But this isn't writer, book, done. This is writer, Latino community. You know what I mean?"
I never could understand why [my mom] would want us to go to church, since through the wonders of modern technology, there was plenty of church on TV. I would also wonder, how long could you watch this stuff without hitting a rerun? I never liked going to church, and I would come home with bruises on my knees because the pastor couldn't make up his mind if he wanted us to sit, stand, or kneel. Usually, we knelt.
--Alvaro Saar Rios, at Nuestra Palabra
"Just because there aren't any Latinos on the bestseller list, doesn't mean there shouldn't be any Latinos on the bestseller list. Basically, you're here making history," Alvaro Saar Rios tells the audience, warming them up. The 23-year-old is a car-stealing bad-boy-from-the-hood turned Little League coach and Nuestra Palabra evangelist. "We're just going to keep going at this. We're going to bring it to schools, libraries; we're going to be all over the place, and you won't be able to get rid of us."
Rios, an actor and aspiring filmmaker, took his first writing class from Diaz earlier this year. The student's stories about growing up in Cottage Grove, a Hispanic neighborhood near the west end, caught Tony's eye immediately, as did the fact that Rios eagerly revised and perfected his work. "You're a writer," Tony told him, and encouraged him to read at the first Nuestra Palabra night in April. The audience was in stitches, and Rios begged for another turn. The audience hooted and cheered, and wouldn't stop laughing.
"That's when I believed Tony," Rios says.
On this fourth Wednesday of the month, young Latinos, older whites, writers and teachers fill every available seat, and line the stairs of the large hall on Richmond near Montrose. Kids in baseball caps and tube socks slouch in the balcony. African-American writer Garry Reece, organizer of readings at local bus stops and a Texas Southern University series featuring Latino writers, sits near the back, waiting for his turn to throw down (that is, read) some poems. In the front row, a Mexican-American media analyst clutches a manila envelope containing the handwritten poetry of her 19-year-old son. She read about Tony in the paper; the envelope is for him.
"This man," Rios says by way of introducing his mentor, "if he wasn't here, I'd probably be home watching Monica Lewinsky on TV or something. The author of The Aztec Love God, Tony Diaz!"
On stage, Tony is expansively benevolent, reckless with the spotlight. "English is your second language?" he might ask one poet in amazement. "We liked this poet so much we've invited her back for more," he'll say. If someone reads the rare old-school poem, leaded with references to Quetzalcoatl and Aztec battles, Tony treats it as gingerly as he would an artifact unearthed in an archaeological dig. "I hear the voice of El Movimiento, La Raza, Chicanos," he might say. "Here's one of those hermanos who was at the marches, who got me into college, and we give respect to that."
By and large, though, the work is fresh enough to have made Nuestra Palabra de rigueur for some literary types. Subjects range from the pop-cultural to the personal -- just what you'd expect from any group of writers, and that is part of the point. Presenting Latinos as outsiders, Diaz says, is a dead end. "The problem with that is, you've got a lot of writers who capitalize on being an outsider. And then they get success, and they're inside. And then ... you know? It's too binary. It's too simple." Though Diaz grew up on the gritty south side of Chicago, his own work does not contain the graphic street violence that characterizes the work of many acclaimed Latino authors. "I'm not going to mystify and romanticize that either," Diaz says. "I don't want to think of that as unique to Latino culture."
Diaz knows, however, that readers' expectations of minority literature are difficult to dispel. In a recent review in the Austin Chronicle, readers were told of the "new voice" that could be found in The Aztec Love God. "More a barrio voice," the author said. "A street voice." This despite the fact that the novel's protagonist is a prep school student who neither lives in a barrio nor frequents the streets of one.
Instead of rehashes of the stereotypes that white editors find "authentic," Nuestra Palabra's audience might witness elementary school teacher Tony Martinez's Latino-flavored takes on Pulp Fiction and Seinfeld. Or UH student Carolina Monsivais, who first read to earn extra credit in a class, commanding the stage with brooding, intelligent poems like "Blowing the Whistle on Violence in 30 Seconds," read in both Spanish and English. Or Maria Palacios, a case manager at the Houston Area Women's Center, reading a selection from the 19 poems she's written this month alone. Almost none of these writers has thrown down before. All are now addicted to the experience.