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

Nuestra Palabra, Tony says, "is just the casing, the bullet for the idea. The idea is to get more Latino writers out there."

the woman who borrows my night
invading my dreams
the one that walks barefooted
on the grass after the rain
and shaves her legs under the stars
because there's no shame on her body

--Maria Palacios, at Nuestra Palabra

"We've kind of sparked a Latino renaissance, really," Tony says brightly. He is seated on a TV set platform, talking to the host of Channel 13's Hispanic cultural program. His image is refracted in video monitors all over the room. "We're trying to get all the Latino forces together," he says. The host, Evangelina Vigil-Pinon, blinks at him and nods sagely.

The delusions and practicality that Diaz identifies in himself combine to form one quality: audacity. Say something enough times, and truth will fill the vacuum created by empty words. Call something a movement, and it becomes one. Tell someone they're a writer, and they grow into that definition. Let there be light, the Aztec Love God said, and there was light.

Coincidentally, Tony's appearance on Vigil-Pinon's show comes after a feature about Lionel Sosa, author of The American Dream. Sosa, a San Antonio ad man, made his fortune by helping mainstream brands market their products to Spanish-speaking families. He was able to do this, he explains in the feature, because he understands the psychology and habits of the Latino consumer.

Tony, too, understands that the old rules don't work in his community. Take his book, for example. Only 1,200 copies of the slender coming-of-age novel, whose cover features a chic illustration of a beating corazón, have even left the distributor's warehouse. Tony, who already has his next eight books planned out, doesn't pay this any mind. "How many are sold? I don't know," he says. "If I start playing the game where my own success is contingent upon the distribution system that's been ignoring Latinos for years, if I start looking to that system to quantify my success, I'm fucked and I'm stupid."

Soy una chicana falsa
porque tengo hambre para los hombres
because I speak SAT english supposedly
reserved for suburban whites
because my desire includes gueritos
because my blood is marxist
but my mind is capitalist

ding ding
authenticity alert
the barrio judges
have marked me

he's too americano, he's too white --
in other words I'm too complicated.

--Alejandro Moria, at Nuestra Palabra

Tony lives with his wife of one year, a Chilean lawyer named Carolina Ortozar-Diaz, in a small apartment off Richmond, near an adult bookstore called Studz. ("I wanted to do a reading of The Aztec Love God at Studz. They said, nice title, but where are the pictures?") When he moved to Houston in 1992, his parents were already living here, having moved from Chicago to be near one of Tony's older sisters. They live on the north side, and Tony visits them regularly. On Sundays, he and Carolina gather there with other relatives to play Mexican bingo.

Tony gives a good deal of credit to this "support system," which kept him from feeling isolated during graduate school. Not everyone has had such support -- the novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros has said that her anger at being a "weed" among "hothouse flowers" in graduate school fueled her rebellion, and developed her unique style of writing. Tony, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have ever been angry in his life.

Sprawled on pillows in the "hippy corner" of his apartment, which is rounded out with candles and a stereo system, he talks about the time in college when he first encountered a book by a Latino author, Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets. Though he was struck by the idea of a Latino protagonist -- before that his own stories were "sci-fi, or about families that weren't my family" -- he knew he hadn't suffered the harsh discrimination that Thomas had suffered. "I have always been able to adjust to situations," Diaz says. "It's not that I expected or invited discrimination. But to me, that's just the way the system is going to work. So what are you going to do? How are you going to change that particular system?"

Tony's mind works quickly, faster than his mouth. His sentences don't finish themselves, often skipping across a subject like flat stones across water. "What amazes me is just how auras, imaginations work," he says, chewing over Miguel Algarin's reading in Austin, where people waited hours in a rainy parking lot for the poet to take the stage. "Algarin, he's got an aura, you know? When you see pictures of saints in books, that little glow is how artists personify that.... If I know where my energy is, and I speak to that, that's where the glow comes from. People sense excitement. And I have an unshaken confidence in my own success."

If Tony has anything to worry about, it might be the problem of how to devote enough time to his own literary work. In addition to Nuestra Palabra, he is editing a national anthology called Latino Heretics. His next three books will be a collection of essays called The Cactus Eaters, and two of short stories called Sombrero Hysteria and Petroleum Allocator, which is what Tony called himself when he pumped gas at a Chicago service station as a teenager.

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