By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
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 Pœblico, 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 Pœblico 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."
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."
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.
"I felt like I had been lost for 32 years and I finally found home, an environment of other Latina writers who knew where I was coming from," Palacios says of the first time she read at Nuestra Palabra.
Indeed, the crowd is warm, welcoming -- and hip. Feminism, even homosexuality, are taken as they come. Alejandro Morœa, a sharply dressed assistant product manager at Chase Manhattan Bank, feels particularly gratified when his rant about being called a "chicana falsa," a pejorative term he's encountered as a gay Mexican-American, drew howls of laughter and fervent applause. As a member of QUAC, the Queer Artists Collective, Morœa is accustomed to performing for a mostly gay audience that doesn't necessarily appreciate the Latino element in his Spanish-sprinkled writing. Here, he found an audience that could. "I was amazed," he says. "I really didn't know how it was going to go.
"[Groups in] this city [aren't] necessarily as proactive as minority groups in other cities when it comes to culture and the arts," Morœa adds. "Generally, you find more of an assimilationist attitude. There's not a lot of space, so you just have to create your own. Tony did that."
My struggle sometimes
juts from my wrist,
a vine, that wraps
itself around my hand.
Each leaf is split
between what I'd like to do
and what I actually do.
--Carolina Monsivais, at Nuestra Palabra
"We're going to kidnap Miguel Algarin and bring him back to Nuestra Palabra," Diaz informs the four other passengers in the Mazda Protege as it speeds toward Austin. Actually, he has just that morning learned that Algarin, a founder of the Nuyorican poetry movement in New York City, is in Austin for the national poetry slam. Algarin is going to throw down, and we are going to see him do it. That's all. But Diaz prefers to inflame our imaginations. He wants us to consider this simple three-hour drive a brave and dangerous mission. Kidnapping the hero, for the good of the movement.
Similarly, even as Diaz convenes a prominent board of directors, applies for nonprofit status and milks his media connections for all they're worth, he insists on thinking of Nuestra Palabra as a covert operation. "I like the feeling that we could be here doing this positive thing ... or sabotaging Wall Street," he says. "It's voodoo. Magic. It is the great Sixth Sun of the Aztec!"
Somehow, Tony's flair for the dramatic doesn't translate into idealistic stargazing. Instead, it fuels an expansive, audacious vision. "Sheer, raw imagination," he says, "is a dangerous thing." As the emcee of Nuestra Palabra, he regales the audience with plans for a Latino film night, a Latino comedy night, a free writing workshop for Nuestra Palabra participants, readings scheduled for several branches of the Houston Public Library, and a Nuestra Palabra anthology.
And those are just the immediate goals. Tony's "secret" long-range plan, outlined on four pages of typing paper and involving plenty of as-yet-unobtained grant money, is basically a full-fledged siege on the publishing industry, an industry that pays little attention to Latinos either as writers or literary consumers. To rectify the situation, Tony plans to groom 20 writers -- writers like Monsivais and Rios -- to apply for creative writing graduate schools, particularly UH's, by 1999.
While some critics see this plan as an elitist attitude -- that writers have to be academically trained to excel -- Diaz points out that most of the Latino writers who have achieved success (here, he includes himself) have been through MFA programs. He also believes that in the long run, the presence of Latino students will affect the literary establishment just as much as the establishment affects them. If nothing else, the pool of potential Latino faculty members will swell. Currently, fewer than 3 percent of college professors are Hispanic, and the UH writing program faculty is virtually all white. As a result, students don't recognize themselves in the education system, Diaz says.
While Diaz is busy encouraging new writers, he's not forgetting the flip side: creating an audience for their work. One idea he has is to train Nuestra Palabra writers to educate high school teachers about contemporary Latino literature in "one-day, one-week and multi-week presentation formats."
"They've been teaching The House on Mango Street [by Sandra Cisneros] for the past six years," he says. Nuestra Palabra has wasted no time trying to change that. When Rios's story "The King's Coke" was published in the local Tejano Times, Diaz sent it to a teacher who was conducting a remedial summer school class for bilingual students, and she taught it to her kids. "If we're going to wait for Little, Brown and Company to publish it," Diaz says, "these kids'll be out of college. But it's like, instantaneous."
Tony also envisions Nuestra Palabra bookstores in Hispanic neighborhoods, a series of chapbooks to be distributed through the Houston Independent School District, and writing classes for everyone from kids to comadres (the female equivalent of compadres) at a host of Latino organizations. One page of the master plan, which Tony calls the "delusion page," describes a Latino Writers Institute, complete with a part-time employee who takes care of the chore of submitting work to journals for publication.
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
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.
At least right now, though, Tony has a literary movement to baby-sit. A movement that, he says, can only get bigger. "Only good things can come of this," he says. But what's in it for him? Apparently, a divine mandate.
"It feels good," Tony says. "Plus, I have to believe that I'm the only one who could pull this off at this second. So I have to do it. It feeds my delusions of grandeur."
E-mail Shaila Dewan at firstname.lastname@example.org.