In Gritos (Grove Press: New York), Dagoberto Gilb's first non-fiction collection, the reader will discover a Chicano fighting for his place in American literature, a Chicano fighting for respect for the working poor, and even a Chicano struggling against himself, and his worst instincts. The honesty and often spectacular prose of these essays are reasons why they should be essential to anyone who wishes to challenge the too-often exclusive and esoteric status of American literature. These essays are truly gritos into the hot sun: primal, heart-wrenching as well as ecstatic, and often explosive.
Gilb's literary battles begin, as they so often do, in Texas. In "Un Gritos de Tejas," he chronicles how his essay on Mexico is rejected by Texas Monthly for putting readers into "a dreamlike trance," and so the mag wants an assistant to help show him "how to write correctly, like his people." Gilb, with his "hot-chile temper," sticks it to the magazine's mandarins and sells the essay, as is, to Harper's Magazine. Sometimes, the literary battleground is more internal. In "This Writer's Life," one of the best essays in the collection, Gilb shows how his work as a writer has changed his view about what a writer should write about. As a journeyman carpenter for almost two decades, he adamantly believed a writer should write about the 'adventure of experience.' Work. Trying to make the rent. The casual brutality of the powerful against those with nada. And then Gilb becomes a professor of writing, and discovers writers whom he admires have often made it up, with imagination and not experience. And he admits: "I want to widen my narrow, limited thinking. Though I'm the teacher, I am the one who wants to learn."
Gilb often writes about El Paso (where he lived for many years), a love-hate relationship if there ever was one. In "El Paso" and "Living Al Chuco," he rails against those who think El Paso is but a nest of 'dirt streets and pink brothels and all-night bars and badass cholos.' He counters: "El Paso's the best of Mexican culture: moms, dads, brothers, sisters, babies, the cuñados and suegros, compadres and comadres. Grandfathers teach Spanish proverbs. Grandmothers walk children to school. Drivers go slow. In those big American cars. Even in the trucks. In life, too." But in El Paso they don't pay enough not to leave town. But in El Paso, the powers-that-be exclude "the wrong kind" from a reading with the famed poet Denise Levertov, and nobody gets too upset about it. But in El Paso, the music stations make him hate what they so generously call 'jazz.' And please don't ask him about El Paso newspapers. Dagoberto Gilb and El Chuco. Te quiero, y te quiero matar. The relationship is, well, tortured.
The most moving essays are about familia, where Gilb's anger and love and pride burst into inimitable words. In "L.A. Navidad," the reader will root for Gilb --fresh off the construction site, covered with concrete dust-- to slug the idiot who has carelessly flung a racial slur at Gilb's wife while she shops for a Christmas tree. And in "Letter to My Sons," there, on the page, is the love a man has for his children and the bittersweet remembrance of what he has, and has not done, for them. So this pugilistic writer has a heart after all.
Finally "Mi Mommy" must rank at or near the top of this collection of essays. Gilb takes the perspective of, first, a young boy holding his beautiful mother's hand, awash in trust and admiration and even jealousy (of solicitous men). Gradually, the perspective evolves to that of a young adult, who recognizes that his mother is not too trustworthy. She drinks too much and has a series of ex-husbands. Writes Gilb: "My mother was becoming a person I wouldn't want to know…." At the end, drawn to each other by a psychic conversation they have hundred of miles apart, the son and the mother forgive each other and almost say what they have not said for years. But it is enough.
What Dagoberto Gilb most clearly exemplifies is kinetic experience translated into musical, even poetic words. He is not for those who want to compromise and get along. He is not for those who don't want to know themselves, in contradiction or blind assertion, in the ugly pedos as well as the gritty triumphs. Gritos is a rough-hewn gem of brutal honesty, and so sorely necessary in American literature today.
This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on May 18, 2003.