They're in your face, these essays. Dagoberto Gilb has ascribed the spirit of the grito--the "ÁViva!" in a Mexican rally or lament in a mariachi love song--to his essay collection, and he's nailed it. They've got so much attitude and arrogance, so much candor, bias and raw emotion, and so much authentic material that you're snagged É like it or not.
Gilb, whose fiction (Woodcuts of Women, The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña) derives from his own experience, was for 16 years a journeyman carpenter before becoming a full-time writer. Calling himself pocho or "halfie"--his mother Mexican-born and his father German-American--he writes about working class Los Angeles and El Paso (plus in-between Arizona) and about breaking into writing.
According to his introduction, most of the essays were written for practical reasons: for money or somebody requested them They're products of the journeyman writer. Appearing first in venues as different as The New Yorker, Fresh Air and Carpenter, their lengths and styles vary, but their themes remain constant: respect, race, loyalty, family, machismo and the magic--and sometimes treachery--in wielding words rather than hammers.
Although he's now teaching English in a university setting (Southwest Texas State), he takes a jab or two at those in academe, including those at the University of Arizona.
In "This Writer's Life," he skewers the white college boys' rite of seed-spilling at border town bordellos. In "Me Macho, You Jane," he describes a confrontation with a student in a UA lit seminar he taught for a semester. Substituting for a professor whose pre-enrolled class was titled "Women Writers and the World of Their Invention"--which he learned only after accepting the position--he was already in trouble before he landed on campus and masculinized the reading list. A couple of months into the semester, a female MFA candidate staged a little personal demonstration: Holding an assigned novel up by a corner, as if it stank, the student dropped it loudly and contemptuously on a table and pronounced it unsuitable for a graduate-level seminar.
The action rendered Gilb speechless with anger. "No guy," he writes, "would have dared to do what that student did." Her issuing what amounted to a physical challenge in a non-physical world--the university setting constructed of ideas and language--shattered fundamental rules, he claims. On a construction site, you're judged by your physical presence; in academe, by your words: "arguments are supposed to be bulky and muscular . . . civility and manners are the high tools of learning."
Affectingly, more than once in this collection, Gilb writes to rectify being betrayed by spoken language.
In "What I Would Have Said About the State of Texas Literature," he dons the voice of a naïf and gives readers impressions of what happened when Laura Bush introduced him to address a book festival: "I'm telling you, it wasn't my fault that only one-syllable words, one at a time, period, next word, with pauses to help the memory, exited, distantly related, from my mouth." Comedic and self-deprecating, this essay makes the point that Mexican-American writers have been systematically overlooked in Texas.
Gilb is touchy about being overlooked or disrespected--in both his personal and professional lives and his cultural/racial lives. "L.A. Navidad" is pretty much a how-to on retaliating for disrespect. You start by being a muscled 6 feet 4 inches or something, covered in concrete dust, really mad because some guy called your wife a stupid Mexican. You plant yourself over the guy at his table at the International House of Pancakes, stare him in the eye, and speak very loudly and carefully. He apologizes.
These essays are nothing if not personal, and Gilb can express affection as unabashedly as he can anger. Close to his heart are El Paso and the rest of the Southwest.
Gritos is not everybody's essay collection. That MFA candidate, for example, would probably not appreciate Gilb's unrepentant machismo, and there are some Anglo border folks who might resent what he has to say about Mexico and the United States. Gilb is not an innovative stylist--Harper's and New Yorker pieces apart, his prose is less lyrical than utilitarian--and some of his newspaper pieces are too short to fully explore ideas. But these essays project the power of character. They're bold and convincing, full of life, and they revel in the wonder of writing.