"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Retro Review: Sandra Cisneros' Bad Boys

We continue are look back at the "zero" years with a review of Sandra Cisneros' first book.
Above, Sandra Cisneros 1980 Bad Boys (black and white photo, not original color)
Sandra Cisnero's often forgotten work is a small gem
A Review of Bad Boys
by Raymundo Eli Rojas
Sandra Cisneros' 1980 chapbook Bad Boys (Mango Chicano Chapbook Series #8), for many readers, was their introduction to the great writer. Mango Publications was also in its infancy, being founded by Lorna Dee Cervantes, either one or two years before, publishing their first chapbook Speedway by Orlando Ramirez in 1979.

Bad Boys is small, even for chapbooks, containing seven poems. Cisneros was no newcomer though. She had been published in many journals before the publication of Bad Boys, which in some ways became her forgotten child.

Four years later, she would publish the classic House on Mango Street. It is historically inaccurate for some critics to say her literary fame was only based on one book when she already had a publication history in journals in the 1970s and Bad Boys in 1980. This was before House on Mango Street was published. What is more alarming, the critics who made this comment (I think one was Ilan Stavans, was it in the Hispanic Condition?), made the comment in the 1990s, when she had already come out with two more books, My Wicked, Wicked Ways and Women Hollering Creek.

For me, Cisneros was the first writer of Mexican American extraction that I ever read. Remember, in elementary school in East El Paso in the '80s, I did not know what a Chicano(a) was. There are few stories I remember from those elementary school readers -- one was Gwendolyn Brooks -- the other is Sandra Cisneros. Unfortunately, for a Chicanito from East El Paso, I don't think the educational system exposed me to any other Chicano writer from K to 12. I'm holding up a sign a la Bugs Bunny, that says, “Tragic isn't it.”

Cisneros entered the Iowa Writers Workshop around 1978, and Bad Boys was published in 1980, so this work might have been produced when she was still in Iowa getting her MFA.

The poem “Velorio” gives us a nostalgic look at childhood, as Cisnero talks to old friends and remembered summers. The girls play, but it seems the author does not understand a wake is in process for a baby. The poems are like a conversation with a childhood friend, but the house also plays a significant role as Cisneros describes its intricacies. The poems references her friend's mother, and a baby in a box for a velorio/wake:

The kitchen chairs facing front
where in the corner is a satin box
with a baby in it.

Who is your sister Lucy
Your mama not crying
saying stay pray to Jesus

That baby in a box like a valentine
and I thinking it is wrong
us in our raw red ankles...

The poem “Joe,” interweaves Beetle mania with the creepiness of a neighborhood bachelor who lives with his mother, letting young girls into his apartment:

And on the walls
naked lady pictures
real and not real
for Joe and Davy's brother
to look at slow

Cisneros describes Joe being “lazy” and lounging around, smoking, kicking back, and when he finally leaves, it is the last time they see him:

hours and hours and
meeting is adjourned until
when all will read in the papers
tomorrow how Joe is the same
who says Yes I like go-go
and No I don't see Beatle movies
dies under the wheel
on the road to St. Charles
which everybody knows
was Gods will.

In “Arturo Burro” Cisneros code-switches between Spanish and English. The poem seems to relate the smuggling of a brother across the border by hiding him in the car, but I could be wrong. “Papa makes us promise to lie/3 kids we got remember it/but we got Arturo inside”.

Domestic violence is a theme in “South Sangamon,” as Cisneros tells us of an abusive husband, trying to get into the apartment:

We wake up
and it's him
banging and banging
and the doorknob rattling open up.
His drunk cussing
her name all over the hallway
and my name mixed in.

The poems deceives us into thinking of a little girl hearing the domestic violence next door, but when Cisneros write “...and my name mixed in”, we realize the poem is from the perspective of the abuser's child:

He yelling from the other side open
and she yelling from this side no.

In the poem “Traficante,” a girl goes to school with an infected hand, hiding it until the teacher notices and takes her to the pharmacy. Reading this poem, one can imagine the teacher walking the girl down the street to the pharmacy, something the teacher probably has done before with the Mexican children. Unanswered is how the hand got infected, and why have the parents not treated it (too poor? No Obamacare back then?), but this mystery is part of what makes the poem work.

Another nostalgic poem is “Good Hotdogs,” which may remind readers of childhood stops between home and school, like ice cream parlors, taco stands, raspas ("Nachitas" for those you from El Paso's San Juan barrio and Cooley School), and in this case -- hotdogs. Children run from school, but instead of going home, they go purchase hotdogs:

Fifty cents apiece
To eat our lunch
We'd run
Straight from school
Instead of home
Two blocks
Then the store
that smelled like steam
You ordered
Because you had the money

The poem “Hot dogs”  describes a smell  of steam that will probably give the writer déjà vu into her old age. It also describes days when the responsibility of carrying the money was given to your older sibling. Was it money the kids were suppose to use for lunch at school? We don't know, but likely.

Some critics have said Cisneros poetry is deceiving, and that there is much more to her words than meets the eye. In “The Blue Dress,” the poet describes a subway ride, a man visiting a lady in a blue dress. 

One gets a sense that the women is pregnant or plump, “curve of the belly/the blue dress is waving/good by,” and “She says any day now.” The woman has an appetite. The man shows his affection, but in reality, he has none for her:

You want to tell her that you love her
You do not love her
You buy her flowers

The woman seems to be a visitor, not a native to the city. It could be the girl is in Catholic school in the city (or convent for pregnant teens?), and the man is dating her, but she obviously is way above his class. 

The poet says “She knows the subways now/as if she were a native.” The poet writes this poem from an observation standpoint, emphasizing the women's whiteness, “Her white skin.../and her eyes are blue.” The woman talks of seeing far-off places, “of towns you know/names you don't” making the narrator wish for far off travels and to “go places.”

Bad Boys is a short, but discreet beginning, at least in the published-book sense, of the prosperous writing career that Cisneros soon have. There are poems of nostalgia, notions of space, domestic violence, and childhood immaturity.

It is significant that Bad Boys, such a good work, would come out of such a small press like Mango Publications. Looking back, it is a shame also, as prints of this often forgotten collection were/are limited, not giving readers of future generations much access to it unless they scour the special collections sections at university libraries.

Francisco Aragon, in his interview with Gary Soto regarding the Chicano Chapbook Series, said that he (Aragon) and Rich Yañez wanted to edit an anthology of the series. These rare gems need to be more accessible, so I tell Francisco and Rich, dale gas!

No comments: