Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F E A T U R E
ROB JOHNSON AND THE HAUNTED VALLEY OF FANTASMAS
b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   m a r g i n

II. SUPERNATURAL FACES AND PLACES
THIS ANTHOLOGY proudly sports work from a cross-section of writers who, as a group, don't often get to see their work celebrated in such a mainstream venue. In fact, Courtney Martin, reviewer for the San Antonio Express-News, is accurate in reporting that "Fantasmas may be the only anthology of contemporary cuentos de fantasmas (supernatural writings) from Mexican American writers currently in print."

Internet research for similar publications under the search term, CUENTOS DE FANTASMAS -- at least those published in English -- confirms Martin's speculation. Only a smattering of titles exists: among them, a 1992 instructional video entitled Cuentos de Fantasmas, marketed as a tool for exposing Spanish language students to Hispanic culture; the collection, Iguana Dreams (New Latino Fiction: 1992) edited by Delia Poey; and an obscure book (still in print, amazingly, after 20 years) of stories titled Cuentos, collected by Juan B. Rael, selected and adapted in Spanish by José Griego y Maestas, then retold in English by Rudolfo Anaya which, while being decidedly fantastic and Mexican American in focus, is not at all contemporary. Similarly, other searches using broader terms (i.e. , MEXICAN AMERICAN TALL TALES) reaped few legitimate or comparable results.

Sharing the helm and vision of Fantasmas is author Kathleen Alcalá, who not only contributes her transformative story, "Altar," to the collection, but the introduction to the book as well.

To Johnson, Alcalá was the perfect choice for the job. In his feature interview of Alcalá for the American Center For Artists, Johnson writes: "I live in McAllen, Texas, eight miles from the Mexican border at Reynosa, three hours by car from Saltillo and other places in Northern Mexico Alcalá writes about. I read her work for a fundamental reason: she opens my eyes and shows me, literally, a new way of seeing who I am, the people I live among and the place where I live."

Alcalá also lends credibility to Fantasmas in that she enjoys an ongoing mainstream literary career, not only as a short story writer and novelist (Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, Treasures in Heaven, The Flower in the Skull, Spirits of the Ordinary), but also as a winner of prestigious literary awards. She contributes equally to the nonfiction world and is currently a champion for the Latino National Conversation, a nationwide initiative started by the Great Books Foundation. Its broad goal is to bring to the mainstream a far-reaching dialog about Latino literature. Last spring, Alcalá curated a showcase of Latino writers and artists in Seattle as part of the initiative. Her program featured presentations by master storytellers followed by open mics, after which audiences were invited to vote stories "biggest or the best."

Other major contributors to Fantasmas include David Rice ("The Devil in the Valley"), author of two collections, Give the Pig a Chance and Crazy Loco, which earned the Best Books for Young Readers distinction from the American Library Association in 2001; René Saldaña Jr. ("El Bronco y La Lechuza"), whose first story collection, The Jumping Tree, was reviewed favorably by The New York Times and who boasts a three-book contract with Random House; American Book Award-winner Elva Treviño Hart ("Beyond Eternity"); and widely published and anthologized author Daniel Olivas.

Johnson made room for a number of emerging authors as well, including Stephanie R. Reyes of Austin, whose contribution to Fantasmas, "Bad Debts and Vindictive Women," is her first published story.

But perhaps in keeping consistent with the book's penchant for the urban legend, Johnson notes that Fantasmas author Brandt Jesús Cooper, who wrote "A New Night of Long Knives," has since mysteriously disappeared (though one can be sure he didn't fall to a chupacabra; urban legend experts have made it clear that human beings are not among that infamous predator's usual prey).

When the book finally came together, Johnson found that with few exceptions, the stories in Fantasmas worked well for the English-speaking reader. "The writers all contextualize the Spanish very well" for what Johnson expected would be a mostly monolingual (English speaking) audience. The stories incorporate a moderate, though navigable, amount of Spanish interspersed with English, which could have been a challenge for the Texas native, who is surprisingly not fluent in Spanish.

Any possible deficiency in this area, though, was easily averted thanks to the careful handling of the book's publisher, Bilingual Review/Press. The house has been showcasing U.S. Hispanic writing for almost thirty years, focusing on work of "considerable weight and significance" and specializing in classic Chicana/Chicano fiction and bilingual titles.

Johnson has been pleased with BPR's presentation of Fantasmas. "I knew they would do a good job with the Spanish in the book, and in fact they did, carrying on interesting discussions with the authors about usage and diction." The result? Stories which keep their authenticity without leaving readers outside the context.

Though reviewer Raymundo Elí Rojas, linguist and editor of Pluma Fronteriza, disagrees on this point. In his review for stantonstreet.com, El Paso's Online Magazine, he writes: "... I think some of the writers try too hard to have a mix of Spanish and English in their stories. Some do it to a point where it no longer seems genuine."

Johnson doesn't deny there are limitations to presenting the voices of a specific cultural group of writers to the American mainstream. "I think there is a level to the book that even I, the editor, don't fully understand," he says, though he points out: "I know I get jokes other people would not, simply because I know the Valley setting of several stories very well." That is to say, Johnson trusts the context.


AND WHAT a context. Forget about fiction for a moment -- the real-life stories of the region, indeed, validate the notion that The Valley (not really a valley at all, but a fertile delta plain) is a kind of crossroads for marvelous realities.

Of particularly folklorish relevance to the Rio Grande Valley region is the story behind the national shrine at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle. The legend goes that there are really two shrines in one; the second burned when a suicidal pilot crashed his plane into its tower. It is reported that the pilot warned authorities by radio of his impending doom so that they could evacuate any children from the building. The only part of the shrine to survive the explosion, according to local historians, was the statue of the Virgin, which was being kept, at that time, in the cafeteria.

Was it a miracle? To a northerner, probably not. To a local, probably so.

Johnson's own relocation to The Valley from East Texas in the mid-1990s provided him with an instant education into local folkways. He'd known little of border culture previous to the move, save what he had absorbed living in Los Angeles and San Antonio.

"But even in San Antonio, you could live there and still feel as if you were living in a Midwestern city run by White people," Johnson points out. Growing up in East Texas, to Johnson, was like growing up in America's deep South, in terms of cultural alignment.

But not so, in The Valley, he says. "It is its own culture: border culture. Many people here do not really speak English, although what's more remarkable is that not everyone speaks Spanish." He estimates that at least eighty percent of the region's million or so residents are Mexican American.

To Johnson's surprise and pleasure, he discovered that, in The Valley, everyone was a natural storyteller. "The stories are everywhere, and they aren't familiar ones," he points out. "Stories are actually more important to people than movies and TV."

Though Johnson is quick to clarify, "...I'm talking oral culture, not literary culture."

But what rooted him to this place was not something to be intellectualized; in fact, it might be considered a miraculous event:

Moving a few years ago to South McAllen ("The City of Palms"), Johnson came to claim, as the centerpiece of the back yard, a 75-foot-tall palm tree, no doubt planted there when the house was built in 1950.

"My wife loved to hear the sound of the wind in those high palm leaves," he says.

A few months later, they experienced a tremendous electrical storm.

"Lightning struck my palm tree, scarring it all the way down, and scorching the earth in about a six-foot radius all around the trunk and over onto the mountain laurel bush. Of course the tree was dead, and we had to have it cut down."

A house a few blocks away was also struck by lightning during the same storm. It burned to the ground.

"That made it onto the local TV news. And so did our house. They filmed our now-dead palm tree and said -- and I found this funny at the time -- that the tree had given its life to save our house, acting as a kind of lightning rod. I thought, What superstitious people to have such an angle on the death of my palm tree! How irrational! "

But the more Johnson thought about it, the more he grew to appreciate the local and alternative interpretation of what had happened to his beloved palm tree, if for no other reason because it gave him relief from feeling singled out by such a statistically unlikely and tragic event.

The stories in Fantasmas, while fictive, recount the same kinds of tales in testimony to the dichotomous nature of the borderlands. Here you find the easy sandwiching of Americanization -- pop culture, brand names, technology and media -- with layers of oral tradition and folkways imported from mother Mexico. The effect, for the reader of Fantasmas, is a kind of voyeuristic meandering through a place of palm groves and haciendas, of wayside taverns and botanicas and of the small quaint homes of failing loved ones -- a place where you can detect a sound, like breathing, animating the space, if you listen carefully enough.


SO LOCALIZED are these stories, though, that it has been a challenge, Johnson admits, in getting publishers and readers from outside The Valley to accept the inherent mainstream value of his book.

In 1998, Johnson tried to interest mainstream New York publishers in Fantasmas via his literary agent, but to no avail.

"Editors in New York City have never set foot in places like South Texas or Nogales, Arizona, unless it was, briefly, as a cultural tourist," he complains.

But unfamiliarity with the literary wealth of the region is only partly to blame for not seeing the broad cultural value in Johnson's collection of cuentos de fantasmas. Much of the problem resides in old prejudice. There remains a deeply entrenched bias among publishers that Mexican American books are only going to interest Mexican American readers, despite the popularity of writers like Alcalá, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros and others. And that is a roadblock, suggests Johnson: "There is the perception in New York that you can't publish Mexican American literature profitably because, well, those people don't read."

Johnson relates the story a local writer likes to tell: "His ex-wife is an Anglo, I think from East Texas, and when he told her he wanted to be a writer, she summed up a consensus viewpoint on the subject of Mexican American writers:

'Two things,' she told him. 'Mexicans don't read, and they don't write.' "

Naturally, this isn't true. Mexican Americans do both, though Johnson wonders, "Do they do them as much as they should, or as much as they need to in order to support a literature of their own?"

He can't say for sure, but makes this observation instead:

"My students, 85 percent of whom are Mexican Americans, have not, as a whole, been introduced to Mexican American literature until they take my class (or a similar one) in college. They are genuinely surprised by the quality and quantity of Mexican American writers who are out there. Then they take the books home to their parents and grandparents and share that work with them." They are the first generation to do this, Johnson says.


THE BLAME for misperceptions about Mexican American culture might also be equally laid upon a firm political correctness that continues to influence the contemporary American literary scene. If a book is perceived by mainstream literati as contributing to a perpetuation of stereotypes -- forget the fact that it's the mainstream contingent defining the stereotypes for the groups they basically marginalize -- then the book is often viewed as culturally regressive.

Unfortunately, that means that a book like Fantasmas is going to take a few hits from the politically correct. Johnson insists that the supernatural stories in Fantasmas are not a perpetuation of stereotypes about Mexican American writers, but a legitimate literary presence well represented, even accepted, by a community that has no problem juggling old realities and belief systems with new ones.

Alcalá, in her introduction, illustrates as well how the problem in perceptions might be traced to generational differences. Contemporary writers regard so-called "stereotypical" symbols of their culture -- the curanderos, for example -- "with irony, affection and an eye toward their aesthetic value." Alcalá asserts that Mexican American writers no longer aim to produce literature meant to be socially acceptable to White culture; rather, they write to express the full spectrum of the culture they know and love, regardless of opinions in the mainstream.

Despite Johnson's and Alcalá's best efforts to clarify the literary value of Fantasmas, the book has encountered some resistance among critics. In Johnson's interview with Alcalá, he points out: "One of the pre-publication readers of Fantasmas was truly angry with the book and wrote,

The field of Mexican American folklore with its ties with Mexico has been greatly overdone, though a book of contemporary writers attempting this has not been done. The field has been so overworked that serious Mexican American short story writers have been struggling their entire careers to create work that does not fit the stereotype that 'all Mexican American lit is about curanderos, la llorona, tortillas and family superstitions.' I'm afraid this book might take the reader and the larger mainstream readership back to those stereotypes.
Alcalá's response to that review points out the problem inherent in "the assumption that this anthology is written for a non-Mexican American reader...the other writers in Fantasmas took the same approach as I do, i.e., that we have an educated readership -- educated about our culture, to whom these things don't need to be explained. The gaze is that of a brown person."

And perhaps no Mexican American author exemplifies this legitimacy better than the award-winning Alcalá, who makes it her business to write and record family ghost stories.

Incidentally, Johnson points out that Alcalá is currently working on an essay about the woman in Houston who recently drowned her five children.

"You see, she's a llorona," he says, alluding to the widespread local myth of a wailing woman who is forced to kill her own children by drowning. The story of la llorona is so deeply entrenched in local oral tradition along the border that savvy television writers have even incorporated la llorona into scenes for the PBS dramatic series, American Family.

Obviously, Alcalá's not the only one to take this stuff seriously.

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