Sex and War in the Steel Mill Barrio School Stories of Hugo Martínez-Serros

Lillian Gorman, Martin Ponti, Octavian Stinga, and Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2016-07-19 01:39:53

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), Mitsou, 1919, black ink on paper, 6 by 4.75 inches (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Copyright Balthus)

As a whole, this article draws on three papers drafted by the co-authors specified, as students in MZ’s seminar on Chicago Latino writing, assigned to extend, complement and question the modes of analysis developed by MZ and presented in previous issues of El BeiSMan. In this shortened version, we have eliminated most bibliographical references.

Part I. Sexuality and “Tijuana Bibles” in “Octavo”


A constant problem faced by literary scholars is the need to catalog, organize, and disseminate knowledge based on very inflexible categories such as literary movements, literary periods, literary genres, and geographic literary production. As useful as these categories are in providing an overall picture of the major themes uniting several works, this organization comes into question when we try to include a text that does not seem to fit fully within the criteria of a specific category. This inherent problem, which we might explore in relation to a recent book like Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski’s Painted Cities, emerges with reference to Chicano literature in our ongoing study of Martínez-Serros’ Chicago steel mill barrio stories.

An overarching question here is how to approach a Chicano-Chicago text and a writer whose experience is considerably different from Chicano writers in the Southwest and even very different from other Midwest writers, when the very categories of Chicano literary analysis have been established primarily in function of Southwest Chicano literature. Again and again we have been forced to note that the Mexican experience in Chicago is quite different from the Southwest experience, since Chicago was not part of the colonized territories, and the city’s Mexican experience is post-Spanish. Many Mexicans came to Chicago not only from agricultural fields and towns, but rather directly from urban as well as rural areas of Mexico itself to work in urban and industrial centers as part of the proletarian regular or reserve army needed to develop a modern urb in its industrial phase. This fact and the relative absence of pre-20th Century U.S. colonization and racialization patterns led to very stark differences between Southwest and Chicago Chicano life and literature. Still many of the themes shared by other Chicano writers are present in the work of Martínez-Serros. Indeed, we should never lose sight of the fact that while his steel mill barrio stories portray a time prior to the Chicano movement, the way the stories are told and the themes they touch have much to do with the influences stemming from the already existing and established Chicano cannon and its own relationship to broader Latino and ethnic minority norms.

Nowhere are these matters presented more clearly than in the two stories to be analyzed in this essay as we set out to explore issues of sexuality and war in relation to questions of racialization in two additional school stories which are significant components of Martínez-Serros’ overall text. Here, with “Octavo” and “Ricardo’s War”, we seem to be in the same school we know from “Her” and “The Birthday” but we are further along a time line extending from the years of the Depression to the beginning of World War II. Here, as in the early stories, we face the adverse effects of a racialized educational system led by teachers and school officials who are far from free of racial and cultural biases. What’s more, these two stories enable us to explore Chicago difference and attitudes toward sexuality, race and war that are important to our understanding the complexities of assimilation or acculturation in the Chicago context.


Sex and Sexuality in “Octavo”

As noted in our previous installment of this study, sex is a striking, compulsive dimension in the world and minds of Martínez-Serros’ Southside Mexicans. It all starts with the linking of phallic patriarchic power in “Distillation” and especially “The Killdeer.” Then in “Her,” the focus goes on female genitals and overall sexuality, so that, after the unnamed seven-year-old protagonist muses on how attracted he is to his vicious teacher, the narrator comments on the boy’s sexual knowledge and interest:

You know as much about girls as anyone your age. You have learned from older boys and from pictures. You know about their secret. Their secret place—know where it is and what it’s for. But you have never seen a real one, only those of babies, and animals, especially dogs. Once you touched Margie’s, but you couldn’t see anything, because the basement was dark and you were scared—it was soft and had a deep line in it. Pussy is like puppy or bunny, a soft Word, like the young rabbits in the park, frightened and always trying to hide; like the pussy willows you like to touch with your fingertips. After a time you do not think of her pussy or any other part of her. But in the beginning you wished you could go into the cloakroom where she was changing, smell her there in the dark, lift her skirt and breathe her sweetness and see that she guards from you so carefully, see the hair the older boys says she has there, beautiful like the hair on her head, soft and brown. (37-38)

Were/are most boys this way? Probably so. But is there something about the repressed sexuality of these working class Catholic Mexican boys that makes their take on sexuality so direct, crude, scatological and aggressive? Is there something about their underclass status which opens the door to “last laughs” and verbal abuse directed at the opposite sex (that of most of their teachers) and authority figures?

No other story by Martínez-Serros explores this theme more tan “Octavo,” where sex and the use of obscene, phallocentric words and images—indeed, the overall “hydraulics” of the male sex drive—become the central matter. Here, the relatively innocent language of the boy in “Her” has become a series of churlish obscenities (dick prick cock, etc.) shared among the story’s adolescent boy ne’er-do-wells—a matter symptomatic of male youth testoserone levels but above all the kind of socialization that meets up against retained dimensions of their pre-U.S. Mexican cultural base to become part and parcel of the subalternity involved in their marginal steel mill Chicago lives.

“Octavo” portrays Mexican immigrants situated in a Depression-period Anglo-American academic environment. Here readers can see cultural differences in customs, attitudes, and diverse lines of authority and power relations. As in “Her,” a recurring answer to the mischievous conduct of the boys is the threat of punishment, marginalization and, implicitly, deportation. And here the mischievousness is directly tied to the “Octavo”, a scandalous, pornographic eight-page pamphlet (or “eight-pager”) of jokes, articles and drawings regularly published and distributed throughout the Chicago area during the period in question. Rarely with any Mexican references, such publications were, ironically, also referred to as “Tijuana Bibles,” as if they somehow originated not in the ever-so-sacrosanct U.S., but in that country just south and all too close to it. Martínez-Serros makes no mention of this matter in his text, and in fact, he may have been unaware of this connection. It is nevertheless true that the story shows how the white teachers connect their Mexican students with smut supposedly rooted in a U.S Southwest/ Mexican Northwest border town.

As the story begins, three of those students, sons of recent immigrants, are nervously awaiting their chance to read and joke, groan and moan, about the eight-pager’s latest edition. When one of the students lands a copy, the boys pass it around, laughing and grunting as they look at the text’s sexy images. “The girls are excluded” (85), says the narrator, referencing the closed male gender world, in which female classmates don’t count and women only exist as sex objects or nasty, authoritarian, repressive teachers—those who have what the boys want but won’t give up and frown on those who want them to. The boys shuffle off to the student men’s room, which they deem a safe sanctuary to glam onto the prurient material they so much long to study, unlike the sexless pabulum the teachers insist they master.

As in a few other Martínez-Serros stories, this one is told in second person singular. “You have been at your lessons for almost an hour”; “You and the other boys have grown more and more rebellious” (85). This narrative point of view denotes the differences experienced by the sons of Mexican immigrants at the school where rejection and contempt in the midst of partial. Uneven accommodation and acculturation processes become dominant bases for their emergent post-immigrant cultural set. Here there is no form of respect for these boys, but rather a series of informal but compelling pressures which lead contradictorily from guarded resentment to a tacit posture of obdurate, sullen resistance that becomes a virtual stance of defiance against what the boys take for the norms of a supposedly organized, strict and prudish “Americanization” process that was a not so implicit schooling policy in the late years of the depression. Against this virtual system, the Mexican boys respond through sexist attitudes and the use of obscene words—creating a counter language world and an overall machistic sex-centered cultural identity, which takes shape and crystalizes in Steel Mill Chicago schools.

No doubt, South Chicago Mexicans have an internal cultural reserve to draw upon in their struggle against the dominant cultural prerogatives that teachers and school officials impose on them. The very curse words they use in Spanish as well as English (“chingao” as well as the “penal variants” mentioned above) seem aimed at doing battle against a more overtly euphemistic discourse system which glosses over or misrepresents the very repressive, and puritanical but ultimately hypocritical atmosphere in which the boys have been formed; the sexist, scatological and machistic words become the way the boys register their difference even as they suffer the consequences of the very system against which they fight but which simultaneously has its way with them.

It is in this light that we can find in this story, as well as others by Martínez-Serros and other Chicago Chicano writers, that cultural resistance which, in his celebrated study, Ramón Saldívar sees as central to Chicano literature. In Martínez-Serros’ Chicago version of that literature, the modes of resistance have to do with a culture already transformed by Chicago’s Steel Mill world, and soon to be undergoing further transformations in a time of all-out war.

In “Octavo”,” we find our Mexican boys drawing on their initial machistic cultural norms in combination with the weapons they appropriate from dominant gringo culture to produce a new cultural set which, as much as it enables them to hold their own, also tends to limit their potential growth as humans able to free themselves from the patriarchal domination, repression and violence which lurk behind the euphemistic appeal to values such as discipline, organization and restriction.

In Martínez-Serros’ school stories, freedom of expression is very limited for the Mexican and other minority students. Such students don’t have rights but rather obligations that have to be fulfilled: to learn the discipline needed for minimum wage jobs, to be unable to join or form a union, to not expect medical coverage (and this in a horrendously polluted industrial environment), to not have hope for a vastly better life. Like the Chicago African Americans of Langston Hughes in a trope made famous by Loraine Hansberry, they are taught to live a life of hope deferred (a life of “raisins in the sun”) in which not sex so much as aggressive, deprecatory discourse about sexuality, is one of their few outlets.

Of course, the schoolteachers and officials in “Octavo” see things in a different light. They express a wish that these students take more interest in their lessons (90); but they also seem to have given up on them in this regard, hoping that the other “White” kids never become like them (91). The “Americans” don’t want to identify themselves with immigrants and their sons, but they also claim to hope that the boys will somehow become obedient and learn to respect the superior culture to which they are being introduced. Of course, the boys discover that their teachers seem to share the same prurient fascination and compulsion for which they are being attacked and threatened, a matter pointing to the overall repression the educational system entails. So, after the teachers violate the sacred masculine student bathroom space, they reprimand the boys and confiscate their “octavos,” all in the name of virtue, only to be discovered later by the boys who see them joking and laughing over the those same octavos which they are perusing just as the boys had done before them. As a leader, Frank, or Francisco, finally gets the courage to demand his book back from the teacher who seems to enjoy it in spite of her overt outrage. But she threatens to expose him to his parents. But he backs off and concludes that the attractive Mrs. Morgan (another “Her”) doesn’t wish to submit herself to the attention of the principal Fitts, who, Frank believes, demands sexual favors from his teaching staff. So ends the story on a note that points to the failure of the educational system that is mis-educating and failing the Mexican boys.

Although the reference is to school and schooling, the story is more generally about young Mexicanos who seek ways to evade the effects of an overall oppressive system. In this sense, the boys see the “eight-pagers” as a way of giving themselves more importance and independence in the face of the powers that be. The octavos serve as an escape the boys have from this demands and chains of the school world in which they are trying to grow. Their frustration is in not being treated as equals or even subjects; and their struggle turns against the repressive discipline of a system, which seeks to erase their cultural differences and lead them to curses and obscenities that deepen the more negative and distinctive characteristics. In response to their supposedly extreme sexual obsessions, they are menaced with being sent, or deported, to the principal’s office (86) for their sexual proclivities, their aggressive behavior toward the girls in the class, and in general for lacking a strict organized way of behaving.

Even as the Depression’s Mexican repatriation process declines, La migra and possible deportation remain central to Chicago’s immigrant imaginary. Writing long after the war years, but probably remembering some actual people, Martínez-Serros assigns Nordic or Anglo-Saxon origin surnames (Dorn, Morgan, Brandt, Fitts) to the school representatives, apparently seek to represent authoritarian discipline and punishment. At the same time, he leaves the boys without surnames, three of them with purely Spanish Biblical-origin surnames Lázaro, Jorge and Jaime, while our key boy (who may well be Pancho) has an Anglicized designation which seems to intend his turning down the assimilationist road as a gringo-ized All-American phallic hotdog of a boy named Frank. Nevertheless, as the boys see through the hypocricy of their teachers, the action of the story corresponds to the term early Chicago Mexican historian Louise Año Kerr (1979) developed to characterize the Depression era path of many of the population she studied, as cases of “assimilation aborted.” The boys are learning not to submit, even if it may mean a social calamity in which (as in Corky Gonzalez’s “Yo soy Joaquín”) they affirm what may well be a distorted view of their identity even as they seemingly begin to lose “the economic battle” in the space where they live.

Reading pornography under student desk tables or in the men’s room constitutes a sadly limited “act of vengeance,” or “last laugh” as the boys live their lives in rancor and fantasy striking out against an educational system which should encourage creativity and imagination but instead denies them the right to express themselves. A culture or system based on repression and punishment will result in the most negative consequences unless there is some path to recuperation and redemption. The humiliations and insults, the curses, counter-curses and obscenities of “Octavo” trace the sources of the difficult road Mexican males and (however implicitly) Mexican females would have to traverse in the years to come. The questions raised persist to this day: How much must the Mexican immigrants and their children and children’s children suffer and be menaced not only by a repressive school system but by the overall racialized society in which they live? What have they done and what can they do to overcome the negative structures and strictures imposed and internalized by the system in which they have been immersed?


Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the U. of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes.   Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature is El BeiSMan, and has just published his second book of fiction, Martín and Marvin.


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