The stories of Hugo Martínez Serros are the only literary record we have of Mexican life in steel town Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s, and are essential to our understanding of the Chicano literature that developed here. Starting with this article and continuing in subsequent issues of El BeiSMan, the goal will be to explore Martínez Serros’ text, its place in Chicago Chicano writing and its contribution to an overall understanding of Chicago Mexicans, Mexican Chicago and Chicago as a whole.
In a previous essay in my ongoing series on Chicago Chicano writing, I tried to provide an introduction to understanding works written and portraying the 1960s and 1970s and after. But what about works that deal with the periods prior to the 1960s — and even prior to the emergence of the entrenched structured enclaves established by Chicago machine politics that were to develop fully after World War II? Do we have any literature that speaks to those early times when Mexicans first attempted to reinforce traditional patterns even as they strove to relate to their Chicago version of U.S. reality, and first engaged in processes of top-down and lateral acculturation which were so prevalent in their relations with dominant social norms and those of other groups? Inevitably, pre-1960s Chicago Mexican life directly or indirectly projected the residues of an agrarian Mexican land-based world view into the city’s diverse and urbanized milieu; however it does so in conditions very adverse to its success and very much marked by reactions to racism, adversity and humiliation which lead to patterns of resistance that have conservative as well as “progressive” implications.
In The Last Laugh and Other stories, Hugo Martínez-Serros enables us to examine these matters. His book has not been ignored but it has hardly been subjected to close critical analysis — even though it projects important questions about agrarian/indigenous-rooted conceptions of space and their transactional and specifically Chicano transformations from the early years of Mexican settlement in the city, and because it provides the only fictional representation we have of Mexican life on Chicago’s South Side. We are indeed very fortunate to have this book because it is our only fictional treatment of Chicano life in the 1940s in Chicago’s steel mill area. While the time period covered is the same as Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, or Jose Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho, a period marked by the insecurities wrought by depression, war and recent immigration status, this text confirms our sense of the more structured situation for Chicago Chicanos referred to in our general introduction. Nevertheless, working structure does not spell relief from poverty and racism, which pervade the world of the children portrayed in this book. In fact, the key father in this text, a harsh, authoritarian, exploited but proud working-class Mexican who defends his native language and his identity against a racist, condescending Spanish priest and all the aggressions of Anglo society, only holds a part-time job in the mills, having to supplement his income by scavenging for food in the city dump or converting a piece of land or even his attic into a “milpa.” Meanwhile, his sons help him in his efforts, as they wage a war for their lives against the brutal and demeaning racism they *experience in their jobs and (perhaps most damning of all) their school experiences.
Several of the stories in this collection are worth studying or their portrayal of patriarchy and the formation of male subjectivity, for their depiction of gender relations in the 1940s; for their treatment of what Mario García (1989) has characterized as the Mexican American generation, especially as Mexicanos relate to other Chicago ethnics, Black, Irish and others — a matter emphasized in Gabriela Arredondo’s book on Mexican Chicago (2008). The effort here will be to discuss the stories in function of these issues which are important to relating Chicago and Midwest to national Chicano and Latino concerns. We will also keep in mind recent book,Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940 by Michael Innis-Jiménez, both for the light it sheds on The Last Laugh, and the issues the fiction text raises and illuminates in relation to Chicago Mexican social history.One final caveat, however. As one of my UIC LALS student, Lillian Gorman has insisted, these stories cannot be seen as pure representations of the period treated, because they show all the signs of having been influenced by other works of Chicano and Latino literature that appeared in the decades prior to their publication. They are therefore works about Mexicanos or Mexican-Chicanos, written within the structural influencesand imperatives of an emerging Chicano literary canon.
According to a note published by Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Laugh-Other-Stories/dp/0934770891), Martínez-Serros “was born in South Chicago, and [somehow] earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. A Professor Emeritus at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, he currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin.” On his retirement he published a Mexico-based novel, Enamored Dust, which depicts “loves in a fictitious village in central Mexico, and re-edited his book of Chicago stories as Steeling Chicago: South Side Stories (2014).” Undoubtedly the collection of stories is central to this contribution to this essay and our overall study of Chicago Chicano writing.
The blurb drafted by Arte Público Press for the book’s back cover provides a characterization of the book as “acollection of short stories which illustrates life in the Mexican-American community of South Chicago . . . [by taking] a humorous and satirical look at such themes as culture and language conflict, dehumanizing work in the steel mills and the Catholic church in an ethnic community.”
To be sure, The Last Laugh is a loose collection of stories, and not all of them achieve the same level of literary or historical resonance. There is certainly humor and satire in the text, but it is the underlying, serious dimension which the blurb best captures.
Rather overtly, most of the stories revolve around what seems to be roughly the same core triad: a father, José María, and his two sons, principally named Jaime and Lázaro. Indeed, José María only appears in some of the eleven stories, but the often unnamed father figure in several others seems to be the same person. The sons sometimes change names also, but their core relationship and personalities do not shift. There is of course a change in perspective as the stories move through the depression and war years to the period of upward mobility hopes and frustrations which follow. And the father seems less central than one or both sons in several of the stories focused on school or teen life. What is apparent is the small, passive or even specifically negative role played by the mother figure, who primarily lives out the imperatives of patriarchy, though swayed to adjust more fully to the demands of an alien cultural milieu and thus creating the need for compensatory action on the part of tradition-bound and otherwise nurture — or, in at least one story, to stand by passively in the face of a fatherly punishment that may well constitute child abuse. Instead, we have either a male surrogate for the father, or in several stories, the racist and often vicious white women who serve as the teachers of the young mexicanos.
The implication of the boy-centered story structure would seem to be that only assertion of male firmness achieved through a defiant stance in the face of the alternative forms of authority offered by the steel world environment can lead to a successful resistance against racist stereotyping and treatment, and against the thwarting of life possibilities which representatives of the system seem intent of fostering throughout the text. Excluding the final story, then, the semiotic pattern implicit in these stories is that the absence or neutralization of the father and his traditional prerogatives leads to some wrongdoing or “inappropriate” self-assertion by one or more of the boys and opens them to punishment by the father or aggression or threat against them, either by surrogate male father figures (like the “Lone Ranger,” Father Tortas or the Cardinal of Chicago just to mention a few stories) or by Anglo authority figures — mainly, white female teachers, who wreak great harm on one Mexican boy or another by actions that are overtly racist, classist and sexist.
At a further level of generalization that applies to all the stories, it may be stated that no matter how varied the male protagonists of a given piece, whether it is boys dealing with their father or male or female authority surrogates, or a father dealing with a supposed spiritual father, or a priest dealing with the Church hierarchy, or the Church authority mediating between man and priests and god, we are faced with situations of authoritarian domination in which the dominated must seek some real or psychic compensation. The title of the collection, taken from the first story, sets the predominant tone. These are stories of adversity and revenge or compensation, psychic release, recovery and cost. The last laugh implies previous ones, previous mockings, humiliations, smerks and insults. These are stories, then, in which mexicanos are scorned and badly treated, sometimes brutally, and in which they achieve some kind of victory over their adversity. But this achievement is measured by its cost. The last laugh is often not unmixed with tears or sarcasm. In each story Mexicanos “lose the economic battle” and win at least for a time a battle to maintain pride and not succumb completely to damning circumstances.
But frequently, it should be noted, the act of “getting back” or avenging is reflexive in the negative sense that the characters risk becoming agents of vindictiveness, of living their lives in function of rancor, and also of fantasizing and carrying out their acts of vengeance against their own kind and ultimately themselves.
While several of the stories deal tellingly with school and church-related experiences, here we shall start with four stories that deal with identity-formation seemingly outside the institutions of social reproduction. Of course, U.S. capitalism, the steel industry and related structures (including the Catholic Church) are implicit in each of these supposedly institution-free stories. But compared to the other works in the author’s collection, these stories, by their lack of direct and explicit institutional mediation, focus most fully on the father/son relationship, especially as related in turn to questions of spacial identity, growing and fertility. The examination of the first three stories culminates with a look at the narrative that is most succinctly paradigmatic of the issues in the book: the brief, telling and well-calculated sketch, “Jitomates.”
The first story of our collection, “The Last Laugh,” immediately presents us with some of the prime motifs of Mexican immigration literature. “They moved,” says the narrator about the family of José María; and we immediately see the steel factory Mexican father driven by his sense of family ambition (his Mexican sacrifice to the demands of the “American dream”) to relinquish or at least transfer his control over his children so that they may help pay with their labor for the new home he has found for the family. In effect, the father hoping for a better future in the midst of the Depression, must risk his children by throwing them out of their sustaining Mexican family world into the alien world of Morris the bartender and his disreputable customers. This is no barrio. The Mexican demographic explosion has not occurred; and while there are some relatively Mexican areas, many Mexicans live in relative isolation without extended family and compadrazgo ties, and, compared to specifically Mexican immigration enclaves, without the everyday circumstances and conditions most conducive to reproducing their Mexicanness. Nevertheless, even here, under adverse conditions, the Mexican kids of the story find a means to affirm their identity — though, as always in these stories, with problematic results.
One of the key ironies here is that the steelworker seeking to advance, fearful that his sons will repeat his sacrificial damnation in the steel mills, must nevertheless initiate them into the world of shovel and furnace to survive and thrive in the raw Chicago winter. To get to the basement the boys must pass through the bar where they are subject to the racist taunts of the white ethnic customers. Above all, they are subject to the anger and hostility of two drunks who had formerly stoked the furnace in return for drinks and who may be said to resent these newcomers’s displacing them from the labor market. The two drunks catch the boys in their efforts to turn their work into mischievous fun in the basement, inform on them so that Morris must tell their father who intervenes to punish them. Finally, the boys find their way to revenge, seizing on the men’s coats, slashing them to pieces and stuffing them in the furnace. The boys have won their right to play in the midst of the work regimen which has broken into their child world. The story ends with them for the moment released from their steelmill surrogate basement world of work, now standing outside by a big oak tree “naked of its summer leaves,” and laughing “to the point of tears.” However, the tears which accompany the boys’ last laugh perhaps result from the fact that they have been compelled to take up some of the very tactics of those who have made the lives of Chicago Mexicans so contradictory and so hard.
The evocation in the first story of trees and growing things so unlike the world of furnaces, steel and coal finds a negative extension in the next story, “Distillation,” where our two boys again must leave behind home, mother and the normative childhood play to go with their only semi-employed father in his obsessive efforts to supplement his income by scavenging for food at the city dump. Once again the movement entails a journey into hell, as the father takes the boys on an improvised kind of scooter cart through Chicago’s South Side to the dumpsite underworld where the essential drama of the story will unfold. If the Chicano experience and Chicano literature is an effort to symbolically salvage lost Mexican sacred lands, then this story must be seen as a bitterly ironic Paradise Lost as our characters struggle to reach and then find sustenance in the dregs of Chicago existence. To be sure this is hell, and quite appropriately Lázaro falls through the dump’s “spongy mass.” “Buried,” Jaime whispers, “he’s buried.” And only the father’s command for Lázaro to rise up brings him back from the dead. Jaime, seeing his brother rise out of “the rotting stuff that clung to him,” senses the insecurity and fragility of his insertion in the world and in fact anticipates his life process stemming from these garbage dump beginnings. “Suddenly the stench of decay, the idea of grabbing something that might crumble into muck, the thought of losing my footing in all that garbage filled me with terror. On tentative feet I went cautiously, expecting the ground to give way beneath me.” A rat springs out from under his foot, and the boy cannot move until he hears his father’s “shrill whistle” rousing him (Martínez Serros: 30).
The story is in fact dominated by the father’s commands, his orders, his discipline, his tyranny and yet his self-harnessing sacrifice, his teaching, his protection. The boys work in silence, subject to the heat, the father’s harsh and angry regimen. In a culminating sequence, they are gripped with terror at the thunder and lightening that “set off detonations that seem . . . to come from deep in the earth” and in fact mark the onset of a fierce apocalyptic hailstorm. Frightened, and huddling together, the boys feel as if abandoned in a godless universe. “Look!” cries one of them, “No one’s out there! No one! Jus’ look! We’re all alone” (29). They are only rescued by the father who orders them to silence their howling and then shelters them with a tarp and his body as he takes the hail on his own back, while asserting himself as the male, patriarchal god (the ultimate chingón) of their lives:
“¡Con una chingada, callense! There’s nothing to fear! ¡Nada! You’re safe with me, you know that, ya lo saben! . . . I would never let anything harm you, nunca, nunca. Ya, cállense, cállense ya. . . . You’re safe, seguros, you’re with me, with Papá” (30-31).
In spite of the father’s harsh authoritarianism, there are moments even prior to his ultimate act of protection and self-sacrifice when he looms as a figure worthy of the deepest awe and emulation. However, it should be added, such modeling may imply not only positive advance, but the risk of a kind of dying. The journey on which the father leads them establishes implicitly the parameters of possibility but also limits, hope but also danger as structured into the Chicago environment. Nevertheless, neither the resurrection of Lázaro nor the boys’ survival of the Midwest elements necessarily spells a complete solution to the problems of class and ethnicity posed by their environment; nor do the experiences they have immediately clarify what is at stake. The borders of their world, the class contrasts and conflicts are inscribed in their “participation in [the father’s] struggle” (25) — as a mystery into which they are being initiated, without that mystery achieving full verbal articulation or the most positive resolution. So, describing the father steering the boys into some of the “better” neighborhoods, with thicker and greener lawns and flowers, Jaime notes, “As my father rushed through these neighborhoods we fell silent. I was baffled by the absence of garbage and my eyes searched for an explanation that was to remain hidden from me for years.” Then, most tellingly, Jaime remarks, “Breathing easily he ran before us and I watched his effortless movement forward. I felt a sudden keen desire to be just like him and for an instant found it difficult to breathe” (23).
“Miren, vean, look around you,” the father shouts. And Jaime tells us:
We were at the summit, and the world fell away from us far into the horizon. To the east, steel mills, granaries, railroad yards, a profusion of industrial plants; to the north and south, prairies, trees, some houses; to the west, main arteries, more plants, the great smoking heaps of the city dump, and farther still, houses and a green sweep of trees that extended as far as the eye saw. Years have changed this area in many ways, but that landscape, like a photo negative, glows in memory’s light (25).
Over the years, long after the depression period, many of the factories would die, the green sweep of trees would be further decimated by post-war development and disease. Large migrations of African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and others would greatly alter the human landscape as well. But what would be the essential image inscribed on our Mexican boy narrator’s psyche and giving shape to his being as inserted in the larger transformative processes of the city and its people?
It is only after their journey back from the desecrated space of their U.S. urban hell, to their not so heavenly or heavenly home that the boys achieve the fullest, most distilled revelation of the painful reality at the core of their initiation. First, they work with their mother to clean the garbage dump vegetables. Then, Lázaro, cutting an orange, slices and bloodies his finger. As Jaime seeks to help him, in emulation of his father, he opens the bathroom door, only to find the father — naked and imposing after the hail and painful journey — about to consummate some act of baptismal purification.
His back and arms were a mass of ugly welts, livid flesh that had been flailed again and again until the veins beneath the skin had broken. . . . Suddenly he seemed to grow, to swell, to fill the bathroom with his great mass. Then he threw his head back shaking his black mane, smiled, stepped into the bathtub and immersed himself in the water (32).
At this point, “without knowing why,” Jaime pauses “before timidly entering” the room — even as he has paused, he tells us, all these years, and pauses even now — even “in full knowledge” now — before reentering that room and that distant Sunday in memory, when he received that fatal revelation about the difficulties of Chicago Mexican survival and the often machistic or patriarchal strategies of resistance available to his father and, it would seem, himself.
Arredondo, Gabriela. Mexican Chicago. Race, Identity, and Nation, 1916-39: Becoming Mexican in early twentieth-century Chicago. Urbana. University of Illinois Press 2008.
García Mario T. Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1991.
Innis-Jiménez, Michael. Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. New York.New York University Press. 2013
Martínez-Serros, Hugo, The Last Laugh and Other Stories. Arte Público Press. 1988.
 “Chicago Chicano Writing: Its Social Base, and Differential Characteristics.”El BeiSMan 2014-07-23-11:56:18. http://www.elbeisman.com/article.php?action=read&id=299.
 For a moving assessment of his career and the story collection in question, see http://lux.lawrence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=facultyawards.
 Steeling Chicago is not essentially different from The Last Laugh. Throughout all parts of this essay, citations will be to the 1988 Arte Público edition.
Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.
LACASA Books has just published his edited volume of stories and drawings by Aaron Kerlow, El gran circo chico de nuestro mundito/The Great Little Circus of our Small World, to be presented with a tribute to José Guerrero at the Carlos and Domínguez Gallery, 1538 W. Cullerton St. December 6, 2-4 pm