The Mexican Boulevard (Halsted Street). Illustration by William Ortiz
In the first part of this in-depth study of Martínez-Serros’ stories, we examined the four ones which did not involve any direct intervention of institutional structures on the lives of our Chicago Mexicans and their families. To be sure, the Southside’s steel mill infrastructure was the productive center of South Chicago area Mexican life; and, representing U.S. and Chicago capital, it was the institution which most fully shaped the hopes and aspirations, the traumas and frustrations of steel mill barrio families. However, the mills never appear directly in these stories; instead, several of them deal with the intermediary institutions between capital and labor, ones with which our characters have direct contact and which most impact their lives: school and church.
The next few installments of this study will deal with the institutionalization of Chicago mexicano subjectivity in these two contexts. We shall show how Martínez-Serros’ portrayal of cultural affirmation and rejection, resistance and accommodation are intensified to the point of finding expression as machistic forms of defiance on the part of the first and second generation men and boys involved. In this frame, we also find the emergence of attitudes toward women which are shaped by this experience and which may begin to explain the world against which Chicago’s Chicana writers would subsequently be seen and would have to rebel.
Son of Mexican immigrants who arrived in Chicago’s Southeast side in the 1920s, Martínez-Serros was born in 1930 and attended Thorp School on Buffalo Avenue until his graduation in 1944. Clearly Thorp was the school providing the setting for the author’s four stories centered on Southside Mexican school life from the late 1930s through the early 1940s.
The image emerging in Martínez-Serros’ stories is of a school where everything is done to quash creativity and healthy development, especially for minority students. The author offers a rather ugly portrait of racial profiling, psychological violence, and cultural stigmatization as part of an overall system in which the school emerges as a prime center of social reproduction in relation to the values and norms that maintain Steel Mill Chicago and its marginal Mexican sector. In this context, Martínez-Serros projects Mexican defiance as leading either to delinquency or a more creative rebellion centered on creating what historian Michael Innis-Jiménez, designates as a “third space” — either imaginary or real — as crucial to understanding the negative dimensions and how they might be overcome in Steel Mill Chicago. One of the extraordinary mysteries to emerge from these school-centered stories is how a young man with the experiences recounted herein could ever end up a professor of Spanish and the writer of stories in English that he became. Of course “Jitomates” has already told us how: by holding on to positive aspects of his identity even as he relates to his Chicago neighborhood, and even if it involves a rather negative eating experience.
This installment of our work will deal with two of the four school stories.
Here we are in the late 1930s, and our young Mexican protagonist is seven years old. Martínez-Serros provides a second-person/present-tense narration by an unnamed boy who feels a marked aversión to returning to his school because he finds his identity menaced by his equally unnamed “American” teacher. The chosen point of view (you) and tense (you wake up), gives us a moment-by-moment sense of immediacy, as Martínez-Serros presents an uncomfortable scene wherein the boy experiences a sense of anxiety before his first hour of class as he wakes up even before his alarm clock goes off. Silently leaving the bed he shares with his brothers, he carefully washes and dresses feeling completely lost and menaced by the insecurity his teacher inspires: “Summer’s end doesn’t sadden you. You like school. But you feel uneasy about her. What will happen to you today? You wonder” (33).
The school represents a claustrophobic space, which suffocates the protagonist and the other mexicanos like him. Outside of this space, he feels free and happy to re-encounter his classmates and interchange stories about the summer, but the school bell blasts his ears like the worst of menaces. Before he enters the classroom he encounters a female American classmate who is guarding the cloakroom. This girl represents his first obstacle, she with her deprecating tone, impeding him access into the classroom, because, she barks at him, the teacher, her, is changing into her work smock and doesn’t want to be interrupted or seen by the likes of him. Here we observe the first contrast between oppressor and oppressed; and Martínez-Serros is quite right to introduce that contrast in function of a surrogate, an underling, because in spite of the story’s very specific focus on “Her,” the teacher herself, Her (she who seems like Herr, although she is a woman,), is herself a special surrogate for the overall Anglo-capitalist system and its “schooling” apparatus as it acts out in the formation of its Mexican subject.
The words Martínez-Serros uses to describe woman-teacher have connotations that are intense and aggressive:
She is tall, strong looking, has her hands on her hips and scowls at the boys who dare look at her. She jerks up her right hand and begins firing her index finger at every boy in the classroom, emphasizing the gesture with one Word: ‘You! ... You! ...’ (34)
In this initial intervention, we see the teacher’s first intent of identity destruction by the part of the hegemonic schooling regimen. In an Inquisition-like process, the students are simultaneously signified and negated, their own names denied and reduced to a homogenizing and reiterated “You!” So in a public school — a space paradoxically designated to serve as one of formation, education and culture — the students live a denigrating invisibility whose programmed end is the loss of their defining identity.
As the class session begins, the teacher obliges the students to stand up, swear loyalty to the U.S. flag and sing “My Country tis of thee” with enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that at least the Mexicans among them don’t know the significance of this ritual, or even the song’s particular words, which they are compelled to repeat five times a week.
Three Mexican students arrive late to class, during the hellish pledge of allegiance, and sweet teacher immediately humiliates them: “Disrupters of ceremony!’ she screams, while the three cringe. “I get here early for your benefit, not mine! Yours! Why can’t you do the same! You’re not in Mexico! You’re in America! We do things on time here! Understand? On time!” (35). On goes her rant, culminating with the ubiquitous words that ring from the mouths of systemic underlings throughout the history of Mexicans under U.S. Anglo-Capitalism — even for those who were born in the U.S., even for those born in what was the Mexican northwest and is now the southwest:
You’ve abused the privilege of pledging allegiance to the greatest nation in the World. We do it only five times don’t you have any pride? They should send you back where you came from (35).
This applies, even to Mexican students born in the U.S., as our teacher seems to suggest that all the young Mexicans should be repatriated — and as she situates them discursively in what Augé designated as a “non-place.”
Our unnamed boy is going through a process of transformation emerging from the continuous interaction between the discourse of power which, starting with the arrival of the first wave of Mexican immigrants, spreads through all the structures, relations and interactions almost all of them encounter. In varying degrees, each successive wave has had to submit to the stigmatizations and racializations that are local but ever more intensely worldwide in context; each generation has had to find its own way of relating to, defying and transcending this process. The immediate context here, of course, is the Great Depression and the increased resentments stirred by economic insecurity. As Innis-Jiménez notes, “historians argue that the . . . Depression served as the critical period in the formation of a new Mexican-American identity (8).” It is a time when Mexicans, no matter how entrenched or new to their U.S. locales are subject to deepened resentments and a system of forced repatriation even of those who hold green cards or are citizens. Innis-Jiménez asserts that the repatriation process was less extensive in Chicago than elsewhere; even if this is so, our historian adds, “Mexicans in Chicago did live in fear of harassment and deportation” (9). Such is the fear that permeates “Her.” and makes the Southside turf with all its poverty, contamination and social enmity a virtual “non-place” for its Mexican residents.
For Augé, “non-place” refers to ephemeral spaces that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places.” The sense of U.S. barrios, homes and schools as transient and insignificant non-places, stirring feelings of negation, helps clarify the sense of life experienced by Mexicans and other Latinos in relation to their spaces and lives. As Augé notes, “If a place can be defined as a space of relational and historical identity, a space that cannot be so defined … can be defined as a non-place.” In such a non-place, the constant fear is to be a no one. And this is the sense of things which emerges in Martínez-Serros’ narrative as it does, in The House on Mango Street, published, only a few years before The Last Laugh. The paths Mexicans can take in combatting this sense is a simple way of recounting the history of a barrio, with the hope that the paths can lead from non-place to third space.
In this story, the young boy protagonist is so negated that he’s an unnamed being unnerved and undermined by his unnamed teacher’s excessive and venom-charged patriotic exaltation. Returning home, the boy says in Spanish, “Papá, she makes us pledge allegiance to the flag. … She says it’s an honor to die for the flag’” (35). In response, his father reveals his indignation at the cultural imposition involved-an imposition that he himself has undergone and that he, like “her,” now forces on his son: “He knows the pledge, had to learn it when he became a [U.S.] citizen, but he wants to test you, wants to see how well you know it” (35). The boy for his part obeys, repeating the elementary school flag salute ritual he’s knows to perfection — except for one thing:
You learned the pledge in kindergarten and said it every school day the year befote, in the first grade. But your teacher did not explain it to you. You and the others said it at the beginning of each school day. Nothing more. You clear your throat and recite. (35)
“¡Pura mierda! It’s not true!” your father protests. “That liberty and justice for all doesn’t include Mexicans. They crap on us! They’ve been doing it since they stole all that land from us.” (35). The ideals Americanos talk about and the banner they salute don’t represent the Mexicans, who have been completely excluded from supposedly guaranteed basic rights. Not even learning their language is enough for the Americanos to consider the Mexicanos as “real people.” Whether born in Mexico or right next door, the Mexicans remain a marginal and oprressed minority in the context of hegemonic discourse and norms. The boy’s father tries to contrast his country of origin with the only country his son has directly known: “In Mexico, we wave the flag . . . Not every day. How can those things have any meaning if you do them every day?” (36). The father gets carried away, speaking of Mexican heroes, speaking of his country as the most beautiful in the world, in spite of the poverty which has caused so many to leave. He speaks to his son about the strong sense of identity among Mexicans, apparently irrespective of their region of origin, and in spite of the continual oppression and nay-saying with regards to all things: “He talks to you as no one has ever talked to you.” (35).
Chicago Mexican immigrants had confronted a cruel reality that negated their right to be themselves — a reality that alienated them, led them to form their own community and prevented their social integration — and this in spite of their strong regional differences. Here we see that the Depression-era Anglo American society, represented by the teacher, doesn’t see cultural diversity as a positive contribution — that she and her society don’t honor the right to distinct identity or difference, or otherness.
So Mexicanos have to fight to transmit this culture and identity to their children who feel completely lost, who belong to a “non-place,” since they’re incapable of recognizing themselves in one cultural referent or another:
Once, a stranger asked you, “Boy, what’s your nationality?” And you answered, throwing out your chest, “American!” The stranger laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re American all right, but with a black Mexican ass!” It made you mad, made you think of what your güero playmates say to you when they get angry with you —“‘Fuckin’ Messkin, why don’tcha go back to Mexico where you came from!”(36).
In the school, far from helping her students in their personal growth, the teacher accents the confusion they feel when, in spite of some of them being among her best students, she humiliates them for the simple fact of their not being “Americans” as she understands the concept. So the narrator tell us:
At seven you already know you are and are not an American. You were born in Chicago and that makes you an American citizen, but it is not the same as being an American. She, your teacher, hurts and confuses you more than anybody else, always saying ugly things about what and who and how you are . . . “I don’t know why they let people like you into our country. Ugh!” (36).
The boy intensifies this sense of identity disorientation when he tells us that, in spite of his Chicago USA birth, the school has taught him to write in “Mexican” when filling any forms requesting his nationality. Nevertheless he knows he is not a real Mexican like those born and raised in Mexico — those real Mexicans who call the U.S.-born sons of Mexican immigrants “pochos”, and who don’t even consider “real Mexicans” those who like his father had to immigrate.
So a conflict has emerged between the new generations who experience an identitary indetermination — a border persona ever halfway between Mexico and the U.S.
If all this were not enough, what compounds these feelings of humiliation is the fact that for many of the boys she is considered sexually attractive, so that our protagonist is trapped between his growing sexual drive which draws him toward her, and her social attitudes which repel him. “She does not, cannot, know the turmoil she causes in you,” our narrator intones — forthe immediate effect of the teacher’s allure is a kind of intensified mix of desire and hostility that renders the boy confused and hurting.
At story’s end, the narrator recounts his teacher’s extreme act of cruelty toward Manuel Campos, a virtual urchin dressed in filthy rags — the extreme Mexican nobody living from non-place to non-place. On this day, however, he defies the teacher’s authority in an open charade or actual act of masturbation, which our protagonist doesn’t quite understand. Whatever Manny has done (“you don’t know what, you never will”) makes his teacher “roar, pounce on him, grab him by the hair and drag him in front of the class . . . She makes him stand there,and tells all of you to punch him in the face and says that she’ll punch anyone who refuses” (42).
Martínez-Serros shows her wielding Anglo-American power against this weak and defenseless boy with a viciousness stands as a kind of climactic metaphor for the injustices that Mexicans suffer. Saddened and sick with the humiliation of his classmate, the boy stands before Manny. “Tears rush to your eyes. Manny’s mouth and nose are bleeding; his lips and face are swollen. He looks right into your eyes and without saying a word orders you to punch him, you will still be friends” (42). Beaten and abused by his teacher Manny remains silent, an emblem of those who have no voice and no clear way to find a place. “Through the whole thing Manny doesn’t cry out or flinch”; and when the sadistic punishment is over, “she drags him down the hall to the janitor’s low sink where she makes him wash his face with a strong brown bar of American Family soap” (42).
With this final savage purification, the teacher reaches limits of inhumanity, as Martínez-Serros puts in relief the barbarity of the marginalization and humiliation to which Southside and indeed most U.S.-Mexicans have been subject. In this story as in others, the author transcends the Mexican non-place and, through his writing, enters into that third space that he, like so many other Southside Mexicans have sought to find and enter.
Mexican Basket Weaver. Illustration by William Ortiz
Now our boy protagonist has a name — Amado Fuentes, nine years of age a week from his tenth birthday as the story begins. Perhaps the “Amado” is ironic, though he’s certainly loved by his mother. But before much of the world, the story is different. From the narrative’s opening lines, we know that Amado belongs to a poor family and that his life is not exactly happy, nor filled with love.
Like “Her,” this story is told second person present tense. And while it centers on a boy’s school, schoolyard, classroom and teacher, it begins with a look at home and neighborhood, as well as neighborhood work. We start again with the boy waking up, this time climbing out of a bed that holds other siblings. We follow as he enters a bathroom shared with two other families, where he sees a mouse on the floor and a disgusting hair in the sink. Poverty is written into every line of the text.
We watch him enter the kitchen and meet with his loving mother. We see why the author named him Amado. But we learn that he sees his mother getting smaller and smaller even as he himself is small, smaller than he would wish, and, wishing to get not only bigger, but older, to leave an unhappy childhood behind. We find why soon enough, but first we go with him on his five-block walk to school — a great gift from the author who enables us to experience the life of the steel barrio through the eyes of one of its sons. What we have is a case of literary mapping, similar to that laid out in Ramon Villa’s Barrio-Logos (2000), for L.A. life and literature.
Several paragraphs are devoted to the dirty, sad, depressing urban landscape that Amado encounters every day on his way to school. The Mexicanos are living in a neighborhood others are leaving even as they are entering — a place close to where most of the men have only part time work, enough to keep them barely going, and most of the women maintain their homes and tend younger children, though those who have employment are part of the overall to-do of humanity on the street. It is a dark and unhealthy world, clearly in transition with cars and trolleys, with delivery vans, some motor-driven but still some that are horse-run making their way and adding to the dirt and dung of the barrio’s daily life at a time marked by a phase of the Great Depression only somewhat different from what we find in “Her.”
As he approaches his school, he sees his teacher, Miss Flynn, coming we may wonder, from where, as she drives by him in her car. Amado waves, but to no avail — like the probably dark and poor male of “The Girl from Ipanema,” he sees her but she doesn’t see him, as she goes one way and he takes a shortcut alley route to the school. As soon he’s in the alley, he stops and tries but, as in prior efforts during the past several months, fails to whistle like his father. Just then he sees a parrot in a cage on a clothesline. “A good birthday present!” he muses. “Teach it to whistle.” He smiles at the thought even as he faces garbage piles, rats and a raccoon on a chain. (He himself is a caged or chained animal seeking to find his way out). He goes for a Coke bottle, but finds it too broken for a two-cent deposit return and kicks it away.
Arriving at the school, Amado immediately finds himself made to feel like the bathroom mouse or even the hair in the sink, as his class’s baseball team captains forced to include all the boys on their roster, vie not to have the slight nine-year-old on theirs. Here Martínez-Serros invokes the very sport that Innis-Jiménez has designated as a major creative third space for poor Southside working class Mexicans. And our protagonist is a complete dud in this sport which for him is a source of shame and humiliation, blaming his under-sized body and his need to work as reasons which make it impossible for him to develop abilities in this sport, and, wishing to be able to challenge his classmates to compete in swimming, a sport in which James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan also excelled (see Farrell in Miller, ed. 1993: 183-85). But Amado is from an area where African-American and Mexican populations are growing, leading many Euro-immigrants, and Stud’s fellow Irish above all, to leave for Bridgeport and other points in Chicagoland.
While many of his classmates can spend their non-school time perfecting their skills as they play ball, Amado has the responsibility of making money for himself and his family. He is a boy without a childhood, who wants to become a man as soon as possible, to escape his undeveloped body, to fully emulate his working and whistling father.
We next learn that Amado has worked as a newspaper boy distributing, El ABC and El Anunciador, learning how to keep track of his sales and money owed him, learning to talk to adults. Finding the job too unprofitable, he succeeds in talking a barber, Pito Loco (meaning, “Crazy Whistle” — so named for his saxophone playing) into giving him a job at his barbershop and home. Soon he has to surrender almost all he makes because his mother needs the money to meet family needs. But he tries to hold on to just a little for an occasional treat, or perhaps for something bigger. In the meantime he learns the ropes in Pito Loco’s barbershop, an exclusively masculine microcosm, where he feels more comfortable than with his sports-centered male classmates However, the question here is not just one of gender but the fact that the customers are adults. Amado’s life experiences have made him leave children’s things behind, so he has no very strong relation even with the Mexicans among his schoolage peers. All he cares about is time passing more rapidly so he can grow and cease to be an adult trapped in the body of a child. And the story’s prime example is set forth in its very title. Here, the focus is not on what he will receive, but what he can buy himself from the little he manages to save out of his scant earnings; and while he would like to have roller skates, a bicycle, or maybe swimming fins, as we would expect from most boys his age, he decides to buy the blue shirt and above all, the pants that he hopes will make him look cleaner, more pleasing and adult — above all, to his teacher.
He goes to class with his new suit, gets a positve reaction from his classmates but finds his teacher oblivious to his appearance, in a nasty mood, mis-pronouncing the name of each Mexican student and sprinkling each name with classist and racist comments:
“Mah-ree-ah Alvarez. You dirty little thing! (...) You’ll be somebody’s maid when you grow up and then you’ll learn about soap... Hoe-zay Castañeda. You stinky devil! (...) A garbage man, that’s what you’ll be, a garbage man!” … Ray-mown Cortez. Always clean, but dumb. So what good does it do you? You’ll never get out of this God forsaken neighborhood . . . Cone-cep-see-OHN Escobar. That’s a stupid name! What’s the matter with your parents? How can you do anything with a name like that?” (52-53).
At last turning to Amado, Mrs. Flynn, instead of complimenting him on his new clean clothes, seems not to notice them at all, but instinctively goes below the belt, prophesizing the same destiny that the father in another story fears will be his son’s: “Uh-mah-dough Foo-en-tehs. You idiot! Always smiling like a half-wit and when I call on you, you don’t say anything! You’ll wind up in the steel mill like your father and you deserve it!”
For a reason that defies easy explanation, Amado persists in his hopes that his teacher will say something about the clothing he has bought as much for her as for himself. His classmates have noticed and praised his new clothes, but she says nothing, and simply hands out a spelling lesson. Meanwhile he continues to wait her positive reaction as he runs his hand along his pants buttons, comparing them in his mind with the “frayed flies held fast with safety pins” on his other pants, and smiling once again. She spots his actions and his smile and draws her own conclusion — the same one the unnamed teacher reaches in “Her,” in relation to the unkempt and filthy Mexican boy (you get treated like dirty even if you’re a clean as opposed to dirty Mexican) — yanking Amado up out of his seat and desk, and slapping him twice in the face. “You filthy little bastard,” she says, “If I ever catch you doing that again I’ll break your neck.”
The school day ends, and Amado, undone, unloved, runs to the alley where he had walked before, feeling perhaps like a broken coke bottle. “She has reached a part of you, that not even … [his mocking baseball playing team captains] have touched.” He walks slowly, crying, until he stops; and as he did early in the story, he seeks to shape his lips and move his tongue in such a way that this time he succeeds in doing what his father could do, but he has been unable to do up to now — to whistle. And, in some special way, this achievement becomes his ultimate birthday present — his triumph (his last laugh) even though the whistle he finally masters “knifes forward, rending the air with desperation and rage.” (54)
What can we make of both of these stories? Mrs. Flynn’s insults mark a shift from telling the Mexicans to go back where they came from in “Her” to positioning those who remain on the lowest rungs of the ladder. Mrs. Flynn’s remarks represent a clear and distinct determinism: racial origin determines where one will get to in life. Only a few mexicanos can aspire to anything higher than part-time work in Steel and construction (what Marx called the reserve army of the Proletariat), but most can’t hope for more than service jobs as waiters, dishwashers, low-level gardeners and any other kinds of jobs that no Anglo or Euro-immigrant would be willing to take on.
Mrs. Flynn’s attitudes and actions may well represent those of Chicago whites in the Great Depression, when the nativist tendency to reject immigrants is at its heights. Even before the Depression, “Mexicans felt all the tentacles of discrimination from society, the workplace, housing, etc.” (Argueta, 7). But our analysis may go deeper if, remembering the world of Studs Lonigan cited earlier, we realize that our teacher’s married name is Irish; and we should reflect on what that may mean in relation to this story and perhaps “Her” as well.
To be sure, if Mrs. Flynn emerges as the hegemonic power representing Anglo-American capitalist culture, her Irish surname suggests a more complex set of relations in which Anglo American capitalist power is represented by one whose ethnic group was in a previous period likewise negated and abused.
In the main it is not the Anglo-Americans who live and work in and near South Chicago. Miss Flynn is a mere Irish middle woman in a race-centered ethnic pecking order which places Anglo-Americans at the top, and the Irish somewhere in the middle, standing as foremen, priests, firemen, policemen, truant officers, jailers, teachers and at least at first as low and then middle level politicos in implementing Anglo American-capitalist power even against Germans, Slavs and Italians, but above all against Mexicans and African Americans. Her racist attitudes and actions may well be theresidue fromscars dating back from when the Irish themselves were on the lowest rung of the pecking order andwere exploited and attacked by Anglo American nativists in the 19th century. As Innis notes, Chicago Irish suffered less discrimination and exploitation than did their counterparts in East coast. But “Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy shows the deep racial prejudices directed at and held by Southside Chicago Irish, which inevitably affected their attitudes toward others.” So, in this case, to compensate for her own inheritance of stigmatization and denigration, our Irish teacher blasts those below her as she seeks to emulate the ones above her.
It may well be that she, like many other Irish who have made it to the middle niche structured for them, have moved out of the area. And it is not surprising that we first see her driving to school, since she may be coming from elsewhere. In fact, we may well wonder if the unnamed teacher in “Her” is not Irish as well, and if her girl favorites were not also daughters of Irish or other Euro-immigrants acting as do several of the underlings of mayors and aldermen were to do in the often Irish-based and sometimes more amply Euro-immigrant political and religious structure of the city itself — a city with an Irish mayor and Irish archbishop over most of the years of Martínez Serros’ early life and far beyond.
Perhaps unconsciously, Martínez Serros provides a critique of Irish hegemony over Mexican schooling andd even the diction and syntax of Chicago Mexican English. This latter matter we may leave to language acquisition specialists; however, our author’s Mexicans seem to talk more like characters from Farrell’s Chicago Irish workingclass novels than say from Saul Bellow’s Jewish narratives.
Finally, we may take up the sexual dynamics involved in the power relations involved in this story and “Her.” One striking element is the implicitly sexual. “Her.” It is clear that Mrs. Flynn is not sexually attractive and provocative for a young boy, as is the unnamed teacher in “Her.” And yet, something must be said or suggested in what may have been a perfectly innocent but seems to have been an unconsciously masturbatory act. Somehow this may be related to the word pito, which is not just a whistle but a penis, or, crudely, “dick or prick.” “You know how to whistle,” Lauren Bacall asks Humphrey Bogart in a super-famous moment of a film released just a few years after the probable time of our story. “Just put your lips together and blow.” In response, Bogart does indeed whistle.
To be an adult male is not just to be able to buy a new suit of clothes, it is also to be sexually mature. Amado is small and wants to be big. He wants to fulfill his identity as Amado and be loved. Perhaps all this is too far-fetched, but it relates to the focus on the father’s organ in earlier stories; it relates to Pito Loco’s sax-playing. Amado’s unconscious masturbatory act is one of male defiance against the Anglo Capitalist patriarchal order even in the midst of his apparent, overt drive for acceptance and conformity. Furthermore, the patriarchal order in question is here implemented in the classroom by a woman who is not only not a man nor a capitalist, but also probably not an Anglo. Perhaps, and this is an extreme interpretation, the story becomes clearer if we replace Mrs. Flynn with the unnamed and sexually attractive teacher in “Her.” We have no idea of her ethnicity, and in this sense, “The Birthday Present” seems a richer story. Indeed the stories are so close in story line that it is easy to confuse them. That confusion seems compounded by Martínez-Serros, who portrays Manny Campos as a filthy, marginal victim figure in “Her” and as a one of his class’s two team captains who is also a mexicano participating in the victimization of another mexicano. Is the unknown teacher (and perhaps at least one or more of her underlings or ward lieutenants) also Irish? And is the overtly defiant masturbatory act that Manny carries out in “Her” a foreshadowing of the unconscious one Amado acts out in “The Birthday Present”? Isn’t that second act really one directed toward the unnamed teacher as much as or more than against Miss Flynn? Is not the second act a surrogate for the more defiant one by Manny in “Her?”
And don’t these overt, unconscious masturbatory acts speak to the psycho-sexual dynamics tied to the hierarchical power structure, and the processes of accommodation and resistance, destruction and creation, related to the steel school world in which these two stories unfold?
This article draws on two Spanish-language 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.
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.