As a historian I know that pointing to one thing as the ultimate source of something sounds silly and inaccurate, but I need you to believe me that this statement is probably more true than not.Romeo Guzman
Author, historian and professor Romeo Guzmán offers the above bit of wisdom as the second introductory line to his latest publication: Pocho Blues. The chapbook is a short reflection of his own life as a Mexican-American raised in the US and in Mexico.
The body of work in literature and pop culture about & by Mexican-Americans is plenty and filled with successful and (too many!) unsuccessful portrayals of this particular diasporic group within the US. Perhaps it’s a sign of my age but I have grown accustomed to being let down by simplistic fables that boil down to the same lament of ní de aquí, ní de alla. I have reached a point where I physically brace myself before consuming any media related to the matter.
Pocho Blues fits into the successful side thanks to Guzmán’s creative talent as a writer and to his critical eye as a historian. He begins with the “ultimate source” that served as the catalyst for this work: the death of his grandfather in 2011 and the death of his father two years after. As the member of the family gifted with creative and academic muscles, he was tasked with providing the eulogies at both funerals.
It was this experience that sparked a desire to write stories that needed to be told. I think Pocho Blues tries to make sense of what it means to be a child of Mexican migrants and to provide a glimpse into a universe of Mexicans making their way through life on and off the soccer pitch.Romeo Guzmán
These stories are collected in three chapters that run up to a short 48 pages, yet there is much that is said, shared and to be learned from in such a relatively short length.
The first story, “My Father’s Charrería, My Rodeo: A Paisa Journey” is centered on a belt buckle that belonged to Guzmán’s late father. The author claimed it as his own in his teens and concocted a romantic story of how his father rode his first bull to earn it. The truth of how he actually earned it came as a total surprise to Guzmán and it is this revelation that serves as a MacGuffin into an investigation of his family’s multiculturality via migration, the bracero program, rodeos and charrería.
Guzmán draws a thoughtful throughline from the horseback-riding colonists of Nueva España to the separate, but parallel, evolutions of the cowboy in Mexico and in the US, as represented by Vicente Fernandez and Clint Eastwood, to his father’s belt buckle, which he wore in many a failed attempt to fit in at numerous paisa parties.
The buckle, a mundane everyday object designed with a single specific utility, thus becomes a symbol of a “complex and nuanced narrative” linking Guzmán, his father, and his father’s father and their relationships with Mexico and the US.
Soccer takes center stage in the second and third stories, “Team Zapata” and “Lobo”. The former finds Guzmán pondering on his days playing soccer as a teen with a neighborhood team called Team Zapata, before joining Chino Spirit in a different city. He tried to juggle playing at both, but ultimately elected to leave Zapata for Spirit. The anecdotes are humorous but the story ends on crushing terms.
While still at Zapata, the unnamed coach shared the terrible news that a teammate would no longer be joining them because he was fatally hurt defending himself after being assaulted. Some time after leaving Zapata, Guzmán learned that the son of his former coach, who also played on the team, was arrested and locked up in jail “for doing something he wasn’t supposed to.” The specific details of both events are never divulged.
With the death of his father, Guzmán’s connection to coach was also lost, leaving him with many unanswered questions.
A story like this typically draws insight from the actions on the field to provide a moral lesson off it, but Guzmán finds it difficult to do so. Perhaps, sometimes there are no larger lessons or deeper meanings in the stories of our lives; only “what-ifs” and a lifetime to consider what happened and what could have been otherwise.
The final story is named after Guzmán’s uncle Manuel who received the nickname Lobo for some unknown reason. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that the man is quite a character. A cousin of Guzmán refers to him as Don Quixote at one point. Funnily enough, the oddball uncle ends up playing soccer at a park with his nephews who have just been challenged to play against a team of older paisas.
Guzmán and his cousins put up a good fight in their expensive cleats and modern jerseys emblazoned with the names of their favorite European clubs, but end up losing by a wide margin to older men dressed in “erzat jerseys” and “cheap rubber cleats.” The paisas had something he and his diasporic family members didn’t: the paisa hustle, which he recognized in his late father and other immigrant Mexican/Latino working-class men.
Their effort on the pitch mirrored their daily life and everyday struggles. Our fathers, at one point, were migrants, and paisas, too. They’d played soccer and done their fair share of balling on Santa Barbara’s soccer fields. We inherited their skills, but on this occasion at least, we forgot to incorporate the paisa hustle.Romero Guzmán, Pocho Blues
Guzmán ends the story unable to shake the thought that he and his cousins have “lost something along the way.” It is never revealed what that “something” is or could be and, as a diasporic Mexican-American myself, I would not be surprised if that something has remained elusive to this day.
Reading Pocho Blues reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the late scholar Stuart Hall, who described himself as the product of two diasporas:
Cultural identity…is a matter of “becoming” as well as of “being.” It belongs to the future as much as of to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous “‘play”‘ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere “‘recovery”‘ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora
There is plenty of diasporic content that traps itself within an identity without a sense of becoming. Rigid notions of identity have consistently plagued Mexican-Americanness within a struggle of seemingly eternal displacement voiced in the aforementioned aphorism of ní de aquí, ní de alla (admittedly, something I’m guilty of repeating in the past). Within this trap, a diasporic Mexican is doomed to never be their whole self, doomed to be split, 50/50, between two nationalities, cultures and countries, or, worse, doomed to be shunned by both, forcing the subject into a life of eternal cultural exile.
It would be a mistake to ignore the events and conditions that led to this specific identity formation. There was, and still is, a constant “othering” based on class, ethnicity and race that brought us to this point and there is no lack of literature and content on this subject. But it’s also a mistake to remain mired in the swamp of conflict at the heart of this particular duality. To do so would be to ignore the complex and nuanced narratives that provide said identity with its past and disconnect it from the multiple positions of the present that can provide shape to its future.
Guzmán’s Pocho Blues is refreshing to read because it isn’t a conflict between here or there. It is an understanding of here and there. It is a reconciliation between and acceptance of both as simply “being.”
Sybil Press published Pocho Blues as a 100-copy limited print run (I own copy #7!) and is available (literally as long as supplies last) here: https://www.sybilpress.org/bookstore/pocho-blues-2021