Bard of the Border
Oscar Casares is Texas' most intriguing young storyteller, whose tales of his native Brownsville describe a place where Latinos have moved from the margins to the mainstream.
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LINCOLN PARK IS GONE. DISAPPEARED. We are rolling along in Oscar Casares’ maroon Toyota Tacoma, searching for the place where a decent portion of his teenage days was spent shooting hoops, flirting with girls, and picking fights now and then. We pass the Lopez Supermarket, the housing project where his first girlfriend lived, the community clinic where sick people spend entire afternoons in waiting rooms. But no park. In 1998 the city cleared the playground and replaced it with a row of concrete pillars that now extend U.S. 83 into Los Tomates, Brownsville’s third and newest international bridge. Word has it the city is building a new Lincoln Park nearby to preserve the neighborhood’s old spirit. But as we abandon pavement and explore patchy dirt tracks, with the beams of free trade floating above us, all we encounter are dead ends.
This aging neighborhood of little wood-frame houses and thinning palm fronds, sandwiched between two international bridges in the southernmost tip of Texas, serves as the backdrop and inspiration for most of Casares’ first book, Brownsville, a short-story collection titled after his hometown, which will be released this month by Little, Brown and Company. The book will appear just after Casares, one of the Texas Institute of Letters’ Dobie Paisano writing fellows, completes his six-month residency at the 265-acre ranch of legendary Texas folklorist and writer J. Frank Dobie, fourteen miles southwest of Austin. The author’s excursion into the publishing spotlight has taken him six years, but in Brownsville his contribution to the literary world is already evident. Casares writes about the lives of characters who are mostly working-class and ethnic in a way that makes them neither victims nor heroes nor martyrs, that acknowledges their social difference only as background material and recreates their world from the inside out—so that the margins become the mainstream. While many local youths commiserate about being stuck in a city that seems to march a step behind the rest of the country, in Brownsville Casares captures the magic—and the normalcy—of having been raised in an American city where nine out of ten residents have Mexican roots.
What emerges in this slim collection of stories is a Brownsville where parents scold bilingually (“No me digas que you brought that chango inside my house”), where driving a Toyota or a Honda is a sign of status, where one has to install an alarm and put the Club on his car or it will promptly end up on the opposite side of the border. It is a Brownsville where a Mexican American nicknamed Bony listens to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. A Brownsville of electricians, receptionists, livestock inspectors, police sergeants, and Avon saleswomen. A Brownsville of mesquite trees and bougainvilleas, flat as sea level, where people eat H&H chorizo and life pivots around places like the Friendship Garden, International Boulevard, and Brownsville Coffee Shop No. 1. “It’s certainly just a little sliver of Brownsville. There are so many subcultures here,” says the 38-year-old, floppy-haired Casares, a towering, handsome guy who always appears to be relaxed. “But setting the stories in Brownsville gives me something concrete to start from. I can say ‘the Vermillion,’ and I can say ‘the Madonna tree,’ and I can say ‘Boca Chica,’ and then I go from there.”
Embedded in this community of quirky characters and bizarre plots—one character makes friends with a dead monkey’s head, another sells prearranged funerals to his relatives—is the raw encounter with human emotion. Brownsville, Casares mused one afternoon at the Vermillion Restaurant and Watering Hole over a lone beer, is really about “the struggles, the challenges, the frailties people have—how they fail, how they love, in this very subtle but very profound way.” And it is precisely at these moments, when the unlikely is revealed as the comically or painfully familiar, that the storytelling soars.
THE BIOGRAPHY OF THE ACCOMPLISHED author typically reads something like this: Young child is enthralled with the world of story and reads voraciously under his bedcovers while everyone sleeps. As a young adult, he disses college and takes some badly paying job as he begins experimenting with words and paper. He continues this for any number of years, but when he finally musters up the courage, after God knows how many sleepless nights, to send off his stories for publication, he receives the first of what will become a growing pile of rejections. Finally, when hope is nearly lost, some wise agent in New York decides to give him a break, and a door into the literary scene is opened.
Turn this story entirely upside down and you get Oscar Casares’ life. The boy didn’t read. In fact, he watched TV obsessively. (He says he probably read two books in his entire youth but doesn’t recall which ones.) After spending two years at the local community college, he transferred to a very respectable school—the University of Texas at Austin—and earned a very respectable degree, in advertising. He went off to seek his fortune, then came back for a job with GSD&M, a prestigious Austin firm where he courted huge clients and made lots of money writing and directing important promotional campaigns (“They’re the ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ people,” he says). Then, at the height of his professional triumph, he quit his job—just strolled into his boss’s office and gave notice that he was leaving to write stories. Yes, stories. And in less than two years, two of them had been published. And a few months after that, he was enrolled in a fully paid MFA program—no less than the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the best in the country. Within a couple of years, he was weighing offers from two major New York publishing houses.
Question: How on earth? Answer: Rewind to that brief, happy moment after his college graduation.
Before Casares got the job with GSD&M, he moved to Minneapolis, a creative hub of the advertising world, where he thought he’d launch a successful career. “It turns out,” he says today, “everybody had that idea. Only they had far more experience. I was on the fringes, and every now and then somebody would throw me a bone.” So he took a job in the stockroom of a canoe store and dissipated his disappointment with beer. For the first time in his life, Casares missed Brownsville. So much so that at the bar, he began telling his friends stories about his hometown—and it turned out that his friends loved them. In fact, they paid for his beer so he wouldn’t stop. “It was so far removed from anything in the Midwest,” he recalls. “They were just, like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s this place, and all these weird things happen.'”
That’s when Casares realized he had inherited a special gift from his family, especially from two of his uncles: Tío Hector and Tío Nico. The tíos, who are in their sixties and seventies now, are natural-born storytellers, and back in the days when Oscar was growing up as the youngest of four siblings, their tales were the only thing that could pull him away from the television set. The two men could dramatize life’s little moments—something as mundane as a fumbling attempt to cut down a tree branch—in ways that made the everyday seem extraordinary. Casares recalls the time his entire family sat in a hospital waiting room and a nurse walked in to notify another family that their father had died. The teenage son of the dead man began to cry. Half an hour later, Tío Nico was spinning tales for his own family, propped up on a table imitating a dog that had once bitten him. His relatives roared. At that moment, Oscar turned to look at the boy who had just lost his dad—and the kid was smiling.
Oral storytelling is a strong tradition in South Texas, where, for a long time, literacy and a formal education were inaccessible to many people. In his novel George Washington Gomez, fellow Brownsville writer and folklorist Américo Paredes describes a culture that developed around the turn of the century in which evenings were occupied sitting on front porches, the elders telling enthralling tales while nosy little children like Paredes eavesdropped. What Casares found, after he quit his advertising job and began taking books more seriously, is that traditions like his uncles’ had a certain technical merit. These guys knew how to tell a good story. Without any formal training, they intuitively knew that they should begin their accounts with an exposition and slowly build up tension. They saw real-life people as characters in their own mini-dramas and found stories where others would miss them. To teach himself to write, Casares began studying the classics of fiction as if they were textbooks—but always filtering them through the lessons he had gleaned from his uncles, “my first literary experiences.”
“Here’s a piece of advice for you,” begins “Jerry Fuentes,” one of Casares’ stories in Brownsville. “If a guy named Jerry Fuentes comes knocking at your front door trying to sell you something, tell him you’re not interested and then lock the door.” Fuentes, as it turns out, is the narrator’s sleazy cousin, a con-artist type who will do whatever it takes to peddle his products—from scalped tickets and frozen steaks to, in this case, funeral prearrangements. The story unfolds as the reader witnesses the narrator’s futile efforts to resist his cousin’s sales pitches, which the latter disguises in rambling soliloquies about the inevitability and tragedy of death. Casares was partly inspired to write this piece because his father worked as a funeral home greeter after he retired. To research the story, the author went to a local funeral home and played a potential client interested in purchasing caskets and burial plots for himself and his wife.
Several of the stories in Brownsville revolve around everyday dramas, showing how insignificant events matter to us and even change our lives. “RG” is a comical, almost absurd narrative about one man’s years-long obsession with the hammer his neighbor borrowed but never returned, while “Charro” follows a character who is driven to a violent, heartless insanity by his neighbor’s barking dog. And then there are pieces that broach much weightier subjects like domestic violence and the silent, clumsy suffering of fathers who grieve for their children’s misfortune. The most gripping of these is “Domingo,” about an old and utterly lonely undocumented Mexican yard keeper who can’t come to terms with the memory of his little daughter, who died after falling into a fire. One night he decides to reconcile with God. But the church is closed, so he pays a visit to the Madonna Tree instead, where locals believe the Virgin Mary has appeared on the tree’s bark with her arms wide open. “He explained to the Virgin how much he wanted to be on a bus headed home so he could wake up the next morning to the warm touch of his wife,” Casares writes.
Ultimately the man climbs the tree’s branches so that he can see across the border into his own country. And it is up there—in the precariousness of an unsteady tree branch and the beauty of a starry night—that his emotional burden is finally lifted. The story closes with the most breathtaking passage in the book:
When he opened his eyes, he gazed out toward the horizon, farther than he ever imagined he could. He looked across the river, past the nightclub lights on Obregón, past the shoeshine stands in Plaza Hidalgo, past the bus station where he caught his long ride home, past all the little towns and ranchitos on the way to Ciudad Victoria, past the Sierra Madre and the endless shrines for people who had died along the road, and even farther, past the loneliness of his little room next to the tire shop, past the reality that he would work the rest of his life and still die poor, and finally, past the years of sorrow he had spent remembering his little girl, past all this, until he clearly saw his wife and then his daughter, Sara, who was now a grown woman.
This kind of lyrical writing is difficult to maintain, and throughout the rest of the book, Casares often opts for a simpler prose that imitates the spare style of his characters’ speech: “It felt like a road trip is what it felt like.” There are spots where the description is deliciously vivid, but it is the dialogue that really carries his writing. Casares is, above all, a storyteller. His stories take wonderful, often triumphant twists, and the social commentary—on the increased presence of Border Patrol agents, on white flight, on the farmers’ need for rain—is effectively subtle.
Casares is hardly the first writer to find beauty and literary value in the idiosyncratic culture of the border region. Writers along the Texas-Mexico border have produced important works of fiction in English since the twenties and thirties. Among his most notable predecessors and contemporaries—some of whom are widely known across the United States and Latin America—are Jovita González de Mireles, of Roma; John Rechy, of El Paso; Tomás Rivera, of Crystal City; Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, of Mercedes; Sandra Cisneros, who is from Chicago but has lived in San Antonio for many years; David Rice, of Edcouch, who provided feedback on Casares’ first stories; and Dagoberto Gilb, of El Paso, himself a 1988 Dobie Paisano fellow, who became Casares’ close friend and a strong literary influence. Many of their works have played an important role as political instruments, aimed at raising social consciousness and documenting cultural conflict between Anglos and Mexican Americans. Certain themes are prominent: labor exploitation, urban ghettoization, the cultural homeland. Casares, on the contrary, had the luxury of growing up in an era after the decades of border conflict that followed the U.S.-Mexican War and after school segregation, in a city, he says, where he didn’t always have to think about race. In his stories he passes on this option to the reader. While his characters are glaringly different from the average Texan in a cultural sense, there is something about their experiences that resonates broadly. “The literature becomes accessible while remaining distant,” says Casares. “This isn’t what’s traditionally been thought of as Mexican American literature. This is the mainstream. We are the mainstream in Brownsville. I think we need the literature that is considered activist. That just wasn’t my experience in Brownsville.”
In his hometown Casares is preceded in letters only by Paredes, and his emergence seems particularly timely as the city grows exponentially and sacrifices its small-town character to the suburban aesthetic of Bennigan’s and Old Navy. He will be spending the next several months on the road; plans for his book tour include stops all over Texas, Iowa City, and New York. As he did with his earlier short stories (he has been published in the Iowa Review, the Colorado Review, the Northwest Review, and the Threepenny Review), Casares likes to test his work on non-Texas audiences, to see if his literature can “hold” beyond the Southwest, the traditional court of many Latino authors. He bristles at others’ suggestion that Mexican American writers are getting big breaks these days because their ethnicity is fashionable in the publishing world and seems a bit irritated when the question of ethnic labels arises. “In the past ten months since I signed a contract, I have not had one conversation about ‘Mexican Americans’ or ‘Latinos,'” he says. “I just don’t have that conversation with Little, Brown.”
Today Casares spends his mornings in front of a Macintosh plucking out his first novel, scheduled for release in October 2004. I ask if he will reveal the basic storyline or at least one tiny character. But he smiles broadly and remains mum, though he does admit this: Prepare yourself for another trip to Brownsville.