What do you do if you were born and raised in a neglected rural barrio just north of the Mexican border? If you’re Domingo Martinez, the answer is obvious: after you graduate from high school, you leave Texas and settle down in a city as close to the Canadian border as possible. Seattle, for instance. Once you’re there, you find a therapist named Sally and tell her about your experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family and a screwed-up state.
The stories Martinez told Sally, which are included in his first book, The Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press, $16.95), are so funny and poignant that his therapy should have been offered free of charge. Better yet, Sally should have paid him for the pleasure of listening. If there’s any justice in the publishing world, there will turn out to be plenty of people eager to read about her client’s childhood.
Though Martinez’s memoir is largely about growing up outside Brownsville with an abusive father and an uninvolved mother, it deals with much more than the usual stuff that sends people to shrinks. There’s advice on everything from how to cook tamales to the best way to transport marijuana from Brownsville to Houston. The book also offers plenty of material for readers interested in broader issues such as immigration, border violence, and other topical matters fronterizo writers have to deal with if they want to get published. But Martinez’s sharp wit, deployed even during the most painful moments, distinguishes The Boy Kings of Texas from much of the writing on these subjects.
At the heart of the book is Martinez’s complicated relationship with his father. According to his son, Domingo Martinez Sr. was a boorish truck driver prone to drunken fits of rage whom Domingo Jr., or June, as he was known, describes as “a tyrannical toddler.” Domingo Sr., Martinez writes, liked to brag to his sons about his marital infidelities and whipped his boys regularly with little or no pretext. June was repulsed by the weaknesses and insecurities hidden beneath his father’s veneer of machismo. He couldn’t wait to get away. “In all of his life, all of his choices,” Martinez writes about his father, “I was using him as a reverse compass.” (In the book’s afterword, Martinez notes that his father has since gotten sober, and he expresses some degree of sympathy for the man.)
Ironically, the toughest member of the Martinez “patriarchy” is Martinez’s grandmother. Her heroic feats before crossing into the U.S. as a young woman included killing two ocelots with a tree branch and fending off a would-be rapist with a well-placed log to the head. As a boy, Martinez wasn’t sure whether to believe these stories until he personally witnessed Gramma pound to death not one but two rattlesnakes with a shovel. Now in her late eighties, Gramma might just owe her longevity to having avoided doctors like the plague throughout her life and turning instead to traditional herbs, prayers to the Virgin and Pancho Villa, and the occasional squirt of WD-40 to relieve her arthritis.
Martinez’s sisters are in their own way just as resourceful as Gramma. In one chapter he describes how, in the eighties, his older sisters dropped the excessive, foreign-sounding syllables from their names and reinvented themselves as upper-class WASPs. Margarita became Marge; Maria became Mare. They dyed their hair blond; refused to wear anything without Esprit, Sergio Valente, or Gloria Vanderbilt labels; pretended not to speak a word of Spanish; and began addressing each other simply as “Mimi.” “The Mimis had made their decision to be two blue-blooded, trust-funded tennis bunnies from Connecticut, accidentally living in Brownsville, Texas, with us: a poor Mexican family they had somehow befriended while undergoing some Dickensian series of misfortunes,” Martinez writes. The sisters’ Mimi fantasy was a way to cope with the messages of inferiority they encountered in the “sinister world of teenage fashionistas, which, in Brownsville, was always tinged with border-town racism.”
Martinez sees the pain that lies beneath such masquerades, but he also appreciates their double-edged nature. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery—it can also be a form of mockery, albeit in this case an unconscious one. Cultural assimilation, in a sense, is an elaborate, lifelong bit of performance art. Even as a kid, Martinez felt the attendant ambiguities that come from being one of the eternally “in-between” people who belong to two different places and don’t entirely fit in either one. “They felt I was not one of them, the Mexican kids, nor was I one of the others, the white kids, and so I adapted,” he writes. “But I didn’t think anyone was capable of understanding, so instead I parceled it out, compartmentalized.”
And though he was compelled to escape South Texas’s stifling heat, entrenched classism, and big hair, he insists that “I can make fun of Texas, but if you’re not from Texas, then you may not. Sure, ours was an abusive relationship, but it was an abuse that grew out of odd circumstances.”
Martinez’s eye for the absurdity of those circumstances helps him avoid the clichés and oversimplifications pervasive in the mainstream media’s take on the border. Though his sense of humor does get him in trouble sometimes. At a house party in Kingsville one night, a frat boy notices that Martinez is attracting female attention with his quick-witted repartee and grumbles, “Give a Mexican some tequila and he gets funny.” This was an extremely insulting thing to say—Martinez is hilarious even when he’s sober—and leads to one of the book’s many brawls.
Martinez’s ability to draw humor out of hardship runs in the family. One year, when the Martinez clan traveled to California to work in the grape harvest, the dashing Mimis transformed themselves into Valley girls. They were the “hippest, cutest, best-dressed migrant workers of that year, and very likely for many years to come,” Martinez explains. “The Mimis had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting both people and places, in such a way that you could be looking at the same dreary landscape as them, the same terrible and hopeless event, and while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, and enthusiastically hopeful. And then, if you got near them, or were blessed enough to maybe talk to them, you would walk away feeling the same way they felt, too.”
The same kind of magic shows up everywhere in The Boy Kings of Texas. The ironic thing is that as a young man Martinez was sure there was no art, no culture, and nothing to do in Brownsville. Yet his book offers evidence that the richest raw material for writers often comes from those parts of the world where there is absolutely nothing to do. Go figure.
TEXTRA CREDIT: What else we’re reading this month
Choke, Diana López (Scholastic, $17.99). Young-adult novel about a dangerous game at a San Antonio middle school.
Spin the Sky, Katy Stauber (Night shade, $14.99). A&M grad’s novel about Texans tending the only herd of cattle in outer space.
Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad (Viking, $25.95). Austin writer’s memoir of becoming obsessed with perfume.