Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review Strawberry Fields By: Pancho Velazquez

The unity of the stories in Strawberry Fields is in both the physical journey of one generation of Mexicans from Northern Mexico to South Texas and their gradual integration into American culture. The stories depict the history of a people. With the advent of the railroad and agricultural land developers in the Rio Grande Valley at the turn of the century, the need for cheap labor and the Revolution of 1910 in Mexico hasten that migration.

But it is the lives of the baby-boomer generation, Joaquín’s generation, and that generation’s inevitable divided loyalties that arise from familial and cultural demands to help earn a living and yet to move on in a majority culture which demands and purports to reward individualism that are the center of Strawberry Fields. The tensions that arise in that dynamic transition, the tensions in adolescence, the tensions between father and son, husband and wife, the myths that ethnic groups perpetuate, all fuel these vignettes.

So much in the stories is about the internal experience of the character. The stories both reveal and conceal a negative self-image held by the principal characters, Benáncio and Joaquín, father and son (Joaquín calls it the “affliction”) which fuels Joaquín’s own journey to the Strawberry Fields. Benáncio cannot forget his own history. Should Joaquín forget his? Joaquín’s self-reflexive journey back to the Strawberry Fields parallels a similar journey that his own generation has taken to get to where they are today. In so doing, Joaquín revisits a time, often painful, now often forgotten, which many of that generation will be reminded of. Will the journey repair him? Can he cast off the haunting images of his dreams? Chuy Ramirez immerses us in Benáncio’s and Joaquín’s world.

We are invited to decipher Joaquín’s encoded dreams and to make psychoanalytic inquiries. Yet, the stories are satirical, comical, and often heart-wrenching, as they chronicle in entertaining fashion Joaquín’s early years during the journey of rediscovery he has embarked upon. The stories can be enjoyed independently, but the more ambitious reader may find approaching the stories as chapters in a novel more rewarding.

—Good Reading
Pancho Velasquez

Book Review Strawberry Fields Dr. Genaro Gonzalez

Upon reading the galley proofs for Strawberry Fields by Chuy Ramírez, I was immediately intrigued. My book about a South Texas family working in out-of-state strawberry fields for a summer had been published barely three months earlier. And, as in Ramírez’ work, two adolescent brothers also find themselves locking horns with a formidable father. The intersection of both novels’ themes, published around the same time, seemed an exciting coincidence, a sort of Jungian synchronicity suggesting that one’s ideas and interests aren’t simply fragmented, individual observations but perhaps part of a larger, organic whole.

Chuy Ramírez’ description of harvesting strawberries while living in a squalid labor camp is at once lyrical and sober. There is an adolescent’s sense of adventure on experiencing the world beyond his barrio, yet the wonder is tempered with a more mature portrayal of the hardships of camp life. He incorporates those experiences into the emotional crisis of Joaquín, now a successful attorney who senses that his spiritual tumult is somehow linked to that long-ago summer.

Strawberry Fields provides a subtle yet moving account of migrant farm work, but it is much more than that. Through a series of flashbacks, Joaquín first allows us to experience his world in San Felipe, the South Texas town where the decision to work in Michigan and Indiana is conceived. He recreates the barrio’s sights, sounds and mindset with an uncanny sensitivity. A writer with a myopic eye or with cultural blinders would likely have overlooked San Felipe as a stereotypical, sleepy border town, but for Ramírez it proves a treasure trove. He shows how such communities, although insulated by status and segregation, are seething with nuanced ambition and anxiety. Even minor characters possess memorable peculiarities, so that San Felipe is presented less as an abstraction than as a town made up of individuals with their idiosyncrasies.

A recurring theme in Strawberry Fields involves Joaquín’s conflictive relationship with his father, a Mexican immigrant married to a Chicana. The father sustains a somewhat schizoid relationship with his motherland, criticizing its corruption yet in the next breath defending it against American cultural influence. This ambivalence, which often characterizes expatriates, proves one of the more interesting elements in the book. He tries to transfer his nationalistic pride to his children through ritualistic trips across the border. Yet the perceptive Joaquín realizes that it’s ultimately an empty gesture, since the offspring’s native-born status virtually disqualifies them from ever being bona fide mexicanos in their father’s eyes.

The work’s secondary title, A Collection of Short Stories, leads one to expect a number of stories independent of the main plot, yet the short fiction seems more like embedded and interspersed vignettes than stand-alone material. These narrative islands throughout the book are interesting in their own right. However, once the dark mystery at the book’s center develops fully, it takes hold of one’s interest in the same way it consumes Joaquín’s energies and waking moments. At that point the additional “stories” in the narrative almost get in the way, as the reader glosses over them so as to pursue any clues that may explain the mystery. This is unfortunate, since the occasional dash of local color and the cameo studies of minor characters do add to the reader’s overall, imagined sense of San Felipe; a few of the more poignant episodes or anecdotes even stand out afterwards in one’s memory, like small gems. One gets the sense that the “stories” might have been better served in a future collection of short fiction or might have found their way into another novel. But in the end these minor criticisms—like the occasional unnecessary accents in the text--are minor quibbles over an impressive and very interesting first novel.

Genaro González’ first novel, Rainbow’s End, was nominated by Rudolfo Anaya for an American Book Award. This was followed by Only Sons, a collection of short fiction. His third book, The Quixote Cult, is an autobiographical account of his days as a Chicano activist in South Texas. His most recent book is A So-Called Vacation. Dr. González is currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Welcome to the Chuy Ramirez Blog

Works of Fiction:

Strawberry Fields, A Book of Short Stories

Toy Soldiers-to be released

Joaquin's Journey-to be released


Altering the Policy of Neglect of Undocumented Immigration from South of the Border, Vol. 18 in 1983

Igualada: Exploring The Gloria Anzaldua Link Between Powerlessness and Chicano/a Self-Expression



Chuy Ramirez at STC Pecan Library Campus