Mapbook: El Valle
Author: Esteban Rodriguez
£4.99 (approx. $6)
Published by The A3 Press, 2019
Review by Ryn Holmes, April 2020
The use of mapbook form for Esteban Rodriguez’ nine poems was a perceptive choice. With El Valle, he shares his struggle to accommodate the language and customs in border towns on both sides of Mexico and the United States, specifically in and around South Texas. Having grown up in Southern California, I know those border towns where gringos and Latinos have an uneasy truce.
Beginning with “Weslaco,” the reader is pulled into that life, also getting a sense of the author’s belonging and displacement, the familiar and the alien, of one torn between two cultures “…the sky struggling…less than the street corner,…” never quite fitting in either. “Mercedes” salutes and mourns the changes coming to the town, the neighborhood, the home, “…not the families moving in and out, in and out …can remember the past….” He recalls boyhood with an innocent sentimentality, acknowledging the local agriculture and reminiscing about an old fashioned, derelict Carnival that purveyed cheap excitement for a boy “…in the center doused in laughter and ready as the deep-fried darkness thickens….”
Growing up, we join him in “East Juarez High,” an outsider as student. He empathizes with his mother’s limited command of English and compares it to his own deficiencies in Spanish. “…the border of your mouth”…”imposter pretender … student who despite attempts to memorize phrases…can’t speak enough Spanish just like his mother…couldn’t answer the questions….” in English from her own teacher when in school. Here, the devastation to the self-esteem is clear in “with a pen was shown the ways language can be carved on flesh.” “Progreso” takes them both across the border to her former home in Mexico, his mother too poor to afford necessary dental care in the states, opting instead for what she could find there. He again sentimentalizes as a town “…rose into view like a lost civilization…cars parked…sunburnt and abandoned…stands before the bridge…that sold pottery…piñatas…car parts, jewelry….” To the author as child, it was fantastic, “…shells were really bones…the woman who owned the stand wanted…to show herself that the dead could be resurrected…if we believed they could.”
They again return south in “Nuevo Progreso,” a journey for his mother to reassure herself that she can manage okay being away from her home town. They have returned as displaced and miss the “belonging.” He sets the scene with “…cross-legged women in sarapes begging…boys selling candy chiclets…legless men in wheelchairs shaking their cups on the corner mumbling….” She is trying to convince herself that “the bed rest Sprite and prayers worked and the expired pills she took…made the coughing go away….” This brings the reader to “Falfurrias.” This time, a checkpoint crossing with his father has the potential to turn into a crisis when a border agent orders him to “…pull over step out go into an office…” while the author with limited command of English is directed to remain outside. Uncertain and worried his father may be detained, he tries to guess “…they suspect he forged his documents…he is not who he says he is….” He notes his father’s subdued demeanor and relief when permitted to leave. His father is “…sure that when he crosses the checkpoint again he’ll be whoever they expect him to be.”
“Donna” returns the child to his hope to us as he looks beyond bleak environment to the tawdry glamour of a cheap circus, overlooking the mundane to reach the fantasy “…smudge the haze off the edges of a scene…the world beyond a circus a three-night extravaganza…he must have….” Desperate, he wheedles and negotiates with his mother, Donna, to win the prize: “…be good…won’t ask for candies toys….” He holds on to the possibility of future self-transformation, “…be someone else.” That wish comes true in “Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.” He leaps ahead as he did in “East Juarez High,” mildly dislocating the reader with a changing chronology. The destruction of the church by a plane crash stimulates a discussion with an uncle. The writer is on the eve of flying to college and shall leave all he knew to experience a “…sea of chicks the parties…” He will be where few look like him or carry familiar surnames. His poignant response comes with his epiphany of “…once you leave…no part of you can ever return.”
This brings us to what I believe is the final piece (they are not numbered), “McAllen.” Rodriguez is on the cusp of age fifteen and teases the reader with a hint of gender fluidity. He is in town with his mother and cousin shopping for her Quinceañera dress, a concoction of elaborate femininity meant to represent her budding womanhood. A joke made by his mother to the writer asking “…if I want to shop for my quince too…” gives him pause. He has an epiphany that when his age turns, “…I’ll want the gown the ballroom the gathering of family and friends the dance with my father….” Again he seeks a transformation, a ceremony, to mark his coming manhood, “…to feel like someone else.” He wonders if he “…will have his cake and eat it too.”
Rodriguez writes with insight, sensitivity and sentimentality. The reader is privileged to transition with him through various stages of his young life and attempts to reconcile his culture with that of the larger population of gringos. He uses themes of alienation and transformation to tell his story.