Literarily speaking, the expanse of California land between San Jose and Salinas is frequently referred to as Steinbeck Country, a rich agricultural region also known as the Salad Bowl of the Nation that inspired much of the Nobel laureate's most famous works.
In his intimate and irreverent debut short story collection, "Gordo," Jaime Cortez mines his memories of his own working-class California childhood to show life through the eyes of his titular character, a boy growing up in a migrant community in 1970s Watsonville — a community that includes the laborers who pick the nation's salad.
In the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp, "summer was a season of dread to all the children age five and up, who harvested garlic alongside their parents," and the bookish, overweight and probably gay Gordo explains that "The worst day of school was better than the best day in the garlic fields, which to my child eyes stretched impossibly to the hazy edges of the Gabilan Range foothills, gold with paper-dry grass."
A Chicano visual artist, writer and performer who has appeared on NPR's storytelling program "Snap Judgment," Cortez is also an LGBTQ+ rights activist and has worked in HIV/AIDS prevention. His debut graphic novel, "Sexile/Sexilo," was published in 2004 by the Institute for Gay Men's Health and tells the true story of transgender Cuban immigrant Adela Vasquez.
Here, Cortez crafts the vivid and unsentimental perspective of a perceptive kid, one who observes in the opening story, "Jesus Donut," of the pastry in question that it "is covered with black ants! Millions of them. There's so many that the donut looks like it's wearing a black sweater."
Too often, the publishing industry relegates the point of view of a child to books which are themselves for children, but in Cortez's hands, the language and voice of the young narrator nimbly depict his bilingual milieu and his outsider status therein. Even his fellow children accuse him of not having "enough imagination to get into trouble" because "you're too busy kissing [butt] and reading your books."
Gordo's innocence and perplexity create a pleasing tension and enhance Cortez's explorations of face, class, sex and gender, as when in "The Nasty Book Wars," Gordo fears being "exiled to the world of girls" or in "El Gordo" when he revels in the luchador mask and boots his father buys him at the flea market, but blanches at the punching bag and boxing gloves meant to toughen him up.
The 11 stories each stand alone, satisfyingly self-contained, including three that shift out of Gordo's purview and into other community members: the ne'er-do-well Pardo family and the talented hairdresser "Raymundo the Fag." But they accumulate across the collection into a Winesburg, Ohio-esque map of an entire locality.
"There is no more subversive tool for ferreting out and lifting up the truth," Cortez observes of humor on his website. His stories yield countless laugh-out-loud funny moments, but the humor is always sympathetic and above all gives the reader the sensation of having been shown something true.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
By: Jaime Cortez.
Publisher: Black Cat, 208 pages, $16.