Subtleties flavor vignettes of Latino culture
By Mia Geiger
Special to the Denver Post
“Every Night Is Ladies’ Night” is the title of Michael Jaime-Becerra’s debut book of short stories, but it could have just as aptly been called “Every Night Is a Struggle.”
The stories are set in the author’s home town of El Monte, Calif., a working-class Chicano community. The book sheds light on the Latino culture, but it could be reflective of any group of people – people who live and love, win and lose, dream and despair. It’s the everyday lives of people struggling to get by to which the author gives voice.
Thirty-year-old Jaime-Becerra, who began writing the book while enrolled in a fine arts graduate program, has created characters of varying ages, from a teenage boy eager to win the attention of a pretty girl name Violet, to a young couple happy with their newborn son but straining to make ends meet, to a grandfather intent on keeping his granddaughter from marrying a guy he dislikes.
A smooth, almost lyrical cadence propels Jaime-Becerra’s words,depicting people at their best and worst, revealing their lives with straightforwardness and wry humor.
The collection houses 10 vignettes, and cleverly gives the reader second and third glimpses at major characters by inserting them as minor characters in later stories.
Careful readers are rewarded when small details crop up in later stories, such as when a character mentions wanting a specific type of car, then in another story, the man’s car is casually mentioned. It’s that type of subtlety that flavors the entire collection, along with nuances of hope, desire, desperation and grief.
Among the most endearing characters is Lencho, a troubled kid whose father is in prison. In “The Corrido of Hector Cruz,” Lencho gets a second chance when his Uncle Hector agrees to take responsibility for him after the teen completes his time at a boys home. Understandably Hector and his pregnant wife, Mini, are unsure about taking Lencho into their home. But Lencho surprises them with how he’s turned his life around.
Hector and Mini are complex, compelling characters as well. In the same story, Hector runs out during the wee hours to satisfy his wife’s hunger cravings during her pregnancy:
“Hector yawns. He doesn’t know how many more trips he’ll have to make in the months Mini has left. One night last week she wanted pastrami, not a sandwich, just the meat on the side. Another night it was fresh-brewed jamaica. This morning it’s chorizo with potatoes. Tomorrow it’ll be frozen fish sticks, or ice milk, or taquitos and homemade guacamole. … Hector knows that the particulars of Mini’s appetite don’t matter. He’d drive to Alaska for ice cubes if she asked him to.”
Several poignant scenes punctuate the stories, such as in “Buena Suerte Airlines,” in which kind-hearted, smart and practical Mini, weary of not having enough money, starts buying lottery tickets on a weekly basis, and is then bitterly disappointed when she checks the numbers. With quiet resignation, she rips up the losing tickets.
Jaime-Becerra peppers his stories with Spanish words and phrases. Many can be deciphered from the context of the story, but some remain unfamiliar to those who don’t speak the language.
Wry humor softly lightens up the stories, such as in “Gina and Max,” when Gina describes a gift from her boyfriend:
“This is our third Christmas together, and as much as I love Max, he hasn’t gotten any better at giving me gifts. We had been together five months and three days when our first Christmas came around. Max gave me a pack of multivitamins and a jar of iron pills, because I was always tired.”
Violence occurs intermittently in the stories. The reader can almost feel the sharp slap across a teenage boy’s face when his mother mistakenly believes he’s gotten a tattoo, as well as the angry blows exchanged by two young men in a bar brawl.
After learning about the lives of the men and women in “Every Night Is Ladies’ Night,” one can’t help but root for them to prevail over their situations.
Jaime-Becerra, who teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is working on another book, this one about rural musicians in Mexico. It goes to prove that those who can, teach – and do.
Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.