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Daniel Olivas has commented on (6) products.

Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Noir) by Denise Hamilton
Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Noir)

Daniel Olivas, May 25, 2007

With "Los Angeles Noir," the mean streets of L.A. are a little meaner not to mention a lot more diverse than they were portrayed during the era of J. Edgar Hoover, well-worn fedoras, and three-martini lunches at the Brown Derby. These stories are cinematic, violent little gems of contemporary crime fiction that are a must-read for any true fan of noir.

[The full review first appeared in The Elegant Variation.]
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Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Elena Poniatowska
Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution

Daniel Olivas, May 14, 2007

Elena Poniatowska's "Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution" (Cinco Puntos Press, $12.95 paperback) demonstrates the riveting, almost hypnotic power of photographs.

Poniatowska's text (translated from Spanish by David Dorado Romo) is wisely limited to about two dozen pages and acts as a frame for the remarkable black-and-white images of the brave women who fought on either side of the Mexican Revolution.

The term "soldadera" comes from "soldada," or salary. Poniatowska explains that "during all wars and invasions, soldiers used their 'soldada' (a word of Aragonese origin) to hire a female servant. The woman would go to the barracks to charge her salary, i.e., soldada." Thus, the term "soldadera" was coined.

The photographs are culled from the enormous Casasola Collection in the Fototeca Nacional of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico. The publisher tells us that the collection is based on the work of Agust?n Casasola (1874-1938), one of the first photojournalists in Mexico and founder of the photo agency that carries his name.

It is difficult not to mull over these photographs of Mexican and indigenous women from the early part of the last century as they pose with their pistols, horses, children or husbands. These are women who played different roles, sometimes as brave soldiers, other times as helpmates (or even prostitutes without much choice) to the male warriors.

Poniatowska offers anecdotes to help us know these women, sometimes using their own words. Pancho Villa does not fair well here, nor do other men who took brutal advantage of -- or even murdered -- these women.

"Las Soldaderas" perfectly weds words with photographs as a poignant tribute to the brave women who were active participants in the Mexican Revolution.

[This is shortened version of the full review that first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest by Susan Wittig Albert
What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest

Daniel Olivas, May 14, 2007

The University of Texas Press brings us "What Wildness Is This: Women Write About the Southwest" ($19.95 paperback) edited by Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale and Paula Stallings Yost.

As the title makes clear, the editors gathered the works of women writers who have ventured to put the spirit of the Southwest into words. The editors wisely divide the 100 or so essays and poems into eight categories such as "Geographies" and "The Nature of Urban Life." This allows the reader to navigate with greater ease through these vibrant, evocative and often moving pieces.

In Sandra Ramos O'Briant's wry essay "The Green Addiction," the writer recounts how her paternal grandmother "didn't like it that Daddy had married a Mexican." After her parents divorced and she left Texas with her mother for New Mexico, she was introduced to the exquisite pain of eating chile, something her non-Mexican relatives "didn't have the cojones to deal with."

And in Nancy Mairs' moving "Writing West," we get a taste of what it is to live and travel in the Southwest in a wheelchair. Her prose is spare, tough and unsentimental.

Pat Mora's "Voces del Jard?n" is a homage to both the legacy and pleasures of her walled garden, which, she notes, is a "design indigenous to Mexico ... brought to the Americas by the Spanish ... a tradition Moorish and Mexican."

And, of course, there are descriptions of nature, wild and free, as in Sandra Lynn's "Poem in Which I Give You a Canyon": "Notice that this canyon is comprised of / two strata of volcanic origin: / a dark bitter chocolate and an airy vanilla."

It is a daunting task to describe fully the contours of this anthology, because so many fine writers are represented here -- including Joy Harjo, Denise Ch?vez and Barbara Kingsolver.

"What Wildness Is This" is a fitting tribute to the rugged complexity of the Southwest from the pens of a diverse group of women writers.

[This is shortened version of the full review that first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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Their Dogs Came With Them (07 Edition) by Helena Maria Viramontes
Their Dogs Came With Them (07 Edition)

Daniel Olivas, April 16, 2007

In 1985, Arte Público Press published Helena María Viramontes' first book, "The Moths and Other Stories," which has become a classic in Chicano literature. Since then, her short stories have appeared in more than 80 anthologies.

Viramontes published the novel "Under the Feet of Jesus" (Plume Books) in 1995, about a makeshift family of migrant workers. It was met with great critical acclaim and now graces many high-school and college reading lists.

Now, fans of Viramontes' writing can delight in the publication of her new novel, "Their Dogs Came With Them" (Atria Books, $23 hardcover). It possesses Viramontes' trademark poetic grittiness, with well-drawn characters who almost leap from the page.

The novel is a heart-rending but hopeful portrait of lives that are rocked by the turmoil and violence of East Los Angeles during the 1960s.

Asked whether she saw some form of redemption arising from her mostly female protagonists' struggles with poverty, bigotry and governmental abuses, Viramontes responded with characteristic candor:

"If I didn't want to recognize the redemption of their everyday ordeals, why write about them in the first place? I marvel, truly marvel, at the everyday, ordinary ordeals of human life, and I want to give justice to an existence that very few people or readers acknowledge."

In many ways, this sentiment is emblematic of Viramontes' perception of writers and their role in society. She asserts that "serious writers have the responsibility to try and disrupt patterns of thought and behavior that damage the integrity of life. That's why most writers do their best work while living on the fringes of a society."

With respect to writers of color such as herself, Viramontes provocatively adds: "Because our communities are constantly bombarded with inhumane violence and racism, I think we writers write with greater urgency." She takes this role seriously: "The greatest compliment to a writer is if a reader is disturbed enough to begin questioning his/her own beliefs."

In choosing the setting and era for her new novel, Viramontes did not need to stray far from her roots. She was born in East Los Angeles into a large family that always extended to relatives and friends who had crossed the border from Mexico to California.

While attending Immaculate Heart College, she worked part time at the bookstore and library to help pay for her education. Viramontes eventually earned her master of fine arts degree from the University of California at Irvine.

She has gone on to win many awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, and the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature.

Today, Viramontes is a teacher and mentor to many young writers. She is a professor of creative writing at Cornell University.

Despite well-deserved acclaim, Viramontes does not pretend that writing is easy. "Their Dogs Came With Them" was more than a decade in the making because teaching and life's other demands often devoured her attention.

When Viramontes could make time to return to her novel, she sometimes suffered from writer's block. But she did not give up:

"I just kept my fingers close to the keyboard, walking distance close, just in case something would happen. I had to pay close attention. I reminded myself that a novel begins by one word following another."

Viramontes also observes: "Writing novels is certainly not for the fainthearted, and writing them on a university schedule can be brutally challenging."

We can be grateful for her perseverance. "Their Dogs Came With Them" establishes that Viramontes is simply one of our finest chroniclers of the ordinary but heroic ordeals of human life.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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Ver: Revisioning Art History #01: Gronk by Max Benavidez
Ver: Revisioning Art History #01: Gronk

Daniel Olivas, March 25, 2007

Biography adds to understanding of Chicano art

By Daniel A. Olivas

In recent years, Chicano art has received some of the respect long denied it by museums, critics and educators.

This did not happen without such diverse supporters as comedian Cheech Marin and Gary D. Keller, director of Bilingual Review/Press at Arizona State University. Through the publication of handsome, well-annotated books and the preparation of traveling exhibitions, they and others have encouraged this evolution of attitude and opinion.

Such advocacy continues. In 2002, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press established the book project "A Ver: Revisioning Art History," billed as the only series on Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and other U.S.-based Latino artists. The center's director, Chon Noriega, edits the series, which is distributed by the University of Minnesota Press.

The first book in the series is "Gronk" ($24.95 paperback; $60 hardcover with documentary DVD), a biography of the artist of that name by Max Benavidez, a Los Angeles writer and scholar. Through Benavidez's well-researched text, generously illustrated by Gronk's art and photographs from the artist's life, we come to understand not only the importance of his art but also the personal and historical events that inform his artistic vision.

Gronk was born in 1954 and grew up in East Los Angeles. Benavidez notes that this predominantly Mexican-American community was "a place literally and figuratively outside the mainstream." Residents suffered from government neglect, poverty, gang violence and drug abuse.

In this setting, Gronk was further marginalized when his father abandoned the family. Gronk was often left unattended at a young age because his mother had to work.

Eventually, he discovered the public library and spent countless hours there, reading book after book, moving alphabetically through the shelves. When a librarian learned of Gronk's reading plan, she sternly but wisely told him to "start with the Greeks and then work your way up to the present."

In addition to books, Gronk fell in love with movies and television shows of all genres and quality.

As Gronk moved into adolescence, he still felt like an outsider, in part because he was gay. Benavidez writes that during this period of self-discovery, Gronk became such a master of reinvention that questions still linger about his biographical details. While Gronk says his full name is Glugio Gronk Nicandro, Benavidez finds conflicting evidence regarding even this seemingly simple element of Gronk's identity.

In due course, Gronk gravitated toward like-minded young people as he began to develop as a playwright, actor, filmmaker and artist. He helped form Asco, a group of "self-styled misfits and cultural radicals" that originally included Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez and Willie Herrón III. The late artist Jerry Dreva also had a major influence on Gronk's work.

Gronk eventually created his most famous image, the iconic "La Tormenta," who is always depicted facing away from the viewer. La Tormenta wears long black gloves and a matching gown that plunges in a deep "V" down her back. As Benavidez notes, La Tormenta can be seen as Gronk's "glamorously stylish alter ego" who is "central to his artistic arsenal, that serves as a symbolic counterpoint of an 'authentic,' stable sexual identity."

The political turmoil of the times also influenced Gronk's work. For example, the powerful "Black and White Mural" (a collaboration with fellow Asco member Herrón) was inspired by the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, a national protest against the Vietnam War. One of the more potent images depicted in the mural is the infamous killing of reporter Rubén Salazar by a sheriff's deputy who needlessly fired two 10-inch tear-gas projectiles through a curtain into the Silver Dollar Café in East Los Angeles.

Benavidez offers a riveting, clear-eyed and contextualized midcareer examination of Gronk's development not only as an artist but also as a person.

For more information on this exciting and much-needed book series, visit

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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