Mexican-American brothers struggle against prejudice and adversity in this first novel from poet/memoirist Baca (The Importance of a Piece of Paper, 2004, etc.).
After their father Casimiro is felled by stroke in 2003, Lorenzo takes over the land Casimiro worked for its owner, Miller. Younger brother Vito, forced to leave the farm after beating up Miller’s son for disparaging a Mexican woman, dons boxing gloves and becomes a championship fighter. Unbeknownst to Miller, Lorenzo grows more than chili peppers; his marijuana crop generates plenty of surplus cash, which he uses to improve conditions for the area’s immigrant field workers. He falls for Carmen, a graduate student writing her thesis on the migrants, but is caught between the way of life made possible by his illicit trade and Carmen’s insistence that they join with the workers to agitate for improved conditions. Meanwhile, Vito becomes a hero to the Chicano field hands by equating his fights with the struggle against Anglo injustice and oppression. The narrative skips back and forth in chronology, always circling around the murder of their mother Nopal when Lorenzo was five. We learn that 15-year-old Nopal fled Mexico for America in 1983, fought off a rapist, was rescued by Casimiro, had a singing career that led to her death; ethereal italicized passages suggest that her spirit still follows her sons. All lines eventually converge in a questionably executed and predictable dénouement that would work better with fuller character development. Baca’s impulse to poetic reverie sacrifices clarity and accessibility for surreal, excessive description. Conversely, lack of specificity keeps the material about the plight of immigrant workers at the level of vague archetypes. The betrayal of one brother by the other, the fight in which their bid for land ownership is at stake, as well as the unlikely discovery of their mother’s murderer are all rushed through in prose that never earns believability, empathy or a hold on the reader’s attention.
A potentially interesting story sabotaged by lack of discipline.