Mexican-Americans and other minorities struggle for power in an L.A. steel mill, in a heartfelt but disjointed first novel from this poet, autobiographer and storywriter (The Republic of East L.A., 2002, etc.).
The prologue, set in 1944, sees Procopio Salcido, 19, gravitate from northern Mexico to L.A., where he marries the even younger Eladia and is hired by Nazareth Steel (modeled on the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel, where Rodriguez once worked). The Salcidos have six children, but when their only daughter dies in infancy, Procopio shuts down, neglecting his five boys and devastating the youngest, Johnny, who winds up in prison. Fast-forward to 1970 when Johnny, now 20, joins Nazareth as one of the craft crews. His life at the mill until 1982, when it closes, is the heart of the story here. There is an old guard of racist white millwrights headed by Earl Denton, a Klan leader, along with a progressive group of young communists organized by college graduate Harley Cantrell. Johnny emerges as a natural leader, organizing a black/Mexican slate that almost defeats the old guard in union elections. Violence is rife. When women join the crews, one loses four fingers in an “accident” and her supervisors are badly beaten in a reprisal. Cantrell is murdered by a hit man. Always dominant is the mill itself, “an earth monster who can devour you.” Rodriguez veers haphazardly between the mill’s routines, its race-based politics and its disruption of domestic life, as the overwhelming stress drives the workers to drink. It all makes for a good story, but Rodriguez doesn’t know how to tell it: what should be dramatic high points (the election result, the murder) are just hiccups, while character development, like that of Johnny’s turnaround from inmate to organizer, simply happens. And, with the mill’s closing, Rodriguez runs out of material. The final third shifts into the first-person as Johnny’s grown daughter Azucena, a barrio hell-raiser, describes la vida loca.
Powerful forces clash but don’t engage in a way to involve the reader.