Ten connecting stories, set mostly in 1980s California, deftly pursue a loosely connected family of Mexican-Americans with little money or education.
Jaime-Becerra’s protagonists are ice cream vendors, tattoo artists, and teenagers navigating American values in El Monte, California, while their old-world parents glower uncomprehendingly at the new ways. In “The Corrido of Hector Cruz,” a young father-to-be is sent out for food to satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife, whom he adores. The two are barely scraping by on low-wage jobs when they learn that Hector’s nephew—his dead brother’s young son, Lencho, fresh from reform school—must come live with them. Yet what might have been disastrous turns out—as happens often here—a kind of salvation for both the couple and for Lencho, who has no real skills but a lot of heart. Subsequently, in “Riding with Lencho,” we learn that he becomes an auto mechanic, then gets by on disability when his ex-girlfriend scalds him with boiling coffee after growing enraged at his going to night school. In another familial tangent, the young narrator of the fine first story, “Practice Tattoos,” watches in sad resignation as the fights between his mother and sister, Gina, over her boyfriends eventually propel her out the door forever. Later, Gina and her tattoo artist steady, Max, resurface in another eponymous story, trying to stay in love despite the louche types who supply Max’s trade. The characters here want more than anything to do the right thing—fall in love and steer a better course, for example, though in a couple of stories, like “Media Vuelta,” we’re given a glimpse of the earlier generation back in Mexico: mariachi guitarist Jose Luis’s courtship, for instance, and loss of his sweetheart.
The writing is fluid, the details brisk and vivid as newcomer Jaime-Becerra reveals his characters without judging them harshly. Learn Spanish in richly affecting narratives from a strong new talent.