Stories About Queer Self Discovery in a Migrant Worker Camp

Jaime Cortez's book "Gordo" revolves around a sensitive kid growing up in a hypermasculine Mexican community

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Everyone has something to say in Jaime Cortez’s debut collection of short fiction, Gordo. There’s Raymundo, the town’s openly gay hairdresser who has a gift of knowing exactly what each of his clients needs to look and feel beautiful; Fat Cookie, a high school chola with a political edge and disregard for authority; the lone gringo, Juan Diego, a man of few words, whose broken heart is stirred by the music of Vicente Fernández. And guiding the reader along through a terrain of machismo pride, queer self-discovery, notions of home, and harrowing tales of immigration is the earnest and precocious Gordo.

Set in and around a predominantly Mexican migrant workers camp in 1970s Watsonville, California, Cortez’s stories are filled with so much love for the characters who inhabit them. Cortez is unflinching in his portrayals of violence and threat, and still—no matter how tragic their backstories or dire their current circumstances, he holds his cast in perfect balance, allowing levity and humor to always be in focus.

I spoke with Cortez on the phone about nicknames, writing semi-autobiographical fiction, and inheriting humor as a tool of survival.

Christopher Gonzalez: I wanted to talk first about the concept of nicknames. They’re so prevalent throughout the collection with characters like “Gordo,” “Fat Cookie,” and “Shy Boy,” to name a few. I was fascinated by the way in which nicknames create this familiarity among characters but also a distancing. It’s almost like you don’t get to fully know the person behind the name.

Jaime Cortez: I was kind of surprised when I went to college—we were talking about nicknames way back when I was an undergraduate. I didn’t realize there were people who grew up without a lot of nicknames, and I thought that was such an interesting contrast culturally for me.

Working-class, Mexican people are very big on nicknames, and they do connote belonging and they do connote familiarity, and it certainly can connote a kind of tenderness. And then, on the flip side, there are people, for instance, who are called “gordo” or “gorda,” who might eventually lose weight and still get called that name because the name just sticks. And so, I think that the nickname can also be a kind of a flattening of all that a person can be. In the case of “gordo,” it feels like being a fat kid then becomes one of the overriding factors of life. There’s also something interesting in these working-class settings of Mexican people. The nicknames often have a kind of blunt truth to them.

CG: There’s so much violence in the book, and there’s so much bumping up against one another that happens, especially amongst the kids. I’m thinking of that moment with Los Tigres, the twins, in “Fandango.” All the men are drinking and the twins get into this physical fight over who is the best dancer. Then Gordo’s dad, who thinks the one twin is a little asshole, offers to take him to the hospital when he’s severely injured. While there is tension and not everyone gets along in the camp, there’s still a level of care they have for one another. Can you talk about that dynamic?

JC: That scene is a very poignant one to me. It was based on something that I actually witnessed. My father and his two younger brothers were drinking. My dad had just gotten the latest Bee Gees album. He put it on and I could hear the youngest of the three brothers stomping around in the living room, dancing, and they got into a fight over who could dance. It was terrifying to hear the sound of these three bearish men throwing each other around, fighting over who was the best disco dancer. It was absurd. It was terrifying and hilarious at the same time. The next day we were laughing, but in the moment we were pissing ourselves because it was scary to be a little kid, hearing this madness going on in the room. Los Tigres were based on what had happened and that intense brutality and tenderness of things. It’s a very male way of operating sometimes, where you have this brutality followed by tenderness. 

I watch a lot of MMA and I’m fascinated by people putting themselves into a situation on purpose where they get hit. The thing that’s so intense for me, like the emotional kind of payoff, is at the end. They’ve been just trashing each other, battling each other, and MMA is really violent. And at the end, they’ll just embrace. And sometimes the embrace is so deep. That is so fascinating to me that those things can sit right next to each other. They’re bleeding from all over, from their noses, their mouths, around their eyes, and they’re covered in sweat, exhausted, drained, and they fall into this embrace, and it’s really intense to me. I don’t have that instinct of violence as a way of settling anything.

CG: Have you drawn any conclusions about why it is that mostly heterosexual men channel violence into a way of forming connection? 

JC: I think that it is more comfortable than tenderness. It is more comfortable and acceptable. For men, there’s something to be lost within hypermasculine settings. There’s something to be lost when you’re seen as emotionally vulnerable. It is safer to be furious and safer to be violent and to risk being battered yourself than to be seen as soft.

CG: In this context, I’m thinking about the character Raymundo. He comes in and he deals with a familiar bullying because of his sexuality and his presentation. It was fascinating to read his two stories back to back because he sort of comes out on top. This town that both fought against his very existence in a way, learns to embrace him. Can you talk a bit more about Raymundo’s role in the collection?

For men, there’s something to be lost within hypermasculine settings. It is safer to be furious and safer to be violent and to risk being battered yourself than to be seen as soft.

JC: It’s an interesting thing. There is a way that “the queen,” the effeminate gay man, can have a place. I saw that in Latino working class settings, they can sometimes find a place working as a barber or a hairdresser in a men’s or women’s salon. That is a place you then have an “oficio,” which is a word that has always fascinated me. “Oficio,” in its simplest sense, means a job, but I think it also means something deeper. “Oficio” feels like you have a purpose, you have a utility and a service that you can provide. You become useful in that way. And I think that finding a place, finding a way to be useful, can sometimes [shield] some of the worst sorts of hatred and exclusion.

CG: How did you approach bringing in narratives about immigrant characters who aren’t Mexican?

JC: That wasn’t even necessarily by design, but I think it really jumped out at me when I was a child growing up. I realized Salvadorans were the first Latinos who I ever spent time around who were not Mexicans. And so I kind of had this interest in other people who felt cousin-like, but not exactly like siblings. Culturally, I think it was also just that realization—growing up in the setting that I did, I knew of a million hard, sad stories about migration and immigration—about the desperation and the hope that comes with migration.

When we first met [Delia in the story “Alex”]—because [Delia] is based on real next-door neighbors we had, and they were a lesbian couple, and her butch partner did become physically abusive, and we did help the femme partner escape to Chicago, so all of that really did happen—I think it was the beginning of understanding the difference between an immigrant and really a refugee. She was escaping a very dangerous situation.

CG: I want to ask about writing a main character who’s fat. As a fat writer myself, all my main characters are usually fat, and I always struggle with how much physical description to include. With Gordo, his name alludes to his appearance. How did you decide on when to explicitly mention his weight in the text?

JC: In “El Gordo,” the wrestling mask story, when Pa tries to pull Gordo’s shirt off, there’s this shame of having his shirt off, because my fat kid body was a place of great shame. And, there was an interesting thing that happened while remembering that when I put on that mask and I saw myself without the shirt, and I thought, oh, this is kind of how the masked wrestlers look. A lot of them are gordo. That was a common thing that you would see with Mexican wrestlers. They were a combo of fat and muscle. So, it comes through in other people’s comments, and it comes through in Gordo’s thoughts, but I don’t go a long way towards describing it. It’s almost kind of by association.

CG: The kids in these stories are so close to and surrounded by adults in a way I think kids not from working class families aren’t. There’s this backdrop of worrying about money and drinking and danger. What are your thoughts on that juxtaposition of childhood set against very adult circumstances?

I think that finding a place, finding a way to be useful, can sometimes shield some of the worst sorts of hatred and exclusion.

JC: Looking back on it, we were extremely exposed to a lot of dodgy, traumatic, dangerous things. We also knew that, compared to the rigors and the horrors that our parents and grandparents had endured, we were definitely positioned as having it relatively easy in comparison. That’s why I think it was really important for me that I didn’t want the stories to have a maudlin tone of woe-is-me, because these were all kids who knew how much worse it could be. 

CG: There’s so much humor and life in these characters, in the way the stories are told. And these stories capture exactly what you’re talking about, that balance. While reading, I was reminded of sitting around with my family listening to their stories, and if you dissect what they’re talking about, you realize how fucked up things were!

JC: [Laughs] It’s really fucked up!

CG: But, from the way they talk about everything, it’s as if those were the best times of their lives.

JC: Well, I think there’s a kind of glee, of like, hey we survived that! Sometimes I’ll hang out with my sister and my aunts and uncles—we grew up next door to them for many years in the same migrant worker camp, and we were all about the same age because my grandmother had children too late in her life. So, our uncles and aunts were really kind of like our siblings, and sometimes we’ll remember back to the things we went through, and we’re laughing, and we’re saying, it was terrible, wasn’t it? Yeah, I mean we’re still laughing. And also, of course, the people who perpetrated all this craziness on kids were also family members, in some cases very beloved family members, grandparents, tíos, tías, moms. It was just the understanding that they had at the time. And they would have laughed if you told them that it was abusive or wrong to spank, for instance.

CG: How else has humor shaped your life? How do you approach it when you’re writing and when you’re editing?

JC: I was raised around a lot of laughter. That doesn’t change the amount of trauma that I experienced and that people around me experienced. It doesn’t change the amount of fear that we might have experienced, fear of violence, or even the looming threat of violence popping up at any time. That was something else I thought a lot about as I was writing, what it meant to feel that the world can explode in violence at any moment. But despite all that, I think that I just grew up with so much laughter. There were so many funny people. Mom was funny, Dad was funny, aunts and uncles were funny. Kids were funny. And we cultivated that and valued that and it’s very clear to me that it was about survival, like this was how we bear it. This is how we survive it. 

Years later, as an adult, gay man in San Francisco, in the ’90s and kind of being involved in HIV prevention and education work, I was again struck at a certain point by the kind of gallows humor that developed over time. Around living with this pandemic that was threatening to kill most of us. Especially during the ’80s and in the early ’90s, it was a death sentence. It wouldn’t be an overnight death sentence, but the assumption was that it’s a death sentence. So, the humor around that was also really powerful to me and it felt so familiar. Felt so familiar to hear some of the humor, and some of it was harsh and cruel, but I understand it as just a survival mechanism. Humor can be used in so many ways. Sometimes it can be used to deflect from the truth and sometimes it can be used to penetrate more deeply into the truth of things. And so I’m interested in those modalities of humor as a way of trying to get at a certain truth. I’m constantly thinking about humor, and how it functions, and who has agency to use it. And when does it get used and, I think especially right now, there’s a lot of sensitivity about what is appropriate fodder for humor, and a lot of pushback about it, so it’s a really interesting and precarious time for humor in so many ways.

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