I picked up this book because it boasted one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen. The Collected Stories of Amado Muro is a slim hardcover published in 1979. There’s no publisher’s logo on the spine, but the title page says Thorp Springs Press, Austin, Texas. The cover art is in the gauzy, colored-pencil style found on menus in Mexican restaurants across South Texas: men in denim work jackets; a nun sternly gazing out at the reader; a man with a sombrero holding a mariachi’s guitarrón; a worker hunched over in a field. It looks like the work of a very talented high school art student.
I imagined this Muro guy taking a stack of stories to his buddy who owned a printing press, hoping he’d cut him a deal. It might be the most Chicano-looking book cover I’ve ever seen: improvisatory, emotional, and a little too obvious.
Then I read the blurbs on the inside cover. Actually, I had to read them twice. John Womack Jr. in the New York Review of Books compared Muro to Isaac Babel. The Nation said, “These short stories may be the best that have been written in this country about men on the road and in the fields, at the missions, and in the villages of Mexico.”
The best? Of everyone ever? I’m from South Texas. I’ve taken Chicano literature courses. I’ve helped organize symposiums featuring Mexican and Mexican-American authors. But I had never heard of Amado Muro.
Most of the stories in the collection follow a character named Amado (or “Amadito” when he’s young) in either Juárez or El Paso. The broad themes are familiar to readers of Mexican and Mexican-American literature: the importance of family, the power of community, the bitter wit of the poor and disadvantaged.
One repeated locale is a vibrant local market. Muro uses simple details to bring the chaos to life:
Laughter rose from the rutted street’s squalor. Bearded men in thread jumpers threw their heads back and shouted while the blind men sang of miracles and epic deeds. Meek women, shabby and careworn, became gay for a moment while street clowns played leapfrog and fire-eaters imitated volcanoes.
The Amado character is usually a detached narrator who tells other people’s stories. These people frequently challenge social conventions and stand up to authority figures, taking them down a peg and showing off their own intelligence in the process. There’s the story of Pedro Urdemales who, after his death, sings and cooks his way out of both heaven and hell, so he can return to earth. In another story, Amado’s own father earns notoriety for singing a song about Pancho Villa to the fearsome Villa himself.
One of the most delightfully weird stories is “Soledad Castillo.” Soledad was a rich woman who, every day of the week, dressed up as a different beggar and collected alms for various saints. She kept every cent she earned. Every Monday she took the statue of the Good Thief San Dimas into a dangerous neighborhood:
[The statue] she carried to the bad death hotels on Mariscal street where most of Parral’s hoodlums lived. She showed the saint’s statue to raffish pickpockets, burly jackrollers, ferrety procurers and cantina Tarzans. Then she asked them for alms. They always gave them.
At the end of the story, Soledad goes back to her luxurious home but only feels content for a few moments. The country is losing its faith and soon she’ll have to go back onto the street, selling the illusion of salvation.
In these stories, illusions are often stronger than reality.
And speaking of illusions, I have something to confess. I’m not being honest. Or rather, I’m burying the lede here—something Muro, a seasoned journalist, would never do. Amado Muro was not named Amado Muro. Amado Muro was not born in Mexico or in Texas.
He was born Chester Seltzer, son of a powerful Anglo family in Cleveland, Ohio.
Seltzer couldn’t have been more removed, at birth, from the people he wrote about. Even his name—Chester Seltzer—is impossibly angular and, well, white. The book’s brief introduction sketches out Seltzer’s life story. He escaped his father’s wealth and power by riding the rails and living most of his life in and around El Paso. He learned Spanish and married a Mexican woman named Amada Muro.
I didn’t learn the truth about Muro’s background until I had read half the book. I had no reason to think these stories weren’t written by a Mexican-American. The writing is clear, sharp, and never burdened by undue metaphors. The form is fresh—some of the stories feel like modern fiction about life on the border. But would I have read them differently knowing they weren’t written by someone born into this community? Would I have scoured the stories for noble savages and dismissive generalizations?
Fair or not, the truth about Seltzer disappointed me. I read the rest of the book waiting to be offended, waiting to unmask Seltzer as another romantic who trafficked in exploiting marginalized groups. When I realized how often his Mexican characters are reduced to reverie and tears at the right song, I felt uneasy. Was that a stereotype? If so, why does it feel like the truth?
In the 1960s and 1970s these stories appeared in literary journals and anthologies of Mexican-American literature. He was read in college courses. This book was reviewed by Larry McMurtry in the New York Times Book Review.
Now, Muro has been forgotten because he’s just not Mexican enough. Okay, he’s not Mexican at all. For too many decades, Mexicans in art, literature, and film were slow-moving, over-emotional, violent, somehow both lazy and conniving. These depictions were created and even portrayed by outsiders, by people who, however good or bad their intentions, helped shape the stereotypes that still thrive. Of course Seltzer/Muro has been exiled from the canon of Southwestern writing. Why read a white guy from Ohio when you can read Miguel Méndez, or Juan Rulfo, or Rolando Hinojosa?
This debate hits close to home. I was born in San Antonio, a city colonized by the Spanish eighty years before the American Revolution. My ancestors have been living in New Mexico and Texas for nearly four hundred years. Yet I don’t speak Spanish and, as far as I know, I have no relatives living in Mexico. Still, I identify as Mexican-American. Should I? Or do you think I should identify as American, even though most people I see in movies who look like me are either gardeners or gangsters? My novel-in-progress features both Mexican-American and Anglo characters. If Seltzer doesn’t have the privilege to write about his wife’s community, then what community can I write about?
The question for me is not: Is Seltzer part of this community? The question is: Am I?