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New anthology on Mexico transforms the trite to the truthful

It’s hard to know how to take on an anthology of 22 works about Mexico by living, English-speaking authors who live or at least have spent a lot of time here. Where to begin? While the stories and essays in “Mexico: Sunlight & Shadows” have been evenhandedly listed in alphabetical order, the idea of reading them that way did not spur me forward.

So, floundering for a toehold, I decided on something short and hopefully sweet. I was rewarded with E.G. Brady’s three-page essay hilariously recapping his bus trip to the U.S. embassy in Hermosillo with his kids and Mexican wife. Although Brady’s comic style is low-key, for me his tale was LOL. In fact, I liked it so well that it became the model I aspired to in writing this review. (How am I doing, E.G.?)

However, the anthology’s title, “Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows,” clearly say this is not a comic anthology and that more serious stuff — the “shadows” — lay ahead. 

Carol M. Mercasin’s piece caught my eye next, not because it is dark (it isn’t) or short (it is), but because of its title, “Where We Learn to Love Imperfection.” 

Chaos, is how I usually put it, and Mercasin’s focus on imperfection made me recall my forlorn theory that attributes everything that seems crazy or even corrupt in Mexico to its humanism, its preference for dealing with an individual, however quirky he or she may be, rather than with a nice, predictable system. (According to my hypothesis, humanism contrasts with more mechanistic cultures in the north where people are enamored of computers, cloverleaf interchanges, legal systems and 501(c) charitable organizations.)

Indeed, Mercasin’s witty piece, mostly describing her clash with quirky humans during her home construction project in San Miguel de Allende, did seem to bolster my thesis. When we use “perfect” as our standard, writes this self-described recovering lawyer who used to systematically hang her clothes on color-coded hangers, “our real but highly flawed world inhabited by spectacularly imperfect human beings becomes inferior and can never measure up.” Amen and hallelujah.

Now, after such spectacular success in finding a writer apparently on my wavelength, I decided, on a lark, to search my electronic version of the anthology for “human.” Lo and behold, the winner in my weird quest was Bruce Berger’s, “Under the Cypress,” with five hits. Berger’s piece had at first daunted me with its 30-page portrait of the remote, slow-paced town of San Ignacio, Baja California, but now I turned to it with interest. 

Berger seems to me an old-fashioned writer — I use this term as high praise — who writes for people who like to soak in descriptive passages as in a warm bath. But all his lovely detail doesn’t exist for the sake of, say, winning a contest in descriptive writing. No, Berger’s essay gradually unfolds into a drama pitting the idyllic paradise (its plants, animals and humans, including one of its dear inhabitants, Héctor) against the threat of environmental collapse (withering grapevines and sickening children and sea animals). 

Sad but true, and notably negative toward encroaching mechanistic monsters, such as highways and agribusiness. 

Flush with this new victory in my quest for recognition of Mexico’s humanism, I persisted in my demented search for “human” and got three hits in Daniel Reveles’ 21-page “The Doughnut Man” (and 50 for “doughnut”). Reveles’ essay is centered in the small border city of Tecate, Baja California. 

Interestingly, much of this second-generation, Mexican-American author’s writing appears to have food in the title. So is it a lost cause to try to shoehorn his size-thirteen talk about food into my size-six glass slipper of humanistic orientation? 

Reveles’ entertaining tale seemed to say no, as it centers on the efforts of a men’s coffee klatch to underwrite the efforts of Tecate’s vendor of terrible doughnuts to care for his ailing mother-in-law. Need I point out the obvious? No relying on charitable organizations here! 

Reveles even brings us a Mexican doctor jawboning against lethal injection as a method of capital punishment (which, by the way, doesn’t exist in Mexico). “Don’t order a doctor to commit murder!” the man insists. Another one for humanism. 

By now you may want off my bandwagon of humanistic obsession, so let’s turn to something that should really interest you when considering this anthology about Mexico: setting. 

Egret Books calls Guadalajara and San Diego home, so one naturally wonders if all the selections will center on Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. You can see from my previous comments that the answer is no, although two notable selections do: Michael Hogan’s and Judy King’s. And they are both about music.

Don’t miss Hogan’s juicy “Los Tigres del Norte,” centered in Tlaquepaque, where he and his wife, trying to rekindle the old flame, attend a packed, raucous concert by this wildly popular norteño band accused of glorifying the drug trade. Hogan is the author of more than 20 books and someone I’ve heard described as “the real thing.” His wide experience and willingness to dive into a setting that might terrify even your teenage son all make him an exceptionally perceptive author.

Equally informative and compelling is Judy King’s six-page contribution, “Mariachi Is Mexico’s Music.” King, of course, is a columnist and reporter for this newspaper and her discerning take on mariachi, like Hogan’s tale of a norteño concert, does what an anthology on Mexico should do: help you appreciate something that is often treated as a caricature. 

Notably, King takes advantage of the fact you will probably be reading her essay on a computer, by directing you to a mariachi website as you read. “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then hearing music must be worth 10,000 words,” she writes. 

Locales other than those already mentioned shine too, as in Jim Johnston’s short essay, “When I Tell People I Live in Mexico City.” Again, this author makes you want to visit, or revisit, something your preconceptions led you to pooh-pooh.

This anthology includes many other Mexican locales, and fiction too, such as Robert Richter’s 27-page “Something Like a Dream” (based in the remote Sierra Nayarit) and David Lida’s dark tale of an Acapulco street boy — it’s Acapulco, so should I say “beach boy”? — and his induction into sleazy filmmaking. (Thankfully, the editor usually alerts you in the author’s biography to the fact that fiction is fiction, which can be hard to differentiate from some essays.) Obviously, this is an anthology that covers a lot of ground.

My one criticism of the book is minor and, yes, mechanical! I suppose it is a fault of many electronic books (although “Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows” is available in paper form too) that the reader has a hard time, not so much in navigating, but in knowing where they are in a book, and where a particular selection is. A traditional table of contents (with page numbers) and traditional headers or footers (with the title of the contribution you are reading) would help.

“Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows,” managing editor Mikel Miller, Egret Press, San Diego and Guadalajara, 2015. 342 pages. Paperback: $US9.95; Kindle version: $US2.98.

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