Cinco Puntos Press, 2018
I’m telling you this now because I don’t know when I’m going to die. If you ask me why is a twelve-year-old kid thinking about dying, well, I don’t want to die. You hear people say they wish the old people had wrote things down because now they’re dead and their stories didn’t get told. But sometimes people die who aren’t old and that got me thinking: people don’t always die when they think they’re going to. So I want to tell you this story in case I die before I get old.
Taking place in the late 1950s, Iron River is a gritty, no-holds-barred telling from the point of view of a Mexican boy about to enter 8th grade. Everyone in the small town of Sangra (short for “San Gabriel,” ten miles east of Los Angeles) knows Manuel Maldonado, Jr., as “Man-on-Fire” because of his red hair and a large birthmark. His friends call him “Manny” or “Man” for short, and, to some of his relatives, he is “Little Man.”
Part of a strong, tight-knit, loving family, Manny lives with his hard-working parents, grandparents, and younger sister and brother in a small house practically abutting the railroad tracks; and other relatives live close by. Here, everyone knows everyone, and Sangra is a place where people’s experiences are riddled by poverty and drugs and violence and discrimination—and the scary, frequent, “baby earthquakes” of passing trains on the iron river.
Nevertheless, Sangra is home, and Manny’s narrative is straightforward—without a hint of “we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place” self-pity. Rather, readers will see neighbors helping neighbors, especially at times of need and at funerals. On the Maldonados’ front porch, for instance, is a “hobo chair,” where Grandma offers homeless men who ride the rails a sandwich, a place to rest in quiet solitude, and rosary blessings.
Manny is well aware of his neighborhood’s history and culture, yet he internalizes popularized racist “history.” For instance, when he and his friend Danny first started playing “the Alamo,” he says,
[We] couldn’t’ decide if we wanted to be the Texans or the Mexicans. Me and Danny are Mexican. To be the Texans would feel like traitors. But the Texans in the movie won, and we didn’t’ want to be losers….When we aren’t killing Mexicans, me and Danny and our friends Little and Marco throw rocks at trains.
And some of the harsh realities of life are taken lightly, as well:
Little’s dad went back to Mexico after the Fourth of July and Little told us he still wasn’t back. He said his mom said Mr. Guti probably got stopped by the border patrol as a wetback. Big’s mom said he probably had to check up on all his other families down there, and it would probably take some time. We all laughed.
Yet, Manny also is quick to notice and comment upon the everyday racist micro-aggressions in his neighborhood and beyond:
[We] got kicked out [of the movies] mainly because we’re Mexican. It’s the white kids that flatten out their popcorn boxes and throw them at the screen when the lights go out before the second movie starts, but [white kids] never get kicked out, and Mexicans don’t even buy popcorn.
When Manny and his friends, unaware of the consequences for Mexican youngsters, place themselves in dangerous situations—such as when they’re caught train-hopping—punishment from their fathers is a swift and painful belt-whipping, something they will always remember. And afterward, Manny’s mom rubs his wounds with lard and wraps them with soft pieces of flour sack, and his grandma and mom tuck him into bed and bless him over and over.
The family and community members are complex, and Manny’s narration and the dialogue realistically include Spanglish, code switching, and Caló. Especially refreshing is that neither the Spanish nor these phrases are translated. Rather, readers who speak Spanish will go with the flow and readers who don’t will understand the meanings from the context. As well, terms of respect are given to those who earn them, such as “a su ordenes,” always, to Grandma.
When Manny’s uncle, Rudy, is released from prison and returns home, the family circle surrounds him:
Rudy moved slow when he went over and kissed Grandma on the top of her head. I looked at her face. She was smiling but worry was standing right behind her smile.
Me and Grandma watched him walk to my old room. He looked shorter than Dad but he was bent over so I couldn’t be sure. And he walked kind of sideways, like those dogs you see walking down the street that got hit by a car but lived. You can’t see any cuts or blood, but you know their insides are messed up, and they walk like Rudy.
“Prison has worn him down, so be nice to him,” Grandma said and patted my hand.
In this community, at this time, hard situations abound and resolutions—where there are some—are not always neat. And sometimes a family’s love and support are not enough. Rudy is a broken man, and he’s ultimately returned to prison, never to come home. The boys lob oranges at hobos on passing trains (for which they get grounded); later, Manny is obsessed with the thought that they may have killed a hobo whose body they found on the tracks. And when he takes a short cut through the San Gabriel station, Manny witnesses a racist cop, a “mean son-of-a-bitch” who is known to prey on minorities in the Sangra community—killing a Black teenager:
I heard a sound I’d heard once before. I stopped and listened harder. It was the sound of somebody getting beat up, and it was coming from inside. I hid in the shadows…. I leaned against the wall and waited for the sound to stop…. I heard punches and kicks and the voice of a boy crying. A man’s hard voice told him to shut up and called the boy
dirty names and “nigger.”
The boy cried and cried, and then he started moaning and then he was quiet…. A shadow passed by me walking fast and breathing hard. Even though it was dark, I could see who it was. The shadow turned to look back, and I thought he saw me, but then he walked into the night and in a minute I heard a car start up and burn rubber and drive away fast.
The sight of his friend’s brother’s horribly mutilated body is Manny’s wake-up call. He must now decide whether or not to come forward and possibly risk his own freedom—and maybe even his life.
While Manny’s character growth and his coming to speak out are central to the story, many of the chapters read as vignettes; each of them featuring family, friends or strangers who live in or pass through Sangra. Also running through the story is Manny’s matter-of-fact nighttime incontinence and, by the end, it is resolved—symbolic of how his life is changing for the better.
The many layers of this beautifully built-up picture of an intelligent, goofy young kid who’s well aware of his surroundings and faces them head-on is a brilliant debut of a promising young writer. Iron River will prompt discussions of race, class, culture, and teenage sexuality, and resonate with middle-grade through high school readers. It’s highly recommended.