Cinco Puntos Press, 2018
Memories from the author’s own childhood experiences—as well as those of his son, his friends, and the young men he worked with as a middle-school teacher—inform this too-slim book of poetry from the perspective of a 12-year-old Chicano border kid entering the seventh grade. Here, our super-smart protagonist and poet clearly knows who he is and what he comes from. And he’s learning what he’s been given to do.
Like his idol, the great Mexican boxer, Saul “Canelo” Álvarez, the boy whom everyone calls “Güero” is cinnamon-toned, too. Observant readers looking back to Zeke Peña’s digitally rendered cover art will notice that, as Güero and his dog run through the chaparral, the boy’s freckles and hair—along with the Huehuehcoyotl (“Feathered Coyote”) Nahual mask he wears—perfectly match the cinnamon-colored sand. The boy belongs to the land. He is “puro mexicano.”
As a child of dual cultures who has learned to float between different groups, Güero uses variations of language to express himself. He communicates in Spanish and English with his elder relatives (especially with his bisabuela, who enjoys instructing him traditionally through dichos), mostly English with his teachers and friends (“los Bobbys”), Spanish first with new arrivals, and an effortless combination of English, Spanish, Espanglish and code-switching with everyone else, including family and readers. It’s especially refreshing that there is no italicization of anything: the languages and word-images blend with an authenticity rarely seen in middle-grade stories. And it’s appropriate that the glossary does not distinguish between language types, which readers will be able to infer from context.
In school, Güero’s woke English teacher, Mrs. Wong, keeps a long-eared white rabbit in her room and talks about the Moon Rabbit in Korea and Mexico, gifts her class Aztec and Mayan and Chinese and Korean legends, and plants seeds in the lives of her young charges. It is from her that Güero comes to know that “poetry is the clearest lens for viewing the world.”
Güero’s own poetic styles include free verse, and rhymed and unrhymed couplets, tercets, quatrains and quintets; as well as sonnets, haiku, senru, and rap. In authentic sneak-dissing (or “come-and-get-me”) rap, for instance, Güero stands his ground by lobbing taunts back at classroom bullies like Snake Barrero (who has just slammed him into a locker and called him “güero cacahuatero” and “gringo nerd”):
Yo, bullies: lero, lero
I’m the mero Güero
a real cacahuatero,
peanuts and chile
all up in this cuero,
this piel, this skin—
it’s white, that’s true
but I’m just as Mexican
as you and you and you.
If there’s anything that Güero can’t handle, he can rely on his new fregona girlfriend, Johanna, to jump in. She’s sort-of a cross between the beautiful, stereotype-busting Mexican movie queen, María Félix; and the strong, courageous Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Among her other talents, she uses judo skills to throw down bullies, crawls under cars to change the oil, and easily swaps out blown tires. And she “knows the perfect chile for all snacks.”
Among those relatives Güero remembers are his abuela Mimi, who hardly ever raised her voice. Rather, she told stories, creepy tales with supernatural threats “to punish little devils” who steal cookies off someone’s plate. Such as La Mano Pachona, a “hairy claw that crawls through the night,” a long-ago Mayan wizard who, to this day, continues to wreak revenge on the Inquisition and “naughty boys with Spanish blood.”
He also tells of his Uncle Joe, the family chronicler, whose teacher wouldn’t let him call himself José and would smack him for speaking Spanish. And the forced lies of history:
When I was a chavalito,…didn’t nobody teach us
about our gente, about the Revolución.
They made the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
sound like a blow struck for democracy
instead of the violent land-grab it was!
This should be México, m’ijo. The border?
It crossed right over us.
And Gúero speaks of the dangerous lives of refugees, the hunger and fears of deportation. When he tutors a “quiet and shy” newcomer, the boy, suddenly triggered by a few English words in a math problem—“a family takes a train”—runs from the room. Güero finds him crying in a small alcove and asks “¿Qué te pasa?”
His story comes streaming out—
threats against the family,
risking life and limb on la Bestia,
the black train that rattles
through Mexico bottom to top.
Hopeful and dreaming of new lives,
refugees from all over cling
to that dangerous metal.
One terrible day, its wheels
sliced off his brother’s leg.
“We lost everything
but each other
to coyotes and cops
and bandits,” he says.
“Now we live in a tejabán
in a colonia. No water,
no light. But safe.
Except when I dream.”
They Call Me Güero is as far from cultural tourism as one can get. Rather, Bowles has taken to heart the advice of his Uncle Joe, who told him this: “Represent us, m’ijo, all the ones they kept down. You are us. We are you.” Indeed, his evocative story-poems are filled with family and culture and memories and sadness and humor and everyday experiences and playful language and hard history lessons, all told in the voice of a Tex-Mex almost-teen the author knows well. Middle-grade readers (especially, but not limited to, border kids) will easily relate to this young person, who easily relates to them. They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems is highly, highly recommended.
Muchísimas gracias a mi amiga y colega, Judy Zalazar Drummond; and to my young associate, Juan Camilo Prado, for his patient explanation and examples of sneak-dissing. (Addendum to post, 12/7/18: Juan also informed me that there are other, similar forms of rap: "throwing shade" and "the dozens," a series of insults played before a gathering of spectators.)