Miguel Méndez, in his novel Pilgrims in Aztlán, tells many different stories. Heralded as a “landmark in Chicano literature” by critic Roland Walter in the Americas Review, the stories in this novel are hard to read. The difficulties are based on many factors; one of the most prominent is Méndez’s creative use of time—there is no straightforward linear progression. Another challenge is keeping track of the long list of characters. A third factor is the subject matter. There is no easy way of reading about the lives of oppressed and constantly hungry people. Underneath all this, there is also another factor. Juan D. Bruce-Novoa, in his article “Miguel Méndez: Voices of Silence,” states that
Méndez never trusts the lazy reader who would take advantage of the novel to amuse himself without committing anything in return. Méndez is not interested in entertaining [the reader] but moving [the reader] emotionally to compassion and intellectually and socially to action. In another respect, as in all rituals, complexity and even confusion are codes hiding and protecting the secrets of a culture from the outsider.
Another way that Méndez protects the secrets of his culture is to write only in Spanish. In addition, his complex writing style makes translating his books very difficult. His writing style is based on the oral tradition of storytelling. Méndez is very concerned about the loss of the oral tradition, especially in the lives of the Mexican people who, like him, have immigrated to the United States. Bruce-Novoa explains that the oral tradition has been used to pass down stories from one generation to the other. It is through this tradition that children learn from their elders. But in the United States, the children of these immigrants are growing up speaking English, encouraged by the educational system to abandon their traditional language. This creates a huge gap between the generations when the children speak English and their grandparents speak only Spanish. “The oral tradition is in danger of disappearing into the silent past,” says Bruce-Novoa, “and the Chicano, cut off from this door to his heritage, could lose his cultural identity, his place in the present, and thus, disappear in the future as well.” It is for these reasons that Méndez continues to write in a style that reflects his culture and the oral traditions of his people. His stories speak out for the growing silences in his traditions. Bruce-Novoa concludes that Méndez’s writing “is the voice of silence crying for justice in the desert.”
If there is a plot associated with Pilgrims in Aztlán, it existed, at one time, only in the author’s head as careful foresight in planning a complicated scheme. In the book itself, there is only story. More definitively, there is a collage of stories. That is not to say, however, that there is no action.
The novel begins with an introduction to Loreto Maldonado, a former revolutionary, who is now eighty years old and a Tijuana car washer. Loreto is also a very proud Yaqui Indian whose main goal in each remaining day of his life is to maintain his dignity and to find some way of making enough money to keep himself from starving.
The reader will meet all the various characters who people this novel through Loreto as he mingles in the dust and noise of the busy Tijuana streets, bumping into people whose stories he unfolds. If there is a protagonist, Loreto is it.
Within the first few paragraphs, the author lets the reader know that this story is not going to be an easy one to read. He uses words and phrases such as bad luck, anger, aching, dirt, furious, poisonous, and brutalizing. He also foreshadows the types of characters that Loreto is about to introduce by stating that the foul-smelling city in which the story is about to be told “bore the curses of so many frustrated individuals: veterans of the dirty wars, whoring and the unemployed rumbling with chronic hunger.”
Don Mario Davalos de Cocuch is the first character that Loreto runs into. Don Mario and his wife are on their way to church. Sundays are the time when they walk among the poor, offering alms before they pray for more money. When they offer Loreto some money, he refuses it. Loreto is not a beggar; he works for his money. Don Mario, on the other hand, was more likely to make his wife work, especially back in her youth when she did not have to hide her age under heavy applications of makeup. Don Mario, whom Loreto describes as a “bastard prince,” made his fortune by bedding his wife to politically prominent officials. He is also the owner of a brothel.
Next, Loreto meets a woman who goes by the name of Malquerida. She is one of Don Mario’s prostitutes, bought by him after she was, in essence, kidnapped from her country home as a young girl and brought to the city under the pretence of being given a legitimate job and, perhaps, finding a benevolent husband. “Her harsh character was nothing other than a deep bitterness that occupied the place of her large congenital tenderness.”
The story then shifts back to Loreto who, the reader is told, has not eaten for three days. Out of this bitter hunger comes rage. As he walks to the corner where he usually stops cars in the midst of Tijuana traffic, asking the owners if he can wash their vehicles, Loreto sees a group of very young boys. In the group is Chalito, an ambitious child whose mission is to save his family from poverty.
Loreto yells at the children, trying to scare them away. But the children hold their ground. They, too, are hungry. In a short few days following this encounter, Loreto learns that Chalito has died. After hearing the sad news, Loreto has trouble forgiving himself for being so harsh with Chalito. Loreto next tells the story of Tony Baby, an American who has inherited his grandmother’s wealth. He comes to Tijuana to spend the money, buying the favors of prostitutes....
(The entire section is 1389 words.)