In his debut collection, “Gordo,” artist and author Jaime Cortez pens short stories set in the central coast farmworker camps he grew up in near Watsonville and San Juan Bautista. By the time he was 10, Jaime was a veteran of the annual garlic and potato harvests. The book, which he says is “semi-autobiographical,” is a journey of queer self-discovery and complex identities that don’t fit the usual stereotypes of Steinbeck country, with lots of humor blended in. Cortez recently spoke with California Report Magazine host Sasha Khokha about the new collection.
Excerpts from their interview are edited for brevity and clarity.
On growing up in a farmworker labor camp
When you're a little kid, you only know what you know about where you grow up. So for me, growing up in the farmworker camp was a perfectly normal experience. I didn't realize that was in any ways kind of unusual or out of the norm until I began attending school. Not realizing just how low-income we were, until we started getting out to school and into the surrounding community a bit more and realizing other people have indoor plumbing when they go to the toilet. Other people have telephones in their house. And those are things that we did not have in the farmworker camps at that time in the early '70s. As I got older, I began to realize that we were pretty marginal, like not just because we were on the margins of town, out in the middle of the agricultural fields, but also we were socioeconomically marginal.
There was a sense of the camps being like small villages. People knew each other. We often worked side by side. Some of the families were there just temporarily for harvest season. Other families like mine or my grandparents' family were there year-round doing the work that's necessary to keep the farm and the ranch going throughout the year. So, it had a transitory quality to it in many ways, and it also had a real kind of a sense of community and connection.
On growing up queer in rural California
As I wrote the book, I was really thinking a lot about what it means to be a queer kid, but to not have language for that yet, not ... to not understand what that means. The way I experienced it as a small child was just, I had feelings. I had attractions. I had a certain fascination with other boys in school, but I didn't have a name for what was happening yet. As I moved further through elementary school, I quickly learned that queer was a "bad" thing. I learned that lesson pretty quickly. If that's what you are, you are going to be ostracized, terrorized. But [at] the age that Gordo [is], the main character, who is my avatar, [he] doesn't have language or a framework quite yet. He just has these feelings, and he just has this dawning understanding that being different can be really perilous.
On the theme of machismo in the book and parallels with his own childhood
Most of these stories are overwhelmingly based on real things that happened. My father [really] bought me boxing gear. Looking back on that gesture, I really felt a lot of compassion for my father in that moment because he grew up in a world where he lost his father when he was a very small child and had to go out and work in the world to support the family. From the time he was 4 or 5 years old, he was out selling newspapers by himself in Mexicali. He experienced the need to survive and to fight, to physically fight. So the way he understood the world was that the possibility [and risk] of physical combat was always present. So if you're going to take care of your son, you need to have him be prepared for that. I think he looked at me and I was this kind of quiet, artistic, kind of shy kid, and he was thinking, I got to toughen this kid up.
So he bought this boxing gear. There's a tragicomic element to that because it really shows the complete inability parents sometimes have to just really see their child for who they are, as opposed to seeing them for who you want them to be. It could not have been a less appropriate gift, because this child had no combativeness in him. Of course, the boy in his queerness, he's unpacking all this boxing and wrestling gear, and the thing that really excites him is the jump rope because he's a sissy boy and he likes jumping rope! A complete thwarting of the intention of the gift, which was to me where the tragic comedy of the whole story lies — when we get our wires crossed this way with each other.
On the significance of Vicente Fernández's song 'Volver, Volver' in the book
Vicente Fernández often gets compared to Elvis Presley, but I don't think that's quite accurate. Because in some ways, Vicente Fernández was a situation where a pop idol became the embodiment of the nation. The only kind of comparable things that I could think of would be what Bob Marley is to Jamaica or what Edith Piaf was to France. And so that's how big of a deal he was to Mexicans and to the immigrant communities and their children. He passed recently, and it was a momentous, momentous passing for the country.
That song "Volver, Volver" to me functions as the unofficial and true national anthem of Mexico. And it is a song that's full of yearning and longing, and what in Portuguese is called "saudade," that kind of longing for that which is passed. It's about the desire to go back. And the impossibility of going back. And it's tremendously sentimental. It is a classic tears-in-your-beer ranchera ballad. It's so stirring to us. It's the classic drinking song that, you know, people will get a bit hammered, they’ll put that on, and pretty soon everyone's singing at the top of their lungs. Probably off-key, but with full of emotion and tears in their eyes. It's something of great emotion [in the book]. It's a song that gives everyone permission to have the fullness of their emotion and their tears. And that becomes especially significant for men and male characters.
On the importance of injecting humor into serious stories
I grew up with funny people. My parents were funny. My grandparents were funny. It was a basic survival mechanism, to survive the rigors and really the horror, sometimes, of life. To be able to deploy that gallows humor, to kind of step back, take a breath and just laugh, if for no other reason than because you made it through and you're still alive. I grew up around people who were constantly deploying humor as a way of dealing with the inevitable hardships, heartbreak and terror of life. Without the humor, I think my story could easily sink into the realm of the abject: just the poverty, just the violence, just the pain, just the fear. I don't think of my childhood, for all of its rigors, as abject. I just think of it as full. It was just the fullness of life, the horror of it, the hilarity of it, the heartbreak of it. All of it needs to be able to sit in productive friction in these stories if they're going to feel like the way I understand life to be. They sit together as a way of making it something that a reader can access, digest, connect to.
Also, I want my book to be a fun read, and the humor is absolutely core to that objective. It's something I grew up with later on as an adult in the LGBT community. The deployment of humor is a relentless kind of thing. Gay men who I came up with politically and socially — they were so funny. Just funny, funny people. And so I honor all of that history I have with humor.