Where He's Coming From | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Where He's Coming From 

Luis Aguilera says his first book subverted stereotypes about young inner-city Latinos, but it led some critics to simply file him under "barrio."

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Luis Aguilera was starting to get upset reading a review of his memoir, Gabriel's Fire, in Publishers Weekly. For one thing, the review said Aguilera was once a gang member, when in fact a central theme of the book is his opposition to gangs and his disappointment when they started recruiting in the electronic "hip-house" music scene that was a mainstay of his late-80s youth.

Then Aguilera got to the part of the review that talked about his mother dying. Last he'd checked she was still alive and well, living in the southwest-side neighborhood where he grew up.

Had the reviewer even read the book? he asked, sitting with his four-year-old son, Loki, in their Pilsen apartment. "I called my mother and said, 'Hey mom, they say you're dead.'"

The Publishers Weekly review is just one example of what Aguilera sees as widespread misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Gabriel's Fire in particular and of contemporary literature in general. He says many readers don't want to take the effort to "meet the writer halfway," and publishers are eager to pigeonhole books into easily marketable categories that don't reflect the true nature or complexity of the work.

In his case, he says, that category was barrio literature, which generally includes gritty tales of street life in the Mexican-American neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, and East LA. While the book-jacket copy asserts that "Gabriel's Fire counters mainstream mass-mediated images of the inner city, Hispanic culture, and troubled youth," those words would seem to place the work in the very territory they claim it transcends. It probably didn't help that Aguilera obtained cover blurbs from Piri Thomas and fellow Chicagoan Luis Rodriguez, the standard-bearers of barrio lit.

But in many ways Gabriel's Fire actually is an emblematic tale of growing up Chicano in the U.S. It depicts Aguilera's introduction to house music, his heavy involvement in the "party crew" scene spawned by that music, and life in the cultural chaos of McKinley Park, the neighborhood just west of Bridgeport where Aguilera grew up. Aguilera describes a year-and-a-half-long romantic relationship he had with a Catholic schoolteacher when she was 26 and he was 13 and a friendship with a priest that ended when the man tried to initiate sexual contact. The book deals with the cultural gap between immigrant parents and their more assimilated children, experiences with institutional racism, racial and cultural tensions among youth, and the strong gang presence that is a reality in most of these neighborhoods.

"I got an E-mail from someone saying this isn't a real representation of Mexican-American life," said Aguilera. "Well, this is my story. So does that mean I'm not Mexican-American? Does that mean this couldn't really be my story? I was born in Mexico, so I am Mexican. I was naturalized, so I guess that means I'm American. And I grew up in a mostly Polish neighborhood, surrounded by Polish culture. What does that make me?"

Aguilera, 29, majored in Latin American studies at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1995. Gabriel's Fire, published by the U. of C. Press in 2000, was written mainly during Aguilera's shifts as a lifeguard and "visitor control agent" at the university's pool and gymnasium. These days he writes in the park while he's watching his son; he's at work on a new book he expects to complete in January. When he's not writing he runs a dance-music production and distribution company called Full Spectrum, where he's collaborated on projects with DJs Angel Alanis and Mad Chiller.

University of Chicago Press executive editor David Brent, who read Gabriel's Fire on the recommendation of one of Aguilera's professors before acquiring it, says he was impressed with the way the young author showed the complexities of "a world usually associated with losers, the kind of world that can drag people into gangs and drugs." He was also struck by the narrative voice.

"When I read the book I saw it was written by someone with an extremely strong personality, almost to the point of vast overestimation of his worth," Brent says. "There's a certain cockiness and bravado, you could even say machismo, that comes through. But then that machismo transforms itself into something else in the course of the book, a kind of self-awareness of his own individuality and refusal to go along with the crowd."

The new book is semiautobiographical and digs deeper into a theme that runs through Gabriel's Fire: Aguilera's relationships with older adults. It's written in the form of letters from a young Latino male to an older white gay man. Ultimately the relationship degenerates when the younger man realizes the older one has fallen in love with him.

"The older man has created a fantasy, so the younger man has ceased to exist in his eyes," Aguilera says. "He's not reacting to the younger man as he is--he's reacting to his fantasy, to this cute man he wants to sleep with. The younger man is very angry because there's a betrayal of a friendship there."

"I hope people don't just see this as a shot at the old, white establishment," says the author. "Maybe it is to some extent, because it would be ridiculous to say I don't harbor some valid resentments. But that's not what I want it to be about. People might say, 'Oh, here's a 26-year-old Latino guy and a 50-year-old white guy--I wonder who the villain is.' But there is no villain." The book's younger character--who sometimes feels like the older man's token Latino friend--also examines the possibility that he's taking advantage of the older man's race and social status in return.

"In the U.S. a lot of times we're afraid to talk about age, about getting old. I was bringing the Mexican appreciation for elders to this relationship. I was more willing to talk to an older person or be friends with an older person than maybe some Americans would be."

The epistolary format may work better for critics like the Publishers Weekly writer, who saw promise in Aguilera's first book but disliked his heavy use of dialogue. Aguilera says the idea has been percolating in his brain for some time, and cites as influences John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," a 1689 treatise urging conscience and freedom of religion, and Paul's biblical letters to the Corinthians and the Philippians.

"Letters had a lot of importance for me growing up. When I was young I got a postcard from my aunt in Mexico, which I still keep in my bag all the time. My aunt sent it, and my mother read it to us. It had such a profound effect on me to hear my mother speak those words, to think that first someone would take the time to write this to me, and then my mother would take the time to read it. That's what letters do. They are the most personal and intimate form of writing, to someone else or yourself."

David Brent says University of Chicago Press might consider publishing the new book. But, says Brent, "I think it could be good for him to step back a little from some of the assumptions he makes about being Latino and general stereotyping and racism, to look at things with maybe a little more of a sociological eye rather than a personal eye."

Aguilera says his three priorities right now are Loki, the new book, and "pushing the concept of the deejay as an artist." Just like he thinks the publishing industry has been dumbed down by market forces and information overload, he feels the house music scene, which was born in Chicago, is suffering and in need of care. "The recession has really killed the industry, along with all the negativity about raves and drugs....While the rest of the world is still eating it up, America is still snoozing."

While he and Loki's mother had considered a move out of the city, Aguilera now seems intent on raising his son in Chicago, and he's doing it just a few miles from where he grew up. Sitting on the porch looking at the downtown skyline above the ragged silhouettes of Pilsen rooftops, he has the luxury of taking his time reading and writing, minutely revising his story by the day, and watching "where the characters take me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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