Friday, July 6, 2007

Buried Onions by Gary Soto

Soto, Gary. (1997). Buried Onions. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 0152013334.

Eddie is a young Mexican-American man, living in Fresno, California where he is an off-and-on (mostly off) student at the local community college. His father, his cousin and several of his friends have been killed in gang activities and other crimes, so Eddie is basically trying to live, stay alive and survive. He works during the day, biking through neighborhoods, spray-painting street address numbers on curbs and hoping that his customers will see how hard-working he is and give him other odd jobs to do. When there’s money, he stocks up on cheap food and does his best to live on it and stay out of trouble. But, since the main activity for people his age is to start trouble, he realizes the best way to avoid it is to just stay home.

As if that weren’t enough, he has his aunt and his cousin’s best friend pressuring him to take vengeance on his cousin’s killer, but Eddie knows that two wrongs don’t make a right—and even if it did, it would only land him in jail. And Angel, part-time drug-dealer and car-thief, can’t be trusted.

Eddie gets a break one day. A man named Mr. Stiles hires him for what seems like it’ll be pretty long-term yard work. He even trusts Eddie enough to let him drive the truck to the dump. However, while Eddie stops at his apartment on the way back, the truck gets stolen, plunging Eddie into a period of paranoia and despair. He drops out of school, begs money from his mother and his godmother and spends most of his time avoiding Angel who he knows has a gun and is looking for Eddie. When Eddie’s soldier friend, on furlough, gets stabbed and almost dies, Eddie realizes just how messed up things are in Fresno and once things are righted with Mr. Stiles (but not until after Eddie has spent the night in jail), Eddie does what he’s been avoiding for so long—he joins the service, something he sees as his only way out of the life that he’s sure will lead only to death.

This story is an amazing window into the life of a young Hispanic male in Fresno. While no dates are mentioned, the book was published in 1997—ten years ago—and I doubt that things have gotten any better. While the tone of the book is dark and we are constantly hoping that Eddie will find a way out of the teetering high-wire between running from being in gangs and being the target of petty but dangerous crimes, Eddie shows us just how difficult it can be to just “live a straight life”:

The good life is one where you go to work, do an eight-hour shift, and return home to your family, where your kids are wild for you. After all, you’re the daddy. Mountains rise from your shoulders, coins jingle in your pocket, and the food on the table is your doing. A good life is a long, busy evening of watching TV, where every third or fourth joke is actually funny. Maybe you throw down a beer, play checkers with your oldest kid, or kick back on the lawn when it’s hot and all the dogs on the block have something to say to the moon. You don’t car if the mosquitoes on your neck set their needle-thin heads into a vein. You want to share your blood, share because you’re a young father and you got lots more where that came from.

What did I know? The working life was a scam. I could stencil every curb in Fresno from pagan Monday to holy Sunday, tattoo them with numbers so that no one, drunk or sober, could ever get lost. But no matter how hard I tried to live a straight life, I could still mess up.

And that’s the main message of the story. First, that Eddie has a skewed, Disney-ized perception of what “the good life” is—maybe it’s something he got from TV, but it’s certainly not something he has ever seen for himself… not in his neighborhood. Maybe in the white neighborhoods where he stencils curbs. And secondly, everything Eddie does is in order to stay out of trouble—he even runs from fights, a sign of weakness, but also a sign of intelligence—but no matter how hard he tries, one stop off at his apartment to wash the dirt off his face and get a drink of water—not holding up a bank or robbing a liquor store—a simple stop by the apartment is all it takes to mess everything up. He sees that it’s not his fault—that it’s the fault of the neighborhood, of people not motivated enough or so bored they can’t help it but to cause trouble for others and themselves. And that his only way into the “straight life” is to get out of Fresno.

Linguistically, this book read very authentically. There was Spanish on nearly every page, but it was slipped in and so pregnant with the context that it needed no explanation. Here’s an example:

The lawns were deep and very green, and the flower beds saluted with all kinds of fistlike flowers. Most of the people were white, not Mexican. Most people there keep to themselves, not like here, in my area of southeast Fresno. We sit on front porches, our gaze following anyone who comes into our neighborhood. We know each other, marry each other, and hurt each other over small matters. Bad as things are, could be, we never commit suicide like the gavachos who can’t take it. We live to the end, even if the end is when you are nineteen and crumbling on a dirty floor.

Another example:
I rode through a new subdivision, so new that the front yards were foxholes of moist earth. They were going to plant shrubs and trees and, in mi loco imagination, they were going to bury their onion. This way, they could cry out their sadness right on the front lawn.

I snagged a quick glance through the window at my neighbor, Mrs. Rios. She was crowing with a friend. I imagined they were breaking powdery donuts into halves and dunking them in creamy coffees, locked in the communion of older women talking chisme She was a retired nurse who had once put me back together when I had gotten into a playground fight. I had taken a blow from a stick on the bride of my nose and one on my ear, plus a couple of whacks to my back as I chased a dude with the brown, jacked crown of a beer bottle. She had patted the blood from me and cooed,.” “Ay, Dios” over and over.

And, finally, used in dialogue:

‘How come you never answer your phone?’ She asked, immediately starting in.
I got her a lawn chair.
‘I’m never home.’
>‘Mentiroso!’‘It’s true,’ I said, my arms out as if asking for alms. ‘I’ve been busy.’

These instances are just a few examples of how natural the interlanguage reads. There is no reason to translate the Spanish because it is inferred by the context. In fact, explaining the Spanish here would make it seem somehow artificial and would break up the incredibly strong voice of the narrator. A few times when the words are translated, they are said in English first and then repeated in Spanish, somehow making these occasions read less artificially:

I had dropped out of City College, where I was taking classes in air-conditioning. I quit no long after my cousin, mi primo, Jesus got killed.

It was eleven o’clock and already everyone had retreated inside, either to get away from the heat or to tune into the Mexican soap operastelenovelas.

‘No! Go! Andale!’ La senora waved a dish towel at him.

There are occasions where the Spanish is said first and the English translations immediately after, but they somehow don’t read awkward. Maybe because it happens so rarely in the book:

He was at a club with Angel, his best friend and carnal, a blood brother.

The most artificial use of interlanguage, in my opinion, is when Spanish is used in dialogue and then immediately followed by the English translation—still within the dialogue. However, the few instances I saw it in this book, it still didn’t read awkwardly because it wasn’t the EXACT translation, but rather and extension of the Spanish:

She was already stepping toward the kitchen. ‘It’s cochino, so dirty here.

In my inexperience with such an intimate portrayal of what might be considered a small subculture—Mexican-Americans living in southeastern Fresno, California approximately ten years ago—I have no authority to say whether or not the cultural cues (the homelessness, the drugs, the unemployment, the petty crime, the culture of vengeance, the lack of hope for anything “better”) that permeate the atmosphere of this book are culturally accurate or authentic. I can say that the Soto’s voice and his combination of complex sentence structure, rich description and natural use of code-switching is very convincing. In other words, if the content/events of the book are not realistic, I would never know because the author is so incredibly skilled at the craft of writing, the main character’s perceptions so clear and vivid, that I was utterly convinced and pulled along by the story.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
This bleak, claustrophobic novel perfectly captures the cyclical despair of its [19-year-old, Hispanic protagonist], said PW; Soto leaves this bitter street tale unsweetened to the end. Ages 12-up.

…This unrelenting portrait is unsparing in squalid details: The glue sniffers, gangs, bums, casual knifings, filth, and stench are in the forefront of a life without much hope… Soto plays the tale straight the only sign of a “happy'' ending is in Eddie's joining the Navy. The result is a sort of Fresno Salaam Bombay without the pockets of humanity that gave the original its charm. A valuable tale, it's one that makes no concessions. (glossary) (Fiction. 12-14)

School Library Journal:
Grade 9 Up?Life is a struggle for 19-year-old Eddie as he survives one day at a time in Fresno, California…. Soto's writing is apt; he provides readers with strong images through the eyes and voice of Eddie. The young man frequently describes his surroundings, "I returned to my apartment, which was in a part of Fresno where fences sagged and the paint blistered on houses....Laundry wept from the lines, the faded flags of poor, ignorant, unemployable people." Additionally, the author stirs more senses with his descriptions of smells and sounds. The only drawback to the story is that it is somewhat repetitious. Characters are introduced, then reenter the story with repeated delineation. Still, Soto's descriptions are poetic, and he creates deep feelings of heat and despair. A powerful and thought-provoking read.

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