Author Jaime Cortez draws on his childhood to reveal the humor, humanity of migrant farmworkers – SF Chronicle Datebook

There is an enormously entertaining book out this year: “Gordo” by Jaime Cortez, a short story collection set in a migrant farmworkers camp near Watsonville.
Cortez, who, like the characters in his stories, grew up in a migrant farmworkers camp, splits his time between Watsonville and San Francisco, where he’s managed various arts programs, including the beloved Galeria de la Raza. I was enthralled by the tone his debut collection manages to strike — hilarious, affecting, vulnerable and wrenching, all at once.
The Chronicle sat down with Cortez, who defines himself at the moment, as he focuses on getting the word out about his book, as a promosexual, in a coffee shop in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Q: You started out as a visual artist. How do art and prose coexist as you write?
A: It’s a very cinematic experience. I see it. I am less interested in the inner dialogue that we have with ourselves. I am interested more in how we manifest in the world and what that says about who we really are.
Q: Which was the first story you wrote?
A: “Raymundo, the Fag” — the hairdresser story. It was based on a real person in Watsonville, and I’m not sure they would be comfortable if I said their name. They were the town queer. This was the guy who in the ‘70s was wearing hair down his back and earrings. Back then, only people in motorcycle gangs wore earrings. He fascinated and terrified me. To imagine being so singled out as noticeably different and queer was scary to me.
Q: Queerness in the Latinx community can be so loaded.
A: Yes. In some ways, though, what I realized over time is that by being the hairdresser, by being the person who did the weddings, the quinceañeras, they found their place. People in referring to him in Spanish, would always put the suffix -ito at the end of his name. It’s much more tender. So this person would be referred to in the diminutive with an -ito, and I knew that there was some kind of detente that this queer person was able to make with the community.
Q: I loved how much humor, tenderness and sweetness there is in the book. We keep a childlike understanding of the world, even while poverty, violence and abuse are surrounding forces.
A: I’m glad you’re calling that out. The humor is an element of the work I really worked on. It was the life that I knew: one with harshness and violence, but love and laughter and playfulness, and tenderness even. Life can be brutal and tender. I was trying to get at how those two coexist in an uneasy friction with each other. That’s survival to me. That’s what resilience looks like to me.
Q: Were you always interested in the child’s point of view?
A: I was interested in the voice of someone who doesn’t understand things but (is) also really observant. The challenge for me was figuring out the poetics of a child making sense of things.
Q: It reminds me of the story where the doughnut truck comes into the camp, and the doughnut man makes a show of the treats, opening the doors, pulling out the trays. Gordo is enchanted with the sweetness and prettiness of the desserts while slowly understanding there’s an economy to it, a structural cruelty.
A: Yes, there’s a cruelty to who gets to participate in the economy — in this case, literally, who has a couple of dimes to buy a doughnut? That was based on something real. We lived on a migrant farmworker camp, a ranch in San Juan Bautista (San Benito County), when I was growing up, and one day a truck came up with pastries. The man did open up these drawers of pastries, and you know, our ranch was pretty isolated. To suddenly have this truck there, it was like magic. These drawers of cookies and doughnuts, and your eyes as big as saucers looking at this wonderment. And no one had a penny to get it! It was beautiful to feel that wonderment, and that was coupled with the poignancy of only one kid actually having a coin to buy a doughnut.
Q: When you were writing the book, what did you hope it could do, in terms of touching specific people or bringing certain things to light?
A: Certainly the Latinx and LGBT community. The stories are about how Mexican people — both American-born and immigrant, documented and undocumented — live together, work together, love together, destroy each other. I was part of the last generation of people who experienced agricultural work when there were children laboring. That has since disappeared. I wanted to remember that, too — that there was this time when migrant labor was a family affair.
By Jaime Cortez
(Black Cat; 240 pages; $16)
Jaime Cortez reads from “Gordo”: In-person event. 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16. $5, but does not include museum admission. Proof of vaccination not required, but masks must be worn inside the museum regardless of vaccination status. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
Jaime Cortez in conversation with Yosimar Reyes: Virtual event. 2 p.m. Sept. 26. Free, but must register online. San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
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