Gordo may be Jaime Cortez’s first collection of short fiction, but it is hardly a debut. Cortez has been making work for decades, in a variety of disciplines and métiers. In 1999, he edited the anthology Virgins, Guerrillas & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing About Love. Five years later, under the auspices of AIDS Project Los Angeles, he wrote and illustrated the bilingual graphic novel Sexile/Sexilo, which recounts the story of Cuban transgender activist and performer Adela Vazquez. Additional writing has appeared in anthologies and other projects, and as a visual artist, he has exhibited for 20 years in the Bay Area, including at the Oakland Museum of California and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Through it all, Cortez has been an activist for LGBTQ rights.
And yet, the voice in Gordo is so fresh, so smart and funny, that it feels like something new. Gathering 11 stories, most revolving around the titular character—an elementary school–age boy growing up first in a migrant worker camp in San Juan Bautista and later in a small house in Watsonville—the collection offers a ground’s-eye view of California in which joy and sorrow, aspiration and survival, family and individuality are irrevocably and unforgettably intertwined.
Cortez makes this clear from the opening story, “The Jesus Donut,” in which a baker’s truck arrives at the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp. With their parents laboring in the fields, Gordo, his sister, Sylvie, and their cousins Cesar and Olga and Tiny have been left to watch themselves. This takes an unexpected turn when Olga buys two doughnuts, much to everyone’s surprise.
“My papi gave me two quarters for my domingo cuz I helped out in the house,” she explains, but the others don’t believe her. “Liar!” Sylvie challenges. “Nobody gets paid to help around the house.” It’s a pointed reminder that all families, even those in proximity, make up their own constellations, their own universes. Just a few pages in and Cortez has already established the parameters of the work camp with sharp specifics, which become more pronounced once Olga offers the others a piece of doughnut if they kneel and accept it as if it were communion. It’s a gesture that borders on the blasphemous, but what is faith in the face of doughnuts? Or more accurately, how do they overlap? “This is the way Jesus should taste,” Gordo imagines as he savors the small bite his cousin offers. He’s kidding, but not really, since for him the doughnut represents its own small sort of miracle.
Here, Cortez establishes the themes of his book: family, place, community, identity. He introduces us to the characters and the world in which their stories unfold. That’s important because the individual pieces in Gordo are connected, which means they follow a trajectory, a chronological line. Unlike in a novel, however, there is not an overarching narrative; yes, the material progresses, one set of events to another, but there are also open spaces, breaks. This is what I love about a linked collection, the way it asks us to engage as active readers, to fill in the gaps. I think of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Each in its own fashion might be read as precedent or signifier for what Cortez is attempting here.
Thus, “The Jesus Donut” is followed by “El Gordo,” in which the character’s father buys him a boxing outfit and a lucha libre mask, and after that by “Chorizo,” in which Gordo eats a taquito prepared by an itinerant family of migrants, much to his grandmother’s chagrin. Through the movement of these stories, the author reveals necessary information without stating it outright. Gordo is overweight—hence the nickname—and, most likely, he is gay. Through action rather than exposition, Cortez lets us understand the impetus for the father’s gift (his discomfort with his son’s identity and sexuality) and Gordo’s relationship with food.
These inferences become broader, more connective, as the collection expands outward, moving from the work camp to Gordo’s fifth grade classroom and the family’s new home. “I can’t believe you, Gordo.… I can’t believe you are such a moron, who doesn’t know who’s a man and who’s a woman,” Sylvie chides her brother in “Alex” after he discovers that their new neighbor, the eponymous Alex, has breasts and binds them. The moment becomes more vivid through the lens of Gordo’s uncertainty. “He’s just different,” he concludes. But Cortez doesn’t stop there; that would be too easy. Instead, Sylvie rebuts her brother, down to his choice of pronoun: “Different is the same thing as creepy. Look at her.”
What Cortez is suggesting is that even (or especially) within our families, we have to carve a space out for ourselves. “You lose things. You lose people and you can’t get them back,” Gordo realizes in the collection’s closing story, “Ofelia’s Last Ride,” which describes a family trip to visit relatives in Mexico. The observation takes on added resonance because Gordo takes place mostly in the 1970s, which might as well be another world. So much has happened in the interim, so many lives, so many deaths and changes. So much is different; so much is gone.
All the same, if this suggests that Gordo is dark or dire, the book is also affirming, perhaps most so when circumstances turn bleak. The characters help one another, not least because they know that there is no one else. They see one another’s flaws and failings, but recognize these excesses as gestures of transcendence in an unforgiving world. “Some people,” Cortez writes, “have to walk around with so many sad stories. They have to get up, brush their teeth, wash their face, go to work like everybody else, but they’re not like everyone else.” He’s right, but he also understands that narrative has consolations of its own. “Tell your story or it’ll drown you,” Gordo’s mother insists—and that is what Cortez is engaging here.•