Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Jaime Cortez’s first collection of short fiction, Gordo, is how funny it is. Bringing together 11 linked narratives, the book opens at a migrant worker camp on the Central Coast, then shifts to a small house in Watsonville. Revolving around a boy nicknamed Gordo, it is, in part, a coming-of-age story, or a set of coming-of-age stories. At the same time, Cortez also tells us about family and belonging and the small and intimate gestures of community, which renders the world of the pickers and their children through a nuanced and recognizable lens of grace.
What I mean is that Cortez has a light touch. Or, perhaps, it’s that he’s interested in the humanity of his characters, who are struggling in a world where opportunity is often at arm’s length. Gordo doesn’t shy away from that, but it also seeks to peel back the surface, to find consolation and camaraderie in the spaces between. “This is the way Jesus should taste,” the main character imagines, chewing a bite of doughnut, in the appropriately titled story “The Jesus Donut,” which opens the book.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Cortez is not being satirical or trying to make a social statement; he is writing about bliss. This, too, sets Gordo apart—Cortez’s willingness to look for, and to find, transcendence in the least expected places. In the story “Alex,” the protagonist finds himself compelled, and confused, by his family’s neighbor, who reads as a man but whose gender identity remains unclear. This fascination may or may not be reflective of Gordo’s questions of identity, which remain a bit below the surface, although he tells us, “Sometimes I feel different, too.”
The territory is one Cortez has worked throughout his career, from the anthology, Virgins, Guerrillas & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing About Love, that he edited in 1999 to the graphic novel, Sexile, written and illustrated for AIDS Project Los Angeles in 2004. That book told the story of Adela Vázquez, a transgender activist, and suggests the range of Cortez’s work. In Gordo, he is operating in a different register: writing from the point of view of a character too young yet to have the language to articulate who he is. On the one hand, Gordo is a child, growing up in the 1970s, being introduced to pop music and pornography and the inchoate longing of being alive. On the other, he is a seed, or a kernel, not yet blossomed but containing all that he will one day become.
The sensibility, then, is one of emerging, which gives the stories in Gordo a kind of fluid movement, between who the characters are on the inside and who they are out in the world. “Some people have to walk around with so many sad stories,” Cortez tells us. “They have to get up, brush their teeth, wash their face, go to work like everybody else, but they’re not like everyone else.” The power of the collection is that this applies to everyone, not least the narrator himself. •