Mexicans and Chicanos adore nicknames. Jaime Cortez captures this quirk, as well as many other culture peculiarities, in his tenderhearted story collection, Gordo. The title of the book is itself a nickname for the husky boy who narrates the majority of the stories.
Cortez explains that “in the barrio, your nickname takes over, and most people can’t even remember your real name anymore.” In the migrant worker camp near Watsonville, a nickname can convey physicality or personality. A body can be criticized for being too thin, as is the case for Flaco, but it can also fall short for being too big, as is true for both Fat Cookie and Gordo. In this rural California landscape where blue-collar families struggle, a nickname establishes a person’s value. It megaphones whether a person is a joke or a hero. One simply has to look at a nickname to determine someone’s place in society.
While Gordo navigates the reader through many of the stories, Cortez introduces other characters in the community by nicknames as well, including Cookie, Los Tigres, Head and Shoulders, Spooky, Shy Boy, Tinman, Negro, Pati the Mouth, and Raygay, also known as Raymundo the Fag.
Nowhere are nicknames more transformative than in the stories “The Problem of Style” and “Raymundo the Fag.” The former centers on a queer young man named Raymundo Sanchez. Like many young people entering junior high, Raymundo becomes style-conscious and wants his longer hair to be a form of self-expression. Cortez writes that Raymundo “curled the waves of it around his fingers, spiraling into sleep where he imagined himself gestating in a silken black cocoon.” Cortez’s cocoon imagery relies on the language of transformation to intimate the miraculous cycle of metamorphosis and rebirth.
But his longer locks are beautiful only to Raymundo, and it doesn’t take long before he is assigned the nicknames Raygay and eventually Raymundo the Fag. Raymundo is bullied relentlessly by boys in his class: “Life [becomes] dangerous.” Raymundo at first fights the new nicknames. Cortez gestures at the fact that Raymundo tries to avoid these physical altercations, but they keep following him. Later, he is forced to accept his bullies’ demeaning perceptions and says, “If you say so. That’s what I am.” But by the end of “The Problem of Style,” Raymundo has not only resigned himself to the taunting nicknames but also relaxed into himself, indulging in a whim to wear a gold chain-link belt to school. This fashion item represents his burgeoning style but also doubles as a potential weapon against his tormentors.
When the reader encounters Raymundo again in “Raymundo the Fag,” we almost expect another tale of hardship. Instead, the chrysalis process that began in “The Problem of Style” has completed itself. The adult version of Raymundo excels at his job as a hairstylist, and his talent has developed. Whereas as a teenager he was able to reimagine his ideal self with long hair and a hip sway, the adult Raymundo’s “great gift and burden was to look any woman in the face and envision the perfect hairdo for her.” His skills have broadened to the point that he can transform others.
Although the story is titled “Raymundo the Fag,” the worst name he endures in the latter story is Rayboy. In fact, Cookie affectionately refers to him as Mundo, the Spanish word for “world.” With the nickname Mundo, Raymundo has more social capital. World is a more apt nickname for the magician who transforms everyone into their most confident, attractive self. No matter the customer, Mundo has the ability to make them feel most like themselves. When he spins them around to face a mirror after a styling, many of his clients cry with joy.
Cortez’s karmic sense of humor is displayed when Raymundo is called in to help fix the hair on Shy Boy’s corpse. Disfigured in a violent incident, Shy Boy, birth name Mauricio, has lost part of the left side of his head. The funeral home’s effort to re-create Mauricio’s natural appearance fails, and so his wife requests Raymundo’s assistance.
Raymundo accepts the task. In the final pages of the story, Cortez reveals that Shy Boy had not only bullied Raymundo but was the very person who coined the homophobic nickname Raygay. When they were kids, Shy Boy bullied Raymundo for his wide-hipped walk and his proximity to femininity.
The cosmic circle closes when Raymundo succeeds where the mortician before him failed. He evaluates Mauricio’s thin hair with his fingertips. Raymundo concludes that he has a close replication in his car. The match is none other than a Wonder Woman wig Raymundo wore at Halloween. Ironically, the world is set right only when the slightly altered Wonder Woman wig fits Mauricio. Cortez writes, “Sweet Jesus. It was perfect.” Mauricio, who taunted a boy he believed was a sissy, is perfect only when he is laid to rest in drag.
One reason Gordo is such a satisfying collection is because Cortez both upholds and subverts the laws of his own fictional universe. While nicknames serve as informative and often humorous guides for the reader, it would be a mistake to assume that every character’s fate is fixed. Raymundo’s transformation earns him the expansive nickname Mundo. The meek cannot only inherit the world; they can become it.•
Join us on Zoom on December 15 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Cortez will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Sandra Cisneros to discuss Gordo. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register for the event.