Event Recap: Jaime Cortez

Jaime Cortez joined John Freeman to discuss his debut short story collection, Gordo, the December California Book Club selection.

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Host John Freeman kicked off the latest installment of the California Book Club with the story of how he met Jaime Cortez, author of the December CBC selection, Gordo. Five years ago, Freeman received an email from one of the past CBC authors, Rebecca Solnit, and attached to it was a short story by Cortez. Solnit wrote, “Jaime was meant by God to be a writer. I am his nag and his pimp.” That short story was “The Nasty Book Wars,” which was later included in Gordo, a series of stories about a boy (after whom the book is titled) and his friends, set in the 1970s in and around Watsonville at a migrant workers’ camp.

After introducing Cortez at the CBC event, Freeman asked him about the genesis of the book. Cortez responded that “the book is a work of semiautobiographical fiction, but it’s really more than semi; it’s heavily, heavily autobiographical, and Gordo is very much my earthly representative in this narrative. That child is very much me.” He had wanted to see more stories about people like this and to tell stories of the California in which he grew up. “Equally importantly for me, I was really interested in trying to communicate the kind of sensibility that the people I grew up with had—the way that they loved, the way that they joked, the way that they hurt,” he said.

Cortez grew up in San Juan Bautista, close to Watsonville, in a camp like the one in Gordo. He said, “It was like growing up in a Mexican village surrounded on all sides by California.… Everybody was either immigrant or first-generation-American children of immigrants. Everybody spoke Spanish. A lot of kids could speak English well, but mostly, Spanish was the language.”

Going back there as an adult, what was striking to Cortez was realizing that the distance between the camp and downtown was probably not even two or three miles, but it “might as well have been another country because it just felt like you were crossing into a whole different country when…we went from this camp to the land of homes with driveways and front yards and indoor toilets.” He commented, “I did not initially realize that we were poor…because everybody around me was in that kind of socioeconomic bracket of farmworkers and their children.”

Freeman remarked that the collection creates a “deep enclosure, this sort of almost sense of protection in the first story.” He asked what this sense of enclosure allows Cortez to do in his work.

Cortez explained that he was interested in the interrelatedness of adults and children in the camp. “A lot of the stories are about the society that children make in the absence of adults,” he said. “And I think that having them on this farm River Camp and having that kind of isolation—it’s a perfect petri dish for that experiment of, What do kids do when you leave them on their own?” The isolation of the camp also helped him explore a society of kids. He said, “There was not much else from the outside, so they have to contend with each other. And that’s the beauty and, at times, the challenge of very small-town life of village life or, in this case, the life of a camp.… You have this intimacy. You have to contend with each other.”

An audience member asked Cortez to speak about how he’d found the right voice for the characters who aren’t yet adults. Cortez said, “If I had to identify what the core project was in the end of doing this collection, it was nailing that kid voice.… The other really important task was figuring out how to evacuate my adult mind and my adult language and frameworks…get the adult self out and, instead, try to remember back to the poetics of children. And to remember that there is such a thing as a philosopher kid. They philosophize in their own ways, with their own language, with their own frameworks.”

Cortez explained that the character of Gordo is a little kid who finds the world rather mysterious, saying, “He’s like a little detective.… He needs to be observant in order to try to unravel these mysteries, because it’s not the kind of world where he can ask—or he does ask—for explanations of, Why is it like this? Why do people do that? Why do people end up in those circumstances?”•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, January 19, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when author and artist Jaime Hernandez will join Freeman and a special guest to discuss Maggie the Mechanic and the Love and Rockets comics. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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