A Chicano Writer's Labors, Hopes, and Finally, His Prize

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Victor Martinez began his life in the clapboard field camps of California's San Joaquin Valley, helping his parents pick grapes and tomatoes. But through the love of books and a helping hand from a school counselor, the young Mexican-American became the first in his family of 14 to earn a college degree.

"My Dad thought it was a waste of time," Mr. Martinez recalls. "He was happy I was going to be a welder."

His father remained convinced his son had made a bad choice when Martinez struggled for the next 20 years to make a living as a writer of poetry and short stories, surviving only with the help of his wife. Paternal acceptance came only on Nov. 6, when Martinez won a prestigious National Book Award for his first novel, "Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida," a powerfully written portrait of growing up as a Mexican-American youth.

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The writer returned from New York to a hero's welcome in his home town of Fresno, in the center of California's rich agricultural lands. His prize made front page news, the phone calls flooded into his family, and his book sold out throughout the area.

"It's a historical moment," exults Juan Felipe Herrera, an old friend who teaches Chicano studies at California State University at Fresno, where Martinez went to college. "He's the Chicano Newton. There've been no awards at that national level before for a Chicano writer."

For Martinez, still trying to regain his balance from a whirl of celebrity moments, it is the vindication of a road traveled that almost seemed a dead end. Much of his work was confined to the literary ghetto of "Chicano" publications, despite the fact that Martinez prefers to write in English and sees himself as part of a broader literary tradition.

"I wanted to be an American writer, not just a Chicano writer," he says. "A lot of Chicanos disagree with me violently over that. My parents were born here. I was born here. I'm an American."

When he was still young, Martinez's family moved from the fields to the public-housing projects of Fresno. He escaped from sometimes bleak surroundings through the adventure stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mark Twain. "Any place was better than where I was," he says. "That's what literature can do - it can take you places."

Though he was a bright student, after some troubled times, Martinez was shunted into vocational classes and trained to be a welder. But a high school counselor pushed him to attend Fresno State, with the aid of an affirmative-action program for Chicano youth. There he fell under the spell of Philip Levine, the poet whose portraits of working-class life have won him numerous awards. Mr. Levine was at the center of a ferment of young Chicano poets, among them Omar Luis Salinas and Gary Soto, influenced by the great traditions of Spanish-language poetry.

"My sense of Victor was that he was an unusually gifted young man who, when I first met him, didn't know what he wanted to be," recalls Levine. "But once I got poetry to get his attention, he took off like mad."

After attending a graduate writing program at Stanford University, Martinez moved to San Francisco's Mission district, a hotbed of writers and intellectuals, where he still lives. The gravelly-voiced Martinez worked a variety of jobs from truck driver to office clerk, writing at night. Finally, with the urging of his wife, Tina Alvarez, Martinez took his savings and devoted himself full-time to writing.

Sitting in the spare one-bedroom apartment where they have lived for 14 years, Martinez recounts a life lived on the edge of poverty. Despite publishing his poems and short stories, including a volume of poems in 1992, he received little recognition and less income. For a typical reading in a San Francisco bookstore only weeks before receiving his prize, he drew an audience of six.

His first novel places Martinez firmly in a long tradition of American writers who have depicted the struggles of immigrant families and cultures to make their place in this land. The book is a collection of stories told by a 14-year-old Mexican-American boy, Manuel, about growing up in the projects of an unnamed Central Valley city. The tales are partly based on his own life, says Martinez. "I wanted to write a book that would comment on being a Chicano in Fresno," he explains.

The title refers to a Mexican saying about a parrot that complains about how hot it is, all the while not realizing he is sitting inside an oven. Manny, whose father is always calling him "el perico," or parrot, tries to cope with a series of challenges, from the first pangs of teenage love to the pressure to join a gang. But many of his travails originate within his family, at the center of which are the alcohol-fueled troubles of his unemployed father.

"I always felt like there was pressure being exerted on us, on my family," recounts Martinez. "My family was as dysfunctional as they come."

While the depictions of the family's struggles are brutally unvarnished, the book ends on a hopeful note. The father finds work, Manny escapes the clutches of gang life, and his older sister survives a terrifying miscarriage. At the conclusion, Manny finds himself sitting in the living room gazing at his two sisters.

"This room was what my mother spent so much energy cleaning and keeping together, and what my father spent so much energy tearing apart," the narrator says. "And it was wondrous, like a place I was meant to be. A place, I felt, that I had come back to after a long journey of being away. My home."

At a reading at the Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, Martinez told a packed house that his father still won't read it, afraid to see how he appears. He points proudly to the nine brothers and sisters who followed him to university, among them a doctor, a chemical engineer, and a painter. And now there is his own success, long in coming, and perhaps therefore, all the sweeter.

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