BALTAZAR ACEVEDO Y ARISPE, JR., PH.D.
Professor, The University Of Texas Pan American,
Edinberg, Texas, February 5, 2012
As a professor, I am expected to write academic articles and papers about my discipline: research and organizational development. I also write about the Chicano communidad and its place in the history of the American southwest and what I refer to as the Borderlands. I am an old warrior from the ethnic struggles of the 1960’s having been active in the Chicano movement and the boycotts of the UFWOC as well as the rise of La Raza Unida en Tejas.
I am also a reader of mysteries, suspense novels and history as well as biographies so I was rather intrigued when Dr. Maria Nieto, a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at California State University, East Bay invited me to review her novel, Pig Behind the Bear. I wondered what a professor who writes articles on “A Demonstration of B2m Specific Association with the Surface of Teleostean Cells” would have to say about Chicanismo through the medium of fiction.
The title was enough to draw my attention but then I was caught in a time warp and taken back to the 1970’s and into the midst of the Chicano movement and the riots in Los Angeles.
East Los Angeles was a community caught in the middle of the urban riots between Mexican Americans and the white power structure. A major spokes person for this community was Ruben Salazar, an activist writer for the Los Angeles Times who was killed when struck by a tear gas canister when he was inside a bar during a riot in August of 1970. Salazar becomes the nexus for Nieto’s novel that I can only classify as maybe the first in an emerging genre, a “Chicano Cultural Murder Mystery”. Nieto uses one murder/death, that of Ruben Salazar, to weave a web of intrigue that is both an easy read and also one replete with interjections of Chicanismo and a sense of community that is put forth by the protagonist, Alejandra Marisol, an intern reporter at the Los Angles Times.
The charge to Alejandra is to write a brief piece to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Ruben Salazar. That would seem easy enough until all hell breaks loose as Alejandra begins to uncover what may be the murder of a reporter to hide a series of sex crimes. In between the investigation for the story is a concurrent story; that of how Alejandra, with the assistance of an apparition of both Jesus and Mary, becomes a super heroine through the magic of lipstick. The scene, as laid out by Nieto, of the interactionbetween Alejandra and the two holies is worth the price of the book. It is, as we say in west Texas, a hoot. It may also lead the reader to reconsider how they view prayer and its significance in our religious orientation.
Nieto has presented us with a character that is full of the flaws that are all-too-common to us; we are humans. However, her character, Alejandra is on a mission to embed her story of Ruben Salazar within the framework of social justice. This work is infused with much culture and “dichos” that represents the essence of what Chicanos were at one time and may need to be again. Nieto presents the very soul of Chicanismo in lyrics from Jackie DeShannon’s Put a Little Love in Your Heart as sung by Jesus in a light blue bellbottom jump suit with Santa Maria providing the background chorus.
This book is filled with the scents and landscape of Los Angeles and one can literally smell the burritos and tacos as well as the food cooking in Chinatown as Alejandra works to solve a mystery and clear the name and memory of Ruben Salazar. Nieto does not spare the reader the gritty nature of crime and does not present a small body count. There is murder and mayhem throughout the story but in the middle of this chaos stands Alejandra. What does stand out consistently in Nieto’s work is respect for the dignity of a mosaic of characters who represent the best and worst in a time of transition that has not changed much if one makes time to walk around East Los Angeles, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston or anywhere that the flavor a La Raza is vibrant and its language is spoken in the streets, tiendas and in its musica.
Nieto does not bring closure to Alejandra Marisol’s crime fighting and investigative career. I can only hope, that like Indy Jones, there are many more cultural based stories to be told by a biologist with a sense of her Chicanismo and a gift for fiction.
Author Of Eulogy For A Brown Angel: A Gloria Damasco Mystery.
María Nieto’s Pig Behind The Bear is definitely a double treat: a fast-paced mystery story and a coming of age novel. At the center of both stories is Alejandra Marisol, a young L.A. Times journalist, who is as smart and courageous as she is charming and sensitive. While researching a story about the late L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar in 1971, she stumbles across a number of ritualistic murders and other crimes against the most vulnerable among us: the children and the immigrants. Her outrage fuels her determination to bring to justice the criminals. María Nieto has penned a most intriguing crime story, featuring a young heroine but also plenty of engaging characters of all ages—and yes, with plenty of romances for all ages, too! Pig Behind The Bear is sure to capture the attention of both younger and older readers, who will keep turning the pages as fast as they can till the thrilling and satisfying end! Brava, María! Encore: otra, otra!
ROSA MARTHA VILLARREAL
Rosa Martha Villarreal is the masterful author of a deeply dark venture into the human psyche in Doctor Magdalena, the historical novel, Chronicles of air and Dreams, and the intense romantic drama, The Stillness of Love and Exile. This is her first venture into writing reviews of young adult fiction. The editor is extremely grateful.
I was a bit skeptical when I was approached to review The Pig Behind the Bear, a crime mystery for young adults. After having spent my summer (re) reading the likes of Camus, Kafka, and Kōbō Abe, this novel caught me completely by surprise in the most pleasant manner. This fast-paced thriller extends beyond Nieto’s excellent craftsmanship and clean prose. Ms. Nieto’s ability to create likable and interesting characters keeps the non-fan of this genre emotionally invested in a way that few other crime mysteries can.
Briefly, the story takes place in Los Angeles, California, in the year 1971. Alejandra Marisol, a junior reporter at the Los Angeles Times is asked to write a commemorative piece on Rubén Salazar, the Times reporter who was killed during the anti-war protests a year before. When Alejandra tries to get interviews from Salazar’s friends at the Silver Dollar bar, she soon learns that at the time of his death Salazar was investigating a horrific scandal possibly involving one if not two law enforcement agencies.
On a tip from one of Salazar’s friends, Alejandra begins her investigation aided by a justice conscious group of colorful misfits: a one-legged Tia, a Japanese clairvoyant and her cat, and an aging Casanova. These characters are right out of a Robert Rodriguez film: compelling, funny, imperfect, and utterly authentic. The cinematic style and skillful recreation of LA in the early 70’s truly suspends the reader into the novel’s world, and we’re able to laugh off most of the absurd scenes such as the heroine’s almost superhuman fighting prowess, the cat’s internal dialogue, the magical Jesus and his mom, and the Tia’s extraordinary prosthetic leg.
If you’re thinking about buying this book for a young person in your life, it’ll make a great gift. But read it yourself first. It’s quite a guilty pleasure. Congratulations to Ms. Nieto on her first work of fiction. Five Stars!
Playwright, actor and co-founder of Culture Clash,
Maria Nieto has managed to write a charming story that tackles huge cultural issues such as the assassination of Ruben Salazar. Part LA noir mystery, part family drama, part magic realism, Nieto takes us on a ride through Los Angeles touching the cultural milestones and heart of Chicano/LA history past and present.