Shedding light on the inner lives of migrant workers, Jaime Cortez's debut collection gives voice to a marginalized generation in the West. These tales, mostly following a young boy named Gordo, ask: Who belongs to America, and how are they treated?
Steinbeck might not be the No. 1 literary pride of Watsonville for long. Enter Jaime Cortez, whose debut short story collection, Gordo, is set in and around the Pajaro Valley town. Cortez's book is an unforgettable portrait of the working-class Mexican Americans who lived there in the 1970s — including the charming misfit title character, who narrates most of the stories ... Cortez's depiction of Gordo is both joyful and heartbreaking ... both sweet and sorrowful, and it showcases Cortez's ability to fully inhabit the voice of a young boy who knows he doesn't fit in, but is only beginning to understand why ... Cortez is a deeply compassionate writer; he obviously cares about his characters, though he doesn't treat them with kid gloves. The people in this collection are painfully real, sometimes flawed, sometimes angelic, frequently both. Gordo is a lovely book that masterfully evokes 1970s California, but manages, nonetheless, to feel truly universal.
[Gordo] gives the reader an unobstructed view into the lives of those who are often relegated to statistics and political talking points: people who come to the States for a better life for themselves and their offspring ... we enter Cortez’s world, where there is an irresistible mix of childlike desire, piercing observation and ridiculous, but relatable, shenanigans, including wrestling matches and the plundering of a porn collection, along with more serious matters ... the strength of Cortez’s work is that he lays out these stories without defining his characters by their worst actions, showing us people who are closer to reflections of ourselves than we think, even if they do not look like us, or come from the places we call home. And this is the book’s superpower: the cultivation of empathy.
Like Diane Arbus or Weegee, Cortez depicts warts-and-all moments of vulnerability precisely, sometimes even harshly, and without sentiment. Unlike Arbus and Weegee, his camera is the printed word, rather than a Nikon or Speed Graphic ... Cortez is native to this locale, and it shows. He succinctly portrays a largely overlooked California landscape that’s as far removed from the worlds of Silicon Valley and Hollywood as it is from the 14 moons of Neptune. What ultimately draws the reader in, though, is the book’s emotional honesty. Gordo is no smarty-pants, wise-beyond-his-years kid; even as he grows up, he’s often puzzled by life’s abundant mysteries. The characters in and around his life exhibit kindness and cruelty in fluid motion. Cortez artfully frames these characters’ daily struggles and captures them in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.