One night after quarreling with friends, a drunken, angry, guilt-ridden high school kid called Junior Martinez wandered his home town of Brownsville, Tex., and happened on his old grammar school, El Jardin Elementary —“the Garden of Eden” in his memory. He scaled a 10-foot fence and discovered, instead of the staid, old brick building he remembered, “one of those cheap, awful squat one-room buildings that the government likes to hand out to overburdened schools.”
He shoved a concrete block through a fiberglass window, hoisted himself in and trashed the room: “I sullied. I shattered. I destroyed. I uglied. But I did not defile, I felt. There was still love in what I was doing.” Stumbling out onto the street again, he discovered a phone booth and reported the crime: Skateboarders did it, he told the dispatcher, who kept him on the line until the police arrived to arrest him.
(Lyons Press) - ‘The Boy Kings of Texas’ by Domingo Martinez
Trashing the school is a small enough incident in a memoir packed with murderous (and, yes, loving) rages, but it’s key: It’s one scene in which an idea about injustice, rather than a person, is the object of Martinez’s fury. The telling is robust and raucous, the distillation of his feelings about school and Brownsville’s culture. Martinez and education might have been a perfect pairing, but after only three years at El Jardin, he was rezoned to a tough school populated by kids with minimal English, and there began the slow drift into disaffection, drink and drugs that left him barely able to graduate from high school. But the 17-year-old school-savager was also a stringer for the Brownsville Herald — already a writer — who refused to sign the police charge sheet, “ripe with misspellings and egregious syntax.”
“The Boy Kings of Texas,” recently nominated for a National Book Award in nonfiction, joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives to which writers such asRichard Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, John Phillip Santos and Oscar Casares (who also grew up in Brownsville) have contributed singular, often highly literary visions. Martinez focuses on the culture of machismo. He’s hardly the first to work through that lens, but his strutting style attempts to simultaneously embody and refute a macho world, beginning with a prologue that quotes “El Rey,” Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s popular anthem to machismo: “I know very well that I’m on the outside,” the song starts, an explanation for all the lines to follow.
Martinez’s father oozes and spits machismo — he subjects Junior to creepy sexual bragging and beats him most memorably when he arrives home from a front-lawn football game with his arm dangling. His son, in turn, does not spare him any blame. Neither, however, does he assign machismo to a single sex: “ ‘El Rey,’ ” he says, “illustrated clearly what had so viciously plagued my father, and well, his mother, who was as butch as they come.” The memoir’s early pages are loaded with beatings but even more sensationally with the possibility of murder: His Gramma, he charges, “kept his [grandfather’s] insulin from him as punishment for his last bender,” involving — as benders in the Martinez world often do — another woman, but she “didn’t mean to kill him, not really.”