I just finished reading Chuy Ramirez’ Strawberry Fields. As a native Texan from the Rio Grande Valley,I can relate to much of what Ramirez remembers about this place and its past. I felt as if I, too–along with Ramirez’ protagonist, Joaquin–had gone on a nostalgic, and ambiguous, journey back in time, and back in place.
I am so happy to find a book like this–written by someone of my own generation–that is written so well (even poetically at times), so tellingly, and with such accurate attention to detail and cultural truth, about this unique place and its own cosmos of humanity. Strawberry Fields is a delight to read because Ramirez grasps, and conveys, a masterful “ear” for the authentic, unique, and rich language of the people of this place; only a native South Texan, like Ramirez, who has long listened to the inhabitants of this place could have written this. Moreover, although my family did not migrate to the Midwest from South Texas as the family in Strawberry Fields does, reading this book took me on a journey, along with the main character (Joaquin) through the geographical and psychological/emotional terrain that can be said to be South Texas. Additionally, although I live in Southern California, now, Joaquin’s journey took me back, personally, and I, too, as I read this, was reminded of much of my own growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, with the great spirit and sense of humor that people from here have.
The first couple of chapters, only, seemed a bit slow for me (but that could very well be my own fault/not that of the book). I didn’t immediately care for the characters introduced (again, I may have been distracted while reading in the beginning)–but I stayed with it, and am glad that I did. Very soon the pace picks up and then it’s hard to put the book down. His fascinating, recurring nightmare, and the haunting image of the “blonde girl” from his (Joaquin’s) past, seduces one to the very end–to those very last pages when we discover the truth. Or think we do. There is much ambiguity in this novel-in-stories that is not only intriguing, but which also makes for such a rich story about a most complex time in our American histories (U.S. and Mexico). Ambiguity and ambivalence are key to the text, as we are led through some rather surreal dreams and scenes that would be a field day for any Jungian depth psychologist–leading us, together with the protagonist, to critically examine that which is true, imagined, or dreamt (both in the text, and perhaps even in our own memories ). The non-linear, circular structure of the narrative supports the weavings in and out of dream and reality, of past and present, that occur within Joaquin’s consciousness and in this novel-in-stories.
Strawberry Fields is a mystery story. It is also indeed a journey on many levels–of both the internal and external landscapes. It is a psychological thriller, as well as a memoir (or autobiographical fiction) and bildungsroman/coming of age story. And it is both a nostalgic–and starkly illuminating–return to a way of life that is at once “the way it was, back then” and the way it very well is, still, for many. (Just like our memories, and our own demons, when finally faced head on/dealt with–by us, in our present–in other words….) The dramatic changes that do occur–especially within the protagonist–also reveal a truly American story. As we witness Joaquin’s amazing rise from migrant worker to professional lawyer, we become aware of an America, and an American story, all too often relegated to the margins. Thank goodness that Chuy Ramirez gives voice to (and raises many questions about) this oftentimes inspiring, as well as problematic, American story.
One finds both the specific and the universal in Strawberry Fields–both the mythic, universal themes of father/son conflict, for example, as perceived through the lens of specificity that is the Rio Grande Valley, with its own particular cultural codes of conduct and manhood. It is a hero’s quest, and a people’s pilgrimage; it is the story of one individual’s consciousness and journey towards awareness, as well as a collective migrants’, and Mexican-American/Chicanos’, tale. In this regard it reminds me of a sequel to, a more recent continuation of, the classic Tomas Rivera’s And the Earth Did Not Devour Him/y no se lo trago la tierra (Rivera being another South Texan).
The journey upon which Chuy Ramirez takes his readers is well worth it. In the process of the reading, one might even discover one’s self along the way. Enjoy the ride.