UHV American Book Review: Author describes rocky road to Hollywood

By A.J. Ortega
March 5, 2014 at 6 p.m.
Updated March 4, 2014 at 9:05 p.m.

UHV faculty member AJ Ortega.

UHV faculty member AJ Ortega.

Thursday's speaker in the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series is author Alex Espinoza. His work is not traditional in its form or its content, and that's a good thing.

When picking up a book to read, I often look for something that I wouldn't expect, something new - not traditional or predictable. I am looking for something exciting. Espinoza's writing is just that.

Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, but he was raised in Los Angeles from an early age. He went on to work in a variety of jobs and graduated from the University of California-Riverside. He then earned his Master of Fine Arts from University of California-Irvine.

Espinoza's first book, "Still Water Saints," encompasses the nontraditional elements of his work. The story focuses on Agua Mansa, a suburban California town. Through shifts in point of view and several perspectives from different characters, the multiple voices are the fabric that holds the novel together. Telling the story in this way instead of the traditional linear approach truly brings the community to life.

While here in Victoria, Espinoza will read from his latest novel, "The Five Acts of Diego Leon." This is a pleasure for us in part because his short fiction piece, "Scenes from the Films of Orlando Real," appeared in Huizache, the magazine of Latino literature published by CentroVictoria, UHV's center for Mexican-American literature and culture.

When it came time to select pieces for our magazine, Espinoza's work was new and refreshing. It was different. I couldn't put the piece into a box or genre, and that's what had me turning the pages. In fact, the piece eventually morphed into what is now "The Five Acts of Diego Leon." It is fascinating to see the process and the evolution of a piece of fiction - especially one that doesn't fall into the norms of traditional storytelling.

"The Five Acts of Diego Leon" addresses several engaging themes and has captivating characters that seduce you into the plot of the story. After leaving rural Mexico, the novel's protagonist and title character finds himself in the U.S. Diego traverses the new landscape in order to follow his dreams - one day, he wants to make it in Hollywood. Naturally, there are roadblocks and speed bumps along the way.

Espinoza combines historical fact and fiction, creating a unique world. The novel takes place during the Golden Age of American cinema, which started in the 1920s. Espinoza does a tremendous job of displaying the dichotomy of the Mexican Revolution and Hollywood at that time. Words like P'urhepecha rub against words like Prohibition. Places like Michoacan are left for places like California.

I find that the premise of the novel is an appropriate metaphor for any immigrant story. As the novel unfolds, Espinoza uses Diego as our lens into the struggles of "making it" in this country when you don't fit in. Coming here as an outsider is not a new story. Actually, it is a lot of people's story. It is my father's story. It's your neighbor's story. Certainly not every immigrant who comes to the U.S. is trying to be a Hollywood actor, but the motivation and ambition will be familiar to many readers.

While a work of fiction with a historical backdrop, Espinoza's latest book tackles the struggle of not just being an outsider in terms of cultural identity, but the novel also addresses the depiction and representation of those individuals who are different than their surrounding majority. Still, there are other layers that define Diego as a true individual, and those layers go far beyond his Mexican ethnicity.

Espinoza combines the familiar with the unfamiliar and ultimately leaves readers with a unique tale of a unique character during a unique time in American history. Despite being set almost 100 years ago, the message is still incredibly relevant, which speaks to the timelessness of Espinoza's writing.

ABR is pleased to welcome Espinoza to Victoria and to the UHV/ABR Reading Series on Thursday at noon in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

A.J. Ortega is assistant editor of Huizache and teaches English at UHV.



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