Coming of age in a poor Texas border town

You know those little free libraries that you find on city streets? The ones that people stock with books to encourage passers-by to take one or leave one?

I helped myself to one earlier this year in my neighborhood and it turned out to be a gem.

“The Boy Kings of Texas” is a memoir by Domingo Martinez. It was a 2012 National Book Award finalist and I can see why. He is a gifted storyteller.

I recognized the author’s name, having come upon it two years ago when he wrote an essay about Brownsville, titled “How Scared Should People on the Border Be?” It’s the same south Texas city that would burst into the international spotlight a year later as immigrant families were separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

With sardonic humor, brutal honesty and luminous prose, Martinez writes of growing up poor with his Mexican American family in Brownsville, a place he describes as miserably hot and humid and devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Bored, uninspired in school, at odds with his womanizing, macho father, and feeling left behind when his older brother enlists in the military, Domingo despairs of being stuck in his hometown hugging the Rio Grande River.

He escapes eventually as a young college dropout and moves to Seattle, where he welcomes the rain and marvels at the “sincere and institutionalized absence of racial prejudice” in the Pacific Northwest city. It’s a far cry from what he knew in Brownsville: small minds, dead-end jobs, racial prejudice.

In 33 chapters spilling across more than 400 pages in this gently worn book, Martinez writes with a range of emotions — love, hate, hope, resentment, heartbreak and angst — as he describes growing up between two cultures in a house too often filled with violence, family drama and put-downs.

I could relate to a certain degree as Martinez reminisced about his barrio childhood, referring to curanderas (folk healers), Catholicism and his domineering Gramma, a pistol-packing, take-no-crap character that reminded me of my late mother. I could see myself in the same uncomfortable position as him, someone who stood out among the Mexican kids in grade school as someone who was bright and spoke fluent English.

But our experiences diverged wildly as we reached our teenage years. Whereas Domingo drank, used drugs and rebelled against his perceived lot in life, I walked a straight and narrow path to a four-year degree and after graduation moved to Oregon from my native California. Though I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood in a blue-collar town, I came of age in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of San Francisco at a time when assimilation was the order of the day. No reckless behavior for me during my teen years.

Domingo Martinez with his grandmother Virginia Campos Rubio, a central figure in his “Boy Kings of Texas,” a National Book Award nominee. (Photograph by Brad Doherty)

Not so for Martinez. At one point in the book, he rages: “Seventeen years I’ve lived my life in this outpost, alone, isolated and with an eroding sense of wonder about America at large. I can dream of nothing but getting out of here and exploring the rest of the country, watching leaves turn color and following the winter; I want out of this shit hole of a border down at the bottom of Texas, out of this racist, ignorant, locus-eating, lower Texas toxic hell pit. I’ve endured my father, my grandmother, years of pathetic education, beatings, berations, concentrations of shame, and this heat most hellish. All I have to do is graduate high school in a few weeks and I can leave, I’ve been told. And I have listened. I don’t care what the means are. The military, a bus ticket, this “college” thing other people talked about, stowing away — I just want out. Out of here.”

The current border fence between the United States and Mexico runs along the road directly across from a residential area in Brownsville. (Photograph by Daniel Borris for The New York Times)

I sense that my praise for Martinez’s work falls short, so let me share a couple of quotes about this “lyrical and gritty” book from others.

“Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop culture reference points.” — The Seattle Times.

“His stories are as eye-poppingly and bruisingly painful as they are funny.” — The Washington Post.

And then there is this, from author Carlos Eire, a National Book Award winner himself: “Domingo Martinez writes like an angel — an avenging angel who instead of bringing wrath to a fallen world redeems it by using beautiful prose to turn the most awful and gritty realities into transcendent gems. This is also a significant historical-document, a first-person account that reveals one corner of America as it has seldom been seen. What a voice, what a story, what a testament to the transforming power of self-knowledge and the right choice of words.”

Damn. Wish I’d written that. At least I had the good sense to pick this memoir out of the free little library a few blocks from my home.


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