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The message is clear. No matter whether you go to mass or not, go to college or not, speak Spanish or not, you belong among your people.

Photographs by Jose Galvez; poem by Luis Alberto Urrea

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Friday, February 23 2001, 10:59 AM

Some of the photographs in this book would be perfect for an article about poverty in the "borderlands." Some could accompany an expose on Chicano gang culture. And some could be ideal illustrations for a discussion of the influence of religious tradition in the Mexican-American community. But what makes this book so interesting is that all these photographs are collected in one place, without being attached to the stories mainstream journalists like to tell about Latino culture.

This would be true even if Vatos were simply a book of photographs. When you combine those pictures with Luis Alberto Urrea's deliberately repetitive poem, the effect is greatly magnified. Doubling the work of the book's physical binding, Urrea stiches fragments of the Latino experience together into something that must be considered as a whole. In his hands, Jose Galvez's images of Chicano life are transformed from potential reinforcement for pieces that re-circulate old stereotypes into something that must be considered as a piece. It isn't about some Mexican-Americans instead of others. It's about "all the vatos," whoever they are:

All the vatos and their abuelitos

All the vatos proud of tatuajes

All the vatos carrying a lunch pail

All the vatos graduating law school

All the vatos grown up to be curas

All the vatos never been to misa

All the vatos Jimmy Spider Tito

All the vatos lost their tongues in Spanish

All the vatos can't say shit in English

The message is clear. No matter whether you go to mass or not, go to college or not, speak Spanish or not, you belong among your people. You are as much a "vato" as they are; they are no less a "vato" than you.

It is, of course, significant that Galvez and Urrea have chosen the word "vato" for their testament to the Chicano experience. It is not a cultured word, a word that will win friends in the white world, a word to wear like your Sunday best. Used indiscriminately, "vato" overcomes the painstaking and painful discriminations of taste. In the introduction to the book, Urrea fleshes out its history:

Vatos -- sreet slang for dude, guy, pal, brother -- sprang from the highly stylized language of the Pachucos (los chukotes) in the '50s. It's a Chicano term derived from the once-common friendly insult chivato, or goat. It had a slightly unacceptable air to it, which the Locos and Weesas of the Chuco world enjoyed. They were able to take the sting out of racism by calling themselves a bunch of names assimilated "good Mexicans" didn't like.

Presumably, then, this book seeks to reinforce this inversion, turning all Mexican-American men into "bad Mexicans," with the understanding that being "bad" is good, because it implies a refusal to conform with the dominant culture, a big "Chingate!" to a code of behavior that serves to perpetuate the status quo.

This line of thinking, in which a derogatory term is reappropriated by the people it targets, in which bad becomes good is nothing new. It has been an integral part of second-wave New Social Movements, whether in the Gay community -- see the reappropriation of "queer" -- the African-American community -- see "nigga" -- or the Riot Grrl community -- see "bitch" and "cunt." The thing is, I'm pretty sure that the authors of Vatos have no interest in doing something new. Instead, their work turns to the past, forging connections across generational lines, ignoring the distinction between those who "made it" and those who did not. Urrea's poem ends with the line "All the vatos, you are not forgotten." As basic as that may sound, when you read the words after studying the photographs it proves to be incredibly moving.

We live at a time when it is fashionable to take things apart, to "deconstruct" them, to distance ourselves from each other with irony. Many Americans turn to religion to compensate for the feelings of emptiness that this critical attitude inspires. Some get their "religion" by other means, turning to subcultures based on something they really believe in, like Beanie Babies or punk rock. Vatos turns this religious impulse inside out, directing it back towards the people who feel its pull. In this respect, the book's message for Latinos has something to tell us all. Etymologically, the word religion means "to bind together." Why let the gods -- real or false -- be the reason for our coming together, when we can construct a community based on inclusiveness without their help? All the vatos, finding strength in each other.

Vatos is available from Cinco Puntos Press 

Copyright © 2001 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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