Jaime Cortez joined me on Zoom from his car in a grocery store parking lot in Watsonville, a bustling blue-collar agricultural town on the edge of Monterey Bay in Central California. And when I asked if I should try him at a better time or place, he quickly said, “No, I’m ready for you.”
Cortez talked about the rush of errands and new appointments with journalists that have suddenly filled his days. “It’s every writer’s dream, and it’s overwhelming,” he said softly, but with a giant grin.
I don’t know Jaime Cortez personally, but I felt like I did when I read his critically acclaimed book, “Gordo” (Grove Press, 2021). It wasn’t just that I recognized him as someone I might have known growing up, it was that I knew the characters he portrayed in his book: The drunk uncles, the misfit friendships, and the mayhem of small-town life before the Internet.
“Gordo” depicts immigrant and first-generation experiences on the Central Coast of California in unique and powerful ways. Based in my hometown of Watsonville and the stretch of California farm country immortalized by John Steinbeck, Cortez shows the vulnerable rawness of what it means to be an outsider: the undocumented, first-generation experiences, toxic machismo and poverty, but also joy, family, queerness and autonomy.
Although the themes in “Gordo” are heavy, the stories are also somehow hilarious. A stack of porn magazines starts a war between boys and girls. A dance-off between cousins and wayward neighbors. A drunken man in a chair, tied to the bed of a pickup truck. A character named Olga, whose ant-covered donuts get the best of a communion experience.
The New York Times’ review identified the “superpower” of Cortez’s work: “In ‘Gordo,’ Cortez assumes the role of a documentarian, depicting the comical, difficult and heartfelt realities of his characters, where hurt, in some form or another, may be lurking around every corner, but so is joy.”
Recently, in that parking lot, Cortez paused long enough to consider a few questions about his buzz-worthy first book.
His answers here are lightly edited:
Olga Rosales Salinas - Let's get the hard questions out of the way. How did you react when you heard of Vicente Fernandez's passing?
Jaime Cortez - I woke up to several text messages and emails saying, have you heard? After scrolling through my feed, I realized it was true. Vicente wasn't just Madonna or Elvis; Vicente Fernandez represented an entire country for four generations of fans. The closest I can describe is that he was what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. He represented the country as a whole.
Olga - One of my favorite passages from your book describes Vicente perfectly. You wrote, "Oh my God, it's always and forever Vicente. Vicente doing rancheras. Vicente doing boleros. Vicente shouting out the gritos. Ay ay ay! Vicente is the king of the drunk guys who are only happy when they're sad."
Jaime - Yes, it was Vicente's music that allowed grown men to cry. I don't think that will change now that he's passed. It's the same with tequila. Tequila is Mexico. Vicente is Mexico.
Olga - We meet your characters as young kids working alongside their parents in the tomato fields of San Juan Bautista, and again when they move to Watsonville. How many of the locations in your stories were from your lived experience?
Recommended for You
Jaime - The whole book is about 80% memoir. I've changed names and fictionalized some of the storylines, but the locations and the fields where we worked were real.
Olga - You've written a powerful depiction of what it means to be an immigrant farmworker in this country through short stories that carry a connecting narrative. Can you tell us how these short stories became a novel?
Jaime - Well, at first, I didn't want to write a novel. I started writing the short stories over a period of five years, and when I approached my editor, I was encouraged to tie the stories together, and I'm glad I did. Now it's a novel.
Olga - Because of the way you've tied these stories together, readers can bounce between timelines and characters. For instance, your character Raymundo's story begins in grade school, and we meet him again as a professional hairstylist in Watsonville.
Jaime - We first meet Raymundo in middle school. Some readers might think that Raymundo is a more grown-up Gordo in adolescence, but Raymundo is a different person altogether. I really loved writing the two Raymundo stories because it let me use a kind of campy, sly, and decidedly adult style of humor that would not make sense with a child narrator.
Olga - One of my favorite things about this book is that you never say the big things aloud. For instance, Gordo recognizes that he's different, but he doesn't know why or how just yet. Can you speak to that?
Jaime - I think it's important to note that a young kid, like my main character, Gordo, is just learning how the world works. He sees things that he doesn't understand but will one day. He knows that the machismo he's surrounded by seems strange to him, and he also knows that strangeness isn't allowed in small towns.
Olga - Another theme is the domestic abuse suffered by Esmeralda, Gordo's mother. Gordo says this about his father, "He's a little drunk, but he's not mad, so even though my ma's not home, I think I'll be okay. Maybe." This one sentence tells a whole story of violence in the home without telling the story outright.
Jaime - In this case, my heroine plays a crucial role in showing me survival. I felt that that was the more powerful story to tell—my mother's strength. In one scene, while helping Dalia, a neighbor stuck in a domestic abuse relationship, Esmeralda gives a piece of advice that troubled me as an author.
Olga - I know the scene you're referring to, "You have to listen to me. You have to fight back. Nobody likes to fight, but you have to fight back." Am I right?
Jaime - Yes. Although I wrote this particular story precisely how I remember it happening, I had to decide whether having my matriarch say such a thing might be damaging. I had to ask myself, is it good advice?
Olga - That's an important question. Are people in domestic abuse situations able to fight back? Should they fight back? For instance, what if your abuser has a gun?
Jaime - Exactly. But in the end, Esmeralda, or my mother, said those exact words, and I felt they were essential to the time and place. I decided to stay true to that experience.
Olga - Since the release of this book in August 2021, you've had interviews with NPR, The New York Times, and several others. That must be magical and overwhelming.
Jaime - All I wanted to do was tell my stories, and they've gotten such a great response. I'm taking it one step at a time and scaling my excitement about the possibilities that are coming my way.