Critical Mass


By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Since it’s the month of October and New York City weather has brought back the cold and dreary nights, it seems appropriate to bring back the Small Press Spotlight feature on Critical Mass with a bit of a treat. It’s Halloween season, but in my household it’s the Days of the Dead season. For newbies, I recommend the following titles:

Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloë Sayer, Skeleton of the Feast, University of Texas, Press, 1991.

Arguably the most insightful and comprehensive rendering of the Mexican holiday, with historical and social information that many other texts tend to simplify and exoticize. The book’s most redeeming grace, however, is the candid photographs. Neither stylized or posed, these are shots straight out of the authentic Mexican neighborhoods.

Luis San Vicente, Festival of Bones, Cinco Puntos Press, 2002.

Here’s a fun and fanciful children’s verse that’s well-known in Mexico and that the publishers of this cutting-edge press have reprinted with an English translation. It’s written for children, but adults will get a better understanding of the celebratory nature of this holiday.

Ramón A. Gutiérrez & Dana Salvo, Altars of Mexico,  University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Unfortunately this title is out of print, but resourceful book-collectors can locate copies through the Internet. This collection of photos of the extraordinary creativity of religious and secular Mexican altars was a decade-long project by photographer Salvo. MacArthur genius, Gutiérrez wrote the accompanying contextual essay.

Pat, Mora, Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints, Beacon Press, 1997.

Because the Day of the Dead, a holiday with indigenous pagan roots, has been interwoven with Catholicism, it’s natural that writers of Mexican descent marry the two in their work. Chicana writer Mora does it well in this collection of poetry with the now-legendary Aunt Carmen as a guide through the artifacts and icons that inspired the verse.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo, University of Texas Press, 2002.

Though there are a few notable translations of this Mexican classic out there (Lysander Kemp’s, arguably the best one, but out of print), this gorgeous hardcover edition, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, also includes stunning photographs by artist Josephine Sacabo. But all of this is extra icing on a book that’s also an early example of magical realism and the life-and-death sensitivities of the Mexican people.

Enjoy. The new season of the Small Press Spotlight, focusing on single-author interviews will be up and running shortly.