Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida
Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida
by Victor Martinez
THE LITERARY WORK
A Chicano novel of development, set in Fresno County, California, during the early 1970s; published in 1996.
The second son of poor Mexican American parents, Manny recounts his coming of age, focusing on familial strife and scenes of inclusion and exclusion that help him find his place in the world.
Victor Martinez, the fourth of 12 children, was born into poverty in 1954 and raised in Fresno, California. Like many Mexican Americans in Fresno, he worked in the fields. After graduating high school, he was able through an affirmative action program to attend California State University at Fresno, where he studied poetry with Philip Levine. Martinez also attended Stanford University, where he took graduate courses in creative writing. Over the years Martinez has also held various jobs: welder, truck driver, firefighter, teacher, and office clerk. Known before Parrot in the Oven as a short-story writer and poet, he is the author of Caring for a House (1992), a collection of poems, and a contributor to the High Plains Literary Review and The Bloomsbury Review. In Parrot in the Oven, Martinez broadens the scope of the coming-of-age novel, exploring the plight of poor Mexican Americans while vividly portraying Chicano life in the American West.
Mexican American activism
Parrot in the Oven, though set during the early to mid 1970s, registers the sweeping effects of late 1960s activism, when Mexican Americans began to seek political rights commensurate with their status as U.S. citizens. While they looked in the first instance to the path taken by blacks in the civil rights struggles, Mexican Americans also agitated for rights specific to their particular historical condition in the United States. Much political activism was centered in the West and Southwest, particularly in California and Texas where the majority of Mexican Americans lived. The activists aimed mainly to attain their fair share of legal, political, and economic rights, but they concerned themselves too with matters of ethnic pride and cultural self-determination, agitating for the right to tell their own stories, to have their distinctive histories included in school curriculums, and to participate fully in the imaginative life of the nation.
Like other Mexican Americans, those who agitated for civil rights trace their history to peoples resident in the West and the Southwest who until 1848 were citizens of Mexico. When, as a result of its defeat in the Mexican War, Mexico lost the upper half of its territory to the United States, including California, political boundaries changed almost overnight. Mexicans suddenly became Americans of Mexican descent; they did not cross a border as much as it crossed them. That their new American leaders acknowledged this fact was reflected in the promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the conclusion of the war. As it turned out, these promises were made to little effect. Despite the treaty, the defeated Mexicans did not receive fair treatment under the law. U.S. law never delivered the land promised them. They faced rampant discrimination at election time, and suffered oppressive labor laws and conditions. Confronted with a population growth that outpaced the number of jobs in Mexico, many migrated to the United States in search of economic opportunity, freely crossing a border that was not actively policed until the 1920s, making their way over in any way they could. The rich agricultural economy of California’s San Joaquin Valley (which includes Fresno County) was a principal draw, especially between 1910 and 1930, when many migrated north to provide seasonal labor in the fields.
As more acreage fell under the plow between 1930 and 1970, California’s agricultural economy boomed. Americans across the country filled their grocery carts with grapes, lettuces, and other vegetables from the rich, alluvial soil of the Central and San Joaquin valleys. Fresno County alone accounted for 99 percent of California’s raisins, soon becoming the richest agricultural county in the United States. Yet journalists were sounding the alarm about the plight of California farm workers, or more accurately re-sounding an alarm of the a mid-to-late nineteenth century. The plight had been recognized even then, in a period when America was experiencing a tremendous overall agricultural boom. An 1870s editorial in the San Francisco Morning Chronicle proclaimed that “The farm labor problem of California is undoubtedly the worst in the United States. … In many respects, it is even worse than old-time slavery” (San Francisco Chronicle in Haslam, p. 210). Power resided in the hands of owners, not workers, and a steady supply of cheap labor, coupled with the growing influence of agribusiness in the halls of government, meant that the complaints of farm workers fell on deaf ears. They fell on deaf ears, that is, until the 1960s, when César Chávez began organizing workers in the Central Valley.
Born in Arizona to a family of migrant farm workers from Mexico, Chavez attained only a seventh-grade education. But he had enormous energy and a gift for rallying people to his cause. In 1962, Chavez became head of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which later became the UFW AFL-CIO. In 1965, he organized a grape strike, picketing growers in Delano, California, 80 miles south of Fresno, where the novel takes place. Thus began La Huelga, what turned out to be a five-year strike that for the first time brought the lives of farm workers to the attention of ordinary Americans. Chavez, a soft-spoken man who modeled his style of leadership after India’s Mahatma Ghandi, practiced civil disobedience and espoused nonviolent protest. He marched, led rallies, and organized boycotts—all to focus attention on what he simply called La Causa (i.e., the cause). Over 17 million Americans joined in his grape boycott before the grape growers agreed to sign a contract granting a minimum wage to farm workers. It was the first of several boycotts Chavez would lead on behalf of farm laborers.
While some Mexican Americans rallied in the fields for workers’ rights, others took to the streets—protesting, marching, and forming organizations to create ethnic pride and empowerment. Some embraced el moviemiento, the Chicano movement. Originally Chicano was a pejorative label (short for Mexicanos) used to describe any unskilled worker of Mexican descent; activists embraced the term, calling themselves Chicano as a mark of difference, a sign of unity against white culture. Chicano student organizations were particularly active during the movement’s heyday in the 1960s. Groups like UMA (the United Mexican Students) and MeCHA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) agitated for the formation of Chicano Studies programs on college campuses and led teach-ins about Mexican history. Chicano artists decorated city walls with colorful murals; Chicano writers and poets gained new prominence; political change fermented. An especially important group was the Brown Berets, to which one of the characters in Parrot in the Oven belongs. Modeled after the famous Black Berets, the Brown Berets formed chapters throughout the West and Southwest, thriving from 1967 to about 1972. Though nonviolent, they insisted on “the right to self-defense against aggression and for self-determination” (Gómez Quiñones, p. 120). They published a newspaper, La Causa, and established a successful health clinic. Their ten-point program “addressed issues of housing, culture, justice, employment, and education, and they held, at least as an ideal, a code of ethical conduct and required specific organizational discipline” (Gómez Quiñones, p. 120).
Mexican Americans recognized their historical significance to the nation, and they wanted to be included within it as equals. The gaining of labor rights was fundamental to this cause, but the movement was also concerned more broadly with matters of politics and culture. Groups such as the Brown Berets and MeCHA played an important role in galvanizing campus activism, raising consciousness, and pushing for the inclusion of Mexican American perspectives within the educational establishment.
The Mexican American family
Mexican American families, like American families in general, register the effects of broader economic, social, and political forces in U.S. culture. But Mexican American families also reflect the unique pressures of another culture and another place: Mexico. So while in many respects Mexican American families differ little from American families more broadly considered, there are also key differences to keep in mind, with identifiable origins.
Not all Mexican American families are comprised of new immigrants. Many Mexican Americans have roots in the United States dating back several decades; some trace their lineage back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet there is no mistaking Mexico’s immense cultural influence in Mexican American life. While some of that influence has deep historical sources, much of it stems from Mexico’s sheer proximity, as well as from the steady influx of new immigrants, who bring their culture and its problems to the United States when they arrive. It is easy to forget that the primary causes of immigration from Mexico, which grew apace after World War II, were conditions in Mexico itself, principally its growing population and low standard of living, both of which accelerated after the 1960s; its population grew by 30 million from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s. As one writer puts it, the “Mexican economy finds it increasingly difficult to feed and clothe its population” (Juan Gonzalez, p. 97). By 1996, 80 percent of the Mexican population lived in poverty (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 97).
THE BRACERO PROGRAM
The word for “arm” in Spanish is brazo; a bracero is someone who works with his arms—a laborer. Hence the term for a program begun in 1942 to supply needed farm and industrial labor during World War II. Extending the program, the United States issued temporary work permits to over 4 million Mexican workers between 1945 and 1964, when the program was abolished. At its peak, some 25 percent of all farmworkers in the United States were braceros. Most bracero contracts lasted one year, but some workers came back year after year to work seasonally under the program.
Pushed northward by a worsening Mexican economy and by dreams of prosperity in the United States, Mexican immigrants frequently arrived impoverished, a state they had to overcome by taking the most menial jobs: dishwasher, busboy, maid, house cleaner, and, for the most unskilled, field worker. Although, like other immigrants, Mexican Americans enjoyed a rise in income in the second and third generations, stark inequalities remained. From 1950 to 1979, even “Mexican-American adults with native-born parents had from 15 to 20 percent less schooling than non-Hispanic whites,” with a “similarly persistent gap in annual earnings … between third (plus)-generation Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites” (Skerry, p. 360). While the exact number of illegal immigrants is difficult to measure, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) apprehended over one million Mexicans in the 1960s and over seven million in the ′70s (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 225). It is not surprising, then, that some Mexican Americans began to have ambivalent feelings towards new immigrants; the newly arrived, willing to work at most jobs, threatened the livelihood of those already here.
Political leaders and sociologists have struggled to explain the inability of Mexican Americans to advance through the traditional channels of public education—a path to prosperity well worn by other immigrant groups in the United States. In 1986, a few years after the novel takes place, average SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores showed that those for Mexican Americans fell 126 points below the average for non-Hispanic whites (National Center for Education Statistics). Aside from poverty and poor access to education in Mexico, what cultural factors account for this failure? Students of Mexican culture point to a prevailing anti-intellectualism, born of respect for work but not book learning. The noted Mexican essayist Carlos Monsiváis observes: “It is not uncommon in Mexican homes to hear parents scolding their kids for reading when they could be doing something useful, like fixing the door,” and Skerry suggests that recent immigrants may feel a general distrust of institutions outside the immediate family (Monsiváis in Manuel Gonzalez, p. 237; Skerry p. 344). These points are borne out in Richard Rodriguez’s autobiography, Hunger of Memory (also in Literature and Its Times), which describes growing up in Sacramento during the 1960s and 1970s. He observes that his parents, who were immigrants from Mexico, did not understand the meaning and purpose of his graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, nor his decision to abandon a career in academia for one as a writer; they expected him to get a “real” job like everybody else.
If tendencies of Mexican American family life influence educational achievement, they also have a more immediate impact on family members themselves, particularly women and children. Observers of Mexican culture point especially to corrosive and wide-ranging effects of machismo, a code of strong male behavior with roots in the Aztec ideal of the strong warrior. The Spanish Conquest, which reduced the native population to servitude, produced a corrupted model of masculinity, in which the principal virtue was to endure (aguantar in Spanish), silently, sullenly, sometimes with barely repressed rage: “the man who could no longer protect his wife took to beating her; the wish to be brave inspired the bully; the hero got drunk” (Shorris, p. 432). Some Chicano scholars have disputed the prevalence of this model, arguing that it represented the theory, not the actuality, of the Mexican American family, which was in fact held together by strong women (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 237). Still the effects of machismo should not be ignored. These range from domestic violence, marital infidelity, alcoholism, and unusually high crime rates, to a battered sense of self-worth for women, children, and the macho himself. Mexican American literature and culture is full of such depictions of machismo, from Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek (both also in Literature and Its Times), to Helena Viramontes’s The Moths and Other Stories, to Arturo Islas’s The Rain God.
Manny Hernandez, a 14-year-old, working-class Mexican American from Fresno, California, is both the narrator and central character of the novel. Manny lives in a housing project with his mother and father; his older brother, Bernardo (known as Nardo); his older sister, Magda; and Pedi, his little sister. Manny’s father, whose drinking has cost him his job as a translator for the city, prowls about the house in a perpetual bad mood. Nardo, who is infatuated by his own reflection in the mirror, takes after his father in his distaste for work. Madga, on the other hand, contributes to the family income with money from her job in a laundry, and Manny’s mother labors to keep the house clean and her family intact. Manny himself follows his mother’s example; the beginning of the novel finds him thinking, “Without work, I was as empty as a Coke bottle” (Martinez, Parrot in the Oven, p. 7).
The opening of the novel describes Manny’s desire for a new baseball glove, a longing so great that he decides to spend a day in the fields with Nardo picking chili peppers. When officers arrive from the INS—Immigration and Naturalization Service, or la migra in Spanish)—the migrant workers next to them run off, while Manny and Nardo cash in the sacks of peppers they leave behind. Manny’s father, depicted as a classic macho, spends his hours at Rico’s Pool Hall sullenly dreaming of “escaping back to Mexico” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 21). Embittered and shamed by his failure to provide for his family, Mr. Hernandez refuses to accept government handouts. His failed dreams for upward mobility are symbolized by a croquet set he had once purchased for his children; when the Garcia boys across the street throw one of the mallets into a tree, Mr. Hernandez vows “never again to favor [the] neighborhood with culture” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 23). Mrs. Hernandez escapes from her world by watching romantic movies on television in the afternoons. When she moons over a Tony Curtis film, the disgusted Mr. Hernandez, fifth of tequila in hand, storms over to a familiar place—the pool hall.
Mrs. Hernandez, however, proves to be the family’s pillar and strength. She holds high ambitions for Manny, and tries to get him admitted to a better school across town, one that might graduate him into “places that would make her eyes gleam” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 38). When Manny goes to his own school to pick up his report card, he encounters one of his teachers, the well-meaning Mr. Hart, who gives him $20 for school supplies and a lift home back to the projects. Manny soon regrets accepting the offer, for on coming home he finds his father pruning shrubs in the front yard. The sight of Manny arriving with Mr. Hart fills Mr. Hernandez with rage—a rage born from contempt for do-gooders like Mr. Hart and from his own failure as a father. Mr. Hernandez, evincing the anti-intellectualism of the lower class Mexican immigrant, believes that Manny should give up school altogether, get a job as a dishwasher, and work his way up (Parrot in the Oven, p. 38). When Hart leaves, Mr. Hernandez rifles through Manny’s pockets until he finds the money, which soon serves an unexpected purpose.
Mr. Hernandez fuels a two-day drinking binge at Rico’s with the $20 he has taken from Manny. This next chapter’s title, “The Bullet,” refers to events narrated later, after Mrs. Hernandez goes to the bar to fetch her husband. Feeling embarrated lat er, after Mrs. Hernandez goes home in a storm of anger, takes his rifle from a closet, and goes in search of his wife, who has left to a neighbor’s house. Only the arrival of the police and the failure of his gun to load prevent him from shooting her. Mrs. Hernandez at first tries to protect her husband, claiming that no one owns a gun. But the officers find the weapon in a back room and then arrest Mr. Hernandez for owning a non-registered gun. Feeling the delayed impact of her husband’s actions, Mrs. Hernandez now refuses to stand by him. “Go ahead, take him!” she says (Parrot in the Oven, p. 68). After they leave, she bends down to pick up a speck of dirt from the floor. “I don’t even have a vacuum cleaner,” she observes (Parrot in the Oven, p. 68). The comment registers her weary alienation from a world of middle-class comfort that she can imagine but never attain.
A few days later, Mr. Hernandez is released from jail. When he promises to stay out of further trouble, he and his wife reconcile. Anger is now directed at the two sons; on one of the hottest days of the year, Mr. Hernandez orders them to spend the day weeding the garden of Mrs. Hernandez’s elderly mother. This job is particularly painful for Nardo, who has come home the night before stone drunk. Behind the action, it becomes evident that development is slowly lacing the community of Fresno—once a sleepy farm town—with a network of new roads. Manny’s grandmother, who carefully tends her garden and her memories of Mexico, is one of the last holdouts against a planned freeway. Her death, narrated in the chapter, suggests the passing of the old lifestyle, or more exactly, the passing of a connection to the land signified by her garden and threatened by the scourge of spreading asphalt.
“THE PARROT IN THE OVEN”
The novel’s title comes from a Mexican saying about a parrot that complains how hot it is in the shade, only to discover he is sitting in an oven. His father uses the saying, according to Manny, not to suggest that Manny is stupid, but because “I trusted everything too much, because I’d go right into the oven trusting people all the way—brains or no brains” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 52). As much as this describes a trait in Manny—his capacity for trust—it also says something about Mr. Hernandez, who is skeptical to a fault, even to the point of thinking the worst of Manny’s teacher when he gives Manny money for school supplies and a ride home.
The title of the next chapter, “The Rifle,” suggests a return to the subject of violence examined previously, but with a surprising twist. First there is one transgression; Magda asks Manny to watch Pedi while she sneaks out for a tryst with her teenaged lover. We then learn that Mr. Hernandez, who could not afford to buy his wife a $7 dress for her mother’s funeral, has scraped together $150 to pay a lawyer to retrieve his rifle from the police—a rifle worth only one third as much (Parrot in the Oven, p. 94). Manny finds the rifle in a closet and plays with it while watching Pedi. At first the loader remains jammed, but as he works it, the mechanism frees and a bullet enters the chamber, followed by a loud crack as the gun unexpectedly fires in Pedi’s direction. Manny believes he has surely killed her and is overcome with relief when he learns she has not been struck but only frightened. Moments later, first Madga, then Mrs. Hernandez, returns, neither suspecting anything about the gun. But the sight of Magda’s makeup and clothes causes Mrs. Hernandez to draw another upsetting conclusion. She lectures her daughter about “ruining [her] life” by getting pregnant, just as she [Mrs. Hernandez] had done when she was a teenager (Parrot in the Oven, p. 104). Defiant, Magda has a reply at the ready; she threatens to move out, leaving Mrs. Hernandez with no money.
From domestic entanglements, the thread of the story moves to the trials of manhood. Lencho, a powerfully built student at Manny’s school, announces that he is fielding an unofficial boxing team to challenge the school’s team, composed largely of African Americans. A member of the Brown Berets, Lencho dresses in the style favored by Chicano youth—“Big Ben pants, starched stiff as ironing boards, and a Pendleton shirt with the lap and tail out” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 111). He frames his boxing venture as a measure of ethnic pride, telling Manny how Chicanos were a “special people, how power slept in our fists and we could awaken it with a simple nod of our heroic will” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 122). On the day of the boxing matches, however, that power fails and the Chicanos lose all three matches, including Lencho’s. For this, Lencho is kicked out of the Berets, who say he “brought embarrassment to them, and worse, caused a loss of unity between them and their black brothers” (Parrot in the Oven, pp. 138-39).
In “Family Affair,” the following chapter, the novel focuses on Magda, heretofore a marginal figure in the story. She is taken to the hospital because she has lost her baby in a miscarriage. The novel here narrates events in reverse chronological order. We learn first of her miscarriage, not the pregnancy. The interest is not in the er.We learnfirs to fher miscarriage, but in its consequences. She becomes quite ill, and because of her ethnicity is treated shabbily at the hospital. Worse, she must come home prematurely because the family has neither money for a doctor nor health insurance. During these events, Mrs. Hernandez and Manny stand by Magda’s side, and they keep Magda’s pregnancy a secret from Mr. Hernandez. But at chapter’s end, with Magda’s fever worsening, he performs a saving and heroic act, rising from his bed, stiff and arthritic, to carry her to the bathtub, which he has ordered filled with cold water. The fever breaks, and Magda looks at Mr. Hernandez, “amazed” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 158).
Magda’s recovery, which has the aura of a baptism or rebirth, spawns other recoveries. Mr. Hernandez finds a job, as does Nardo, who works as a delivery boy for a local pharmacist, Mr. Giddens. Manny helps from time to time, and on one occasion finds himself pressed by Mr. Giddens to attend a party being thrown in his absence by his daughter, Dorothy, who is about Manny’s age. The offer paints Manny into a corner, who knows Dorothy does not want him to go but feels obliged to his brother’s employer. Against the advice of Nardo and Magda, who fear Manny will be out of place among the well-to-do whites, Manny shows up for the party, only to be forced to leave when during a dance his leg accidentally slides between the legs of one of Dorothy’s friends, embarrassing her and angering Dorothy.
In the novel’s final two chapters, Manny moves from trying to belong to white society to an attempt to join a small group of neighborhood toughs, or vatos firmes, as they call themselves. The price of admission to this gang is suffering a beating at the hands of its members, and the payoff is being able to kiss one of the girls who fall in their orbit. Eddie, a member of the gang, recruits Manny to help him pull off a robbery. But Manny soon realizes that his desire for acceptance has again pulled him in a negative direction. The turning point comes just after Eddie brutally knocks a woman down, steals her money, and runs off. As Eddie rounds a corner, Manny recognizes him as Magda’s secret boyfriend, whose face he had never seen before, and in that moment of recognition sees himself, understanding “who I really should be” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 210). On Manny’s return to his house, he sees the living room, recognizing it as the place where his family builds and destroys its own life together—a place where he belongs after a “long journey of being away” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 215).
Forms of inclusion and exclusion
The novel deftly captures one of the most important realities about the Hispanic population in the United States: its sheer variety. There are many Hispanic populations, and they have as many differences as similarities. Even names are subjects of dispute. Some, especially on the East Coast, prefer to be called Hispanics. Others find it offensive, an ill-conceived term created by federal bureaucrats, and prefer Latinos. Still others, desiring more specificity or political charge, elect Chicano (for Mexican Americans) or Boricua (for Puerto Ricans). There are also important differences within Mexican and Mexican American populations themselves.
The novel’s opening chapter deftly captures some of these differences. When Manny and Nardo decide to spend a day picking chili peppers, they arrive too late in the morning for the best rows, which hard-working migrant laborers have already taken. Manny and Nardo have chosen to work in the fields for spending money, while the migrants, as Nardo points out, “pick like their goddamned lives depended on it,” which is, of course, true (Parrot in the Oven, p. 13). Manny’s hands progress slowly through the plants; a nearby worker moves like a whirlwind, never tiring, filling sack after sack with dizzying speed. When officers from the INS show up, the migrants drop their sacks and run, while Manny and Nardo nonchalantly stand and watch, unconcerned because they are American citizens, not undocumented or “illegal” aliens who have broken U.S. law by coming across the border without official authorization. At chapter’s end, Manny cinches the difference between the field-workers and himself, imagining how his new baseball glove will bring him status at school, where people would admire him in centerfield—“not these people picking chiles … but people I had yet to know” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 20). The baseball glove symbolizes his desired American-ness, his wish to melt into white America, but also his sense of superiority over newly arrived immigrants—a feeling not uncommon among more established Mexican Americans in the United States.
The novel also explores how generational differences produce conflict among Latinos. Manny’s maternal grandfather carries stories of Mexico that “smoldered in his heart,” including the memory of the “the desert he crossed to plant a foot in this country” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 81). Mr. Hernandez dreams of “escaping” from the United States and returning to Mexico. But the next generation—Manny, Nardo, Magda, and Pedi—regards Mexico only as the present looks back to the past: a distant, receding horizon. Their future will be in the United States, not in Mexico; their language English, not Spanish. Manny and Nardo dabble as field hands, but do not seem destined to earn their labor by the sweat of their brow.
Divisions within the same generation often spring from differences of politics and ideology. In the chapter entitled “The Boxing Match,” Manny comments on the “ornery vatos,” Chícanos who “just hung around and smoked and ditched class and acted like school was some kind of contaminated nuclear zone” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 117). He listens to Lencho, who is a Brown Beret, lecture on the “treasures buried deep inside our blood, hidden treasures we hardly knew existed” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 119). Yet however inspiring these “inspirational talks” may be, they do not transform Manny into a committed Chicano (Parrot in the Oven, p. 122). He remains estranged and detached, on the outside looking in, invested in his own dreams of success and too prone to ironic undercutting to accept these models of identity. Manny’s dreams of assuming a place in white society, however, are also dashed. When he goes to Dorothy’s party, he feels alienated from the young (white) men dressed in “ironed slacks, wool sweaters, and blazers” (Parrot in the Oven, p. 177). He senses their eyes looking him over, and is conscious of his ethnic difference, his otherness. When he makes his faux pas during the dance, he senses his “dream collapsing” and, catching a mirror image of himself in a sliding glass door, says, “I saw the reflection of a ridiculous boy, a clumsy boy. It was me, looking at myself, except that it wasn’t me, but someone ghostly and strange” (Parrot in the Oven, pp. 179, 181). This moment of mirroring symbolizes his estrangement from the image of himself he has tried to project, a false image that belies the clumsy boy he really is. There is a flash of self-recognition in the moment that causes a psychological fragmentation—he does not recognize himself in the glass.
This moment prepares us for a related recognition, when he sees Eddie running down the street and finally recalls his identity. Eddie, he now realizes, is the boy who visited Magda the day the gun went off, the father of Magda’s dead baby. These moments of desiring to belong ultimately lead to the reverse. Manny finds that he does not belong to that aspect of white society symbolized by Dorothy’s party, nor to that aspect of Chicano society represented by the vatos firmes. He realizes that he harbors false ideals of belonging; only when Manny rejects these can he realize his true place of belonging with which the novel concludes.
Sources and literary context
Parrot in the Oven is based loosely on the author’s experience of growing up in Fresno. Like Manny, Martinez encountered poverty and discrimination and lived with the threat of violence from the gang culture that surrounded him. Academic expectations for Hispanics were in his life also low. When Martinez went to see a guidance counselor, she told him his good grades and high test scores meant he could be a welder. But like his protagonist, Martinez cultivated a love for language, one that eventually led to the writing of this novel.
The work itself is composed of a series of short chapters, each with a strong narrative thrust. One can easily imagine any one of these pieces standing self-contained in a short-story anthology. The stories exemplify Martinez’s mastery of the short narrative. On a small canvas, every word must count; the telling detail is paramount. The short story has a rich tradition among both Latinos in the United States and Latin Americans. Sandra Cisneros (1954-) is regarded as one of the contemporary masters of the form; like Martinez, her subject in, for example, The House on Mango Street, (also in Literature and Its Times) is the trial of growing up Mexican American. Another important influence is the work of Hispanic writer Gary Soto, who, like Martinez was born in Fresno. Soto has published novels, like Taking Sides and A Summer Life, that also explore the inner lives of young Chicanos.
Martinez’s plots, like the Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s (1860-1904), contain no extraneous details (see “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and “The Lady with the Dog,” also in Literature and Its Times). Chekhov had written that if a gun is seen on the mantelpiece in Act 1, it should go off in Act 3. This principle of inevitable causality is born out in Parrot in the Oven when the same gun Mr. Hernandez uses to frighten his wife unexpectedly fires a few chapters later, this time towards his daughter. Martinez’s character development is also highly economical, a result perhaps of the influence of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), particularly in regards to the oft-quoted iceberg theory, whereby the author reveals only a small fraction of what lies beneath the surface (see The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises, also in Literature and Its Times). Mr. Hernandez, who says little, is one of the most powerful characters in Martinez’s novel. Even more skillful is the portrayal of Mrs. Hernandez, whose sweeping and dusting capture her desire for order and control in a domestic world fraught by violence and emotional trauma.
Above all, Martinez’s fiction stands out most in its use of figurative language. His prose is studded with figurative devices: a car engine “wound and gathered like a powerful animal”; in season, cherries “glowed ripe and flashed like Christmas balls”; a mother’s voice is like “an accusing needle” (Parrot in the Oven, pp. 60, 77, 104). These figures of speech are not merely decorative. They point to the artistic consciousness of a narrator who sees the ordinary world through the eyes of a poet. Manny’s sensitivity to the hidden beauty of everyday things is a sign of his capacity for transcendence. It also makes him into a figure for the author himself, whose special gift is the ability to present a world hidden from most readers in a rich and literary language. Indeed, one of the extraordinary facets of this novel is the frequent contrast between the sordidness of Manny’s reality and the brilliance of the language used to describe it. Language literally transforms Manny’s World.
The Hispanic boom
Between 1980 and 1990, the Hispanic population in the United States rose from 14 to 22 million. During the same period California, which leads the nation in Hispanic inhabitants, saw their number rise from 4.5 million to 7.7 million (Hornor, p. 3). The 1990s experienced an even greater increase; the 2000 Census showed a jump in the U.S. Hispanic population to 32.8 million—66 percent were of Mexican descent (Therrien, p. 1). This means approximately one in eight persons in the United States is Hispanic. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the figure is closer to one in three persons, and in Fresno County nearly one in two. The faces of Hispanic politicians, entertainers, and athletes have become familiar; courses in Hispanic literature and culture are now commonplace at colleges and universities; presidential candidates woo Hispanic voters with speeches delivered in Spanish. In many ways, it seems, the activism of the 1960s and 1970s appeared to have yielded fruit.
The 1990s also witnessed a powerful political backlash against Hispanics, with stiffening of immigration laws and rollbacks of programs to accommodate the disadvantages suffered in history. Some of the resentment stemmed from the increasing number of immigrants arriving illegally: INS records reveal that apprehensions between 1980 and 1990 increased by two thirds nationally, with over one third of those occurring in the San Diego area, where most Mexicans cross over (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 225). The backlash is nowhere more evident than in California, a state with a long history of reactionary politics. In the 1990s, Californians passed the first of three ballot initiatives aimed directly at Hispanics. The first, called the “Save Our State Initiative” (Proposition 187), banned undocumented immigrants—who perform the majority of the state’s menial labor—from receiving public education and other public benefits, such as welfare and health care, except in the case of emergency. The initiative passed in 1994 with 59 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the anti-immigrant rhetoric led to still tighter enforcement of the border, though, it has often been noted, there were few penalties against employers who hired immigrants, a laxity supported by business leaders, especially in agriculture. In 1996, voters passed a related measure (Proposition 209) prohibiting the use of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for granting preferential treatment to any individual or group in State employment, public education, or public contracting. Affirmative action programs, long a means of access to higher education for Hispanics, were particularly affected, with Hispanic enrollments plummeting across the University of California system. Victor Martinez, who himself had been a beneficiary of such a program, expressed his dismay at Proposition 209: “Just that little bit of help with affirmative action did so much for me. It was a great program, you put in a dollar, you get a million back” (Ganahl, sec. A, p. 1). The policy would continue through the time of his novel’s publication. In 1998, Californians would vote on proposition 227, a measure severely restricting bilingual education in their public schools. Since the majority of bilingual students are Hispanic, the proposition was strongly opposed by Hispanic leaders. It nevertheless passed by 61 percent. These initiatives, and the demographic and political climate that brought them into law, illuminate the growing tensions faced by California’s Latinos in the 1990s—when Martinez wrote Parrot in the Oven.
To make matters worse, the Hispanic population continues to suffer high rates of unemployment and poverty and poor rates of educational achievement, problems that are a central preoccupation of Parrot in the Oven, and which also contribute to a pronounced schism among Mexican Americans, many of whom resent the increasing numbers of immigrants coming to the United States. A 1992 poll conducted by a prominent Latino political scientist found that while 74 percent of non-Hispanic whites “felt that there were too many immigrants in the country,” 75 percent of Mexicans with U.S. citizenship and 84 percent without it felt the same. Hispanics are more likely to live in poverty than non-Hispanic whites (22.7 percent Hispanics to 7.7 percent non-Hispanics) and twice as likely to be anicwhites (6.8 percent Hispanics to 3.4 percent non-Hispanics). Only 20 percent can afford health insurance, and more than two in five have not graduated from high school (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 236; Therrien, pp. 4-6). As noted, Mexican American students have lagged behind in SAT scores; in 1992 their average scores reached only 797, while non-Hispanic whites averaged 933 (Manuel Gonzalez, p. 234). To examine predominantly Hispanic towns in Fresno County is to confront poverty unimaginable to most Americans. According to the 1990 census, “California’s five towns with the lowest per-capita annual income were located in Fresno County: Orange Cove ($4,385), Parlier ($4,784), Men-dota ($4,920), San Joaquin ($5,356), and Huron ($5,501). Two other south Valley towns also qualified for the bottom ten” (Johnson, p. 143). As before, these towns occupy a county that continues to produce more agricultural wealth than any other in the nation.
The stubborn economic immobility of Hispanics presents a stark contrast to their increased media visibility, as does their larger disempowerment at the level of political representation. Though the Hispanic population grew rapidly from 1980 to 2000, Hispanics have not yet achieved political clout commensurate with that growth. Five years after the publication of Martinez’s novel, in 2001, Hispanics still held only 20 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and none in the Senate. In other words some 50 percent of all the nation’s Hispanics are represented by non-Hispanics.
Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida appears not to have been widely noticed in the mainstream press upon its initial publication, perhaps because it was classified as youth literature and perhaps because the Hispanic subject matter did not immediately appeal to reviewers and editors. It received brief notices in several publications devoted to adolescent literature, where it was highly praised. Once it won the National Book Award, however, Martinez himself became the subject of many articles in major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Examiner. These articles focused as much on the author’s own rise out of poverty and literary obscurity as they did on the novel’s merits. The Fresno Bee ran a series of articles on Martinez, focusing on his new celebrity as well as his contribution to the literature of the San Joaquin Valley. It also ran an editorial on him, noting wryly that “Fresno’s sometimes arid cultural soil has thrust another artist into the light” (“Victor Martinez’s Triumph,” sec. B, p. 6). Perhaps the best measure of the novel’s reception is the rich array of honors it garnered, including a Publishers Weekly “Best Book of 1996” distinction, the National Book Award, the Americas Award, the Pura Belpre Award, given by the American Library Association for a work of young adult or children’s literature that best portrays the Hispanic experience.
—Robert D. Aguirre
Ganahl, Jane. “Former Farmworker Writes Himself into a Field of Dreams.” The San Francisco Examiner, 10 November 1996, Sunday, 5th edition, sec. A, p. 1.
Gómez Quiñones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940-1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking, 2000.
Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Haslam, Gerald. The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994.
Hornor, Louise L, ed. Hispanic Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook. Palo Alto, Calif.: Information Publications, 1996.
Johnson, Stephen, Gerald Haslam, and Robert Dawson. The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Martinez, Victor. Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
Mclellan, Dennis. “Books And Authors; How Did Award Affect His Career As A Writer? It Gave Him One.” Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1997, Orange County edition, sec. E, p. 4.
National Center for Educational Statistics. “Table 134. Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) Score averages, by race/ethnicity: 1986-87 to 2000-01.” 2001. National Center for Educational Statistics.http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/digest2001/tables/dt134.asp (15 July 2002).
Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: Norton, 1992.
Skerry, Peter. Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Therrien, Melissa, and Roberto R. Ramirez. The Hispanic Population in the United States. 2000. http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hispanic/p20-535/p20-535.pdf (15 July 2002).
“Victor Martinez’s Triumph; The Writer’s Deep Valley Roots Produce a Well-deserved National Book Award.” The Fresno Bee, 9 November 1996, Home edition, sec. B, p. 6.