Alex Espinoza is the author of Still Water Saints (Random House, 2007), a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, and The Five Acts of Diego León (Random House, 2013). He was born in Tijuana, Mexico, to parents from the state of Michoacán and raised in suburban Los Angeles. He holds an MFA from UC-Irvine’s Program in Writing and is currently an associate professor of English at CSU-Fresno where he is at work on a new novel.
Alex’s fiction has appeared in several anthologies and journals, including Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire, Latinos in Lotusland, Huizache, Silent Voices, and The Southern California Review. His essays have been published at Salon.com, in the New York Times Magazine, and in The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity. He has also reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times, the American Book Review and for NPR’s All Things Considered.
My roots are working class through and through. My father immigrated to the United States years before I was born and labored in the factories of Chicago with my uncles while my mother raised our family back in Mexico. Later, when we all settled in southern California, he took a job at a carpet mill. My brothers have been welders, machinists, and mechanics. My sisters have worked in fast food restaurants, have folded sheets for medical linen companies, and have scrubbed toilets for office buildings in downtown Los Angeles. In high school and afterwards, I was a retail sales clerk; I sold everything from used appliances to fresh eggs to spiked chokers and body jewelry.
I wrote my first novel late at night, after my shifts at the mall, after folding t-shirts and counting out drawers. Once I earned my MFA, I was an adjunct instructor, teaching comp and grading stacks of essays, carving out hours in between to revise my novel.
Now, I teach at a school where many of my students are working class. They are the children of the migrant farm laborers who pick and harvest in the fields throughout the Central Valley of California. In between my teaching and university commitments, which are many, I wrote my second novel. It’s been a tough gig, I won’t lie. And this is why the NEA fellowship is so special. It means I can set aside time to work on the thing I love the most: writing. It means that I can take the time to let my thoughts unfold and blossom on the page. Nothing else has ever provided me such a luxury. I am forever grateful and humbled.
Excerpt from The Five Acts of Diego León
There was nothing else to do but lie there, drenched in sweat, his head throbbing from pain, his body aching at the slightest move or twinge. When Elva tried lifting his arms up to towel his back, he cried out. When she placed cloths soaked in alcohol and marijuana on his stomach, he writhed. She stayed with him. Day and night. Elva never left Diego’s side. He watched her shadowed face. The wrinkles and folds etched into her skin appeared as if they’d been carved from stone.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. “Diego? Can you hear me?”
He nodded, tried speaking, tried looking up at her, but everything spun. The ground rocked and quivered. He watched the shadows grow and move across the walls. They took the shapes of jaguars, snakes, eagles in flight.
“Look,” he said to Elva, pointing. “A toad. There. On the wall.”
“And a monkey,” said the old woman, smiling. “Swinging from a branch. Look at his long ch’éti.”
“Tail,” said Elva. “Ch’éti is tail in P’urhépecha. The language of your ancestors.”
Because they were P’urhépecha, it was in their blood to tell and to recall, Elva told him, to see and to imagine things beyond, past that and into eternity. In between sleep and waking, she told him stories full of magic, of battles, of spirits that robbed peoples’ souls, of animals that could speak. There were brave warriors and wise priests with the ability to see into the future, to look to the stars and predict tremors and eclipses and droughts. There were noble kings who ruled the lands from large temples, their stone steps leading up to the heavens where the gods lived. There were marketplaces under vast blue skies, and everywhere there was peace and no one ever went hungry. Everyone had what they needed. She told of Curicaueri, the god of fire, how he and his brother gods settled along the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, how the P’urhépecha were the descendants of these spirits who taught them how to shape clay, how to weave, how to carve wood, and when to plant and harvest. These, she said, were his people, his kin.
And he saw them come to life. In his fevered dreams, his ancestors were men with scaled skin, eyes yellow as corn, wearing robes adorned with bright feathers and shells, with jewelry made of iron and brass and gold on their necks and arms and fingers. They were beautiful and, as Elva spoke, he watched them form a circle around his bed and dance and chant, and they called him “son” and “brother” and blessed Diego and swore to protect him.
“Here,” Diego said, pointing. “They’re here. I can see them. Standing near you, Elva.”
“Yes,” she said, soothing him, her hand pressed on his forehead. “The spirits are here. They want you to see them. They want you to know they will be with you. Always.”
She talked on well into the night, as his fever climbed higher and higher, his skin grew hotter, his eyes peering into that world of the spirits, of the ghosts of his past. Elva held a candle up to her face. She told of the fierce P’urhépecha warriors who were so strong they fought back and beat the Aztecs, the most hated of all the tribes in the years before the Europeans arrived. She told of Cortez and the Spaniards, who came on ships, destroying everything, laying waste to the great cities. She told of Eréndira, the young princess and daughter to the last ruler of the P’urhépecha, who trained an army of men to ride horses and fight against the invaders.
“This is what you’re made of,” Elva said just as he felt the fever consume him. He saw flames surrounding his bed, and the sprits stood watch, whispering, pointing at Diego, beckoning him to come, to join them in the darkness.
“Your blood is the blood of the gods,” he heard Elva’s voice say as he drifted away, further and further.
He was many things, she said. So many wonderful things. Then her voice faded away, and he heard only the roar of the unseen fires.
(From The Five Acts of Diego León by Alex Espinoza, copyright (c) 2013 by Alex Espinoza. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group).