By Cathy Kelly
WATSONVILLE– Local author Jaime Cortez has always had nicknames, and now one of them has become his first book. “Gordo,” a collection of paperback stories, quickly garnered praise after its release by a national publisher in August.
And while “Gordo” is Cortez’s first widely released work, the 56-year-old has an important history of illustration and writing to illuminate causes such as sexuality, social justice, and Chicano identity.
The semi-autobiographical stories of “Gordo” come from Cortez’s youth in a migrant worker camp in San Juan Bautista, then in Watsonville. They’re humorous, humble, and heartbreaking, and they’ve received rave reviews from NPR, The New York Times and others.
Booksellers say it’s “flying off the shelves,” most notably at Kelly’s Books in Watsonville and the Santa Cruz Bookstore. Cortez says the book has already made its way onto several college reading lists, and that Grove Atlantic Press quickly ordered a second print of the shiny yellowish-gold paperback.
Cortez, who works for the Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, said receiving the book surprised and thrilled him. It also sent him traveling to over 30 new book events in three months. The most recent was at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and the next is an online Santa Cruz Bookstore event at 6 p.m. on December 9.
“I am very happy with the positive response to the book,” he said in a recent interview with Watsonville. “It’s just a lot to follow. I feel very blessed and very tired.
Cortez was calm, gentle, and humble during the interview, though clearly pressed for his busy schedule. An experienced and accomplished artist, he gently brings readers into the inner circle of his family and neighbors. Survivors, we want to call them. Strong.
And like Gordo, their nicknames weren’t nice or subtle. A teenage artist was called “Fat Cookie” and a man who became a legendary barber locally was called “Raymundo the Fag”.
The tragicomedy is breathtaking, from the transgender neighbor next door, Alex, who abuses his cute young girlfriend from El Salvador to Fat Cookie, whose anger propels his art and his teenage escape from the camp, with the mother of 22 year old “Scary” boyfriend at the wheel of a Camaro.
In one of the first stories, set at camp, Gordo and Fat Cookie argue about life. He’s about 10 years old and she points out his five-year advantage, along with his tall stature and legitimate immigrant status. Fat Cookie says she will soon be able to drive and “get out of here.”
Gordo often seems to hang out with older people and doesn’t understand the hard truths that come out of their mouths. When Fat Cookie rages over obscenities about his mother, Gordo protests, saying his mother gave him life, “the greatest gift in the solar system.” Fat Cookie laughs, before telling him he’s “the only idiot I know who talks about the solar system.”
Cortez received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA from UC Berkeley, where he also received the Eisner Award for Highest Achievement in the Humanities.
Cortez was in his thirties when he wrote a few “Gordo” stories, he said, only wanting to share his childhood experiences in one way or another.
“They mattered to me, regardless of the audience,” he said.
That childhood included a tough, tequila-loving father who was a nicknamed pro. The elder Cortez, in one scene, referred to a thick-necked, playful-mannered field supervisor as “Head and Shoulders.” As young Gordo watched, his father’s nickname was greeted with howls of laughter from others in the camp.
But Cortez said his father got and stayed sober, right after his son left for college and then worked for years at Martinelli.
And answering the common question, he said the stories with Gordo as the protagonist are about 80% real life. On the flip side, Cortez said the Raymundo the Fag story is a composite. It’s a tale of the Perfect Circle, in which Raymundo ends up indulgently styling the hair of Mauricio “Shy Boy” Pardo, who had taken First Communion with him, teased him at school with others in ” the crowd agitated ”and then was fatally shot in the head.
Gordo’s many touching passages and characters create stories that fall across several literary categories, as the chubby young gay boy discovers all that it takes to grow up. He seems closely linked to his family and community, in a community outside of the mainstream while being a child outside of this marginalized community.
But, these days, Cortez is pondering a second offer from a publisher and features a few openings from TV and movie producers.
It is suspected that it was not an easy trip, and readers are warned of the emotional weight early in the book, with a dedication to his parents. (Her mom is kind, strong, and stable in the book). Cortez writes: “I dedicate this book to Felicitas and Felipe Cortez. You loved me, you told stories and you gave me an extended master’s course in gallows humor. I’m not asking for anything more.