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Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir Paperback – July 3, 2012
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TEXAS MONTHLY BOOK REVIEW
Straight Outta Brownsville
Domingo Martinez was born in Texas, but he left as soon as he could.
His very funny memoir explains why.
by David Dorado Romo
Photograph by Adam Voorhes
What do you do if you were born and raised in a neglected rural barrio just north of the Mexican border? If you’re Domingo Martinez, the answer is obvious: after you graduate from high school, you leave Texas and settle down in a city as close to the Canadian border as possible. Seattle, for instance. Onceyou’re there, you find a therapist named Sally and tell her about your experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family and a screwed-up state.
The stories Martinez told Sally, which are included in his first book, The Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press, $16.95), are so funny and poignant that his therapy should have been offered free of charge.
Better yet, Sally should have paid him for the pleasure of listening.
If there’s any justice in the publishing world, there will turn out to be plenty of people eager to read about her client’s childhood.
Though Martinez’s memoir is largely about growing up outside Brownsville with an abusive father and an uninvolved mother, it deals with much more than the usual stuff that sends people to shrinks.
There’s advice on everything from how to cook tamales to the best way to transport marijuana from Brownsville to Houston. The book also offers plenty of material for readers interested in broader issues such as immigration, border violence, and other topical matters fronterizo writers have to deal with if they want to get published.
But Martinez’s sharp wit, deployed even during the most painful moments, distinguishes The Boy Kings of Texasfrom much of the writing on these subjects.
At the heart of the book is Martinez’s complicated relationship with his father. According to his son, Domingo Martinez Sr. was a boorish truck driver prone to drunken fits of rage whom Domingo Jr., or June, as he was known, describes as “a tyrannical toddler.” Domingo Sr., Martinez writes, liked to brag to his sons about his marital infidelities and whipped his boys regularly with little or no pretext.
June was repulsed by the weaknesses and insecurities hidden beneath his father’s veneer of machismo. He couldn’t wait to get away. “In all of his life, all of his choices,” Martinez writes about his father, “I was using him as a reverse compass.” (In the book’s afterword, Martinez notes that his father has since gotten sober, and he expresses some degree of sympathy for the man.)
Ironically, the toughest member of the Martinez “patriarchy” is Martinez’s grandmother. Her heroic feats before crossing into the U.S.
as a young woman included killing two ocelots with a tree branch and fending off a would-be rapist with a well-placed log to the head. As a boy, Martinez wasn’t sure whether to believe these stories until he personally witnessed Gramma pound to death not one but two rattlesnakes with a shovel. Now in her late eighties, Gramma might just owe her longevity to having avoided doctors like the plague throughout her life and turning instead to traditional herbs, prayers to the Virgin and Pancho Villa, and the occasional squirt of WD-40 to relieve her arthritis.
Martinez’s sisters are in their own way just as resourceful as Gramma.
In one chapter he describes how, in the eighties, his older sisters dropped the excessive, foreign-sounding syllables from their names and reinvented themselves as upper-class WASPs. Margarita became Marge; Maria became Mare. They dyed their hair blond; refused to wear anything without Esprit, Sergio Valente, or Gloria Vanderbilt labels; pretended not to speak a word of Spanish; and began addressing each other simply as “Mimi.” “The Mimis had made their decision to be two blue-blooded, trust-funded tennis bunnies from Connecticut, accidentally living in Brownsville, Texas, with us: a poor Mexican family they had somehow befriended while undergoing some Dickensian series of misfortunes,” Martinez writes. The sisters’ Mimi fantasy was a way to cope with the messages of inferiority they encountered in the “sinister world of teenage fashionistas, which, in Brownsville, was always tinged with border-town racism.”
Martinez sees the pain that lies beneath such masquerades, but he also appreciates their double-edged nature. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery—it can also be a form of mockery, albeit in this case an unconscious one. Cultural assimilation, in a sense, is an elaborate, lifelong bit of performance art. Even as a kid, Martinez felt the attendant ambiguities that come from being one of the eternally “in-between” people who belong to two different places and don’t entirely fit in either one. “They felt I was not one of them, the Mexican kids, nor was I one of the others, the white kids, and so I adapted,” he writes. “But I didn’t think anyone was capable of understanding, so instead I parceled it out, compartmentalized.”
And though he was compelled to escape South Texas’s stifling heat, entrenched classism, and big hair, he insists that “I can make fun of Texas, but if you’re not from Texas, then you may not. Sure, ours was an abusive relationship, but it was an abuse that grew out of odd circumstances.”
Martinez’s eye for the absurdity of those circumstances helps him avoid the clichés and oversimplifications pervasive in the mainstream media’s take on the border. Though his sense of humor does get him in trouble sometimes. At a house party in Kingsville one night, a frat boy notices that Martinez is attracting female attention with his quick-witted repartee and grumbles, “Give a Mexican some tequila and he gets funny.” This was an extremely insulting thing to say—Martinez is hilarious even when he’s sober—and leads to one of the book’s many brawls.
Martinez’s ability to draw humor out of hardship runs in the family.
One year, when the Martinez clan traveled to California to work in the grape harvest, the dashing Mimis transformed themselves into Valley girls. They were the “hippest, cutest, best-dressed migrant workers of that year, and very likely for many years to come,” Martinez explains.
“The Mimis had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting both people and places, in such a way that you could be looking at the same dreary landscape as them, the same terrible and hopeless event, and while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, and enthusiastically hopeful. And then, if you got near them, or were blessed enough to maybe talk to them, you would walk away feeling the same way they felt, too.”
The same kind of magic shows up everywhere in The Boy Kings of Texas.
The ironic thing is that as a young man Martinez was sure there was no art, no culture, and nothing to do in Brownsville. Yet his book offers evidence that the richest raw material for writers often comes from those parts of the world where there is absolutely nothing to do. Go figure.
From the Back Cover
insightfully illuminates a little-understood corner of America.
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Top Customer Reviews
I highly recommend this book for anyone. Some of his experiences are potent, but he is so good at providing relevant events from his childhood, that you come to understand, and even predict, the actions he will take next, even if they wouldn't be your own. I found myself cheering him on but understanding why he would sometimes falter.
Mr. Martinez is introspective, even at an early age, which puts the reader in his head during some pretty substantial events. He allows you to understand his experiences and the conflict between knowing what is best and his own impulses. Also, he's pretty funny. He unexpectedly made me laugh out loud like three or four times.
I read this thing in less than two days. I usually enjoy reading Mexican-American literature, but I find that the themes usually center around the differences/problems between Mexican-Americans and whites or the rest of the US.Read more ›
I read this book in about 4 days and would have finished but I had to put the book down for a couple of days because it hit too close to home.
Having grown up in the "Valley," I seriously feel for Domingo's plight of wanting to get out and do more. The heat is overwhelming and the view of life is simply, repressing!
Domingo's accurate depicition of the macho attitude of virtually all males in a typical Mexican-American family hit me right in the gut at how accurate they become. The men actually come out of the page and become attached to your psyche.
The "tough Gramma" figure is ever present in any Mexican-American family and can seriously infect your subconcious and you happy you are in the present and not in the presence of Gramma and her repressive, guilt-laden conversations.
The depiction of the family dynamic is so spot-on, I needed to remember the spell from Harry Potter where you can point the wand at your brain and the memories follow and drop into a container, never to be relived unless you want them to.
This book is an excellent memoir full of truth and confusion from a boy that just needed to get out!
I would highly recommend this for anyone who has ever felt a repressed childhood or teenagehood. These feelings are true and real.
Domingo Martinez writes from the heart and from the mind of these "Valley" kids who do not know that there is something better past the Sarita checkpoint!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Domingo Martinez is a fun writer to read. Some serious heart wrenching situations told with a sense of looking back humor. Read morePublished 25 days ago by gosagego
This is an absolutely delightful book. I could not put it down. I love the way the writer uses the language. It seems that he is talking to you. His family became my friends. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Anna Plotkin
A memoir to get into. If you like stories about Texas, especially, you will like this one.Published 2 months ago by jack swanzy
In this book when you are reading it jumps a lot and you need to be reading it carefully.i only read it because it was assigned for me to read itPublished 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
I was excited to read this book after hearing a portion read on NPR. I can tolerate some foul language but this w
as too much. Read more
Great read! Heard the Mimi story on this American life and had to check out the book. It did not disappointPublished 2 months ago by Amy T. Kenney
I;m listening to it a second time because it was not possible to take it all in the first time through. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
Wonderful memoir of growing up in south Texas. Seems to tell the truth--the good and bad parts of it.Published 3 months ago by Martha Failing