I had the pleasure a few years back to hear author Fernando Romero read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, The Colors of Eden.
In "The Sacred Chocho," he describes an apartment house laundry day gone mad. The author’s Uncle Raymundo snatches a pair of his wife’s underwear from a clothesline, takes a histrionic sniff, and sings the praises of the vagina – the chocho -- that “instrument of love [and] oven of creation…” as the 10-year-old Fernando looks on in wonder and terror. Then humor gives way to pathos, as the owner of those cottony calzoncitos, the horrific Aunt Dolores, berates Raymundo for embarrassing her, then turns her ravenous anger on Fernando. Abandoned to indentured servitude at the mercy of Aunt Dolores by troubled and self-absorbed parents, Fernando (known throughout the book as “Tuco”) becomes a scapegoat for his aunt’s rage against her life. I recall admiring the clarity and strength of the writing, and offering a silent prayer that he could sustain that tone in order to tell the complicated story of his childhood odyssey. The final product is everything I'd hoped to see.
Shortly after this chapter, like Huckleberry Finn, Tuco lights out for the Territory, escaping his aunt’s vicious attacks, hoping with a child’s wisdom to traverse the 1,700 miles from Mexico City to Tijuana, where his parents live separately. The book is an episodic tale of epiphanies and horrors, precisely recalled vignettes describing the boy’s psychic journey from abandonment to self-discovery. The author draws memorable portraits in short brush strokes. Some are incidental, such as Chema, the neighborhood trolley driver whose love of fresh bread drives him to interrupt his assigned route to purchase the wares of a panadero, or bread vendor, with no complaint from his passengers. Others are more influential in Tuco’s progress, such as the sympathetic waitress who steers him to one of her suitors for a job washing cars in a parking garage, and Rico and Guero, street kids in Matamoros who teach Tuco to survive by hawking newspapers. Throughout the story runs the wisdom of a neighborhood tool sharpener named Ponciano, whose philosophical nuggets bubble to the surface of Tuco’s mind at his darkest hours, helping to illuminate his “colors,” the qualities that worthy people nurture in order to express individuality and grace.
Tuco ends up jail twice, the first experience surprisingly warm, the second chillingly gruesome. He is repeatedly rescued and abandoned by his own family, sometimes leading to happy interludes and sometimes back to streets. As the book draws to a close, he is back on the streets of Tijuana, where he learns to play the drums and becomes a working musician in strip clubs and confronts new painful personal challenges with help from Denise Seffens, the woman he meets and marries.
Throughout this journey between hell and heaven, Tuco endures, growing stronger and more resourceful, and ultimately this story becomes one of resilience, of a person who can suffer abuse and still rise to face the day. It can be said that the basic question of resilient people is this: “What do I need to do to get out of this mess?” And not, “Why me?” Or, “How can life be so evil and unfair!“ I am not suggesting this is easy, nor even common. It would be no surprise for a person subjected to the array of violence, abuse and abandonment described in this book to become a bitter adult, even a violent and abusive one. Nor would it be a surprise to find such a person growing up to die slowly in some urban skid row, nursing a constant numbing buzz. But such would not be the fate of our Tuco.
The story of this book, I hereby declare, is not over. The writing is too good, too deeply observed and completely lacking in sentimentality, for copies of The Colors of Eden to languish in a few cardboard boxes in the author’s study. Its message of survival, of a boy who clings tightly to his humanity through an odyssey of pain and abandonment only to find his way to the light, deserves to be read widely. And, dare I say, perhaps a second volume to describe the music scene in TJ in the '60's, the journey to America, life as a jazz musician and later a journalist.
So here’s what we’re going to do: We – yes, you and I, dear reader – will see to that. We will buy copies, recommend it to our friends, use it as a gift for people we know love a good yarn, nominate it for reading clubs, write more Amazon reviews, mail copies to more professors of humanities, Mexican-American studies, and journalism. We’ll raise hell about this book until a decent agent pulls his head out of his other obligations and realizes he’s looking at a book here, a real book, and one that should be repackaged and sold as the Mexican incarnation of Huckleberry Finn!