By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
The Genesis Of An Historical Novel
I imagine that almost everyone who has had a book published has been asked what the initial inspiration for the book had been. Not an easy question to answer, as many books subconsciously gestate for years before blooming forth into a palpable notion. Of the seven novels I have written, I can think of only two where I can recognize the always elusive muse. I relate one of them here in the hope that its Mexican-American element might be of interest to our readers.
In the early 1970s, driving back from San Francisco to Los Angeles and passing through the small agricultural town of Delano, California, I noticed a sign indicating that the United Farm Workers were planning a rally that evening. Thinking there might be an interesting story in it, I decided to attend the meeting.
The atmosphere in the hall that night was charged with high-wire tension. Workers were preparing to go out on strike, and one speaker after another inflamed the crowd of some 2000 people with vituperative, anti-grower speeches.
Finally, the man the workers had come to hear took the stage; a nationally-known labor leader, yet he seemed nothing like the bombastic braggarts sometimes associated with such a position.
“. . . Well, I have heard much hatred against the growers here tonight,” he said quietly. “But let us look at the situation through their eyes. Many had forefathers who came to this valley when it was no more than a pile of rocks—and through back-breaking work they turned it into the vegetable garden for the entire western part of the United States. Now we come along and threaten the dreams, aspirations and achievements of those early pioneers . . . but who among us would not be fighting to protect these same things, if those people had been our ancestors?”
In a hall packed to the rafters, you could have heard a frog burp. This was not the speech the workers had come to hear.
“I have also heard tonight about how great it is to be from Mexico. I too love Mexico. But like the United States, it is not perfect. How many of you have ever been arrested without a cent in your pocket back in our homeland? Many have simply disappeared without a trace. But here in this country, two of our brothers were once arrested, and powerful organizations came to their defense, eventually taking their cases all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, where these same two penniless Mexicans changed the law of this land. No, amigos, this is a great country, and if at times it disappoints us, we should look upon it as a good parent who does not always do the proper thing, but has its heart in the right place.”
Again, stiff silence. Then soft clapping began, finally turning into a standing ovation. Watching this near-miraculous turnaround, I was convinced that their leader would win in his struggle; for like Mahatma Gandhi, in refusing to demonize his opponents, he would inevitably disarm them. But still I had no story. Peerless people often make dull subjects.
Later, I asked if the leader didn’t have a single adversary amongst his people? “Perhaps only one. His oldest son,” a worker reluctantly muttered. Bingo! I had the makings of a story.
Years later, that incident evolved into my first book, The Dark Side of the Dream, an historical novel which over the past few years has been optioned several times by film companies in Hollywood and New York that planned to make it as a four-hour TV mini-series. But as yet, no cigar. So for now, I’ll say no more, remembering the old joke: You know how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.
Yet regardless of what eventually happens, I will always be grateful for that evening of so long ago that I spent in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, the night a seed was planted which eventually grew up into a full-grown historical novel.
Footnote: The overwhelming majority of field workers in the agricultural business in the United States are Hispanic. Why? Because of low pay, sporadic work, few benefits and seasonal relocation. These are the people who help make America the best-fed country in the entire history of the world.
Column: Editor’s Page
Wrote/directed first movie about Mexican-Americans, Only Once in a Lifetime-- Recently purchased with another film of his, No Return Address, by Turner Classic Movies. Lifetime premiered at the Kennedy Center in Wash., D.C. —1979. Awarded Governor’s (California) Commendation—1980. Special Award of Appreciation from the National Association of Mexican-American Educators—1981. Wrote 23 film scripts, nine of which were either sold or optioned, some repeatedly.
Established Ajijic Writers Group in 1988. Wrote seven novels, three of which were at one time in 1400 libraries in the U.S., Canada, England and Ireland. Best Screenplay Award—Mexican International Film Festival—1999. Award of Appreciation from Ninos Incapacitados—2007. Biography appeared in Who’s Who in Mexico—2007. Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 —Lakeside Community Awards Committee. Winner of IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in 2014 for historical novel The Dark Side of the Dream. Editor-in-Chief of El Ojo del Lago for past 21 years.
Grattan’s seven novels, as well as his collection of articles, short stories and film/ literary/political commentaries are all in the Local Author’s Section of the LCS Library.