You Must Fight Them: A Novella and Stories
University of New Mexico Press, 191 pages
For sticking to his realist guns and setting much of his novella of young love, interrupted, in a Mervyn’s department store, Maceo Montoya deserves some serious props. A native of California’s Central Valley, the Chicano author must know that the now-defunct Mervyn’s once catered to an emerging Latino middle class by opening stores near Hispanic neighborhoods and running Spanish-language ad campaigns.
It is Mervyn’s where the novella’s unnamed narrator first heads after returning home to Woodland, California, after four alienating years at an East Coast Ivy League college. Awkward in his own white skin and culturally conflicted over his half-Mexican ancestry, the narrator has never quite found a culture or a city to call home. He hopes a history doctorate at UC Davis will change that.
In the department store, he barely makes it past the shoe counter before running into his unrequited high-school flame. Despite her pantsuit and assistant manager name tag, Lupita Valdez is just the girl he remembered — thick lashes, almond-shaped eyes, and golden brown skin set off by jangly bracelets and hoop earrings. The big reveal? Despite spending junior and senior year as the girlfriend of the high school’s reigning vato athlete, Lupita has a thing for bookish guys. She nursed a secret, painful crush on the unnamed narrator for years.
The couple’s plan to remeet cute and carry on gets driven underground by a blood oath sworn by Lupita’s three seriously thuggedout brothers. Under their pact, Lupita, well into her twenties, can only date a man who has survived fighting all of them at once. The oath has its origins in a gossipy slut-shaming of Lupita in middle school, and has long since passed from protecting family honor to pathologizing sibling relations. Only men with a near-death wish would contemplate it. In the shadows, Lupita has had to carry out a romantic life that oscillates between celibacy and secrecy.
Choosing to weather the risks, Lupita and her PhD-seeking suitor pursue a secretive coupledom, conducting their affair at Mervyn’s corporate training weekends in San Francisco. Their few public dates take place in the most yuppified neighborhoods of Davis and Walnut Creek, the better to avoid encountering anyone from Lupita’s circle of workingclass family and friends.
As Mervyn’s heads for bankruptcy, the couple falls apart as well. But the story is far from over. Years pass; the narrator dates other women, and Lupita passes the time with a neighborhood hulk pre-approved by her brothers. But the ex-couple’s love has never gone away, even if they have agreed never to see each other again. What comes next doesn’t fit into either a tragic denouement or a happy ending, but the lovers get what they deserve, at last running headlong into what they have been avoiding.
Montoya writes with a marvelous economy of prose, parsing comedy and pathos only paragraphs apart. With slightly different marketing, this could have been a killer young-adult novel, even if the protagonists are closer to thirty than freshman year in high school. It’s not as epic or as laugh-out-loud funny as his last novel, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza (UNM Press, 2014), which followed a ne’er-do-well Mexican immigrant as a deportation for a fourth DUI forces him back to a rural Mexico he barely knows. But in its realism about the devastating strength of family ties and the tenuousness of romantic passion, You Must Fight Them isa wise and entertaining tale. — Casey Sanchez