PLATTSBURGH – Dr. Jose L. Torres is on his way out of Champlain Valley Hall, Sept. 2, after 21 years as a professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.
He's busy doing readings and interviews in support of his second collection of short stories, “Migrations,” the winner of the inaugural Tomás Rivera Book Prize published by LARB Books, the publishing arm of Los Angeles Review of Books.
The Tomás Rivera Book Prize is "a unique partnership between the Los Angeles Review of Books and the University of California, Riverside, committed to the discovery and fostering of extraordinary writing by an author whose work examines the long and varied contributions of Chicanx/Latinx in the United States."
The 11 thematically and metamorphically linked stories blow up the hidden corners of Puerto Rican life here and in the tropical paradise as seen through the lens of Torres, Puerto Rico born and South Bronx reared.
They are harsh stories. Uncomfortable. Not pretty.
Torres workshopped many of them in a monthly writing group, comprised of dedicated locals and two of his English Department, colleagues, Aimee Baker and Elizabeth Cohen.
“That group really helped so much,” he said.
“Aimee and Elizabeth were really super great. Both of them read the whole thing and gave me some really fantastic feedback.”
The book's epigraph, “Migration is the story of my body,” is from Victor Hernández Cruz's “Red Beans.”
HYPERREALITY TO CARLISLE
“InWorld,” the first story Torres wrote, is about an Air Force veteran and postal worker and his struggles after his wife dies from pancreatic cancer.
“I had this idea for a collection that kind of dealt with sort of virtual reality,” Torres said.
“I'm very fascinated by these platforms that are starting to deal with virtual reality and how people get sucked into them.”
Torres' initial catalyst for the collection was French sociologist/postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, who coined “hyperreality” in his 1981 philosophical treatise, “Simulacra and Simulation.”
“This hyperreality becomes even more real than real,” Torres said.
“I've always been fascinated by that.”
Friend/colleague Dr. Lisa Sanchez Gonzales of the University of Connecticut suggested Torres check out an article about how Puerto Rican adolescents were sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“I heard about the Carlisle Indian School, but I never thought Puerto Ricans were there,” he said.
“So I read the article, and it just blew me away. I had several questions like 'What the heck? How did that happen?'
“Obviously, it's not surprising that some Puerto Ricans would look Indian. We do have some background in DNA. What would it have been like for these poor kids going through 3,000 or so to be sent to this school with other Native Americans in this horrendous agenda that they had to kill the Indian to save the man?”
Torres did more research because he wanted to write this story, and he did so in this collection's “Go Make Some Fire.”
“Why did I not know about this?” he said.
“I'm a scholar."
Torres set aside hyperreality for the Puerto Rican Diaspora's submerged realities, which seemed more urgent.
“Then, I started trying to figure out stories that dealt with this, and the end result is these stories," he said.
Torres hopes to illuminate Puerto Rico, its history, its people, its culture, its natural world, its resilience and its destruction.
“In many ways, the stories were just painful to write about, especially, 'The Operation,” when I started to find out more information about sterilization of these women,” he said.
“It continues in different ways. Look how many Native women are killed and never found or disappear. There's a lot to be done.”
Torres wanted to expose mainstream readers to some idea of Puerto Ricans here.
“I was amazed that America could be our colonizer for 120-something years, and people don't even know that Puerto Rico is part of it,” he said.
“They don't know we're citizens. They don't know anything, and even Puerto Ricans themselves don't know some of this history.”
In “Migrations,” Torres spins tales, stunning and visceral, of a vulnerable people on a landscape vulnerable to fickle nature and man.
“These are not happy stories,” he said.
“Our history is really very tragic. Our history as Puerto Ricans, we are still a colonized people in the 21st century. I don't know how many times we can be used for guinea pigs.”
The first prototype nuclear reactor, Boiling Nuclear Superheater (BONUS) was built in 1960 northwest of Rincón.
“If there had been a disaster, it would have happened in Puerto Rico,” he said.
“On the other side of the island, we're bombing Vieques and using it for target practice. Vieques is larger than Manhattan.”
The birth control pill was also tested on Puerto Rican women, according to the article "Guinea pigs or pioneers? How Puerto Rican women were used to test the birth control pill," published on May 9, 2017, in the Washington Post.
“I'm sure a lot of the COVID vaccines were also,” Torres suggested.
“Any poverty area in the United States, there's going to be a lot of testing on those people, basically poor people, who need the money.”
When Torres's collection made the rounds, three agents were on the "I-don't-know" fence.
In a couple of competitions, “Migrations” was a runner-up and short listed.
“Then when it came to this particular prize, the fee was $35 bucks,” he said.
“I was really not about to do it. That's kind of steep. I'm going to get another rejection. This is the Tomás Prize. I'm thinking maybe they're going to lean more toward a Mexican-American writer. I said, 'Oh, screw it.'”
The rest is history.
The final judge was Luis Alberto Urrea, Mexican-American novelist, poet, and essayist.
“Tomás Rivera was truly a giant in Latinx literature and also as an educator,” Torres said.
“He was Chicano. He grew up as a migrant child worker. Can you imagine getting a doctorate eventually when you started out as a migrant child going from school to school in these areas?” .
Eventually, Rivera became the 3rd chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, which co-sponsors this prize in his name.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Rivera's seminal collection of stories, “…y no se lo tragó la tierra” (…and the Earth Did Not Devour Him), which won the Premio Quinto Sol prize for literature in 1970.
“It is one of the classics of Chicano literature,” Torres said.
“So, he was a famous guy. I really am honored to have won this prize because it's named after a person that I have always admired.”
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