A very young Jaime Cortez (right) with his sister Erma in the fields at harvest time near San Juan Bautista, 1968.
City Life

Watsonville writer Jaime Cortez brings the focus to the fields in his semi-autobiographical new book, ‘Gordo’

“Gordo” zeroes in on the conditions migrant farmworkers faced in the 1970s from the point of view of a chubby kid with a taste for Mexican wrestling masks, uncertain of his own sexuality and what is expected of him from the demands of manhood. Cortez will discuss the book Thursday in a virtual conversation with Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Now in his mid-50s, writer Jaime Cortez has lived in many different places — Boston, Philadelphia, Japan. He spent more than a decade each in San Francisco and Oakland.

But today he lives just outside of Watsonville. Consider it a homecoming.

Wallace

Cortez will be on hand Thursday in a virtual event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz. The subject of the event is his new book of short stories, titled “Gordo,” a semi-autobiographical journey through life growing up in the farmworker camps of Monterey Bay.

Cortez’s 1970s-era childhood is neatly bisected into two locales — his earliest years with his family, living in a farmworker community near San Juan Bautista in neighboring San Benito County; and his pre-adolescent and teenage years in Watsonville, where his father worked on a chicken farm and his mother labored at the since-closed Green Giant processing plant.

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“Gordo” draws from both settings to tell stories that otherwise touch on many of the universal themes of growing up — identity, belonging, family, sexuality.

“I’m not calling it a memoir,” said Cortez, who has published fiction, essays and drawings in a variety of venues, “but in many ways, that’s what it is. There are enough elements in there that I invented that I wouldn’t call it a memoir or autobiography. There’s some invention, but a lot of it is true experiences.”

Though his new book is a collection of discrete short stories, the title character serves as a kind of guiding presence throughout. Gordo — from the Spanish for “fat” — is a chubby kid with a taste for Mexican wrestling masks, uncertain of his own sexuality and what is expected of him from the demands of manhood. He struggles to fit in with his peer group and his family.

Jaime Cortez's new book of short stories, "Gordo."

Cortez calls Gordo his “avatar” and says that he is “bright and inquisitive and observant, but also naive and doesn’t really understand why other kids act like they do and why his parents act the way they do.” Gordo is also “beginning to have stirrings of a kind of gay identity. But he doesn’t have a name for it yet. And there’s no role models and really no language around it except, you know, the insult of being called queer.”

The stories in “Gordo” are laden with a sense of place, from the migrant farm camps that supported entire communities of workers to the more industrialized experience of working factory jobs in Watsonville. But the book also works as a portrait of a specific time. Conditions and circumstances have changed in the farm camps over the decades, and “Gordo” zeroes in on what it was like 40 years ago.

One difference, said Cortez, was “where you would see children going to work in agricultural settings, which in the ’70s it was not at all uncommon that you would see children in the fields, especially at harvest time. It would be a very multigenerational kind of workplace and you would see grandparents, parents, and grandchildren at work together at harvest. So, in some ways, (the book) is a kind of historical accounting of how things used to be when at harvest, it was all hands on deck.”

Cortez’s young life shifted dramatically when his family moved from San Juan Bautista to Watsonville when he was in the third grade and his parents went from the fields to the factories. “My father moved on from the chicken farms and he worked in the flower nurseries back when Watsonville had a big, extended cut-flower industry,” Cortez said. “And then he worked for many years for Martinelli’s apple-cider company in Watsonville. And that was a very different kind of agricultural life than being under the sun doing that stoop labor.”

“I’m not calling it a memoir,” Cortez says of his new collection of short stories, “but in many ways, that’s what it is."
(Mark Smotroff)

Young Jaime attended Linscott and Hall elementary schools before going on to Watsonville High. “I was excited that we had a house with an indoor toilet,” Cortez said of memories of first moving to Watsonville. “In the migrant farmworker camps, we have latrines and outhouses, and by that time I had been going to elementary school seeing that other people had indoor plumbing. I wanted indoor plumbing, too.”

Cortez said part of the reason he wrote “Gordo” was to give a kind of literary voice to a community often overlooked and underrepresented: “For those of us who live in the agricultural areas of California, the farmworkers are, on the one hand, hyper-visible. We drive by and see them at work every day. But at the same time, they’re kind of invisible because the understanding of what those lives are, and what that labor is like, is much more limited. So that felt like an interesting place to intervene as a writer and talk a little bit about, at least historically, what I remember of that setting and of that working life.”

Jaime Cortez will be on hand for a virtual book-reading and Q&A session sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz on Thursday. The event is free, but registration is required, and begins at 6 p.m.