"The Devil in Texas/El diablo en Texas," by Aristeo Brito, translated by David William Foster, 212 pages, Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, Tempe, Ariz., $12.
ARISTEO Brito's novel-memoir "The Devil in Texas" emerges from the incantatory folk history of the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo border, the history people feel in the bone, and the blood, and the heart.
Brito grew up in Presidio, the small (pop. 1,603 last count) isolated West Texas town that is the real protagonist of his novel. It is across the river from Ojinaga, a slightly larger town in Chihuahua, Mexico. Both are hot, dry and dusty, and hundreds of miles from any real city.
"The Devil in Texas" is essentially a chronicle of Anglo Texan oppression of Chicanos and Mexicans at Presidio, an area that was completely Spanish and Indian 165 years before the first Anglo appeared in 1848, and presumably totally Indian before that.
"El diablo en Texas" arises from a view of history that rarely reaches the history books or even the folklore of Anglo culture in America.
Brito writes out of the Chicano-Mexico history in which Spanish-speaking peasants were wrenched from their fields, a history where Texas Rangers are a kind of vigilante nightriders, the Border Patrol a form of Gestapo, the river a moat to divide land the people see as their heritage, a bridge a device to enforce a kind of peonage.
"The bridge was the work of the devil. (The bridge is the devil's rainbow: two goat's feet with each one planted in a graveyard. The bridge is a slide to make you die laughing, right, Jesus?)"
The bridge enabled the Border Patrol to regulate the flow of people from Mexico. Jesus Uranga operated ferry rafts that carried their people freely across the river. He was the son of Don Pancho, brother of the guerrillero Reyes, who is the father of Jose and perhaps grandfather of the narrator of the novel.
Jesus is drowned by Ben Lynch's riders: "One night they buried Jesus under water, filling the launch and his body with dirt so they would stay submerged. The stone hung from his neck would make sure of that."
Ben Lynch is "the Green Devil" who acquires the ironic name Don Benito. He come to Texas from Alabama, rides with the rangers and settles in Presidio, where he amasses land by the new laws of the United States which transcend and ignore the old Mexican titles.
Devils populate this novel like serpents swarm over the stones of Aztec ruins warmed by a hot Mexican sun. The devil lives in a cave in the sierra of Santa Cruz, he puts his hooves in boots and wears a blond wig and a Stetson hat and frightens Marcela, the woman who carries Jose's son.
The Devil is the ally of the Anglos to keep the Chicanos and Mexicans of Presidio in hell.
The novel recounts the parallel history of Don Benito's family and Don Pancho's through three periods: 1883, 1940 and 1970. Don Benito, Ben Lynch, has earned his last name over and over again: "The Lynches have their history . . . They kill people like barbarians."
Don Benito bucks into the book when he borrows a cannon from the Army to blow away 23 "friends" he believes have been stealing from him.
Don Pancho, Francisco Uranga, is a lawyer who fights to restore expropriated land to the people.
He fights injustice by both the U.S. and Mexican governments. He condemns discrimination against Mexicans, radical workers
and blacks in Mississippi. He publishes a newspaper that catalogs offenses against Mexicans and Chicanos and the poor and helpless generally.
And he generally loses.
The Mexicans and the poor and the helpless generally lose through the generations of this book. Until the new generation of 1970, a generation of Chicano and Mexican regeneration, says in the voice of Don Pancho's grandson: "A flame has got to be lighted, the one that died with time."
"The Devil in Texas/El diablo en Texas" in the Bilingual Press edition is published in both English and Spanish texts. It is part of the Chicano Classics series, a project "to ensure the long-term accessibility of deserving works of Chicano literature and culture."
Brito, who had gone to college in Texas and graduate school in Arizona, returned to Presidio in 1970 assess the effect of the Chicano movement on his people. He found little. He determined to stay to write their history.
He interviewed dozens of people and collected hundreds of anecdotes and fragmented memories, history told without regard for chronology and with a twist of myth and fantasy. And he has written his book in that fashion, in the quirky voice of the people whose tale he tells.