Building Science Fictionistas
I'm half-Mexican. It doesn't matter much to my everyday life, I look far more like my distant cousin Jerry Falwell than I do like my other distant cousin, Jamie Escalante. It only really matters where there's a gathering that requires both sides of my family, which only happens about once every decade or so. My high school graduation was the last one before I was out on my own, and the memorial service for my Dad was the first after.
It was the days after my father's death that led me to interact with my bevy of Mexican cousins for the first time in years. They'd all gone from kids running around in diapers at Christmas Eve to sixteen year old smokers with their own babies on their laps. Yes, it's a stereotype, but yes, that is really the Standard Operating Procedure for my family. As the oldest, I've always thought it was my job to introduce things to my younger cousins. I taught them about movies when they were younger, and as I grew up, I taught them how not to get caught. A couple of them have stayed clean, two of them have graduated high school and my favorite cousin has never even been inside a police car. Those are all big accomplishments for that side of the family.
When I came back to regularly reading science fiction, I started to think about my cousins and my half-sister, Bailey. When we reconnected a few years ago, she was reading Manga and vampire romances. I introduced her to Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft. When I saw her again, about a year later, she was reading Laurel K. Hamilton and had a copy of a Robert E. Howard novel in her book bag. I had at least managed to break through to her a little, but what about the rest of my cousins? How could I get them reading SF or fantasy?
It is a myth that Hispanics don't read. We do. A lot. The numbers are small, but they exist. Here's how it works around the Garcia-y-Hernandez house: a book is bought, Grandma reads it first. Always. Aunt Naomi reads it, then Grandpa, Bear, Jesse, Reyna, Little Tony, Polo and finally it is given to Diana or Little Little Tony (T3, I call him) to color in or chew on. This cycle repeats about once a month. The books are never anything resembling SF (Well, I did discover a well-read and slightly chewed copy of Angels & Demons) but they're books. Lots of romance novels, some mysteries, a thriller or two, but it honestly doesn't matter. They read. Eight pairs of eyes on one book over the course of a few weeks.
Now, knowing that they read, I figured I'd introduce some SF to them. I gave Grandma six books for her birthday. Cat's Cradle, Flashback, A Wrinkle in Time, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens and The Scar. Six books with good intentions. Grandma loved them since money was tight and books are cheap entertainment. I left them night as she had started reading Good Omens. I went on with my life, knowing that I had started the infection that would grow into a full-blown case of SF&Fitis.
I was wrong.
I came over for some event and there, on the shelf, were three of the six books, completely unread, and two others I saw on a coffee table. Not in someone's room or hanging out the community playpen, but on the coffee table.
"Did you like the books, Gandma?"
"I liked the one about the scientist and the piece of string and the one about the Witch and King Arthur was OK, but the other ones weren't very good, Critty-fer."
I had failed to start a fire. In fact, the only book that made it past Aunt Naomi was Cat's Cradle, which faltered only with Polo. It made it all the way through the reading gauntlet before T3 tore it up to make little tents for the 99 cent action figures Uncle David brought over.
There are more than 41 million Hispanics in America today. 26 million of those are of Mexican origin, like my entire family (though one of my cousins is half-Puerto Rican, a fact we don't let her forget) and the number of Hispanics in America, both legal and illegal, is growing. This is a market that no one seems to be looking at, probably because so few people really understand how Hispanic families work, or even worse, believe that the underbelly is the whole. The question of marketing books to Hispanics is probably seen as a lost cause.
But is it a lost cause?
There is a tradition of the Fantastic that runs through much of Hispanic culture. There are the great traditions of the Aztecs that were adapted into the Mexican Catholic churches early in the run of the Conquistadors. Festivals and recreations of the lives of the Aztec gods continue to today in some areas of Mexico and in other parts of Central and South America where other pre-Colombian traditions are carried on. One adaptation of these traditions in Mexico still remains: the Mask.
When an Aztec put on a mask, he became the God depicted. He would dance and celebrate and was treated as if he had become that powerful being. Wrestling matches between these gods were fierce and entertaining, though the practice largely died out until the 1930s, when Gringos brought wrestling across the border and a gentleman by the name of Salvador Lutheroth started promoting Lucha Libre. The most popular characters quickly became men wearing masks. Luchadors have become incredibly popular, folk heroes even. These masked men tell stories with their matches, and these stories have to be simple enough for those in the front row of Arena Mexico to understand. A man in a mask can even turn his strength towards working as a social crusader. Super Ecologista and Super Barrio are taken seriously and highly respected instead of being treated as silly men in masks. The mask retains power in the culture.
The science fiction and horror films of 1960s Mexico also featured these wrestlers. El Santo, a magnificent cultural figure whose death in 1984 was covered much the same way Princess Diana's death was in 1997, starred in dozens of films. He was a scientist, a secret agent, a lover and a helluva dancer. While science fiction was not well-known in Mexico at this point, El Santo introduced many of the concepts in his films where he was part James Bond, part John Constantine and part Sam Spade.
Those El Santo films also led to El Santo comic books. Little known in the US, these sold in great numbers in Mexico. So many were printed that they had to use incredibly cheap paper and the fastest methods of printing available, which led to few lasting any remarkable length of time. These were not the first Mexican comics, but they were the first to sell massive numbers in the mainstream.
Mexican-Americans carry much of this in the back of our sub-conscious. I had never even been to Mexico (OK, I've been to Tiajauna, but that doesn't count) and I knew El Santo from my grandparents and could recite at least three different Aztec god tales from memory before I was 10. Try watching a movie that makes any mention of Aztec gods and if it gets one thing wrong, even the spoiled brat rich girl who grew up in Bel Air will call them on it. It's deeply rooted in us, even beyond our thinking.
If a Hispanic-focused publisher were to rise up, they would be smart to focus their first offerings on stories of the Aztecs and Olmecs and Incas. Yes, it's the romance novel of the science fiction world, but time-travel stories would almost certainly do best early on. Work which combined the modern urban setting with Olde Traditions would probably work well too. Perhaps a Harry Potter-like series of books dealing with a kid from the Barrio being taken to train as an Aztec warrior would sell big. These are all ideas that my family would eat up, that Hispanic readers would latch onto.
There have been attempts at attracting the black, urban market over the years. Most of these failed very quickly. It would be fair to say that the most penetration anything has had into the African-American community was the science fiction works of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. His stories of Starchild, Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk were the greatest exposure to African-American themed science fiction up to that point (and quite possibly through to today). These records sold in great numbers and the album covers were some of the most-seen science fiction art in the world at the time. This did not lead to a giant turn towards written African-American science fiction though. No one jumped on the band wagon and said 'Hey, we need to capitalize! Someone write a novelization of Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome!' which could have started something serious. There were plenty of African-American writers around doing great things, but there was never a strong urban fiction push, and thus, nothing ever came of it.
Having a solid grasp of some piece of popular culture that appeals to Hispanics would be crucial. Traditional stories are great, but if it can't tie in to something that's more generally connective to the first thoughts of the readership, then you're doomed. Again, a Harry Potter-style piece would work well, but even better would be something with a known character. A masked wrestler such as Rey Mysterio jr. could be one. A series of science fiction stories aimed at children with him as the main character could lead more Hispanic kids getting interested in the subject. Even a comic book of his adventures could turn kids on to reading SF. You may laugh, but there are plenty of wrestling fans who bought Mick Foley's books and suddenly became regular buyers at Barnes & Noble. These things can happen, it just takes a strong enough spark.
Of course, money is the matter. The Mexican comic book industry has dried up more than once due to serious downturns in their economy. The Hispanic market in the US is no different, at heart. Yes, the level of numbers are nowhere near the same, but the idea that the first thing to go are the pieces of entertainment. Science fiction as a market cam be risky and even known publishers can fail, sometimes spectacularly (hey, remember Laser Books!). The problems can be as simple as not having good books to the inability to hook a crowd due to not having the right author base. While you could slap George R.R. Martin's name on stereo instructions and sell giant numbers, any targeted press would likely have to get by with lesser names and that makes it difficult to hook a wide enough audience. But, since it is not a traditional audience that such a publisher would be trying to attract, it would be best avoid the big names and hope that you can catch enough eyes before the money runs out. Anyone thinking about this sort of task needs to know that losses will be great to start and may continue to be great. Time may recoup some, but knowing that at least a portion of the investment will go to red column is one of the most important ideas.
I thought about this matter and realized that I could bring SF to my family, but in the right way. I went back to the store and bought some Tim Powers (Expiration Date) some Christa Faust (Hoodtown), a David Brin (The Postman) and I came across Alex Irvine. Reading his book cover for A Scattering of Jades, I suddenly knew that this was the book that would capture my family. I brought them to Naomi's birthday, handed it over and when I came back a couple of months later, little Diana was happily chewing on all four of them.
There's a way to make it happen, to make us Chicanos, Latinos or Hispanics start reading SF&F. Maybe we just have to wait for the Mothership to get up on the downstroke and deliver us to our literary Aztlan.