In Latino literature and film, a common narrative is assimilation, where the protagonist wrestles with preserving the “traditional value” of the old world while embracing the “progress and enlightenment” of the new. By the end, even as the protagonist learns to appreciate and respect the values of their elders, what they really embrace and love are the customs and attitudes of the United States. Freedom, happiness and prosperity comes when staring upon the Stars and Stripes with tears in your eyes and a Tecate in your hand. Or so the narrative goes.
Kings of 7th Avenue is not that kind of book.
The story is about a group of friends —Tony, Alberto and Lou— who grew up together in the northern suburbs of Tampa, Florida.
Lou, of Cuban descent, was raised by his co-dependent, passive-aggressive mother after his abusive father skipped town. A natural athlete, he used his charm and intelligence to succeed in all avenues of his life and becomes a wealthy realtor in his early twenties.
Alberto, a Puerto Rican who grew up with a happy, uneventful childhood and who was also a star athlete in high school, went a different route. He pursued a career as a filmmaker, but his lack of people skills and inability to control his temper forced him to sell out and do ego-crushing commercial work.
Tony, Alberto’s cousin, grew up in a highly dysfunctional family where he was both put upon and demoralized at every turn. He works a dead-end office job, while holding a worthless liberal arts degree, and dreams of opening his own nightclub, though he lacks the will to pursue it.
These three friends approach women in different ways, and in writing them, I found myself re-examining my own attitudes toward women and how I have behaved in the past. Both Alberto and Lou take their anger and frustration out on women, degrading them either mentally, verbally or physically. Tony is more of a romantic character, yearning to please and even worship a woman who will not tear him down the way his mentally ill mother has.
When I began writing the book, I believed myself to be more Tony than any other character. But as I wrote, I increasingly examined my own past relationships and found that Alberto’s sexual objectification of women and Lou’s hateful tendency to place blame for all his disappointment on the opposite sex are both practices I have engaged in.
One of the defenses of misogyny in all cultures goes back to those “traditional values.” Men and women play their respective roles for the sake of procreation, family, preserving culture and so on. Culture, then, becomes a noose around women’s necks, as though to betray their designated social roles makes them less than (insert ethnicity here), as well as less than women.
These traditions are also often tied to religion. Bring up the way women are treated in society, and a Bible verse is ever ready to support the status quo.
In one scene, Lou is marching down a crowded street looking for his wife:
It was all Ana’s fault. He should have listened to his mother.
—That girl is no good. You don’t need a modern woman. You need a real woman.
And his mother knew what a real woman was, whose main focus in life was pleasing her husband and not herself, who ironed, and washed, and cooked, who popped out kids and fucked the way he wanted, and when he was done, she was done, no complaints, no cold shoulder. Why couldn’t she get that in her lesbian feminist head? The bitch. They were all bitches; every short skirted, titty flapping one of them. They were such whores that they would complain if he touched them. They’d suddenly be daddy’s little girl, tight-legged and calling him a pervert like it was his fault. That’s the world we live in today. Demonize the man, and play with his emotions like he was just an animal.
I could easily write a scene like that and feel morally superior. I know guys like that.
But could I write something like that so easily because I have known people like that, or is it because I have been a person like that? Have I ever placed unrealistic expectations on women and hated them when they failed to live up to whatever fantasy had played out in my head? And have I not only thought such things, but also acted on them? Harassing women for rejecting me, making them feel uncomfortable because I won’t take the hint to leave them alone. I look back at past relationships and see a long list of women who very likely still want nothing to do with me, and for good reason.
But was I a pig due to my upbringing in a Puerto Rican home? Was Catholic or Latino culture to blame for my designating women as either whores or saints? Or was there something deeper at work?
Kings of 7th Avenue is intersected by a series of interviews that refer to a murder whose circumstances causes the reader to examine the way women are treated at public events like Mardi Gras and Tampa’s own Gasparilla Knight Parade. As the story progresses, I use the characters’ disparate personalities and interpersonal tensions along with dialogue to show that, while the Latino community may have certain cultural attitudes and practices that engenders misogyny, so does the larger American culture. The real basis for modern misogyny is capitalistic patriarchy, which promotes attitudes that dehumanize others, even our loved ones, and which turns emotions and aspirations into commodities. While the attitudes may be slightly different in their specifics, the mistreatment of women comes from a male-dominated urge for control—over time, over perceptions, over personal limitations, over the actions of others—and when immigrants come to this country, if they come from a patriarchal culture, the American Dream appeals to the basest aspects of that culture.
Ambition over empathy, individual will over the collective will, strong over the weak, all in the name of progress:
These Latinos never appreciate real progress, they were always too busy calling each other traitors if they didn’t roast pigs in their backyard like cavemen or go see Marc Anthony whenever he was in town or watch Univisión. Every Latino has got a new rule for acting Latino and God forbid you don’t follow it, and none of the goddamn rules amount to shit. They don’t get you jobs or into a good school. If anything they just keep you on the government tit. Why cross 90 miles of ocean on a raft if you’re going to be as ass backwards as the Castro-loving islanders? Some Cubans got the message and embraced the American way of life, but most of them were the older Miami Cubans. The younger generation took it all for granted and wound up a bunch of welfare spics like these Tampa Puerto Ricans, waving their stupid flag and trying to act like their piece of shit island is more than a junkyard. Just go back then, you love it so much. You’re the real traitors. If Latin America had any sense it would petition the United States to annex it entirely, tame the masses and turn them into good, God-fearing capitalists. The way the world should be. Like the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan.
If the narrative followed in most Latino literature is one of pro-assimilation to the American Dream, then Kings of 7th Avenue splits that dream open and lets the reader see the corrupted mind behind it and what happens when people buy into a myth without considering the consequences.
Kings of 7th Avenue is a postmodern dazzler that inverts all the Hemingway clichés indulged in To Have and Have Not, and punctures the Wolfeian stereotypes of Back to Blood. Marcantoni creates passionate yet complex characters, all chasing a chimeric American dream in the heart of Florida. Kings is a night club, a shared dream, a holy grail: some reach it, some don’t, some never even understand it. As in Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary, Marcantoni’s Kings of 7th Avenue captures every nuance, every lie, every tragic teardrop, of the lost American dream.
In the next installment of this series, I will examine the role of mothers and mental illness in the Tampa Latino community.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books, Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian, deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at [email protected].