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The Page Master : Valley High senior Gabriel Arias reads, even when he doesn’t have to. He voluntarily serves as a Santa Ana bookstore’s official reader, offering critiques on plots and authors.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In life, according to the Yaqui Indian in Alfredo Vea Jr.'s 1993 novel “La Maravilla,” one must listen to the spirit within. Only this way can a person reach awareness of one’s cultural past and what matters most.

“My dad has always taught me to do this,” says Gabriel Arias. “If you think about it, it’s a lot like the way a bum lives. He has no material things, no extra wants than what he needs to survive. He doesn’t care about the world and the way things are supposed to be. He just listens to what goes on in here,” Gabriel finishes, bringing a relaxed fist to his chest.

It’s apparent that for most of his 17 years, this Valley High senior has at least eavesdropped on the voice within. His take on life reveals sensitivity and maturity that have developed over years of consuming novel after novel, including one of his current favorites “La Maravilla.”

At age 7, he was enjoying his sister’s copies of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” He discovered Shakespeare through “Macbeth” in sixth grade and fell in love with prose and plot. “I was always sitting on the porch reading for 12 hours nonstop when I was little. My mom would bring me lunch and I’d just keep going,” he recalls.

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The youngest of seven children, he immigrated north to Orange County with his family from their native Charco Azul, in Jalisco, Mexico, 15 years ago. None of his family or friends share his devotion to literature, he says. “I don’t know where it comes from. It’s not like I’m a geek.”

Nor does he live through the fictional characters or controlled worlds he reads about. Instead, Gabriel, who seems very planted in reality, digests the material and lets it shape his ever-widening and evolving opinions. Even the books he reads (we’re talking unassigned by teachers) receive a thorough critique, as do the authors whom he researches to find out their motivations and any experiences relating to the stories.

“It’s amazing what this young man does,” says Ruben Martinez, the owner of Martinez Books & Art, a downtown Santa Ana store considered among the preeminent sources for literature by Latino authors in the county.

What Gabriel does is voluntarily serve as the shop’s official reader. He reads any new or popular titles that come into the tiny store, then reports on them to Martinez, who then recommends or at least can give an outline of the book to his customers.

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As the owner of a store (which includes a hair salon in the back where he also cuts and styles) and a local Latino activist, Martinez says, he doesn’t have time to read all the books that come in.

Gabriel gives him a verbal summary of the story and a bio on the author, the length of which depends on how much he liked it. If he didn’t care for the book much, he delivers just a brief plot outline and critique.

“He can be brutally honest,” Martinez notes.

“I like to be straight up,” Gabriel says.

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Though Gabriel gets books from the store on a checkout system, he says he ends up purchasing the ones he really likes, which is most of them. “That’s where mostly all my money goes--to books.”

And much of his down time (when he’s not reading, doing homework or goofing off with his friends) is spent at the store. He visits two to three times a week, more if he’s assisting with crowd control at a book-signing event.

“This place has been a second home to me,” says Gabriel, who lives only a few blocks away. “I can come here to kick it and stay as long as I want. I can’t believe it took me three years to find it.”

He only found it by chance last summer. A nurse in one of his special day classes (a bout with polio when he was 6 months old has left him wheelchair-bound) knew of his affection for Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me Ultima” and brought him a signed copy of the book she picked up at Martinez’s store in 1992. The novel, Gabriel’s first read by a Latino author, still ranks as his all-time favorite.

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“It was magical. I’d read it over and over and there were things in it that made me feel inspired. I still get the same feeling of wonder when I read it.” Even just talking about it he’s overcome with enthusiasm, rolling his electric chair back and forth across the shop’s checkered tiles.

When Gabriel discovered the source for his favorite book nearly three years later, he was hooked.

“I thought, dang, there’s so many Spanish books out there.”

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The books from Martinez’s store, Gabriel says, have put him in touch with his roots, with the stories and myths that form his cultural heritage. He has even become a bit of an activist, organizing a student walkout last November against Proposition 187. He successfully persuaded his peers to take a pro-education stance by doing it after school and to leave the ubiquitous Mexican flags at home.

Nadine Bermudez, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at Rio Vista Elementary in Anaheim, considers Gabriel an inspiration because of his knowledge of Latino literature. She and Gabriel exchange notes when she visits the bookstore to pick up sources for work toward her master’s degree in Chicano studies.

“He just had me reading ‘Bless Me Ultima,’ ” Bermudez says. “He knows his stuff so well. He’s such a role model. He reinforces my own pride in being Hispanic.”

Gabriel, however, isn’t waving the flag so high. “I’m not on a Latin American lit trip,” he says. He cites William Shakespeare, Susan Cooper and a few other non-Latino authors at the top. Despite his cultural connection to Latino authors, Gabriel maintains he’s generally colorblind when it comes to a good book.

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“I love anything that raises unanswerable questions--that make you think about it so much your head hurts.”

Besides, he admits he has yet to hit heavyweights such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Alejio Carpentier. And he prefers reading in English because it takes him slightly longer in Spanish and there’s so little time for so many books.

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Add too much homework to the list. Not that his load is any different from any other senior’s. It’s just that if the choice is homework or reading an (unassigned) book, the former always sits in his backpack until his mother nags him.

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“My current English teacher hates me,” he said, laughing. She knows nothing about his secret love for books, he says. What she does know is that he doesn’t get all his work in--even when the class recently read his beloved “Macbeth.”

“I was in the middle of ‘La Maravilla,’ ” he responds smugly. Then it was into his latest favorite, Carlos Castaneda’s 1968 classic “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.”

He concedes it’s inexcusable, especially if he intends to go to college next semester.

“It’s like this,” he tries to explain, “I recently got into anarchy through one of my homeboys. It’s not at all about being a psycho. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself. Deciding what you want to do. You have to practice a certain amount of respect, humbleness. I’m not a groupie. I like to think for myself.”

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Literature classes are not necessarily in the cards when he attends Rancho Santiago College in the fall (he then wants to go on to Cal State Fullerton). Nor is writing. Gabriel plans on a degree in computer graphics and eventually his own business.

“I’d rather tell stories face to face like the elders of my Indian and Mexican heritage did it . . . and read .

“Of course, I’ve never been limited to what I can do, so who knows?”

The Scene is a weekly look at the trends and lifestyles of Orange County high schoolers.

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