A Latino omnibus

James Sallis is the author of many novels, including "Cypress Grove" and "Ghost of a Flea," as well as a chapbook of translations from French, Spanish and Russian poetry, "My Tongue in Other Cheeks."

What one likes most about Daniel A. Olivas’ “Assumption and Other Stories” -- and there’s a great deal to like -- is its sense of community. Populated by students, lawyers, retired folk and other specimens of the human species, all 18 stories deal with Latinos in Southern California. From Castro Ramirez, the weatherman who carefully gives Spanish pronunciation to California cities, to schoolboy Jimmie with his schoolyard crush, each of Olivas’ characters exists and acts in the context of larger social patterns. We come away feeling as though these 18 cross-sections add up to far more than their individual brief lengths suggest, affording a vital portrait of Latino life in L.A.

Though some of the stories are little more than sketches running two or three pages, Olivas is adept at establishing character in a sentence or two; he creates an image, a moment of self-deception, in which we come to know these characters intimately and easily imagine their entire lives, as in “Amna”:

“Sometimes I sit in class and my name just keeps running around in my head. Amna. Amna. Amna. Until finally it doesn’t sound like my name anymore. Sounds like something strange and far away. Something that burns hot and shines like the silver studs that run up and down my left earlobe. And I like it and wonder if my Grandma used to say her name over and over and over in her mind, too. And if she did, did it change and become something else? Something completely different? Something better?”


Olivas’ writing often burns hot and shines just like those studs. The most seemingly mundane musings of his characters take on the shine and then grow, sending tendrils back into racial and family pasts, illuminating rare corners and codicils of the American dream. Terrible things happen in these stories. Lois and Claudio lose their unborn baby; Yolanda’s husband, Romero, dies of melanoma, his face eaten away in a matter of weeks; a white supremacist opens fire on children attending Jonathan Cohen-Ramirez’s day camp.

Yet tempering terror and uncertainty is wonderful comedy, as in “Third Person Omniscient,” in which Owen Socrates Paredez, “a man marked for failure and pain,” makes a pathetic bid to impress his parents with a story written for night-school class. In “19,” Mrs. Villareal, having survived spouse, cemetery owner and century, braces the new owner to edit gratis her partially carved headstone.

Along with such comedy, Olivas’ characters face terror and uncertainty with an absolute refusal to submit, as in “Voir Dire”:

“My father always likes to say, ‘No le busques tres picos al toro.’ Literally, it means don’t look for three horns on the bull. In other words, don’t make things more complicated than they are. Pretty good advice. It certainly applies to jury duty. It is what it is. Just gotta get through it. And I guess it applies to me, too. Somehow. He also says, ‘Nadie sabe lo que tiene el costal, nomas el que lo carga.’ No one knows what the sack holds except the person who carries it. I guess that applies to me, too, because my sack feels pretty heavy sometimes. But it’s mine. I’ve earned it. And I have no intention of trading it in for another.”

Many of the stories, as befits a book set in a city built upon so many fault lines of every sort, are about healing and repairing rifts. One of the best, “Res Judicata,” has a father speaking in “dichos, those little aphorisms that amount to bite-sized bits of Mexican wisdom,” while his lawyer daughter struggles to understand his Spanish, her husband’s death and her own life -- all this in six stylish, deceptively plain pages.

Olivas, an attorney with the California Department of Justice, has published stories and poems in such venues as Exquisite Corpse, Pacific Review, LatinoLA, Red River Review, In Posse Review and the Los Angeles Times. A novella, “The Courtship of Maria Rivera Pena,” appeared from Silver Lake Publishing in 2000, and a children’s book, “Benjamin and the Word,” is forthcoming from Arte Publico Press, as is a second collection, “Devil Talk,” from Bilingual Press. Writer Charles Fort once observed that “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” So begin with “Assumption and Other Stories.” Then read the rest. *