THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS is every publisher’s (and budding author’s) dream come true. The manuscript for this insightful coming-of-age memoir by Domingo Martinez was an “over the transom” submission pulled from an editor’s slush pile. It so captivated the reader and subsequently the publisher that it was nominated for the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Domingo Martinez Jr. grew up in in the 1980s in a family barrio within walking distance of the US/Mexican border in the fertile flood plain of the Rio Grande River. His light skin and determination to speak unaccented English were only two of the personal qualities that set him apart from his peers. Junior’s mother, Velda Jean, was of European white ancestry, an American girl who his father, Domingo Sr., married in a rush to avoid the Vietnam draft. They bore several children almost immediately, thus fulfilling Mingo’s wish to escape the military. He went to work for his own mother, known by all as Gramma, who ran a junkyard trucking business with an iron fist in Brownsville, Texas.
"Martinez’s voice provides a penetrating and entertaining look at the consequences of culture clash during the 1980s and ‘90s. His own struggles with his personal demons provide a subplot that could reflect the lives of so many who grew up then and now. "
Domingo Sr. was of Cuban/Aztecan heritage, raised in the tradition of Latino machismo, who tried to raise his sons to respect the code of strength and force of will. “Gramma” was a terrifying witch doctor who traded in medicinal herbs and guns, and clandestinely acquired life insurance policies on most of the young men, including her grandsons, in the barrio. As sole beneficiary, the odds on collection were high in the crime-ridden neighborhood, so this became a trustworthy source of income over the years.
Junior’s primary, perhaps sole, aim in life was to live long enough and be “white” enough to get out of Brownsville. His aspiration to become a writer and his slight, wiry build set him apart from the football-addicted boys who saw fistfights as the way to discuss alternating opinions to their own. Junior (a boy called "June," he laments early in the book) created a square peg in the round hellhole of Brownsville.
As a teenager, after managing to survive the violent back streets of the slum in which he lived, he developed a Hunter S. Thompson approach to freelance journalism. THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS relates in luminescent prose the stories from his past. Young children commonly served as collateral in the poverty-stricken slums in which he grew up. One of Junior’s uncles was traded as a toddler for a truck muffler, battery and tools to a childless distant family member. This practice tended to blur blood relationships, and it was not uncommon for complete strangers to be pointed out by family elders as cousins or uncles.
The memoir is filled with the memorable characters of his childhood. He relates how his beautiful teenage sisters spent a year masquerading as upper-class white girls, dying their hair blond and dressing in designer label clothes. They called themselves the “Mimi’s” in order to set themselves apart from their peers. This practice was encouraged by their mother but cut into the family wardrobe budget, so Junior often wore his sister's hand-me-down shirts. His Grandpa and Gramma were towering figures in his young life, even after Gramma probably killed Grandpa --- either accidentally or on purpose. Law enforcement, especially family disputes, was not a compelling priority in the barrio.
Martinez’s voice provides a penetrating and entertaining look at the consequences of culture clash during the 1980s and ‘90s. His own struggles with his personal demons provide a subplot that could reflect the lives of so many who grew up then and now. Junior still struggles with the scars of his adolescence, particularly his turbulent relationship with his older brother Dan.
THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS launches what promises to be a brilliant literary future for the now-middle-aged Domingo Martinez.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 14, 2012