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Ron Arias: The Road to Tamazunchale

Arias’ delightful, short novel tells the story of the last days of Fausto, an old Chicano who lives in Los Angeles. Fausto knows that he is getting on and hasn’t long to go but he isn’t going to calmly resign himself to dying. Fausto was married to Evangelina and, when his sister, died, they took care of his niece, Carmela. Evangelina died when Carmela was nine and Fausto brought his niece up. Now that he is old and infirm, it is Carmela who looks after him. Fausto’s story is about both his real-life adventures and his adventures in his mind. We start off with his travel to Cuzco and surrounding areas in Peru which is, in fact, a short bus journey on a bus in Los Angeles. He meets up with a local street tough and they go riding around in a stolen car – it turns out to be stolen from Jess (aka Jesus), Carmela’s boyfriend – and have a run-in with the police, from which they escape.

Mario, the street tough, adopts Fausto (he has always had a fascination with old men, he says, probably because of his father) and their adventures continue. When a dead body is found in the dried-up river, it is Mario who is called in to help and take it to the house of Mrs. Renteria. Mrs. Renteria is a nursing assistant who is called Mrs. only out of politeness, as she has never been married but she cares for the body till they have to remove it when it starts to decompose. Fausto then manages to get a group of wetbacks across the border. It is not clear whether he does this for real or if it is only in his mind but it doesn’t matter. However, he is unable to find work for them but does manage to put on a show for them at a now abandoned cinema. The show is called The Road to Tamazunchale, named after a small town in Mexico and chosen because no-one comes from there (though one of the audience does, in fact, come from there). For the group who put on the show, Tamazunchale represents the afterlife, be it heaven or hell, and the show is about the bus ride there. It ends, of course, with Fausto arriving there with Evangelina.

This is a beautiful book and should be better known. It mixes fantasy and reality but also tells a loving account of an old man approaching death and a wonderful community in the barrio of Los Angeles, with its cast of characters, from Cuca the fortune teller who is never really right in her predictions but probably close enough to the flute-playing vato. Arias keeps the story going with wit and flights of fantasy and loving attention to his community.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by West Coast Poetry Review