Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir (Paperback)
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST Lyrical and gritty, this authentic coming-of-age story about a border-town family in Brownsville, Texas, insightfully illuminates a little-understood corner of America. Domingo Martinez lays bare his interior and exterior worlds as he struggles to make sense of the violent and the ugly, along with the beautiful and the loving, in a Texas border town in the 1980s. Partly a reflection on the culture of machismo and partly an exploration of the author's boyhood spent in his sister's hand-me-down clothes, this book delves into the enduring, complex bond between Martinez and his deeply flawed but fiercely protective older brother, Daniel. It features a cast of memorable characters, including his gun-hoarding former farmhand, Gramma, and "the Mimis"-- two of his older sisters who for a short, glorious time manage to transform themselves from poor Latina adolescents into upper-class white girls. Martinez provides a glimpse into a society where children are traded like commerce, physical altercations routinely solve problems, drugs are rampant, sex is often crude, and people depend on the family witch doctor for advice. Charming, painful, and enlightening, this book examines the traumas and pleasures of growing up in South Texas and the often terrible consequences when different cultures collide on the banks of a dying river.
About the Author
2012 National Book Award finalist Domingo Martinez lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Epiphany and he has contributed to The New Republic. He has read pieces from The Boy Kings of Texas on This American Life and an essay about being chosen as a 2012 National Book Award finalist on All Things Considered. An excerpt from The Boy Kings of Texas was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize.
“Domingo Martinez writes like an angel—an avenging angel who instead of bringing wrath to a fallen world redeems it by using beautiful prose to turn the most awful and gritty realities into transcendent gems. This is also a significant historical document, a first person account that reveals one corner of America as it has seldom been seen. What a voice, what a story, what a testament to the transforming power of self-knowledge and the right choice of words.”—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, winner of the National Book Award
“ . . . the narrative brims with candid, palpable emotion . . . Martinez lushly captures the mood of the era and illuminates the struggles of a family hobbled by poverty and a skinny Latino boy becoming a man amid a variety of tough circumstances. A finely detailed, sentimental family scrapbook inscribed with love.” —Kirkus Reviews
“. . . [A]n emotional roller coaster rendered in exquisite detail.”—Publishers Weekly
"Old-fashioned, high-quality storytelling makes an excerpt from Domingo Martinez's first book, The Boy Kings of Texas, completely captivating. Martinez delivers a lyrical and unblinking account of family life in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. The characters in Martinez's memoir are brutal as often as they are lovable. . . . While it is hard to describe poverty in a lighthearted manner, Martinez chooses humor and wisdom over tragedy in his storytelling."—NewPages.com
“. . . Seattle writer Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is a hilarious and heartbreaking story of a sensitive soul who grows up in the macho barrio of Brownsville, Texas. . . . Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop culture reference points.” —Seattle Times“With The Boy Kings of Texas, a new and important truth about those Rio Grande Valley border towns like Brownsville and McAllen has finally emerged, one that takes into account the brainy boys of the barrio who read Cyrano de Bergerac between waiting tables at the Olive Garden, and play hooky at the Holiday Inn in order to discuss foreign films. Sure, there have always been stories about smart kids who want to leave town or risk going nowhere in life. In the Valley, where there is also a high chance of succumbing to border violence, Martinez unveils the lives of smart kids who feel they need to leave town or else simply die of boredom.” —Dallas News “The Boy Kings of Texas is a spirited confession in the tradition of smart, self-deprecating comedies about young manhood like Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That and early Philip Roth. Martinez weaves artful comic asides with anecdotes about poverty so crushing that it leads to the death of his friends.” —Texas Observer “This compelling, often heart-warming book explores how Martinez and his family tried to find their place in Brownsville. . . . The Boy Kings of Texas alternates between serious, often violent stories, such as the uncle who beats up Martinez in a cocaine-fueled rage, and humorous stories showing his family's softer, loving side. Often, the most moving chapters combine humor with a dark undertone. For example, Martinez writes about how his sisters dealt with their own feelings of inferiority by creating two blonde, Anglo alter-egos.” —San Antonio Express-News “There is no easy resolution to this personal journey told through a series of anecdotes that range from hilarious to heartbreaking. Martinez simply splays out the different chapters of his life with a raw honesty that dispels the myth of the big happy Hispanic family and critiques the codes of machismo that lead to reckless choices. An incredibly engaging read and full of colorful characters that keep the writing vibrant. . . .” —El Paso Times “Martinez’s story is heartrending and uncomfortable, but he maintains a surprising sense of humor that keeps his reader cringing and rooting for him. A starkly honest memoir of growing up on the Texas-Mexican border in the 1970s and ‘80s, with a wry twist.” —Shelf Awareness
“[The Boy Kings of Texas] . . . offers experiences that readers will find informative and emotionally engaging. . . . Empathetic teens will be engaged by Martinez’s emotionally rich story.” --Booklist
TEXAS MONTHLY BOOK REVIEW
Straight Outta Brownsville
Domingo Martinez was born in Texas, but he left as soon as he could.
His very funny memoir explains why.
by David Dorado Romo
Photograph by Adam Voorhes
What do you do if you were born and raised in a neglected rural barrio just north of the Mexican border? If you’re Domingo Martinez, the answer is obvious: after you graduate from high school, you leave Texas and settle down in a city as close to the Canadian border as possible. Seattle, for instance. Onceyou’re there, you find a therapist named Sally and tell her about your experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family and a screwed-up state.
The stories Martinez told Sally, which are included in his first book, The Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press, $16.95), are so funny and poignant that his therapy should have been offered free of charge.
Better yet, Sally should have paid him for the pleasure of listening.
If there’s any justice in the publishing world, there will turn out to be plenty of people eager to read about her client’s childhood.
Though Martinez’s memoir is largely about growing up outside Brownsville with an abusive father and an uninvolved mother, it deals with much more than the usual stuff that sends people to shrinks.
There’s advice on everything from how to cook tamales to the best way to transport marijuana from Brownsville to Houston. The book also offers plenty of material for readers interested in broader issues such as immigration, border violence, and other topical matters fronterizo writers have to deal with if they want to get published.
But Martinez’s sharp wit, deployed even during the most painful moments, distinguishes The Boy Kings of Texasfrom much of the writing on these subjects.
At the heart of the book is Martinez’s complicated relationship with his father. According to his son, Domingo Martinez Sr. was a boorish truck driver prone to drunken fits of rage whom Domingo Jr., or June, as he was known, describes as “a tyrannical toddler.” Domingo Sr., Martinez writes, liked to brag to his sons about his marital infidelities and whipped his boys regularly with little or no pretext.
June was repulsed by the weaknesses and insecurities hidden beneath his father’s veneer of machismo. He couldn’t wait to get away. “In all of his life, all of his choices,” Martinez writes about his father, “I was using him as a reverse compass.” (In the book’s afterword, Martinez notes that his father has since gotten sober, and he expresses some degree of sympathy for the man.)
Ironically, the toughest member of the Martinez “patriarchy” is Martinez’s grandmother. Her heroic feats before crossing into the U.S.
as a young woman included killing two ocelots with a tree branch and fending off a would-be rapist with a well-placed log to the head. As a boy, Martinez wasn’t sure whether to believe these stories until he personally witnessed Gramma pound to death not one but two rattlesnakes with a shovel. Now in her late eighties, Gramma might just owe her longevity to having avoided doctors like the plague throughout her life and turning instead to traditional herbs, prayers to the Virgin and Pancho Villa, and the occasional squirt of WD-40 to relieve her arthritis.
Martinez’s sisters are in their own way just as resourceful as Gramma.
In one chapter he describes how, in the eighties, his older sisters dropped the excessive, foreign-sounding syllables from their names and reinvented themselves as upper-class WASPs. Margarita became Marge; Maria became Mare. They dyed their hair blond; refused to wear anything without Esprit, Sergio Valente, or Gloria Vanderbilt labels; pretended not to speak a word of Spanish; and began addressing each other simply as “Mimi.” “The Mimis had made their decision to be two blue-blooded, trust-funded tennis bunnies from Connecticut, accidentally living in Brownsville, Texas, with us: a poor Mexican family they had somehow befriended while undergoing some Dickensian series of misfortunes,” Martinez writes. The sisters’ Mimi fantasy was a way to cope with the messages of inferiority they encountered in the “sinister world of teenage fashionistas, which, in Brownsville, was always tinged with border-town racism.”
Martinez sees the pain that lies beneath such masquerades, but he also appreciates their double-edged nature. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery—it can also be a form of mockery, albeit in this case an unconscious one. Cultural assimilation, in a sense, is an elaborate, lifelong bit of performance art. Even as a kid, Martinez felt the attendant ambiguities that come from being one of the eternally “in-between” people who belong to two different places and don’t entirely fit in either one. “They felt I was not one of them, the Mexican kids, nor was I one of the others, the white kids, and so I adapted,” he writes. “But I didn’t think anyone was capable of understanding, so instead I parceled it out, compartmentalized.”
And though he was compelled to escape South Texas’s stifling heat, entrenched classism, and big hair, he insists that “I can make fun of Texas, but if you’re not from Texas, then you may not. Sure, ours was an abusive relationship, but it was an abuse that grew out of odd circumstances.”
Martinez’s eye for the absurdity of those circumstances helps him avoid the clichés and oversimplifications pervasive in the mainstream media’s take on the border. Though his sense of humor does get him in trouble sometimes. At a house party in Kingsville one night, a frat boy notices that Martinez is attracting female attention with his quick-witted repartee and grumbles, “Give a Mexican some tequila and he gets funny.” This was an extremely insulting thing to say—Martinez is hilarious even when he’s sober—and leads to one of the book’s many brawls.
Martinez’s ability to draw humor out of hardship runs in the family.
One year, when the Martinez clan traveled to California to work in the grape harvest, the dashing Mimis transformed themselves into Valley girls. They were the “hippest, cutest, best-dressed migrant workers of that year, and very likely for many years to come,” Martinez explains.
“The Mimis had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting both people and places, in such a way that you could be looking at the same dreary landscape as them, the same terrible and hopeless event, and while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, and enthusiastically hopeful. And then, if you got near them, or were blessed enough to maybe talk to them, you would walk away feeling the same way they felt, too.”
The same kind of magic shows up everywhere in The Boy Kings of Texas.
The ironic thing is that as a young man Martinez was sure there was no art, no culture, and nothing to do in Brownsville. Yet his book offers evidence that the richest raw material for writers often comes from those parts of the world where there is absolutely nothing to do. Go figure.