When we think of the steel industry, if we do, I suspect most people think of Pennsylvania. Indeed, a quick review of the available nonfiction (both scholarly and popular) literature indicates the dominance of the association of Pittsburgh with steel. But there was also a huge mill presence in southern California for most of the twentieth century and especially for a few decades after World War Two. From the building of war ships to the manufacture of the cars that now cover the California landscape, steel had to be produced locally. Fontana, for instance, just east of what was soon to become the megalopolis of L.A., was the home of the state’s largest mill for nearly forty years. The skies of the San Bernardino Valley were darkened by the particle-laden smoke belching from Fontana Steel; as Frank Zappa so eloquently noted, “San Ber’dino, got some dark green air and you can choke all day.”
Pittsburgh’s steel industry has been the subject of numerous works of fiction as well, such as Thomas Bell’s Out of this Furnace, Karen Rose Cercone’s Steel Ashes, and Alexander Cordell’s The Race of the Tiger, to name just a few recent examples. California’s steel industry, in contrast, has been largely ignored by writers of both fiction and nonfiction. Offhand, the only novel even remotely connected to California steel is Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, which kick-starts with Easy being fired from an aircraft-manufacturing plant. In nonfiction, Mike Davis has done a fabulous job of documenting the industries of California, the environmental damage they’ve caused, and the working-class people who once made a living in manufacturing but who now are the core of California’s burgeoning population of urban poor.
Finally, though, along comes Luis J. Rodriguez and Music of the Mill. Rodriguez is the acclaimed Los Angeles-based Chicano author of a number of books: Always Running, a memoir about “la vida loca” of gangs; a collection of stories, The Republic of East L.A.; and several collections of poetry and essays (including Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times).
In Music of the Mill, his first novel, Rodriguez gives us an epic story about steel in southern California and the people who worked in those “dark Satanic mills,” (as Blake said in another time, another place, another industry). The story chronicles three generations of the Salcido family, and spans the sixty years from the end of World War Two to the present. Procopio Salcido and his young wife, Eladia, walk from Mexico to L.A., where Procopio gets a job at the mill, Nazareth Steel. Later, their son, Johnny, also works at Nazareth. Johnny is a progressive activist (pushing past his father’s liberalism) who rises to the top position of the local union and battles with racial conflict and corruption. Johnny’s kids are involved in gangs and with drugs. In other words, Rodriguez has accurately portrayed the lives and voices of the working-class and poor people who are the heart and soul of California.
Progressive politics informs Music of the Mill the way heat informs the mill Rodriguez writes about. At times Rodriguez perhaps tries too hard: he gets a little didactic when his characters (especially Johnny Salcido) explain their political motivations. At times, too, the portrayal of racism (on all sides, white, black and brown—Rodriguez captures it all) seems a little cartoonish. Yes, cartoonish, but nonetheless accurate: racism is a cartoon, as violent and mindlessly stereotyped as anything we let our children subject themselves to on Saturday (and every) morning. Rodriguez has been criticized for his didactic style; his prose has been called “wooden.” This strikes me as not only grossly unfair, but racist: try rereading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, another masterpiece of progressive politics that portrays the lives of poor people. Steinbeck won a Pulitzer; Rodriguez, a brown man with a strong and sensitive voice, probably will not because he is not a product of the white-bread MFA writing-mill that wins prizes in racist America. Rodriguez needs to be didactic; if he were any subtler the story he’s telling would be too easily appropriated and normalized by the liberals who keep telling us everything is fine, don’t worry, it’ll all work out—in the end.
Rodriguez comes from a different school of writing, one rarely privileged with publication by a major press: the school of hard knocks, the university of the streets, a school of difference. You don’t graduate with a sheepskin from these schools; your diploma is tattooed up and down your arms; it’s carved into your hips and cheeks with a knife. With that in mind, his prose is an education, first, I think, for the people he grew up and ran with, and then, too, for Americans who are hungry to hear the voices of the dispossessed. Rodriguez, then, is a revolutionary writer: no wonder he frightens away those addicted to the latté grandé of corporate capitalism. Get over it: we fear difference and change, but we need Rodriguez, we embark upon the revolution he teaches us. Listen up: we’ve got no future without it.