The heroes of the western world are almost always unique. Their accomplishments are rare and therefore praiseworthy; they do something no one else could have. Everyday people, on the other hand, receive no praise. They aren’t heroes; they just do what everyone else does. Chicano poet José Montoya objects to that belief. According to Chicano scholar Guillermo E. Hernández, the elevation of marginal characters to the position of hero is a common theme in Montoya’s poetry. It is his way of subverting the Western culture which has put down Chicanos for centuries (52-53). Montoya’s poem “El Louie” is an elegy for Louie Rodriguez, an everyday man whom is worthy of praise nonetheless. In “El Louie” Montoya uses Mexican slang and the elegy form to create a unique cultural identity for Chicanos which only they can participate in, understand, and appreciate.
Although “El Louie” is a fairly straightforward poem plot-wise, it can be an overwhelming poem to read because of its constant switching between English and Spanish. Although many Chicano authors and poets incorporate Spanish into their works, a style called code-switching, Montoya is somewhat innovative for his time because of his use of slang words and unique Chicano words. Hernández claims that Montoya latched on to this form of code switching while studying at the California College of Arts and Sciences in Oakland. According to Hernández, “The novice writer also noted that literary texts that included foreign words or phrases were readily accepted by his teachers, yet strident objections were raised about his own work because it included Chicano colloquialisms” (52).
In “El Louie,” Montoya incorporates these code switches early and often. He starts the poem in proper Spanish, telling readers “Hoy enterraron al Louie,” which means, “Today they buried Louie.” After switching back to English, he ends the second stanza with his first use of slang. He calls Louie “un vato de atolle,” a cool dude. Neither “vato” nor “atolle” appear in any online Spanish-English dictionaries. It’s a Chicano phrase which can only be translated by one who already understands the phrase or is invested in doing research. This is the first indicator in the poem that Montoya is writing to a specific audience. He is writing for his people, not for the world as a whole. Chicanos will understand the meaning of the poem. Other readers may be completely lost simply because they can’t translate the words, let alone understand their significance.
*Don't believe me? Check it out
Montoya’s use of code-switching and slang continues throughout the poem. The section describing Louie’s position as trendsetter and leader in the community is almost unintelligible to anyone without a Chicano background. Montoya mentions Louie’s “buenas garras” and his familiarity with “rucas.” According to Hernández, these words translate to “good rags” and “old ladies,” colloquial terms for fancy cars and clothes and fine women. Montoya also includes a reference to La Palma, a Mexican ballad that Chicano readers would recognize but others would not. When Louie is leading his friends to a fight, he avoids the “jura” and everyone is asked if they have their “fileros.” These words are used to mean police and knife, although those are not the traditional Spanish words. Once again, Montoya is using unique Chicano words to signify who his intended audience is.
There are other instances of both slang code-switching and proper Spanish in the second half of the poem. This repeated use and insistence on writing to a specific audience raises the question: why is it so important to Montoya that the Chicano people know this poem is intended for them? The answer lies in the poem’s content and theme. As mentioned at the beginning of the paper, Montoya often elevates marginal figures to the position of hero in his poetry. “El Louie” is a prime example of that pattern.
From the start of the poem, it’s clear that Louie Rodriguez is an influential, powerful man. Montoya writes of his death, “And San Pedro o sanpinche are in for it,” which means “And Saint Peter or Saint Devil are in for it” (Hernández 79). Louie is such a force that whether he winds up in Heaven or Hell, they are going to know he’s there. With this set-up, readers are led to believe that we are about to hear about a great figure who moved mountains and changed the world. But that’s not really what happens: Louie Rodriguez is a normal guy. Montoya describes him as a man “sporting a topcoat/ playing in his fantasy/ the role of Bogart, Cagney or Raft.” Just like any other young man, he aspired to be like the movie stars and sometimes pretended he was one. Later Montoya describes Louie as the ringleader of his group of friends. He brought zoot suits to the area which was a “unique idea – porque/ Fowler no era como/ Los, o’l E.P.T. Fresno’s/ westside was as close as we ever got to the big time.” Louie and his friends don’t live in the big city and do big things. He’s a big fish in a small pond.*
Despite the meager size of his domain, Louie is still king. After Montoya describes Louie’s semi-posh lifestyle (his “good rags” and “old ladies”) and his innovative fashion choices (zoot suits), he describes the mentality when a fight is about to break out. While the women all worry, the men look for their knives and for Louie. In little snippets of dialogue, several characters call for Louie. “Get Louise,” says one, and later, “Hórale, Louie” (which loosely translates to “Now, Louie”). When Louie does arrive to help in the fight, it’s like a scene from a movie. “And Louie would come through-/ melodramatic music, like in the/ mono – tan tan trán!” Louie comes to save the day, entering dramatically like one of the movies stars he adores. But he is not one of those stars. He’s just a normal guy in a normal town.
Louie’s normal heroism is part of the reason why Montoya is so intent on writing directly to Chicanos. He was educated in the San Francisco Bay area during the hay day of the counterculture, the 1960s. This social scene undoubtedly made him question the constructs of the Western world, especially regarding conceptions of success and heroism. Furthermore, he’s part of a Chicano culture that has been repressed for centuries. In a poem like “El Louie,” he’s able to show the members of this culture that they do not need to strive to live like the members of mainstream culture to be considered worth remembering.
Even in the second half of the poem, when Louie falls down a few pegs, he is still a man to be praised and remembered. When Louie fights in Korea, the community’s respect only grows. He returns in his shiny fancy uniform and the locals are in awe. “Wow, is that ‘ol Louie?” they say, and “Mira, comadre, ahí va el hijo de Lola!” (“Look, friend, there goes Lola’s son.”) Yet despite the increased admiration of the community, Louie is still an average man with his own faults and failures. He and one of his army buddies “hock their Bronze Stars” to buy liquor. He goes to barber college and graduates with honors, a commentary on the different social standards of the Chicano community. An affluent white community of the 1960’s would have little respect for a man who learned to cut hair well, but it is another badge of honor for Louie. Still, just as with his Bronze Stars, he sells the symbol of his success to get money to play poker and other games of chance. He is not a great noble war hero; he is a veteran down on his luck with a weakness for booze and gambling. Louie does whatever he can to get by.
Montoya and the other members of the community respect Louie nonetheless. When he dies, Montoya regrets the way he died:
His death was an insult
porque no murió en acción –
no lo matron los vatos,
ni los gooks en Korea.
He died alone in a rented
room – perhaps like a
The Spanish in this stanza means, “…because he wasn’t killed in action, not murdered by the dudes or those gooks in Korea.” Montoya makes several key arguments in this stanza. The first line reinforces the great reputation of Louie. He deserved a better death because he was such an important man, and it’s an insult that he died so sadly. The last line connects him once again to the heroes of Hollywood films. Even though his death was an insult, there may be some redemption in that he still managed to resemble one of those film icons in death.The middle section of that stanza reflects Montoya’s critical view of the experience of Mexicans who fought for the United States. Montoya, a Korean War veteran, is extremely critical of Chicano participation in American wars. According to Hernández, Montoya felt that the superior officers were abusive and inadequate as leaders. He also believed that American conflicts had nothing to do with Chicanos (he didn’t have any problems with Koreans) and he and his countrymen should be fighting for their own nation, not their oppressor (62-63). Many of these ideas appear in “El Louie,” both in the passage quoted above and an earlier passage which talks about the paradoxes Louie faced while fighting in Korea: “heroism and the stockade.” Louie is heroic and respected for his contributions to the war effort, but his disrespect for his commanding officers and the purpose of the war lead to him being reprimanded and disciplined. Furthermore, because he is not killed in action, readers can assume that he got the same poor post-war treatment as many other Chicano veterans, like the father in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo. Montoya seems to identify with that belief: if a Chicano solider was not killed in action, he would never get any real reward for his service. He would be disciplined while at war and forgotten about when he returned home, left to die alone in a rented room.
The contributions of Chicanos to U.S. wars, though unappreciated in their hometowns, were sometimes recognized by the U.S. Government.
Yet despite all Louie’s post-military problems, his penchant to drink and gamble and pawn his prized possessions, and the ill-fitting manner of his death, Montoya can never lose respect for his hero. “The end was a cruel hoax/ but his life had been/ remarkable!” writes Montoya at the poem’s conclusion. He will not take anything away from Louie Rodriguez just because things didn’t go so well in the end.
In “El Louie,” Montoya creates a new type of hero for the Chicano people, one who lives up to their standards alone and who can only be understand by their culture. Montoya started writing in the late 1960’s, making him one of the pioneers of the movement. He used his poetry to establish the parameters of what a Chicano identity should be. In Montoya’s view, the Chicano people can and should have their own language, their own standards, and their own heroes. And El Louie Rodriquez, “vato de atolle,” should be one of them.
Montoya's Other Work
Montoya is also a musician, a member of the band Trío Casindio. He is also a painter, and a founding member of the RCAF (the Rebel Chicano Art Front, OR Royal Chicano Air Force). Learn more about it in this video (embedding disabled) and this one:
Hernandez, Guillermo E. "José Montoya: From the RCAF to the Trio Casindio." Chicano Satire: A Study in Literary Culture. Austin: University of Texas, 1991. 52-84. Print.
Montoya, José. “El Louie.”