The Cisco Kid in the Bronx is a Caribbean emigrant bildungsroman that at moments may remind the reader of the classic collection Drown by Junot Diaz. Ortiz’s collection certainly fulfills many of the conventions of what could be considered a Caribbean Diaspora literature.
The subtitle of this book is Episodes in the Life of a Young Man, and although I didn’t find it to be useful, it does lend the reader an idea of how a good deal of these stories operates. Certainly too many read more like vignettes than stories, but they all contribute to the understanding of how two entirely different cultures blend to create a unique third mode of identity.
The book is structured in three parts, bookended by two standalone stories that familiarize the reader with the dim days in Puerto Rico of the protagonist, Mario Ortega. These two stories are compelling in the ways the character reflects on how his life has changed by being forced to leave his home at a young age. These, along with “Yesterday,” are the most noteworthy in this collection. “Yesterday” explores how Mario’s seemingly most important relationship blossomed and then fell apart thanks to unpredictable variables, such as parents sabotaging their relationships with other family members. Mario longs to repair the damage but nothing can be done. The ramifications are so brutal that Mario forgets to name his wife in the final story of the book, and we are left to wonder what sort of woman could persuade him to settle down and even take the place of Isabel.
The first of the three main parts is entitled “Rogers Place,” and the stories are set in a small, close-knit neighborhood in the Bronx. As children, Mario and his brother cope with the crushing anxiety caused by the feeling of not belonging by exploring their world in imaginative ways—marveling, for instance, at snow and the deep cold of a Northeast winter. Mario is the Cisco Kid referenced in the title, a kid who fancies himself not only a protector of the neighborhood, but also worthy of attention and affection and never afraid to seek out adventure. The story encapsulates how other family members immigrated to New York and failed to assimilate, and how the Ortega family barely manages to scrape by no thanks to predatory lenders and vendors.
The second section, “A Higher Education,” explores Mario’s days as a college student, although it is fair to speculate that this may have more to do with how he learns to love and interact with the opposite sex than his academic studies. (In fact, we learn fairly late in the collection that Mario is a poet, and it’s rare that his writing is ever mentioned. This is definitely a missed opportunity on the author’s part.) Most of these stories deal with the various ways that Mario falls into sexual encounters, and this section, more than the others, feels composed of vignettes rather than stories. In the end, they just don’t add up to anything substantial other than a foundation for the aforementioned story, “Yesterday,” and all of its ramifications.
The final section is also called “Yesterday,” and in it, Mario has achieved adulthood. Most of the stories here deal with Mario’s job at an employment service and his life in a converted apartment in a former light industrial area. The reader gets a sense of how Mario has been able to achieve a respectable stasis as compared with the drug addicts, prostitutes, and general troublemakers who share his building and workplace. This stasis is somewhat troubling as Ortiz seems to lose the thread of the Cisco Kid himself while focusing on secondary and tertiary characters. Nevertheless, the book ends on a strong note, and overall, it is definitely worth checking out for those interested in fiction focused upon the experience of the immigrant.