top of page
< Back

My Father Called Us Monkeys: Growing up Mexican-American in the Heartland

It’s 1969. The Vietnam War is raging, prompting massive protests across the United States. There is racial ferment as civil rights activists work to overthrow an old, repressive society. Men are walking on the moon, flown there by the power of Saturn V rockets. But in a small town far from the issues boiling around him, a little boy named Marco lives a near idyllic life surrounded by family and friends.

Mario Duarte captures this moment in time with a hyper-detailed writing style that draws readers into Marco’s world. Through thirteen short stories, Duarte makes this year and place become so real you can almost smell the humid, dusty summer air and feel the cool fall winds on your face. There are Dodge Valiants, Volkswagen Beetles, and avocado green appliances. You end up climbing trees with Marco, racing your bike with him.

The boy in the book is not oblivious. Marco senses tension in the relationship between his mother and father. He mourns the grandfather he never knew who was killed in a workplace accident before he was born. In one story he feels the pain of a neighbor boy who has been mostly abandoned by his mother. In another, the entire family is horrified by the treatment of an elephant at the circus. Duarte’s talent lies in his carful calibration of how a youngster would react to the problems around him. You end up experiencing Marco’s world through his eyes.

This is a book about a small neighborhood in rural Illinois. To Marco, Cedar Rapids is the big city. In one story, his cousin mistakenly believes they are going to “see the rabbits” and keeps asking when the bunnies will appear. Marco’s father works for the railroad, his mother in a toy factory. There are no gangs on street corners, drugs aren’t a problem. Set securely in the past, there is no internet, there are no video games.

Each story is accompanied by a drawing that help pull readers further into this world. Drawn by Duarte’s father-in-law, they are as captivating as the stories themselves. The overall effect is not nostalgic but engrossing.

Mario Duarte is a Mexican American poet and fiction writer whose family has lived in the Midwest for over a century. He grew up in the rural western Illinois and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of New Hampshire. A resident of Iowa City, his poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Arkana, Digging Through the Fat, and other magazines.

Duarte’s writing reflects a poet’s attention to rhythm. Sentences rise and fall in texture and tone, making this a book that lends itself to being read out loud. Perhaps readers who insist on only reading Latinx stories that focus exclusively on immigration or those that are set in urban barrios might not find this book interesting. The rest of us will eagerly discover that the book offers a captivating alternative portrait of an era that has forever vanished.

My Father Called Us Monkeys: Growing up Mexican-American in the Heartland
bottom of page