Amado Muro was a writer who told the stories of the downtrodden and forgotten. He is considered by some a great Mexican writer, despite the fact that Amado Muro was a white man from Cleveland – Chester Seltzer. He married a Mexican woman and adopted her name, Amada Muro, as a pseudonym. A newspaperman, Chester frequently traveled the U.S. and Mexico to live with the people whose lives he recreated on paper.
Robert Seltzer is Chester Seltzer’s son. His book, “Amado Muro and Me: A Tale of Honesty and Deception” shares his memories as a 10-year-old of his father. He says his father’s preferred mode of travel during his outings was freight train.
My father never went first class. I don’t think it was even 3rd class. He hopped freight trains and traveled throughout the country, throughout Mexico. He would be gone for days, sometimes weeks at a times. He would come home dirty and bedraggled. He was a child of the Depression, and while his family was well off, he saw the people on the streets, the homeless and disadvantaged, and he had this tremendous sense of identification and empathy with them. After the Depression, he never forgot those people. So my father wanted to tell their story, and the only way to tell it was to live among them, and one of the ways he did that was traveling on freight trains.
Because Chester Seltzer was a white man from Cincinnati writing as a Hispanic writer, that created a lot of friction within the Chicano writing community.
Right. Nobody knew that Amado Muro was, in fact, Chester Seltzer, until he died. And then the truth emerged. There was this backlash against my father because they felt that what he had done was cultural appropriation. I always felt it was cultural appreciation because he truly identified with Mexicans. If he was appropriating the culture, which I don’t think he was, there was no economic gain for him in doing so. He never made any money off his short stories. He never wanted any money. A publisher anthologized one of his great short stories and asked him how much money he wanted to publish it. My father wrote him back – I have the letter. My father wrote him back and said, ‘Thank you for accepting my short story, but no payment is necessary. I’m just a common laborer and I write as a hobby.’ And he signed it ‘Amado Muro.’ My father’s favorite writer was Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina may be the most fully realized female character in all of literature. You have Jim the African slave in Huckleberry Finn, and he may be the most fully realized character in American literature. And yet the author was White – Mark Twain. So you have these examples throughout literature. My father was an artist – I believe he was an artist - and he had the same right to depict others as Tolstoy or Mark Twain did. He may not have been in their league – although I’m very biased, I think he was – but he had the same right to do so.
Your father’s pacifist beliefs didn’t really just extend into an ideal. He actually suffered for it. And that was his refusal to serve in the Second World War. He actually served time in prison for that.
He served 3 years – 2 years in work camps and 1 year in prison. As I was writing the book, I didn’t want to describe that part of his life. It was too hard for me to confront. Months went by, and I decided this is the one chapter in his life that truly defines him. Truly defines what he was as a human being – his character and integrity. So I decided to depict that part of his life. I went to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where the prison is located. It was a beautiful sunny morning. I drove up to the prison gates. I parked in front of the gates. And I started crying. I sat in the car crying, because I remember the stories he told me about that part of his life. It struck me at that point why I didn’t want to write about it, because it all came back to me – the pain and anguish he went through. but I decided to describe it, and I’m glad I did because, as I said, I think that truly defined him as a human being.
You chose to write this book within one period of your life. Maybe within the span of a year. You’re 10 years old in 5th grade. Why did you choose that particular time in your life to share in this book?
My father died when I was still a teenager. I was 16 and he was a young man. Because I only knew him for only a short period of time, he seemed always frozen in my memory. All of that time was compressed. I would dwell on certain aspects of our life together, and that was the most significant and vivid to me, that year that we spent in Bakersfield. I believe, looking back, that it formed me, for better or worse. I’m not sure if I could have survived it intact without his guiding presence. I felt that what happened to me that year symbolized who he was a s a person. He was so empathetic and so wise. I was bullied in Bakersfield because I was the only Latino in the school. He was the perfect person to guide me through this because he understood both cultures and he understood how one was as valuable and as meaningful as the other. And he taught me that lesson as the year progressed.
This book is as much about you as it is about your father. The book begins, you’re in a happy place, you’re growing up in El Paso with all your friends, it’s where you were born. But all of a sudden you’re taken up and transplanted to Bakersfield, where all of a sudden you realize ‘I’m different than everybody else.’ Back in El Paso, you look like everybody else, but in Bakersfield you kind of stand out, and that really makes you a target.
I didn’t realize I was different until we went to Bakersfield. In the classroom in El Paso, I was a brown face in a sea of brown faces. In Bakersfield, I was a brown face in a sea of white faces. They let me know that I was a brown face in a sea of white faces. That was hard to accept because I didn’t realize I was different. When you’re 10 years old, you want to belong. You want to be part of a group that accepts you. And I wasn’t accepted. It made almost every day of my life there miserable. If it hadn’t have been for my father, I’m not sure what would have happened to me.
There’s also a point in your book where you write about your grandmother – your Alita, as you call her – and she opens up to you and says she accepts your father as Mexican because he chose to become Mexican.
That was very important to me because I didn’t really grasp that concept as a little boy. She loved my father. They loved each other. They understood each other. My grandmother had this very colorful way of speaking…
Your grandmother AND your mother! They seem to be the exact opposite of your father. Your father comes across as being the quiet, serene force in the house, and yet your mother and your grandmother are the most foul-mouthed women in the planet!
That’s funny, because the publishers asked me to translate the Spanish phrases. As I was writing the book, the phrases in Spanish didn’t really strike me as being all that off color, because I was used to them. But when I translated them into English, I was mortified! I thought, Oh my God! My grandmother could have been a sailor! She was that foul mouthed. And yet, there was nothing really malevolent or malignant about her. Her language was very colorful and very humorous. And I would always smile when she cussed, because it was always directed at my friends or neighbors. But she didn’t really mean it in a negative way. She…well, she DID mean it in a negative way. But she was venting. And she knew that she was being slyly humorous, and I got a kick out of it.
Going back to your father and your grandmother, and they’re accepting each other’s identities. There’s actually a portion of the book I’d like you to read. You refer to your father as ‘the old man.’
“When Alita had given me the retratos for Christmas” – she had given me some photos of my father as a young boy and I didn’t realize it was him, and she said that was your father quando era gringo, before he adopted the Mexican culture. (Restarts reading excerpt) “When Alita gave me the retratos for Christmas, I started grappling with his dual identity. I thought I understood, but after he told me about Lewisburg Penitentiary, I realized my notions were too romantic, too quaint. Amado Muro wrote the short stories, but Chester Seltzer lived them. The old man had a history, a back story, and it was this back story that informed every word he wrote. It was a story of alienation and a desire to rise above it, on his terms. He did it by becoming Amado Muro, finding refuge among another group of outsiders, Mexicans, who were marginalized by the larger society. They helped the outsider become an insider. The old man would never admit it, but he wanted to belong, and now he did. His soul was plundered by one group and restored by another. The result was remarkable. He did what all great artists do – he internalized the voices of others."
Robert Seltzer is public editor for the San Antonio Express-News