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.
Robert Seltzer is the public editor with the San Antonio Express-News