Pura Neta, my new novel, stands on its own. It stands on its roots. In order to understand the totality of those roots, a reader can gain lots from reading my first novel, Barrio Bushido (published by El Leon Literary Arts in 2011). The two books are eternally intertwined because the ending of Barrio Bushido directly correlates to the beginning of Pura Neta.
Towards the end of Barrio Bushido, which is set in 1992, Lobo, a main character, wins street stardom. He accomplishes his entire individual will to power, accepting the guilt he must inherit for causing murder and mayhem and betraying and sacrificing the love of his life and his best friends. To him, capitalism leads to the perversion of success. Having reached his materialistic goals, he presents the community with a banquet. To make fun of them, to teach them, to show them the depth of his message, Lobo prepares a feast of human flesh—the heads of Sheila, the love of his life, and of Santo, his best friend who actually sacrificed himself for Lobo. In the middle of their varrio, complete with a giant table, plates, forks, and knives, smack in broad daylight for the entire community, Lobo serves their heads. He wants the entire community to understand that in order to be successful in this American society, they must be prepared to publicly eat human beings instead of hiding or diluting the depth of capitalistic cannibalism.
At the end of the novel, this same cannibalism has been used against Lobo. While he was becoming cut-throat street-successful, he was also being used as a pawn. Because of the homies’ craziness, what author and activist Naomi Klein would call “disaster capitalism,” the city hall government officials and corporate entrepreneurs use the crack-era destruction as a legitimate reason/excuse for why the hood should be “cleaned up”: the high rise federally subsidized projects are demolished and the Homies are shoved into mass incarceration concentration camps, prisons that will forever strip them of their rights and hopes. With the Homies gone, the “good” people saunter in.
In the final pages of the novel, we see that Lobo’s pursuit of will has cursed him with illusory power that he realizes is not power at all. The will to power must have both a subjective and objective component attached to it. Lobo may have some subjective wealth in the shape of cars and clothes, but it is not an objective show of powerful wealth. Lobo does not exactly know how one gets it, but he believes a starting point may be education. Lobo doesn’t advocate education as a fulfillment tool but rather as a vehicle for the gaining of power, as a weapon for war. He kicks out and commands Lil Cartoon, an up-and-coming promising loco, with exploring true objective power in the world, yet he does not offer Lil Cartoon any concrete advice except to tell him, “Go get some education, young blood.” In the conclusion of the book, Lobo counters philosopher Nietzsche’s individualistic will to power and even finds fallacies in the concept of independence. Lobo has gained independence but has seen that it is through sharing, even brutal sharing, that there is more fulfillment than through selfishness.
After all the intense varrio wars, mass incarceration, drug addiction, and destitution, Lobo tells Lil Cartoon, “I want you to sacrifice everything you’ve ever known, yet I know in the end you’ll come back to where you need to be.” Lil Cartoon, good Homey that he is, refuses to leave, even though everyone has abandoned him.
Lil Cartoon looks for answers at his Loved One Santo’s tombstone that reads “This is Take Off.” After he bows his head to read those golden words on Santo’s tombstone, he knows he needs to Take Off—for what kind of idiot or genius would understand the insanity of that wisdom yet stay? The inscription was idiocy because how the hell is being planted in a grave a Take Off? Genius, too, because compared to all the flying by any bird in the world, no other Take Off was truth.
That is the ending of Barrio Bushido.
Pura Neta, my new novel, begins.
Twenty years later in June of 2012, strolling once again through the streets of La San Fran Misión, Cartoon is no longer little; he is simply Cartoon, a character in a make-believe story full of comedy and violence, absurdity and amor. He returns to the varrio to share with and learn from all the locos: Toro, Santo the Spirit, and El Lobo. Cartoon has gotten educated by formal institutions and the school of hard knocks, has lived throughout the country, and kept and evolved his soul for the varrio. He comes back, but things have changed. He finds the hood under attack, and it is no longer the gangs, but the monsters of cafes, cheese schools, and micro-breweries, protected by their own police force, that are destroying the native San Franciscans.
Pura Neta, therefore, is really part two of Barrio Bushido.
Without knowing it, I was writing the history of the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission district. This is the absurdity that cannot be fictionalized: in the Cortland, Mission, and Fillmore districts, former ghettoes of San Francisco, houses that were bought for thirty thousand bucks back in 1977 are now “worth” over two million dollars, an absolutely fake number and value created to kick and to keep gente out.
Barrio Bushido was the base. It led to lots of opportunities and amor. I kept writing, kept learning and inventing, sharing everything I could. Now Pura Neta will be released by Pochino Press in September 2020, but if you are truly interested in understanding what that book is all about, I urge you to first read Barrio Bushido. Barrio: Neighborhood. Bushido: The code of the Samurai warrior. Barrio Bushido is about the unwritten, illogical code of the streets. The code to purposely choose the most destructive and painful manner in any given situation.
Barrio Bushido is a book of war about Vatos Locos as Vatos Locos, not as gangsters or revolutionaries or cliché criminals. In their craziness there is beauty, intelligence, and intense life. Once I began the “El Santo” chapter, I found myself giving homeboys an intellectual identity. I wanted the world to know that homeboy experiences do not necessarily lead to a stereotype stupidity; la vida loca can lead to depth, to a power that has value, both on a human level and at a literary level.
I do understand that there may be some resistance to the way some of these themes are presented, especially because of the violence in the book. But The Illiad is literature. Like The Illiad, Barrio Bushido also exposes war and combat, but this book is not like recent types of combat novels with the men fighting for a noble cause or because they were suckered into fighting. The novel’s main characters (Lobo, Toro, and Santo) fight to fight. They fight to doom. Their purpose is pain, suffering, release, and death. Fighting as a part of existence. Because of the violence, this book is politically incorrect. Neither is The Illiad politically correct. Barrio Bushido deals with the reality that one of our oldest traditions of literature is combat literature.
The book glorifies violence only in that it shows to what extremes the characters will go not to be normal, not to be discounted in this society. They do not perform run-of-the-mill type violence. These characters’ brand of violence is twisted beyond the normal. They find an identity in their violence, but that does not mean they are primitive. These are homeboys who discuss the greater purpose of their lives and of this universe. If these are people who can question, then why do these homeboys search for this type of violence? The common answer is that it is ultimately about power and a lust for power and pain. In this book, it is also about shame: the shame that leads one to try to hide sins and imperfections.
As with military combat, violence leads to profound questioning and investigation of self, which of course can be very beneficial. The characters’ violence is worse than gratuitous violence; it is a numbing normal violence for them. This is their world, their language, and their actions. Lobo, Toro, and Santo are at the bottom of the barrel even in their own Latino communities, yet to understand the totality of the culture and the future, I believe we must begin with the grassroots. These characters are the real cockroach grassroots. If we cannot understand them and find some humanity in them, it cannot get better for them, and I believe it will be very unlikely it can get better for gente at all.
In order to build community, to spread the power of literature, and to prepare you for Pura Neta, I want to give you Barrio Bushido to read. If you subscribe to this blog by clicking on the right hand corner’s “Follow” link or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page and privately message me an address at firstname.lastname@example.org I will send you, completely free of charge (postage paid and all), a signed copy of the classic Barrio Bushido.
To learn more about Barrio Bushido, click the link: https://todobododown.com/questions-and-answers-with-benjamin-bac-sierra/
Posing with “Emerging Authors” article in World Literature Today.
Barrio Bushido Premiere at Mission Cultural Center, San Fran Frisco, 2011.
First years of the Barrio Bushido booth at Carnaval, SFM, 2010 to 2013.
Praise for Barrio Bushido:
I read BARRIO BUSHIDO in short doses, braving the pain and suffering and violent life of its young characters and their/our world. Suspense pulled me onward; I had to know how crimes, wars, hopes come out, but more importantly–Will the author be able to pull off a novel with meaning, or will this be another nihilistic thriller? On the level of world politics, is there homecoming for the Iraqi war vet? Benjamin Bac Sierra has taken upon himself the labor of Dostoevsky writing CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Is there redemption for those who’ve lost God’s love? The reader feels the joy of murderous combat, and the heartbreak of compassion.
—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
Barrio Bushido tells the story of three young Latino men in the 1990s struggling to live by the homeboy code in a California neighborhood rife with poverty, drugs and violence. Bac Sierra uses a generous narrative voice and surreal absurdities to illuminate harsh realities, creating a world that straddles the line between myth and actuality. Barrio Bushido brings a Latin American literary tradition to American soil, situating Bac Sierra among magical realists such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
—Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts
“A Latino Elmore Leonard.”
—Earl Shorris, author of The Life and Times of Mexico
As if delivered in a single, sustained breath line, Benjamin Bac Sierra’s Barrio Bushido alternates rhythms of waiting and combat, reverence and mayhem, the sacred and profane. As in vertical time, the end is in the beginning, no spoiler alert sparing us from the weight of its final chord. Irresistibly, we are bound to Lobo, Toro, and Santo; since we cannot save them, we go down with them. Read this: dare to know.
—Sandra Park, author of If You Live in a Small House
Feral and poetic, Barrio Bushido, is a cautionary tale about the dangers that lurk behind brotherhood and honor, love and loyalty. A gritty, relentless, unforgiving portrayal of the equally unforgiving world of the barrio.
—Nami Mun, author of Miles from Nowhere
With energy that explodes on the page Barrio Bushido is rough, raw, uncompromising, and unflinching. Ben Bac Sierra has created three modern day musketeers that define the country we will live in for the next hundred years.
—Alejandro Murguia, author of This War Called Love
Benjamin Bac Sierra moves from lyrical beauty to savage brutality with all the grace of the symbolic matador who haunts his gripping novel of criminal life in a California barrio. Bac Sierra’s voice gets inside your head and stays there, binding the reader to the compelling narrative as tightly as the novel’s characters are bound to the twisted code of criminal honor that leads to their tragic downfall.
—Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Ben Bac Sierra sears the pavement with his bleeding-edge account of the barrio and its three most vital inhabitants: Lobo, Toro, and Santo. As rough as asphalt, as true a vision as you can find, Barrio Bushido demands to be read.
—Seth Harwood, author of Jack Wakes Up
“A truly poignant lyrical novel. Ben Bac Sierra gives a steely eyed lesson in barrioology as only a true homeboy can. A must read.”
—Professor Pedro Ramirez, San Joaquin Delta College; California Statewide Puente Leadership Conference
Written in gritty and evocative language, Barrio Bushido resonates with a raw energy that sings off the page.
Louise Nayer, author of Burned: A Memoir
Benjamin Bac Sierra Presenting Barrio Bushido at U.C. Berkeley on UCTV.