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As the World War II cultural and industrial boom birthed a new California, a mighty steel industry rose with the potential to make modest dreams real for the workers willing to risk their lives in the ...
As the World War II cultural and industrial boom birthed a new California, a mighty steel industry rose with the potential to make modest dreams real for the workers willing to risk their lives in the mill's ferocious heat.
For the Salcidos, the Nazareth mill became an engine for survival. Luis J. Rodriguez chronicles the simultaneous evolutions of this American family and the enormous enterprise that drove them — from optimistic and cohesive units questing for stability and prosperity to disintegrating entities whose dreams have long since lost their luster.
Spanning six decades, the novel conveys the drama, resilience, and humor of working-class life during a little-known era in American history.
An overhead crane with massive iron jaws lifts several tons of red-orange forged-steel ingots from their soaking pits. The crane moves across its tracks and lowers the ingots onto stainless-steel rollers that push them into the pounding forge of the 32-inch mill. With enormous force, the forge rams down on the ingots, shaping them into long beams to be transported to other mills for more precise shaping -- into I beams, H beams, plates or rods of various diameters. Nearby, a gondola car on a narrow-gauge track brings in more newly formed ingots for the soaking pits inside Nazareth Steel Corporation's two-man-high chain-link and corrugated steel fence that faces Slauson Avenue.
Johnny Salcido looks on from across the street, although he doesn't stay long; the heat from the ingots-known as "hot tamales" because of the high temperatures and their shape-penetrates the clothing and skin of anyone standing there, even at that distance.
But for as long as he can, Johnny eyes the steel mill. He watches as waves of heat rise into the air from each virgin ingot. This is where he's going to work. Work he desperately needs. It's May 1970. He's been married for a month and unemployed for a lotlonger. Lanky but muscular, Johnny has sharp dark features, a thick head of hair that he wears combed back, and a whisper of goatee under his bottom lip. But he also has a streetwise stare at age twenty. After surviving drugs, stealing, violence, and jail, his ready-for-anything demeanor is sensed by all who know him. Now Johnny's ready for a new wife, a new) job, perhaps even a family.
Although he doesn't have a clue as to how to start this new life, Johnny is prepared to do whatever he has to. Working at Nazareth Steel is his one chance to straighten up and to prevail-not just survive. This is what his mother, Eladia, has told him repeatedly while he was behind the razor wire and barred doors of the California Youth Authority prison. He had argued with her -- he didn't want to cave in to the mill, where his father, Procopio, had spent a quarter of a century. This is the same father who kicked Johnny out of the house when he was fifteen, forcing Johnny to fend for himself in the trash-lined streets, crash in friends' pads, and sleep in the drug dens of his neighborhood. Procopio expected his sons to be working men, not bums or petty crooks, like Johnny seemed to be.
Yet, after his release, Johnny figures that if he doesn't find work in the mill he may have to return to stealing, the drugs, and, most likely, a jail cell ... what a plan to fall back on, he thinks.
As it is, Johnny's four older brothers also toiled in the mill-three of them are still there: Junior, Rafas, and Bune; the other, his oldest brother, Severo, died within months of being hired at Nazareth.
Ever since Johnny has been exiled from the family, they all only came together for him once-at his wedding. But the estrangement lessened when word got around that Johnny had been hired at Nazareth -- without a recommendation from his father, which would have been a surefire way to get hired. A fact Johnny's particularly proud of, and something his father didn't like hearing at first. Deep down, though, Johnny knew that Procopio felt relieved his youngest son was following in his steel-toed footsteps.
The mill is a hard nut to crack; thousands line up weekly to apply for whatever shoveling or hauling jobs are available. Johnny, however, is assigned to the maintenance crew, a prestigious prospect in the poor South Los Angeles barrio where he grew up. Not everyone is allowed to work on these crews, and he knows it.
By the time Johnny's hired, Nazareth Steel has been continuously running its powerful electric furnaces, rolling mills, wire mill, warehouses, and scrap-metal yard on several acres of prime land for thirty years. Generations of fathers and sons and grandsons have already toiled in the mill by then. Nazareth feeds off the large number of Mexicans in surrounding communities, including East L.A.; blacks and Mexicans from South Central L.A.; and blue-collar whites and Mexicans from communities like Bell, South Gate, and Lynwood. The workers come from far-flung Southern states like Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana; from Indian lands in Oklahoma and Arizona; and distant Mexican states like Durango, Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, Jalisco, and especially from Zacatecas, where silver has been mined for centuries.
Mexicans and blacks work in the low-paying, backbreaking labor crews on all three shifts -- the plant never sleeps -- while the higherpaid construction, maintenance, and electrical crews consist mostly of Southern whites, brought in specifically for the skilled jobs. Most of the foremen and all of the management are also white.
By 1970, after a decade of bitter civil rights battles, including the 1965 Watts riots and disturbances in East L.A., Nazareth begins to break down its own racial barriers. A consent decree has been signed with the United Steelworkers of America that demands blacks, Mexicans, and Indians enter the once-restricted repair crews; a similar decree will later allow women to work in all areas of the plant (besides clerical positions, that is).
That's why Johnny Salcido -- badass ex-cholo, ex-pinto, and onetime druggie -- manages to get a position in the "oiler-greaser" gang, the first level of the millwright craft crews at Nazareth. Although the term oiler-greaser sounds derogatory to Johnny, he knows this is good news. After his release from the CYA facility in Chino, his parole officer said factory and foundry jobs awaited wards of the state-prior to his release, he was trained in basic mechanics. His bride is a beautiful eighteen-year-old South Central L.A. girl, formerly named Aracely Velasco. Everything seems to be looking up for Johnny. Everything.
Excerpted from Music of the Mill by Luis Rodriguez Copyright ©2006 by Luis Rodriguez. Excerpted by permission.
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An 18-year-old Yaqui Indian leaves his village in Northern Mexico. Traveling by foot, he looks for work, for hope, for life. On his way, he meets a strong, young Mexican girl, and they marry and settle in L.A. When young Procopio gets a coveted job at the Nazareth Steel Mill it means a good paycheck, a way to provide for a family, and a shot at a life in America -- "big-time" for a Mexican migrant. Thus begins the story of the Salcido family in America. Like all beginnings, it is hopeful.
Music of the Mill is told in three parts, each part telling the story of one generation: Procopio, his son Johnny, and finally Johnny's daughter Azucena. The struggles change over the years, from a mill dominated by KKK members to white, old-line labor unions to the lack of jobs after the mill closes, to gang life and drugs, to cancer.
The story of a family fighting for a better life is the story of America itself. What is new is the almost unheard before voices of the Salcidos themselves, the blacks and Mexicans working in the Mill, Harley, the white revolutionary in their local labor union, and Velia, one of the mill's first female steelworkers. In his first novel, Luis J. Rodriguez presents a world of American workers, wives, daughters, brothers, and artists that is utterly original and gripping.
Questions for Discussion
About Luis J. Rodriguez
Luis J. Rodriguez is the highly-acclaimed author of several books, including The Republic of East L.A., Hearts and Hands, Always Running, as well as collections of poetry and books for children. Rodriguez helped establish Chicago's Guild Complex, one of the largest literary arts organizations in the Midwest, and the publishing house, Tia Chucha Press. He has spent over 25 years conducting workshops and readings in prisons, homeless shelters, migrant camps, universities and Native American reservations. He is also cofounder of Tia Chucha's Café & Centro Cultural. A former steelworker himself, Rodriguez now lives with his family in California.