Pulitzer prize winning John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 about the Joad family - their poverty, their desperation and above all their dignity. It was and is an amazing social commentary and Luis Rodriguez’s Music of the Mill is as well. Everyone knows about the Great Depression but how many people outside of the little South L.A. towns where the steel mill ruled for so many years and about the economical and social decline the closing of those mills caused? Billy Joel sang about Allentown and the whole nation was made aware of the loss of mills in Pennsylvania. Who sang for Huntington Park, Maywood, and South Gate, those little sad towns in Los Angeles? Luis J. Rodriguez has now done so.
In Music of the Mill, Luis Rodriguez writes about the Salcido family and their 60-year relationship to the mill called Nazareth Steel. The story starts with Propocio and Eladia walking most of the way from their home in Mexico to a new life in the United States. They wind up in Los Angeles and Procopio gets a job in the big steel mill. Rodriguez’s portrays the union battles, tesions between Blacks and Mexicans, the white domination in the union, in the mill itself and the fight of the Salcido family for equality and safety within the dangerous mill.
Johnny Salcido, the main protagonist is as strong of a character as any I’ve read. He has his dark side yet he is strong in his love for his wife and family. His portrayal - the young vato loco getting in trouble to the young, green mill worker to the activist and father all are so amazingly well done that you just feel like you know him and maybe you do. There is a lot of Johnny Salcido all of us, the rebel, the fighter, the lover of hearth, home, family.
The mill itself is portrayed as dangerous, toxic yet seductive monster. Mr. Rodriguez brings the reader into the mill; you feel its heat, its intensity, its ugliness and its beauty. From workers grilling their carne asada on an ingot to the racial tensions and divisions, you are in that mill. You can feel the tension, smell the carne. People die in the mill, lose limbs, breath in bad fumes. Workers turn to alcohol, drugs to stay awake in order to work more shifts. It is all too real.
I grew up a Xicana in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel in the 1970s. I remember the men that would come home dirty, black from the fire of the mill and tired. I remember when the mill closed and the rise in drug use; sales of such and violence began to escalate in the barrios where I was now raising my children. I never really tied the two instances together until I read this most remarkable novel.
It is as much a social commentary and as well written and gripping as Steinbeck’s. I read one review where the book was well received but the reviewer had a problem with Mr. Rodriguez’s socialist bent. I didn’t see that all. I found the book to be most realistic, the characters were people you cared about, wanted to find out more about. He is a master storyteller and one of the best social commentators of the Xicano in L.A.
No one understands the gangs, the drugs, the jail culture, the strong Xicana men and women, the love we have for our children and culture, the strong worth ethic of the modern and past day Mexican-American as much as Luis J. Rodriguez. He is our Steinbeck. The Music of the Mill hammers out its own glorious song and will be one day a force to be reckoned with. This is more than just a novel. This book has a destiny.