I cannot write about this book without also writing about myself. I realize that’s may seem odd for a book review but what is left after reading a book if you cannot compare it to your own life experience?
I will preface this by saying that I have never been incarcerated, though I’ve come close a few times and certainly known people and grew up around family and friends who have. That said, part of my mind has always been behind bars. Such is life in AmeriKKKa.
For most of my life, the thought of incarceration has always been there. You can read about in my books. Sometimes it’s been an overwhelming feeling of fear and loathing and other times just a fleeting thought but it’s never not been there.
It’s the tiny rock in my shoe that never goes away, except in this case, the shoe is my brain and the rock is the panicky thought that somehow, someway, I’ll end up in prison. And not just end up there but that I belong there.
We live in an age where (if you’re Brown) you can get pulled over for a simple traffic infraction and end up dead. My gut still sinks every time I spot a police cruiser in the rearview mirror. This is called conditioning and I have countless examples of why fear sets in every time Sgt. Pavlov rings his police bell.
That’s what AmeriKKKan society does to your head when you’re Brown. And if you don’t believe me just go read the headlines on any news site, anywhere in Police State, USA. Incarceration in AmeriKKKa is epidemic and as traditional apple pie, so much so that we now have prisons that make money solely based on their population numbers; the more inmates you lock up the more money your stockholders make. Ka-ching! Hello Wall St!
I can remember telling my little brother when we were growing up, “Stay out of trouble; I don’t wanna go to jail.” And I meant it. I’ll tell the same thing to my kids. Prison…always on my mind here in these not-so-united-states-of-incarceration.
I am a son of the Chicano Movement and also a child of the 80s and 90s so I’ve had my brain zapped with plenty of “prison flicks” and conditioning from crooked cops, warped teachers, racist textbooks, subliminal magazines, and the corporate media over the years. The stereotypes put out by “the machine” run deep and are perfectly accepted by most of mainstream society as fact. It’s both hilarious and pathetic.
As a Chicano you come to half-accept these things as a loose caricature of a culture that you either are privy to, part of or expect to be at some point. Why? Because we’re bombarded with these images at every turn; preschool to prison pipeline, baby! ‘Merica!
Everyone I know who is down and Brown has jokes about films like “Blood In, Blood Out” and “American Me.” It goes with the territory and it’s even celebrated in certain online communities, which is bizarre to say the least. People actually sell shirts with images from made up films portraying Chicano prison life…cue Rod Serling.
But I’ve had that rock in my brain for as far back as I can remember and when I read John’s book, it was like talking with an old friend about a favorite subject.
Let me rewind a bit.
I’ve read lots of books about prison, from the weirdo serial killer letter ones to what prison tattoos mean to stuffy textbooks, but John Espinosa Nelson’s book: “Where Excuses go to Die” was recommended to me by my friend Art Meza. Art knows my own work and so I take his recommendations on literature seriously. So I knew that on some level, I would enjoy this book.
“You’ll dig this book,” he told me. He was right.
I didn’t read anyone else’s reviews for this book before I read it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to read other people’s interpretations or their expressions of awe and or horror of what John went through. I did this because mostly I figured that the majority people who have read and enjoyed John’s book would be removed from his world by a few stratospheres. In other words, I figured they were squares.
And not to say that I’m not a square but I’m not that kinda square. Book club of the month kinda guy I am not.
Being obsessed with prison culture for most of my life (and by largely no choice of my own), being torn between two cultures in everyday life and being a Xicano in the year 2014, where Black and Brown people are incarcerated en masse, I was intrigued with the book to say the least.
Sure, you can read “The New Jim Crow” and be entranced with statistics and liberal horror stories about “the system,” but Johns book IS the experience of the system itself. Big difference.
Being a stranger in a strange land, as well as a nonconformist with my middle fingers flipped up at the establishment – any establishment – well, this book spoke to me on several levels.
The book is really interesting in the Chicano aesthetic. John may or may not know just how Chicano his book really is and this really made me dig the book. It’s like a Chicano Trojan Horse book. You may not think you’re getting a Chicano studies book but BAM! There it is. Take that Arizona!
This is one of the reasons I didn’t care about other people’s interpretations of it because I’m sure, like 99% of other books, the Chicano stuff went over their heads.
Nelson mentions several times that his father is white and his mother Mexican. So I realized right away that he grew up as a guero. If you’ve seen “Blood In, Blood Out,” think: Milkweed or Miklo but minus the gang bullshit and with a serious penchant for reform, humor, humility and literature.
And for all I know, Nelson might identify as White in his daily life but his struggle is one that is familiar to Chicanos everywhere. I’ve known half-White Chicanos who thought they were the next coming of Corky Gonzales and sellout Chicanos browner than dirt with Ronald Reagan bumper stickers. Nopal en la frente, ese…It’s all about how you see yourself.
Prison is a world of racial politics and for a person who is torn between two worlds, this offers an interesting dilemma: which side to choose…or which side chooses you? And what if you don’t want to choose any side?
Were this a Hollywood film, John would be expected to “shank” someone on his first day or face gang rape and then he would rise to prison infamy like his Hollywood guero counterparts. But this is real life and real life often tells Hollywood to go fuck itself.
To be honest, without knowing him personally, and with “Espinosa” in his name, I expected John to side with the Chicanos immediately and I was surprised, no, floored, when he ended up identifying more with the peckerwoods instead. Or I should say that, they identified with him.
If you watch the book trailer, a Chicano inmate that knew john says, “Yeah I remember Nelson. Half-Caucasian, Half-Raza…no Español.” And he says it with a little animosity in his tone.
Right away you sense the tension that exists in that world and it’s clear from page one that this is no ordinary book about Prison. This is not the gang memoirs of the ultimate badass from cellblock D but rather, “How I Survived the California Penal System Being Half-White and Half-Mexican Without Succumbing to 1,001 Clichés.”
John might not have had Spanish on his side but he did have his wits and sharp humor in a world lacking both and that saved his ass more than once. Despite him claiming to be half-Mexican, John was never truly accepted by either side of his own torn culture war but he gathered enough from both worlds to get by. I believe that he could have chosen sides if he really wanted to but he was defiant in wanting to be his own man and do his own time and I dig that.
He was identified as “white enough” to suffice for prison politics but never truly embraced as a ‘wood. He was also not completely shunned by the Chicanos. He was a stranger in a strange land, as I like to say, and that’s a place familiar to all Chicanos struggling to merely exist in a world that does not want them to and one that is always trying to define them…or erase them.
So, I really got a kick out of the racial politics and chess that John played in the book. He was good at it. He definitely made some moves and was able to survive without having to clique up and lose himself in the process. That’s true strength, in my opinion, and I greatly admire that. I also related to wanting to do things on your own terms and bucking the system.
While I read this book I felt a kinship to John because of that defiance. That really spoke to me. The book is a personal memoir and it’s written masterfully. The way John writes, I felt like I was doing time with him and that’s a strange sensation. Every time I picked up the book I would be in there with him and thinking to myself what I would do in the same situations…and when the hell do we get out?!
I also related to feeling like you are “better” than the situation you are in and to also the sensation of being institutionalized and crawling the walls – hello High School. There are many kinds of “prisons” we encounter in life but we each choose how we do our time in them.
The book has many surprises and turns and I hate reviews that spoil those things so I will not do that here other than to say that this book is both hilarious and moving. I think John’s sense of humor saved his ass as much as a burning desire to get over on “the man” did. Whatever keeps you going.
Probably more than anything else in the entire book, I think I related to the Elvis head story the most. Not only could I see myself doing something similar but even my friend said the same thing. That’s funny. Great minds and all.
So, what can I tell you to get you to read this book? It will surprise you, from the beginning to the end. The jokes, the raw honesty, and the brutal reality of prison life…and not in the way you would expect either. John’s book is devoid of clichés and full of what people often miss when it comes to portrayals of prison: humanity and humility.
In the end, Nelson lucked out, if you can call it that. Through the aid of friends and family, he caught the system slipping and turned that on them. The next thing he knew, he was free. If you’re religious, they say the Lord helps those that help themselves. If you’re not ( like myself) you believe that when you’re up against it, you have to believe in yourself. Sometimes that’s all you’ve got.
It reminded me of the film, “Midnight Express.” The only ways out of there were paying crooked lawyers or self-determination. Nelson chose self-determination, which again, is a very Chicano thing to do. But of course, I’m biased.
As an independent author myself and indie publisher, I greatly admire that this book is an independent success. That’s rare. I highly recommend it and would like to see it picked up for study in universities. If he’s not already, I can see Nelson talking about his book and experience to high school kids, colleges and also at prisons. I can also see his story as a film.
Lastly, I will say that I was immediately jealous that Henry Rollins endorsed the book on the back cover. I can see why Rollins dug it so much – It’s gritty, funny AND real! I tried to get Rollins to check out my own work for years until I finally just decided to copy his business model. He was a huge inspiration to what I do. I still have his rejection letter pinned to my wall by my desk.
Do yourself a favor and go out and get a copy of “Where Excuses Go To Die” by John Espinosa Nelson. Read it and do a little time with John. You’ll be glad that you did.