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Revenge of the Saguaro

San Francisco Chronicle
[Miller is] a superb reporter and slyly funny stylist. This is a compulsively readable book by one of our best non-fiction writers.
Los Angeles Times
Tom Miller knows his Southwest, and in [this book] he takes us on a tour of some of its quirky, funky characters and out-of-the-way places.
Larry McMurtry
Miller is as quirky and delightful as ever, treating the Southwest as a vast midden from which he plucks many odorous but tasty treasures. The fun, as usual, comes from watching Tom digest.
Martin Cruz Smith
Tom Miller loves the American Southwest the way a man loves a wayward, difficult woman, accepting her trashy, all-too-interesting history while knowing the heartbreaking truth. A rueful, wonderful, highly personal guide.
Library Journal
Residents, potential visitors, and armchair travelers alike will be captivated by Miller’s informative and often humorous book, in which the romance and reality of the Southwest are intermingled within a fine narrative.
New West - Books & Writers
Miller’s essays in Revenge of the Saguaro are travel writing of a sort, but they are of a different species entirely than the tips about what posh places to eat at or sleep in that one finds in glossy travel magazines. Instead, Miller offers an insider’s account of the grit, local gossip, and glorious bad taste that are a part of what endears the Southwest to its residents. And he just might convince you to overcome your food prejudices and head out for a chimichanga.
“Revenge of the Saguaro” Revels in Southwest Tackiness
Arizona writer Tom Miller investigates chimichangas, bola ties, and more.


My heart was hardened against the chimichanga early. In my Denver public elementary school, the cafeteria ladies used to serve chimichangas for Cinco de Mayo and Día de Independencia on September 16. (I wonder if the same individual is still in charge of holiday menu planning, as DPS officials recently caught flack for offering students “Southern Style” chicken and collard greens “in Honor Of M.L. King.") The chimichanga was meant to be festive, but it sat there like a lump on the tray, bathed in a thin, pinkish-beige sauce with chunks in it that so resembled vomit that the effect couldn’t possibly have been unintentional.

But with his essay collection Revenge of the Saguaro, Tom Miller, a passionate chimichanga advocate, has convinced me to overcome my prejudices against the fried treat. Miller’s book, which was originally published as Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink a decade ago, still offers fresh insights about some touchstones of Southwestern culture: chimichangas, saguaro cacti, bola ties, black velvet paintings, “La Bamba,” and more. About the only thing Miller left out is an investigation of those brightly painted howling coyote carvings that used to be ubiquitous.

In his essay “Death by Misadventure,” Miller discusses a cockfight he attended outside of Phoenix. “Cheerfully tolerating cockfights runs counter to everything civil I like to think I identify with,” he writes, “Still, the fact is that I’ve enjoyed the tackiness of the half-dozen cockfights I’ve attended in the United States and Mexico: the cigarette-strewn rubble, the pre-match betting, the slice (so to speak) of life—even, occasionally, the birds going at each other.” Tackiness is a beacon for Miller, and he examines his subject in such a descriptive, reflective fashion that even those who find cockfighting off-putting should find reading about it worthwhile.

In one of the best essays, “Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink,” Miller dives into the heart of Southwestern tackiness, investigating the origins of black velvet paintings, bola ties, and the chimichanga, or “chimi” as the high-calorie treat is affectionately known. “To see acrylic black velvet at swap meets and flea markets is to appreciate art en su jus,” Miller writes, “Elvis Presley. Dogs playing poker. Nudes with arched backs. Bullfights. UFOs. Those are the perennials.” Miller traces the black velvet painting to one of its most prolific sources in Tijuana, where he finds a dozen young men painting the Last Supper on black velvet, “a black-velvet factory.” About bola ties, Miller observes, “The nicest thing about wearing bola ties is that they will never go out of fashion because they never came into it.” And he informs readers, “You know your chimichanga is authentic if an hour after eating it, you feel a log gently rolling around in your stomach.”

Miller’s essays move from subject to subject in the manner of a free-form discussion around a guiding theme, so that you never know, based on an essay’s beginning, where it will take you before it ends. The essay “Death by Misadventure” opens with cockfighting, and then moves on to other forms of violence in the Southwest. Miller writes, “nothing contributes more to Southwestern tradition than violence. We celebrate guns and bombs here…” Miller describes his first experience firing a gun, a patrolman’s shooting of a Mexican trying to sneak across the border, a visit to the Trinity Site (where the atomic bomb was tested), and concludes with the story of a 1969 shooting in Tucson of some young hippies by the enraged father of a teenage girl who had moved in with them.

Miller’s essays succeed at capturing the Southwest in vivid detail because he’s an expert at poking around, asking impertinent questions, and going places that many people wouldn’t venture. One such striking detail occurs in “The Free State of Cochise,” in which Miller describes what he discovered when he volunteered to clean up trash left by illegal immigrants in the land along the Arizona border. “There, sitting in the desert…I found a gleaming white porcelain toilet bowl. Certainly it was not carried in by immigrants, surely it was carried in by local teens as a joke.”

Miller shares a number of great yarns, some of which turn out to be unverifiable legends, such as the truth behind “El Paso,” the Marty Robbins “cowboy ballad.” Other stories support the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, as is the case with the incident that inspired the title of the book. In “Revenge of the Saguaro,” Miller tells of a hapless man who got drunk and shot at saguaro cacti until one of them dropped a massive limb on him, crushing him to death. Like many of the essays, it manages to be sad and funny at the same time.

Miller’s essays in Revenge of the Saguaro are travel writing of a sort, but they are of a different species entirely than the tips about what posh places to eat at or sleep in that one finds in glossy travel magazines. Instead, Miller offers an insider’s account of the grit, local gossip, and glorious bad taste that are a part of what endears the Southwest to its residents. And he just might convince you to overcome your food prejudices and head out for a chimichanga.

Tom Miller will appear at the second annual Tuscon Festival of Books from March 13 through 14 on the University of Arizona campus.
- Jenny Shank, February 22, 2010 
The Salt Lake Tribune
Imaginative, inventive, witty…Miller has written a wonder-filled book.
Siouxland Weekly (Iowa)
Miller writes with passion about the region and relays it with as much skill as John Steinbeck.
San Antonio Current
Maybe the story of David Grundman - the man who, out of boredom, shotgunned a 125-year-old saguaro cactus only to be crushed to death under its 3,000 pound carcass - is a metaphor for man’s struggle against nature in the unforgiving Arizona desert. Maybe it’s just hilarious. Tucson travel writer Tom Miller seems to think the latter, and his essay “Revenge of the Saguaro” benefits greatly from it. “Revenge” is one of the easiest-reading, least substantial stories in the book by the same name, but Miller’s witty, well-considered telling, which begins when the saguaro seedling took root during the Buchanan administration and ends with a park manager’s gleefully graphic description of the crime scene (“The cactus popped his gums like they were little water balloons”), elevates a good anecdote into a great piece of writing.
Maybe the story of David Grundman - the man who, out of boredom, shotgunned a 125-year-old saguaro cactus only to be crushed to death under its 3,000 pound carcass - is a metaphor for man’s struggle against nature in the unforgiving Arizona desert. Maybe it’s just hilarious. Tucson travel writer Tom Miller seems to think the latter, and his essay “Revenge of the Saguaro” benefits greatly from it. “Revenge” is one of the easiest-reading, least substantial stories in the book by the same name, but Miller’s witty, well-considered telling, which begins when the saguaro seedling took root during the Buchanan administration and ends with a park manager’s gleefully graphic description of the crime scene (“The cactus popped his gums like they were little water balloons”), elevates a good anecdote into a great piece of writing.

Miller, who wrote most of the pieces anthologized in Revenge for Southwest alternative publications in the 1970s, isn’t always joking around, though, and chapters covering serious subjects - environmental activism, hate-crimes against hippies - are all the more inconsistent because of their weight, though they contain some of the book’s biggest payoffs. In his quest to understand his adopted territory, Miller, a D.C. transplant, examines the kitschy knickknacks, ethereally beautiful but nearly inhospitable terrain, and considers the sudden violence that characterizes the deserts of Arizona and New (and occasionally Old) Mexico with a local’s knowledge and an Easterner’s sarcasm. Describing the controversy regarding which region birthed black-velvet paintings, for example, Miller deadpans, “Black velvet art confirms the theory of independent but simultaneous evolution.” But, with the glaring exception of Grundman, he describes the people who, by choice or necessity, struggle to make a home in the Southwest with incredible empathy. When he’s taken for a tour of “a black-velvet factory” - a place where young artists paint Last Suppers assembly-line style for less than minimum wage - Miller’s only concern is for the artist’s working conditions and long hours, and he refrains from delivering self-important commentary on the bourgeois state of popular art: He’s happy to laugh off people’s taste for crap until it results, inevitably, in another way for the strong to exploit the disadvantaged.

For that reason, Miller has little sympathy for the types he calls the “briefcase buckaroos” who’ve infiltrated the region, the “recent generations of monied arrivistes [who] have adapted the traditional heritage of those they’ve displaced,” but he makes an effort to understand just about everyone else. His profile on novelist Ed Abbey and the Eco-Raiders, a group of militant environmental activists who, against the reclusive author’s wishes, have adopted Abbey as a sort of patron saint, is especially compelling for Miller’s ability to relate a subject’s point of view without judging it. Miller seems sympathetic to the Eco-Raiders’ cause, but dubious of their methods (sawing down billboards, sabotaging construction equipment, planning, per a plot point in one of Abbey’s novels, to blow up a dam) and the ambiguity leaves the reader to consider the costs of progress and conservation. His descriptions of cockfights and interviews with the men who breed roosters are similarly ambiguous: “Colonel Sanders keeps his chickens shoulder-to-shoulder indoors, and in six weeks, they’re slaughtered,” complains one breeder when a bill to make cockfighting illegal in Arizona comes up for vote. “Ours are better cared for. … They’re fed and watered twice a day. … Each bird is vaccinated.” Despite the bloody description of a rooster stabbing another to death with the sharp metal “spurs” tied to its legs, the piece comes close to being an apology.

“Cheerfully tolerating cockfights runs counter to everything civil I like to think I identify with,” Miller writes. “Still, the fact is that I’ve enjoyed the tackiness of the half-dozen cockfights I’ve attended.” He even places a few bets, but he concludes with an awesome bit of liberal guilt: “by the time I left … I had lost more money in a single day than I had pledged to my public radio station all year.”
- March 3, 2010 

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