Acting the part

by Jenny Shank

The Five Acts of Diego León
Alex Espinoza
304 pages, hardcover: $26.
Random House, 2013.

Diego León, the protagonist of Alex Espinoza's second novel, makes his way to the U.S. during the turmoil of the Mexican revolution, hoping to achieve stardom at a time when Hollywood's major studios each "had a Latin actor under contract." Espinoza, who was born in Tijuana and now lives in California, vividly evokes a series of worlds, from the prosaic realities of rural Mexico in 1911 to the merciless studio system behind the glamour of Hollywood's 1930s golden age.

The Five Acts of Diego León begins with Diego's childhood in a poor village in Michoacán, Mexico, where he lives with his mother, who grew up privileged in the province's capital before eloping with Diego's half-P'urhépecha father. Diego discovers his own love for performing during a dance for the feast day of the town's patron saint. "The more he moved, the louder the crowd cheered him on, the more they applauded, and the happier he felt."

Tragedy forces Diego to join his wealthy grandparents in the capital, and they educate him and give him music lessons while grooming him to take over the family business and get married. But Diego has realized he is gay, a secret he shares with no one. As plans for his future become fixed, he flees Mexico for Hollywood to pursue his show-business dreams.

Diego evolves from a sweet and sensitive boy into a dashing but calculating man who will do anything to achieve his goals. A secretary at the central casting office tells him, "Don't be so honest. In this town, people get rich by fibbing and go nowhere fast when they tell the truth."

Espinoza shows how every gay man in this closeted era was a kind of actor, whether they worked in movies or not, and how ethnic performers concealed their origins to project the aura approved by Hollywood. As Diego's career rises, he becomes increasingly entangled in lies, performing stock roles in stereotype-filled movies. He wonders if it's even possible for a gay Mexican to establish a settled and happy existence in Depression-era America.

In telling the story of one fictional character, The Five Acts of Diego León invites readers to ponder the many real people in the past -- and even the present -- who have been forced to conceal their true identities, keeping secrets but sometimes channeling their hidden angst into art.

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