Reading Today: What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo

What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo, who edited the ground-breaking anthology Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mother Warned Us About, is the story of the life of eleven year old Marci Cruz, growing up in California in the 1960s. Marci tells us, the reader her secrets.  She has two prayers: the first is that her violently abusive father will go away; the second that God will physically change her from a girl into a boy.

The reason for her first prayer is obvious. What night brings is a father who, while at times loving and affectionate, can explode in fits of violence, beating Marci and her sister Corin with his belt and fists. Marci prays because her mother is so crazy with love for this man she ignores the escalating abuse of her daughters. One of the ways this story is unique is that Marci and her sister, for the most part, don’t romanticize their father, instead disowning him and calling him “Eddie” rather than dad.

Marci tells the reader she’s not praying for her father to die, just that he’ll go away. Her reason for not wishing him dead is she’s afraid that if she does God won’t answer her other bigger prayer, to be turned from a girl into a boy. This desire for a male body is intense, forming the basis of her dreams and sexual fantasies. Her reason for wanting a boy’s body is that she’s attracted to other girls and believes the only way she can have relationships with them is by becoming a boy.

Two traditional Chicano institutions are subtly criticized in the novel. Marci’s extended family knows about the father’s abuse of the girls and tries to moderate it, but ultimately can’t seem to step in and stop it. The Catholic Church is prayed to, with wishing taking the place of action for Marci. When, in the midst of the climax where her father begins beating her mother causing Corin to shoot Eddie, Marci stops wishing and praying and instead takes control. She gets her sister and herself out of the house, away from their mother whose only concern was her abuser, getting them from California to their grandmother in New Mexico, saving them both.

The book reminded me of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, in that the violence doesn’t detract from the beauty of the story, while also still being a graphic depiction of a child growing up abused.  As a Chicana text, it both questions the traditional family and religion, while also offering insight into the confusion of a girl growing into her lesbian desires. I would definitely recommend this book an important and engaging novel.

Reading Today: Caramelo

Reading Caramelo was an odd experience. I used a library copy, but the only one my library had was the large print edition. The large type gave the odd impression of being shouted at. At first, I thought the larger print was the reason it was taking me a long time (several days) to read through this deceptively simple text.

But that’s the thing. Cisnero’s novel, like her earlier work The House on Mango Street, is not a simple narrative. In fact, it’s not really plot driven. It’s a series of interconnected moments, told with rich detail and, at times, overwhelming emotion. The narrator, Lala or Celaya Reyes, tells the story of three generations of her family’s history in Mexico City, Chicago and San Antonio. Yet we’re constantly reminded throughout the text that this isn’t entirely a fiction as Cisneros weave her own family’s, U.S. and Mexican histories into the book’s footnotes, using the device of the novel to fill in gaps in the historical record.

The narrative device is a candy colored (caramelo) rebozo, left unfinished by the too-young death of Celaya’s great grandmother, the Awful Grandmother’s mother. It fascinates Lala from the time she is a small child until she inherits it as a young teenager.  Like her grandmother, for whom she has little affection, she braids and unbraids the unfinished threads of the scarf. Likewise the narrative feels incomplete as Lala tries to piece together her family’s stories from what they tell her, what they haven’t told her and from her own creative imaginings.

Reading some of the reviews on Amazon, you would think that the book is written in Spanish as much as English.  This isn’t the case — there’s no Spanish in the text that can’t be translated by context. However, in a sense those reviews are right. The English names “Aunty Light Skin” or “Uncle Baby,” “The Little Grandfather” are badly or literally translated Spanish, highlighting the impossibility of translating an endearment from Spanish into English without loss.  It is, I believe, a clever way of the author joking with the bilingual reader, pointing out that something will always be lost in the move from Mexico to the United States.

[Passing note: I don’t see this book working for the class on the Chicana/o Gothic I’m constructing.  Mores the pity because it is a lovely novel.]

For Aztlán Reads: Gazing East: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

[This text was written for the new blog, Aztlán Reads, to which I’m excited to have been asked to contribute. The blog post is here. Go ahead, leave a comment.]

Just as there is a presumption that United States history begins in the east and moves to the west against a savage frontier, so is there a presumption that this expansion was an inevitable and ultimate good. Even now, to connect western expansion with race slavery and Native American genocide is to write against the “official” versions of Californian and southwestern history. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s nineteenth century novel Who Would Have Thought It? writes against these assumptions and makes the connection between United States imperialism and issues of race clear, as her novel’s trajectory connects the U.S. west to the east, and the north to the south.

Published in Philadelphia in 1872, Ruiz de Burton’s work is the first known novel by a Mexican American. Yet the claiming of Who Would Have Thought It? as an early Chicana/o novel lays bare more than one history of racism and resistance to the existing United States black / white binary. Writing this satirical novel, Ruiz de Burton attempts to reclaim whiteness for her own class of Californios by exposing the racist hypocrisy of the northeastern white elite. In doing so, she expresses sympathy with southern slave holding, seems to agree with the stereotypes of crudeness and vulgarity expressed about the Irish in the northeast, reinforces racist stereotypes about African and Native Americans and ridicules the position of abolitionists as little more than hypocrites. Spanish colonial Mexico becomes, in the process, a utopian space of cosmopolitan civility set against the provincialism of the northeastern bourgeois capitalism.

In her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, as well as her later work The Squatter and the Don, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton writes against this presumed east to west historical trajectory, locating the home space in the southwest (and, in The Squatter and the Don, specifically in California) rather than the New England east. She also names as a cultural point of origin the Mexican south rather than the New England north. Similar to Ruiz de Burton’s own life, the history of the novel’s heroine, the idealized Lola Medina, begins in Mexico at the time of the United States / Mexican War, then migrates to the the United States’ western frontier — first outside then inside of the “civilized” United States — before she finally moves to the supposedly tolerant and civilized northeast. Read as early Chicana novels,6 Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s works offer an insight into nineteenth century perspectives of Anglo Northerners by the early California Chicanos / Mexican Americans. Continue reading