Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. – Opening page from Bless Me, Ultima
This is a slightly different sort of review. Although I read the book years ago, I wanted to review the novel. At the same time, I’ve gotten back into calligraphy and so wanted an audio book. There are sadly few works of Latino/a literature on Audible.com but Bless Me, Ultima is one of them. Listening to the wonderful reading by Robert Ramirez brought me a different and deeper appreciation of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel. I would highly recommend discovering or rediscovering this text through its audio form.
Published in 1972, the Bildungsroman novel Bless Me, Ultima is a Chicano literature classic. The basic story is narrated by Antonio Márez, who is only six years old at the novel’s beginning. He is a child torn between ways — between the Lunas –his mother’s Catholic farmer family and his father’s wild vaquero background; between Spanish, the language of home and English, the language of education; between the Catholic religion and the traditional earth religions of the curandera and his native ancestors. Though Ultima, the curandera who comes to live with the family at the story’s beginning, Tony becomes entangled in a series of battles between good and evil, personified in the struggle between Ultima and three evil witches and their father. … Read the rest
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.… Read the rest
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.… Read the rest
[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.… Read the rest
While I was at the MALCS Summer Institute I confided in another attendee that I was nervous about the process of creating course syllabi as I’d never done it before. She, an associate professor of Spanish and all around lovely person, enthused that creating a syllabus was fun, and then told me she sometimes writes them to amuse herself.
With her words in mind, I tried to embrace this as an opportunity rather than something to fear. Sure enough, as I sat through the next talk, thinking about Chicana literature (I knew whatever course I came up with would be one focusing on Chicana/o literature), I came up with the idea of the “Chicana/o Gothic” — a course that would explore canonical and recent Chicana/o text through the dark lens of the gothic.
This is what I’ve come up with so far. I’d love to hear what you think — criticism is helpful. This version of the course is being imagined as one offered for a 10 week quarter. I’ve linked the texts I’ve reviewed to the reviews I’ve blogged.
Bless Me Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya
Calligraphy of the Witch – Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Brides and Sinners in El Chuco – Christine Granados
The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction – Jerrold E. Hogle
The Rain God – Arturo Islas
The Hungry Woman – Cherríe L. Moraga
What You See in the Dark – Manuel Munoz
Demon in the Mirror by by S. Joaquin Rivera
The Hummingbird’s Daughter – Luis Alberto Urea
Gods Go Begging – Alfredo Véa
Is there a Chicana/o Gothic?
… Read the rest
For the past couple days, as I read Alfredo Véa’s San Francisco novel Gods Go Begging, I’ve been flashing back to my undergraduate days studying Vietnam in film and literature with Professor John Hellmann at Ohio State. My first impression of Véa’s book is that it’s a great Vietnam novel, a story of physical and emotional warfare played out thirty years distanced from the conflict.
Yet as a Chicana/o text it’s even more interesting, with the hyperreal images of conflict, almost too brutal to be depicted. This sense of the hyperreal gives way to the magical real as the spirituality of violence and love are explored. The protagonist, Jesse Pasadoble is a San Francisco defense lawyer, thirty years back from Vietnam, yet emotionally he’s never been able to leave. As his past catches up to his present, Vietnam becomes part of his legal battle, the violent lives he’s surrounded by.
At first I wasn’t sure I could read this text as gothic (remember the course I’m planning) — it seemed too modern for that. Yet in this text the dead come back to life and speak the unspeakable, partly through grotesque depictions of their own bodies. Yet in these depictions of violence and death, what endures (and what the dead seem to be trying to speak) is about their desires, their loves.
This book isn’t an easy read by any means, but is one I would highly recommend. … Read the rest
[Note, this blog title was shamelessly stolen from a tweet by @laura_luna who has her own blog, creativexicana. I only steal from the best.]
Over on Twitter Chicano MA student @xicano007, who has a library anyone would envy, started posting images of his Chicana/o books along with titles and authors. Ever the busybody I suggested he start a hashtag so we could search them more easily and maybe join in. The result was #aztlanreads and it’s glorious with an explosion of tweets of Chicana/o and Latina/o books (poetry, novels, academic writing and histories). If you read Twitter, participate. If you don’t, follow the link and look anyway. Seriously, I promise it will make your day.
There have been so many books I remembered and even more that I hadn’t heard about. I seriously have to find a job so I can afford the book habit this hashtag is creating. I hope it lasts forever. It’s the best use of Twitter I’ve ever seen.
There’s more about #aztlanreads’ wonderfulness over on the excellent blog Lotería Chicana. She points out the power that the shear volume and quality of the Chicana/o texts listed have in combating the notion that there’s a shortage of books and materials out there.
Rumor has it that there’ll be hashtags for #aztlansongs and #aztlanfilm next. I can’t wait.
UPDATE: Aztlán Reads is now a blog! … Read the rest
Actually I read this book yesterday. Was so into it I didn’t start the review until after it was completed. Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I’m reading it with the thought of including it in my Chicana Gothic syllabus.
Calligraphy of the Witch by Chicana scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba is an amazing American novel. It confronts Chicana/o absence in traditional American history and literature by telling the story of a convent raised Mexican mestiza scribe, Concepción Benavídez, captured by pirates and brought to 17th century New England as a slave. Raped on her journey, the story is framed by Concepción’s daughter, born in the Boston colony and torn between her Mexican mother and her mother’s slave owner who adopts the child as her own.
Parts of the text are told as if written by Concepción in her scribe script (and are in a calligraphic font.) I loved this, but I did find my eyes straining to read at various points (maybe I need new glasses). Still, this touch makes the novel feel like a work of art.
Her Spanish language and foriegn ways put Concepción (renamed Thankful Seagraves) at odds with her New England owners and neighbors, eventually sweeping her up into the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. The story is well written and at times almost too tense. I could hardly put it down. And yes, it will be perfect for a course on the Chicana/o gothic.
ADDED: This wonderful YouTube trailer. You know you want to read it.… Read the rest
Since the MALCS Summer institute I’ve been more active in the Chicana/o community on Twitter. Today I found out about my first Twitter book group. Using the hashtag #DITM we’re going to be talking about poet S. Joaquin Rivera’s book Demon in the Mirror, a collection of edgy, dark poetry. The author is going to be leading the discussion. What a thrill. I just ordered my copy from Amazon and can’t wait. I’ll put a review up here.
Want to join in? Talk to me on Twitter @anneperez and use the hashtag. Even if you’re not on Twitter, read the collection and talk about it here. … Read the rest
Today I’ve started the novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’m thinking of using it for a class I’m planning (planning in a sense of writing a syllabus, rather than actually having been engaged to teach) on the Chicana/o Gothic. At 499 pages, it seems a bit long, but is actually a fast read. While it code-switches between English and Spanish, the Spanish is understandable by context.
The book is a novel telling the story of the Mexican saint, Santa Teresita Urrea. So far I’ve read the first five chapters. It captures a diverse sense of Mexico as a space not just of Spanish and Mexican, but of indigenous. The novel is in the magical real tradition, yet magic and spirituality are also questioned throughout. As Teresita becomes more spiritual, more of a saint, it causes friction within her family, especially for her father who is not religious / full of doubt. This doubt / balance is one of the things I like best about the text. That aside, it’s a beautiful book. If you’re looking for some rich summer reading I highly recommend The Hummingbird’s Daughter.… Read the rest