Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 5 Part 1
The Credible Source for Latino Literature

Home    Contact Us    About Us
Latino Authors By: Ethnicity    Literary Award    Author Sites   
Best Latino: 
Nonfiction    Films    Authors    Children's Books    New Authors    Books for H.S.   


Latino Fiction &
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


 Part I Part I Part I Part 1 Part I Part I

Part II

Part II

Part II

Part II Part II Part II


Part III

Part III

Part III   Part III

Chapter Five (Part I):
Carnival and the "department store called america" [61]


            Towards the end of Alfredo Vea's novel La Maravilla, two Cushion-Aire boxcars go off the track spilling bonded whiskey and car parts through a shantytown outside Phoenix.  To the poor people (the outcasts who populate the book[62]), this occurrence disrupts the solemnity of the moment -- it happens on the day of the funeral for the Yaqui shaman Manuel -- and turns the atmosphere into one of festival and celebration.  "It was the mired who moved as a train was sacrificed in honor of the dead" (244).   Here, the rational gives way to the spirituality of party and freedom.  The grieving "shake off their grief" (243); the silent yell: "Que milagro! Ay, que milagro!"  In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz has described the Mexican festival as a group enterprise where "the individual is at once dissolved and redeemed" (48), where during this celebration, he can "leap over the wall of solitude that confines him during the rest of the year" and therefore "escape from himself" (49).  Whether occurring within elyusian mystery rite, roman saturnalia or modern holiday, the release of oneself from hierarchical, institutional order is a dissolving of the individual into a larger fellowship, a communion with a group and ultimately a joining with all other humans.  Times of festival therefore carry with them ingredients of pleasure and laughter, of food, music, drink, sex and humor -- all part of a timeless atmosphere of what Clark and Holquist call "communality" where "the individual feels he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body" (Mikhail Bakhtin 302).   The festival nullifies chronological sequence and becomes, as the narrator of La Maravilla, explains, "a time machine...a mechanism that re-creates all times at once and allows all who participate to breathe the past; to touch every bundle of time; to taste the ages" (98).  The elements of carnival communicate a sense of change (because they alter people -- distorting their sense of time, changing their emotions, disturbing their rational thoughts) which is central to the festival liberation from convention and the carnivalesque violation of societal boundaries. 

            When the boxcars overturn, the people run "to eviscerate the beached, haughty leviathans that had always rhythmically clicked their cold-shouldered distance from all those pinned by poverty to the same spot on the map.  Distance. Distance. Distance" (243-244).  This time, the "boxcars went nowhere" and the distance between the cold "iron voice boxes" and the people of Buckeye Road disappears.  Shocks and springs and ball joints from the boxcars' "innards" will be reborn in "every battered motor vehicle from Yuma to the Four Corners Reservation" while the whiskey will unite a community in drunken revelry.   As one man says: "It was like Miss America went blind and thought I was her husband."  The episode becomes the stuff of legends, of memory, of mythic nostalgia (uniting generations to come), not just because everyone has a good time, but because the rules have been broken.  The cold isolation the people always feel as trainloads of unattainable goods pass them by, day after day, disappears for once with this accidental and miraculous gift.  The inverted train cars, with their wheels spinning in the air, suggest an inverted, ruptured system. The wheels of "capitalism" have been rendered useless for a moment, and the privileges of the upper class transferred to the poor. 

           Vea employs the carnivalesque because La Maravilla is a novel that refuses simple truths. The reader is thrust into the world of people discarded by society -- bums and alcoholics, prostitutes and poor Indian spiritualists -- but linked as well to the recognizable themes of a young boy coming of age, of familial loyalty and love between this boy and his grandparents, and of the conflict between conventional (Catholic) and non-western (Yaqui mysticism) spirituality.  Yet the polyphonic inconclusiveness of it all allows no easy answers.  As readers, we explore this world exposed and highlighted by the carnivalesque and inhabited by "people of the gaps," knowing that "the gaps are where life really is" (221).

            In another moment of carnival magic, Ed Vega's Sinfo (like a Juan Peron figure) speaks to an adoring crowd ("Que Viva Don Sinfo...Que Viva Puerto Rico") and when he raises his hand in salute, lightning and thunder and "a tremendous downpour" send the crowd for shelter.  The rain cleanses the people of their "pent-up anger" and washes away their resentments.  Momentarily released, they commence a celebration, "a ribald fantasy" where the "Bermuda socialite does a topless dance, and the solemn Frances ends up in the cellar with one Don Cipriano, minus his accordion ("The Pursuit of Happiness" 230-232).  It is a moment when "young and old, cop and militant" are joined in laughter.  Washed clean of his capitalistic schemes, the protagonist finds the love of Elissa.  Even the "tantalizing" music itself, a Puerto Rican "plena," displays a political reversal, because the song "tells of the demise of a U.S. strike-breaking lawyer whose disappearance was attributed to a female shark" (232The workers, the marginal outsiders, the Puerto Ricans in general, gain the upper hand for a festive moment.  Once employed in a novel, however, the carnival atmosphere remains throughout, permeating the entire text since the reader, having glimpsed the other side -- that which negates the practical struggles of life -- can never again completely accept the status quo.  Neither Vega, nor Vea wish the reader to return to the norm.  Rather, the carnivalesque instills in the work a necessity for the reader to perpetually question the laws and restrictions of society. 

            The search for such holiday times, and the extent of the desire for them, can be viewed negatively from the perspective of practical law and authority and positively from the view of communal liberation.   Celebration of carnival in Latino fiction is either humorously and positively subversive or destructively deviant, depending upon the situation, the author, and the characters.  Thus, Latino carnivalesque is ambiguous; rather than set up a new "truth," it serves to "consecrate inventive liberate from the prevailing point of view...from conventions and established truths" (Rabelais 34).  A dual perspective often forces the reader to see, among other things, images of the carnivalesque as representing either happy release, melancholy self deception, or a combination of both.  In either case, the reader recognizes that the overall function of carnival is to free the human consciousness from restricting, unconditional values in order to allow the imagination to contemplate new potentialities, to "escape the false 'truth of this world'" (Rabelais 49) The desire on the part of these writers, both male and female, to exhibit what Debra Castillo has labeled a "willed undecidability" (Talking Back 69), and their refusal to accept absolutes manifests itself in the narrative use and the language of the carnivalesque.  Because the carnival is always in flux, combining opposites, inverting hierarchies, and abandoning etiquette, no one truth holds, and the reader is left with ambiguity and potential.  It is to see things upside down, like Vernetta in La Maravilla, who, looking at an abandoned house feels strange, "as though she were suddenly privy to a contrary world of houses where the people burned down instead" (254).  These sorts of inverted perspectives and humorous distortions fill Latino fiction with a polyphonic uncertainty where altering views of life compete endlessly.     

           The carnivalesque, in its overt form, has been recognized by Latino critics in the early Spanish novels of the Cuban writer Roberto G. Fernandez.[63]   Setting aside Fernandez's elaborate use of language and styles of discourse (an essential part of his carnivalesque idiom) discussed above, one festive scene early in the novel will throw light upon various thematic complexities.  The comic reversals and twists of the Christmas dinner scenario help instill in the novel as a whole a "topsy-turvy" atmosphere of transformations and inversions in such a way as to complicate the simplistic view of party as mere release and freedom.  The scene begins with Mima's kitchen preparation which, contrary to general opinion, she hates: "Every year, the same old people, the same old shit" (39), she grumbles.  Beneath the superficial level of the festivities lie a multitude of disparate voices reflecting the actual feelings (usually negative) of these Miami Cuban exiles at their Christmas eve dinner.  There is gossip, anger, fighting, and resentment under the gaiety of the dancing, the wine, and the food.  The whole scene is watched carefully by a dead pig on the grill whose perspective may be the only one of objectivity and balance.   A neighbor brings .99 cent wine disguised with fancy labels; a son involved in drugs lies about his Colombian "business trip;" Barbarita refuses to talk to the hostess because she's convinced Mima is making her husband Jacinto a cuckold; someone complains about the "American custom" of leaving the TV on all the time; the pig is too big for the grill; it rains; a child dressed as Balthasar explains mid-recital that no one in his family is really black -- in short the harmony of festival is actually a chaotic jumble of conflicting lives, and people's fears, prejudices, lies, distortions and sexism ("roll her in the flour and go for the wet spot ha ha ha" (39-52).  Fernandez's description turns into a series of snatches of dialogue, a list of angry emotions and outbursts which undermine any communal quality to the holiday party.  Despite the music, the dancing, the food, there is no humor shared by the characters, perhaps because the social codes and family roles are not, in fact, reversed.  Fernandez displays his characters ranting and complaining as the party unhinges their inhibitions, but nothing is drastically inverted for them and their attitudes remain selfish and antagonistic. 

            More often than not, the carnivalesque signals a release from authoritative rigidity.  Judith Cofer's town of Salud is transformed during carnival week from a "dusty hamlet" into a colorful festival "eclipsing the countryside and even the church, a massive white structure sitting on its hill like a reproving matron, dim and dowdy" (Line of the Sun 66).  It is only fitting that the carnival provides Guzman with the opportunity to meet the object of his fantasies, Rosa, for the second time.  Disguised as a gypsy, she reads his palm, and they embark on a passionate affair that leaves the "Ladies Civic Council and Holy Rosary Society" scandalized.    The servants of El Topaz estate in Castedo's novel Paradise use their "peasant" festival to counter the repressive laws of their wealthy employers (217-219).  Solita joins the "soul-raising event," because she relishes the freedom of those people, who, like her fellow refugees were noisy, "didn't do prearranged things," who were "cheerful" and "comfortable" (59), and who sang the songs, like the songs of Spain, the "pieces of Spain" (39) with unrestricted emotion.  A similar scene occurs in  Pineda's The Love Queen of the Amazon when the convent girls go down to the river for their bath.  Having arrived, they pass through an "astonishing transformation" during which "pandemonium" breaks out," and there is "no longer any way of civilizing them" (8).  Their recess becomes a release from the "stringent oppressions" through "all the canonical hours" (11).  The effect of the scene is consequently to juxtapose their laughter and freedom with the hollow threats of a disciplinary nun beating on her frying pan.  The frying pan itself suggests Pineda's commentary on the renowned women protesters who carried pots and pans up and down the streets of Santiago during the Allende government.  Though decorum will be restored, the interval provides one of the novel's many reversals of perspective.  Later, at Ana Magdelena's wedding reception, the father of the bride commits adultery, local prisoners do the cooking and then escape, kidnapping the bride, while the drunken armed guards sleep.  The sequence of bizarre party events will lead the reader down a twisting path of inversions in which his or her fairy tale expectations will be rearranged.  This Cinderella (Ana Magdelena) wants no part of marriage -- the contract for her own marriage is in fact too long to fit on any table and must be laid out on the piano (43).   After the kidnapping, Ana Magdelena winds up in a brothel (and leaves her slippers there the following morning -- slippers which magically appear at several times in the narrative 101).  Life in the whorehouse becomes the not unpleasant result of a marriage that instead of being a romantic happy ending turns out to be a happy beginning to Ana's life as a madam.    Inside the brothel (and Pineda makes it clear we are seeing the brothel from an insider's perspective), converted from a Capuchin convent, in the middle of the "vast ground-floor room," Ana finds a "circular settee...where people could lounge while admiring the surrounding splendor from various angles (102).  This "most curious" piece of furniture is suggestive of the lack of such perspectives in the outside world, and how limited are the angles of vision permitted women by societal controls.   "La Nymphaea" is run by her great aunt, her "protecting angel" Ofelia (171) and she and her "rainbow girls" supply Ana with "tears and laughter and companionship" which neither her "mummified in...flannel nightgown" mother, Andreina, nor her "exotic talking mummy from another world"  mother-in law (172) can provide.    In her more serious first novel Face, there is no capacity for women to unite in any way.  Not only held back by men, they must bear the burden of their male companions' frustration: Helio doesn't share Lula's ambition for him to get a barbershop of his own (19), and when she refuses to make love to the disfigured protagonist, he beats and rapes her (77).   

          Both Pineda and Fernandez, like Ron Arias before them, structure their novels around hyperbole and stretch the limits of plausibility for the sake of parodic humor.  Ron Arias once mentioned in a interview that the "best, most incisive most humanly appealing humor I've heard is from women -- but this is always in kitchens, classrooms, bailes [dances] or in stores. Not much in writing -- so far" (Bruce-Novoa Chicano Authors 248).  This prophetic remark made during the winter of 1978-1979 is now countered by the writings of  Pineda, Vega, Hijuelos, Cisneros, Garcia, and Roberto Fernandez -- writers who consciously distort perspective for the sake of inverting stereotypical ideas.   Pineda's tone and irreverence recall the narrative voice of Woolf's Orlando, a novel which paved the way for much of the sardonic humor found in The Love Queen of the Amazon.  Pineda's narrator's discourse, as Judy Little says of Woolf's, "often slides easily from the rhetoric of affirmation into comic doubt (181).  There is a similar twinge of the magically real in Ana Magdalena's mythic birth which echoes Woolf's elements of the bizarre such as the "Great Frost" where "birds froze in mid air" (Orlando (33).  A we have already noted, Pineda's scene in Federico Orgaz y Orgaz's literary salon owes a debt to Woolf's famous portrayal of 18th century British literary life.  Surely the discussion concerning the value literary gaps and "lacunae" amid Latin American writers alludes to the humorous gaps and omissions in Woolf's novel, (i.e. Pope's witty remarks are excised) and both pompous conversations leave both protagonists similarly unimpressed. 

            Pineda's novel deflates authority and the official in the tradition of Bakhtin's carnivalesque altering of hierarchical standards.  She switches around those categories within what Guillermo E. Hernandez outlines as the "Hegemonic Spectrum" of fiction.   She purposely confuses the whore with the wife, the husband with the fool; greed is associated with formal institutions like the church and the bank, and lust and sin with the heroine.   Breaking down the oppositions of the spectrum is an integral part of Pineda's deconstruction of her patriarchal fiction world.  On the physical level, we find City Hall "embellished by revolutions and pigeon droppings" (76).  Federico's massive "Casa Orgaz" (whose many rooms recall Bluebeard's castle  - 97, though Ana is no helpless young bride) is architecturally sterile and Ana Magdelena struggles to "soften the uncompromising granite columns of the courtyard" (178) much the way Isabel Allende's Clara from The House of Spirits struggles to alter the rigidity of El Patran Trueba's solid mansion.   The "gleaming white mansions" to which the convent girls aspire will, according to the narrator, become "their mausoleums" (10).  The structures of power rather than offering security and safety in wealth and privilege are seen as traps and prisons.  Often, male political authority is the target of Pineda's ridicule.  Toward the end of her novel, in a one farcical scene, she satirizes a wide range of the Presidents of both Americas.  George Washington, in a "crazy-looking boat" arrives at Ana's brothel with his son, George Junior, "as transparent as a fetus."  Teddy Roosevelt shows up boasting of his son, Ron, who has just "bagged his first mestizo."  Juxtaposing historical personalities, Pineda has the "not-yet-born" George and Ron (Bush and Reagan) playing with "instruments of torture," while Ana is unable to stop them because neither speaks Spanish and both are in favor of "a program of English only in utero" (227- 230).  The international monetary fund is debunked as the "International Fiduciary Fund" which is overly willing to loan money to a brothel, under the condition that it also be allowed to supply "Yankee" muzak which promotes haphazard indiscriminate buying (234), but turns out to be detrimental to the sex business (210-213). When Ana raises doubts about deceiving her new husband, Ofelia advises her that "respectable family men, the bankers, the lawyers, the doctors, [and] especially the politicians" are the most frequent customers (105). 

            The institution of marriage suffers extensive ridicule in this novel from the beginning.  When her friend Aurora gets married (her "reception more in the style of a wake" - 31), she explains to Ana the benefits of marriage, not for domestic reasons, but because having already given up virginity you are free to "do anything you want"(15).  Visiting her fiancee for the first time, Ana and her mother dress in mourning and Ana is told by Andreina to pretend there has been a death in the family.  In short, Ana can "hardly think of a single reason" for getting married and her life as a prostitute and madam frees her from domestic slavery where she'd "measure her life in rounds of baking, cleaning, and preparing sad little suppers" (172). 

           Perhaps organized religion is attacked with the most vehemence, for, at one point, the small town of Malyerba (Mala hierba / weed) is accosted by a "pestilential tide of prophets" and preachers (181) so numerous they rush to the door anytime a citizen attempts to leave the house.  During this "storm," Horatio Alger arrives and Ana receives him only because he carries a letter from her unreliable (and greedy) lover Sergio Ballado.  One thinks of Alger's Ragged Dick Series and their sermons on how battling poverty and avoiding temptation would lead to riches and how useless such an education is for women (most especially prostitutes) who must find economic security outside the male dominated system.   Finally, there are Ofelia's expressions, "God's little kneecaps"(154) and "God's little booties"(149) which belittle the notion of an all powerful God.  Just as she diminishes Presidents into "transparent," squabbling "boys" (230), Pineda is adept at taking swipes at all higher authorities.   Her earlier novel, Face, similarly debunked the necessity of God, in the character of Teofilho Godoy.  The plastic surgeon's name, Bruce-Novoa has noted, is an "interlingual play in which God is doubly named and adored" ("Deconstruction" 78), and because Helio will reconstruct his face without the aid or financial support of the doctors, the reader assumes Pineda is advocating symbolically some sort of liberation theology.  What Helio can do for himself, because he can simultaneously redo his identity and come to terms with his past, makes the authority figure of the doctor (read God) immaterial.   

            Like Pineda, in Raining Backwards, Fernandez aims his sarcasm at both sides of the border.  Cuban customs are as susceptible to criticism as is U.S. materialism.   As Febles has made clear about Fernandez's first novel, La vida es un special (1981), nothing escapes the writer's humor because everything (from lofty values to trivialities) is upset and twisted by an atmosphere of carnival.  A parody of the customary celebration of a young girl's quinceanera or "Golden Fifteen" party (31) during which the guests dress as lobsters and clams is mingled with hyperbolic attacks on the supporters of "English only" laws where members of the feared "tongue brigade" consider Spanish "a form of disglosia, a degenerative disease of speech centered in the brain" (153).  Organized religion is debunked along with Santeria; Barbarita's gossip (65) is critiqued along with news programs (155).  Whether or not the collage of parodic discourse Fernandez assembles in the novel ultimately endorses Cuban "reintegration" as Velasquez argues ("Fantastic" 75-76) or its opposite, the "death of Cuban exile culture" as Deaver claims ("Raining" 112), the work is an explosion of humorous debunking of Miami life, Cuban or otherwise.   It is the openendedness Fernandez insists upon that makes for a dual interpretation of the character of Mirta Vergara and which consequently fuels this critical debate.  Either Mirta is obsessed with her own nostalgia and physical pleasure and therefore degenerate, or she truly believes herself to be the sole transmitter of Cuban heritage which she deems so necessary for the young boy Eloy (representative of a younger generation), to inherit.  Given the extent and range of the novel's "mixture of affirmation and subversion, of praise and blame" (Vasquez "Parody" 94), a reader can only conclude that both possibilities are true, that Fernandez celebrates the inconsistencies of his multivoiced world, and that, as is true to the carnivalesque in general, the novel confirms a spirit of change, of undecidability, and showing life in "twofold contradictory process" (Bakhtin Rabelais 26).

            Overt examples of the carnivalesque (parties, fesitvals, masquerades etc.) invert the status quo, but images of specific ingredients or elements associated with carnival also carry a symbolic weight because they are related to the overall atmosphere of the carnivalesque, particularly when the opposition between the official and the unofficial worlds centers around ethnicity.   In Latino fiction, those aspects celebrated during the festival are frequently germane to Latin American culture.  Food, for example, is the central ingredient of the marketplace and, according to Bakhtin, the marketplace is the center of the carnivalesque, the unofficial.   Food symbolizes the ever-changing, growing, transitory nature of life.  This is why feasts occurred at important transition times in natural cycles, emphasizing the "never static," eternally "unfinished" image of the carnivalesque (Rabelais 52).  The carnival images revolve around continual "becoming," growing, and incompleteness" (Clark  310).  Thus food becomes an outlet, a release from a painful world.  This is especially true in Latino life in the U.S. where each ethnic parade, concert, festival, and holiday exhibits a longing for the traditions of a world left behind, each celebration providing an outlet, an oasis from the pressures of "Gringolandia."   Culture shock is understood in terms of food and drink:  "Migration scrambles the appetite" concludes Garcia's Pilar Puente (173).  "This country changes people. I think its the water. It makes them crazy" says Fernandez's Barbarita (85).  Yet the meaning of the celebration of that outlet by a writer depends upon the characters involved and the authors' sense of something larger.  For if the festival -- and by extension all elements of Bakhtin's carnival, that is food, music, sex, dance, and song --  is connected to a cultural heritage, then its depiction in the fiction will resonate with attitudes held toward that culture and indicate through suggestion the depth of emotional value which author or character feel toward that heritage.  From images of carnival, moreover, the reader infers an implicit critique of U.S. culture as it is suggested by what Latino characters, during holiday, reject.  Examining how food, for instance, is used should lead us then to understanding how close a writer is to that culture, and how much distance he or she feels is necessary for Latinos as they confront the problems of acculturation and assimilation.

[61]from the poem "Tata" by Puerto Rican poet, Pedro Pietri:

Mi abuela

has been

in this dept store

called america

for the past twenty-five years

She is eighty-five years old

and does not speak

a word of English


That is intelligence

[62]The inhabitants of this shantytown, "Buckeye Road," bear similarities to those in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  Both novels celebrate the individuality of characters living on the fringes of society. 

[63]See Jorge Febles's article in Confluenica: Revista hispanica de cultura y literatura entitled "Risa, crisis y coronacion paradica: lo carnalvalesco en La vida es un special 1.50 .75." Fall '88 Vol. 3, #1 pp. 123-128.  Mary Vasquez also discusses the "carnivalesque vibrance and color" in Fernandez's novel Raining Backwards.

Continue: Chapter 5 Part II



Last Updated:
February 26, 2011
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie