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Latino Fiction &
T
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.
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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

WORKS
CITED PAGE

 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 Four (Part III): Dreams and Betrayals: Latino Between Worlds

         Roberto G. Fernandez's Raining Backwards mocks the American dream in an even more obvious fashion.  Jacinto Enrique Rodriguez, alias Keith, eldest son of one of the novel's two central Miami Cuban families, tries to go to school, but is beaten up for being a "SPIC" [in capital letters] and subsequently finds the "land of opportunity"(73) in drug dealing which allows him to buy his father a doughnut shop and his mother jewelry.  His encounter with public education reminds the reader of Antonio, the protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima and his journey into the belly of the "cavernous" school building where he will feel like a lonely "outcast," experiencing for the first time, a grown-up's "tristesa de la vida" (54-55).  In Rodriguez's novel Spidertown, a young Puerto Rican street "runner" searches for success and respect in the cramped environment of New York City's South Bronx.  The drug dealer Spider mocks the "American dream" and Miguel's admiration for Spider as father, as "every image of family and sharing and teamwork, of power, success, and fame" actually "negates" it.  Miguel's attitudes are confused.  At the same time he rejects Spider's opinion that the two of them are "livin" the American Dream, "climbin' the ladder," and feels that his own goals, of "making it to the top honestly and cleanly" are the real American Dream, he also thinks the whole thing is a lie, that "no spick kid was going to make it that way" (185).  The critic Alberto Sandoval rightly questions whether ideologemes like "Number One," "All-American Boy" or "American Way of Life" are ever "guaranteed to all immigrants" and whether buying into the hegemonic "America" means losing forever one's previous cultural background (201-202).  It is the inability of characters to satisfactorily answer such questions that feeds their complexes and anxieties, and impairs their relationships with others.

            That there is danger in the figures who exemplify the U.S. is clear throughout Latino fiction.  In Arias's Road, for instance, Fausto and Mario meet up with a barechested, smiling Mr. American with his pink frisbee and his doberman.  This character is the male counterpart to Cisneros's Megan from "Never Marry a Mexican," a "redheaded Barbie doll in a fur coat. One of those scary Dallas types, hair yanked into a ponytail, big shiny face like the women behind the cosmetic counters at Neiman's" (79).  Or, as Vea puts it during Josephina's surreal dream on the bus, an example of impossible "gringo americano code requirements" which dictate that woman have "no distinguishing facial features, no pores, no hairs on the upper lip.  The nose itself simply must not exist" (189).  Sandra Beniez has an interesting story in her story-novel A Place Where the Sea Remembers in which the stereotypical American tourist's fear of the dangerous Mexican is turned upside down.  Here a Mexican photographer grows increasingly paranoid about a "gringo" in a Ford station wagon (incidentally wearing a "thick, blond ponytail") who gives him a ride home to his coastal village of Santiago.  Suspecting he is about to be robbed and murdered by the gringo,  the photographer is overcome by a "fear as misshappened as the trees" (Benitez 35) which radically distorts his understanding of an innocent situation.  The gringo, in turn, catching the paranoid Mexican rummaging through his belongings, also misreads the events and abruptly leaves his passenger stranded on a deserted beach in the night.  What the story reveals is what Cisneros hints at with her description of the Texan menace: that stereotypical fears of North Americans are just as powerful for Latinos (and perhaps more justified, given the political history)[58] as those fears of Latinos are for the average North American.  A simple reversal of perspective and the enemy is friend, the friend, enemy.  An episode early in Francisco Goldman's The Long Night of White Chickens demonstrates the problem.  The narrator, half Guatemalan but raised in Massachusetts, betrays his Guatemalan friend by breaking their pact to jump simultaneously into a walled off yard protected by a ferocious German shepherd.  Though perhaps a typical adolescent prank, the narrator becomes a "Gringo de mierda" (36) and the betrayal becomes allegorically important; it is the U.S. side of Roger Graetz's personality that is at fault, and it destroys, at least in the eyes of the Guatemalan native, the "amistad" that led to the pact to be begin.  What is suggested here is that there is something unreliable and devious, something superficial and selfish about the U.S.  For the inmates of Miguel Pinero's now classic drama Short Eyes, the most despicable character --  amid murderers and thieves and drug addicts -- is the "gringo" child molester, Clark Davis.  His deranged personality, however normal he at first appears to the audience, is eventually seen as a twisted product of contaminated societal values which the microcosm of the prison world portrays.  In Judith Cofer's The Line of the Sun, a young Puerto Rican girl is scared of the basement.  The lost heroine, Flor, in Goldman's novel is similarly petrified of her finished basement room in a New England home (47-48).  Until the reader understands that rooms beneath the earth do not exist in Latin American homes and therefore carry the connotations of graves, the fear appears unjustified, even a sign of neurosis.  Flor's suffocating sense of isolation leads her upstairs to the kitchen where the narrator, Roger Graetz finds her with "eyes glowing like a frightened forest animal's devouring, as if it were a candy bar, a whole bar of butter.    

 
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          The short story "Sometimes, If You Listen Closely, You Can Hear Crying in the Zoo" in Ed Vega's collection Mendoza's Dreams interestingly reflects on U.S. materialism and its enticing allure to the vulnerable.   Gregory Sandoval's upper westside apartment is a veritable museum of material products and Gregory's marital problems revolve around his struggle to escape their influence.  He treads upon his wife's "yellow rubber daisies" glued to the bottom of the tub (95).  He resents his son's fascination with a cereal that tastes like sugar coated "dust" (102He dislikes working for an advertising company  that sells "cans and boxes of junk...harmful not so much to the body but to the psyche" (103).  His profession, his bathroom rituals and his marital frustrations remind the reader of Leopold Bloom.  Most of all, he resents his blonde wife, Gayle, with her "angelic pose," and "porcelain-like" arms who smells like "Camay and Johnson & Johnson baby powder (105), and is "almost commercial perfect" (104).  She stands in her kitchen "poised at the bronze colored stove with its matching grease and smoke removing unit, preparing to dish up his eggs onto a bright orange enameled dish" (105).  Gregory (like Lester Thompson in Fourteen) desires to escape the sterility of his domestic life (his wife's vitamins, his daughter's righteousness, his son's athletic prowess) and delve into bohemian fantasies of art, wine, sex, Greenwich Village, Tribeca and Paris.  He longs to exchange "the heaviness of an American breakfast" for the "magic ingredient" of the croissant made by the "magicians of love:" French Bakers.  Obsessed with the seedy side of Italian Mafia, he sees his wife as a stewardess, cut from a uniform "mold" with a "deceptive sweetness."   In fact, he reasons, it was his own "greed" and "need to possess America" that attracted him to her (105), as she had been attracted to him because of his adamant desire to reduce his accent through "clear enunciation" (90).   Yet her "All-American" cheery self has left her so sterile that Sandoval is "convinced she timed her flatulations to the crash of the cymbals" in the Dvorak symphony she plays while in the shower.  By contrast, in the shower Gregory sings Spanish gibberish with reckless abandon, the "only time of the day when he felt totally uninhibited" (94).   His ultimate bizarre act of dressing up as a gorilla and attacking her is the culmination of pent up instinctual desire, pure Dionysian sexual frustration (like Victor in another Vega story "Collazo's Diet").   He commits, to use Gayle Sandoval's euphemism,  "a USA," an "unnatural sexual act" (100) and while he smashes up the "mushroomlike, molded plastic, white kitchen table" he roars in bestial, if illogical pleasure.  By destroying the sterile products, rejecting the U.S. influence that has convinced his fifteen year old daughter that parenting is "outmoded" and turned his son into a mindless sportsman, and by attacking the rigid superficiality of his wife, Sandoval asserts his conviction that the real value of the U.S. lies not in advertised products, but in "action... movement... leaping headlong into danger...shooting from the hip, no holds barred" (109).  He impetuously rebels against the "closed minded" vacancy that his "All American" ("near Nazi" - 108) wife has come to represent, and doing so he overcomes his lifelong fear of not conforming to U.S. popular culture.  He has tried to look Italian when Italians threatened him, then claimed allegiance with Puerto Rican gangs to protect himself from others.  He has tried to reduce his accent and become a part of advertising.  Finally, his imitation of the sad gorilla in the Central Park Zoo costs him his marriage, but he has asserted his individuality.   Like his namesake Gregor Samsa, he is awakened from his passionless and sterile existence through metamorphosis which allows him to disregard the "sweetness" and "sugar coated" kind of stale and vacant life he has been living and which by inference suggests life in the U.S.    

            A short story writer like Benjamin Alire Saenz uses the triviality of U.S. products, the cheap plastics for example to subtly critique through juxtaposition a character or a belief, as well as to symbolically debunk capitalistic paltriness in this country.  After Olivia, in "Obliterate the Night," reads her husband's farewell letter in which he claims he is leaving her, "playing the heavy," for both their sakes, she sticks the letter on the refrigerator with a "watermelon magnet" where it hangs "like an unread grocery list" (Saenz  46).   This symbolic trivialization of the man's words is integral to a story about the inability of words to communicate what is vital and the deceptions of languages, but it also insinuates the larger idea that somehow practicality and colorful gimmickry replace written language.   Similarly, there is Roberto G. Fernandez's Mirta, a woman who wipes off her Bella Aurora conditioning cream with Burger King napkins, then recreates the beaches of Cuba by spreading cat litter over her bathroom floor, and simulates the ocean waves by pointing an electric fan over the water and dropping in Alka Seltzer tablets.  When the drug dealer Jacinto (Keith) is captured by a policeman named Jim Carter and dragged out of his parent's home, he laments the lack of "sense of family" in the U.S.: "It was humiliating being treated like dirt right in front of my mom" (73).  On the one hand, Fernandez points to the superficiality of the American dream, to how often it is distorted into capitalistic greed, and on the other hand, he pokes fun at the importance of "family" to the Cuban - American, achieving a sort of satirical bicultural parody.

             Interspersing products across cultures juxtaposes cultural traditions in sometimes unflattering ways.  In Arturo Islas's The Rain God, for instance, a Mexican/Indian seance, is somewhat hampered by one character's nose "itching from the Aqua Velva they [had] sprinkled into the air to induce serenity (Rain 34).    This is the method of Joyce in the parallels between Ulysses and Bloom, the lofty mythic deflated by the banal everyday.  As Vasquez has shown, in Raining Backwards, Roberto Fernandez's allusions to classic titles (i.e. "Keithlied," "La Chanson de la Cousine")  present a situation where "the dubious present-day heroes...are parodically measured against their medieval ancestors-in-myth" (Vasquez "Parody" 99).   For a writer like Helena Viramontes, the juxtaposition of cultural items and products enhances the sense of displacement felt by people making do with what they have despite (sometimes oblivious) to ironic incongruities.  Thus in "The Moths" the herbalist abuela prepares to grow her plants in Hills Brothers Coffee cans (24) and prepares a "balm out of dried bats wings and Vicks" (23) while the daughter/narrator uses Vaseline for shoe polish (25).  Taken together, images like these can be read in interesting ways: the organic (bat's wings, the herbalist) confronts the conglomerate manufacturer and the synthesized chemical product; the all-purpose slimy substance serves to gloss over reality.  Juxtapositions like these deserve attention because they reveal the writer's attitude toward the cultural connotations they invoke.

            This kind of hyperbole, typical of Fernandez's Raining Backwards, satirizes, not the U.S. or Cuba as countries, the gringo or the immigrant as people, but the "enabling fictions" or pipedreams of individuals who can't see the illusionary nature of both old world and new, who do not understand the uselessness of either exaggerating a golden past or believing in an ideal future.   The motif of a lost paradise, common to writers in general, is particularly important to Latino writers.  The attempt to recover a world which does not exist, to regain the mythic perfection of a lost homeland (Aztlan) or an island paradise, be it Puerto Rico or Cuba is futile and consequently a source of parodic humor to the Latino fiction writer.  Moreover, the lost paradise (the illusory center) changes as characters move and grow, as the disillusioning present becomes the ordered, controlled and unalterable glory of the past.  Paradise exists in the future as well.  For the Montez O'Brien family, the idea refers to Ireland, Cuba, Cobbleton, PA, and even Mars depending upon the character and his or her own sense of memory and nostalgia.  Shifting notions of edenic perfection are central to Elena Casteda's novel Paradise.  A refugee from the Spanish Civil war, the young protagonist, Soledad or Solita,[59] is brought to a rich South American estate called "El Topaz."   To Solita and her mother, paradise means their lost Spanish town, Galmeda.  To the children of the estate, their home is their paradise.  Though her mother believes that "the best way to get where you want to be is to please those who own the road" (281, 304), Solita grows to recognize the illusory, false paradise of the wealthy, and to believe with her practical father that "paradise was a hoax invented by priests to seduce nitwits (3).  She resolves never "to go to Paradise, nor do what the Romans did...[but] do what the Gypsy said: cross the oceans and find love" (327). 

          Sustained by enabling fictions, various characters move through their disrupted lives in a sort of daze, often infatuated with memories and dreams connected with the orderly perfection of the lives they have forever lost.   In the works of Garcia, Fernandez and Hijuelos, there are several melancholy Miami Cubans "succumbing to a cloying nostalgia" (Dreaming 113) for their "martyred island" (Fernandez  Raining 221), because, like Rufino Puente, Pilar's father, they just "can't be transplanted" (129 ).   Hijuelos frequently describes his characters as "floating" away from reality.   In Mambo, Delores metaphorically "floats away" and recalls Havana during her first sexual encounter with Nestor (90).  Nestor, playing trumpet is thrown into "a heaven of floating space...lost in melody" (113).  Delores's father, at a bar, is "for one moment...lifted out of himself, [and] float[s] upward to a place of eternal relief and comfort" (71).  For Hijuelos, Eliade's "magic flight" becomes a "magic float."  In his earlier novel, Mercedes, "the greatest invalid of all times" (208) is likewise a floater.   During her honeymoon, she seems "to drift away, floating off the bed" (29), and she repeats this act during routine sex with her husband Alejo (65) and during Hector's birth.   Cecile Pineda, in her novel Love Queen, relies on magical realism to parody this dreamy release from life when the elderly Clemencia, with her tendency toward repeating "one nostalgic reminiscence after another" finally, literally floats away.   

            Overall, Latino writers, especially Cuban-Americans, take nostalgia seriously.  Cubans gather in Miami bars to play dominos and critique Castro in purely negative terms.   In New York as well,  these men (and they are usually men) see the world from a Cuban perspective.  Locations, like Pablo's apartment in Mambo, are measured in terms of Cuba: "two minutes from the 125th Street El, an overnight train ride and forty-five-minute flight from Havana, and five minutes from Harlem"(34).  Cesar's girl friend, Vanna Vane, is as "prestigious as a passport" (19), the document most coveted by the exiles.   A similar drunken and displaced Cuban in Abraham Rodriguez Jr.'s Spidertown, with eyes like "black marbles in tomato soup" pays homage to Castro ("Homenaje a Castro") with his flatulence: "a long raspberry that inspired some applause" (76).  Such incidents occur in films as well, such as in "El Super" which sympathetically depicts a Cuban who can't adjust to New York City winters.  Mercedes Sorrea Santinio of Our House in the Last World, to provide another example, is never able to quite come to terms with the "cultural schizophrenia" of being Cuban and living in New York.  She slips into illusions that center around her childhood house in Cuba where she sits in a garden surrounded by "the smells of food cooking," and her beloved dead father's affection (215).   She remembers "only the good and not the bad" (49), and although Hijuelos has intentionally left out the "bad" from the opening chapters of the novel (in order, presumably to narratively infer his character's repression and denial), we are told later of the beatings and the suffering she endured in her mythic childhood home(49).  Her husband Alejo and his friends "soften up and bend like vines, glorying in the lost joys of childhood" because "political talk about Cuba always led to nostalgic talk" (House 167).  Others fantasize about the revolution to come and the illusion keeps them going.  Slipping in and out of his characters' minds, Hijuelos as narrator ironically deflates certain island fantasies, especially the machista opinions of Alejo Santinio.  In Cuba, "they know how to raise children so a man doesn't get involved...a man could truly have his way" (67), and there "you could always find some poor unhappy person who could clean a house" (113).  In Cuba, "the world was different [and] people believed in God and children died at early ages of the fever and tuberculosis" (12).   These melancholy people are not limited to Cuba, however.  One of Nicholasa Mohr's heroines, Lucia, in a delusional state, drowns herself recalling the river of her memory of lost innocence on the island of Puerto Rico ("Happy Birthday").  There is too, the character of Zoraida in "Aunt Rosa's Rocker" who rocks herself into a nostalgic trance because of her sexual frustrations in life.  Her chair is directly connected to her world in PR (25) and becomes "the one place where she felt she could be herself, where she could really be free" (29) and where she could "remember" (30), rocking regressing, returning.  The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, one reviewer has stated, is not so much about Cuban immigrants searching for the American dream, but about Cuban Americans dreaming (Jefferson 24).  The dream of returning to an Edenic paradise recurs in the novel with the same pounding insistency of Cesar's many-faceted drums (Mambo 252), or the cyclical repetition of "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," the 78rpm record playing and replaying during Cesar's last days in "The Hotel Splendour." 

             Not all characters, however, succumb to an overwhelming nostalgia for the past.  Delores Fuentes (before she marries Nestor Castillo) comes to terms with her illusions as a result of her sexual initiation with the "pepsodent man."  She is no longer a child repudiating the world like the heroine of the poem she has memorized: Poe's "Annabel Lee" (72).  Her initiation experience brings with it a maturity of character such that she can no longer escape into an imaginary "kingdom by the sea," nor evade practical reality by reading romance novels or detective stories that have previously taken "her mind off the terrors of the world and the sadnesses that ran madly through her heart" (62).  Like Alejo Santinio's cousins in Hijuelos's House, Delores tries not to "allow the old world, the past, to hinder [her life]" (182).   Where the earlier novel's heroine, Mercedes Santinio, entombs herself in her illusory past (as Annabel Lee is "shut up" in a "sepulchre there by the sea"), Delores enters the liminal space of hybridity.  One of the problems with Gustavo Perez Firmat's reading of Hijuelos's novels is his denial of this mid-way state which is why he views Mercedes in purely negative terms, as a "manic-depressive."  Characters must either remain Cuban or become American as "life on the hyphen" is a mere transitional state, doomed to disappear when Perez Firmat's own "1.5" generation of Cubans is replaced by younger Cuban-Americans.  Hijuelos, he argues, is writing his "anglocentric" novels "toward America" (137).  Yet the America we find in the books indicates the author's mixed feelings.  Further, Perez Firmat's analysis, in many ways insightful, is based entirely upon the male protagonists, their cultural adjustments to the U.S. and their oedipal struggles with father/uncle figures.  Nowhere does he allow for the complexities of the women who, like Delores, walk the line between cultures, and like the characters in other Cuban-American novels journey in both directions. 

           Achieving one's heart's desire is often tied to a plan to get back what was lost upon leaving the old world.  Cesar and Nestor long for a club that mirrors the pre-revolutionary success of the Cuban night life scene of the 1950's.  Later, Cesar plans to open a small store: the "bodega" dream of numerous characters.  In Nicholasa Mohr's "A Very Special Pet," the Fernandez family dreams of their island village and owning their own farm where the children's pet chicken named Joncrofo (after Joan Crawford) might "run loose" (El Bronx 4).  By the story's end, though Mrs. Fernandez continues to sing her "familiar" song about "a beautiful island where the tall green palm trees swayed under a golden sky and the flowers were always in bloom" (12), her attempt to butcher the chicken for an island style meal of "arroz con pollo" is unsuccessful.   The desire for fricassee made from cabra (goat) sends an Ed Vega character (in a story aptly called "The Pursuit of Happiness") into an illegal business scheme of raising goats for slaughter, the result of which is slapstick comedy where Vega pokes fun at, among other things, the store owner's inability to replicate PR within East Harlem.  Rufino Puente in Dreaming in Cuban has a similar scheme to supply "all of Brooklyn" with honey by developing apiculture in an abandoned warehouse, but his idea is quashed by his ever practical wife who secretly releases the bees, getting stung in the process so badly "she could hardly open her eyes" (30).   Another Vega hero in the story "The Barbosa Express" is more successful when he ingeniously steals a New York subway car and then transforms it into a replica of everything he misses from the island of Puerto Rico.  The success here, though it provides a momentary illusion of the old world, has less to do with the possibility of regaining the edenic island as it does with Barbosa's knack for subverting the system -- literally in this case, as he works underground to force the system to change directions, and free him from the channels and regulations that the Independent Subway System or IND dictates.  The story is about the power of Barbosa, a Puerto Rican "Jeramino Ananimo," a small fry, who, having been through his share of "immigrant nonsense" (114), exerts his own independence (on the fourth of July) to the ultimate degree and creates a Puerto Rican paradise beneath the city: brightly colored living rooms, kitchen, nursery, dance floors etc.   Vega again celebrates the little man in his story "Mercury Gomez" in which a small black Puerto Rican relies on his invisibility -- the result of his being "black and small" (145) and on his understanding of U.S. principles for speed and uniformity: "They want everything in a hurry and they want everybody to kinda be the same. You know, carbon copies. Polaroid and Zerox" (147).  Working with other "invisible" friends, he develops a system of delivering mail throughout Manhattan and rises above a position of servitude (in which he is derogatorily known as "Speedy Gonzalez") into one of power and prestige as the head of Mercury Communications.  Jack Agueros tells a tale of two similarly efficient clockworkers who manage to do quite well amid the hectic "Bim Bam Boom" ("Horologist" 48) of New York life, maintaining their own island sense of time and craftsmanship.  There is also the resourcefulness of a Hotel laundry washer who teams up with a woman to start a food business in Central Park.

            The Puerto Rican's underground success is suggestive of ambivalence toward U.S. business ventures in general.   As Mary Vasquez points out about Roberto Fernandez's, Vega's humor also depends upon the reader's understanding of a U.S. "consumer paradise" and its materialistic allure for Latinos.[60]  The Cubans in his stories (where Cubans own the majority of small stores, bodegas, etc.) are not particularly admirable, just as Mima's plantain business for Fernandez, or Lourdes Puente's "Yankee Doodle Bakery" for Garcia are but signs of assimilation and denial of cultural heritage that the novels do not support.  Vasquez notes the skill with which Mima embodies "the classic American ideal of the self-made (wo) man" as "negotiator with the encompassing majority culture" ("Gender in Exile" 81), and the same could be said for Lourdes Puente.  Both women celebrate their patriotism in grandiose fashion: Lourdes dresses in a "red, white, and blue two-piece suit for her bicentennial grand opening of her second store (144) and Mima is interviewed by TV cameras in her home while a chorus sings "God Bless America."  Yet both these women, despite their skills in the "navigation of majority waters" (Vasquez 82) pay the price of estrangement from their children, especially their daughters.  Pilar mocks the statue of liberty; Connie rejects her mother's lessons.  Both mothers rigidly adhere to conservative sexual codes for their daughters (i.e. Pilar is admonished for bathing too long) and both daughters reject such restrictions as hypocrisies and antiquated customs.  Pilar believes her abuela's belief that Lourdes's behavior is the result of her "frustration at things she can't change" (Dreaming 63). The vehemence of parental control serves only to drive Pilar toward her grandmother, her boyfriends, and her Cuban heritage, and it pushes Connie toward her own demise.    Mima's son Jacinto, on the other hand, adapts the capitalistic enthusiasm of his mother, but uses it to subvert the system by becoming a drug dealer.  Jacinto is one of those Latino characters who resolve their cultural tensions through marginal lifestyles: in the urban setting, through crime.  Rodriguez's Spidertown depicts a band of urban youth in Harlem manipulating an underground world of drugs and arson and murder.  Like the characters in Spider's favorite book, Oliver Twist, these Puerto Rican "lowercase people," "tiny pins on a map, [who] hardly registered at all" (288) survive on the margins of society.  The alternative course, often the means of escape, is often the creation of art and the therapy of words.  Thus there are many portraits of the Latino artist as young people: Rodriguez's Miguel, Cisnero's Esperanza, Casteda's Solita, Garcia's Pilar, Rivera's young boy, to name just a few.

            Betrayal in Latino fiction is usually two-sided. Deception just as often comes from the other side, the Mexican side, the island side.  The illusions to be shattered exist on both sides of the border.  When modern Latino writers depict the futility of a reunion with a paradisal lost world, they are rejecting mythical structures as the basis for organizing the modern world.  Unlike, the early magical realism of Carpentier, this is a practical world view in which belief in the ideal equals romantic self deception.  The connections to one's past are not the only solutions to life's difficulties, but often pipedreams that ultimately result in painful disillusionment.  In Raining Backwards, Eloy, the laundry women's young nephew, is seduced by Mirta Vergara because she holds the stories of his Cuban past.  As the dear Abbey figure of the novel in uncommon astuteness sees, he wants to "possess history" (Raining Backwards 75), but Mirta lives in a fantasy world of self-indulgence.  Eloy dreams of a heritage, desires a connection to Cuban;  he is "thirsty for information"(11), has a "need to talk"(12), to hear the stories that will reconnect him, but her words that have a "narcotic effect" on him (13) are the ravings a deluded woman. When he asks what Ireland is, she tells him: "It's a deodorant soap."  The stories she tells as she coaxes him into soaping her back are no more real than the tall-tales of the domino players who claim that pre-Castro chicken eggs "were so big that the layers had to have C-sections" (203).  They are dreamy fantasies that he thinks will give him a heritage and that she uses to seduce him.  The situation is paralleled in the Cisneros story "One Holy Night," where a poor girl is betrayed by the allure of a mythical Mexican history.  The sexual initiation, reminiscent of Esperanza's in House, is both cruel since she winds up pregnant and ostracized from her family, and dangerous since her mythical "boy baby," her Chaq Uxmal Paloquan, descendant of "an ancient line of  Mayan Kings" turns out to be Chato (or fat face), and a serial killer.  In reality, her seducer was born "on a street with no name in a town called Miseria," the son of a knife sharpener and a mother who "stacks apricots into pyramids and sells them on a cloth in the market" (Women 33).  Such treachery from a man who claims he will love her "like a revolution, like a religion" (Women 27) suggests Cisneros' belief in the uselessness of tying oneself to fantasies like the mythic ideas of Indian purity and Mexican origin.   Ron Arias demolishes a young boy's pride in his hometown Tomazunchale when the stage director of the dramatic scene in The Road to Tomazunchale declares that any name would have sufficed as the name is a mere invention to replace the word "hell" (82).   Similarly, one of Anna Castillo's heroines falls in love with a college student named Ruben who changes his name to Cuauhtemoc "during the height of his Chicano cosmic consciousness" only to "dump her" later "for a middle class gabacha [white woman] with a Corvette" (So Far From God 25-26).  Garcia's Pilar is similarly disappointed by a Peruvian named Ruben Floran, her companero, with whom she shares the intimacy of her Spanish language, and whom she discovers in bed with a Dutch exchange student with "enormous pink nipples" (180). 

            Commentary on the deceptions of causes, revolutionary or religious, is part of the Latino writer's subversive tract.  Tomas Rivera rejects Protestantism and Yankee Coca-Cola with the same power that he questions forms of organized religion and the blind, whole-hearted endorsement of ancient Mexican values.   In the pivotal chapter  mentioned above Protestant priests arrive to teach the migrant farmers carpentry and don't even come out of their trailers (Rivera 107).  Even more vehement in regard to the seductive falsity of spiritual salvation is Rechy's treatment of Amalia in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez.  Here is a woman who is raped by a man named Salvador (savior), abandoned by a soldier/husband (from Fort Bliss) named Gabriel and betrayed by a phony Nicaraguan "coyote" named Angel.  In Dreaming, Pilar's mother Lourdes, having been raped by Cuban revolutionaries, winds up abandoning her mother and later her daughter for the false glitter of U.S. practicality and capitalism incarnated in her "Yankee Doodle Bakery."  What complicates the matter further and what gives Lourdes a multi-dimensional personality is that she is the one who recalls the symbolic association between U.S. intervention and the contamination of an island world: "She remembers a story she read once about Guam, about how brown snakes were introduced by the Americans.  The snakes strangled the native birds one by one.  They ate the eggs from the nests until the jungle had no voice" (227).   

            Though the deflating of the paradise on both sides of the border is sometimes humorous, the motif, symbolically, forces upon both reader and protagonist some recognition of the liminal position with which Latinosmust come to terms, an understanding that the construction of an ideal pre-westerner existence is as false and, ultimately, as disappointing as the commercial images of perfection and beauty put forward by the U.S. media.  What remains is a dynamic, Latino, borderland identity, constantly in a state of renegociation and change, that must always bounce between two cultures, and two worlds.  The notion that success depends upon accommodation and assimilation into the central culture (generally that of the U.S.) is often problematized as is the alternative extreme of a return to a mythic homeland, a golden island paradise which will somehow survive outside the dominant metropolitan atmosphere of prejudice and discrimination.   Throughout Latino works, there is a split that results in characters, to use Anzaldua's phrase, being "plagued by psychic restlessness" (Borderlands 78) and that requires Latino writers and individuals to maintain "a tolerance for ambiguity" (79).  The critic Eliana S Rivero claims that "the nostalgia ever present in the Cuban American's parent's generation has given way to a split, hybrid cultural consciousness in the sons and daughters of exile" ("Re-writing" 180).  Bruce-Novoa, referring to Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, says the book called not "for returning to a static past, but for recuperating a traditional way of living the dynamic oppositions of the present" (170).  These "dynamic oppositions" produce the "psychic restlessness" which in turn becomes the subject of Latino fiction.  A clear example is Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban where the notion of a Cuban paradise is problematic.  Pilar longs for the "green" of Cuba, and symbolically in the novel, "green" is good and healthy, unlike "blue" (the color of her grandfather's eyes), which is not (33).  Yet Hugo Villaverde (green village) who beats up Felicia (47, 80) is also a part of Cuba.   This side of Cuban sexism, metonymically glimpsed in Hugo, dampens the edenic scene substantially.  Hugo, after his wife burns him, winds up a pitiful, suckling thing, reduced to orgasm with a masked whore, and rejected by his twin daughters (125).  Playing further on the man's name, Garcia is certainly questioning the validity of the familiar Cuban-American exile desire:  You go (Hugo) to the green village, or country house (Villaverde).  Going home to Cuba is not, in the end, enough for Pilar.  She belongs in New York, a Cuban-American.     

            As Latino writers scrutinize the dual aspects of their own and their characters' identities, they shift their status from ethnic writers attached to particular cultures to mainstream "American" storytellers.  The complexities of their hybrid protagonists become fused and confused with all other cultural intricacies of "American" life.  It seems only a matter of time before writers like Gilb, Pineda, Hijuelos or Cristina Garcia will turn their sights away from Latino culture exclusively and toward the complex mixtures of peoples surrounding them within the U.S.  The first step is often an analytical attack on the notion of a lost world that must be regained.  Writers concerned with borderlines must necessarily recognize that outright borders are artificial, that no one lives entirely on one side.  Therefore, Cisneros, Saenz, Viramontes and Vea, among others, purposely dwell upon those lives lived along the continuum between the old and new, the past and present, the Latin American and the Gringo, the Spanish and the English.  In their portrayal of blended dualities, they help break down "us" / "them" oppositions by challenging the notion of static identities.  Midstream (or mid Rio Grande), their characters have insights into both sides, into both worlds simultaneously.

[58]This is the sort of inversion which cannot help to alter all sorts of unjustified opinions once the opposite view has been comprehended. A clear example would be that for Cuban's the fear of nuclear threat during the early sixties had to have been more profound than for North Americans given that the U.S., openly trying to topple the Cuban government by every means conceivable, is the only country to have ever dropped the bomb.

[59]The word "soledad" carries the connotations of both "solitude" and "loneliness." Thus the word holds special value for Latin American and Latino writers: Cien anos de soledad, El laberinto de la soledad etc.  The Portuguese word "saudade" stretches the meanings across an even wider range to include solitude, loneliness, melancholy, sadness, even solidarity, and it is the word's flexibility that Casteda relies upon to communicate not only her heroine's solitude and loneliness, but also her pride, independence, strength and loyalty to her refugee community.    

[60]Though the allure is different for Cubans and Puerto Ricans in many stories.  In Mambo, Puerto Ricans are often servants: a salesgirl at Bloomingdale's (402), a butler named Garcia, and in Cristina Garcia a Puerto Rican steals from Lourdes Puente.  The Puerto Rican heroes of Vega, Agueros, Mohr and Rodriguez, by contrast, often operate beneath the legitimate business world, subverting the system or denying its power over them. 

 

Continue: Chapter 5 Part I



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July 25, 2011
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