Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 6 Part 3
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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 Six (Part III):  "Flowers of the Dead:" The Latino Quest for Ancestors
     The Latino exploration of pan-American past or what Ilan Stavans refers to as the "five-hundred-year-old fiesta of miscegenation" that began in 1492 (13) sends writers beneath the Roman Catholic churches toward indigenous pyramids and temples, and past Catholic saints toward African deities.  In this way, the syncretic religions neatly accommodate non-european perspectives on human existence, and provide writers with a creative flexibility to ponder their cultural roots from both sides, to value the mixtures and blends that have formed their family's beliefs.  "We are all," writes Stavans, "children of lascivious Iberians and raped Indian
and African maidens" (32).  Writers document the oral rendition of events, blending the legends of Indians and slaves with written accounts.  Magical "story" is fused with accepted "history" and neither negates the other.[xiii]  Attitudes about life and death become unfixed, polyphonic and ambiguous.  The result of this widening of spiritual guidelines is often a playful rendering of a special Latino spirituality where the ways of the old world combine with the new, where, as a character in Carry Me Like Water declares, the modern Latino journeys south "to pick up [his] ghosts" (337).
[xiv] by definition, is concerned with the spirits of the dead, and in legitimizing the afro/indigenous acceptance of communication with past spirits, the Latino writer slides around within a hazy area condemned by mainstream doctrines as the occult.  Yet this richly populated region of belief where the dead exist on "a parallel universe" (Stavans 118) never stops infiltrating Latino practical life, because the marginal, spiritual views of non-orthodox religious traditions make up a part of who Latinos are.  This is why, in the fiction, the past literally comes alive as the distinction between the living and the dead is blurred.  Equipped with this form of cultural access to the spirit world, Latino writers use it to prove that the ghosts of the past cannot be ignored.  Each of the protagonists in Sáenz's novel, for example, commences a spiritual quest into a troubled personal history, knowing that nothing can "bring down the houses of the past" (352).  They travel south (to El Paso) as if "beckoned by something they cannot resist" (368).  Latinos, recognizing that they embody their pasts, lean toward those systems of belief that accent the practice of honoring the dead as if they were alive. "The dead do not sleep," thinks a character in Carry Me Like Water, "and they do not let the living sleep either" (91).  Like "visitors" (381), they do not leave.         


       Molina, a coffin maker, in the Guy Garcia story "La Promesa" (who is possibly named after the homosexual prisoner in Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman) significantly laments the notion that: "we Mexicans are not very good at burying our dead.  They live with us, behind doors, under creaking beds, in the cobwebs that cling to walls, watching, judging..." (147).  The idea is given graphic emphasis in the story when Tom finds the body of his "succubus" grandmother, her mummified nails broken from a failed attempt to claw her way out of a coffin.  As a motif, the difficulty of burying, erasing one's dead (or past) is as old as Antigone and prominent in the chain of influence one sees from Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, "A Rose for Emily") to García Márquez's Leaf Storm.[xv]  We find it, for example, in Portillo-Trambley's short story "Pay the Criers" where two drunks labor strenuously to bury an old woman.  It is integral as well to the García Márquez story "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," and this story reverberates through Ron Arias's The Road to Tomazunchale when a group of children discover the beautiful body of David the mojado [wetback] in a dried up riverbed near the border.  He is "the best looking young man they had ever seen, at least naked" (56).  He is a man "so perfect," he "should not be buried" claims Fausto, and the cadaver is restored, cleaned, dressed and left further down the river where others can find him, so great is his power of moving people to better their condition.  García Márquez's handsome Esteban (the corpse) provokes the town's people to recognize for the first time the "desolation of their streets" and, in order to maintain their pride in their town where the glorious dead man came ashore, they improve their situation.  In Arias, the corpse, "dead, half-dead or alive" (61) pushes Fausto into his fantasy of saving the mojados, and the encapsulated rendition of the story becomes, as Nieto argues, is "the structural apex" of Arias' novel (246).   Corpse becomes catalyst as the dead man in each case serves the living who are given "a new sense of purpose through the presence of death" (Nieto 243) and who must therefore ritualistically honor the corpse, and recognize that the dead have meaning for the living. 
        As we have seen, magical realism encourages the Latino writer's tendency to blur the distinctions between reality and illusion.  Thus it fits nicely with the Latino's sense of folk spirituality and his or her refusal to accept that truth lies exclusively in the rational and logical world.  Marjorie Agosin argues in the introduction to her collection of fantastic stories by Latin American women, that the fantastic "offers territories and spaces for subversion, disorder and illegality" and "opens possibilities in order to imagine...a territory of intuition, magic and the beginnings of language" (13-14).  As narrative mode, magical realism (or any form of the fantastic) accentuates the already unfixed ideas of spirituality that Latinos gather from their syncretic religious backgrounds.  Dissolving the line between the living and the dead becomes therefore both a feature of fantastic narrative and a political statement against the rigidity of European reasoning.  To accept the strange is to distance oneself from the norm; "the comfortable familiarity with the preposterous has as its counterpart an alienation from the familiar and everyday" (Vásquez "Parody" 97).
        Something in U.S. practical wisdom dictates the need for one to "move beyond" the dead, to "get over with" one's emotional connections to them.  In pop psychology, you are "OK" once you "deal" with someone's death and focus on your own life once more.  In Latino fiction, however, the dead are always present, and living with them is integral to life.  Part of the explanation for this comes from the Catholic tradition of death as "transcendence" (Paz 57), and doctrines of purgatory where one is neither dead nor alive, but caught midway until proper forgiveness allows for the passage of the soul into heaven.  The extended family household where the old give up their places to the young encourages a feeling in family members for the cyclical nature of life.  For the Latino, encounters with the dead create rebirths, just as voyages into the underworld lead to resurrections and renewed lives.  In this way, as Paz claims, death is conceived of as "creation" (61).  The well-known Mexican celebration of All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead (All Hallows Eve) when families picnic with dead relatives in cemeteries and bake bread in the shape of skulls is a ritualized way of affirming the value of the relationship between the living and the dead.  At the conclusion of Carry Me Like Water, three central figures celebrate this November day in "Concordia" cemetery (where all are in concord, in harmony), Maria Elena proclaiming: "I am in love with my rituals, in love with the people who created them, the people who handed them to me" (495).  On the Day of the Dead, Saenz's people do not mourn (495); they celebrate.  This is why Mundo, the "vato" gang member dances in the morgue to the displeasure of a police sergeant (300).  The Day of the Dead is a "time machine" which "re-creates all times at once and allows all who participate to breath the past" (Véa 98).    


       In Latino fiction, death inspires not fear, but wonder and fascination.  Nearly all the characters of Carry Me Like Water desire their own deaths at some point.[xvi]  They seek what Paz calls the "nostalgia for limbo," to feel themselves a part of a timeless "maternal source" (61-62).   For Tomás Rivera's boy, the "cemetery isn't scary at all" (93) since the search for the past through the dead is not a negative thing.  The "cemetery is real pretty" (94).  Within it, "halfway home" (94), he realizes its value: "It's like I can hear all the dead people buried there saying these words and then the sound of these words stays in my mind" (95).  The dead wander the earth in order to be remembered, forgiven, respected (through prayer), and written about by the living.   The ritual of the "wake" (the reawakening of the soul), makes obvious the belief in the immortality of the soul.  This, in part, accounts for those characters throughout Latino fiction that talk to dead people as if they were alive, or make statements that seem ludicrous from the typical Anglo-Protestant point of view.  Chasing a ball, a Viramontes's character steps carefully through a cemetery muttering "excuse me, please excuse me, excuse me" (Moths "Growing" 37).  "To catch even a glimpse of the crosses would be to eavesdrop, to intrude upon the conversation going on beneath...[the] soft whispering in Spanish" thinks the protagonist of Véa's La Maravilla (173)"People cook food for the dead and invite them into their homes," declares Beto's grandmother, "Mexican graveyards are alive" (Véa 18).  In the story "The Idol Worshippers" by Sáenz, a grandmother lies in a "bedroom filled with her past" (125) conversing with Victor, her lover's ghost.  Somehow these talks help her to understand the mistakes she has made in her relationship with her daughter, and through them, she learns she can bring her grandson and daughter closer as she and her daughter never were.  For her, it is "sane to argue with the dead...the most natural thing in the world" (134), and that the practice gives her understanding is clear when she rightly instructs her daughter that arguing with the living makes less sense.   The grandfather in "A Silent Love" speaks to his dead wife, then admonishes himself: "I'm just a goddamned fool talking to the dead -- sure sign I'll be joining them soon" (22), while another Saenz character converses with her dead mother because it makes her "feel better" (50).  "It's cultural," she explains to her skeptical husband, "Mexicans speak to the dead" (50). 
        So do the elder Cubans, to the exasperation of the younger generation.  The same abuela who claims it sometimes "rains backwards" in Fernandez's novel states categorically that "dead people feel alone too, they have feelings, you know" (143).   As in Our Town, Martinez's narrator/writer can "feel the presence of invisible people carrying on conversations as they did in life" (Voice-Haunted Journey 250).  "Even dead uncles want coffee" thinks an old man in the story "The Birthday of Mrs. Pineda" by Alberto Rios in which the coffee "reminds [him] to remember" (Iguana 115, 117) his past.  "Coffee is not a thing a man stops wanting" he decides, as he drifts between an evening conversation with his wife and memories of his energetic youth.  It is the coffee that spurs the memory, and the belief that even dead uncles need caffeine that somehow maintains Adolfo's sense of being.  He needs to feel conscious of his "lion" self,  and aware of his sexual energy which contrasts so sharply with the "flat" and "dimensionless" pictures of dead Salvadoreños in his magazine (118). 


            Disrupting the rigid notion of death's finality becomes, in these novels and stories, a standard motif.  By altering such an obvious and accepted "truth," the reader is thrown into a new and distorted picture of reality, into a distinctly foreign idea about the ordering of time.  The desire to create this ambiguous framework gives rise to the supernatural elements in stories which begin with a death and a resurrection.  In fiction that so expressly confronts the relationship of the past to questions of cultural heritage and character identity, it is noteworthy how many of these works contain characters who die and appear again.  Often, a surrealistic atmosphere is established in the first line that, if nothing else, disturbs the reader's initial attention sufficiently enough to alter traditional, realist expectations -- which is often exactly what these writers are attempting to do.  La Maravilla by Alfredo Véa begins: "I died some time ago. Soy mujer de historia. I passed away. No, no, don't be sad..."   This ghostly voice belongs to Josephina Valenzuela de Castillo, a curandera, whose ritualistic ceremonies and "ofrendas" (altars raised to the souls of the departed) establish the "unbroken link between the living and the dead" (Gonzalez-Crussi 70).   Opening the story with the voice of a ghost, Véa frames his novel in cyclical time so that the chronology of events is displaced by a larger cosmic sense of time that stretches beyond individual lives.   In fact, the book is about a young man's learning to time travel from his ancestral past through the present and into the future.    The central chapter of Véa's novel is also called "La Maravilla," dividing the book between   descriptions of the "backwards" (8) world of Buckeye Road in the first eight chapters from Beto's spiritual journey, the focus of the novel's second half.  "La Maravilla," the marvel (thus the allusions to Andrew Marvel - 48, 206, 232) can be read as the truth in folk spirituality, the authenticity of what cannot be explained rationally. "Maravillas" or marigolds are the "flowers of the dead" (278) and Beto's initiation ceremony is designed to connect him with his ancestors and to convince him that time and death are relative.  Martínez's novel begins: "Suddenly Alejandro Velásquez sat up in his coffin.  Years later Alejandro's older brother would not remember how many people were there, sitting in the funeral chapel in Austin, Texas."    "Even surrounded by decorated chrysanthemums," writes John Rechy in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, "and lying in the coppery coffin with her hands crossed over her rosary on her chest, Teresa had managed to look sternly at her daughter" (90).  Ana Castillo's So Far From God opens similarly: "La Loca was only three years old when she died."  Three pages later, she pushes up the lid of her coffin and sits up "just as sweetly as if she had woken from a nap" (22).[xvii]  La Loca's sister, Esperanza is kidnapped and killed during the gulf war in Iraq, but returns in "transparent" form to converse with her clairvoyant sister.   Another woman, Esmeralda, is apparently murdered by Francisco Penitente, the dysfunctional santero priest, yet seems to have returned to her friend's house.  There she "said nothing or did nothing but look up at [Maria] occasionally with an expression on her face that also said nada" (209).  Castillo cryptically mentions that this ghostly presence "was not afraid because she just was not" (emphasis mine 211).  Later, she flies off a cliff with a third sister, Caridad, and both disappear forever (to the sounds of wind "like the voice of Tsichtinako") into the deep, soft earth (211). 
            Early in Dreaming in Cuban, the patriarch Jorge Del Pino dies in a New York hospital, only to arise from the ocean near the Cuban shore for a midnight swim with his estranged wife.  He frequently visits his daughter Lourdes in those twilight (63, 70) times, that according to the narrator he has "stolen between death and oblivion" (193).   In what Ramón Saldívar sees as Ron Arias's use of narrative fantasy "to subvert the closure of history" (129), The Road to Tomazunchale often obscures the distinction between life and death.  Caught in a movie set, Fausto is mistaken for a dead extra (52).  In the liquor store, his street wise Chicano guide, Mario, claims he is dying of cholera ("No more vida for my dad" - 25) in order to get a free quart of milk.  A short time later, in a wild turn of events, Fausto is put into a hearse where he hides in another man's coffin, only to resurrect himself later at the funeral to the astonishment of the family: "Oh my God! Is that John? Do something..." (29).  Further on in the book, Fausto instructs his "mojados" to incongruously look dead if they want to survive (68), that is, its easier for a dead wetback to survive in the U.S. than a live one.  A dead man in the play within the novel needs a jacket to keep him warm (85).  Finally, Arias's hero has "no funeral, no burial.  Instead, Fausto insisted they take him to the beach so he could look at the sea and the women in bikinis for a while" where he fills "his mind with enough bodies to last several lifetimes."  He then wants to go to a bookstore because, he claims, "where I'm going, nobody sells books.  Maybe I could open a little shop" (99).  This entire death fantasy which the reader is never allowed to believe or disbelieve completely simply provokes questions about reality and the construction of it.  Where one wants to divide portions of the text between those that are plausible and those that are pure fantasy, Arias, like Rulfo before him, refuses these distinctions, and sanctions neither side in any way.   Arias's jumbling of death and life, reality and illusion make his work a metafictional novel whose bits of realism act as points, or grounds from which his irony and parody proceed.  Unlike Rulfo, however, there is little of the fatalistic pessimism that enshrouds the haunted town of Comala.  If writers like Arias, Rivera and Castillo owe a debt to Rulfo (and they do) they have also managed to treat the themes of death with a light-heartedness unseen in the cynical Mexican writer's macabre work.  This is because instead of fatalistically lamenting the deterioration of values and the human condition, they relish the blurring of borders in general. 

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            Jean Franco argues that Latin American writers invert (and "masculinize") the traditional Antigone theme that one's family and timeless rituals outweigh the needs of state.  They focus on the unburied Polinices as a marginal figure and commemorate the dead in an effort to insure their survival by metaphorically keeping them alive (130-131).  Latino writers have also taken up this task in order to "commemorate" Nash Candelaria's "rainbow of humanity of losers," especially since North America is "strewn with the bodies of losers who [won't] stay dead..." (Memories 181).   One thinks of Arias's dead mojado, David.  The townspeople make the outcast come alive and force each other to recognize, as Fausto does, the tragic plight of the illegal alien.  This is why they move him down the river so others can also be enlightened.  To write the stories of Latinos and thus install them in history has always been a major preoccupation among Latinos.  Works like Americo Paredes's With His Pistol in his Hand are only the most overt examples of the need to record the mixture that is Latino cultural heritage.   Characters themselves struggle to document who they are by communicating (writing and talking), with their dead. 
           Sandra Cisneros's story "Eleven" concerns a young girl who firmly believes that while she is eleven, she is also ten, and nine and eight, etc.  Rachel is her past; she is made of previous experience and the threshold of a birthday as it brings her the new, doesn't negate the emotions of her younger self.  Latino writers trace the past beyond their individual lives and back through their multicultural ancestry.  In Dreaming in Cuban, the chapter that reveals Lourdes Puente's tragic past (her rape by Cuban Revolutionary soldiers and the subsequent loss of her second child) is framed by twilight visits from her deceased father (64-74).  The traumatic event has shaped her adult life in numerous ways, and somehow, it must be left to the dead to reveal its meaning to her so that she can escape its power.  The dead can teach us.  On The Day of the Dead, writes Viramontes, "all the veins of memories are filled with the blood of resurrection" (Moths 89).  The journey to the underworld thus reveals Latino hybridity because resurrection depends on the understanding of the diverse forces working on Latino memory and that understanding governs and strengthens the ability to cope with practical reality.  The artist struggles to fix what Díaz-Quiñones called the broken memory (La memoria rota), to reestablish ties to all his or her past, no matter how strange elements of it may seem, to reconnect with the mythic island on the other side of the "charco."[xviii]  Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada writes: "We survive here [in the U.S.] because of the strength we have gathered from that island" ("Culture" 88).  Latino fiction is a manifestation of the continuous struggle to look simultaneously both north and south, to hover somewhere over a real or figurative border.  Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of "being" a crossroads, living "sin fronteras" [without borders].  Aurora Morales declares herself "whole" though "born at the crossroads."  For Gina Valdés's Portillo family, "crossing the border [is] a continuous ritual," and the border "invisible" (85).  The stories and novels by Latinos display the mixtures of influence on narrative craftsmanship, the blendings and experimentations of Spanish and English, the subversiveness of alternative political and social perspectives, and the celebrations of cultural hybridity from food to music to spirituality.  Each time the writer's imaginative round trip is completed, Latino cultural differences assert themselves and are authenticated within the mainstream literary world.  And as the process of "circulatory migration" is on-going, and "La Carreta" makes another U-turn, literary cross-fertilization continues to feed those in the position to appreciate both worlds.  

[xiii]In fact, in Spanish the same word, historia, is used for both "story" (or tale) and "history."

[xiv]González-Wippler explains that Spiritualism should not be confused with Spiritism.  The former focuses primarily on a "medium's psychic powers and his or her abilities to communicate with the dead, while the latter "has loftier ideals" (275).  Spiritism, espiritismo (in Latin American) is a mixture of Spiritualism and the writings of a 19th century French philosopher and includes Santería.   

[xv]One thinks also of Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father and of numerous other Latin American writers (noted in Jean Franco's Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (130), and of modern Latino writers struggling with a Latin American / North American literary tradition.

[xvi]Sáenz's, at sometimes, overt symbolism presents a mixture of Christian and Mexican beliefs.  A dying Aids patient named Jesus Salvador [Savior] Aguila [meaning eagle and symbolizing Mexico] gives his gift of clairvoyance to his sister, Maria de Lourdes Aguila.  Salvador's ashes are given back to Mount Cristo Rey [Christ the King Mts.].  Lizzie, or Maria de Lourdes, becomes the catalyst for a series of reunions between lost family members, one of whom is a deaf mute named Juan Diego Ramirez, the only person able to see the value in a street woman claiming to be the Virgin Mary.  A character named Luz [light] suddenly appears to Juan on the streets of El Paso, "out of nowhere, like a vision, like the Virgin of Guadalupe" (386).  Christian names and Indian legend mesh throughout the book, generally suggesting the need for all to return south, to the desert, to ancient Mexican heritage (i.e. the ruins of Casas Grandes), to religious ritual, and to be "carried" like water toward kindness and faith.

[xvii]Castillo's description is possibly inspired by García Márquez's short story "La Santa" in which a father journeys to Italy to seek the canonization of his daughter whose body has remained in tact after years in a grave.

[xviii]"Charco" means puddle. The phrase is used by Puerto Ricans to describe the distance (or lack of distance) between Puerto Rico and the mainland.


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Last Updated:
July 06, 2009
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