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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 Three (Part III): Latino Voices and "English con Salsa"

          Code-switching plays a major part in the work of Sandra Cisneros. Take, for instance, a line from her story, "Bien Pretty:" "If you don't like it Largate, honey" (161).  Her inclusion of the untranslated Spanish provides the emotional power of the advice rendered, the streetwise experience coming exclusively from the Spanish word.  In Rechy's Miraculous Day, Amalia's gut reaction to a visit from her adulterous husband's girlfriend is forcibly revealed via the same Spanish expression: "Largate" (35), an order of vehemence and scorn along of the lines of "Get out of here," but charged with a testiness English can't duplicate except in vulgarity.  Cisneros's expression also automatically reveals the relationship between the speaker and her audience; the narrator addressing a peer in a familiar style.  The writer uses the shift as one further indication of her narrator's frank, yet informal advice to an audience of women who might share her problems and desires.  Embedded in a paragraph condemning the senseless heroines of telenovelas, and exalting the women she has "known everywhere except on TV, in books and magazines" [emphasis mine], the Spanish here emphasizes that such women are not media created beauties, but Latinas: "Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tias...Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce."  The theme of the paragraph, signaled by the code-switching, points us back to the title of the story where the rather flimsy and superficial English word "pretty" is enclosed in a Spanish grammatical structure and the English connotations of the word are redirected into an assertion that Latinas outrank the media created, stereotypical versions of attractive women.  This persona, common in Cisneros's work, has no problem with being a Latina and in fact relishes the vitality of her dual linguistic ability.  We see this in her unsympathetic attitude toward the monolingual reader's handicaps, when Cisneros even teases the reader, making it clear that the lack of Spanish is a limitation: "Pretty in Spanish. But you'll have to take my word for it. In English it just sounds goofy" (161).  Like the word "pretty," here the choice of "goofy" (Disney connotations included) trivializes English, while Spanish throughout the story -- the lists of songs, of herbs, of dances, of instruments -- conveys what is vital and genuine to the writer.        

            Also frustrating to the reader accustomed to the subtlety of modernistic prose is an author's didactic attempt to explain the power of particular vocabulary.  Alfredo Vea sometimes intrudes upon the characters of La Maravilla at times to discuss what "La Chingada" means to Mexicans: " a gashing, pricking word...there is no equivalent English word" (43), or to outline the differences between English and Spanish and the Yaqui idiom.  Rather than dramatize the conflict of thought such linguistic variety and confusion causes the old man Manuel, Vea chooses to subject the reader to a page or two of instruction which concludes with the interesting, but, I'd argue, misplaced notion that English is the language "that blazed the path to modern loneliness" (32).  Fraxedas's novel, The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera epitomizes the condescending quality of repetitive translations and didactic explanations.  To his needless translations: "Mi padre, my father" (163), "Vamos, Let's go" (9), "the verguenza, the shame" (27),  or Aqui Aqui Here! Here! (21), Fraxedas adds sentences like the following:  "We beat the contra-corriente...The contra-corriente is what Cubans call the currents that spin off the Gulf-Stream, like eddies, and sometimes push you back toward the coast" (17).  

           Unless an explanation includes some additional information, explaining the meaning of Spanish words is as obtrusive and counterproductive as simply adding a translation. This is true because to do so is to sacrifice the idea that interlingualism is legitimate.  Bruce-Novoa has argued that the "interlingual form of expression is the true native language of Chicano communities" and this could be said to be valid for Latinos in general.  Interlingualism requires that a writer reject "the supposed need to maintain English and Spanish separate in exclusive codes, but rather [view] them as reservoirs of primary material to be molded together as needed, naturally" (Retrospace 50).  The editors of the well-known anthology Cuentos: Stories by Latinas advocate validating hybrid forms of language as "legitimate and creative response[s] to acculturation" (Intro xi).  Gloria Anzaldua is adamantly in favor of her Chicana "patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages" which marks her "ethnic identity."  "I am my language," she writes in Borderlands  (55, 59).   Still, not all critics condone the use of interlingualism.  Rafael Cancel Ortiz in a 1990 article cites Puerto Rican fiction which links the "imposition of English on PR" with the "degenerative process" (112) of U.S. exploitation, and he describes (and possibly laments) how contemporary Puerto Rican writers, "exploring new avenues of fiction, present the Puerto Rican as a stuttering, ambivalent individual, incapable of expressing himself/herself coherently in either Spanish or English" (110). 

            Whatever the critic's viewpoint, it is surely true that characters in Latino fiction sometimes feel the strain of their linguistic uncertainty, as does the protagonist in Abraham Rodriguez's Spidertown.  Miguel falls in love with Amelia, at least in part because of her words (56), her "crisp clear Spanish" - 84), and he feels cramped by his own inability to communicate.   Bruce-Novoa would counter with the theory that the "true" language of the Latino individual is neither Spanish nor English, but "whatever form of interlingualism she or he has experienced  and internalized" (Retrospace 50).   The "conflict" (113) between languages and the Latino's "struggle for survival" (Ortiz 113) can be viewed as either creative challenge or negative obstacle. 

            Some writers feel a need to explicitly describe the differences between Spanish and English and while such explications may point to the importance to the writer of particular vocabulary and give a sense of his or her intended audience, they can also be intrusive.  For instance, Cofer explains the word "puta" [whore/bitch] as being "one of the harshest sounds in the Spanish language. Like the expulsion of spit" (78).   Other writers exhibit a distinct modernist sensitivity toward the mixing and blending of the two languages.  Avoiding translation or instructional commentary, they force the reader to depend upon the context of the speech act in order to decipher subtle meanings behind the interwoven languages.  Writers such as Cisneros, conscious of form, exploit the connotations of words from both languages.  They revel in the pleasure of the sounds of languages, and play games with the interconnections that spin off of words in juxtaposition.  Such poetic constructions come close to what Juan Flores and George Y?ice, borrowing a term from advertising, call "trans-creations," and this type of language, they argue, is a necessary "crossover" that epitomizes "border culture expression" (Divided Borders 213-214).  It is a form of "translingual play" which Levine sees in the punning of exiles and which is common to Latino literature where language provokes a "binary view" of reality (Subversive Scribe 17).  Generally, we find examples of such manipulations of language in Latino poetry, especially in poems by Puerto Rican-American poets like Victor Hernandez Cruz, who speaks of how "national languages melt, sail into each other" (110) or Sandra Maria Esteves, who declares, in her poem "A la Mujer Borinque?:"  "I speak two languages broken into each other" (emphasis mine).  Latino prose writers are aware of these linguistic possibilities though examples are harder to find. 

            The effects of translation techniques, of "trans-creation," code-switching, and borrowing demonstrate a writer's general attitude toward the larger concept of "interlingualism," or whatever name one chooses to encompass these sorts of linguistic mixing.  Emily Hicks speaks of "border writing" which "emphasizes the differences in reference codes between two or more cultures."  She sees the game playing as depicting "a kind of realism that approaches the experience of border crossers, those who live in a bilingual, bicultural, biconceptual reality" (Intro xxv).  In part, we find evidence for this view when writer's intentionally distort meanings through faulty, partial translations.  When, for example, in Cofer's sketch "American History," a mother tells her daughter she is acting 'moony,' and the narrator explains:  "'Enamorada' was what she really said -- that is, like a girl stupidly infatuated" (Latin 10).  The author is here molding the definition of the Spanish word to fit the context of the exchange, and by doing so, emphasizing the distance between the Spanish and the English since the more obvious meaning of the word "enamorado" [to be in love] is ignored.  The most common result of such manipulation of translation is parody and satiric caricature.   

            The process of deliberately mistranslating is often as interesting as the techniques of translating.  Pineda deliberately changes the line "Ella me tiene por el culo" into "The muse has me by the collar" (138), depriving the monolingual reader of the humor in the vulgarity.  Since the speaker is the ridiculous writer Orgaz y Orgaz, his own deflation of his first sentence is indicative of his general incapacity to render the life around him into words.  He insists on shutting himself off from the vitality of his wife's world in a vain attempt to write a novel based upon that world.  Judith Cofer translates the word "Piropos" (50) in language more revealing than mere definition.  These, she explains, are "those exalted compliments bordering on hysteria that a beautiful woman elicits." Later her definition of the same word becomes: "the poems invented on the spot and thrown at passing women like bouquets from open windows, doorways, street corners, anywhere where Latin men loitered" (186).  Embedded in her extended definition is the less than sympathetic view of "hysterical" (50), loitering (read sexist), Latino men. 

            Writers, at times, intentionally distort meanings through mistranslations. A character in Alex Abella's The Killing of the Saints gives the following advice: "Face up to your fears and make your work your vacation. Yes. Not everyone can do so, but if you personally do not succeed, I am afraid it could be drapes for you" (174-175).  This is the sort of talk that Pilar recognizes in her mother's "immigrant English" with its "touch of otherness that makes it unintentionally precise" (Dreaming 176-177).  It is also comical, especially for a writer like Roberto Fernandez.  Mary Vasquez points out Fernandez's use of "calques" by which she means "over-literal" translations and she sees them as "markers of cultural alienation and conflicting cultural values" ("Parody" 100).  She cites the example of one character's remark: "I don't responsibilize myself with what happens to you" (Raining 77) as one of the writer's many parodic quips.  The literal translations of a seafood menu are indicative: "Shrimp at the little garlic; pulp in its own ink" (35).  Fernandez's play with false cognates produces a similarly sarcastic critique of the Cuban exile: "I knew," explains Abuela, "that afternoon he was going to pass by to see her because he had been enamoring her for almost a year" (147).  "I am no opening for no one," she later declares (187).  The mistranslations reflect Abuela's rigid attitudes toward traditional propriety and they mimic her misreadings of the people around her.  In another segment of dialogue, Fernandez plays with the false cognate "ordinario" which means rude in Spanish: 

 

'...but I left him because he loved to say bad words and I no like ordinary people.  We both worked for the Libby factory, it still makes peaches in heavy syrup.  He was the foreman, but he disillusioned me because everyday at five o'clock when the whistle sound he used to tell me, 'Nelia, cojon, no more work, enough for today, cojon.' That is why I left him and we never became nothing. I never like ordinary people that say bad words.

                 'Abuela, he probably was saying 'go Home,' not cojon?.

 

           Not all mistranslations are intended to be humorous, or to sarcastically deflate characters.  Instead, Sandra Cisneros often relies on the false cognate to stretch her meaning.  When the narrator of "Eyes of Zapata" states that she "could support the grief" (97), the literal translation adheres to the exact meaning of the Spanish word "soportar." Cisneros refuses to dilute that meaning with the English "stand" or "bear."  When one considers the larger implications of words like "soportar," and "aguantar" [to endure] and their relationship to the lives of  Mexican women -- as stereotypically passive -- it becomes clear why Cisneros holds on to the Spanish meaning.  Her translation is literal rather than accurate because the Spanish word's implications direct the reader toward the strength of Emiliano Zapata's mistress. 

            A character's grammatical expertise in English signals his or her level of assimilation into the dominant English environment.  Agrammatical syntax may suggest a street level Spanish vernacular separating urban youth from mainstream society.  We find examples of this in Rechy's LA or in Rodriguez's South Bronx: "I want we should always talk" (Spidertown 216).  The Spanish word order is maintained in the English sentence.  Distortion of the English language symbolizes a refusal to enter mainstream systems. This is the case with most of the women who populate the books of Ana Castillo, a writer who (in the tradition of Gertrude Stein), intentionally refuses to conform to standards of English or Spanish, using double negatives in English, phonetic Spanish spellings "medio austao" (So Far From God 45), agrammatical code-switches "my mi'jito" (90), and unusual borrowings like "?rvos" for "nervios" [nerves].  Whether or not Castillo's novels are her attempts to do what Luisa Valenzuela advocates -- that is "decode the perverse discourse of those in power,"[45] her characters are free to exist uncritically in their own liminal, linguistic environment.  The vernacular variety of their language in no way reflects any sort of intellectual deficiency, rather the opposite: individuality, creativity and strength in the face of oppressive powers. 

            Yet there are also characters who cannot adjust linguistically to English and who therefore remain powerless outsiders.  These people often fall away from language itself, becoming silent.  Their submergence into the non-verbal impedes their survival.   It points to their "cultural, linguistic, theoretical, psychological exile" (Debra Castillo 81).  Rechy's Amalia is an example.  Her fear and her dislike of English keep her silent, as when, confronted with the truth that her children "know nothing" of the sacrifices she has made for them, she finds it "impossible to speak" (188).   Moreover, her silence is indicative of Chicano silence in general which contributes to the invisibility of Latinos amid the dominant U.S. society.   "They just don't see us,"  Amalia explains at one point (67), "to become invisible, too, corazon...that's not hard when they've never really seen us" (177).   

 

            The inner voice of the Latino may therefore rise up through linguistic distortions of accepted language, but Latino writers also guide readers beyond language toward the non-verbal.  In Alfredo Vea's La Maravilla, a black man named Toop speaks of magic words that sit "in the spaces between the regular words" and "whole lives" that "come and go with no words attached."  "Shit, there's a universe between all the words we got" (84).  This is why so many characters, especially women, communicate by mystical, intuitive means.   There is a bond between the narrator of Cisneros's "Eyes of Zapata" and the absent revolutionary hero that she feels through "a silence between us like a language" (99).  Between Pilar and Celia, in Dreaming in Cuban, the relationship is psychic and magical like "steady electricity, humming and true" (222).  Pilar worries over the fading connection (138), something her abuela felt even when Pilar was an infant who "seemed to understand her very thoughts" (119).  The young girl narrator of "The Moths" and her "speechless" abuelita share a similar bond, and are united like Pilar and her grandmother in a similar type of ritualistic bathing -- both stories stressing a communion through images of weightlessness, of floating or swimming and abandoning the hard practicality of rational and logical thought.[46] 

            Kristeva's terms can be applied here to these characters choosing silence as rebellion against the symbolic order associated with the father and as affirmation of a semiotic, pre-oedipal relationship with the mother.  Certainly the dreamy, trance-like, nonrationality of silent women (and some men) throughout Latino fiction could be viewed through this psychological, critical perspective, especially in works where elements of the semiotic are replicated in the musical concatenation of the prose.  Debra Castillo argues as much in her perceptive analysis of Helena Viramontes's "The Cariboo Cafe" (76-95),[47]  highlighting instances which reveal "some dilemma involving a woman's silencing" (77).  Viramontes's story "Birthday" -- concerning a young woman in an abortion clinic -- with its gaps, ellipses and Joycean narrative turns clearly suggests this sort of powerlessness.   Kloepfer maintains in her work on Jean Rhys,[48] that the birth scene (or the memory of it), somehow psychologically "reactivates" a woman's pre-oedipal, subverbal turbulence, and here Viramontes's Alice is thrown into the topsy turvy dreamworld of her confused emotions.   Speechless, in her negative "wonderland," her mind bounces between past conversations and the present of the makeshift office, while recollected voices and "watercolored" university students "float like balloons" through her semiotic trance, beyond, what Kloepfer labels, "all reference" (The Unspeakable Mother  86). 

            It is certainly clear that the social constraints of the Latino's world tend to push such linguistically liminal beings toward the periphery whenever they can't or won't conform to the standards of the center.  Thus abiding by non-verbal criteria relegates a character to the margins -- either victim of prejudice or rebel against injustice.  This might account for the frequent allusions in Latino fiction to "The Yellow Wallpaper," a story about the ways society forces the nonconformist to the brink of  psychological chaos.  Cristina Garcia traces a sequence of psychological declines through several characters that recalls Gilman's famous story.  Celia, as a young bride, is confined to the oppressive household of Palmas Street, and abusively ridiculed by her in-laws until, during the final stages of her pregnahoughtntation come into play, such as beliefs in unorthodox forms of religion like Santeria, Voodoo or Spiritualism to be discussed later.  Our concern here is with how this type of escapism is related to language or lack of it.  Felicia and Amalia are pushed to extremes in part because they are incoherent to others, but also because they are refused the natural outlet of speech that the privileged enjoy.  Like many Latino protagonists, they are silenced.

            For some characters, entrance into the non-verbal sphere is the result of a psychological incapacity to cope with their lives for whatever reason.  For others, like Mercedes and her son Hector, the key to their frustration lies in their inability to linguistically orient themselves.  Felicia moves away from language into her trance for a number of reasons, but a conflict between languages, or the traumas of multilingual society do not necessarily impact upon her.  Her loss of voice ("Her own voice is mute to her" - 81) results from a combination of her husband's abuse, her friend Herminia's influence and her family history.  Amalia, on the other hand, as a "Mexican-American" (as she calls herself, disliking the word "Chicano" - 4) struggles with two languages.  She retreats toward Spanish and rejects English as the pressures of U.S. society force her into fearful silence.  Her retreat is mirrored by Rechy's narrative technique where gaps and dashes indicate her loss of words, her growing silence and her agitated thought patterns. 

 

Gabriel was discharged, and he moved in permanently with Amalia. Sex with him was like with the others, something expected of her; and like the others, Gabriel didn't even notice that....Amalia loved this: Throughout the night, he held her tenderly (35).

The gap here points to Amalia's inability to reveal her own sexual desires to her lover Gabriel as well as her quickness at censoring herself, and redirecting her attention toward a less emotional, yet still positive aspect of the relationship.  Later in the book, the gaps in this momentary interior monologue suggest a further incapacity to face her past:

 

Or because he had sighed, that way, that long? Gabriel. Yes. She remembered that, how often Gabriel had sighed. And Salvador...Yes. No, never! But her father...? (60).

She pushes away "those odd thoughts" from her past as the disjointed prose jumps from thought to thought.  The frequency of dashes increases as she finds out about her son Manny's crimes:

 

In that courtroom she came to despise -- and she went alone, did not want anyone with her -- she learned -- certain finally -- that her son -- who listened fascinated as if people there were talking about someone he did not know -- dominated one of the toughest gangs in the city... (79).

Rechy's stylistic duplication of Amalia's mental disarray continues throughout the book, becoming more pronounced as Amalia's illusions are stripped away.  Logical thought gives way to broken fragments of language.   In one scene, her random thoughts disintegrate into part of some modern day "Trojan Women" chorus, part of the "terrible lament" coming from women (themselves growing "drabber, poorer, more desperate" by the minute) waiting in line to see their sons in prison: 

 

"--drugs--"..."--resisting arrest --"..."What will we do now?"..."--las gangas--"..."--drogas--"... "--no job--"..."--What will we do now?"..."--the police said he--"..."I don't know why, mujer!"..."--the gangs--"..."drunk but he--"..."What will we do now?"  (83).

A similar type of stream of consciousness occurs in Rodriguez's Spidertown.  Early on, Miguel considers disclosing his involvement in arson and drug dealing to his new love, Cristalena.  As Miguel ponders his confession, Rodriguez's narrative becomes a jumbled, explosion of agrammatical fragments, a dramatic monologue of the bits and pieces of thoughts bubbling in the protagonist's tortured brain (10-11).   The position of the words on the page -- centered or oddly spaced -- in these instances mirrors a characters strangled inability to communicate.  

          As a stylistic device, however, when viewed at the level of discourse, the technique suggests the Latino writer's use of Bakhtin's "carnival idiom" where the breakdown of language signals an intention to subvert or disturb standard modes of expression, to turn rational and logical communication inside out.   The Cuban-American novelist Roberto Fernandez is particularly adept at playing with multi-voiced narrative and disturbing all linear, chronological systems.  Raining Backwards is a mosaic of Cuban American voices fractured into nearly every form of discourse available to a writer.  As Rolando Hinojosa with his Klail City Death Trip series had done for the Chicano world, Fernandez creates a complex portrait of a Miami community by shifting voices and  juggling types of prose.  The oral culture of Miami is given full vent, just as Hinojosa had done for the borderland culture of south Texas, yet here Fernandez's tone is decidedly sarcastic as his own "mosaic of anecdotes" (Zimmerman 85) gives way to language that mimics travel brochures (123-141), news broadcasts (61), etiquette columns (25, 36), government letters (65), applications (94-96), recipes (70), news releases (31, 90), and even poetry (20, 57, 124).  Both writers have an interest in forcing the written word to conform to what Kanellos calls "the orality" of Latino culture.    

            Latino characters share a general distrust of words, particularly the written word.   Herminia, for example, is decidedly distrustful of writing, specifically, the inaccurate histories of her African ancestors (Dreaming 185) while Pilar is in constant search for what Lourdes (who speaks "another idiom entirely" - 221) cannot reach: the "old sentences beneath the mattress"( 237).   Under English labels exist Latino truths: In Rechy, "Elmer's Bar and Grill" becomes "El Bar and Grill." The name Elmer transforms into "El" and the actual "grill" disappears (140).  We are left with the truth of an unpainted, desolate bar that sells Tomales.   In Viramontes, as Debra Castillo points out, Cariboo Cafe becomes the zero, zero place, and the "Carib" (Caribbean, Caribe Indians) gets lost, while the double negative remains (81).  In the Cisneros story, "Barbie-Q," under the toy maker's advertising labels for Barbie Dolls, "Sweet Dreams," "Career Girl," and "Bendable Legs Barbie," we find two poor, Chicano children in a Flee Market with few dreams, and a collection of "water-soaked," dolls that smell like soot, their bendable legs "melted a little" (Women 14-16).  The title of the story implies that women need to destroy the artificial stereotypes   associated with Barbie dolls if they are to be seen on anything but a superficial level.  Like Herminia's, the history of Latinos has been recorded erroneously, and thus the quest for voice pushes the Latino against the mainstream, away from the officialdom of the English language.  Franklin, a Central-American refugee in Saenz's "Alligator Park" typifies the Latino existing outside the world of books and words.  He is disturbed by the lawyer's taking notes:  

"It's strange, it's like all my words, everything I say, is being put to a sheet of paper.  It doesn't seem right. Words are supposed to be said, I mean, words on a piece of paper aren't real like what comes out of the mouth...I've never trusted words that were written down. I like words better when I can hear them instead of see them." (93). 

Another Saenz protagonist resents those who do have a voice in society, who "parade" their opinions with slogans and signs.  Richard/Ricardo Diaz from "Kill the Poor" is an embittered Chicano with misgivings toward written language.  He hates to read and yet works in a library.  He tries to quit smoking in, of all places, a bowling alley.  Having intentionally erased his Spanish, he feels no comfort from English, and he lives in a state beyond language, a "drought" of words (79).   These are the voices of people, if not silenced, to some extent powerless; they are those, in Debra Castillo's words, who are "illiterate, who dare not speak, for whom the supposedly universal right to free speech has no more significance than any other phrase of oratory" (80). 

            Throughout Latino fiction, the characters search for a form of self expression, a language that will "bear the burden" of their hybrid, cultural identity.  Some falter into silence under the weight of English (and the dominant society it reflects), while others are left stranded midway between the two languages, trapped in a halfway house, like Gilb's YMCA, where everyone wants to communicate, everybody waits for the mail, but the mail never comes and everybody lies.  Elsewhere, the Latino is given voice by the validation of his linguistic world when writers choose the freedom of interlingual creativity, or as Tato Laviera puts it by "speaking new words in Spanglish tenements" ("AmeRican").   Once comfortable with the creative potential of working between languages, Latino fiction writers acquire an imaginative strength from the games of blending and mixing and they code-switch themselves into story tellers like no others.  The discourse available to them entangles the nuances and flavors of English and Spanish, molding and shaping each language to accommodate a cultural borderland neither separated from, nor entirely distinct from either side.  

[45]Valenzuela remarked on her reasons for writing fiction in the Presidential Forum of Profession  91, December 1990 in Buenos Aires.

[46]See Chapter Six for further discussion of the mystical element.

[47]Of the stories in the collection, The Moths, critics have chosen to discuss this story most frequently. Besides Castillo's chapter in Talking Back, see also Roberta Fernandez (1989) and Franklet (1989).

[48]Rhys's work is important to Latino fiction for a number of reasons.  Her modernist prose style (specifically the use of stream of consciousness) serves as an example for novels such as Lucha Corpi's Delia's Song, or Gina Valdez's story "Rhythms," but Rhys was also an innovator in blending languages (in her case French and English) and exploring the non-verbal worlds of woman on the outskirts of accepted society.  One thinks of Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight or Selina in "Let Them Call it Jazz."
 

Continue: Chapter 4 Part 1

 

 

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