Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 6 Part 1
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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 I):  "Flowers of the Dead:" The Latino Quest for Ancestors

           Cristina Garcia's short story "Tito's Good-bye" concerns the last seconds of a man's life in the instant he is hit with a massive heart attack.  He isn't given a moment for "the luxury of nostalgia," for remembering his mother's cheek, his father's hands, or his daughter's childhood dance.  There isn't time for him to help the desperate immigrants he has defrauded, call the brothers he's ignored or make his estranged wife happy.  So, in futile protest, he can utter only the word "Coño."   In Spanish the curse refers (with varying degrees of vulgarity, depending upon country), to female genitalia, but here suggests that place where all life begins: Tito's end is his beginning [i].  The story points toward the Latino's desire to avoid Tito's fate, to recapture connections to the past and maintain the bonds of family and culture. 

            Garcia's novel, Dreaming in Cuban, tells the opposite story, one where families can be reunited and the complexities of attitudes toward post revolutionary Cuba at least partially resolved.  If, during that New York City snowstorm, Tito had had the time, he might have embarked on an important Latino quest, a journey toward spiritual identity, a trip through one's grandparents and ancestors toward family ghosts and cultural traditions.  Most Latino writers now have round trip tickets[ii] between the past and the present, the dead and the living.  Like Garcia's Pilar Puente, they seek to "bridge"[iii] the gap between the material world and the diversity of folk spirituality, of syncretic religious heritage.  All the characters of Dreaming in Cuban are thus "going south."  What they gather in their travels, their shuttling between cultures, encourages them to balance logical reality with the unexplainable.  Treating folk beliefs and faith with reverence and understanding, Latino writers return to their cultural beginnings (literally or imaginatively), and bring back with them to life in the U.S. the foods and sounds of post-colonial or indigenous worlds, and along with tropical fruit, chiles, "napolitas," achiote con culantro, salsa, corridos and merenques come the ideas, customs and values of their grandparents to be either discarded as antiquated superstitions or more often molded into some aspect of life in the U.S.

            Latino fiction explores the traditions of past generations as protagonists emotionally unite with "abuelas" and "abuelos" [grandmothers and grandfathers] or, venturing one step further, wander among dead ancestors in search of meanings to their own lives.  Ron Arias has written of the need to "touch the death" for "in that touch, life is given its truest meaning" ("Mexican Way"), an idea that echoes Eliot's claim that we "die with the dying" and are "born with the dead."  Tomás Rivera wrote that Arias's novel The Road to Tomazunchale showed readers that "dying as living is a creative ambient and attitude" (Road Intro) because the discovery of meaning in death leads to rebirth.  Arias, the Chicano, like all Latinos, balances between the Anglo-Protestant "denial of death" (an example of what he sees as the "controlled, mechanistic world of Anglo answers to grief, fear and the unknown"), and the Mexican's Indian-Catholic acceptance of living spirits.  Thus the personal, anthropological search for cultural roots constitutes one way Latinos break ranks with U.S. practicality.  Octavio Paz claimed in The Labyrinth of Solitude that the Mexican is "seduced by death," that he or she "jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it" (57-58), and we see similar fascination with the subject in Latino fiction as writers focus on the moment of death, on the close calls, or when they ponder their inability to leave the dead alone.  Latinos seem in constant confrontation with their own brand of hybrid spirituality where ghosts share equal time with the business of living.  Where the northern European tendency is to separate life and death into distinct compartments or boxes, the walls of the these boxes corrode as one move's south and western systems of classifying cultural truths function less smoothly.

            Given the importance of the search for cultural and spiritual identity in Latino fiction, it comes as no surprise that Latinos often structure their works around the classical "descent into the underworld" motif.  They send their Latino heroes on symbolic trips into some portion of a Latin American (or Spanish) Hades, and bring them back, all sorts of baggage in hand, to cope with the officials of U.S. customs.  What they discover often disrupts both their U.S. life and their understandings of their cultural heritage.  In this way, death serves as an organizing principle for much of Latino fiction as each writer tries to untangle his or her cultural identity.  For example, Arturo Islas's The Rain God begins with Miguel Chico's recollections of his first trips to the cemetery of his relatives (even before he can understand what the place means - 9), and of his friend Leonardo's suicide and funeral.  The book is saturated with the deaths (murders, drownings) of his friends and family members.  Like many Latino narratives, it is a story about the "sins of fathers" (97) and the coming to terms with divided ancestral heritages.  Miguel Chico, as the "central consciousness" or "family analyst" is seeking to understand his family's past (J.D. Saldívar  113). The project of numerous Latino protagonists as they lie upon their death beds or in hospital rooms is to reconcile their individual identities with their family's complex memories and experiences.  Latin American novels built around flashbacks like Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz and García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth provide structural models for these works in which dying men reexamine the paths their lives have taken.[iv]  Both The Rain God and Cecile Pineda's Face begin at the point when the central character confronts his need to physically and emotionally rebuild his life.  Arias's Fausto, the hero of The Road to Tomazunchale, in the opening paragraph, fantasizes that he is peeling off his skin, foreshadowing his mental resurrection.  Like the snake, he will renew himself through the process of memory, dream and fantasy which the novel will explore though the hero may never actually leave his death bed.  In Fausto's mind at least, he follows the sound of a Peruvian flute back toward his ancestral indigenous past.[v] 

            Nash Candelaria's famous Memories of the Alhambra opens abruptly with the line: "The Patriarch was dead." The novel then portrays, as Bruce-Novoa explains, an "aging protagonist, José Rafa [who] "fears tradition slipping away and flees to Spain in search of his ancestry" (Retrospace 105).  José's son, Joe, must confront his own mixed heritage because of his father's departure.  Candelaria uses the descent into the underworld pattern to illustrate the beginning of both men's spiritual journeys toward unifying the Latin American and European fragments of their identities. For Jose Rafa, the quest which leads from California to Mexico to Spain is a futile search to begin with.  Introduced, as it is, by a phony genealogist significantly named "Alphonso de Sintierra" (without earth), Jose's journey is frequently characterized as madness, and a "raging compulsion."  When he arrives in Spain, in search of his conquistador ancestors, only to find dwarfs, gypsies, statues of Don Quixote ("a madman and his servant fool" -143), and a man of Moorish descent, he is confronted with the futility of his "crazy every step nothing but confusion" (166).  Candelaria plays upon the motif in order to suggest that José's true heritage lies, not in Spain, but in the indigenous Indian backgrounds he so desperately denies.  "Hell," proclaims La Loca, "is where you go to see yourself" (Castillo So Far From God 42).  José, unlike his son, finds it impossible to reconcile the truth of his mixed heritage, and therefore fails in the attempt to organize the scattered pieces of experience and memory, to create order out of chaos, and make sense of the "heap of broken fragments."


            Jose Rafa ultimately recognizes that if his heritage is tied to the infamy of Cortes, then it is also linked with the treachery of the Indian Malinche and that he is Indian and Mexican, not pure Spanish as he has always claimed, but a part of the "rainbow of humanity as losers" (181).   A similar pattern shapes Guy Garcia's story "La Promesa."  Tom Cardona, a middle class, republican Chicano journeys south into Mexico in search of his grandmother's past.  He has promised his grandmother to undertake the excursion in much the way the narrator of Rulfo's Pedro Páramo promises his mother.  The twist here is that Tom Cardona is motivated by his expected inheritance of $30,000, and not an oedipal desire to find his father.  Tom crosses the border (the threshold of his adventure) and encounters a haggard old woman with "claw-like fingers" (Soto 133).  He journeys down "tangled freeways" (133) through a labyrinthine mansion with a "receding hall of mirrors" (140), and with the guidance of a story telling coffin maker, ventures through the municipal cemetery.  He winds up finally in the town's claustrophobic "museum" of mummies, probably that of Guanajuato west of Mexico City.  Here he learns that one mummy is presumably his true grandmother, a scorned woman, driven insane by her fiancé's murder of her lover and probably buried alive as a devil figure, a "succubus."  Her mummified damaged fingernails recall both the old woman at the border (a sort of haggard Charon figure) as well as "The broken fingernails of dirty hands" in Eliot's "Wasteland," because it is Tom, up to this moment of recognition, who has been able to "connect nothing with nothing," has treated his Mexican origins as a "footnote" (135) and lived by his motto: "drive fast, don't look back" (136).   In addition, the claw-like fingers of the ancient women suggest the famous serpent goddess Coatlicue with her taloned feet symbolizing the "duality" of life, "the digging of graves into the earth as well as the sky-bound eagle" (Anzaldúa Borderlands 27, 47).  F. Gonzalez-Crussi, the pathologist, reminds us that her "vulturelike claws" tie her to the earth goddess that, like the vulture, feeds upon the dead (51).  The discovery of his relative (a sort of "La Llorona"/"La Malinche" figure) is powerful enough to rid him of "pride and worldly pretense" (151) and force him to realize that connecting with the past is a source of renewal, that to deny the dead, to turn your back on the blinding "Aztec sun" is to reject one's true nature. 

            John Rechy in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez uses the descent motif to follow his heroine through LA's Hollywood Boulevard which Amalia sees as a "graveyard for the living dead."  Amalia walks toward self-awareness, amid Hollywood's glittering falseness.  For nearly half the novel, we follow her through a poverty strewn neighborhood, a "crazy maze" (118) of female wrestlers (115), bible pushers (116), a ragged old woman disappearing into an abandoned building (113) and a humorously typical visit to a fast food restaurant.  As Amalia progresses, the illusions she has maintained to protect herself, the enabling fictions of her past are stripped away one by one until, like a Eugene O'Neill character, she is left with the devastating truth of the failure of her family.  She walks through the "glistening palace" of a mall (203), and recognizes herself as being "out of place," existing, like the other poor Chicanos of southern California with "a gun to her head" (77).  In the end, when a gun wielding stranger uses her as a hostage, this expression turns into a literal reality.  Like Amalia, Dagoberto Gilb's Mickey Acuña, also passes through a type of Hell, in this case a YMCA, his "last known residence."  Mickey is a lost soul wandering amid fringe dwelling losers each with a story to tell.  Wearing mirror sunglasses, he stumbles over a blind man (Tiresias?) at the entrance.  Yet the similarities between these two unfortunate Chicano protagonists break down as the results of their respective journeys become clear; Amalia's violent experience sends her toward an epiphany which leaves her feeling "resurrected with new life" (Rechy 206), while Mickey walks toward "the border," feeling guilty, confused and still unable "to remember true and real things" (209).


            Latina writers twist the "descent into the underworld" motif, not to negate its symbolic significance, but to problematize the effectiveness of such spiritual journeys that endorse unequivocally male traditions.  Like previous modernists, Latina writers are less interested in past allegiances (and by extension in traditional, literary patterns of structure and theme), as they are in discovering the present and looking toward the future.  Gloria Anzaldúa's short story "People Should not Die in June in South Texas" switches, almost immediately, from the solemn funeral of her father "Urbano, loved by all," to a sarcastic mocking of the entire graveyard ritual: "after two and a half days, her father has begun to smell like a cow whose carcass has been gutted by vultures. People should not die in June in south Texas" (Augenbraum and Stavans  280).  Compared to Candelaria's opening, Anzaldúa's story privileges the details of a rotting corpse, the incisions and fluids of the embalming and the price of coffins over the mythical significance of her heroine's growth.  In fact, Prietita's growth comes from recognition, four years later, that the dead are simply dead, that the ritual of the wake has little to do with her life (after a few days she is just as "invisible and invincible" in the black of mourning as she was before).  

            Anzaldúa rejects the power of the dead, the influence of the corpse (the Antigone archetype) over the living, yet in her sheer practicality, she is atypical of Latino writers who, in general, exploit the hazy territory of the spaces between fact and belief, between life and death.  The story actually seems to repudiate the famous line from Rulfo's Pedro Paramo: "The dead carry more weight than the living." Anzaldúa argues in Borderlands / La Frontera that the descent motif is symbolic of the artist's Shamanistic endeavor to understand the oppositions and "duality" in life.  Through a hazy mid-state of sickness and health, sleep and waking, the artist can "jump blindfolded into the abyss of her own being and there in the depths confront her face, the face underneath the mask" (74).   In her story, however, there is no chance of the little girl's bridging the gap between Mictlán (69) or Miktlán (48), the "region of the dead" and her daily life.  Perhaps this is true because the ancestral patriarchal chain of the dead male offers nothing that she as a woman can use.  The journey toward the dead is, for Latina writers, often sterile and pointless when it follows the roots of the father. Anzaldúa's stressing the physical deterioration of the deceased father figure indicates that she'd have the young heroine look elsewhere for her identity than in patriarchal tradition. 

            For Ana Castillo the journey back to Mexican heritage is problematic, since just as more and more Mexican women cross the border in search of work and then return with mixed ideas about their rights and positions in traditional society, so Teresa in The Mixquiahuala Letters finds difficulty with Mexico's age-old attitudes about female behavior and gender roles in society.  Teresa is drawn by her "devotion to the culture that preceded European influence" (49) to the "pre-Columbian village of obscurity" (19) referred to in the title.  Her name is perhaps an allusion to Theresa the wife of the autocratic José Rafa since Candelaria's "Chicana flapper," Theresa, embodies the independence, modernity, and rebelliousness that Castillo's Teresa would admire.  After all, Theresa Rafa is "a fighter who wanted more" (Candelaria 141) and resents her husband's racism (78).  She forces him to escape his stifling autocratic family and is the only character in Memories of the Alhambra to recognize the "Spanish forebearers' cruelty in the men and in the women that docility that came from the Indian ancestors that they would deny" (62).  Castillo's heroine's journey (presumably paralleling the reader's "journey"[vi]), recollected piece by piece in the letters that constitute the book is an encounter with both the authenticity of her Mexican / Indian roots and the traps and taboos for women within that culture.  Like all Latinas, she must mark herself as an individual without sacrificing the benefits provided by the Latin American communal and family systems.  At one point, Castillo's letters speak of returning to "ancient Tenochtitlan, home of my mother, grandmothers, and greatmother, as embracing bosom, to welcome me back and rock my weary body and mind to sleep..." (92).  Yet moments later, she undercuts the mythic edenic womb image by recalling her actual arrival and being "shuffled out like excess cargo, placed in a cab and sent the family of a friend" (92).  "Mexican hospitality did indeed have its limits" (93).  Teresa's outsider's perspective allows her to see how Mexico "embraces as it strangulates" (59).  She starts to find herself a "snag" in Mexico's societal pattern (59).  As Alarcón has argued, Teresa is "forced to recall that she is not as free as she thought" (98) when confronted by the restrictions of Mexican women.  Her southern journey, her symbolic descent, "down, down, for days and nights" (60) thus enhances the ambiguities of her identity,[vii] ultimately uniting her with other Castillo heroines who embrace the unfixed hybridity of mestizo consciousness.  Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano draws parallels between Teresa's multiple subjectivity (67) and Pastura's (the heroine of Castillo's second novel Sapagonia) divided nature whose nickname, Coatlicue, suggests again the "goddess of the union of opposites" (Yarbo-Bejarano 68).  In Sapagonia, it is the "anti-hero" Maximo Madrigal whose quest is portrayed as he travels south to rescue his Mayan grandmother from revolutionaries.  Having only belatedly switched his search for roots from a paternal direction (from which he learns little about himself) to a maternal one, he finds his "abuela" dead and so the search fails.  Unlike the semi-revolutionary Sofi, Maximo doesn't recognize a need to depart from male tradition, and, in a manner similar to Tom Cardona in the Garcia story, his loss of connection to the abuela leaves him stranded.  He "functions," according to Gómez-Vega, "within an intrinsically male-identified culture...that values the mythological male hero's separation from the community" (244) while Castillo's articulation of the descent motif clearly emphasizes the positive female side of her Latin American cultural and familial ties.  As Maximo journeys "away from communion into solitude" (Gómez-Vega 244), the novel advocates the Latina's need to progress in the opposite direction.


           Though Castillo's epistolary novel allows for a "Conformist" reading (the first of three possible orderings of the chapters) such a reading is clearly the least attractive to the ethnographer/author[viii] because it confirms what Yarbo-Bejarano calls the "maternal dictates" of traditional Mexican women (67-68).  If the past is essential in forming identities, the errors within past traditions must also be understood.  According to Sofi, the heroine matriarch in So Far From God, the "conformist" is despicable, or as her daughter Esperanza says, someone "who just didn't give a damn about nothing" (139).  To conform is to acquiesce, to bow to the forces of the powers that be.  Such is the fate of Sofi's daughter, Fe who, betrayed by her romantic lover, pursues the elusive American financial dream into the Acme weapons plant and dies of cancer from toxic cleaning fluids.  As her name suggests, misguided "faith" in her bosses proves fatal, her obedience deadly, and, on an allegorical level, faith in the system dies with her.  In fact, Castillo writes: "she did not resurrect...Fe just died. And when someone dies that plain dead, it is hard to talk about" (186).  Sofi, on the other hand, becomes mayor of Tome and gains a permanent voice to "speak her mind" as a woman and for women (157), positioning herself to rewrite the town, to edit the "Tome."   

            For Cristina Garcia as well, the concept of seeking out one's heritage is valid, provided the journey is properly directed along matrilineal lines.  Thus early in the novel, the young heroine, Pilar Puente travels south by bus to Florida on her way toward Cuba.  On the bus, Pilar meets Minnie French, a woman "weirdly old-looking for a young person" (27).  Minnie tells Pilar that she is the "last of thirteen children," that her born-again mother died giving birth to her and that she is in route to Florida to get an abortion.   If Pilar's journey is to truly result in increased understanding and a symbolic "rebirth" into greater maturity through connection with the past, then this encounter on the bus with its emphasis on death and sterility is inauspicious.  In fact, Pilar's trip will end in Florida which, politically at least, is decidedly not Cuba.  Moreover, she will wind up trapped in the house of her father's patriarchal family.  Abuela Zaida, her father's sister, uses the collective "we" to include only men and to exclude women, and Pilar's grandfather from the old world likes his wife to call him "Don Guillermo."  This "blustery caballero's" flagrant macho behavior once led him to kill an innocent dog which had been trying to drag the year and a half year old Pilar out of the street where she had wandered.  We know early in the novel that Pilar is in search of a fading connection with her grandmother, Abuela Celia, with whom she shares birthdays.  Reacting to the falsity of her mother's exaggerated patriotic bakery and her father's adultery, Pilar leaves New York in search of a truth somehow associated with her grandmother's visionary, mystical world.  As the character Minnie foreshadows, however, this first Florida trip proves to be a sterile journey in terms of Pilar's psychological development.  She winds up getting drenched in the tropical rain, locked outside the home of her paternal grandparents.  Pilar's genuine journey, the one that will establish the authentic relationship between her and her past will occur eight years later, for six April days in Cuba, and this experience, rather than the initial bus trip, will restore Pilar to a sense of herself and at the same time bridge (as her name, "puente," suggests) the gap between the island and the U.S., the past and her present.

[i]The story recalls the Colombian writer Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal's tale of La Violencia (during the 1940's and 1950's), "Donaldo Arieto,"  in which a man, dying on the street, relives in the seconds before he dies, the events leading up to his murder.  Both stories disconnect their characters minds from chronological time and linear recollection in such a way as to expand the instant into a detailed narrative.   It is the technique of Ambrose Bierce's famous story "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as well as Latin American stories like Julio Cortázar's "The Night Face Up" and Horacio Quiroga's "The Dead Man."  Though time stops for a character, the reader (unlike the hero) begins a vicarious (possibly cathartic) journey into the past

[ii]Tickets for example on "the flying bus" between New York and Puerto Rico. See Luis Rafael Sanchez's article of that name in Images and Identities: The Puerto Rican in Two World Contexts. Ed. Asela Rodríguez de Laguna. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1987. 

[iii]"Puente" in Spanish means "bridge."

[iv]Sergio Elizondo's novel, Muerte en una estrella (1984), based on an actual case in Austin, Texas, also deals with the last fragmented memories of two dying Chicanos in the 1960's (Sánchez "Discourses" 86).

[v]Fausto's name may suggest that up until the time of his death for reasons never made clear in the novel, he has avoided such a personal investigation, and thereby sacrificed the essence of his soul in a futile attempt to deny his Latin American heritage.

[vi]The three part Table of Contents for the novel is followed by the following comment: "For the reader committed to nothing but short fiction, all letters read as separate entities. Good luck whichever journey you choose!"

Continue: Chapter 6 Part II



Last Updated:
July 25, 2011
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie