Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 6 Part 2
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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 II):  "Flowers of the Dead:" The Latino Quest for Ancestors
            For Latina writers in particular, the ties to a homeland are both necessary and problematic.  Links with a Mexican heritage, while important, can constitute what Rosaura Sánchez calls a "contradictory inclusion/exclusion trap" ("Discourses" 84) for the Chicana.  This is true for Latinas of Cuban or Puerto Rican descent as well, and the tensions involved in confronting male traditions consequently produce works in which the family, the "community" ("collectivity" for Sánchez) becomes divided along gender lines.  Whenever Latinos, especially women, as individuals, are pitted against the family social codes, the Latino finds him/herself caught between a refusal to abide by rules of the past and being incapable of living without certain familial bonds.  "The family is hostile to the individual" complains Pilar midway through a novel that will demonstrate that the family is also essential to the individual.  The father's side of the family is frequently disparaged in stories and novels, often because the male genealogies reveal the line from Latino to Spanish to Conquistador (the ultimate criminal) rather than from Latino to Mestizo to Mexican, Indian or African (the victims).  In Castillo's So Far From God, the patriarchal lines pass along rare blood diseases (20), while in Lucha Corpi's mystery novel Eulogy for a Brown Angel, it is the father's side of the family, a la Hawthorne, that hands down the curse for revenge from Grandfather Soren Bjorgun to the murderer and rapist Paul Cisneros.  The latter figure is part of a Brazilian paramilitary group (185-186).  Such a heritage, according to Corpi, ultimately leads to a game "where all the main players were men, and the losers were all women and their children (170).
            The effort (in Corpi's case, transparent), to validate the female line while discrediting the male is not uncommon in Latina fiction.  Alma Villanueva's The Ultraviolet Sky even manages to lay the blame for a malamute's violent behavior not on the dog's nature but upon a young boy who has trained it to attack other dogs (373).  Eliud Martínez constructs a relationship between a grandfather Don Miguel Velásquez and his grandson, the "voice haunted passenger" who tells the story, which is not entirely built on affection, despite the same name and a "remarkable resemblance" between them.  The memory of this grandfather, however,haunts him throughout the book, like his "tocayo" or namesake, allowing the older man to live o
n through him (121).  The sins of the grandfather in this case are handed down to young Miguel who comes from "his grandfather's garden" (190), searches for and discovers him "in the rumors of the family elders" (14) and suffers from the same personality defects.  He tells himself that his writings, like his grandfather's notebooks, are "nothing more than a record of a man who was born to bring grief and anguish to loved ones" (228). 

          Unlike the general tendency of Latino fiction to portray the grandmother figure in a positive light, the abuelo and his descendants exert an ambiguous and complicated influence.  We see the moving and beneficial relationship between, for instance, a grandson and his shaman, Yaqui grandfather in Alfredo Véa's La Maravilla, but also the oedipal struggles of the Velásquez family in Martínez's Voice-haunted Journey or the homophobic machismo of Arturo Islas's male figures.  In the story "A Silent Love" by Bejamin Alire Sáenz, a deaf boy and his 73 year old grandfather communicate non-verbally "like dancers" in much the ways abuelas and granddaughters do (Flowers 21).  Their signing turns the old man's hands into "wings" according to the older grandson who sits outside this silent mystical communion between the two.  The scene recalls the wing-like hands of Anderson's Wing Biddlebaum not only because the hands express what words cannot, but because the love between the older man and younger boy is genuinely maternal.  At one point, the older brother tells his grandfather that he has "turned into an old woman," become, in effect, an abuela.  Though not meant as a compliment from the older brother, the remark is ironically positive to the reader.            
            Male characters in the works of Sáenz, Véa and Islas seem to generate sympathy in direct proportion to their feminine qualities.  To resemble the abuela is to reject the stereotypical bravado of Latin American fathers and grandfathers, and become aware of the deficiencies of a patriarchal tradition.  This is so because the abuela figure usually represents the connection to everything outside the injustice and corruption of institutional controls.  She is the "transmitter" of oral, folk culture, and serves as the link between the present, often oppressive world, and the lost past (Rebolledo "Abuelitas" 153).  The abuela is often "nurturing, comforting and stable" (156).  Though a writer like Roberto Fernández makes fun of the formulaic "abuela" by describing one rather inept grandmother as being "in a trance for a few minutes, rewinding her mind" (Raining 147),  usually, as Marcienne Rocard notes, the abuelita is sympathetically portrayed as a person "closer to grandchildren... [than children] especially granddaughters" and who thus "insures continuity with the past" (153-154).  Her intuition is bound up with an oral tradition and she communicates the non-European cultural values otherwise ignored by society.  
            Perhaps, above all, the grandmother is the conveyor of folk spirituality, the means by which granddaughters and grandsons attach themselves to the world of unorthodox religious beliefs.  She has ties to a "knowledge and wisdom identified with magic and old ways" (Rebolledo "Abuelitas" 153).  Abuelas are linked to curanderas (healers), seers, and to the rituals of indigenous cultures and the practices of syncretic religions -- validated or not by the texts in which they appear.
[ix]  They can even be related to brujas (witches) or the dual goddesses and mythic figures like Coatlicue that suggest both negative and positive aspects of female power.  Sometimes, like curanderas, they know of medicinal herbs and homeopathic remedies.   Thus, in the Latino search for identity, characters venture through the kitchens[x] and dreams of older women on their way to understanding themselves.  Anaya's Ultima, perhaps the most famous curandera figure, leads the young hero on his spiritual quest.  The mythic curandera figure combines the strength and power of independence with the wisdom and ability to heal the sick.  As Rebolledo notes, she "has control over her own life and destiny as well as that of others" (Women  88).   When Cristina Garcia's Pilar returns to Cuba, she gathers the folk-spirituality of her independent grandmother at the same time she denounces the male traditions of the old world.  In Villanueva's novel, it is Rosa Luján's Grandmother, Luz [light] after whom Rosa names her newborn baby, and not her mother Dolores [pain].  Rosa's "Mamacita" has taught her the prophetic quality of dreams (58) on which she relies extensively and has showed her how notions of God and the Devil could be "lumped together" (89) and seen as masculine vehicles for the repression of women.  Near the end of her search for self-identity and independence, Rosa thanks this "dark-skinned, Indian looking woman" (126) "por todo" [for everything] (377).  When her husband's grandmother dies, he photographs a series of stark, desert pictures suggesting that the death of an abuela marks a loss of fertility and life.  Those grandmothers who rebelled against past convention even acquire heroic status in the eyes of their descendants.  Cisneros's Esperanza of The House on Mango Street admires her great-grandmother as "a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off" (12).  In Memories of the Alhambra,  Theresa Rafa sees a genuine peace in the home of her storytelling grandmother.  Compared to the Rafa women, dressed in black and reminiscent of Islas's elderly, Catholic matriarchs, Theresa's "Nana" is naturally connected to "our mother, the earth" (69), believes deeply in the holy dirt of Chimayo (73) and her home in the mountains has a "nesting quality of comfort and refuge...a place in which to be fed and kept warm" (68).


           In the effort to explore the past, Latino writers authenticate the grandmother's spirituality, and in so doing, identify themselves with a whole range of unwritten, unorthodox religious traditions.  Female lineage encourages a writer to enter a vast world of non-western attitudes toward life and death, and bringing these concepts into Latino fiction raises interesting complications.  The trend of documenting non-european religious thought suggests that Latino writers are not merely aiming their work at mainstream audiences, but rather guiding readers in a new direction.  They seem rather to be engaged in an active pursuit of living mixed cultures, and interested in the cross-fertilization going on between the accepted and the taboo, the modern and the "old ways."    In this process which is guided not by nostalgia, but by respect, superstitions get reevaluated.  We find that Cuban-American and Puerto Rico writers depict the ritualistic elements of Santería or "the religion of the saints,"[xi] while Chicanos incorporate both Native American and Mexican folk traditions into their stories.  What significance these elements contribute to the literature depends on the writer, but their inclusion demonstrates the importance and diversity of Latino spirituality.  Latino fiction shows an increasingly pronounced need for Latinos to confront their indigenous, non-western spiritual roots if they are to adequately understand the influences that have shaped their lives, in terms of their culture and religion. 
            We see, for example, the importance of ritual bathing in several works.  While typically seen in literature as a symbolic representation of spiritual cleansing (or in Roman Catholicism as baptism or rebirth into the world of God), in Latino fiction, bathing also suggests emotional bonding between characters, particularly between women.  A Taino Indian instructs the gypsy Rosa on the precision necessary for magical, ritual bath in Judith Cofer's In the Line of the Sun.  The out-of-body telepathic connections between a woman and her lost brother in Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Carry Me Like Water begin with a bath in clean and hot and seductive water (38).  In Helena Viramontes's story "The Moths," both granddaughter and grandmother "nurse" each other and bath in "the waters of the womb" (28).  This bath is in direct opposition to institutionalized religious purification for it represents a personal ritual of connecting where the young granddaughter acts "with the sacredness of a priest" though no actual priest is involved.  The dying grandmother cannot speak, yet her granddaughter who cradles her in the tub can somehow hear her.  
            In Dreaming in Cuban, Pilar bathes in a tub filled with herbs while her distant grandmother, Celia, swims in the ocean.  Somehow, telepathically, the bathing connects Pilar with her abuela.  The magic of her herbal baths is derived from the magic of the Santería ritual, the cleansing ceremonial bath known as a "despojo" (González-Wippler 22).  "Nine consecutive nights" of herbal bathing (usually, according to González-Wippler "to attract good vibrations and help solve the problems of the consultant" 219) convinces Pilar that she and her mother must go to Cuba and find her abuela.  She can, as Ivanito sees, bring her grandmother "back to life" (Dreaming 230); she feels her "grandmother's life passing to [her] through her hands.  It's a steady electricity, humming and true" (222).
[xii]  Throughout the novel, Garcia refuses to discount the validity of Santería beliefs.  In fact, the novel endorses them in as much as Pilar's actions bring her toward her grandmother which is the essential element of her quest for identity.  Moreover, the ritual bathing links Pilar to her rebellious aunt Felicia when we recall Felicia's initiation ceremony where sixteen Santeras bathed her in river water (187).  Pilar is recognized as a daughter of Changó, the Yoruban deity disguised under the Catholic Santa Barbara [Saint Barbara] and thus associated with power, either "procreative, authoritative, destructive, medicinal, or moral" (González-Wippler 40), suggesting perhaps the power of the artist to unify and gather strength from a complex cultural heritage.  In any case, the inclusion of Santería mysticism emphasizes the other worldly quality of Pilar's relationship with her family.  Like Herminia, the black daughter of a Santería priest (90) who lives "on the fringe of life" (184), Pilar is also "connected to another world (186); part of her spiritual growth depends on her recognizing, like the granddaughter in the Viramontes story, the non-verbal channels of communication, the "languages lost." 
            Ana Castillo goes to extremes to validate southwestern curandera practices by filling her novel So Far from God with information about "limpias" or "sobasos" or cleansings.  By declaring that "all who had lived on that tierra of thistle and tumbleweed knew that every cactus and thorn had a purpose and reason, once put into a pot to boil" (233), the narrator authenticates the medicinal beliefs of women over those learned, for example, at "Northwestern University Medical School in the coldest city of the world" (227).  The healing women are particularly attractive to Chicano political writers like Castillo since they stack up well against the stereotypical Mexican mother who is always patient and enduring.  In contrast, the curandera exhibits a magical strength unknown to others and avenges herself when necessary (Rebolledo Women  90). 


            There are many parallels between the folk religions of African/Cuban practice and the healing rituals of indigenous south westerners, and, in fact, we find mention of Santería itself in ría itself in So Far from God.  Two soldiers in Vietnam ponder the differences between Puerto Rican and New Mexican Santería as they wait "to be killed if they didn't kill first" (96).  They discover that the details of ritual practice vary, but both men share a respect for the Yorubic tradition. They are, in effect, united on a spiritual level as they fight the U.S. government's war.  Francisco el Penitente, the Chicano, is known as "Chico" while his Puerto Rican friend is called "Little Chico," because "to the white and black soldiers all 'Spanish boys' were 'Chico'" (94).  Clearly, believing in the syncretic religion provides each Latino with an escape from the prejudice of a world "transforming beyond comprehension" (97). 
            In a different sort of novel, the detective story The Killing of the Saints by Alex Abella, a Marielitos belief in Santería collides with the logic of U.S. law.  Two Cuban exiles murder a group of people in a jewelry store and, acting in their own defense, claim they had been possessed by the warrior god Oggun.  The store's owner had taken back an object which had been used as a propitiatory offering to the Santería orisha who had therefore retaliated with the ghastly massacre via the two "innocent" men.  Though the dust jacket of the novel dismisses the story's religion as mere "voodoo-like cult," Abella relays the importance of these beliefs in several ways.   Ramón, one of the accused is an especially articulate speaker.  Charlie Morell, the private detective investigating the crime, notes that he had never before "seen someone use his foreignness to such an advantage, to be able to enjoy the benefit of both worlds, the alien and the native, the Hispanic and the Anglo."  Ramón argues that "the truth of the matter depends on one's personal interpretation" (260).   "Witchcraft," according to this eloquent Cuban exile, "is a pejorative term used by members of one religion against practitioners of another" (282), and thus his innocence or guilt becomes "a question of selective belief" (282).  The reader, and the jury, is persuaded by this sort of intelligent logic, and Ramón is acquitted, thanks to what he calls his "cultural defense" (170).   Turning to the narrator/detective, we find even more that authenticates beliefs in Santería.  Charlie Morell, like many Latino figures, is also investigating his own life, specifically his relationship to his dead father whom he feels he had abandoned.  Morell's confrontation with the mystical spiritualism of the Cuban exiles brings him closer to understanding the reasons for the guilt he feels.  He seeks to discover the "pieces of [him]self that were scattered among these Caribbean exiles like the arms and legs of a starfish, which, torn from the body, will grow a new center to replace the missing heart" (74).  Something in the exposure to the spiritual side of his Cuban past allows him to become reconciled with his father's ghost.  Because of the encounter, at the novel's conclusion, he rejoins his estranged wife and begins a new relationship with his son. 
            Chicana critic Gloria Anzaldúa would argue that Charlie's Morell's enlightenment comes as a result of his "entering into the serpent," by which she means a willingness to believe in other modes of consciousness.  She has in mind pre-Colombian serpent goddesses, the powers of mother earth, and the rejection of institutionalized religions like Catholicism and Protestantism which "encourage a split between body and spirit and totally ignore the soul" (Borderlands 37).  Whatever the name given to these alternative religion systems, Latinos, particularly in recent fiction, are moving toward an embrace of the spirit world.  Even writers as focused on concrete realities as Dagoberto Gilb seem unwilling to deny the validity of dreams, intuitions, and visions.  This is due in part to a dissatisfaction with orthodox religion.  The reverend, for example, in Gilb's The Last Residence of Mickey Acuña, though "polite," is surely the most "threatening" resident of the YMCA (145).  Anzaldúa claims that understanding "La Facultad" [the faculty] or the ability "to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities" (Borderlands 38) will help women understand themselves where organized religions "encourage fear and distrust of life and of the body" (37).   Those individuals on the outskirts of society (outcasts or rebels) are sensitized by the natural world and able to escape the confines of society's limited vision.  The victims of society (the abused, the raped, the misunderstood) can develop extra perceptions because the standard roles have broken down, and the domestic rigidity given way.  Anzaldúa writes: "Those who are pounced on the most have it the strongest -- the females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned...the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign" (38)  "La Facultad" is "a survival tactic that people caught between the worlds, unknowingly cultivate" (39), and can be brought on by "anything that tears the fabric of our everyday mode of consciousness" (39).
            One thinks of Garcia's Felicia, for instance, or Castillo's Caridad, or the narrator and abandoned lover of Cisneros's story "Eyes of Zapata."  All three are women wronged by an unjust world and all exist in a liminal haze.  One would expect, by Anzaldúa's reasoning, some degree of acceptance of the occult in fiction about men and women in the margins of U.S. society.  In his first novel, Our House in the Last World, Hijuelos offers judgments on Cuban spiritualists whose beliefs Mercedes inflicts on her son Hector (pounding on his stomach "to get the devils out" for instance - 93).  There is even a brutal edge to Hijuelos's commentary as, for example, when he writes that Mercedes "had the kind of faith in science that the ignorant have: It will do everything.  She had a faith like the faith hoods with knife wounds that spill their guts have, who come to the hospitals thinking they won't die. They come walking in nonchalantly and then fall to the floor, dead (95).   These types of authorial judgments are atypical.  There are also minor characters who adhere to the rigidity of Pentecostal doctrine (mostly in Puerto Rican-American fiction) and old world Catholicism (notably, the New Mexican Hispanos) within Latino stories, but the central figures are rarely people intolerant of non-european beliefs.  More often, as in Sáenz novel Carry Me Like Water, the fringe dwellers (the gay, poor, abused, deaf and dumb, illegal, criminal -- the novel includes them all) find themselves connecting spiritually and miraculously across barriers of time and space.  The mixtures and blends of religious thought even take place within individual characters as is the case with Véa's snycretic Josephina who is both Castillian Catholic and a mystical curandera. 


            In two novels, we find young heroines passing beyond the folk spirituality associated with the adults around them.  The rites of passage for Marisol, in Cofer's The Line of the Sun, and Estrella, in Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus, both confirm a young woman's need to assert her independence against any sort of spiritual limitation.   Marisol is "in a state of limbo, halfway between two cultures" (222).  She is caught between the "organized, sanitized world of school" (220), the "discipline and order" imposed on her by Catholic nuns and the "hidden world of Puerto Rican women and secret "spiritist meetings" (232).  Her initiation into the "world of phones, offices, concrete buildings and the English language" (273) comes when the apartment building where she lives burns to the ground.  "El Building" is a "parody" of Puerto Rican life in which all the sounds and smells of the island are mimicked by the tenants, and it is destroyed when overzealous Spiritists, in "a mass despojo," offer the god Changó a bit too much lighter fluid.  The novel's ending suggests Cofer's attitude that the "silly" (230) folk spirituality is antiquated, and Marisol draws a practical lesson from the experience: she will carry her "island heritage" with her, but she will abide by a "new efficient voice" (276).  For Viramontes, the outcome is less unequivocal.  Her young heroine never completely discards adult superstitions.  Estrella listens to stories of the "evil eye" (24) and knows that "not even a few drops of menstrual blood in [her father's] coffee would keep him from leaving" (23).  More than once, she follows her mother's instructions to draw a circle around the dirt house in order to ward off scorpions, while Perfecto, her mother's companion, dreams of ghosts, his memories binding him "to the native soil" (100).  He knows the ghosts are "working in the dream world to tell him something" and he believes in the "insect signs" (100-101).  The process of Estrella's maturation does not involve outright denial of her family's beliefs, yet in the final scenes when her mother's statue of Jesus is smashed and Perfecto abandons them, Estrella finds her own brand of spiritual connection to the natural world; she climbs up through the barn's loft as if "out of a box" (174) and gazes at the stars, standing "on the verge of faith" (176).     

[vii]Perhaps Castillo's use of the small "i" throughout the novel for the first person singular signals an uncertainty of the subject

[viii]The critic Alvina E. Quintana calls Ana Castillo an ethnographer novelist because Castillo's novel incorporates observations and descriptions of Mexican and Chicano culture as seen through Teresa's eyes.

[ix]Rosaura Sánchez argues that while critics sometimes view these figures as exaggerated, one-dimensional, "formulaic images of Chicano/Mexican women" (84), they are also portrayed as complex individuals who nevertheless embody a common set of positive characteristics.

[x]See the preceding chapter for more on the role of food in Latino fiction.

[xi]Santería is defined rather succinctly (by a murderer) in Max Abella's The Killing of the Saints as "a syncretic has fused together two separate strands to from a new one.  It is a combination of West African religion and Catholicism, wherein the old Nigerian Yoruba pantheon of gods is identified with the saints of the Catholic church. It was born during the times of slavery, when African slaves had to hide their religion from their white masters" (281).  To which we might add that the practice began in Cuba though now spans throughout Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, and along the South American coast.  See Gonzalez-Wippler's Santería: the Religion for further information.

[xii]The final scene of the novel suggests as well the death of Virginia Woolf (who advocated looking back "through our mothers" - which is what Pilar is literally doing by skipping her mother) and Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier's "awakening."  Thinking of Eliot, the reader knows that in Pilar (who loves pearls and the sea" - 176) the artist figure will be born again, as Celia drops her pearls to the fertility god, the eyeless dead Phoenician soldier in "Wasteland."  The allusive quality of the final scene is strong enough to bring in Joyce as well when one remembers the "strange and beautiful seabird" woman, half in the water, half out from Portrait and the epiphanic result to Stephen's artistic mind, the symbolic initiation of the artist creator.[xii]  Celia, the lyrical letter writer (one is even composed in blank verse - 51) will be reborn in the younger woman painter -- a fact Celia recognizes: Pilar "will remember everything" she tells her lover Gustavo in her last letter (245). This kind of rebirth is understood as well by the narrator of "The Moths" in her conclusion that "endings are inevitable. They are necessary for rebirths" (27).   The ocean swim is a frequent motif in Latina writing.  In Alma Luz Villanueva's The Ultraviolet Sky, Rosa's swimming (in the ocean, in a  whirlpool, and later in dark mountain lakes) signals her communing with the natural world and her Jungian psychic integration with her own darker side with "something they couldn't name: fear chaos, raw power"(83)   In her story "Golden Glass" a mother "too naked, somehow" (thinks her son) swims "out into the water, at night, as though trying to touch the moon" (Growing Up Latino 261).  Discussing Villanueva's poetry, Ordóñez sees this theme of "the interconnectedness of all living things" and "the self as an integrated union of opposites" as something prevalent throughout her work ("Body, Spirit" in Criticism in the Borderlands 62).

Continue: Chapter 6 Part III



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