Patricia Santana. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 2008.
Ghosts of El Grullo offers some haunting moments in Chicana fiction. That's not a cheap pun on the title. It's an accurate
description of what you'll find in the 287 pages of this fine novel. The absochingaolutely intolerable papá, raging--whether against his own ghosts, ignorance, or mental illness--drives his consentida to a finely-honed hatred for him through a lifetime of outrageous acts:
A male voice calls on the phone asking for one of his five daughters, the father screams at the caller not to bother calling here again. A daughter has gone to her high school prom without his permission; he drives over, drags her off the dance floor and brings her home to his cowering brood. He comes home early one from his night job to discover a party in progress; outraged at such festivities without his knowledge or permission he throws everyone out.
Do Mexicano fathers really exercise this kind of mind control over their daughters and wives? Do Mexicanas and Chicanas sit still for such abuse, accept Papá's outbursts as part of their lot in life and learn to be obedient wives and children?
Whatever grains of truth may lie in this fiction of the father, Patricia Santana so overstates the character that I began to mistrust the narrator's perception of her father's behavior. This unreliability becomes more acute as Yolanda the middle daughter of five (and four brothers), talks about her mother, who emerges a saintly presence. Although Yolanda declares how, as an eleven- and twelve-year old she was trying to hate her mother, Yoli has only kind words and warm memories to share.
This imbalance is the only truly weak element in an otherwise rewarding story. The working class girl finding her metier as a literature major at UC San Diego recognizes how her new world will tear her away from her familial culture and her father's rules, so her narrative focus leads her to the extremes that comprise the novel's most harrowing events, the horror a way to keep the fugitive grounded in her origins.
When Yoli's head isn't spinning on horrible memories she takes the time to enjoy living in her mother's culture back in El Grullo, Jalisco, Mexico. Here are some of the story's best elements, when Yolanda travels to the warmth of her mother's familial mansion, a perfect contrast to the struggling poverty of their San Diego household.
That Yolanda bears a striking resemblance to her mother brings the daughter special welcome in the hearts of her dead mother's family and long-ago friends. The ghosts are real. The tias have made peace with the spirits, but Yoli's troubled soul is easily touched by the household spirits. The susto the ghosts wreak on the twenty year old Yoli straightens her out and she returns to the States liberated--perhaps escaped--from her mother's and father's histories and ready to go forth on her own.
Santana expresses ambivalence about events that take a Mexicana or Mexican-American to Chicana. As a college student, Yoli becomes a fervent Mechista, but with an obvious detachment. An older sister had adopted a similar path, and Yoli would ridicule the sister's nationalism. Now, married and in a professional career, the older sister returns the favor, as if to say MEChA is merely a passing experience that one inevitably grows out of. When Yoli abandons her virginity to the president of MEChA--in one long, beautiful sentence that is a highlight of the written work--the experience leaves her unsatisfied and empty in a clear evocation of the political experience.
But abandoning youthful experiments may be the "author's message," as is required in coming of age stories. Yolanda gains profound insights into her mother's tormented marriage, and paths not taken. She comes to see her father in a more realistic state, then idealizes that as a way of forgiving his trespasses as he forgives hers against him. She may look like her mother, a priest notes, but does the daughter have the carácter of the mother? It's not appearances, but substance.
Ghosts of El Grullo is also notable for the character of Chuy, whom we met in Santana's earlier Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility. I was put off by Santana's portrayal of the veteran in the earlier novel--Yolanda is fourteen and it is 1969. Chuy comes home a stereotypical crazy ex-soldier who runs off into the night. Surely our veterans deserve better in literature. The broken Vietnam veteran brother is doing better in this novel. After a violent confrontation between broken father and broken son, in the end it is this son who leads Yolanda to do the right thing by their father. But then, Yolanda realizes she is a broken daughter.
Patricia Santana writes interesting prose. The narrative leaps easily from present to memory then back again. The writer introduces an image or a reference then drops it, only to bring it back with more dimension and with telling energy later in the story. She, or her editor, employ appositional translation of Spanish language terms, the italicized Spanish accompanied with an English translation--"my aunts admitted que les daba escalofríos--that it gave them goose bumps"--but more often in a unique manner. Sometimes Spanish is italicized, others not. Rarely is the translation direct--"add to this one frayed brincacharcos, high-water charro suit" or, "her entourage of viejitas (gossipy old biddies)"-- other times a term sits untranslated. "Pan dulce" likely doesn't require translation, but mother and daughter's chata nose, or "viejas chismosas" might not be so obvious. Such style is a good way to honor the intercultural reader while not bringing a compelling story to a screeching halt.
Patricia Santana has hit her stride with her Yolanda Sahagún character. As this novel wraps up, Yoli is heading for UCLA and graduate school, perhaps romance with the slick-talking ladies man and Chicano medical student. One thing for sure, Santana's set high expectations for a third novel in Yoli's career.
That's the second Tuesday of January 2009. Be sure to check out the Call for Writers to the 2010 Festival de Flor Y Canto--details upcoming. Until next week, hay les wachamos.
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