Thursday, February 02, 2012

Chicanonautica: Ocotillo Dreams, Arizona Dystopia

by Ernest Hogan

People always ask me why I live in Arizona. The truth is, it’s not all dystopian political turmoil. The state is a wonderful, weird mix of human eccentricity and strange, natural beauty. I never go long without encountering something that amazes and inspires me -- like the ocotillo.

The ocotillo has thin, twisting branches -- it’s also know as the Vine Cactus -- with thorns and sometimes green leaves and red flowers at the tips. In the dry season it looks like vegetal barbed wire. To people used to the plants of wetter climates, it looks otherworldly.

I can see how it inspired Melinda Palacio in her novel Ocotillo Dreams. It survives in a hostile environment, bringing a unique beauty to the world.

And there is a great deal of beauty and joy in Ocotillo Dreams. It’s not a dreary account of the torture of an oppressed people. The Latinos, a diverse group of people (in life and this novel), lead lives full of rico textures, rhythms, and flavors -- and this novel captures them well. It also moves through the space and time travel of Mexican-American life, with personal lives tangled up in history and politics, from the Eighties into the Nineties, from San Francisco to Chandler, Arizona. There are also some complicated love lives worthy of a telenovela.

Isola, the main character, and the other women in the book show the reality of the strong Latina. I’ve always wondered where the stereotype of the passive Latin female came from. There aren’t any in my family.

But, of course, the novel isn’t all pretty flowers and leaves. It runs headlong into the infamous immigrations sweeps of 1997. Ethnic romance turns into dystopia:

It’s 1997,” Isola screeched. Didn’t we learn anything from the Japanese internment camps? They can’t do that!”

After all, 1984 was a long time ago.

It may seem jarring, but Palacio brings it all together the way that unlikely juxtapositions do in Latino life. She keeps it real, and human, but touches magic realism with the dream that explains the title:

The red tips of the ocotillo are covered in blood and drip onto the woman’s face. When I reach her, I have a strong feeling that I know her, but I don’t recognize her because the blood is covering her face. Despite the blood and her being in the desert, she is singing and she is beautiful.

And none of it crushes the spirits of the ocotillo dreamers.

It is 2012. As Arizona politicians dream dystopian dreams, we can learn something from the ocotillo. It can look dead, but sprout green leaves. Fences made from dead, thorny branches often come back to leafy, flowery life.

That’s life in this dreaming desert.

Ernest Hogan is getting ready to launch the ebook version of his acclaimed novel, Cortez on Jupiter.

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