La Bloga Guest Columnist: Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Review: Estela Portillo Trambley. Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings. Berkeley: Tonatiuh International, 1975 (First Edition) No. of Pages: 178
When Estela Portillo Trambley passed away at the age of 62 in 1998, we lost one of our most notable Hispanic-American literary icons. Born in El Paso, Texas, she broke significant barriers with her first book, Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, a historic work on several fronts: It was the first collection of short stories published in the U.S. by an American Latina; the first book by a Chicana to win an important national literary award (Premio Quinto Sol, 1972), as well as the first book written by a woman to win this prize.
Portillo Trambley did something for which not only we women authors, but all authors, should feel deeply indebted: She introduced the female voice to contemporary Latino letters and thus changed the direction and focus of this literature forever.
Her book was immediately notable for its presence in a sea of male authors. Modern Chicano literature began its flowering post-World War II with Jose Antonio Villareal’s Pocho (1959) and reached impressive bloom in the 1970’s, with books that are now classics—Tomás Rivera’s Y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971); Rodolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972); Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s Estampas del Valle y otras obras (1973); and Nash Candelaria’s Memories of the Alhambra (1977). The sole woman in this historic line-up of pioneers was Estella Portillo Trambley with her Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975). She was also the only woman to follow on the heels of Rivera, Anaya, and Hinojosa-Smith in winning the annual Premio Quinto Sol. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Portillo Trambley went on to distinguish herself in a variety of genres. Her body of work includes her well-known play, The Day of the Swallows (1971); Sor Juana and Other Plays (1983); her novel Trini (1986); and her award-winning drama, Blacklight (1985). Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories (1993) was a special edition that included extensive revisions made by Portillo Trambley herself.
The original Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings includes nine short stories and the title piece, which is a novella. Whereas early male Chicano authors often focused on Latinos’ alienation from mainstream society, their oppression, and political/economic disenfranchisement, Portillo Trambley took on other themes. Often referred to as a feminist, she created strong women characters whose resilience and resourcefulness emanated from devotion to family, self-knowledge, community, and love. Her fellow male authors depicted how mainstream society marginalized and demeaned Latinos, but Portillo Trambley zeroed in on women of different social classes and ethnic groups to show how they all had something in common: oppression by a male-dominated society and unyielding tradition.
How these women break free of their bonds is what Portillo Trambley’s writing is all about. Her women are required to buck tradition, to invent and reinvent themselves in their own image, and—sometimes—even to commit crime. Whether they are wealthy heiresses, middle-class professionals, immigrants, poor villagers in Mexico, Spanish gypsies, Caucasians, or Indian curanderas, the women in Portillo Trambley’s stories soldier onward and find ways to escape what life has dealt them. They do it subtly, spiritually, selfishly, violently, or craftily, but they find ways to obtain freedom.
There is the aristocratic Clotilde Romero in “The Paris Gown,” who sacrifices her reputation in a last-ditch effort to escape an arranged marriage; Nan Fletcher in “Pilgrimage,” whose husband deserts her for a younger woman, and who now, through the religious piety of her housekeeper, must find peace; Marusha, the alienated Spanish gypsy in “Duende,” whose poverty cuts through her soul as she seeks financial and career success in vain; Lela, the pagan healer in “The Burning,” whose gifts of love are rejected in ideological ignorance; and Lupe, an obese, unattractive young woman in “Rain of Scorpions,” who leads life to the fullest by embodying selflessness and wisdom.
The boldest rebel against male oppression, Beatriz, appears in the last short story of the book, “If It Weren’t for the Honeysuckle,” set in an isolated Mexican village. Beatriz is a paradox: slender and gentle, but cunning and tough because she’s been through the fire, oppressed first by nine demanding brothers, then by Robles, a violently abusive drunkard she takes on as her common-law husband. At the mercy of men, she somehow crafts a life for herself that flourishes in the absence of men. A tireless, strong worker who loves gardening, Beatriz turns to nature for answers and for eventual redemption from the vile Robles.
Yet Portillo Trambley, who strove to “discover...the miracle of people and a world,” as she wrote on the back cover of her book, saw beauty and goodness in men’s souls as she did in women’s. The most touching, sympathetic males in her book are not oppressive and rigid. In “The Secret Room,” Julius (Julio) Otto Vass Schleifer, a German heir in Mexico realizes that there are greater things in life—such as social justice and true love—than one’s own culture and wealth. In “Duende,” the gypsy immigrant Triano is widely known in his impoverished neighborhood as “a good listener...who melted well into life...[and] mended things and people”. In the title novella—in which brave, ordinary people, young and old, male and female, join forces to fight a greedy corporation’s destruction of their community and their people through unbridled pollution and deception—the male heroes solve their problems in a touching manner that forges a deeper level of community and peace in their daily lives.
Portillo Trambley felt that Chicano writers must not limit themselves to Chicano themes and struggles. She believed that our stage is the human stage and that our characters and messages must be universal. So she wrote about the importance and power of love in our lives, the burning quest for freedom in all of us, the undeniable value of community and family, and the necessity of forging our own personal identities for the greatest meaning. She was sometimes criticized by fellow Chicano writers for taking this stance instead of joining in the militancy and advocacy of Chicanismo, but time has proven her beliefs more durable, as American Latino literature has veered further and further away from political themes toward greater universality.
Unfortunately, Portillo Trambley’s work never received the attention showered on her male contemporaries, a deep disappointment to her and one she attributed to the entrenchment of discrimination against women. She once stated in 1980: “Most male teachers of Chicano literature will look at all the men before they’ll tackle me. After all, I am just a woman....we still have our closed doors and our own way of polarizing everything between men and women.”
Still, Portillo Trambley’s place in the canon of American Latino literature cannot be denied. Her incisive observations of people and of life itself are profound and elegantly stated. She delves into the souls of her characters, expressing her recurrent themes in a cadence reminiscent of verse and great speeches, replete with alliteration, repetition, metaphors, and imagery. This elevates her prose to heavenly heights at many points in her book. As some critics believe, her writing is sometimes heavy-handed with editorializing rather than allowing the story to tell itself. But experience shows us that the “firsts” of anything important are not as developed as they will eventually be. Portillo grew immensely throughout her career and inspired generations of Latinas to take up the mantle of creativity and follow in her footsteps.
* The following sources were used for this article: Vernon E. Lattin’s & Patricia Hopkins’ “Introduction: Crafting Other Visions: Estela Portillo Trambley’s New Rain of Scorpions,” in the 1993 edition of the book; Reference Library of Hispanic America, Vol. III, ed. by Sonia G. Benson (2003); The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, ed. by Ilan Stavans (2011).
Thelma Reyna, a Pasadena poet and writer, author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.