By Viola Canales
In her ode to “The Umbrella,” Viola Canales remembers a family story about her mother, who every Saturday as a child “popped open her prized child’s bright umbrella / as did her little sister / and followed their mother’s adult one / from their Paloma barrio home / to downtown Main Street McAllen / walking like ducks in a row / street after street,” until one Saturday “the littlest one disappeared / inside the wilderness of Woolworth’s.” Warm-hearted recollections of family members are woven through this collection of 54 poems, in English and Spanish, which uses the images from lotería cards to pay homage to small-town, Mexican-American life along the Texas-Mexico border.
Cultural traditions permeate these verses, from the curanderas who cure every affliction to the daily ritual of the afternoon merienda, or snack of sweet breads and hot chocolate. The community’s Catholic tradition is ever-present; holy days, customs and saints are staples of daily life. San Martín de Porres, or “El Negrito,” was her grandmother’s favorite saint, “for although she was pale too / she’d lived through the vestiges of the Mexican war / the loss of land, culture, language, and control / and it was El Negrito to whom she turned for hope” to bring enemies together.
Fond childhood memories of climbing mesquite trees and eating raspas are juxtaposed with an awareness of the disdain with which Mexican Americans are regarded. Texas museums, just like its textbooks, feature cowboy boots worn by Texas Rangers, but have no “clue or sign of the vaqueros, the original cowboys / or the Tejas, the native Indians there.” And some childhood memories aren’t so happy. In “The Hand,” she writes: “In the morning I arrived at my first grade class / knowing no English / at noon I got smacked by the teacher / for speaking Spanish outside, in the playground.”
Inspired by the archetypes found in the Mexican bingo game called lotería, these poems reflect the history—of family, culture and war—rooted in the Southwest for hundreds of years.
Viola Canales is the author of Orange Candy Slices and Other Secret Tales (Piñata Books, 2001) and The Tequila Worm (Wendy Lamb Books, 2007), winner of the Pura Belpré Award and the PEN USA Award. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, she was a captain in the U.S. Army and worked as a litigation and trial attorney. In 1994, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Small Business Administration. She lives in Stanford, California.
Learn more at violacanales.blogspot.com