Saturday, March 29, 2008

Guest Columnist: Juanita Salazar Lamb

Today, La Bloga is happy to welcome Juanita Salazar Lamb sharing her experience reading and writing chicana mystery fiction. Great having you with us, Juanita!

One thing about me: I love reading mysteries, and as importantly, I form a bond with the main characters in the story. I’m in love—or maybe it’s just lust—with Jim Chee in Tony Hillerman’s books; I cast myself as the beautiful, rich, but oh-so-lonely female characters in the stories by Mary Higgins Clark. I’m as independent and resourceful as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone; and I dream of the day I can eat as many doughnuts and blow up as many cars as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Over the years I’ve read hundreds of mysteries featuring Native Americans, Polish American nurses-turned investigators, Hungarian-Italian bounty hunters, WASP girls whose only connection with ethnicity is belonging to a Greek sorority, and even the occasional Latino investigator. Kudos to Rick Riordan for bringing us Tres Navarre, and to Rudolfo Anaya for Sonny Baca.

Another thing about me: I’m a Tejana. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. My family went to visit the shrine of La Virgen de San Juan del Valle to pay our respects, and marveled at the bright costumes and soul-stirring beat of the drums as los matachines danced in homage of La Virgen. We made tamales for Kreesmas and ate buñuelos as we sipped té de canela on new year’s. On Easter Sunday everybody went to the park for a picnic and broke cascarones on each other’s heads. At the end of the day everybody—even my grandmother—would have a chipote on our heads and our hair was full of confete, harina and bits of broken colored eggshell. Growing up Tejana, I also ate pan de dulce (not pan dulce), crossed the bridge to Mexico for a day of shopping, and still know that Mexican Cokes taste better than Cokes bottled in the US.

So it’s only natural that when I started to write my own mystery series my main character would be a Tejana: Sara Garcia. Unlike Kinsey Milhone who was orphaned as a child and is now a loner by choice, Sara has strong family ties and a strong need to stay connected to her Mamá, Ernesta; and with her friend since high school, Sofía. Though Sara’s family is small—her father died a few years ago, and her sister lives in San Antonio—her familial ties extend beyond blood, which is how familias expand in the Latino community. Sara’s extended family includes Sofía and her husband Frank, and their daughter Mia. Sara’s downstairs neighbor, Annie, fills the role of older sister. Sara’s boyfriend, Bill, a fourth-generation Irish-American whose family still speaks with a brogue, provides Ernesta with hope that Sara will get married and give her muchos nietos.

But other things besides a Spanish last name set Sara García apart from all the other sleuths in the mystery genre, and this is one that I have trouble explaining to non-Hispanic editors and agents. Sara’s motivation for solving murder mysteries is not based on financial compensation or job responsibilities; after all as she is quick to point out she’s “an auditor, not an investigator.” Her commitment comes from her deep Latina roots. We Latinos are raised to help our family—and extension—friends of family. This training starts when we are very small children and our mothers remind us take our younger brother’s hand as we cross the street: “Agárrense de la manita,” my mother would call out to us. We are urged to walk together, not leaving anyone behind, because our mamás know there is strength in unity. When we have a party or family gathering, everyone is invited, not only the little school friend of the birthday boy, but the school friend’s entire familia. As we grow older those lessons learned so many years ago are transferred, and now we are the ones taking the hands of our abuelitos and abuelitas as they struggle with canes and walkers.

I live in Arkansas now, and I recently witnessed something I will never forget: On my way home from work, I drive past the rodeo arena. On a hot Friday evening in July, the rodeo was due to begin within the hour and traffic was heavy on the east-bound street. People attending the rodeo had to park their cars blocks away, cross a busy intersection and walk to the arena. One woman was walking with her mother...and I use the term “with” loosely. The younger woman was in her fifties, and her mother was in her seventies and using a walker. The older lady was struggling to maneuver the rough, uneven sidewalk as her daughter walked five to ten feet ahead of her. The noise of traffic and music coming from the arena would have drowned out the older lady’s voice if she’d fallen and cried to her daughter for help. I probably don’t have to add that they were not Hispanic.

It is with this sense of family and a need to help those in the family that Sara pursues her murder mysteries to conclusion. In the first book, Death at the Rock, Sara’s best friend, Sofía, asks her to solve the murder of her cousin’s girlfriend. Sara has met the cousin before, but remembers him slightly. It is Sara’s sense of duty and responsibility to family that drive her to find the real killer. As Sara sees it, if she does nothing and an innocent man is convicted can she forgive herself?

The relationship between Sara and her mother is not unlike most mother/daughter relationships, but with a Latina twist. The twist being that no matter how old a Latina daughter is, how many children of her own she might have, or how many college degrees she are on her office wall, her mamá will always be her mamá. She is the one Sara goes to when she needs someone to pray for her; when she needs caldo on a cold winter day, and when she needs some té to ease what ails her. Sara will dance with her mamá at Mia’s quinceañera, and will give her a heart full of chocolates for Valentine’s day, knowing her mother will insist on sharing.

In The Corpse Wore Red Lipstick, her second foray into solving murders, it is once again Sara’s sense of family responsibility and devotion to her mother that outweigh her arguments for not getting involved in another murder. When the granddaughter of her mother’s best friend is found murdered and the police have decided it’s the work of a serial killer, Sara’s mother Ernesta brings her in to find the real killer. To the non-Hispanic reader, Sara has no stake in this case. She met the granddaughter at a girls’ night out a few months earlier, but there had been no time to bond with the much-younger woman. But viewing the situation through the lens of Latino family relationships, Sara has a very high stake: her mother’s sense of duty to her friend; her mother’s pride in her daughter’s ability; and the family’s reputation that is firmly established in the barrio: if Sara refuses to help her mother’s friend, word will get around that Sara thinks she is too good for the old neighborhood.

In the third book of the series, Twisted Sister, Sara’s motivation is as old as humans themselves: self-preservation. When Sara is accused of being an accomplice in the armed robbery of a convenience store in her neighborhood, she must go underground until she can find the real perpetrator. In this story of twisted family relationships that reach back into Sara’s family’s past, she also confronts the discrimination and stereotyping that many Latinas face even today. Would Sara even be suspected of holding up a convenience store if she was blond, blue-eyed and her name was Tiffany or Barbie? Would the only eye-witness be so quick to claim that “you all look alike” if Sara were not Latina?

Through my writing, as well as through my own life, I confront the trials and tribulations of a successful, educated Latina living and working in a white, male-dominated world. But take some time out from your world and join Sara Garcia in hers, where it isn’t the guys with the white hats who win, but los nuestros.

Biographical information:
Juanita Salazar Lamb lives in Northwest Arkansas, where she still works as an auditor by day, and writes the Sara Garcia Mystery Series at every other time. She writes under the pen name Teresa Avila.

Click here to read Chapters 1, 2, 3 of Teresa Avila’s Sara Garcia mystery novel, Death at the Rock.

Blogmeister's Note: La Bloga welcomes your own contributions. Please click here, or leave a comment when the inspiration strikes, you catch fire, or something one of us writes moves you to seek an invitation to be our guest. La Bloga welcomes guests, as you note today.

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