Genealogy rules Latino literature tyrannically. Is this as it should be? Among many of our authors, fiction is a device used to explore roots. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but a battalion of novels published within the past decade is about… what else if not multigenerational sagas, where ancestry becomes the clue to solving the mystery. You find it in the narratives of Victor Villaseñor and Cristina García, in Rosario Ferré and in the Chilean-cum-Latina Isabel Allende, and in scores of others too. How many more Buendía-like family trees are readers capable of handling? (Gabriel García Márquez, by the way, turns 75 this year, and the thirty-fifth birthday of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has just taken place.)
Genealogical odysseys among Latinos are often called “magical realist” for lack of a better term. People, out of laziness, simply attach the exotic and the supernatural to the Hispanic imagination. Lewis Carroll had more magic than anything likely to appear in Juan Carlos Onetti’s mythical Santa María, but I’m afraid that doesn’t matter. Uruguay is a land of enchantment, isn’t it? By virtue of their mongrel self, minorities–ethnic, racial, linguistic–in the United States are propelled to rethink their status constantly. Who am I? How do I fit into this context, being infused, as I am, by another set of cultural motifs? And where on earth–literally and metaphorically–is home? Latinos are attuned to these questions in particular. El hogar, how might I define it? The answer, in fiction, comes in the form of transgenerational adventures: uno, dos, tres… sagas in every shape and form. Their ethos is different from the Macondo model’s, though. García Márquez’s Buendías are not, for the most part, migrants. They are born and bred in the exact same coastal corner of the world. In other words, the land was theirs before they were the land’s. In the literature of Latinos in the United States, the soil is not ours, at least not fully. Ours is a drive to make it our own.
Think of Elena Poniatowska, the famed Mexican journalist of Polish ancestry whose masterpiece on the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968 is a classic. She has also produced a superb novel about a female criada, Here’s to You, Jesusa, as well as a multilayered novel about Italian photographer Tina Modotti. Poniatowska’s work is always political. Her characters exemplify the gender and class struggles that consume them, and their actions are at the crossroads where power and consent collide. A few years ago, Poniatowska explained to me the difference between a Chicana author and a female Mexican one: “The first one, Ilan, introduces herself thus: ‘Hola, mi nombre es Soila Fulanita. Soy chicana y lesbiana.’ The second one, instead, is rather naïve: ‘Hola, me llamo Dulce de Gracia.’ No national reference is given, no gender, no ideology.” The difference, Poniatowska insinuated, pertains to more than a mere how-do-you-do. It colors life in the United States altogether in shades of green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag. Thus, it also outlines the branches of the genealogical crusade.
Poniatowska’s norteña friend Sandra Cisneros recently published a long-awaited novel. It is a lavish, richly textured meditation on family and culture as perceived shrewdly by a Celaya “Lala” Reyes, the rebellious and verbose daughter of a middle-class Mexican clan in a condition–mental, physical–of constant mutation. Over the past decade, since Vintage reprinted her coming-of-age novella The House on Mango Street, Cisneros has become the favorite Latina author of her generation. Her life, her color preferences and her Frida Kahlo manners are the subject of legends, and also of heated debates. I’ve used the word Latina. Should I have used Chicana, instead? She is of a generation that struggled to break the semantic abyss between the two: Chicana (that is, Mexican-American, but with a political twist) by origin, Latina by the proximity to others whose ancestry is from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America. Caramelo emphasizes the universal by pointing to the particular. The book is dedicated, as its last sentence states, “a la Virgen de Guadalupe, a mis antepasados. May these stories honor you all.” There are scores of vírgenes in the Hispanic world, each with its mood and preferences. But all of them are the same, too: La Vírgen, the metaphor of metaphors–a vigilant Mother whose eyes never stop watching over her children. Likewise, the plot of Caramelo might be about a single Mexican clan, but Cisneros evidently aims it to be about the millions who “leave their homes and cross borders illegally” all over the world.