Please help me welcome John Desjarlais as she shares his experience with getting to know and understand a female character who is Latina. Sometimes it’s hard enough for a man to understand any woman, but what a challenge it must have been to understand a woman of another culture.
When I first began to gather material for Viper, I knew that Selena De La Cruz, the strong-willed Latina insurance agent who was a minor character in Bleeder would be the protagonist. Not only was she a forceful character on her own, but her Mexican-American identity was important to the story, based on a premise regarding the All Souls Day ‘Book of the Dead’ that Catholic churches have and its proximity to the Mexican holiday, ‘The Day of the Dead.’
Lacking experience as a Latina (being an Anglo man) I immersed myself in the experiences of Latin women vicariously in many ways. There are many new books in circulation by Latinas about managing Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society. I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We’ve gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting!”
This tension is felt early in a Latina’s life, as in this vignette from Selena’s childhood in Chicago:
When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Like Julia Alvarez once said in a poem, Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.
She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice — who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe — caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.
“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”
Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.
Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.
“Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.
“Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”
“Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”
“En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”
Living in two cultures at once poses many everyday challenges, as in this brief example where the teen-aged Selena brings home an Anglo date to meet the familia:
In high school she brought home an Anglo boy, Jerry, to meet the family. She feared Papá would interrogate him like a cop drilling a suspect and the family, one by one, would corner him with stories of Mexico even if they couldn’t speak English and Mamí would serve tripe soup with chiles colorados to test his mettle – but she brought home the Anglo boy anyway. A crowd of Mamí, Papá, her three brothers, all her cousins, uncles and aunts, including Comadre María with all the curious, chattering neighbors greeted him. Jerry shook hands with Papá and her three brothers and smiled at everyone else – not knowing he was expected to meet everyone personally with a handshake and a warm verbal greeting. She should have told him. Later, Mamí called him muy frío, very cold, mal educado, ill mannered. Is this how we raised you – to find a gringo for a boyfriend who is so bent on dishonoring us, who has no respeto for our familia?
“He doesn’t know our ways,” Selena cried. “He is Americano.”
“And what are you?” Mamí asked.
And Selena realized fully for the first time she was in two worlds at once.
A Latina translator who helped me with the Spanish and reviewed the work-in-progress said at one point, “I am SO into Selena!” The character’s experiences were matching her own.