Hermosa by Yesika Salgado

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In the poetry collection “Hermosa”, Yesika Salgado brings forth a life in multitudes as she writes about her home of Los Angeles, lingering love, the healing power of friendship, childhood memories brought into the stark light of adulthood, complicated deaths of people who were difficult to love, the cultured gender norms in her Salvadoran family, and more. Salgado both grieves for the LA she recognizes as being deformed by gentrification while honoring her deep love for it, reveling in the anonymity of city life and her Polaroid-picture-nostalgia for its nooks and quirks.

With bright, crisp language, Salgado’s poetry is a fiery heart laid open. Each verse thrums with energy as Salgado gives space for every emotion and every detail—from heartbreak to soil tracked into the house, from long, running verses, to just a line or two that needed to be written all on their own. Salgado is a natural storyteller whose pride in all of her brilliant, flawed, and tender self truly shines through in the collection.

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…those were my favorite stories. women doing what women don’t do. I imagined all the beer I’d drink when I got older. I’d chug it down like a cold soda and burp loudly on purpose. I’d cackle big and booming. wouldn’t care when the mujeres say ¡esa nina es tremenda! instead I’d lift another beer and say ¡asi es! ¡salud!

The Affairs of the Falcóns

514R75L5G6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In the Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero illustrates the complex politics and emotions at play within a single family trying to make their way as immigrants in a the US: the racism and classism within the Peruvian community, strained loyalties and the dissolution of marriages, children being raised as Americans but frequently reminded that they are outsiders, the economic and political regimes that cause widespread displacement, and the sacrifices people will justify in the name of love and survival.

In Peru, Ana faces constant discrimination and disdain by her own people. As an indigenous, dark-skinned woman from the campo with no assets and the wrong accent, even her own husband’s family is ashamed of her. For Ana, the opportunity to live in New York as an undocumented immigrant is her only pathway to a dignified life where her family is safe from the violence of civil war. No matter how much she struggles to provide basic needs like food, medicine, and a home for her husband and children, it is this desperate hope for a better life, and no fathomable alternative, that drives her forward at any cost.

This novel puts into perspective the nuanced experience of immigrants in the US. Ironically, the fact that Americans have a tendency to group all immigrants into the same identity and social strata is precisely what Ana appreciates about being in New York. She still has no socioeconomic status, but the simple ability to blend in among the immigrant population, to be on equal footing with other Peruvians and Latinos, is a privilege she is deeply grateful for.

The story of the Falcóns is painfully human and inspirational at the same time, as Rivero captures a feeling of desperation and imperfect love in a genuinely empathetic way.

All her life, she’d been made to feel small and inconsequential. Whenever the feeling was too much to bear, she ran. Outside of Santa Clara, her skin, her hair, the way she spoke—all of it only exacerbated those feelings. She couldn’t help but fall into the trap. Lose that accent, lighten those strands. Marry up. Marry light. But marrying Lucho only reinforced how little the world thought of her. She was now the chola in the family.

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Native Country of the Heart by Cherríe Moraga

 

**Originally published on Latino Book Review

9780374219666From the beloved queer Chicana feminist writer Cherríe Moraga, Native Country of the Heart is a memoir told in parallel with the memoir of her Mexican mother, Elvira. Elvira is the foundational stone on which Moraga builds her own Chicana feminism and family, a woman whose beauty, rage, and fuerza incansable were unmatched in the eyes of Cherríe. Cherríe Moraga’s life story is one of reclamation and resistance: reclaiming her indigenous Californian and Mexican roots in a Gringo world, while resisting the shame and guilt forged by the patriarchy and religion of her family’s culture.

With Spanish words and phrases infusing her prose with a poetic precision that only the two languages combined can achieve, Moraga takes us from the 1930’s in Tijuana, Mexico to the 1960’s in San Gabriel, California, and beyond.  Alzheimer’s disease eventually takes the wheel of Elvira’s life, both incapacitating her at a functional level while simultaneously revealing her most repressed desires and authentic self. Cherríe, becoming a mother to her deteriorating parents, grapples with the feat of relinquishing control and surrendering her mother through the haze of dementia to the spirits of her ancestors.

From her childhood experience of being isolated and fearful that her identity might be the thing that tears her family part, to her mixed-blood experience of feeling always on the edge of two cultures, to the prolonged, painful loss of the matriarchs of her family, Moraga’s storytelling embodies both an immense grief and a powerful life-force.

How to explain the complexity of this? What it means to be—not just me but us. To know yourself as a member of a pueblo on the edge of a kind of extinction, and at the same time a lesbian lover and mother, where you truly do live your life in constant navigation through whatever part of your identity is being snuffed out that morning—in the classroom, at the community meeting, the gasoline station, the take-out counter—Mexican, mixed-blood, queer, female, almost-Indian. And a poverty masked by circumstance. For all my feminism, this is why I left a white women’s movement in the late 1970’s. So I wouldn’t have to explain anymore, translate anymore.

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

39872813._uy630_sr1200630_.jpgReading Mouthful of Birds feels like occupying some kind of hybrid world of dreams and folklore, where the subconscious masquerades as a stream of characters enacting scenes that aren’t fully coherent with reality, but every moment is vivid and visceral. The short stories are full of nightmarish scenarios, like someone auditioning to be an assassin by proving their capacity for violence, a man being held captive at a train station indefinitely because he didn’t have the correct change for a ticket, or a teenage girl who will suddenly only eat live birds. The protagonists are oblivious to the bewildering circumstances they are about to endure, and like many of us in our truest nightmares, the characters find themselves misunderstood or full of regret.

By depicting themes of violence and depression within unnervingly mundane contexts, Schweblin suggests that the real monstrosity is society’s complicity to and reaction to both of those things respectively. Violence is either glorified as art and entertainment, or glossed over as business as usual. Mental illness and depression are often poorly understood by those not suffering from it, and to witness the characters try to rationalize these conditions is heart wrenching.

As these ordinary people blunder their way through unexpected trials, Mouthful of Birds will leave readers grasping for answers.  Schweblin does not indulge in elaborations but will grip readers just enough to keep one’s mind tossing and turning with infinite interpretations.

What he felt at that moment was the complete opposite of fear—it was something close to madness, but with the absolute certainty he was taking the right step. The exciting anguish of recognizing that what one is doing will ultimately change something important.

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Infomocracy by Malka Older

infomocracyAn author and humanitarian worker, Malka Older’s novel Infomocracy comes at a pertinent time– when illegitimate information is being weaponized, and accuracy and transparency of data feels increasingly fragile. In Older’s utopian world of Infomocracy, Information with a capital “I” is glorified in a new world order. Here, groups of 100,000 people elect their own government, and things like the nation-state, guns, and war are obsolete.

As the election approaches, there are underground whisperings of a new threat to global peace, and it’s up to a few idealist individuals – an anti-election rebel, a policy-focused campaign specialist, and a badass employee of the Information bureaucracy—to unravel it before the well-ordered micro-democracy regresses into territorial warfare.

Taking place 20 years in the not so far future, the genre is mystery, action, sci-fi, and political commentary all rolled into one. As ideological dilemmas and power grabs unfold, Older reveals a nuanced ambivalence towards two things we hold dear in Western society—democracy and constant access to information. Infomocracy is an intriguing glimpse into the limitations of both of those things and why even the most carefully designed systems of governance are susceptible to the “quirks of neurobiology”.

“I suppose we should feel flattered they’re using Information rather than bombs for the moment.”

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Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

9780525511298In this debut collection of stories, Fajardo-Anstine weaves together an exquisite tapestry of Indigenous Chicana women. Set in modern Denver as gentrification morphs the landscape into something unrecognizable, the characters navigate an unrelenting world through sheer determination and lack of any other alternative. These are stories about displacement and female relationships—about physical realities that are easily and carelessly destroyed, as well as the deep roots that persist through generations.

Fajardo-Anstine’s characters have an impressive breadth of personalities and age. They are diverse in their circumstances and yet all linked through their heritage and connection to the land. Whether the story features a little girl tasked with co-parenting a bag of sugar for a class project, or a woman recently released from prison, Fajardo-Anstine brings to life complex familial relationships with heartbreaking clarity.

While these women endure abuse, rejection, loss, and grieving, what stands out the most in these narratives is not their difficult circumstances, but the way others fail to acknowledge or respond to their suffering. On one level, Sabrina & Corina celebrates the way women persevere to hold together the shards of their broken families. But beyond the portraits of female strength, it tells another timeless story of apathy towards violence against women. By telling these stories, Fajardo-Anstine forces ugly truths into the open and gives big voices to those who have been silenced.

This book is truly a cultural gem, capturing the American West and the transformation of Colorado through the lens of its indigenous women.

I thought of all the women my family had lost, the horrible things they’d witnessed, the acts they simply endured. Sabrina had become another face in a line of tragedies that stretched back generations. And soon, when the mood hit my grandmother just right, she’d sit at her kitchen table, a Styrofoam cup of lemonade in her warped hand, and she’d tell the story of Sabrina Cordova—how men loved her too much, how little she loved herself, how in the end it killed her. The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore.

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Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli_TellMeHow_9781566894951_1024x1024An essay in 40 questions, beginning with “Why did you come to the US? Where are your parents?”

In Tell Me How it Ends, Valeria Luiselli shares her experience as an interpreter for refugee children from Central America arriving in the United States. As she fills out the intake questionnaire with each child, she attempts the impossible task of reducing the traumas of their life into a few blank lines.

The maddeningly concise questions minimize the underlying tragedy—the fact that thousands of children with the right to political asylum, the right to a dignified life free of violence and persecution, are quickly filtered through the US legal system. Often, they are deported as “illegals” before receiving legal support or due process to obtain refugee status.

Luiselli’s work is a testament to her commitment to making these stories known and heard. Many of the questions she asks the children are unanswerable, beyond comprehension, or too sad to muster a coherent response, but the call to action for the rest of us is much clearer:

 “And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

This book gives readers the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of others, understand why families and children will continue to flee oppressive conditions, and hopefully inspire readers to take action against dehumanizing policies.

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“And once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the greater theater of belonging.”

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

9780520291812Originally published on Latinobookreview.com

As Mexican food is being globally ‘elevated’ and reinterpreted/appropriated by the foodie elite, Mexico has seen a simultaneous rise in obesity and diabetes as access to traditional food is drastically hindered as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Eating NAFTA is an investigation of the rise of industrial food systems in Mexico and the ways that governments have decentered the state’s responsibility to protect public health, while deflecting the blame and responsibility for health problems onto individuals, especially women and marginalized populations.

Gálvez switches between personal interviews and macro-level policies as she discusses everything from migration, the role of nostalgia in food consumption patterns, the burden of labor for women, and why the public health crisis in Mexico is not just an unintended consequence of NAFTA.

Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, diabetes has become the leading cause of death in Mexico, with a prevalence of almost 16% of the population. 42% of its food is imported, and poverty (55.1%) and inequality have increased. Gálvez calls out diabetes and diet-related illness as an example of structural violence enabled by continued state-led manipulation.

“Colonialism’s extraction of raw materials and resources provided the fodder for the machines of industrialization. In the post- or neocolonial world, parasitic relationships between former colonial powers and territories continue to organize global trade and economic relationships. Only because of the relationship of economic and political dependence between center and periphery could the center become wealthy enough to dominate the global economy.”

 

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

“I do not even struggle to speak; the spark of words dies so deep in my chest there is not even space to mount them on an exhale.”

91ZOrAgmdrLOne thing I love about essay and story collections is seeing the recurring images and ideas that pop up throughout, like the weeds (or wild flowers?) of the author’s subconscious. As the title suggests, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is full of women’s bodies—bodies disappearing, falling apart, taking up space. With hints of surrealism, Machado’s stories explore the ways that we are continually haunted by past traumas. She renders the neurotic mania that sometimes takes the wheel when women remain unheard or misunderstood as well as the pain of feeling like a burden to your loved ones. Her characters don’t necessarily find healing and happy endings, but I love that they face their truest selves, no matter how terrifying it is, and fiercely pursue what they most desire.

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In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason. What if you colonize your own mind and when you get inside, the furniture is attached to the ceiling? What if you step in side and when you touch the furniture, you realize it’s all just cardboard cutouts and it all collapses beneath the pressure of your finger? What if you get inside and there’s no furniture? What if you get inside and it’s just you in there, sitting in a chair, rolling figs and eggs around in the basket on your lap and humming a little tune? What if you get inside and there’s nothing there, and then the door hatch closes and locks?

What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked inside of it?

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

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The novel opens with surrealist undertones as the main character, a young woman named Makina, is about to cross over to another world. Makina has been tasked by her mother to cross the border from Mexico to find her brother who left 3 years earlier. In order to have a chance at succeeding, Makina is forced to cooperate with the local cartel, who promise to help secure safe passage in exchange for a favor.

Makina’s journey illustrates the unimaginable risk undertaken by those crossing the border illegally, the stakes that make it worth losing everything, and the forces that motivate immigrants to stay in a new country despite their permanent status as an outsider in a disillusioned society. By showing the US through Makina’s perspective, Herrera turns the tables on the common notion of Latinx immigrants as criminals.  In the US, Makina’s compatriots must be “armed with work”, constantly deflecting persecution and protecting themselves from violence by existing just on the edges, in the backs of restaurants and on bleak construction sites.

The story also showcases savvy women who choose not to be victims in a misogynistic society. The women adapt ways to harness their power without men even noticing the ways that they take control of their lives and communities. Early on in the book, her mother says, “I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?” Makina’s power stems from her ability to interpret many layers of language in her job as a switchboard operator as well as acting as an emissary between two entangled cultures.

Herrera has an unexpectedly whimsical use of language, his words both simple and inventive. The English translation captures this surprisingly well; the original Spanish version is surely even richer. The plot is largely executed in the abstract, with towns, countries, and activities that go unnamed but are understood implicitly by the reader. These concepts are interspersed with tangible details that bring to mind stark images. To read this book is to take a journey to the US from the Other Side—any origin/identification/language that makes you forever the target of disdain and suspicion.

 

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

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