My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn; Eleven; Salvador Late or Early; Mexican Movies; Barbie-Q; 'Mericans; Tepeyac"
Note: These 22 stories and sketches are grouped in three sections, each with one story that bears the same title as the section: "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," "One Holy Night," and "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman." The stories will be considered here in groups for the most part, beginning with the first and second sections treated as two units.
The stories and sketches in this first section are set in childhood. Five are narrated by children; the two that are not ("Salvador Late or Early" and "Tepeyac") have children as main characters. "My Lucy Friend . . . ," whose speaker is a seven- or eight-year-old girl, is set in a poor neighborhood of a fairly large Texas city. The story has no plot; the speaker describes her friend, relates some of the things she and Lucy do together, and tells a few details about Lucy's house, family, and life. The speaker also reveals something about her own situation (she is living or staying with her grandmother). She likes Lucy and envies her having eight sisters; she feels that she and Lucy are like sisters.
"Eleven" takes place on the speaker's eleventh birthday. Rachel opens by saying other ages before eleven are still present inside the 11-year-old. She is in school; the teacher brings a sweater out of the coatroom and tries to determine its owner. A girl says it is Rachel's, and although Rachel denies it, the teacher puts the sweater on her desk and eventually makes her put it on, which brings her to tears. Later another girl remembers the sweater is hers, but Rachel is still upset and wishes she were invisible.
Salvador (in "Salvador Late or Early") is a small, apologetic boy who has no friends, comes from an very poor neighborhood, and (because his mother has a baby to care for) must get his two younger brothers ready for school, give them breakfast, and lead them by the hands to school and then home again.
In "Mexican Movies," the speaker is a young girl (six or seven years old) who describes a typical Saturday evening with her parents and little brother at a theater that shows Mexican movies. She tells about being sent to the lobby during sexy scenes and describes the furnishings of the theater and lobby and the things sold there; she tells about her favorite movies and talks about the things she and her brother do during the shows. Sometimes, she says, they go to sleep, and when the movie is over their parents carry them home to bed.
"Barbie-Q," set in Chicago in the early 1960s, features a nine- or ten-year-old speaker who talks to her friend directly about their Barbie dolls, their outfits, and the story they always enact with these dolls. One Sunday at a flea market, they find and buy Ken and several more Barbie outfits, friends, and relatives that have been damaged in a fire. These dolls smell smoky and have slight flaws, but the speaker and her friend don't care.
The speaker in "'Mericans" is Micaela, a young American girl visiting relatives in Mexico City. She and her brothers wait outside the church for their grandmother, who is inside praying. The older brother dozes in the sun; the younger one runs around shouting. They have been told not to leave, so they watch a procession of penitents approach the church. The speaker goes into the church for a while, then goes back outside. An American man and woman, tourists, take her brother's picture and are surprised he speaks English; he tells her they are "'Mericans."
The speaker in "Tepeyac" describes, in present tense, a typical weekday evening spent in Mexico City where she lives or is staying with her grandparents. She walks home with her grandfather from his shop, describing the places and people they pass. They count the steps from the street to their front door together and go in to their supper; from that house, she says, she will return to the U.S. Her grandfather will die, everything will change, and when she returns, years later, the house itself will seem different.
One of the things Cisneros does best in her fiction is to evoke the sensations — sights, sounds, smells, tastes, palpable feelings — of being a child. The young speakers in this section (including the speaker in "Tepeyac," who "becomes" an adult only as her story ends) are excellently realized because they notice particulars and report them: the smashed-bug-on-the-windshield color inside a cat's-eye marble, the stickiness of a melting orange Popsicle, a child's shadow falling on a movie screen, every item on every table at a sidewalk flea market (or an inclusive selection). They report as well the intense emotions of childhood (from doing "loopity-loops" inside to wanting to disappear) and, all in all, capture perfectly for the reader the essence of being a child. We are reminded of Sandra Cisneros' early determination to write out of (although not necessarily about) her own particular experience and are able to see how that experience informs her characters' voices with authenticity.
Perhaps it is important, then, to remember that these stories can be read on different levels. Cisneros' characters will speak directly and honestly to young readers and will remind older readers of feelings we have — if we were lucky — known once but probably forgotten. Readers who share Cisneros' Latino background may recognize her perspective, but readers of other backgrounds will hardly be puzzled by it.
Of course, one way to read some of these stories (for example, "My Lucy Friend . . . ," "Mexican Movies," "Barbie-Q") is to see the children as "deprived": a poor, dirty little girl in 79-cent K-Mart flip-flops, sleeping in a fold-out chair in her grandparents' living room, whose best friend is one of nine children living in a shack; children whose mother, after sitting on her feet at the movies to avoid rats, must carry the little boy and girl up to their third-floor walk-up; an eight-year-old boy who shoulders the responsibility for two younger brothers; a pair of young Chicanas who must cut holes in an old sock to dress their blue-eyed Barbie dolls.
It is certainly true that the children of the working poor, in the U.S. as in many other countries, have traditionally been (and continue to be) deprived — nutritionally, medically, educationally, and in other ways as well — and that children belonging to racial and cultural minorities are not only statistically much more likely to be poor but are also frequently subjected to the insults of the bigoted majority. School- and university-aged readers, especially, need to be made aware of these truths if they are not already aware of them. But while such a reading of these stories is perhaps unavoidable, it would seem that to limit ourselves to such a reading would be to deprive ourselves not only of the stories' pleasures but of much of their "meaning" as well. These children do not feel themselves oppressed or deprived; they are experiencing the richness and sensuousness of childhood in environments where they are cared for and cared about. It is perhaps good to remember that they are not sitting sadly in front of television sets or playing endless video games, numbing themselves as their senses and imaginations slowly evaporate.
Thematically, the stories in this section introduce and develop the idea of displacement or alienation. This theme is only the faintest of whispers in "My Lucy Friend . . . ," where the speaker may be either living with her grandparents or staying with them temporarily (and where she calls Lucy a "Texas girl" as if she herself were not one), and is not present at all in "Mexican Movies," where the speaker seems absolutely happy and comfortable with her family. "Eleven," about the awful and sometimes irrational (from an adult point of view) misery of very early adolescence, finds its narrator, Rachel, wishing she were elsewhere — or nowhere — after her encounter with the dreaded sweater, which offends her in a way that must be almost purely subjective, for Phyllis Lopez has no qualms about claiming it later. Salvador, in "Salvador Late or Early" is forced — by circumstances, but also by his own good heart — to be older than his age, and we can see in this small, apologetic boy something of the humble, worried, perhaps sad man he will someday become.
In "Barbie-Q," the theme of alienation may be seen as an undercurrent beneath what the speaker actually says. One reading might see the flawed dolls as representing the girls' own self-image. As poor children, members of a cultural minority, the speaker and her friend (especially if we assume that they actually identify themselves with the dolls, perhaps not a wholly correct assumption) may see themselves as somehow "flawed," not as "the real thing," the future ideal American woman, white and middle-class (mean-eyed and "bubbleheaded" — that is, wearing the Jackie Kennedy bouffant), but instead as somehow a kind of cut-rate, smoke-damaged version whose defects can be hidden but will always be there. (To support this reading, we may note that in a later story, "Never Marry a Mexican," the adult narrator describes her ex-lover's wife unflatteringly as "a red-headed Barbie doll.") Another possible reading, of course, based quite firmly in the narrator's words, is one in which the girls, being fairly sophisticated, know that their dolls are just dolls and have, in their own regard, as healthy a sense of self-worth as possible for children who have been given the idea that an eyelash brush is a necessary piece of equipment for a young woman.
Displacement is at the heart of "'Mericans," where the children — strangers in their father's country, their relatives' city, and their grandmother's church — are further alienated from each other by gender, with the little boys calling each other "girl" as an insult. The narrator is beginning to be alienated from herself, wanting to cry but stopping because "crying is what girls do." Finally, in a nice bit of irony, two Americans with a camera appear, looking for a picturesque subject. Spotting the children, they do not recognize their fellow U.S. citizens but, instead, assume they are little Mexicans whom they can photograph for their travel album.
And, in the final story of the section, "Tepeyac," the theme of alienation appears in a number of ways. The narrator, as a child, is visiting here, meaning it is not her place (although she tries to make it hers by naming every person and landmark she passes, counting the very steps between her grandparents' gate and the front door). She is about to return to her country, but that is not hers either, for she calls it "that borrowed country" — as her grandfather no doubt sees it. When she comes back, years later, she will find that nothing is left but her memories, as unreal as the painted backdrops used by souvenir photographers in the square (as she remembers them). The only real thing, perhaps the spirit of the district as it existed/exists on the evening she remembers, will be unnamed and unnamable, and her grandfather will have taken it with him (she says) to his "stone bed."
The irony of this speaker's displacement would function no matter where the story were set, but it is especially sharp here, for Tepeyac is one of the holy centers of ancient and modern Mexican culture, a place sacred to the Mother-Goddess Tonantzin and also to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared miraculously to the Indian peasant Juan Diego there. The narrator's grandfather, she says, is the only person who does not believe in this miracle. Later, as an adult returning to Tepeyac, the granddaughter of an alienated Mexican, she will be twice alienated, a member neither of her own culture nor of his. What she will have, however, will be her memories, precise and exact — or perhaps imprecise and inexact — as memories can be, after everything they are based upon has faded into the past.
"También yo te quiero/ y te quiero feliz" (epigram to the section) I also love you / and want you happy.
nixtamal a mixture of ground corn and lime for making tortillas.
Abuelita Grandma; affectionate diminutive of abuela, grandmother. (Unless otherwise noted, non-English words here are Spanish.)
churros long donuts.
¡Qué saquen a ese niño! Get that kid out of here!
la ofrenda box offering box.
tlapaléria a little lunch stand.
La Virgen de Guadalupe The Virgin of Guadalupe, i.e. St. Mary, mother of Jesus, as she appeared miraculously to Juan Diego in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac near this church.
sastreria seamstress; tailor.
¿Quieres chicle? Want some gum?
La Basílica de Nuestra Señora The Basilica of Our Lady.
tlapaleria a hardware store.
sopa de fideo noodle soup.
carne guisada meat stew.