May 2001

Enriching the traditions of Latino literature

By Denise Chavez
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Today's Hispanic writers whether they call themselves Latino, Mejicano or Chicano craft diverse stories from a common culture. Marrying old themes of family, politics and the struggle of being bicultural with their own fresh perspectives on these topics, each of the following authors brings new experiences to a classic tradition, enriching and enlarging the horizon of Hispanic literature.

Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food and Flavor is a smart little collection of Laura Esquivel's speeches, short writings and recipes from the last decade, most never published in English. Mexican novelist Esquivel burst onto the international scene with Like Water for Chocolate in 1989. Now, with Between Two Fires, this funny and insightful author muses on the topics we most associate with her life, romance and family, and how food in all its aspects infuses the human experience. Beautifully illustrated with whimsical line drawings and full of wisdom, Between Two Fires is the perfect book for fans of food, lovers of Latin literature and just plain lovers.

Esquivel's own words sum up her book best: "Though we may not be religious, I don't think it would be hard to acknowledge that through the smells and tastes of food we share with others, and the sustaining presence of the divine inherent in them, we can enjoy a glimpse of paradise every day." The title says it all for Woodcuts of Women, a new collection of short stories by Dagoberto Gilb that's all about women. Instead of fully fleshed-out female characters, Gilb has created women who are like woodcuts broadly rendered rather than finely detailed. And every protagonist in these 10 stories is a boy or man who loves them. Symbolizing seduction, mystery and power, these women are, in the end, the undoing of each protagonist. But, oh, what a way to go. In the opening story, "Maria de Covina," a naive young department store clerk tries to remain faithful to his teenage girlfriend while posing as a stud among his older and more experienced female co-workers. In "Mayela One Day in 1989," a woman leads her love-struck boyfriend into an El Paso bar and tries out her seductive skills on the gay and lesbian patrons. Most of the characters in these stories toil at lousy jobs, inhabit squalid apartments and live desperate lives. The one thing that sustains them for better or worse is love of women. This is a passionate book full of finely wrought prose that reinforces Gilb's reputation as a gifted writer.

Sandra Benitez's third novel The Weight of All Things is centered around nine-year-old Nicolas and his involvement in two events in El Salvador in 1980. The first is the funeral of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a ceremony attended by 80,000 people, 35 of whom were killed when violence erupted. The second is the slaughter by Honduran and Salvadoran troops of 600 people fleeing rural repression only two months later. In a country ruined by internal strife, these two tragedies form the harrowing bookends to Nicolas' search for his mother as he endures the random and violent deaths of friends and family, the destruction of local communities and the constant fear of machine-gun fire. In matter-of-fact, evocative prose, Benitez's novel delivers an affecting portrait of innocent people caught in the crossfire of warring factions. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to Rosie O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation to support the intellectual, social and cultural development of disadvantaged children. Nonfiction accounts of culture, history and turbulent politics, Alma Guillermoprieto's lively essays, collected in Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, dissect the events that have shaped the region. Informative and perceptive, Guillermoprieto's accounts, many modified from more than 10 years of reportage and essays for The New Yorker, delve into the stories of Eva Per—n and Argentina, Che Guevara and the Marxist insurgency in South America, and Cuba's wait for the departure of Castro. Guillermoprieto has a keen eye and an intimate knowledge of notoriously tangled political situations, including the inner workings of the Colombian guerrilla movement and governmental corruption in Mexico. Her sharp analysis of the events that have shaped the politics of the area, combined with her conversational style, bring home the realities of this troubled part of the world.

The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, edited by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega, brings together the best of the short story genre in a must-have collection for lovers of Latin American literature or those just discovering this rich tradition. These 39 stories, culled from the past 100 years and the most acclaimed writers of the region, explore the evolution of the style, as well as the trends in Latin American literature today. Featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Maria Luisa Puga and Nelida Pi–on, these stories charm, instruct and bring to the English-speaking world a new host of previously undiscovered gems.

Downright fun is how to describe Denise Chavez's new novel, Loving Pedro Infante, a laugh-out-loud examination of 30-something divorcŽe Teresina Avila. Tere, who lives in a dusty town outside El Paso, is having an affair with a married man but loses herself in the movies of late film and musical star Pedro Infante, a man known as the Mexican Elvis. Infante's movies could provide Tere with lessons for her life if only she would follow them. With a host of quirky friends and family, a liberal helping of Mexican-American culture and Chavez's down-to-earth writing style, Loving Pedro Infante is a joy to read.

Kelly Koepke is a writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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Loving Pedro Infante

Loving Pedro Infante

By Denise Chavez
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 9780374194116

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