INTRODUCTION to Grove Press
of The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez
On a spring day in Los Angeles, I looked up into a clear sky and saw two wisps of clouds intersect to form a very discernible cross. I watched until a breeze smeared the impression. What would one of the Mexican-American women I grew up among think if she had seen that cross? What if such a woman's life was in crisis? Would she see that cross as a desperate sign of hope?
In my mind I evoked one woman especially; a woman who lived near us in the Government Projects in El Paso, Texas. There were many others like her, "Mexican" women who often came to talk to my mother about their woes--a son in jail, a delinquent daughter, a missing husband. (A kind confidant, my Mexican mother was always, grandly, "Señora Rechy" to them.) No matter how sorrowing, no matter how desperate, those women endured on the expectation that God, but more emphatically the Holy Mother, was on their side.
That spring day, I returned home and in one sitting wrote a short story titled "The Miraculous Day." Although I invariably go through several drafts before I show anything to anyone, when my partner of many years, Michael Earl Snyder, came home, I gave him the story to read. Impressed, he exhorted me to write a full novel on the same subject. Throughout its writing, he continued to encourage me.
I had not entirely discovered the woman I was already calling Amalia until I went to a Thrifty's Drug Store soon after and encountered one of the most resplendent women I've ever seen, a gorgeous Mexican-American woman in her upper 30's, a bit heavier than she might like to think, but quite lush and sexy. She wore high-heeled sling shoes--and a tight red dress, to show off proud breasts, but she had added a ruffle there to avoid any hint of vulgarity, a fashion that defied all fashion except her own. She had a luxuriance of black shiny hair, and into its natural waves she had inserted ... a real red rose.
Bedazzled, I followed her along the aisles. Aware of me, she added an extra sway to her walk. Just as I had been looking for her, I was then sure, she had been looking for me. Not quite. A short Chicano gentleman appeared from another aisle. Obviously with her, he confronted me. "Pós?" "Well?" "Pós nada." "Well, nothing," I assuaged him. The woman moved away, delighted to have caused such a confrontation.
Where would that woman live? Yes, in the fringes of Hollywood, where bungalow units, now in decline and once supposedly rented by movie-studio trade workers, have been abandoned to new immigrants, mostly Hispanic. I saw graffiti that signaled the invasion of gangs, some units struggling to retain the semblance of neatly kept homes; Amalia would seek one like that, yes, especially if she had a man to help her out. I liked the irony that setting would provide--the Hollywood of fantasy yielding to the harshness of today's minority existence. I located an exact bungalow that was holding on bravely against the encroachment of the neglect that comes with poverty. I parked, got out, explored the small courtyard. In back, in the middle of a patch of dirt, there was a rose bush, dying. But one bud still struggled to bloom! The patch of dirt had been watered, although there was no hose anywhere. Of course, the woman I had been envisioning would want to resurrect that bloom, a second signal of hope on the day she saw the cloudy cross. She would go through the day awaiting the necessary third sign of a possible miracle.
In the days that followed, I walked and drove to every place Amalia visits in her one turbulent day. Memories of my own Mexican-American roots surfaced, memories I would adjust for her--including a memory engraved in my mind, of a Mexican woman and her child drowned in the Rio Grande, on one of the few occasions when it is an actual river, as they fled from Immigration officers mounted on horses in search of "wetbacks."
To Amalia, I gave the horror and rage that I had felt then, and felt always when I saw signs in small Texas towns barring "spiks, niggers, and dogs" from certain eating facilities. Soon, Amalia had run away from me entirely, with her own memories, her own life. Perhaps no other character of mine has acted so totally on her own volition, once she shaped in my mind. She argued with me, flirted to get her way, seduced me with her often humorous but always assertive beliefs.
As she moved through the troubled landscape of Los Angeles today, I winced at the risks she took, the young man she went with, who looked very suspicious to me--but she wouldn't be warned. The more I tried to protect her--yes, I wanted to protect her, she became that close to me--the more I tried to restrain her, the more reckless she became. There were passages I didn't want to write, places of cruelty made inevitable because of what she insisted on doing, realizing that life was preparing to crush her, and that she must move to the edge of despair before she would be able to confront her beloved Holy Mother, woman to woman. That passage of confrontation in church, a short passage--and one I consider among my best writing--took me weeks to write, from draft to draft to draft.
At Harvard, where I spoke to a roomful of bright graduate students in a Chicano Literature course where this novel was assigned, this question (which would recur variously in other universities I visited) was posed. A young woman asked me: Isn't Amalia a stereotype? She went on to delineate what would make her so: an often-married Chicano woman who prefers to be called "Mexican-American," has a romantic penchant for tele-novelas, falls for handsome, abusive men, is unquestioningly Catholic--and superstitious--takes in "live-in boyfriends," has rebellious children. I answered her somewhat along the following lines:
The word "stereotype" makes me wince. Today, it carries such severe politically correct
judgment that it becomes sinful to "perpetuate stereotypes." But the objects of such usually thoughtless
judgment continue to exist, most often courageously on the frontlines of oppression--easily spotted, easily derided. Yet, examined closely, those "stereotypes" reveal a powerful source of enduring, often ancestral courage, even as, today, they challenge the insistence that they no longer exist. But they do, and they survive. Certainly, my Amalia continues to exist, an individual, and proudly so.
In classrooms where I've been invited to speak about this novel, finally even those who introduce the matter of stereotypes almost often end up admiring Amalia. Perhaps, at first, young Mexican-Americans, especially women, want to relegate to the past women like Amalia, who is, however, only in her thirties. Perhaps they see their mothers. Perhaps--and I hope so--eventually they see parts of themselves in Amalia's dogged courage to overcome the strictures of her background.
Another question I'm frequently asked is whether I agree with Amalia at the end of the novel. There are times when she convinces me entirely, and then, yes, I agree with her. But finally whether Amalia is correct or not at the end of the novel, that is left to each reader to decide.
Los Angeles, CA
to Bodies and Souls