Street: An Autobiography," by Mary Helen Ponce
Note: a version of this
book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
voices belonging to Mexican-American writers are being
muted, consigned to a literary ghetto. Whether published
by heroic small or commercial presses, writers labeled
by their ethnicity are guaranteed a restricted audience
of like identification. If carried at all by bookstores,
they may be assigned a segregated shelf.
aside by many English departments that disdain minority
voices, a few will find a place in prestigious, and necessary,
Chicano Studies courses. There, arguments about who is
a "real Chicano writer" may exile further, emphasis
sometimes placed on political requirements over literary
quality. One effect of all this is that worthy books may
be denied their place where they belong for consideration
among the best in contemporary American literature.
restrictions become particularly saddening when a book
as splendid as Mary Helen Ponce's "Hoyt Street"
appears--one cannot help wonder how many "mainstream"
presses "passed" on it, and why. As engaging
as a novel, Ponce's autobiography depicts life among Mexican-Americans
in Pacoima in the 1940's. I use the phrase "Mexican-Americans"
because Ponce is true to the time of her book, when that
was the accepted designation. In my teens, "Chicano"
was derogatory slang; I identified myself as a "Mexican
of mixed blood," thrilling to the mysterious melodrama
weaves Mexican-American culture into her action. It is
not imposed for political nor sociological considerations.
Sustained by a loving family within a largely enclosed
world of other Mexican-Americans, Mary Helen, at ages
8 to 13, does not seem aware--yet--of poverty, even when
she works in agricultural fields. The exciting prospect
of dressing completely in white for the Virgin Mary on
her month, May, is not compromised by the fact that the
girls involved can afford only one pair of shoes, often
brown, "stained with Shinola."
is clearly waiting--the children avoid a movie theater
where they're made to feel "unwelcome." Ponce
only guides the reader to necessary inferences about innocence
soon to be harshly initiated.
leads us like a courteous hostess into her house on Hoyt
Street, then proceeds to introduce us to a rich gallery
of family, neighbors, friends, involving us in their daily
lives: A brother's constipation after gorging prickly
pears results in a saga of arcane cures. The wondrous
joy of planting a China tree is replaced by sadness at
its demise from over-watering.
expert strokes, Ponce brings her characters to life. A
brother returns from the war, proudly spouting German
words: "My parents became Frau and Herr Ponce; my
sisters frauleins." Another brother becomes a boxing
contender. With the whole town watching, he's knocked
out in the first round by "el tigre Fuentes."
Wistfully, Mary Helen remembers a flier with his picture
on it and the grand designation "Kid Ponce."
older sister, known for her refined taste, "rarely
cooked but would now and then help make tortillas. She
first removed her watch and bracelets, then rinsed her
hands in the bathroom and pinned her hair away from her
face. She made perfectly round tortillas, light and fluffy
with nary a burned edge."
Luisa, an "adopted grandmother," has her faults:
"While paring potatoes she skipped the holes. Her
tortillas were shiny with lard, raw in the middle....
She dragged the sheets in the dirt." But: "What
Doña Luisa did best was to love." With innate
elegance, she manifests that love to Mary Helen.
employs poignant humor throughout. A classmate sings for
her "Anglo" teacher: "Columbus, the jam
of the ocean." "The Three Trinidads" are
memorable--touching and hilarious. They are three old
women who compete furiously for God's undivided attention:
outdoing each other in the number of novenas offered,
lighting blazes of votive candles, learning the mass in
Latin to shout out with the priest. Father Mueller is
a "modern priest" who goes to the beach, disapproves
of painful pilgrimages made kneeling to the altar, yet
frowns on dancing as an occasion for sin.
does not leave herself out of keen observation: "I
was hefty and liked to push." To discover whether
it's true that nuns shave their heads, she tries to dislodge
a nun's headpiece. Her first date, with a boy as chubby
as she, is not romantic. They spend their time "waddling"
back and forth to the concessionary. In her first school
fight, she hits her mother, an accident pious women predict
will cause her hand to shrivel in punishment. She escapes
a dark introduction into sex--with a respected church
member who "befriends" little girls.
glides gracefully into Spanish phrases, just as Mexican-Americans
often do. At times her style richly suggests a culture
steeped in the flamboyant rituals of Mexican Catholicism.
Then it can turn somber. The death of a young brother
is conveyed with spare dignity: "When the big black
hearse went by, my mother wavered in her step, then stopped.
She stood deathly still until the hearse had passed, then
slowly pulled back her hat veil."
is a wonderful book, brimming with genuine love for her
culture and those who passed it on to her. Toward the
end, with a sense of adventure, she experiences "It,"
the flow of blood that signals she is now a young woman.
I hope there is at least another volume forthcoming in
what might well become a superb family epic.
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