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The Transforming Eye of Kathleen Alcalá

by Rob Johnson

Three years ago I began researching a type of story written by Mexican and Mexican-American writers called cuentos de fantasmas, literally "phantom" or "ghost" stories, but what I would generally describe as supernatural stories.

Before long I came across Kathleen Alcalá’s Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist (1992), a story collection she introduces with the following thoughts:"These stories are about inner landscapes; they explore the invisible world behind the visible, and the characters who move in both worlds through the windows of dream and imagination. "Her words captured the spirit of my anthology, and I was pleased and grateful when she agreed to write the "Introduction" to Fantasmas (Bilingual Press, 2000). In it, she says, "When I saw the announcement for Fantasmas, my first thought was ‘Why haven’t I been asked to contribute to this?After all, my work has been reviewed in The New York Review of Science Fiction. How fantastic is that?’ "Alcalá is obviously happy for her work to be known for its element of fantasy, a quality that distinguishes her fiction from the social realism of the AndTheEarth Did Not Devour Them-school of decidedly un-fantastic Chicano literature. In a story by Lucrecia Guerrero in Fantasmas, for example, a character is devoured by the earth after being cursed by her mother, and that’s the kind of occurrence that could also happen in an Alcalá story.

This does not mean that Alcalá ignores social reality in her story collection and three novels (the opposite is true); it simply means that there is more than meets the eye in her fictional world. In Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, there are indeed fantastic stories of mermaids singing and magical cameras and birds of ill-omen. "The Transforming Eye" shows a young woman impossibly entering the trompe l’oeil backdrop in a photo shop:

Impatient, I stepped back into the portrait area to see if the photographer was there. The lights were on, and the backdrop glowed enticingly. On the stone bench in the scene was a wooden bowl full of deliciously red pomegranates. They looked so real that I couldn’t restrain myself from reaching to pick one up. The leathery skin and prickly end felt as real to me as any fruit I had ever touched. I turned with the pomegranate in my hand and saw that I stood on the black and white tiles, the bright trees trailing their branches over my head. . . . I was inside the backdrop.

Unbelievable, yes, but this expert bit of legerdemain is grounded in the reality of the death of the narrator’s grandmother in Mexico, and the tears that are cried in the fountain in the photographer’s faux backdrop rob her of her grief in reality. Here and elsewhere in the collection, thehidden "moral" of the story is reminiscent of the subterranean meaning found in the early works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, another writer for whom the "middle ground" of romance was native territory. This comparison is not farfetched:The title story of Alcalá’s collection, for example, is a subtle allegory of how science seeks to destroy the very object it observes, the theme of many of Hawthorne’s tales, such as "Rappacinni’s Daughter. "In this respect, I have to wonder why Joyce Carol Oates ignored Alcalá in her anthology American Gothic Tales (1997), for Alcalá’s works would have complemented the stories Oates did select by Hawthorne, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Millhauser, and others. (There are no Mexican-American writers in Oates’ "American" collection.)

In the three novels that have followed Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, you can see Alcalá moving beyond (or perhaps deeper into) what Ursula K. LeGuin once called "Alcalá-land" and exploring a past that can make us see our present differently-and may be evocative as well of a yet unseen future. Alcalá is, in other words, a visionary writer, which puts her in the company most closely of Leslie Marmon Silko, whose revelatorynovel Almanac of the Dead (1991) is based on Native-American prophecy. In her novels, Alcalá reveals the often hidden identity of the people of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, covering territory that no American writer before her has traveled.

Spirits of the Ordinary(1996) tells the story of one such hidden people. Julio Vargas Caraval, his wife Mariana, and their son Zacarías are the descendants ofJews who trace their history back to the late sixteenth century, when the goverernor of Saltillo, Luis de Carabajal, was roasted alive in a dry cauldron for admitting he was a Jew. In his last words, he declared that "were it not for the Inquisition, there would be fewer Christians in this kingdom than he could count on the fingers of his hand. "The book concludes with another account of religious persecution in the late nineteenth century, the slaughter of Indians at Casas Grandes by the Mexican military. In its dramatization of the role the spirit plays in peoples’ lives, Alcalá’s novel moves beyond typical "people’s history. "Spirits of the Ordinary is in fact a deeply religious novel, full of marvelous translations from Hebrew into Spanish and finally into English. Its history of Mexico’s Jews and of the spiritual beliefs of the indígenes are, remarkably, brought together in their common prophecy of a "Fourth World. "

The excitement of reading the novel comes from the unexpected variety and richness ofthe cultures represented in nineteenth-century Mexico. Here, for example, is a beautifully full picture of turn-of-the-century Saltillo:

Horacio put on his coat and hat and let himself out of the shop. The bell clanged behind him as he shut the door firmly. Already the streets were filling with people-cooks buying food for the day, firewood vendors, bankers, traveling businessmen. His grandsons would be in school, and their sisters helping their mothers with household chores. Early mass was over, and the black-shawled widows cast shadows in the early-morning sun.

Horacio made his way to the narrower streets of the Arab quarter and turned in at a shop with the word "Babilonia" written in white script over the door. An unfortunate name, thought Horacio, in a Christian country. But then, Ahmed would be too stubborn to admit that, since it was the city of his birth.

We sense as we read the novel that this is a story that has been in front of us always, just ignored. Elsewhere, Alcalá has described her mission as a writer in this way:"I want my writing to insinuate itself into the subconscious of the people of the Southwest, so that we might remember who we were and who we will be. "Even for those of us who live in the Southwest (such as myself) these books are literally eye-opening.

Alcalá’s second novel, The Flower in the Skull (1998) is connected to the first with overlapping characters and by its uncovering of another "hidden" people. The second novel feels different than the first, though, as it is written in an oral style that employs repetition (with variation) and a circular plot-line. Flower dramatizes the fate of three women who are descendants of the Opata Indians of Mexico and America, a people whose culture has nearly been erased by a succession of colonial powers. The character Rosa captures this mixture of races in her own search for identity:

It made me wonder what it meant to be related to someone, to be part this or part that. I was part Irish, because of my father, and I was part Indian, because of my mother. But I felt more Mexican than either of them, like the Morenos. We all spoke Spanish and lived in the same part of town and went to school together with the other Mexicans. Sometimes the children called me india because of my mother, but not very much, because some of the Mexican children were much darker than I was, and were probably just as india as I was, if not more.

Throughout the book, Alcalá complicates any simple identity politics, questioning as she does, for example, the real difference between Mexican-Americans and Native-Americans, labels which are starting to make less and less sense. This aspect of her work has the potential to startle American audiences complacent in their acceptance of "multiculturalism" by literally transforming what we see when we view the people of the Southwest and the Border.

As a visionary work, The Flower in the Skull succeeds, for me, by revealing its meaning through a series of richly symbolic, sometimes startling transformations and magic lantern-type effects. Here in The Flower in the Skull is Alcalá’s description of the lamp shop of Alma Prieta, a curandera who is consulted by Concha about the wisdom of marrying Rosa to the evangelical minister Gabriel:

In its front window was a lit kerosene lamp glowing through a wide rawhide shade and illuminating a scene that never failed to draw me closer as I passed by. On it was painted a series of scenes of Indians and white pioneers. . . . [The Indians] had their heads shaved except for a small piece like a porcupine, and rode tall horses and lived in pointed houses with poles sticking out of the top. . . . The other side of the lampshade showed Anglos bundled up in many clothes in horse-drawn wagons. Even the wagons were covered up, as though wearing huge bonnets. In each scene, a few men rode ahead of the others on their horses. They appeared to be leading the way. But since all of them were heading in the same direction on the shade-to the left-the two parties would never encounter each other. It was the perfect solution to the West-the bravos leading the way, followed by the children, the women, and the dogs, then a little space followed by the men pioneers, followed by their families. As long as they continued to circle the lampshade, they would never run out of frontier. The would never run into each other and have to fight.

Such camera obscura moments fill Alcalá’s work and stay with the reader afterwards. In the first novel, a barren desert becomes transformed for Zacarías into its ancient form as an ocean bed, and he momentarily views vast whales sounding the desert floor. Photographs are a key medium in Alcalá’s questioning of appearance versus reality (as in the magical camera of "The Transforming Eye"). In The Flower in the Skull, Concha begins the book in first person, telling her story of her life with the Opata before they are uprooted. Later, we see her through her daughter Rosa’s eyes, and finally in a photograph discovered eighty years later by a young researcher in Arizona named Shelly. This photograph of an Opata woman living in a culture but clearly not being of that culture becomes Shelly’s most valued possession-and the writer’s. She studies Concha in the curling picture, and imagination and dreams reveal the story that lay hidden in old photographs stored in shoe boxes, stories that are (mostly) lost. At the end of the book, Shelly embarks on a pilgrimage to Magdalena, and sitting disoriented and road-weary in a café, she is joined by a waitress taking her break. "Tell me your story," she says to Shelly.

Kathleen Alcalá is a storyteller I continue to listen to. I live in McAllen, Texas, eight miles from the Mexican border at Reynosa, three hours by car from Saltillo and other places in Northern Mexico Alcalá writes about. I read her work for a fundamental reason:she opens my eyes and shows me, literally, a new way of seeing who I am, the people I live among, and the place where I live. Her forthcoming novel, Treasures in Heaven, will complete her trilogy of works on nineteenth-century Mexico. The excerpt appended below ("Blood and Ceremony") indicates that this novel, too, deals with yet another "hidden" people in Mexico-the women who played a crucial role in the political events leading up to the 1910 Revolution. Estela and other characters from the first two novels are also characters in this third novel.