Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States – Héctor Tobar (2005)


Part of a treasure trove discovered at an FOL book sale one year, I picked up Translation Nation up for any number of reasons: first (obvs) it looked really interesting; second, I live in Texas which will probably (if it’s not right now) be a majority-Latinx demographic state in the near future; third, I had noticed that I was reading too many white people authors (for me) and I wanted to add more diversity to the list,  and then finally, I wanted a really good solid non-fiction read about someone with a very different life experience….

Focused on looking at how life in the America of today is being changed by (and having an effect on) the Latinx experience, the book is split into four parts as a literary device to organize a lot of different perspectives and people. (Tobar has definitely done his homework in finding sources and varying points of view.) However, although this may have seemed a really good idea as a framework at the planning stage, it ended up being a rather obvious device on which to hang a bunch of disconnected topics.

So, this was an ok read, really. Started off really strong with really easy well written prose, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that it was more of a patchwork effort put together to form a book (more so than the book contents support the entirety of the work). However, despite the patchwork, the overall picture that he paints with his reporting is mostly fully realized and with plenty of detail.

Tobar is a well-respected journalist, and was part of the writing team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 LA riots, so he knows writing. And the actual writing wasn’t part of the issue – it was just that there wasn’t really quite enough to make this project a book in length and the padding wasn’t that well hidden.

But let me back up and give you the strengths: Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and so knows of what he speaks (in terms of being in the Latinx community). He’s a strong writer with strong opinions, and he had a lot of latitude and support to travel in support of this book for interviews et al. He meets and talks with a lot of Latinx folks across the U.S., and participates in immersive journalism when (among other things) he lives in a ramshackle trailer with other workers at a chicken plant as part of this research, so that piece was solid.

It’s also a positive take on things which was really good to see (especially when you compare the immigrant/fear rhetoric coming out of the administration at the moment), and it reflects a more optimistic worldview for this country of immigrants. It’s also clear in showing how much influence the Latinx community can (and does) have, some obvious and some more hidden… It’s a lot deeper than fish tacos, my friends.

So, it’s slightly frustrating when you know an author is capable of some great work (ref: Pulitzer Prize), and yet the final product doesn’t reflect that in some way, especially when you’re aware that there really wasn’t quite enough material there.

Gosh. It sounds as though I really disliked this book, and I didn’t for the majority of the read. It wasn’t until the end when I could see the whole picture that it wasn’t quite the awesome read I was hoping for. I think I was swayed by seeing the title on a junior level History college syllabus somewhere and thought that, due to that selection, it would be stronger.

If you are looking for titles about the Central American/US immigrant experience, I would point you towards the work of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004), Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border [NF 1993], perhaps, or his fictional Into the Beautiful North [2009])…) As you can probably surmise, I enjoy this guy’s work – it’s really solid.

For a different perspective via a well-written novel, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is an excellent read and contrasts the lives of two very different families – separate lives but the same goals and how does that play out? Truly a good read.

Onward and upward, my readerly friends.

Once Upon a Quinceañera – Julia Alvarez (2007)

book446I live in Texas which has a strong Hispanic Latino/a flavor to the culture for the most part, and I have driven past shops that sell Quinceañera clothing and all the accessories that tend to go along with it, so when I came across this title, I picked it up immediately. In case you’re not sure what a Quinceañera is, it’s a Latino/a celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday with a similar goal of perhaps a deb at her first ball, you could say.

Not being from a family with any Latino/a connections and growing up in England, I haven’t ever been to one, but since I’m a pretty curious cat, I wanted to know more about this event.  (Side note: Do they have these there for Spanish and other Mediterranean immigrant families on the other side of the Atlantic? Or is it only on this side of the world and in some of Latin America?)

Q2This book was both an autobiography of Alvarez’ childhood and young adult life told alongside a delving into the history and culture of the event as she follows several families in different places across the U.S. in their preparations for their daughters’ own Quinces. With a lot of Latino/a families being first generation and the kids having parents who struggled mightily to give them a better life, Quinces (as they’re sometimes termed) can take on a huge meaning for the family involved, whether they can afford it or not. In fact, one of the Mexican sayings that Alvarez uses was “don’t throw the house out of the window” relating to the idea of only spending what you can afford for the Quince, not get yourself another mortgage. (As with anything else, Quinces can become prohibitively expensive for many families.)

quinceaneraAlong with the varied history of Quinces, Alvarez also delves into the strong gender roles inherent in many Latino/a families, that of machismo (which most people have heard of) and of Marianismo (a new one for me). Machismo is when a culture supports (and defines) men as being the sole leaders of a family or unit, of being extra-manly, of being responsible for the safety and reputation of the family and being in charge.

Marianismo, on the other hand, is the idea that the women in a machismo culture should act along the lines of the Virgin Mary (along Catholic ideals): being pure, virginal, submissive, family first etc. I see machismo all the time, but hadn’t realized that there was actually a name for the female role (for those who buy into it) which was fascinating.

And it’s this Marianismo (according to Alvarez) which is behind the idea of the Quinceañera, that the girl whose birthday is being celebrated is recognized as changing from a girl to a woman, from being a protected child to being open to dating (and ultimately marriage). There is a religious element to this, but generally speaking, the main emphasis is on the party-side of things. This symbolic step into adulthood is represented by several things: the girl changes from flat-soled shoes to shoes with a high heel (that the father puts on her feet); she has a “court” of 14 of her friends (paired into couples for a total of 28 people) who learn and execute formalized dances on the night, and the lighting (and extinguishing) of 15 candles, each flame representing an important woman in her life who has helped her get to where she is now. So – it’s a ritualized ceremony with meaning for a lot of people.

But how do you balance this gender-based ritual with modern-day sensibilities of feminism? Alvarez shares her struggle with this – it’s similar to a traditional Christian marriage with the female presented as a princess who is “given away” by her father (or other male person) to her soon to be spouse etc. I’m not sure this dichotomy was ever balanced in the end, actually, but in having this discussion, Alvarez bought up some interesting points. (She also interviewed some Latina women who are doing their best to honor the Quinceañera tradition but add some leadership and empowerment angles to the ceremony. One was even advocating for the Quince to be open to both boys and girls…)

Along with that, there is also discussion on how much should the family spend on this one event in their daughter’s life. There is an industry built up around Quinces (not surprisingly), so they can become as expensive and spectacular as a wedding can be, and for many families, this can be a huge financial burden. (Thus the saying “Don’t throw the house out of the window”…) Should the financial outlay for the Quince be saved and used instead for the adult wedding (should it come in a few years’ time)? Should it be set aside for the girl’s college education? Or perhaps a house payment?

I'd love to see this movie...

I’d love to see this movie…

Balanced with this is also the idea that many of the parents who are throwing the Quinces may not have had a Quince themselves as their families of origin were too poor or not well established or similar. In fact, they may have immigrated from countries who don’t have this ritual, and then, having been exposed to the idea (and the industry) of Quinces here in their new country, feel that they have to have one to show they belong and have reached a certain level of success. And then one needs to add in the pressure of the girls themselves who are being invited to other girls’ Quinces and want to have their own…

The actual history of Quinces is rather fuzzy, according to Alvarez, although many claim that they have their Quinces (or should have Quinces) to respect the traditions of the Old Country – and yet a lot of Latin America don’t actually have anything similar or on that same level for their teens.

So there’s a lot of vagueness about this ceremony’s history combined with industry consumer pressure (“We have to have EVERYTHING!”) and then combined with expectations from the young women who are having that 15th birthday, that I can only imagine the pressure for many families in this situation nowadays.

So, this was one of the most fascinating reads I’ve experienced this year and now I’m planning to stop by one of the Quince shops and see for myself what they sell. I’ll let you know.

I loved this read. (I could really have done without Alvarez’ own autobiography pieces in this and would have preferred 100% Quince-related material – there was a tenuous link between the two at times.) But if you’re curious about the world in which you live, this is a good introduction to an intriguing ceremony happening around a lot of us.