A book’s slice of Latino life
By Ellen Riojas Clark and María-Eugenia Cossío-Ameduri
Still Water Saints
By Alex Espinoza
Random House, $23.95
Editor’s note: Ellen Riojas Clark and María-Eugenia Cossío-Ameduri — who refer to themselves as Las Dos Abuelas when discussing literature — occasionally discuss books in the Sunday Book pages.
Ellen: I am so curious to hear what you think about Alex Espinoza’s “Still Water Saints.” What a first novel! He should be so proud of it, for it is carefully forged and, for me, emotionally charged. The setting is a small Latino community in the area of Los Angeles where the action revolves around the Botanica Oshun, its patrons and its stock of herbs and candles. We recognize in Perla Portilla some of our own family members or family friends who share some of the same attributes of faith, spirit, resilience and fortitude. There is always a stalwart person in our lives like Perla, to whom everyone goes for hope and advice. I guess that’s what I loved about the novel, as it described women that I knew in such an expressively and well-crafted manner.
Though Espinoza was born in Mexico, he came to L.A. at the age of 2, so he grew up in a Mexican American community that is recognizable to us Chicanos. But I am curious as to what you thought of it.
Ma. Eugenia: I was surprised, to tell you the truth, because I didn’t think it was going to be as interesting as it turned out to be. Of course, I don’t have the emotional attachment that you have to the community he is depicting, but Espinoza’s characters are universal enough to speak to all of us. As you pointed out, we all know and have people we rely on through thick and thin, as well as those fickle ones who are disloyal like Enrique Medina, the big-rig driver with a woman in every truck stop, who betrays his wife and children in the chapter entitled “Braceras.”
“Still Water Saints” is a quiet, appealing novel. Espinoza writes well and has the ability to describe precisely the elements that create an atmosphere and help the reader visualize the setting where the stories take place. Each one of them has an unexpected twist that surprises the reader and keeps her reading. The novel is a gallery of portraits, and the only unifying character is Perla. Espinoza introduces us to many engaging characters, but he doesn’t stay long enough with them to let us get to know them better. I would have liked to find out what happens to the chubby girl Rosa and her friend Miguel Angel, for instance, and felt a little cheated that they never appeared again. Didn’t you have the same feeling?
Ellen: It seems like Espinoza, in a sense, ranked the characters, giving literary space to them in order of prominence. The characters, in a series of vignettes, walk in and out of Perla’s store, each with their own particular needs and, hopefully, with the solution of either herbs and/or candles. Perla has her own doubts as to the miracle of her products but instinctively knows that it is the process and belief that accomplishes the miracles or its “el don,” her gift that invokes the miracle. I love Espinoza’s rhythm of words; in places, it’s as if it’s a mantra. “Perla could not do what they said or believed, could not float, could not speak. She never could, and she knew she never would.”
His words also invoke all the senses. I could relish in the colors and smells of the Southwest, the wild sage, the avocado trees, the citrus — all that is also in my own backyard. Now I am getting sentimental with all the stirred-up memories. Botanicas were never part of my experience, but now that natural medicines are a big business, we can all relate to the worth of herbs. And to consciously light a candle is miraculous.
Ma. Eugenia: Although I agree with you about the sensory language, which Espinoza uses masterfully, I believe that the novel is weak, structurally speaking. Espinoza touches on all the cultural stereotypes (“la casa chica,” “the curandera,” “the drug addicted,” “the abused immigrant” and so on) one after the other. If it is true that this series of sketches or vignettes, as you called them, helps synthesize the culture and way of life Espinoza is depicting in the novel, it is also true that they reflect a plot that is thin and a linear structure that is too obviously contrived. We should not forget, however, that this is a first novel and that Espinoza has introduced us to life in Agua Mansa so skillfully that we feel we have been there, because when reading the novel, we smelled the odors in the streets and in Perla’s Botanica, saw what people look at every day, met the inhabitants, became acquainted with their problems, understood their feelings, and, what is more important, empathized with their mentality, their way of thinking and their culture — not an easy feat to pull off! Don’t you agree?
Ellen: Interesting, but it didn’t sound contrived to me so much as it did familiar. I guess because we just don’t have enough books that depict the experience of the many different Latino groups in the United States, it didn’t have the jaded tone for me. Having directed several teacher-training institutes on the use of Latino literature, I know that the majority of teachers are always looking for literary works with which to hook their students, and not just their Latino students but all students.
I think the value of works such as “Still Water Saints” is that they present experiences to students and other readers who in their context might have or not have had that insight. Therefore, it is a dynamic way to study a good style, to see correlatives with other works, including the usual standard of Shakespeare, and to learn about the different communities in our country with their belief systems, their values and traditions.
Espinoza was a participant in one of Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo writing workshops held here in San Antonio every year. The book reflects the craftsmanship honed in these workshops; that is, the attention to detail, the conciseness of word choice, the development of style and voice, the building of characters, and the honesty and significance of one’s own story. I did like it for its charm and freshness and the language.
Ma. Eugenia: If this novel came out of those writing workshops, I salute Sandra and certainly look forward to reading Alex Espinoza’s next novel.
Ellen Riojas Clark is a professor in the Division of Bicultural Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Born in Mexico City, María-Eugenia Cossío-Ameduri is the former executive director of the San Antonio Public Library Foundation and former director of UNAM in San Antonio.
Source: San Antonio Express-News