- Trading Cultural Baggage for Gucci Luggage: The Ambivalent Latinidad of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s The Dirty Girls Social Club
If a novel by a Latina hit the shelves, I bought it. I wanted to read about someone like me—an American woman like any other, who happened to have a Spanish surname. (par. 1)
While I was impressed by the writings I found, I usually couldn’t relate. Most “Latinas” in American fiction were culturally isolated women who, as an editor once joked, “always seemed to wash their clothes on a rock in the river,” women defined by an exotic ethnicity—women, in other words, who were more like my grandmother than they were like me. . . . I knew nothing of the things “Latina” writers were supposed to know about: immigration, making tortillas, loving Pedro Infante. I was sunk . . . (par. 2)
I wrote the book I wanted to read but could never find—a book I hope will prove that all of us, regardless of our family trees, skin color, politics, religion, sexual orientation, language, or nation, are best defined by who, not what, we are. (par. 10)—Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, “Latina Like Me”
The Dirty Girls Social Club (2003) by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez introduces its six main characters, friends from their days at Boston University six years earlier, as they gather for one of their twice-yearly reunions at a Cuban restaurant. They call themselves the sucias, which the characters translate to mean dirty girls, as a pun on the musical group the Buena Vista Social Club. The name sucia is meant to be irreverent and obnoxious; it serves as a way to combat the stereotypes others hold of what it means to be Latina. These characters perceive themselves as challenging the idea that Latinas must fit into certain molds created by the mass media, Latina/os, and non-Latina/os. As its ironic use of the nickname suggests, this novel unfolds to reveal characters who are far from dirty or exotic, who drink Starbucks and buy their tortillas rather than make them. The first forty pages depict the book’s (and the sucias’) obsession with labels, money, and what they signify. Mentions of Hilfiger shirts, newly French-manicured acrylic nail tips, Bebe pants, a Movado watch, gold Tiffany heart-shaped pendants, a Coach briefcase, a green Range Rover, Martha [End Page 133] Stewart, a 401K, and six-figure salaries dot the pages. According to this first chapter, what we buy determines who we are.
The Dirty Girls Social Club attempts to do something interesting—groundbreaking, even, for its time. It breaks open the category of Latinidad to a general American mainstream audience, helping people understand that a homogenous population is actually made up of incredibly diverse people from many nationalities. Seeking to broaden representations of American Latinas, the novel departs from earlier fictional representations of Latinas predicated on the social protest model of identity conceived during the 1960s. Instead, it depicts college-educated, white-collar characters who replace an emphasis on cultural history with a fixation on upper-class status. However, the chick lit genre, by its very nature of offering a superficial beach read, severely constrains this cultural work; chick lit must package its ideas in easily digestible form. The contradiction between the content’s complex work of exploring and redefining identity and the genre’s need to produce and sell the literary equivalent of cotton candy produces an ambivalent Latinidad that argues for a common American sameness, but also insists on a distinct ethnicity. Ironically, both are needed for maximum marketability. This novel marks a turning point for Latina/o literature and criticism by raising questions about what Latina identity is and how we conceptualize it. The Dirty Girls Social Club ultimately upsets the traditional critical paradigm of reading Latina literary works in terms of their oppositional consciousness and asks how genre and the marketplace can shape a text’s cultural work.
The decision by publishers to focus more on Latina/o literature was motivated in part by the 2000 census results. In the ten years following the 1990 census, the US Latina/o population grew to 13% of the nation’s population. Studies...