- Women Who Live in Coffee Shops and Other Stories by Stella Pope Duarte, and: The Block Captain’s Daughter by Demetria Martínez
As artists struggle to reconcile local cultures with global political forces and markets, we witness new efforts to reconsider place and family. Rather than concede to the forces of globalism, two new [End Page 128] books by Chicana authors provide new insights into how place and family can be remade. Interestingly, both works accomplish this by playing with point of view, forcing readers to reconsider the place of each character within shifting networks of neighbors, families, and friends.
Stella Pope Duarte’s new book of short stories, Women Who Live in Coffee Shops, explores one neighborhood in Phoenix. Readers familiar with Chicana literatures will recognize this short story cycle as a further development of the kind of journeys that occur in Maria Helena Viramontes’s Los Angeles or Sandra Cisneros’s Chicago. But Duarte’s stories are more closely connected with one another than those of her predecessors, resulting in something close to a novella that unfolds through multiple perspectives on a series of related events. Almost every story is written in the first person, present tense, and Duarte skillfully provides immediate access to the perspectives of each narrator and to their personal version of the Van Buren Street neighborhood. It is a tribute to Duarte’s careful attention to detail that the reader recognizes changes in point of view quickly even though the pronoun “I” remains constant.
The disorientation of these shifts gives the reader a sense of Van Buren Street as a site of deeply enmeshed relationships, as characters at the margins of one story later appear to tell their own tales. These interstices reveal the camaraderie and friendships that have always accompanied familial structures and that come to the fore-front in the face of pressures that break down nuclear and extended families. Thus the book as a whole transcends the limitations of individual perspectives to present a portrait of a community as it develops over time and adapts to social and economic pressures to dissolve and disappear. In one story, “One of These Days I’m Gonna Go Home,” an isolated and downtrodden woman named Peggy decides to adopt a child from a Mexican orphanage sponsored by her church. Though low on resources and frightened by a culture that she does not understand, Peggy finds herself reaching out to another scared human being, a girl who is “not a good candidate” for adoption (113). In spite of the fact that they share no language, history, or means of communicating what makes the little girl a bad candidate, she and Peggy form a bond. That which cannot be communicated remains to menace Peggy’s peace, but compassion [End Page 129] overcomes panic as they settle in to become a new family, complete with unspeakable silences, unexplainable behaviors, and exasperated affections.
In contrast to Duarte’s multiplicity of individual perspectives Demetria Martinez’s new novella The Block Captain’s Daughter (recent winner of the International Latino Book Award for Fiction) unfolds in tight dyads. Each chapter presents interactions between couples, outlining the tensions in their relationships, as well as the interests and difficulties that bind them together. The novel follows the development of a young Mexican immigrant, Guadalupe, as she becomes a community leader in Albuquerque over the months of the gestation of her daughter, Destiny. Guadalupe writes to Destiny, to inform her of her mother’s history and ambitions. Interspersed between these letters are stories about Guadalupe’s friends, two pairs of lovers. Maritza and Flor struggle to survive as activists, trying to help bring an end to the war in Iraq through constant vigilance at a local Peace Center and through constantly viewing tv coverage of the war. The other couple, Peter and Cory, stumble against barriers of race, gender, and religion in their efforts to build a loving relationship. All...