- On Love and Fate
Norma Elia Cantú
University of New Mexico Press
304 Pages; Print, $19.95
I hear the sound of the pouring rain outside. I am in El Salvador when I start reading Cabañuelas. It is rainy season, and the water pouring down is so unsettling and intense, I grab Cantú's book as if looking for a refuge. The story takes me to another country, to Spain. Nena, the protagonist from Laredo, won a Fullbright, and she is going to la madre patria to investigate the connections between fiestas in Spain and Texas.
I am moved by the sincere voice of the narrative, and the story of this Latinx academic and writer trying to navigate the contradictions of being in this "country of conquerors," the nation responsible for so much destruction of indigenous life in the Americas. But Cantú ups the ante when she introduces a love story into this equation. It works almost as a triangle—the clash of cultures, the questions about her own future, and a relationship that slowly unfolds as a story of true love. As the novel moves forward, I realize this is also an honest tale of transformation, growth, and a meditation on fate: what would Nena do, return to Laredo, to her family and her land or stay with this Spaniard, Paco, who makes her feel grounded and truly loved?
The question is complex and multidimensional. Most of the academic and creative writing Cantú has produced revolves around culture clashes, borders, identity, and interconnectedness in time and space. Like in her previous memoir, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (2015), as readers we are immersed into an experience of belonging to different countries, languages, and cultures. Like in her famous book, this novel is also successful at telling the story of a Latinx woman journeying into different cultures and using autobiographical, visual, and ethnographic accounts to describe her experience of interconnectedness and in betweenness. But the question in this novel, however, is also incisive and poignant. Do you sacrifice all of that in the name of something as grounding and new as true love?
Cantú's story is powerful and original. There are almost no stories of Latinx travelling to Europe, even less a love story that takes place in Spain. But this is not just a story about Nena. I read the novel with great interest because Cantú's narrative helps me to see my country through her eyes. This book is a brilliant meditation on the traditional fiestas of Spain and the years of La Movida—those post-Franco years when Pedro Almodóvar, among others, emerged as the new face of the intellectual and artistic life of modern Spain. The 1980's is a relevant time in the modern history of Spain since the country at the time was still struggling with historical contradictions, trapped between the past and the future, trying to make sense of its own fate heading into the twentieth first century.
The title of the novel cleverly anticipates some of those themes. Cabañuelas is about the predictions of the future: "Every January my father would figure out las Cabañuelas; he would note the predictions by observing what happened the first thirty-one days of a new year." The observation of the details in the present leads to predicting "what kind of March it will be," but as the story unfolds, readers realize this is also about decisions in time and space, about past and future, about fate and land. Can we predict our future the same way we predict the weather?
Sandra Cisneros has defined this story as "A personal almanac that crosses borders of genres, a testimonio/novela, a compendium of folklore, a collection of snapshots, an unlynching, a rope loosened from the throat of history." Certainly, because of her effective combination of distinct narrative techniques, Cantú operates crucial disruptions within the genre to create new forms Latinx literature. Her use of photography and vignettes, her desire to provide a more complex representation of las Cabañuelas creates snapshots of a moment in time...