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Introduction Inhabiting La Patria Identity, Agency, and Antojo in the Work of Julia Alvarez Rebecca Harrison and Emily Hipchen Emily in one hand, Walt in the other, That’s how I learned my craft, struggling To navigate my own way between them And get to where I wanted to end up: Some place dead center in the human heart. I’ve had an odyssey with both along: Emily with her slant sense of directions; And rowdy Walt, so loud and in my face, I’ve had to stuff his mouth with leaves of grass At times to hear my own song of myself! —Julia Alvarez, “Passing On” It is just the right time to be talking of Julia Alvarez. Her work engages all our contemporary intellectual obsessions, intersects all our coffee shop talk, all our most volatile news. It gets us at every age, arrives in every possible written form. Our children listen to us read her beautifully illustrated books, fingering pictures of Tía Lola’s bright dresses and bag, and ask us (if we are English speakers) to say again and again the unfamiliar words: adiós, buenos dias, tía, mami. If we are Spanish speakers, and all of Alvarez’s works come in 1 2 Rebecca Harrison and Emily Hipchen both languages, the children may ask about Vermont, the snow, why what’s so familiar—Tía Lola’s colorful personality, her language, her food—is so hard for Americans. Our teenagers can pick up Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, and Return to Sender. They can read about people their age negotiating situations both like and perhaps unlike their own. That is, they can read about Anita, who falls in love with a boy and writes her secret attraction in her diary; meantime her world, under the dictator Raphael Leónidas Trujillo, falls apart. The regime endangers Anita’s sister and members of her extended family, who must flee the country (as Anita herself does, eventually ). Trujillo’s rule suppresses speech, makes Mami careful, makes everyone paranoid and overwatchful. How does anyone survive that? Alvarez’s books model endurance and a kind of good humor under trying circumstances common to any teen: the hidden boyfriend, the surveillance of parents, the difficulties of moving. But almost uniquely, they contextualize these trials in larger ones, in visions of the incomprehensible grinding of individuals caught in history. Trujillo and his goons threaten Anita’s sister with rape and torture, and Anita herself survives attacks on the family compound by living in a closet; Milly, a transnational adoptee, discovers she will never know her birthparents because they were killed in a civil war that decimated her original home; the Cruz family, whose matriarch was kidnapped by a coyote and must be ransomed, is caught in an ICE raid and deported to Mexico. But it is in Alvarez’s writing for adults that the difficult questions about the intersection of the political and the personal, of history and the quotidian ticking of nonevents, are presented with all their complexities. In a book like Alvarez’s award-winning In the Time of the Butterflies, historical fiction that reanimates Las Mariposas—the sisters who helped bring Trujillo to curb at the cost of their lives—we see characters struggle with how much and what kind of involvement they should have in injustices perpetrated outside their control. We ask ourselves what brings people to a government that so abuses them; what makes it possible to endure its oppressions and its tortures? We have to think about concepts such as strength: is active revolution, is speaking and doing as Minerva does, really strength if it brings her and her family such grief? Is survival stronger than dying for a cause? Is Dedé the strongest of them all in refusing involvement, living on, and being able to husband the memories of her sisters’ lives into the 3 Introduction future (an inspiration to others and a grief to herself)? Or is Minerva stronger, most dedicated to the cause, most committed to defiance of Trujillo? How best to counter injustice? How best to fight? What does it mean to win, especially if winning costs everything, and does not necessarily mean ending pain and suffering anywhere? These are questions all of us face, even now, even here: what do we do in the face of inequity, oppression, corruption, and all the evils our institutions can perpetrate and perpetuate? Like Butterflies, In the Name of Salomé engages these issues...


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