TONI MORRISON IS A SACRED cow in need of a skewering. A few years ago, in a speech at a book festival in Flagstaff, Morrison--a Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and National Humanities Medalist--proved you don't need rational thought to win major awards. Throughout her talk, Morrison used thinly-veiled racist speech to bemoan her political opponents' use of racist speech, an irony largely lost on the audience. She also engaged in the cheapest, sleaziest form of polemic, repeatedly stating that opponents of government funding of the arts and other welfare programs are advocates of a "final solution," and calling her minority critics sellouts and Toms. (Elsewhere, she has called the English language itself "racist.") When Morrison's fawning, lily-white audience gave her a standing ovation, it was good-riddance time for me.
It's fun to imagine what race and gender hustlers like Morrison would do with Ito Romo's El Puente. In interlocking vignettes, El Puente tracks the activities of 14 border town girls and women as they deal with ordinary and extraordinary events, not least of which is the sudden, unexplained staining of the Rio Grande to a brilliant blood-red tint. As the women go about their business, they are each naturally and inevitably drawn to the river bridge, where everyone and his sister has converged to observe the strange occurrence.
Romo treats his women well: Each is finely portrayed, fully explained, lovingly rendered. And each, to varying degrees, is a stereotype.
From Carlota, who lives in a 23-room colonial house and suffers from a plethora of ailments, to Cindy, the 10-year truck-stop waitress with a missing tooth and dreams of stardom, each of El Puente's women is familiar. Every border town bar has at least one old girl like Perla, drunk as a skunk but thoughtful enough to remove her false teeth before offering a blow job. Every Mexican train has at least one old woman like Pura, contemplating death and making a pilgrimage. And every border town has at least one lovable crazy like Lourdes, whose antics are shrugged off by knowing friends and family.
While reading El Puente, I could just hear Toni Morrison screaming in the background: "Every female character is a cliché; this must be written by a man." And, "How come none of the Mexican women are well-educated professionals? This must be written by a white man." Well ...
There are plenty of well-educated female professionals in Mexico, of course. But there are also lots of women in the service trades, including the demimonde. These women work harder and with more style than any bureaucrat or professor, and they're much more interesting. So, like it or not, it's not unreasonable that Romo would choose such familiar female types for literary exploration. That none of them are bankers or lawyers should only concern the most strident academic feminists; that most of them are Mexican should only concern the most ambitious ethnic bean counters.
Romo, who is from the border himself, knows his characters well. He writes about them with authority, treats them with respect. He takes border stereotypes and presents them in interesting and compelling ways. In fact, the crones and crazies in El Puente are stereotypes precisely because they're so real. That they verge on cliché without becoming mundane is testament to Romo's strength as a storyteller.
Readers will find favorites among the women in Romo's bunch. One of mine is Lourdes, the lovable nut-job (who may actually just be stupid). After stealing a ring from the finger of a corpse she finds on the river bank, she hides the jewelry in her panties. As the ring tugs on her pubic hair, madcap antics naturally ensue.
Equally endearing are Lola and Lorena, who share a chapter as they share an afternoon. Dressed in miniskirts and tubetops, they talk trash and fight over lipstick. Their type can be found in abundance in every Mexican or American border town, and indeed, throughout the Southwest. Lots of hair and makeup, tiny nalgas and bulging panzonas, chewing gum and talking loud, equal parts annoying and adorable.
In fact, I met a couple of Lola and Lorena clones that night in Flagstaff. After fleeing Morrison's speech, I found refuge in a motel tavern, where I shared drinks and conversation with las chicas and a bunch of Hell's Angels. The talk was lively and, compared to Morrison's drivel, refreshingly rational. Like Ito Romo, those girls and bikers were a whole world wiser than Toni Morrison will ever be.