Out of the Margins

These stories of Mexican-American family life are full of cultural richness

The "prettiest girl in Arvin," from the title of Rafaela's G. Castro's collection of personal essays, was sometimes called "Pablito" or "muchachito"--little Pablo or little boy--when she was 3 or 4. Due to "granos en la cabeza" (ringworm, perhaps, or head lice), Rafaela's head was shaved, and the braceros who boarded at her mother's house teased her about it. An uncle countered by dubbing her "the prettiest girl in Arvin." But, Castro writes, "everybody knew there couldn't be many pretty girls in a town like Arvin."

The "town like Arvin" comes right out of Steinbeck: One of a collection of hot, dusty 1940s and '50s San Joaquin Valley, Calif., agriculture-support communities, populated by farm and migrant workers, "Okies and Mexicans," Arvin is the site of Castro's first memories. She was the third and youngest daughter of farmworkers who had migrated from New Mexico and Texas late in the '30s (two young couples with babies, a 9-year--old in the rumble seat, their cooking pots stashed in a trailer; it took them months to drive to Southern California). By the time Rafaela came along, both her parents were working, and they lived in field workers' housing. They would later go north for more regular employment, but Arvin made its mark on Castro.

Provocaciónes is Castro's first nonacademic book. A retired academic librarian with a background in English literature and folklore, she's lectured in ethnic bibliography and Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley, contributed to a multicultural anthology and written the Dictionary of Chicano Folklore.

The nine personal essays in the collection constitute both a species of memoir and an examination of a mother-daughter relationship. Castro presents it as a study of her parents' troubled marriage, but the personal memories she relates reveal her own inextricability from their emotional knots.

Central to her narrative is a two-year stint Castro had in Bolivia. She describes how she as a 20-year-old longed for "una gran provocación"--a grand adventure--that would somehow transform her life. And she had one. It was 1964. Her family was living in the San Francisco area, and she and her 20-something sisters were all working and still living at home. Traditional, strict, Catholic, Mexican American, they were expected to remain at home until they could marry. Castro, who'd never even considered college and wasn't waiting for a marriage proposal, was toiling in a dental lab when her "provocación" presented itself: JFK's newly minted Peace Corps. She applied, underwent rigorous training, went to Bolivia and was never the same again.

Castro's book could fall into some category of "the story of a time" for what it reflects of the changes in the American social fabric during her formative years. Although a self-described (not flower-power) wallflower, a sober "viejita"--a little old lady of a child, a mediocre high school student with "no talents"--she ended up riding significant social waves of the century. She lived in the labor camps that would be denounced by Steinbeck and investigated by the feds. She worked for a period with Cesar Chavez. With only a high school diploma, she beat out many college-educated candidates for the Peace Corps. When she returned to the United States, she entered UC Berkeley at the height of student unrest--graduating the year they canceled graduation.

But the book focuses on the timeless--in many ways, agrarian and traditional--issue of family relations, with the "letters" of the title expressing emotions the family avoided face to face. Lola and Martín Castro, uneducated, expecting a baby, married at 16 and 17, struggled to hold together a marriage for 30 painful years. This book seems to try to expiate Castro's sense that she was somehow complicit in their failure.

You can see the objective academic lecturer as she selects what personal detail would support her study. Like letters to be shared with friends or a writing group, these are the musings of a cultural observer reflecting on her own life. This is clean, graceful, unadorned prose posing questions she still hasn't quite come to grips with. You can watch as her recursive pieces begin to unveil truths about her life; you can witness her writing toward making sense of it. Provocaciónes makes for not lively, but culturally rich, reading. It quietly illuminates a life stepping out of the social margins.

"The prettiest?" Whatever. There also couldn't be many writers of her quality who hail from "a town like Arvin."

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