Sunday, December 25, 2011

Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

a mesquite 
in the rose garden

In the squint of morning,
before anyone else is awake,
when the roaring sounds
of unbridled verses 
rush furiously through my head,
the mesquite is my confidant.
I lean back against its sturdy trunk
and read aloud every word
imprinted en mi corazon.
The mesquite listens quietly --
as if the poems budding in my heart,
them blossoming in my notebook,
are Scripture -- and never tells a soul
the things I write.
Under The Mesquite is another fine young adult novel written by a newcomer and Mexican-American author, Guadalupe Garcia McCall. This exquisitely crafted novel in free verse tells the story of fourteen year old Lupita from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. When she was six years old, Lupita's family left Mexico for the United States, moving to Eagle Pass, Texas. Lupita is the oldest in a family of eight children, six girls and two boys, the four youngest children having been born in the U.S.

The novel is divided into six parts each following Lupita and her family's life over the past eight years. Part One, The Weight of Words sets the stage by providing the reader with some background information important to the storyline. In addition to telling us about her family we also learn that when Lupita was in her first year of high school in Eagle Pass, she learns that her mother has cancer. This knowledge is unspoken between them. Her mother will not speak THE word because of what it means, hence the title, "The Weight of Words."
"It's okay," I whisper
against her cheek. "I know."
My heart aches
because I have heard the word
that she keeps tucked away
behind closed doors.
There is also the weight of the words from Lupita's friend, Mireya, who tells her that cancer means her mother will die. These words are poison to Lupita.

Lupita tries to bargain with God, telling him she will become a nun if her mother is cured. But, when the nuns come to get her, Lupita's mother whom she affectionately refers to a Mami, turns them away.

Part Two, Remembering tells the family's story in Mexico and their move to America. At this time Lupita lives with her Papa and Mami, her sisters Analiza and Victoria, and her brother, Paco. Soon they move across the Rio Grande to Eagle Pass, Texas. This set of poems tell of Lupita longing for the culture and landscape of Mexico.Garcia McCall's lyrical poems convey the beauty and simplicity of life in Mexico and the difficulty assimilating into a new culture. But at the same time, her family is doing well, with money saved and her mother giving birth to four more children. It is a time of prosperity and health with the family living "the American dream".
"And I doubted los girasoles
would understand me anymore,
because now I was speaking
a different language.
I swallowed consonants
and burdened vowels with a sound
so dense, the works fell straight
out of my mouth and hit the ground
before they could reach the river's edge."
Part Thee, Crossing Borders continues the story after Lupita's freshman year. On the homefront, Lupita's mother receives treatment for her cancer while at school Lupita gets help from her new drama teacher, Mr. Cortez, who recognizes Lupita's talent and encourages her to work at developing her drama skills. Lupita also struggles with assimilating into American society, while still retaining her Mexican identity.
"Being Mexican
means more than that.
It means being there for each other.
It's togetherness, like a familia.
We should be helping one another,
cheering our friends on, not trying
to bring them down."
Part Four, Give Us This Day chronicles the family's struggles when Mami's cancer returns. Lupita must try to come to terms with her mother's situation as well as the fact that the family is now struggling financially under the burden of her mother's treatments. While her father stays with her mother in Galveston, Texas, Lupita remains at home taking care of the younger children.

In Part Five, Cut Like A Diamond, Lupita is in her senior year at school when her Mami dies. As she watches her mother weaken, Lupita's pain almost overwhelms her. When she confides in Mr. Cortez, he is sympathetic and urges her to use that pain to become someone else - to use it in her acting. He encourages her to reconsider her involvement in the spring play.
"...True performers are able to turn
their most painful experiences
into art that other people
can connect with.
You do this exceptionally well..."
Part Six, Words On The Wind sees Lupita coming to terms with her mother's passing and learning to live again. At first she has a difficult time coping and spends some time in Mexico with her grandmother.  She doesn't know how she's suppose to go on living without her mother. When the laundry gets dirty after being blown onto the ground, Lupita's abuelita tells her that sometimes it's best to start all over again.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall's novel is a beautiful rendering of a teenager's struggle to cope with life changing events and the transition to another culture and to adulthood. The poetry is simple, easily conveying the beauty of life in Mexico and alternatively, the struggles in America; the happy family days and  in contrast, the tragedy of Mami's illness.

I found myself quickly rooting for Lupita and easily identifying with her struggles in life, even though I have little in common with her. Some tragedies transcend location and time and Garcia-McCall's poems reflect this.  The poem, A Night To Remember which tells of Lupita's family receiving a late night call telling them that Mami has died, tugged at my heart because I too had a similar experience when my mother died.
"Our bare feet cold
on the old linoleum,
we huddle and cry together,
fingers, hands, and arms
all intertwined.
We are tangled up"
The mesquite tree is a metaphor for the tragedy in Lupita's life. It appears one day in the middle of Mami's rose garden which like her family she has tended and it has flourished. Like the cancer, despite being repeatedly pulled out by its roots, the mesquite returns and thrives. Eventually it becomes part of the family garden. When Mami dies, the rose garden perishes too, but the mesquite is now a sturdy permanent thing. At first when Lupita sits under the tree, leaning against its trunk, the poems she writes reflect this overtaking of their lives by the tragedy. But later on, against another mesquite tree she finds hope and a new beginning. She learns to begin again.

Garcia-McCall has succeeded in writing a novel that allows readers everywhere to identify with Lupita's life, the problems she encounters, her loss and her Latino culture. Beautifully written and deeply authentic.

Book Details:
Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
New York: Lee & Low Books Inc. 2011

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