Letras Latinas Blog has been wanting to publish an interview with Melinda Palacio for quite some time now. Our thanks to Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize finalist, Adela Najarro, for contributing this thoughtful interview.
Melinda Palacio’s first novel, Ocotillo Dreams, lets the reader into the world of Chandler, Arizona, during the 1997 immigration sweeps conducted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Anchored both in the development of its characters and the issue of immigration, Ocotillo Dreams, reveals how one of the major political and social issues of our times affects the inner landscape and lives of everyday Latino/as. This novel was recently awarded the Mariposa Award for the Best First Book at the 14th Annual Latino Book Awards 2012. It was my pleasure to e-interview Melinda in the early parts of June 2012.
Since you were living in Chandler, Arizona, during the sweeps that take place in Ocotillo Dreams, how did the political climate of the time fuel the development of the novel?
When I lived in Chandler, I had no idea I would one day write a novel about the immigration sweeps. I was a features assistant for the Arizona Republic, and later I contributed lifestyle stories for the Scottsdale and East Valley Tribune. It wasn't until after I moved back to California in 2001 when I starting thinking that the events that happened in Arizona would make a great novel.
The same year I moved back, the city of Santa Barbara was reading T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain. I've always been a fan of Boyle's writing, especially his short stories. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain certainly informed my own work. In Santa Barbara, I worked as a staff reporter for the Goleta Valley Voice and had the opportunity to attend a press conference and interview Boyle on The Tortilla Curtain. As the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, with family members on both sides of the U.S. border, the issue of immigration is important to me.
When I decided to tackle the sweeps of 1997, I collected newspaper articles and took notes from radio interviews. Although I lived through the sweeps of 1997 and had decided to write a fictional story, I wanted to make sure I had gotten the details right. The historical accuracy of the novel was important to me. I am proud to say that in addition to winning the Mariposa Award for Best First Book at the International Latino Book Awards, Ocotillo Dreams also garnered an Honorable Mention in the Historical Fiction category.
What is it about undocumented immigration that strikes a cord in your creative psyche?
Current immigration policies in this country shock me. I never imagined the events and laws of 1997 Arizona would repeat themselves, escalate, and become harsher in 2010 with the passing of SB 1070. I want more people to become aware of these important issues, to realize that a law such as SB 1070 should have never passed, that our books are being banned, that we need to pay more attention to the subject of undocumented immigration. Fiction offers a way of telling the truth in the form of a compelling story. These events happened in the country I was born in, in the town where I lived. It wasn't far-fetched to put myself in the shoes of my main character and imagine myself being caught up in the immigration sweeps.
The middle section of Ocotillo Dreams focuses on the actual raids by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In this section, you write from the point of view of a factory owner who employs undocumented workers. Why did you include a character such as Bill Davis, the owner of the factory, and what did you hope to show through his characterization?
I chose to write a novel using multiple viewpoints to show how different people were affected by the unconstitutional events and racial profiling in 1997 Arizona. I had no idea these events would repeat themselves in 2010 with SB1070 or with the 2012 Supreme Court Decision to uphold the most controversial portion of the Arizona law.
The character of Bill Davis was important because he is a business owner who relies on undocumented workers. He is sympathetic to immigrants to the extent that he needs employees to work in his factory. He has no problem with warning Isola of Cruz and what he considers typical behavior for his workers. Davis thinks he has the system figured out, but doesn't realize there's something inherently wrong with the 1997 raids and the treatment of his workers by INS and the local police. Davis's business is affected, but he does not experience personal terror or fear.
The varying levels of awareness and viewpoints helped show how part of the issue of undocumented workers is masked as taking away jobs, rather than protecting the rights of workers and citizens, regardless of their papers. I wanted the reader to walk in each of characters' shoes, to show how easily a citizen, such as Isola, could have her civil rights violated because of her skin color or her inability to speak up for herself while in a state of distress.
If fiction is a way of telling the truth through a compelling story, as you stated earlier, then there are many truths being explored in Ocotillo Dreams. What “truths” do you wish to convey about the Latino/a experience in your writing?
In Ocotillo Dreams, I wanted to create characters that reflect the complexity of the Latino experience. I realize that my personal experience is different from members of my own family who also grew up in my grandmother's house. When I lived in Chandler, Arizona, my first introduction to the town were the immigration sweeps. I first heard from Catherine Ryan Hyde that fiction expresses truth. It's a subtle exploration, fiction as truth. My upcoming poetry book, How Fire Is A Story, Waiting (Tía Chucha Press 2012), is narrative and autobiographical. Some of the poems from this full-length poetry collection are almost transcriptions of stories I've heard. Poetry and fiction offer freedom and liberty in the way a story or poem is told. When people confuse the main character in Ocotillo Dreams with myself, the author, I feel satisfied that I've done my job and that the characters appear real to the reader.
And then another compelling aspect of your characters in Ocotillo Dreams is how flawed and fabulous they all are. Is there a “truth” about relationships that you were trying to convey in Ocotillo Dreams through Isola and Cruz?
I'd say there's more than one truth expressed in the relationship between Isola and Cruz. Their relationship emphasized the gambit of falling for someone so fast when faced with questions of trust, necessity, passion, and deceit.
Their relationship is a reflection of Isola’s emotional state and vulnerability. Here is a capable woman who leans on Cruz’s help during a period of mourning. She and her mother fall for Cruz’s charms. Isola would never imagine that she and her mother would have this quality in common. Characters such as Trini, Josefina, and Pifi don’t let Cruz get away with anything. Some of the truths that are revealed are the old maxims such as “like mother, like daughter,” “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and “if you want something done right, you should do it yourself.” In the end, Isola realizes she must draw on her inner strength.
Ocotillo Dreams abounds in Spanish. While Isola certainly is at issue with her Spanish fluency, it seems that Cruz mostly speaks in Spanish, though the majority of his dialog sections are in English. How did you approach the Spanish/English/Spanglish issue within your novel? What did you hope to convey through the different characters use of Spanish, English, and Spanglish?
Originally, my manuscript was in compliance with style manuals that favor italics for Spanish. My editor at Bilingual Press requested two things after accepting the manuscript for publication. The first was to add a couple of paragraphs to the beginning of the novel and provide an explanation of Isola's circumstances. Since the information seemed obvious to me, I used the opportunity to throw in a little poetry and offer a prologue that's essential one long prose poem. I wrote the prologue quickly, and it was an easy and fun addition to my manuscript. The second change my editor asked was to remove all of my italics. She explained that Bilingual Press does not treat Spanish as a foreign language.
Their style choice worked well for most English readers. However, someone complained that there was too much Spanish for them. The majority of readers tell me that they enjoy seeing the Spanish in Ocotillo Dreams because I do a good job at providing context to those who only speak English. I wanted to use the most natural words appropriate for the scene and characters. Cruz speaks mostly in Spanish, but the dialogue is mainly in English because the book is written in English. I painted brush strokes of clues so that the readers senses the different levels of proficiency in Spanish, English, and Spanglish. It was important for me to show a natural variety of language, used by the characters. For example, Davis only speaks enough Spanish to deal with the workers he manages, whereas Josefina speaks perfect Spanish and studied English with Marina. This aspect of creating speech and dialogue for each of the characters was an important part of my creative process.
Ocotillo Dreams offers a realistic portrayal of what the complexity of the US Mexican, Mexican-American, Latino/a experience. As a writer, what do you hope the reader leaves with after reading your book?
Thank you. I am acutely aware of the complexity within our culture. Within my own family, there’s a variety of complex experiences that define what it means to be Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, and Latino. I grew up in my grandmother's house in South Central Los Angeles. My mother is from Del Rio, Texas and her parents are from Mexico. My grandmother gave birth to a dozen children. I learned about my Mexican roots because I was always fascinated by old family photos and my grandmother would tell me stories about the people in the photos, including tales about my estranged father who is from Panamá. At an early age, I realized that my personal experience was different from my uncles who joined the Army or who joined gangs or who worked the same job since obtaining permits as young teens, and vastly different from my grandmother whose formal education ended in the third grade, and even more distant than my migrant-working grandfather who eventually landed steady work in a steel mill. My mother was the first to graduate from college and become a teacher. I used to shadow her everywhere. I loved accompanying her to college classes at Cal State Los Angeles; I practically grew up in that university. Unlike other members of my household, I had the luxury of loving school.
I hope there's a hunger for more books by Latinos. The complexity of the Latino experience is something we should be fascinated by. The topic should make us want to share our literature in the classroom, with our friends, with our family, especially a novel depicting a historical event that refuses to go away. More books need to be written about contentious issues in our history. An historical novel brings together readers who enjoy a good story and fictional characters who reveal historical truths. Our books should be celebrated, not banned.
Adela Najarro’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and can be found in the University of Arizona Press anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. She chairs the Cabrillo College English Department and is on the board of directors for Poetry Santa Cruz. Her extended family’s emigration from Nicaragua to San Francisco began in the 1940’s and concluded in the eighties when the last of the family settled in the Los Angeles area. She now makes her home in Santa Cruz, CA.