Statistics and crime map…
Jun 02 Published in Philosophicalpolitical musings, Books by Purple
Not Even a Coconut
Since I am a mix of blue and red state cultures, I created similar internal tension in the protagonist of my murder mystery series. My heroine, Carol (Carolina Guadalupe) Sabala, is half Mexican-American. Since I am una gabacha, I made this choice with some trepidation. Yet, the feeling of having a foot in two different identities I think is the same, regardless of what the two identities may be. As a fiction writer, I access feelings this way. When Carol Sabala thinks of her brother who died from AIDS, I draw upon the feelings I had when my sister died from breast cancer.
That said, I also have worked at a public high school for many years, where as soon as I extend my legs from my car, I enter Mexican-American culture. Most mornings I am greeted in Spanish by a madman who circles the campus on a bike so small his knees pump up above the handlebars, gritando in Spanish. One morning it was: Yo quiero una cerveza. I want a beer.
Because I serve largely Mexican-American families, I have attended quinciñeras with little boys in tuxedos running up the aisle of the church during mass; eaten celebratory burria, the goat freshly slain in the backyard; and listened to blaring banda music in our school's quad as students bobbed polka-style in their cowboy hats. While not fluent in Spanish, I speak enough to have limping conversations about anything from abejas to zumbido. Yet, even as I greet my students' parents with saludos and formality, I am always aware of my whiteness, my otherness.
This is why Carol Sabala looks like her American mother, with long thick auburn hair and as my students would put it, "colored" eyes. Thus Carol does not even qualify as a coconut or Oreo (brown outside, white inside). While Carol is half Mexican-American, Mexican-Americans perceive her as purely white bread.
As a sub-theme, Carol's bi-cultural identity threads through my series. In One Tough Cookie, the second book of the series, Carol investigates a crime at Watsonville High School. As she enjoys a burrito at the plaza, she notes: Besides an orange‑vested city worker tending to a display of primroses, everyone here was Mexican. To them, I was a gabacha. I looked white. I checked Caucasian on forms. My Spanish was learned in classes. If and when people thought about Sabala, my surname, they thought it must be my married name, or maybe Eastern European with an accent on the first syllable.
In fact, Sabala is a corruption of the fairly common Hispanic surname Zavala. One of my former students inspired the name.
Increasingly I receive blond-haired, blue-eyed students with names like Brittany Martinez who astonish the class when they burst out in fluent Spanish, not only challenging our stereotypes, but also laying claim to their unrecognized identity.
How does a person live gracefully in two cultures? Is our country a mixed salad or a melting pot? The answers to these questions provide universal themes, potent with humor, pathos, injustice and grand victories. Often watching a person struggle forward with a foot in each culture is like watching a race at a county fair-pathetic and awesome, funny and touching. We can't help but cheer.
As with Brittany Martinez, people don't expect Carol Sabala to speak Spanish, so they often discuss secret things in front of her, as in this scene from Murder, Honey:
"Aiiee, Dios," said the long‑suffering mother. She picked up my hand with cool, callused fingers and let it drop. I hadn't expected her to let go. My hand fell, limply, uncontrolled, through a small, silky pile of grain and came to rest on the rough weave of a gunny sack. I couldn't muster the will to open my eyes. My sunglasses rested on the top of my nose.
"Aeii, mijo, cariño pendejo, ¿porque hiciste esto?"
While pendejo literally meant a pubic hair, the slang usage translated to something closer to idiot, or dummy. I heard this type of language so often in the kitchen that I understood it even in my groggy state. She'd just asked her dear little dummy why he'd done that.
"She's in red," the boy explained, more respectfully in Spanish. "I thought she was a Northsider. She even has a weird red car."
"¡Es una gringa!"
My back had been to him, my hair covered by the hood. "Is she dead?" he asked worriedly.
I waited for the answer, half wondering myself.
A boot nudged my rib cage.
"¿Que vamos a hacer con el cuerpo?"
The boy proposed dumping me in the river.
In my soon to be released Death with Dessert, the bi-cultural themes, submerged in the first four books, surface like a breaching whale. Carol, who has evolved from amateur sleuth to legitimate private investigator, receives the means and motivation to search for her long-missing father, Geraldo Sabala. The search takes her to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and into the world of human trafficking. Death with Dessert is as much a quest for identity as it is a murder mystery.
I will be reading from Death with Dessert on Wednesday, July 8th, 7:30 p.m., at the Capitola Book Café. I hope you can make it!