APRIL 13, 2017
I HAVE A THING for quiet writing. It is the kind of writing that, when I’m reading it, I can imagine the author working in a hushed state of mind. No matter how troubling the story is, I am soothed by the feeling that the writer understands that life is not defined by its big events. It is shaped by the seemingly unremarkable moments that flow, not just from birth to death, but throughout the generations.
Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories is quiet writing. This collection explores the course of a Mexican-American family through most of the 20th century in the fictitious town of Kimball Park, “a pit stop between the bars of Tijuana and the beaches of San Diego.” Absent are headliners of Mexican-American history, such as the Zoot Suit riots and the Chicano movement. Instead, Donna Miscolta creates a rich familial world of immigrants and their descendants with the castoffs of daily living: children trapping moths on the porch with their grandmother’s old hairnets, for example, and that same grandmother burning a pot of beans for the first time in her life.
In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, Lupita and her best friend Rosa cross the border, and with the payment of the head tax, begin new lives in the Promised Land. By the time of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lupita is married to Sergio, and the women have jobs in a fish cannery, the only Mexicans among the Chinese workers. Rosa starts each day adorned with lipstick and perfume, lavishing her hopes on her new country (an American husband and a film career), while Lupita is acutely aware — not of what the United States has to offer, but rather of what it lacks:
She ate standing, but not hurriedly, allowing herself a few minutes of longing for Mexico. Not for the hardscrabble life that was hers in Acaponeta in the years since the revolution, but for the music that dwelled even in bare rooms, forced from scratchy phonographs, blared from cantinas, warbled by her neighbors. It was music she had yet to find in her new home, a town almost as dusty as her old one, but with no poetry to save it.
To achieve her goals, Rosa pursues English; Lupita, who is married to a Mexican and spends her days with Chinese workers, feels no incentive to learn. This causes animosity between the friends, but there is tenderness in the way Miscolta writes about the chasm that grows when one masters the language of a new place, leaving a loved one behind. This is clearly a subject close to her heart, since the limitations of languages known and unknown, in forms that are both obvious and not, underscore the entirety of this collection.
Although Lupita is featured only in the first and last stories, Hola and Goodbye is about the passage of her life, since every other character is related to her in some way. She is like a drop of ink in a pond, spreading out and diluting as the book progresses and her daughters marry outside their “own kind,” introducing “Filipino, Polish, Irish, and Caribbean genotypes into Lupita and Sergio’s Yaqui-dominated Mexican bloodline.”
The first section of the book, “Four Women,” introduces Lupita and her friends as young wives and mothers; the next, “Ambition,” moves on to their children and grandchildren; and the last, “Leaving Kimball Park,” gives readers these grandchildren in the full diversity of their all-American lives. It is when Miscolta reaches the nexus of the second and third generations that the stories cohere and the book become greater than the sum of its parts. Lupita wants a better life for her children. Her children, in turn, want better lives for their children. This is a natural cycle, and the way that it inevitably tightens and loosens familial hinges at the same time is best illustrated in two unique sets of stories.
The first set, “Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent” and “Strong Girls,” begins with Lupita’s daughter Alicia Carmen, who has changed her name to the more dramatic Lyla. Lyla is divorced and raising twin daughters on her own. This is hardly the life she planned for herself. As a girl, she memorized Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” routine from the movie Summer Stock and danced “on the front porch in full view of passing traffic, in the kitchen for Lupita and Rosa, naked in the bathroom.” In high school, she and her dance partner entered a citywide contest, and despite the flashy, professional costumes of their challengers, Lyla knew, “They were the real thing. They — of the treeless neighborhoods and small, low-slung houses fronted by crab grass lawns and backed up against dirt alleys — would dance the pants off the competition.”
Miscolta is too sure-footed to need to manipulate her readers with a will-they, won’t-they scenario about kids from the wrong sides of the tracks. It is no spoiler to reveal that Lyla and her partner win. This story isn’t about the contest. It’s about who Lyla thinks she is, and who she had hoped to become — certainly not a woman who got knocked up by the high school bad boy and is now a divorced mother of daughters who stand before her, “their abundant, pre-pubescent bodies straining at their Annette Funicello Mouseketeer T-shirts, their overnight bags clutched in hands that could palm a basketball.”
Lyla still has the lithe figure of a dancer, while her daughters grow heavier and more awkward with age. No matter how many dance classes she puts them in, they cannot take the baton and run with it into the future, making her dream of becoming a professional dancer come true. So Lyla does what many do when they realize how far they are from the person they once believed they would be. She tries to go back in time. Dressed in her Laura Petrie capris and ballet flats, she tracks down her old dance partner, Ricky, who now runs the City Champion Dance Studio. “She thought it would always be there, waiting for her — the dance,” but Lyla’s is not the only life that has moved on.
Deeper into the book, in “Strong Girls,” Lyla’s capitulation to her lost dreams unfolds in ways she never could have foretold. Narrated by her daughter Norma, this is the story of Norma and her twin Ofelia. By high school, the girls have become bigger than nearly every boy in their class, and one day, a lunchroom fight leads to an offer from the wrestling coach to join the boy’s wrestling team. Thinking that saying yes will get them out of trouble for the fight, the twins join and are thrilled to discover a place where they excel: “We stayed the whole season, and the gym became our haven and eventually our stage. We met little resistance from the boys on the squad because to them we were a big, fat joke. Nevertheless, we were a joke that kicked butt.”
That these two young women do not lament their weight is one of the gratifications of this story. Instead, “[w]e took comfort in our aberration, in the largeness of each other, the space that we occupied, the molecules we displaced when we sat in a chair, stood in an aisle, rode an elevator.” Even in their wrestling outfits, they are proud of their size, as when Norma declares, “The suit’s elasticity made me feel resilient and robust.”
Curiosity seekers flock to their wrestling matches, and Norma soon figures out that people are coming not just to watch “the fat girls wrestle,” but to see them lose. Norma and Ofelia don’t lose, though, and the parents of the male wrestlers demand that the twins be removed from the team. The coach refuses, and so boys begin forfeiting games. When a local promoter suggests an exhibition match in which the twins wrestle one another, they agree, “because we had so much unspent power we were willing to use it against each other.”
As with every story in this book, “Strong Girls” is about identity. While the book’s title, Hola and Goodbye, might suggest that these stories will explore the complexities of Mexican-American identity, they go much deeper, to the issue of individual identity beyond the confines of race and culture. As much as Norma and Ofelia see themselves as fat twin sisters, they also “race to the mirror each morning to be the first one to claim the image there for herself.” As for their mother, whose identity as a dancer fades with the years, she transfers her aspirations to her girls in the only way she knows how, taking bouquets of roses to the twins’ match, “ready to present to us as if we were contestants in a beauty pageant.”
Like these two stories of Lyla and her daughters, “Ambition” and “Bonita” enrich one another. “Ambition” follows another of Lupita’s daughters: Milagros, who goes by the more American Millie. Like any good housewife of her midcentury era, she raises her children on the wisdom of Dr. Spock (although she is annoyed by the gap between “theory and real life”), and she runs her domestic world according to the gospel of Ladies’ Home Journal, “a dignified title that signaled culture and quality and taste.”
Millie desires the avocado-green kitchen in her magazine, but knows it does not suit the house she has now. She wants a flower garden, while her backyard “had the look of a farm, with its crop of eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, beets, and chili peppers planted in long rows.” But when she talks to her husband Gil about moving — and by moving, she means moving “up” — he tells her, “I don’t want to live in the white neighborhoods.”
Like Lupita, Gil has chosen to accept his lot in life. But Millie is in tune with Rosa, who wants more, more, more from this country she lives in. The divide this creates is just as strong as the one between two people who do not speak the same language, and each attitude poses its own risks. For those who desire, the dangers are even greater if you are a woman of a certain color, a reality that is best illustrated in “Bonita,” the story about Millie’s daughter of the same name.
Fueled by her own dreams of a perfect Ladies’ Home Journal life, Millie gives Bonita everything: crinoline dresses, orthodontia, a walk-in closet, charm school, and the master bedroom so that she and her sister can have their own bathroom. Bonita is a pretty girl who follows in her mother’s footsteps, although her bible is Seventeen. She wears Bonne Bell like all girls her age and has been trained by her mother to please, yet none of her classmates wants to come to her slumber parties. By the time she graduates high school, she has already done a two-week stint at Children’s Hospital, a precursor to the sanatoriums she will spend time in as an adult.
Following the path her mother set out for her, Bonita is certain she will find happiness in marriage. But daily routine gradually slips from her grasp, and when her husband comes home from work one night and finds her watering the plastic ficus, she sees the fear on his face, “which made [her] tremble with her own fear and a glimmer of some awful force inside her.” Losing her grip in her life, she commits an act of violence and finds herself strapped to a gurney, her mother beside her, whispering, “How could you do this? Haven’t I given you everything?”
The pressure for a girl to be perfect and the damage this can cause is nothing new, but there is a passage in this story that moves the trope to a more intricate place. It takes place after Bonita declares that she wants to be a stewardess when she grows up. Later that night, she overhears her mother tell her father, “Can you imagine? Airline stewardess. How many brown airline stewardesses have you seen?” The conversation is dismissed by Bonita so quickly that it’s almost possible to overlook. But as she fails and fails again to tame the hysteria in her head, it drifts over the story’s landscape like a cloud shadow: Millie aggressively expecting everything of Bonita in a world in which everything is not available to her.
One of the pleasures of reviewing a book is that it gives you an excuse to read it twice, no matter how busy you are or how many other books are sitting on your to-read pile. Some books don’t hold up on rereading. But with Hola and Goodbye, I lingered the second time around, enjoying the fine mesh of the connections now that I knew all of the characters and their relationships to one another. A few stories, such as “Lovely Evelina,” I read three times.
The daughter of one of Lupita’s daughter’s best friends, Evelina grew up as Chuck. At age 43, she is “well-traveled and remade,” having sold her father’s car lot after he died and used the money to transition to a woman. She works as a travel agent and leads tours to glamorous places around the world. She is confident in who she has become. And in this story she decides that, yes, she will attend her 25-year high school reunion. As the event approaches, she can’t stop remembering her old crush, Donny. While the climax of this story is Evelina’s encounter with Donny, its marrow is in a seemingly unremarkable moment that occurs earlier in the night.
In high school, Chuck had only one friend. They stayed in touch over the years, and Warren knows about Chuck becoming Evelina. But they have not seen each other since graduation, and Miscolta could have easily, and realistically, made a big deal of the first time they meet up again. She doesn’t. As former classmates begin to ask Warren whatever happened to “that sissy-face you shared a locker with,” Warren “turned to Evelina who saw twenty-five years’ worth of Hallmark cards in her friend’s uncomplicated face. ‘This is Evelina Munger,’ he said to the chess club. ‘The real Chuck.’” It is such a simple moment — like Lyla taking roses to her daughters’ wrestling match, or Lupita missing the poetry of her homeland while she eats breakfast one morning — but it speaks for the entire book, which honors who its characters truly are in the face of everything they are not.