IN 2001 in Tepito — a neighborhood in Mexico City notorious for its poverty, violence, and criminal activity — shop owner Enriqueta Romero created the first public sanctuary to La Santa Muerte. Today the shrine attracts thousands of celebrants and visitors. Portrayed as a female skeleton, holding a scythe and a globe, La Santa Muerte, also known as La Flaquita, or La Niña Blanca, may be a blend of indigenous gods and the gods of the Spanish conquerors. While her followers are labeled a cult and her worship is condemned by the Catholic Church, she is widely recognized as the patron saint of those on the fringe, those in trouble, those in desperate straits, which may explain her growing popularity across Mexico and the southwestern United States.
La Santa Muerte is the protective and propulsive force of Zero Saints, the latest novel from writer Gabino Iglesias, whose work has appeared in Entropy magazine, The Rumpus, Word Riot, Atticus Review, and Spinetingler Magazine. Author of Hungry Darkness, a deep-sea thriller, and Gutmouth, a bizarro noir, he displays a reckless versatility. This particular novel is unlike anything I’ve read before, although its closest cousin might be Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Most of Gaiman’s gods, however, are immigrants to this continent, while those in Zero Saints are indigenous. As I read this book, it was impossible to stop turning the pages; there is an explosion of language, action, and/or emotion on each page. At the same time, I had to stop and savor and reread, to better appreciate it all, including the dead pan humor: “Del polvo venimos, y al polvo vamos, but the bitch is not being able to become polvo painlessly when you need it most.” Or: “Sometimes the best thing that happens to other people is an unloaded gun.”
This barrio noir stars Fernando, a drug-dealing bar enforcer who fled his beloved Mexico City for Austin, Texas, after an attempt to defend his petulant sister went disturbingly wrong, five years prior to the events of Zero Saints. In the novel’s opening pages, Fernando is knocked out and dragged to a home in East Austin, where heavily tattooed Mara Salvatrucha gang members force him to witness Indio, their boss, torture Nestor, Fernando’s colleague in crime. We shudder with Fernando as he watches Nestor, moaning, tied to a chair, gone, gone, gone, while Indio severs a finger from his captive, and feeds it to something lurking in a plastic bucket. “Santa Muerte,” Fernando prays, “protégeme.”
Crackling and tense, the opening announces the relentless pace that makes this novel impossible to put down. We recoil as Fernando watches Indio slay Nestor; we listen with Fernando as Indio dictates a message to his crime boss, Guillermo, announcing Salvatrucha’s immediate occupation and commandeering of Guillermo’s criminal territory.
In his gritty, stateside life, Fernando can be calmed by just one person, his boss’s companion Consuelo, and he needs to see her before he can give his message to Guillermo. In her mystical world, a cleansing can soothe, votives and detailed prayers to La Niña Blanca can protect, the compassionate eyes of a nearly human hound can reassure. True to her name, Fernando’s Consuelo embodies consolation and comfort. For him,
Consuelo quickly became my confidant, my guia spiritual, something like a madrecita and an abuela rolled into one. She was the first person I loved after leaving home, after feeling sad and lonely and like I would be sour and unhappy forever […] Consuelo era luz, era paz.
Note the fluid integration of Spanish and English. Iglesias is resolutely committed to the entertainingly idiosyncratic voice of his narrator. Seamlessly moving between languages gives the novel not only a stylistic twist but also a depth and reality of characterization for Fernando. He neatly embeds Spanish phrases, witty word play (“los estados desunidos”), as well as long passages in Spanish of Consuelo’s novenas, prayers, to La Santa Muerte.
Iglesias’s rejection of “English only,” his refusal to mitigate or translate his characters’ languages (Spanish is frequent, but only one of the four languages he uses), is intentional and certainly political. From our historical attempted eradication of native tongues to the ongoing controversy over bilingual education, language is always political. Language is also entwined with and embedded within our identity. Iglesias uses languages not only as identity markers for his characters but also as a deepening and a revealing of who they all are. Iglesias reminds us of the many many United States residents who blend their home language and their adopted tongue into a dynamic way of expressing themselves.
How might this linguistic twist impact the English-only reader? Perhaps that reader has the briefest sensation of feeling, momentarily, the disorientation of a native speaker in a suddenly nonnative land; or perhaps the reader is fascinated by how Iglesias weaves languages together, creating something new. Or not. In a write-up for Entropy, the author discusses his reaction to Amazon reviewers who, offended by the untranslated Spanish, told English-only readers to stay away. Many of us recall reading or skimming over untranslated phrases in Latin, Greek, and French, thrown into literature as markers of high culture. The pushback and resistance against Spanish is not only the dominant culture’s way of labeling Spanish as a low-rent language, but can also be seen as signs of nativism and nationalism against a people who have roots in southwestern states long before statehood. In any case, adventurous monolingual readers fear not! Most of the passages can be easily understood through context and cognates. And for those phrases that slip by, well, there is always Google Translate.
Survival overrides languages; when Fernando’s hope for a swift solution fails, Indio’s next act of violence hits him close and deep. In the horror that threatens to derail his life, Fernando prays Consuelo’s novenas to La Niña Blanca. He contemplates the darkness of her eye sockets in her skull:
For those of us who were on her good side, that darkness was welcoming, like a place to hide in a violent storm. For those of us who were on her bad side, that darkness was a promise of death that brought destruction of the soul as well as of the flesh.
He prays for both sanctuary and vengeance.
Along the route of Fernando’s planned revenge, we encounter a slang-addicted gun trafficker; a gunslinger named El Pistolero; the mystic El Visionero; and Yoli, the pretty neighbor whom Fernando pines for, when his brain isn’t addled from drugs, violence, or fear. Most importantly for Fernando’s plans, we meet The Russian: “[A]n average looking middle-aged man with a thick accent who told folks he worked with plants for a living. In reality, he was a shadow made of razors, a fantasma who no one saw coming until it was too late.”
On its entertaining surface, this novel is about drugs, crime, and violence. Deeper in, we realize its foundation is constructed on border realities and immigrant politics, which are vividly wrought by Iglesias. “What happens when you cross la frontera is that la frontera keeps a piece of you, cuts you inside, hasta el hueso, where you can’t heal yourself.” There’s an emotional cost to fleeing Mexico for the States, and the pain continues well after that crossing:
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you don’t know what’s going to happen to you and you hustle harder than you ever hustled before and you pray to la Santa Muerte and ask for protección and do bad things that you convince yourself are not that bad because la frontera crossed your abuelos first and no one is really pinche ilegal because people can’t be ilegal and we’re all atrapados en este puto mundo […] you focus on making money, staying alive, and being invisible. And the easiest way to be invisible is to be in front of a lot of eyes that don’t give a shit.
Fernando gives us an impeccable distillation and explanation of survival.
As these excerpts suggest, Iglesias is a master of compact phrasing and perfectly paced suspense. He takes the ingredients of horror and noir, embeds contemporary realities with a dash of magical realism and shakes them up into something that is innovative, thrilling, and addictive. A slender book that packs an exponential amount of entertainment, terror, and suspense, it builds, swerves, and detonates into a perfect ending. Which, for me, happened far too soon.