APRIL 3, 2020
JULIANA DELGADO LOPERA’S bilingual novel, Fiebre Tropical, published by Feminist Press, opens in a deteriorating apartment complex in a hellishly hot and swampy suburb of Miami. The story is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Francisca, who is feeling desperately lonely and foreign in her new land, and dreams of escaping back to Bogotá or New York, far away from her mother Myriam’s evangelizing gaze. Francisca is the locutora of the radio novella of her life, and her antidote to the daily drudgery is sucker-punch irreverent humor and a bilingual prose that reads like lyrical conversation. This is perhaps a form of perreo auricular, “the craft of Spanglish and spoken word as a vehicle for writing,” of employing diction that bounces, rubs, bumps, and grinds against the groin of the readers’ brains:
On the TV, another commercial for Inglés Sin Barreras and Lucía, La Tata, and I chuckled at the white people teaching brown people how to say, Hello My Name Is. Hello, I am going to the store. Hello, what is this swamp please come rescue us. It was April and hot. […] The heat, I would come to learn the hard way, is a constant in Miami. El calorcito didn’t get the impermanence memo, didn’t understand how change works. The heat is a stubborn bitch breathing its humid mouth on your every pore, reminding you this hell is inescapable, and in another language.
Who hasn’t lived in that ant-infested town home with a broken air conditioner? Who hasn’t spent an entire summer watching Sábado Gigante with Inglés Sin Barreras commercials in between? The landscape rings like the end of days, but it is just the beginning of Francisca’s migration story. Get comfi, get used to it pela’a, “this is your home now.”
In Fiebre Tropical, Delgado Lopera renders a complex, nuanced portrayal of the migration story of a family of three generations of Colombian women. Without looking away at the real and at times oppressive hierarchies that exist between immigrants and in Latinx families and communities, Delgado Lopera gives us an intimate look at the main character’s struggle to come to terms with her gender identity amid the displacement of immigration, and the rigidly drawn gender roles of a born-again Christian household.
Delgado Lopera writes reality to filth, unflinchingly and unapologetically pointing out the apocalyptic proportions of its moral shortcomings and the scope of its flaws. The narrative’s wit and humor gives readers life from beginning to end. At times you may find yourself speeding through pages, and then quickly going back to reread excerpts for the mere pleasure of hearing the narrator’s voice. It is Delgado Lopera’s voice, leading a carnival of lush bilingual narrative, entering the reader’s imagination atop a flower-adorned bulldozer followed by a cast of characters de carne y hueso.
Our narrator is a grungy and horny teen in the quest for cigarettes and black eyeliner caught up in baptism preparations for her dead older brother. Sebastián, the son Myriam miscarried 17 years prior, is the familia Juan’s only male member. Francisca is skeptical and openly critical about the goings-on of her mother’s new community, an evangelical congregation that spews chisme right after the salsa service at the Ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel: “[W]e didn’t walk on solid ground. This swamp overheated everyone’s common sense and now our life goals included durational aleluya singing, fainting, and baptism planning.” She feels a deep shame while hearing her mother give testimony of her past life as a sinner, fainting into the usher’s arms after being filled with the Holy Ghost.
Our narrator’s strong views begin to change when Carmen, the pastor’s daughter, makes Francisca her personal salvation project, dragging her to church events and outreach efforts. The two quickly become inseparable, their connection strengthens during their moments alone: on their drives to the Walmart where they hand out flyers, and poking fun at congregation members during their whispered night-time prayers. As Jesús inches his way into Francisca’s heart and she begins to feel some purpose and content, so do romantic visions of a future with Carmen. The closest she is to Papi Dios, the closer she gets to being tempted by the ultimate sin.
Queerness is seeped deep into the fibers of the narrative, and inseparable from its craft, themes, and central questions. We feel it coming long before there is any mention of Francisca’s sexuality. When Myriam brings home Sebastian’s baptismal body surrogate, “a naked baby doll with blue eyes and a swirl of plastic black hair,” Francisca observes her mother closely,
She placed the doll on her lap and with great care, dressed the piece of plastic with the tiny pants, the tiny shirt, and the tiny black tie. The gender of the doll was questionable—equal amounts of blue and pink — and my insides chuckled thinking Mami was dressing a girl doll in boy drag. So much for that beloved son!
Francisca senses the queerness of the scene, how her mother inadvertently participates in a non-gender-normative performance, and this gives her pleasure. Queerness feeds her voice, guides her observations and her curiosity. Queerness, as in the state or condition of being strange, is also in the bilingualism of the novel, in its metaphors, word choice, and vision. As the novel progresses, we witness characters that seemed to fall in line begin to struggle with coming to terms with the rigidity of their imposed gender identities, gender expression, and sexual orientations. Do people fall as neatly into the idea of the mainstream heterosexual gender binary as she is led to believe? All around her the resounding answer is a big No.
That queer lens leads Francisca to conclude that the definition of purgatory is a phony life, like the one she is forced to live in Miami. The people around her are all struggling with that something they have to hide, that something shameful, that something worthy of excommunication that lives inside them. She watches as Myriam pops Zoloft pills to make it through church, as she distracts herself by making lists of stuff she needs for the baptism of her miscarried child. She watches her Tata’s rum habit and bares the weight of their imposed views on femininity like a braless Virgen martyr, la Patrona de la Soledad, “witness what you have done,” she says, “and let me suffer silently, with my discount glam.” We soon come to know Francisca as more caring and responsible that she lets out to be. She is the behind-the-scenes manager of her grandmother’s alcoholism and mother’s obsessions and manic depression, secretly refilling la Tata’s rum bottle, giving her water and hangover pills before bed, watching her mother’s sleeping schedule, and keeping her mouth closed for the sake of peace.
A question that may come up around the subject of Delgado Lopera’s bilingual novel is how much English and how much Spanish there is in the book. I think each reader should decide for themselves if the voice speaks to them, why it does or it doesn’t, and whether or not they want to explore those questions. My recommendation is, of course, that a deep dive into the narrative project set forth by Delgado Lopera’s voice is well worth it and necessary. Some readers may say, okay, but tell me how much Spanish I need to know — it’s a matter of practicality. If you speak English and a little Spanish, you should be able to follow the story while Googling or accompanying your reading with a dictionary of Colombian slang. If you are going to ask a Spanish-speaking friend, tread lightly and ask politely. If you end up needing them a lot, pay them for their work however you see fit.
There are some slang and references I can’t imagine anyone knowing unless they were immersed in a culture of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States. You will read about talk show hosts, English-learning programs, and popular characters like Sábado Gigante’s El Chacal. I had so much fun running into these moments. I knew who la Doctora Polo and El Chacal were, but I looked them up anyway — I wanted to see what others would experience. This is, in my opinion, an added layer of pleasure. How many times had I looked up an obscure reference to 18th-century England or even Greenwich Village in New York? It was other readers’ turn to be preoccupied by doubt about interpretations to references, and, most importantly, it was my turn to sit back and enjoy.
You could call me a bilingualism aficionada. The mere thought of a novel written in Spanglish made me wet my calzones. Why? Because I think of bilingual prose is a commitment to precision. What do bilingual books do? They question the concept of assimilation. They make a commitment to opening a space of delight for an audience that feels underrepresented in the United States’s publishing industry. They represent and acknowledge the unique intellect of displaced peoples who can read in two languages. They experiment. They play. They take the narrative that immigrants are voiceless, faceless masses without agency, cultural power, or creativity, and turn it on its head.
The bilingual prose in Fiebre Tropical is a testament of the writer’s commitment to themselves — they radically and unapologetically refuse to interrupt the flow of their narrative to explain, translate, acculturate. We’ve had, of course, ground-breaking authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who employs Igbo sans translation in her novel Americanah. Gloria Anzaldúa has also famously said:
Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.
And, in the Latin American tradition of writers, one of my favorites, José María Arguedas, wove in the Quechua language throughout his extensive body of work, from poetry to novels and academic essays. In Fiebre Tropical, Delgado Lopera continues the groundbreaking work of bilingual writers that came before them, but adds their own swag and lived experiences to produce work that is fresh and different.
If you have been keeping up with the controversy that surfaced over the stereotypical portrayal of immigration in a certain border-crossing thriller, then you may also know that writers have been advocating for greater inclusion of Latinx in the publishing industry. As a result, some U. S. of A. readers are taking to the task of playing catch up with a community of writers that has been doing its thing for ages. At the end of 2019, US readers went to bed wondering if Latinx immigrants even write, and the publishing industry slept soundly believing that they truly had nothing of value to offer. Well, they all woke up in 2020 with a resounding yes, and, by the way, we have our own voice — and then some.
People often tell me: hey, you speak Spanish. You read. You heard about American Dirt. Do you have any books to recommend? And I always mention, among others, the work of Juliana Delgado Lopera. So, do yourself a favor and read Delgado Lopera’s novel. Offer it to others. It will delight and excite you. It will teach you to find your voice and listen to others.