DECEMBER 10, 2014
IN DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO’S The Amado Women, the family matriarch Mercy talks to her grieving daughter about losing children:
People don’t talk about this, but you lose your little girls every day. Every single day she goes away. And the one little girl you thought you knew and loved is replaced by another one. A little older, a little smarter, a little more independent. Finally the one you had fallen completely in love with is all gone.
Mercy is describing losing her own young girls to adulthood, education, relationships, and careers, but this advice also underpins one of the themes of the novel: the costs of transformation. As things fall apart for them, each of the four Amado women grapple with Mercy’s wisdom.
Zamorano’s debut novel, The Amado Women, is a family story spanning four generations centered around Mercy, a daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants. Mercy’s existence is summed up in her maiden name — Mercedes Fuerte — “strong mercies” in Spanish. She and her daughters share a deep drive to push past the economic and gendered limitations that challenge them, and both the novel and its characters are accordingly obsessed with class status.
We follow Mercy and her three daughters, Celeste, Sylvia, and Nataly, through their lives as serious crises occur. The novel begins when a large sum of money goes missing and Jack, Sylvia’s abusive husband, beats her and her daughter Becky in the family kitchen. From there, the fate of Sylvia and her two daughters’ hangs in the balance.
Each chapter is split between the four women’s perspectives, switching between past and present, rural and urban California settings, but not consistently, so a single point of view occasionally takes up an entire chapter. The intertwined voices create a momentum driven by mysteries and cliffhangers that kept me reading.
We see Mercy’s transformation as she goes from being a stay-at-home mother to babysitter to a community college graduate in Compton, eventually becoming a 60-year-old glamorous divorcée with violet-colored contact lenses. Celeste goes from being an Ivy League–bound high-achiever to the victim of a failed marriage, which she compensates for by becoming a successful financial planner, albeit one with secret troubles. Sylvia is a Comp Lit major and Russian poetry lover who marries a man with too many secrets — echoes of her father — and just as much money, whereas Nataly, the youngest, is a CalArts grad who makes textile art but pours considerable energy into a clandestine love affair that also makes her feel like her two-timing father, Edgar Amado.
The Amado women work hard for their careers and value the goods that come with that success: expensive clothes and jewelry, real estate, art patrons, and rich husbands. The narrator name-drops as many brands as possible to convey the women’s investment in material wealth. But while money doesn’t solve all of their problems, their lack of money in the past accounts for their drive.
This insight is offered when Mercy finds her mother’s quilt in Sylvia’s closet and flashes back to childhood. The memory’s setting is spare but striking: a windy home in rural Lompoc, flour tortillas warming on a griddle, and eight-year-old Mercy alone with baby brother Joel, who is developmentally disabled. We begin to understand the root of the Amado women’s middle-class aspirations in a scene where Mercy and her older sister Lydia watch dancing couples at a church. While Mercy admires the women who “[are] so beautiful, the soldiers so thrilling,” 10-year-old Lydia disagrees:
They’re just a bunch of nobodies from nowhere, like us. […] When I get out of here I’m going to dance with somebodies. […] When I grow up, I’m gonna buy everything from the store. Brand new. Everything.
It’s easy to see why Mercy and her daughters aspire greatly to comfort and discard parts of their working-class roots — to them, it is something to be ashamed of. It is a heartbreaking move that explains the characters’ constant focus on material wealth and unending concern with how they are perceived.
According to various interviews Zamorano has given for her book, she wrote this novel with one main drive: to dispel stereotypes about Latinas in the United States. In Publishers Weekly she said that her characters are not the cholos and housekeepers mainstream media outlets portray when they cast Latinos. Instead she set out to write about women who “are professionals: a teacher, a financial adviser, and an artist.” She points to this as the curse of the “invisible Latina” in entertainment and media coverage of Latinos in the United States.
I want to dig into Zamorano’s claim and explore several questions it brings up. First, Latinos are the majority in many US cities, and in everyday life we see each other in all of our incarnations: artists, intellectuals, professors, urban planners, shop owners, designers, and so on. Car manufacturers, banks, and other multinational corporations have figured out that middle-class Latinos exist and have money to spend. So the gaze under which Latinos are “invisible” to Zamorano is Hollywood and mainstream media. It is true that mainstream films and television shows are largely created by and represent Anglo, heteronormative, and upper-class people.
While the publishing world also suffers from the same blindness as Hollywood, it happens to a different degree; Latino writers have definitely left a great impression in that medium. If we recalibrate our filters to the point of view of Los Angeles Latinos writing in the US, middle-class stories from our community have been told by writers like Helena Maria Viramontes, Héctor Tobar, Felicia Luna Lemus, Daniel Olivas, and Michael Jaime-Becerra — to much acclaim and award, and that’s just in the last 20 years. Of course, literature written by Latinos greatly needs to be more widely published, but are middle-class Latinos really that invisible in literature?
The Amado Women accomplishes what it set out to do; it creates Latina characters in a middle-class context who created their own paths to education and wealth, but at times it felt as though Zamorano was participating in forms of erasure herself.
I also hoped to read strong Latino characters in the novel. The sole male character with any lengthy page time is Edgar Amado, Mercy’s ex-husband and father to her three daughters, and he’s a sorry, alcoholic philanderer who spends all of his family’s money, then, to boot, shows up married to a blonde half his age at a funeral. Of course, in real life, this happens with many men (don’t get me started), but it is a curious character selection considering the author is working to debunk stereotypes about Latinos.
Another character of note is Southern California itself, specifically Los Angeles and Orange County. The book gives us a handful of views of downtown, of the 5 freeway, but prefers sparkling glimpses of ocean from the Ritz, and shoddily built but pricey Pasadena homes. Working-class California, on the other hand, gets short shrift.
Zamorano was born in Lynwood and I was raised in Bell Gardens, two areas of LA you do not read about unless we’re the ones writing about them. But throughout the novel, Zamorano only depicts Compton as a lower socioeconomic neighborhood since most of what is mentioned paints a hardscrabble life for the Amado family.
Nataly, the artist of the family, drives on the 5 toward Santa Ana, where her mother lives, and calls the freeway “[…] the ugliest highway in southern California. Past the dying factories, the industrial areas zoned for smog, noise and waste.” Whereas in Lompoc, Lydia only saw nobodies dancing at the church, and mainstream film and television depict working-class Latinos mostly through negative stereotypes, Nataly is erasing working-class Latinos from her landscape, focusing instead on the smog and waste. In fact, Nataly is driving past thousands of people who are too busy working to name-drop Tiffany’s and Burberry, too busy building the condos the Amado women live in to be concerned with how someone like Nataly sees them.
This is spot-on writing from Zamorano, illustrating how class aspirations can erase our humanity or ability to connect with others, and demonstrating some of the pitfalls of middle-class existence. But there is no awareness in Nataly that she has internalized the “worthlessness” of working-class Latinos; she simply drives on. How can we push concepts of representation further, adding value without subtracting value from someone else?
Ultimately, the characters in the novel are constantly negotiating with loss, that of jobs, loved ones, or the possibilities for love at any age. Like so many other characters in literature, they’re just trying to get home; a home where Sylvia and her girls are safe from physical abuse, a home where Nataly and Celeste get along and solve their painful rift. It takes a tragedy near the book’s end to bring the women face to face with what’s really important — each other.
Mercy is right when she tells Celeste that losing daughters happens every day: “You see, […] they go away, they disappear, but you wait long enough and they come back.” The Amado Women is an important work because its women, like many others, pay a price for leaving home and seeking their versions of success — leaving Lompoc or community colleges in Compton to arrive at tea service at the Ritz. But daughters do return, and at its conclusion the novel seems to suggest that we will eventually find that we value and embrace every part of ourselves more than before we first left.