The question is posed innocently enough:
“¿Como cruzaste, Mami?”
“How did you cross the border, mommy?”
Yet 60-year-old Amada evades it, heating gorditas and swiveling her hips to a love tune. Why can’t her daughter, Lucero, probe her for chisme? She’d be happy to divulge the latest ‘scandalo of her four sisters, or of the neighbors across the street. But no. Lucero only wants to hear that story, the one Amada is afraid to tell.
So she lays down her spatula and lights a cigarette. The story that slowly unfolds is the basis of San Antonio writer Bárbara Renaud González’s debut novel, Golondrina, why did you leave me?
First, a definition is in order: Golondrina is Spanish for swallow, the tiny songbird with the mighty wings. According to Latin lore, God gave golondrinas the gift of migration because they—of all the birds—told the best stories when they returned to their nests after a worldly adventure. Amada tells her daughter, “The best story sometimes takes a lifetime to tell, that’s why you have to tell it over and over until you get it right.”
No one knows that better than González, who spent a decade writing this book. You wouldn’t guess the effort involved from her lyrical prose, which is as breathless as it is dreamy. But you can glimpse the labor in the book’s scope, which chronicles a family of Mexicanos-turned-Tejanos from the 1700s to the present, with all the suffering and celebration along the way.
The story opens during the early part of the 20th century in post-revolution San Luis Potosí, Mexico. A young Amada tries to support her family by selling sweetbread in the plaza. At 15, she finds a faster road out of poverty: marrying wealth. On her wedding night, Amada’s mother informs her that a woman’s duty is to aguantar, to silently accept her plight. But Amada soon decides that no woman should aguantar like this. Night after night, her much-older husband Sapo, or Toad, violently rapes her, “thumping her body like masa for tortillas” and filling her with “toad juice.”
Three years later, she has had enough. Enlisting the help of Sapo’s handsome cousin Jorge, she makes a break for El Norte, leaving her baby girl behind. Much lovemaking ensues as the couple travels to the border at Matamoros. You can feel Amada’s disappointment when she gazes upon the promised land—aka Brownsville—for the first time. “The air here isn’t blue like San Luis … but taffy-sticky, smelling of burned peanuts, day-old pork … and the sweet-sour farts from the cars honking in line to cross the bridge.”
“What did you want, my beautiful refugee, the Statue of Liberty?” teases Jorge, a married man who must stay behind. “For a mexicana, you think those gringos are going to have a statue waiting for you?”
With a toss of her waist-length mane, Amada teeters across the bridge, bats her eyelashes at the Customs official, and promptly meets a Tejano called Lázaro, “a man who looks like someone’s found and sculpted a cast-off log of mesquite, breathing some life into it.” She marries him three weeks later—a mistake they’ll both regret for the rest of their days.
From the beginning, Golondrina is about the brutality of love. For years and years, you pine for “a shirt’s sweet unbuttoning after a long night of tequila.” Then it comes and—before you know it—is gone again, leaving you with a smashed heart, a swelling belly, or both. So you wait and wait some more, until one day you realize it’s too late. Your face is crinkling; your nalgas are prickling; your breasts, which used to be a “perfect 32A,” now resemble “a discounted mango.” Only then does it crystallize that “your dream came true after all, you had your one romance, only nobody told you it’s not supposed to be forever.”
¡Aye! Pour me some mescal. The heart ain’t the only thing aching in this novel. According to her author’s note, Golondrina is a fictionalized version of González’s own family history. “The events are completely real to Texas … a story so cruel and sublime that if I wrote the truth you wouldn’t believe it,” she states.
Many of those truths involve the sacred vacas of Texas, including Richard King, founder of the King Ranch, the cattle concern that in its heyday was the largest the world had ever known. King generally gets the royal treatment in Texas letters, invariably depicted as a swashbuckling cowboy who presided over his empire as a benevolent patrón.
Not here. “The old man King’s first name was crooked,” contends Lázaro, whose family toils upon King’s rancho for generations, with nothing to show for it. “People considered him ‘bien nombrado, the King of Stealing.’”
What King stole was land—land that once was Mexican. The loss of that land is mourned by Lázaro, who hauls his ever-expanding family across the Lone Star State searching for ranch work. “Even the colored got their forty acres, but we didn’t get that. And we’re not slaves?” he demands.
The Catholic Church also falls prey to González’s pen. Lázaro delights in calling the Pope a “pinche potato-head.” (Papa, the Spanish term for Pope, also means potato.) Amada, meanwhile, insists that all the priests are out screwing the nuns. “What about the fetuses buried in the church’s camposanto?” she demands. There is nothing “immaculate” about that.
Through these beautifully crafted characters—Amada, Lázaro, and narrator Lucero—González wisely explicates the various neuroses of Mexican culture, starting with machismo. “The women are enslaved, only they don’t call it that, and the men are slaves too, that’s why they have to be masters of the women … [they] take vengeance for their mothers by repeating the past, because that’s all they know,” Amada muses at one point.
González is also exceedingly perceptive about the existential identity crises unique to each generation of Mexicans—those who crossed the border, and those whom the border crossed. Back in Mexico, Amada was despised because she was born with that “telltale blotch of purple on the sole of her left foot, the Indian stain, proof she was from … those people almost everyone came from but wanted to forget, and couldn’t because their mothers were Indians too.”
After rearing half a dozen children in the United States, however, Amada realizes, “They’re better than me, they speak inglés, they don’t understand me, and … they are forgetting me, as if in order to succeed they have to forget me.”
Her husband, Lázaro, meanwhile, worries that “everybody knows he doesn’t have anything and he has to admit that maybe the gringos are right, it’s true, they are better than the mexicanos, they have the land, don’t they?”
Their daughter, Lucero, navigates an entirely different minefield. She pees in her flour-sack dress on the first day of school because she doesn’t know enough English to ask for a bathroom. But a few years later, she discovers, “I lost some words, and I don’t know where they went. The words are from Mami…. and I’m afraid that I’ll never see them again, and then what?”
This question—and then what?—haunts every modern-day Mexican-American, the audience likely to best appreciate this work. But Golondrina will also seduce any reader craving a well-spun story. The book’s most memorable scenes capture the long nights of marathon storytelling by Lucero’s four aunts. Their parties always begin at medianoche, “when the husbands are snoring.” Each aunt specializes in a different kind of dance move, from Tía Toñia’s “man-eating rumbas” to Tía Paquita’s “rico mambo,” which makes the dogs howl. Together, they teach Lucero how to shake her chichis to catch the ojos of every hombre. (Too bad Lázaro has already informed her that she can date whomever she wants—as long as he isn’t white. That means no Billy Ray, whose “hot as the blue sky at noon” eyes make her quiver.)
Warning: Golondrina‘s storyline can make you feel borracho at times, swooping as it does through the past, the deep past, and the ancestral past from one page to the next, with no road map to connect the eras.
And certain events are a little hard to swallow. Would Amada really have left her beloved baby girl behind to be raised by her violent husband, and then copulate every step of the way to Texas? If she was so quick to ditch her first husband, why did it take 20 years and heaps of kids before she dumps the second? And however much fun it is to imagine, is it really plausible that the obscenely rich and powerful Richard King ever needed to beg for brides to marry his boys? In Lázaro’s account, King pounds on the door of his great-great-grandmother’s cabin not once but thrice. She not only says no, but hell no, absconding instead with a black man fresh off the boat from Louisiana who spotted her washing clothes on the bank of the Rio Grande.
But what’s hardest to digest is the fact that Golondrina, Why Did You Leave Me? is the first Tejana or even Chicana novel ever published by the University of Texas Press, which has cranked out 2,000-plus titles since 1950. Really? In a state where one in every three of us originally hails from Mexico? Por favor.
Still, UT Press couldn’t have launched a more enticing novelista than González. And better now, I suppose, than nunca.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of, most recently, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines.