by Melinda Palacio
Tempe: Bilingual Press. 188 Pages. $26.
“History Repeats” heads section thirty in Melinda Palacio’s debut novel, Ocotillo Dreams, in which the main character, Isola, comes to understand and mirror the mysterious life of her estranged mother, Marina. Palacio has also authored a chapbook of poetry, Folsom Lockdown, which won the Kupuli Press Sense of Place award in 2009. And that is what Ocotillo Dreams accomplishes; it portrays a world difficult to understand, nearly foreign, though it takes place right here in the United States.
Palacio’s novel opens in Chandler, Arizona, 1997. Isola has put her dubious, lackluster life in San Francisco on hold in order to pack up and organize her mother’s effects and affairs after she has died of cancer. It’s apparent from the outset that Isola and her mother were at odds; judgmental of one another’s life choices; dismissive of what each desired. Walking into her mother’s house Isola discovers Cruz Zárate, an undocumented immigrant who will play lover and predator to Isola, and whose similarly lecherous relationship with Isola’s mother will lead Cruz toward an uncertain fate that leaves Isola with a somewhat vague sense of remorse and guilt—we never know what exactly happens to Cruz, which may in fact be one of the novel’s minute flaws. If what or what doesn’t happen to Cruz is indeed the fault of Isola then it is unclear if Palacio simply missed yarning out Isola’s emotional response or bit off more than she could chew as the novel fizzles and pops out.
Throughout Ocotillo Dreams we encounter other undocumented immigrants searching for consistent and fair paying work (though the $5.50 an hour one character earns may seem egregious to a documented, non-immigrant worker). Whether it be as day laborer, house cleaner, line cook, or furniture shop worker each of these individuals share the same desire for acceptance and empathy in a state bent on ridding itself of them.
It is haunting to read this book, especially for this reviewer who grew up and lived a substantial part of his life in Arizona, some six years in Mesa (a city north of Chandler in the urban sprawl that is the Phoenix metropolis). Working as an apprentice electrician I was witness to the attitude that many contractors as well as other, mostly Anglo, residents had toward immigrants, undocumented or legal. What they saw was Mexican, what they heard was Mexican, or Spanish, despite the fact that many of the laborers were from other countries in both Central and South America. What these ignorant, racist contractors and residents wanted was for the “Mexicans” to be gone, if they couldn’t learn American and be here legally, the “right way,” then they should be deported, but only after they had worked and were either paid poorly or not at all. Palacio navigates and addresses this attitude not with simple identity or by polarizing the issue, but with the grace of a poet and master character builder; with the immigrant debate frothing up all around, people as people, must negotiate the private, seemingly small trails of their life. What begins as a love affair and betrayal turns ever more volatile as lives are threatened and everyone must make selfish choices in order to survive.
At the novel’s core are the immigration sweeps begun in 1997; the round-up of any one brown-skinned, Spanish speaking. And this is where Palacio’s novel exhibits its strength as it examines the lives of immigrant and non-immigrant Mexican-American or American-Mexicans; everyone is affected. The haunting aspect is how this seemingly past event has only gained the momentum to repeat itself.
What happened in 1997 still occurs in Arizona now, and it’s only gotten worse, more defined, and eerily specific. There are still raids, ever more dramatic and spectacular with Sheriff Joe Arpiao narcissistically dreaming up operations targeting businesses that employ a large percentage of Mexican workers or, even, an entire municipality. Arpaio’s April 3rd raid in 2008 of Guadalupe (a municipality that many people of Mexican and Yaqui decent make as their home) should have been cause for his termination as Maricopa County’s sheriff but it seemed only to bolster his supporters and remained relatively underreported. Though the Phoenix New Times has and continues to conduct investigative reports into the misdeeds and mishandling carried out by the sheriff’s department, the sheriff’s abusive power remains.
Palacio’s novel speaks directly to this issue without becoming polemic or glossed over in focusing on the lives of her characters; it presents a human experience, garners empathy because we all feel loss, love, familial frustration; we all fear betrayal, the fragility of our emotions, the lack of certainty that we can get by. And for the characters in Ocotillo Dreams, it is the fear that they are feared, that simply by their presence and want of better lives, of life, they are suddenly less than human and only a thing to be rounded up, mocked and belittled for their cultural differences, deported, or released back into the desert which they crossed defying death.
Palacio’s heroine, Isola, changes or, rather, comes into herself. Not simply because she feels the tug of cultural obligation, which she does, but that’s not reason or cause for Isola’s change. Palacio is too good of a storyteller for that. Isola recognizes her mother’s strength and empathy for other human beings in search of betterment and success, and she offers it up wholly, with everything she has, and sometimes doesn’t have. Ocotillo Dreams, is a reminder that in some small way, whatever it is that we believe, or whatever side we take, in some small way we are all responsible for people other than ourselves.