A Latina Writer With Something to Say About Immigration

Melinda Palacio speaks about her debut novel "Ocotillo Dreams" at the Autry, September 17

By Teresa Borden
Published on LatinoLA: September 13, 2011

A Latina Writer With Something to Say About Immigration

Recently I asked the writer Melinda Palacio whether Latino writers still have something to say in 2011.

The question is somewhat rhetorical, but she knew what I was referring to: Through the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like every new literary star was a Latino, and readers clamored for any novel with a slightly exotic accent that evoked peppery cuisines or Catholic rituals. Now, except for longtime international bestsellers like Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garc?°a M?Ūrquez and 2010 Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa, Latinos appear to have faded from the scene.

So was the jolt of interest in Latino writers a fad?

"Latino literature keeps evolving and changing," Palacio said. "Before, when Latinos were first starting to publish their work, it seemed like there were certain motifs that you had to throw in, like everybody had their poem or story about their abuelita making tortillas, and everyone had the story about the first time their mother caught them doing whatever."

Palacio will talk and read from her debut novel "Ocotillo Dreams," about a grieving daughter pulled after her mother's death into the life of a Latino community under siege in Arizona, at the Autry's Book Talk on September 17. She believes things have changed for Latino authors.

"Now, the challenge and the exciting part of (this) literature is that we can write a story that's not set in the barrio, that's not set in grandma's kitchen making tortillas," Palacio continued. "Our culture is always evolving and changing, so the story is always going to be important and we're going to have stories to tell. And it's exciting to see how those stories are changing and how we're presenting them and how more and more our audience is not just Latinos. Our audience keeps growing and growing."

Palacio pays tribute to ground-breaking Latino authors like Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chavez, who she says opened door into the mainstream for Latino storytellers like herself.

"Latinos didn't have a founding literature before people started writing their poems about tortillas and about quincea??eras," she said. "It was an initial brave act to say, 'Hey, we have stories too. We have a tradition.' And now it's equally exciting to see how those stories are changing."

Palacio's own works are based on her real-life -- though not entirely autobiographical -- experiences. "Ocotillo Dreams," for example, features a twenty-something heroine whose mother dies early.

"My own mother died in 1994, so that's the one connection with the book," Palacio said. "A lot of people think that the book is very autobiographical, but other than the fact that the main character, Isola -- her mother dies at a young age and my mother died at a young age -- that's where it stops."

For example, in the book, Isola's mother moves to Chandler, Arizona, during a time of anti-immigrant unrest, but it was Palacio herself who lived there in the late 1990s, when the federal immigration authorities (then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service) conducted several raids that tore the community apart and made a deep impression on Palacio.

"It was a great material and fodder for imagination," she said. "The INS and local police were working together to round up anybody that had darker skin."

Palacio set out to write the book in 2005. Real life events on television newscasts soon overtook the fiction she was crafting.

"A year later, SB1070 passes, and my historical novel turns into a contemporary novel," she said. "I'm trying to tell them, 'You need to get this out now because it's topical.'"

Palacio remembers Chandler fondly for its rural vibe and its closeness to nature. She remembers concerts at the botanical gardens and ranger-guided moonlight hikes in the mountains.

"All of the desert plants sort of come alive," she said. "You can smell ‘«™ this sagebrush that only exudes this wonderful aroma at night. And if you have your nighttime eyes you can see little animals scurrying away from your footsteps. There might be 50 people on these hikes, and then there might be a campfire afterwards. It was just people sitting and enjoying that moment that they shared, a walk through the desert .‘«™ Yea, the more time you spend in a place, the more the treasures become evident."

But Chandler has changed since the raids occurred, and Palacio believes that's in part a product of the anti-immigrant sentiment that spawned SB1070, which among other things required police officers to ask about immigration status when they stopped motorists and required immigrants to carry authorization papers.

"Chandler is a lot different from what it was ten years ago," Palacio said. "It's much more cookie-cutter, much more like any other city, any suburb .‘«™ When I lived there it wasn't as built up as it is now."

A federal judge blocked the more controversial parts of SB1070, though the rest of it is in effect. Meanwhile, other measures require Arizona public schools to drop ethnic studies programs or face defunding. Palacio believes the controversy reflects a schizophrenic attitude towards immigrants.

"In Arizona I think they're wanting to build a fence," she says. "That's not going to solve the immigration problems. A fence is not going to solve that. When companies need masses of workers, they (look) the other way and hire undocumented workers. And then the minute there's a politician or someone who needs some uproar, then a lot of people's lives are ruined."

Palacio says the ongoing debate actually has affected sales of her novel.

"It surprises me when there are certain places that might be afraid to broach the subject," she said. "I've had certain local book stores tell me, 'Oh, we don't think your book is appropriate for our readers.' And it makes me wonder, 'Well, what is appropriate for your readers?' This is a novel that's not only topical, but it's important for every person, not just Latinos, or women or immigrants. Everyone is an immigrant. Everyone needs to realize that."

Palacio says the state of the economy hasn't helped.

"They want to bring in authors that have a track record, famous people," she says of booksellers. "They don't want to take a chance on an unknown Chicana like myself, just coming out of nowhere. Like, who are you? Melinda who? Palacio? ‘«™ So it's a very tough time to be a new author right now."

But Palacio says she has been inspired by college students in so-called Dream Teams who have gone public with their undocumented status to spur legislative action.

"I've written some poetry about it," Palacio says. "I always turn to writing. I've met with a group of students and activists from the Dream Teams and I want to give some writing workshops to them, and work with them. They're a very impressive group to put themselves out there at the expense of the consequences of what could happen to them. It's a very great act."

But the immigration angle obscures a much more personal theme that "Ocotillo Dreams" hints at, and that Palacio has been wrestling with for more than 15 years: Her relationship with her mother.

"My mother always had the greatest faith in me, and she always encouraged me to do what I loved instead of doing something secure," she said. "For a long time I wasn't able to write about her at all. When I started writing poetry and fiction I wanted to write about the wonderful relationship I had with my mother. We were very close, and she was just an extraordinary person. But I would write about my grandmother. Or I wrote a chapbook about my father, 'Folsom Lockdown'."

Palacio's father is in prison, and "Folsom Lockdown" is a collection of poems she wrote around her visit to him at Folsom State Prison in late 2008.

Because her parents divorced when she was very young, Palacio grew up with only her mother in South Central Los Angeles. She calls it a sheltered existence -- even though her neighborhood was gang territory and drive-by shootings were a fact of life.

"I wasn't allowed to walk to school by myself, or to play in the streets, like some kids played ball in the street," she said. "One of the earliest memories I have is when I was about eight years old. There was a drive=by shooting, and I was asleep in the living room. I didn't have my own room or bed at the time. And the television caught the bullets."

All of this drove Palacio to become very close to her mother, and losing her when she was still a young woman was a difficult experience to process. Now, she is writing a second book, set during her mother's teenage years.

"I think for whatever reasons -- there's probably a very complicated set of reasons -- I just couldn't write about my mother," she said. "So just now I'm starting to be able to write about the time of her adolescence. Although it's not directly about her, it's more tangential, she does continue to inspire me."

Book Talk At The Autry W/ Melinda Palacio: Ocotillo Dreams
Saturday, September 17, 2011
3:30PM to 5:00PM
The Autry in Griffith Park

About Teresa Borden:
Teresa Borden writes Trading Posts, the Autry's blog
Author's website

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