Writing Around New Mexico in Ana Castillo’s So Far from God

 

Photo: Logan Armstrong, Unsplash.

Given the critical attention that Ana Castillo’s novel set in New Mexico So Far from God has received since its 1993 publication, the divergent reactions it evokes among Mexican American readers are surprising.  For readers unfamiliar with nuevomexicana/o people, culture and history, the novel’s use of magic realism, wrapped around a credibly New Mexico-like landscape and involving verisimilar characters engaged in rebellious plots, captures the place and people at the heart of the story in a pleasingly accessible way.

Yet the reading experience of So Far from God for nuevomexicana/os is often an antagonistic one, even when readers agree with the book’s social and political messages.  I suggest that this response arises from the novel’s lack of attention to specific elements of nuevomexicana/o culture.  The novel’s actual misrepresentation of New Mexico and its people, accompanied by the simultaneous categorization of the text within the Chicanx literary canon as a New Mexican novel, compounds this difficulty.  All of these problems give rise to an unworkable tension for many New Mexican readers.  I will focus on three elements of the book that can cause difficulty for nuevomexicana/o readers: the deployment of Spanish-English code switching; the book’s culturally-encoded elements; and the imprecise invocation of locally-inscribed narratives.

Previous scholarship on So Far From God has focused on global characteristics of the novel, particularly the oppositional qualities of its plot and characters. These critical perspectives center on how fiction can be used as a tool against oppression of all sorts, particularly gendered, racial, and religious. A sampling includes readings of the novel’s inversion of patriarchal structures; its foregrounding of strong female characters, and those characters’ centrality to the creation and maintenance of a counter-hegemonic community; the novel’s use of postmodern structure and aspects of magic realism, and LGBTQ perspectives. There are also environmental and foodways justice issues; US/Mexico border politics and conceptualization of the border; folk religious practice; indigenous/Mexican mestizaje; and Chicanx feminist expression. Such analyses bring to light these important elements of the text, even as their manifestation is couched in confusion regarding the book’s setting and depiction of cultural practices. One critic analyzed spirituality in “the old Penitente town of Tomé, New Mexico” (Perez), a small community not locally characterized by its religious practices.

In fact, the same critics who examine global aspects in So Far From God take as given that the novel’s foundational components—the New Mexican people, landscape, and culture—are accurate representative of the place itself.  However, an approach drawing from critical literary regionalism cautions that the specificities of region must be attended to for the text to be fully understood.  Within the field of Mexican American studies, José Limón’s interpretation of critical literary regionalism and its centrality to Mexican American writing in particular, is telling.  Synthesizing various perspectives, among them those of Fredric Jameson, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Douglas Powell, and Cheryl Herr, Limón notes that “through the concept of critical regionalism, a case seems to be developing for a renewal of regionalist thinking, not in any isolated sense, but rather within yet in tension with globalization” (Regionalism 166-67). Limón, thus, conceives of critical literary regionalism as “an abiding and fulsome respect for and rendering of the complexity of local cultures in comparison to others in the world, while recognizing that all are in constant but critical interaction with the global” (Regionalism 168).

This critical perspective holds in tension universal realities with the particulars of place that comprise a work marked by its regional nature.  In the article defining the parameters of Critical Literary Regionalism, Limón presents a meta-critique of readings of the work of Américo Paredes that “[misread] and sometimes [overlook] the specificities of the local sites and texts, and the varying complexity of their interaction with the global” (Regionalism 164). Critical literary regionalism orients my reading of So Far From God’s representation of the “local,” New Mexico.

The first aspect of the text that is complicated by this type of reading is the language use in the novel; namely, the rendering of Spanish/English codeswitching. For readers unused to the dynamics of what is variously called “Spanglish,” “pocho,” or speaking “trochi-mochi,” Spanish/English codeswitching or cambio de códigos can seem arbitrary.  This language usage has been pigeonholed as an unwelcome interruption of both languages, at times understood as a lack of competency in either language. Contemporary linguistic scholarship by Rena Torres Caucollos and Catherine Travis argues this is not the case, and other linguistic studies of New Mexican Spanish offer further characterization of the dialect in contact situations.  For those familiar with the nuevomexicano soundscape, there is a recognizable cadence to the commingling of Spanish and English, a co-construction of the two languages that Torres Caucollos and Travis characterize as “juntos pero no revueltos” in describing the nature of how the language interact. They continue that “in code-switching, speakers alternate from one language to another, each language retaining the same grammatical patterns as in the absence of code-switching” (210). There is an art to how nuevomexicanos codeswitch and under what conditions they choose to do so, and the particular resonance and composition of nuevomexicano Spanglish is the unique result of more than a century of intense language contact between Spanish and English, as well as the sociolinguistic pressure resulting from decades of language discrimination and repression. When Spanish and English are expressed together in this place, it is an expression of the “specificities of the local sites,” to borrow Limón’s terminology.   

While So Far From God endeavors to reproduce some of these linguistic elements, the sound of this interchange and the moments in which it is used do not quite ring true. Indeed, a literary read of the book’s multilingual elements interprets this Spanish/English artifact as “un prototipo característico que refleja a población chicana” (Tápanes 224), citing Chicana critic Gloria Anzaldúa as a archetypal example of this practice in modern literature and criticism. But in this critical reading, we see a conflation of the global concept of Chicanx/Borderlands identity as expressed through codeswitching superimposed over regionally specific practice: a near-representation taken by global-looking critics as bona fide, even as documented regional linguistic praxis is not accurately rendered in the text. This is not to say that the speech practices represented in the book do not emerge in other Mexican-American communities; rather, it is that they are not characteristic of New Mexican communities.

Though this article cannot document and deconstruct all instances where there is linguistic incongruence, the dissonance is most markedly evident in the dialogue of senior characters, such as Sofía and Domingo, the book’s protagonist and her ex-husband.  This is also true of many characters of their generation. Codeswitching in general is less prevalent among the characters of Sofia’s four daughters’ generation, itself an inaccurate representation of regional speech practice.  A few examples include the over application of the article in Spanish when used in referencing an individual’s name: “when el Franky was ready for high school” (97); “convinced that if that was la Caridad up there she would make herself invisible”) (88); “la Mrs. Doctor” (229). This is a common practice but is not invoked as frequently as it appears in the book, nor necessarily in the contexts in which it is used in the text.

Sometimes, the insertion of Spanish-language terms in the flow of English utterances does not track with recognizable regional usage: (“¡Qué diablos te pasó que we lost sight of you for so damned long, muchacha!”) (117); (“And now all I got left of my father’s hard work- and his father’s and his father’s- is casi nada, just a measly ten acres now, nomás, comadre!”) (139). Finally, the occasional insertion of Spanish terms either that are unfamiliar ((“Mira, who had the ñervo to come”) (108)) or not used in a particular manner in nuevomexicano codeswitching (“And now we have los gringos coming here and breeding peacocks” (139)) furthers the sense of an incorrect expression of the local via language praxis.

From the regional reader’s viewpoint, the use of Spanish-English code switching in So Far From God, instead of drawing readers more intimately into a sense of nuevomexicano self-expression, paradoxically creates the opposite effect. For readers familiar with the writing of other New Mexican and nuevomexicana/o fiction writers such as Erlinda González-Berry, Estevan Arellano, Gabriel Meléndez, Jim Sagel, and Alfredo Celedón Luján (entre otros), who also incorporate code switching into creative works, So Far From God presents a marked difference in sound and expression.  This disparity highlights the inconsistency of the imaginative world of the novel with nuevomexicano regional realities and practice as represented by New Mexican regional writers in their creative works.

A similar effect results from a lack of correlation to certain culturally-encoded forms.  The deployment of this in the text is disruptive for local readers because the usage is so inconsistent with local practice.  A primary example of this involves the character “Francisco el Penitente,” a neighbor of Sofía’s family and Vietnam veteran who becomes enamored of Sofía’s daughter Caridad. Leaving aside the questionable depiction of his spiritual practices as a member of the Confradía de Jesús Nazareno, whose adherents are popularly known as hermanos or hermanos penitentes (shortened to penitentes in So Far From God) throughout the novel, what concerns us here is the repeated invocation of his participation in the group as part of his name.

Although his aunt, Loretta, calls him “Franky,” in the novel he is usually described as “Francisco el Penitente;” on occasion “Francisco el Penitente Santero;” and, once, “Francisco el Penitente, Cross-Bearer, Fandango Flagellant.” The suffix “el Penitente” is almost always attached to “Franciso,” though there are other characters, including Francisco’s uncle, who are also hermanos and whose names do not have “el Penitente” attached to them. Regardless of its specific application to Francisco, the recurrence of “el Penitente” gives regional readers pause. The reasons for this have to do with how the practice of naming (or, in fact, not naming) hermanos is culturally coded in New Mexico.

After more than a century of negative representation and mischaracterization of the organization and their practices in the English-language press and by the territorial-era Catholic Church (Lamadrid and Meléndez), acknowledgement of participation in the hermandad (confraternity) is rarely explicitly expressed. The repetition of the term “Francisco el Penitente” or “Francisco el Penitente Santero,” shows a break with local praxis, an inversion of the ideology of form, as Limón applied Fredric Jameson’s concept in his analysis of narratives produced in South Texas about the devil at bailes (Limón Devil). The underlying social construct that conditions behavior results in circumspection or silence regarding outward identification as a hermano, and the reference to “Francisco el Penitente” unsettles for that reason.

One interpretation of this usage posits that by identifying Francisco in this manner, masculine hierarchy in nuevomexicana/o society (as represented through the predominantly male hermandad) is disrupted.  In this reading, Francisco’s hyperbolic title draws attention to his participation in the organization, participation that is characterized in the novel by behaviors like adding wood ash to food to remove pleasure in its consumption, wearing all black and praying constantly, even in his sleep. And yet, if the purpose of repeating “el Penitente” is to render critique, it misses the mark, as essential regional details relating to that identity are inaccurately rendered. One example is the misnaming of traditional prayer-songs Francisco sings; the well-documented “alabado” is repeatedly called an “alabada,” an erroneous term surprising to nuevomexicana/o readers. As the depiction of Francisco’s religious practices shares more in common with past hyperbolic representations of hermanos than it does a mordant critique of patriarchy, the use of the suffix “el Penitente” is an instance of dissonance with socially-driven local practice, rather than an explicit reproach of patriarchal structures symbolized by the hermandad.

A final critique of So Far From God’s nearness-yet-distance from New Mexico regards the weaving of locally-inscribed folk narrative into the text to create a sense of place in the background of the novel.  If stories define a people, their history, and sense of self, then the implementation of such stories in a text about specific place can also be understood as reinforcing of the atmosphere or impression of locality.  In So Far From God, one of these stories involves the legend of a bilocating Spanish nun (Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, or the Lady in Blue) who was alleged to have visited New Mexico in the 17th century and converted native people to Catholicism before Franciscan friars arrived. This narrative is called by ethnographer Enrique Lamadrid one of New Mexico’s colonial-era foundational milargo narratives, a story that “articulates a social and moral character for emerging and evolving societies, and they stand in sharp relief against the chaotic forces that surround and possibly negate them” (Lamadrid 43).  Known primarily through folk narratives that imagine different abilities for the Lady in Blue (causing bluebonnets to grow, healing ill people, extinguishing cannons) and some historical materials, the narrative’s regional purchase is well-established.

So Far From God borrows the narrative’s protagonist.  She appears near the end of the novel, where she is a spiritual companion for Sophie’s daughter, La Loca. La Loca mysteriously suffers from AIDS, and as she prepares for her transcendental departure, a figure called the “Lady in Blue” visits La Loca. Here, the Lady in Blue takes on another new role, playing lotería with La Loca and singing her to sleep a final time; the nun keeps her company and is focused on only La Loca, though she appears to have another side, as she wears penitential garments and may be from the past, present or “hasta una future subjunctive” (244).

As in many other contemporary renderings of the Lady in Blue, in So Far From God the narrative is changed. The Lady in Blue plays cards, sings, sports a horsehair vest, strums the guitar, and knows other “Franciscos” like Francisco el Penitente.  However, in similar creative works about the Lady in Blue, such changes usually accompany core elements of the Lady in Blue narrative (her clothing, origin, interaction with native people, writing, rosaries, etc.).  In this novel, there is little of this nature that marks the Lady in Blue as such. The invocation of her name is the sole confirming identifier. Even the fundamental characteristic of her Spanish origin is in question, as she sings La Loca a fado, a type of popular Portuguese song, suggesting a Portuguese heritage for the nun.  As most of her New-Mexico-specific traits are undisclosed, the Lady in Blue does not necessarily read as regionally intelligible.  She is present in name only, as are the other nuevomexicana/o characteristics in this novel.

My critique does not suggest that So Far From God is an ill-conceived or irrelevant book.  Indeed, the novel imagines approaches to important issues of social and environmental justice, power imbalance, and gendered hierarchies, questions central to contemporary Chicanx thought and activism. Scholarly engagement with the novel is significant, as evidenced by abundant articles that concerned with it. Still, I propose that reading So Far From God through the lens of critical literary regionalism reveals that the novel is not, in fact, about New Mexico, though it purports to be about there. Rather, the novel can better be understood as set in a place called New Mexico and among people called nuevomexicanas/os, but, for the reasons I and others have discussed it is not representative of New Mexico, its people, and practices. Critical literary regionalism substantiates the disparity between local readers’ interpretation of the novel and how the novel has been understood and discussed by Chicanx literary critics outside of New Mexico.

 

Works Cited

Castillo, Ana. So Far From God: A Novel.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Lamadrid, Enrique. "From Santiago at Ácoma to the Diablo in the Casinos: Four Centuries of Foundational Milagro Narratives in New Mexico." In Expressing New Mexico: Nuevomexicano Creativity, Ritual, and Memory, edited by Phillip B. Gonzales, 42-60. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007.

Lamadrid, Enrique, and Gabriel Melendez. "Review Essay: The Penitente Brotherhood." New Mexico Historical Review 82, no. 1 (2007): 121-27.

Limón, José. "Border Literary Histories, Globalization, and Critical Regionalism." American Literary History 20, no. 1-2 (2008): 160-82.

———. Dancing With the Devil.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Perez, Gail. “Ana Castillo as Santera: Reconstructing Popular Religious Praxis.” Aquino, Maria Pilar, et al., eds. A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 53-79.

Tápanes, Adriana.  "El lenguaje de la frontera" a través de So Far From God de Ana Castillo.” Gac-Artigas, Priscilla, ed. Reflexiones: Ensayos sobre escritoras hispanoamericanas contemporáneas, Vol. 1. New Jersey: Ediciones Nuevo Espacio, 2002.  223-228.

Torres Cacoullos, Rena, and Catherine Travis. Bilingualism in the Community: Code-Switching and Grammars in Contact.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Languages

LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Chronicle

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene