American Chica

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2002-05-28
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback

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In her father's Peruvian family, Marie Arana was taught to be a proper lady, yet in her mother's American family she learned to shoot a gun, break a horse, and snap a chicken's neck for dinner. Arana shuttled easily between these deeply separate cultures for years. But only when she immigrated with her family to the United States did she come to understand that she was a hybrid American whose cultural identity was split in half. Coming to terms with this split is at the heart of this graceful, beautifully realized portrait of a child who "was a north-south collision, a New World fusion. AnAmerican Chica." Here are two vastly different landscapes: Peruearthquake-prone, charged with ghosts of history and mythologyand the sprawling prairie lands of Wyoming. In these rich terrains resides a colorful cast of family members who bring Arana's historia to life...her proud grandfather who one day simply stopped coming down the stairs; her dazzling grandmother, "clicking through the house as if she were making her way onstage." But most important are Arana's parents: he a brilliant engineer, she a gifted musician. For more than half a century these two passionate, strong-willed people struggled to overcome the bicultural tensions in their marriage and, finally, to prevail.

Author Biography

MARIE ARANA is the editor of <i>The Washington Post Book World</i> and has done feature writing for <i>The Post</i>. She has served on the board of directors of the <i>National Association of Hispanic Journalists</i> and the <i>National Book Critics Circle</i>. She lives in Washington, D.C.



The corridors of my skull are haunted. I carry the smell of sugar there. The odors of a factory—wet cane, dripping iron, molasses pits—are up behind my forehead, deep inside my throat. I'm reminded of those scents when children offer me candy from a damp palm, when the man I love sighs with wine upon his tongue, when I inhale the heartbreaking sweetness of rotting fruit and human waste that rises from garbage dwellers' camps along the road to Lima.

I am always surprised to learn that people do not live with memories of fragrance as I do. The smell of sugar is so strong in my head. That they could have spent the first years of their lives in places like Pittsburgh or Hong Kong and not gone for the rest of their days with the stench of a steel furnace or the aromas of fungus and salt shrimp tucked into some netherfold of cortex—how is that possible?

I had a friend once, from Bombay, who told how baffling it was to travel this world smelling turmeric, coriander, and cardamom in the most improbable corners of Nantucket or Palo Alto, only to find that they were Lorelei of the olfactory, whiffs of his imagination, sirens of his mother's curry, wafting in like she-cats, flicking seductive tails.

He chased after those smells, cooking up curries in rented houses in New Jersey, in tidy chalets in Switzerland, in motel rooms along the Shenandoah, mixing pastes from powders out of bottles with Scottish surnames, searing ghees in Sara Lee aluminum, washing out lunch boxes in Maryland rest stops, trying to bring it back. Bring it back. Up into the sinus, trailing down the throat. He was never quite able to recapture that childhood blend: mashed on stone, dried in a Mahabharatan sun, stuffed into earthenware, sold in an old man's shop, carried home in string-tied packages, measured onto his mother's mortar, locked into the chambers of his heart.

So it has been with me and sugar. I look back and see piles of it, glittering crystals of it—burned, powdered, superfine. I smell sugar everywhere. On whispers, in books, in the loam of a garden. In every cranny of life. And always—always—it is my father's sugar I am longing for: raw, rough, Cartavio brown.

Cartavio was the name of our hacienda: a company town as single of purpose as Akron or Erie or Turin or anyplace where pistons and steel drive residents' lives. It was the mid 1950s, boom days for sugar in Peru, and the American industrial giant W. R. Grace was making the most of it in this remote coastal hamlet, five hundred miles north of Lima. Cartavio was surrounded by fields of sugarcane, fringed by a raging Pacific, and life in it was an eerie mirror of Peru's conquistador past. On one side of the hacienda were the cinnamon-skinned indigenous in a warren of cinder block. On the other, in houses whose size and loveliness depended on the rank of their inhabitants, lived Peruvians of Spanish ancestry, Europeans, North Americans, the elite. There was a church on the square, a mansion for the manager, a Swiss-style guest house, a country club, and a clinic. But in the middle, with smokestacks thrusting so high there could be no doubt as to why the unlikely multitude was there: my father's factories.

Cartavio was nestled in the heart of the nation, just under the left breast of the female torso that Peru's landmass defines. But it was, in many ways, a foreign place, a twentieth-century invention, a colony of the world. Its driving force was industry, and the people who had gathered there were, one way or another, single-minded industrialists. The Americans had come with dollars; the Limenos with political power; the villagers with hands. Although their objectives were shared—a humming production of sugar and paper—Cartavio citizens lived in uncertain harmony. The laborers were willing to surrender themselves to the practicalities of an iron city by day, but under their own roofs by night they returned to ancient superstitions. The Lima engineers were willing to obey the gringo directives, but they suspected they knew a great deal more about those factories than any mahogany-desk boss in New York. The Americans soon learned that if the indigenous believed in ghosts and the criollo overlords resented gringo power, then Grace's fortunes turned on such chimera as phantoms and pride. They understood the social dynamic, used it, and with old-fashioned American pragmatism, made it work for them.

I knew, with a certainty I could feel in my bones, that I was deeply Peruvian. That I was rooted to the Andean dust. That I believed in ghosts. That they lived in the trees, in my hair, under the aparador, lurking behind the silver, slipping in and out of the whites of my ancestors' portraits' eyes. I also knew that, for all his nods and smiles at the gringos, my father believed in ghosts, too. How could he not? He faced them every day.

To the hacienda of Cartavio, Papi was Doctor Ingeniero, the young Peruvian engineer in charge of the people and the maintenance of this whirring, spewing, U.S.-owned mill town. He was a sunny man with an open face. Although his hands were small, they were clever. Although he was not tall, his shoulders filled a room. There were photographs my mother would point to when she wanted us to know she thought him handsome, but they were of a man I didn't recognize—gaunt and angular, black wavy hair, eyes as wide as a calf's, mouth in a curl. The Papi I knew was barrel-chested, full-lipped. His hair had receded to a V. His cheeks were cherubic and round. His eyes bulged. In the subequatorial heat, he wore his shirt out, and it flapped in the breeze, revealing skin that was brown, smooth, and hairless. He was not fat but taut as a sausage—bien papeado, as Peruvians like to say. Potato-tight. When he laughed, he made no sound. He would lean forward as if something had leapt on his back and held him in an irresistible tickle. His eyes would squint, the tip of his tongue would push out, and his shoulders would bounce vigorously. He'd laugh long and hard like that—silent, save for the hiss that issued from between his teeth—until he was short of breath, red-faced, and weeping. When he wasn't laughing, he was barking orders. When he wasn't doing that, his mouth was ringing a cigarette, sucking hard, his eyelids fluttering in thought.

Papi would not so much walk as strut. Not so much drink as guzzle. Not so much chat with a woman as flirt, wink, and ogle. He was clearly not the slender, soulful man in Mother's photographs. Not anymore. From the moment he registered on my brain, he was straining buttons, bien papeado—threatening to burst.

He was a machine virtuoso, improvising ways to go from desert to sugar, from burned plants to Herculean rolls of paper. He could take a field of sugarcane into his steel colossus, shove it through squealing threshers, wet it down with processed seawater, suck it dry of crystals, and feed it onto the rollers to emerge warm and dry from the other end as flying sheets of paper. He could take a faulty German turbine whose only hope for survival was a spare part eight thousand miles away in Stuttgart and, with a knickknack here, a length of wire there, make it hum again. He could pacify the gringos when they came from New York, matching them eye for eye on the intricacies of macromechanics or spherical trigonometry or particle physics. He inspired fervent loyalty from his laborers, striding through his iron city in an impeccably white suit, teaching them the way to an industrial future. The American way.

Every morning he would head for the belching beast long before the whistle sounded. In late afternoons, he returned to survey his pretty wife over lunch and take a brief siesta in his chair. But there seemed to be no end to his work. Even as he walked back through the gate for a late lunch or dinner and the servants fluttered into the kitchen to announce the senor was home, he was on call. Ready to pull away.

That he had to work with ghosts was a fact of life and everybody knew it. A worker's hand might be drawn into the iron jaws of the trapiche as it gathered cane into its mandibles and pulled the mass into its threshers. A finger, a foot, a dog, a whole man might be lost to that ravenous maw as it creaked and shook and thrashed and sifted everything down to liquid sugar and a fine bagasse.

Los pishtacos, the workers would say to one another whenever such tragedies occurred. Pishtacos, their wives and mothers would whisper the next day as they combed the market or polished the silver services on the richly carved aparadores of the engineers. Ghosts. Machine ghosts. Pishtacos norteamericanos. And as anyone who knew Peruvian historias understood: They needed the fat of indios to grease their machines.

Our house stood on the corner of prime real estate, behind the offices of head engineers but far enough from the factory to allow us to ignore the less pleasant aspects of a churning industry. Finished in white stucco and shielded by manicured rows of tropical botanica, the house loomed above its compound walls like a castle behind a barricade. Flowers cascaded from its ramparts. In the garden, trees pushed forth pineapples, lucuma, bananas, and mango. An iron gate shut out the world. Behind the gate and the wall and the garden, the house itself was impervious to vendors, to factory workers, to ordinary Peruvians, to the sprawl of humanity that struggled a few hundred feet from its door.

The house was skirted by a capacious veranda. Inside, it was filled with high-ceilinged white rooms, heavy doors, yawning keyholes, arched passageways, Spanish tile. The living room—the sala—was dominated by my mother's ornate ebony piano. The master bedroom lay behind it, on the other side of a carved double door, so that when those doors were thrown open, the entire sala was surveyable from my parents' bed—a bizarre feature, but houses in outlying haciendas were often capricious and irregular. Through an open arch, you could go from our sala to the dining room, which held two massive pieces of furniture—a table and an aparador, carved with undulating scallops and garlands. The kitchen was stark, a workroom for servants, stripped down and graceless. A cavernous enamel sink—pocked and yellow—jutted from the wall. There was a simple blue table where we three children and our servants took meals. The kitchen door led to a back atrium garden. On the other side of that, behind a wall, were the servants' quarters, a shabby little building that could sleep six in two spare rooms. There was a stall with a spigot where our mayordomo and amas could wash, a storage area, and a concrete staircase that led to their rooms. To the left of those stairs, under a shed of bare wood and chicken wire, were the animal cages. At four, I was told very clearly—as my older brother and sister, George and Vicki, had been—that I was not allowed in the servants' quarters. The cages were my demarcation line; they were the point beyond which I could not go.

Our own rooms were upstairs, well away from our parents' bedroom and out of the circuit of revelers when a party was afoot. After dinner, which we regularly took in the kitchen, the amas would trot us upstairs and bathe us, struggling with their small arms to balance us in the tubs. We would loll about in our pajamas thereafter. There never seemed any urgency to get us to bed, which was just as well because all three of us were terrified of the dark, afraid to look out the windows at tree branches, so well had our amas taught us that pishtacos were perched there, slavering and squinting in.

Had we overcome our fears and looked out those windows onto Cartavio's main residential street beyond our own house, we would have seen five other houses of the first rank, equally grand, equally walled. Behind them, a row of modest ones for the lesser company families. Our immediate neighbors were the Lattos, freckle-faced Scots whose brogue-filtered Spanish made George and me horselaugh into our hands. Their eight-year-old son, Billy, was the undisputed object of Vicki's affection. He was a straight, good-looking boy with an easy smile. He would direct his grins freely to Vicki, but George and I—who thought ourselves far more appealing than our prickly sister—had to work hard to draw his charms: We'd stand on our heads, swing from trees, make fools of ourselves if we had to, for the incomparable joy of gazing on his teeth.

As a young child, my days unfolded in the garden. It was, as every garden in that coastal desert is, an artificial paradise: invented, deceptive, precarious. Without human hands to tend it, the lush vegetation would have dried to a husk and sifted down into an arid dune. For years, I did not know how tentative that childhood environment was. Walled in, with green crowding our senses and the deep sweetness of fruit and sugar in the air, I felt a sense of entitlement, as if my world would ever be so richly hung. But it was an illusion, and many had labored to create it: to make us feel as if we were emperors of a verdant oasis on the banks of the Amazon just north of the Andes, where the green was unrestrained.

Fooled, happy, ignorant, George and I would splash in the duck pond our father had built for us. Or we would play with the animals we kept in the cages out back where the servants lived. We'd pet the rabbits, feed them fragrant verbena. We'd put chickens on the backs of goats and shriek with laughter as the bewildered creatures scrambled around in circles, the goats wild-eyed under their unruly riders, the chickens pounding the air.

George was my hero, my general, my god. He was as bright and beautiful as I was fat and slow. He could prance and swagger as well as any cowboy in Mother's storybook litany of Wild West valiants. He would hector; I would follow. He'd do mischief; I'd do cover-up. He'd get caught; I'd confess to everything. He'd be spanked; I'd yank down my pants. He'd yawp; I'd bawl louder. And so we spent our days, crawling under the house, devising schemes to scandalize the mayordomo, scare Claudia the cook out of her wits, or pester Vicki, whose prissy ways cried out for redress and revenge. If only to force her to look at us over an eternal rim of books.

Excerpted from American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood by Marie Arana
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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