Saturday, July 13, 2013

Comadres, stories and Latina life

Comai. Compa. Comadre y compadre. These are all words we use that designate a friendship that is more than just friendship. It signals a commitment to lifelong engagement emotionally akin to the one made in religious rites by godparents. For Latinos, to be someone's comadre or compadre carries not simply the promise of shared good times, but of serious responsibility.

"Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships" (Atria Books, 2012) explores the dynamics of comadrazgo through short writings by 12 writers, including big name Latino authors and emerging ones. The book is the brainchild of Nora Hoyos Comstock, the founder and leader of Las Comadres Para La Americas (which brings together Latinas from across the nation in bookclubs and events that strengthen community and shared conversations about Latino writers) and was edited by Adrianna López.

The short pieces of creative non-fiction are distinct from one another but have a strong unifying link in that none of the friendships depicted are casual. Many of them cross generational and socio-economic lines, and demand that the protagonists learn tough truths about emotional availability, and the nature of giving and receiving.

Nora Hoyos Comstock
In Sofia Quintero's "The Miranda Manual," for example, the comadre relationship starts as commiseration between professional peers. With wonderful economy Quintero takes us through the deepening relationship — through cancer, perimenopause and a moment when each of them tells the other las verdades — while showing us the demands and, ulitmately, the resilience of friendships like this. Quintero is a New Yorker, with Puerto Rican and Dominican roots, and her piece has the energy, directness and also the distinct music of the city.

Reyna Grande's "My Teacher, My Friend" resounds with a different kind of music. Grande immigrated from Mexico as a young girl, to reunite with parents working here. She came to Los Angeles from desperate poverty to encounter a different sort of desperation. Her parents had split and the home she came to (her father's) was abusive. Her comadrazgo, with a teacher at the community college where she studies, is a testament to friendships that open — doors, hands, hearts and ways. Grande, whose most recent book was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in January, recounts it all with an engaging humility and directness.

Adrianna López, editor
Luis Alberto Urrea's piece is a unique offering in several ways: he's the only male writer included, and story touches on a number the social challenges including extreme poverty, narco violence and living centered on the dump of one of Mexico's border community. The stakes are so high in this story of Urrea's lifelong friendship — across more than one kind of border — with a resident of the dump community that its unfolding and eventual conclusion is nothing less than a triumph.

Hoyos Comstock and López have made some terrific editorial choices with the book. Some of them are unusual — like separately including the recipes referenced in Daisy Martinez's piece. Others are just smart choices — like publishing separate Spanish and English-language versions. 

But what really commends the book is the fact that it introduces readers to accomplished writers addressing a universal theme in distinctly Latino ways. Through Las Comadres para las Americas, the book does something else as well, it reaches a readership that is dreadfully underserved by mainstream presses — Latinas.

“Count on me” (and “Cuenta conmigo”) is available in ebook and print from Amazon. com. (To read this review in Spanish click this link: Comadres, historias y la vida latina en Estados Unidos.

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