Whore, Wife, Matriarch: Three Latinas of the Barrio : PALM LATITUDES by Kate Braverman (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 397 pp.; 0-671-64542-0)

Trevino is a writer and director who is currently producing a documentary on Hispanic-American writers

Kate Braverman's second novel, "Palm Latitudes," is likely to be compared to Latin American "magical realist" writing, since it is filled with rich, surreal imagery and haunting Latino characters. Yet upon closer reading, the novel is more reminiscent of the tradition of North American writers such as John Steinbeck who have chosen the Chicano experience as a vehicle for the expression of their own persona.

Braverman's novel focuses on the limitations placed on women's lives in a male-dominated society and the options open to women who would be masters of their own future. She has narrowed her focus to the Chicano barrio and three Latina archetypes to explore these themes: the disaffected whore, the long-suffering housewife, the earthy, prescient matriarch.

Francisca Ramos is a mid-30-ish prostitute known as la puta de la luna , the "whore of the moon." She plies her trade by day and night near the Echo Park lake in Los Angeles. Years ago, she was the kept mistress of a wealthy Mexican businessman. When this patron dismissed her, she began a series of empty encounters with abusive men.

The taste for the high style that she acquired from her worldly amante and her unwillingness to work at other jobs have doomed her to a life of prostitution. She survives the repeated abuses of her clients by withdrawing into herself; she has become numb--alienated from her own emotions.

Gloria Hernandez, the mother of two Chicanitos , is married to Miguel, a Vietnam veteran with whom she crossed illegally into the United States many years ago. Now, after 17 years of marriage, she has become emotionally estranged from her husband and her children. Miguel's enthusiasm for the English language, which Gloria cannot or will not learn, and his love of sports have erected a wall between them.

Gloria's two sons, Jose and Carlos, are accomplices to this painful alienation as they assimilate into mainstream American culture. Gloria is the stereotype of the long-suffering housewife enduring in silent anguish, until her husband's overtures to an attractive white neighbor push Gloria over the edge. Her muted disguise of seeming complacency explodes in a frenzy of violent passion. She murders the woman with a kitchen knife.

Completing this barrio triad is the most memorable of Braverman's characters, Marta Ortega, a 75-year-old matriarch known as la bruja del barrio , the witch of the neighborhood.

All three women experience pivotal moments when their lives are changed irrevocably. Braverman writes: "You enter a bus, or a plane. You answer a doorbell, a letter, a telephone, and the course of your entire life is changed." In "Palm Latitudes," abusive men are the ones who usually orchestrate these fundamental life changes. The results are as varied as the spectrum of women's lives. For Francisca, it leads to prostitution. For Gloria it leads to murder. But there is another option. Iconoclastic Marta Ortega is symbolic of women who take their lives into their own hands.

Unlike the other two protagonists of "Palm Latitudes," Marta Ortega survives quite well without men. She has opted to rear her two daughters, Angelina and Orquidea, by herself. She dedicates her time to her garden and to reading great literature systematically--by author, from A to Z. Marta Ortega is the strong, accepting and consoling mother-confessor to her daughters and granddaughters.

She is the embodiment of feminine consciousness that refuses to accept men as arbiters of women's lives. It is through her character that the values of independence, sisterhood and mother-daughter bonding are affirmed.

Stylistically, "Palm Latitudes" is a masterfully crafted literary work. It is rich in lyrical, poetic passages, full of sensual metaphors and of evocative, challenging similes.

Braverman's descriptions are often stark and vivid, as in her depiction of the oppressive, windowless environment in which Gloria Hernandez is forced to work: "A window might tempt a woman to look up for an instant from her work, glance at an escaped sunbeam, an aberrant passing sea gull or a falling brick. A window could beacon attention. They were a danger. A woman might leave her thin, gray metal chair, smash the glass with her fist and scratch an opening wide enough for a body to jump through."

At other times, the images are evocative and sensual, as in the advice that Marta Ortega gives to a granddaughter: "You are freed from the cold geometry of absolute direction, which is an illusion. Let this be a time where time fills itself in, in dogs barking, in drugged insects between hot flowers and the songs of worms and the sweet gossip of stars in a pure black night."

Unfortunately, and what a shame, "Palm Latitudes" is also a novel with serious flaws.

Latino men and women are likely to find Braverman's characterizations one-dimensional, offensive and perhaps even racist. Her Manichaean rendering of barrio male-female relations into a struggle between stupid, lazy, abusive, womanizing, drunken Mexican men and alienated, powerless and inarticulate Mexican women fails to grasp the complexities of their three-dimensional humanity.

It also overlooks the subtleties of love, compassion and bonding that have sustained Mexican men and women in the barrio for more than 400 years of colonization. By showing only exaggerated portrayals of Mexican men as machos , Braverman diminishes the power of her poetic vision to the level of anti-male rhetoric. By singling out Marta Ortega as the only positive Chicana figure, she overlooks the strength, vitality and love that resides in so many other Chicano life styles.

But despite Braverman's limited insight into the life of barrio women, "Palm Latitudes" is an impressive testament to the magic of language and a powerful rendering of the struggles, defeats and victories of women on their own.

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