Some fine voices belonging to Mexican-American writers are being muted, consigned to a literary ghetto. Whether published by heroic small or commercial presses, writers labeled by their ethnicity are guaranteed a restricted audience of like identification. If carried at all by bookstores, they may be assigned a segregated shelf.
Pushed aside by many English departments that disdain minority voices, a few will find a place in Chicano studies courses. Even there, arguments about who is a “real Chicano writer” may further narrow the selection, emphasis sometimes being placed on political requirements over literary quality. One effect is that worthy books may be denied their place among the best in contemporary American literature.
These restrictions become particularly saddening when a book as splendid as Mary Helen Ponce’s “Hoyt Street” appears; one cannot help but wonder how many “mainstream” presses passed on it, and why. As engaging as a novel, Ponce’s autobiography depicts life among Mexican-Americans in Pacoima in the 1940s. I use the phrase “Mexican-Americans” because Ponce is true to the time of her book, when that was the accepted designation. (When I was in my teens, “Chicano” was derogatory slang; I identified myself as a “Mexican of mixed blood,” thrilling to the mysterious melodrama implied.)
Ponce weaves Mexican-American culture into her action. It is not imposed for political or sociological considerations. Sustained by a loving family within a largely enclosed world of other Mexican-Americans, Mary Helen, at ages 8 to 13, does not seem aware--yet--of poverty, even when she works in the fields. The exciting prospect of dressing completely in white for the Virgin Mary is not compromised by the fact that the girls involved can afford only one pair of shoes, often brown, “stained in shinola.”
Prejudice is clearly waiting--the children avoid a movie theater where they’re made to feel “unwelcome"--but Ponce only points the reader toward necessary inferences about innocence soon to be harshly initiated.
Ponce leads us like a courteous hostess into her house on Hoyt Street, then introduces us to a rich gallery of family, neighbors, friends. She involves us in their daily lives: The wondrous joy of planting a China tree is replaced by sadness at its demise from over-watering. A brother’s constipation after gorging prickly pears results in a saga of arcane cures.
With expert strokes, Ponce brings her characters to life. A brother returns from the war, proudly spouting German words: “My parents became Frau and Herr Ponce; my sisters frauleins.” Another brother becomes a boxing contender. With the whole town watching, he’s knocked out in the first round by “el tigre Fuentes.” Wistfully, Mary Helen remembers a flier with his picture on it and the grand designation “Kid Ponce.”
An older sister, known for her refined taste, “rarely cooked but would now and then help make tortillas. She first removed her watch and bracelets, then rinsed her hands in the bathroom and pinned her hair away from her face. She made perfectly round tortillas, light and fluffy with nary a burned edge.”
Dona Luisa, an “adopted grandmother,” has her faults: “While paring potatoes she skipped the holes. Her tortillas were shiny with lard, raw in the middle. . . . She dragged the sheets in the dirt.” But: “What Dona Luisa did best was to love.” With innate elegance, she manifests that love to Mary Helen.
Ponce employs poignant humor throughout. A classmate sings for her “Anglo” teacher: “Columbus, the jam of the ocean.” “The Three Trinidads” are memorable, touching and hilarious: They are three old women who compete furiously for God’s undivided attention, outdoing each other in the number of novenas offered, lighting blazes of votive candles, learning the mass in Latin to shout out with the priest. Father Mueller is a “modern priest” who goes to the beach and disapproves of painful pilgrimages, yet frowns on dancing as an occasion for sin.
Ponce does not leave herself out in her keen observations: “I was hefty and liked to push.” To discover whether it’s true that nuns shave their heads, she tries to dislodge a nun’s headpiece. Her first date, with a boy as chubby as she, is not romantic. They spend their time “waddling” back and forth to the concessionary. In her first school fight, she hits her mother, an accident pious women predict will cause her hand to shrivel in punishment. She escapes a dark introduction to sex--with a respected church member who “befriends” little girls.
Ponce glides gracefully into Spanish phrases, as Mexican-Americans often do. At times her style suggests a culture steeped in the flamboyant rituals of Mexican Catholicism; then it can turn somber. The death of a young brother is conveyed with spare dignity: “When the big black hearse went by, my mother wavered in her step, then stopped. She stood deathly still until the hearse had passed, then slowly pulled back her hat veil.”
Ponce’s is a wonderful book, brimming with genuine love for her culture and those who passed it on to her. Toward the end, with a sense of adventure, she experiences “It,” the flow of blood that signals she is now a young woman. I hope there is at least another volume forthcoming in what might well become a superb family epic.