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‘My Dream Was to Work at the Dairy Queen’ : Author: Denise Chavez is earning raves for her first book, which celebrates Latino culture. But she isn’t moved by her new fame. She just wants to tell her tales--and re-stucco her house.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before embarking on a 7 1/2-year odyssey to complete her first novel, Denise Chavez already knew what the last phrase would be: ni modo.

“Because of that whole kind of philosophy that we Latinos have where your roof caves in, your sink goes out on you, everything bad, but you got to go on with life,” Chavez explained in a recent interview. “ Ni modo. No matter what happens to you, you are a survivor. You endure. You keep on going.”

That’s what her novel’s protagonist, Soveida Dosamantes, does in “Face of an Angel” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), an earthy, colorful tale of a woman seeking the meaning of service, both personally and in her three-decade career as a waitress.

And it’s what Chavez, 46, has been doing since she started a journal at age 8, growing up in Las Cruces, N.M., and continuing through today as she prepares for her next novel without concern about how her current book sells.

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“Fame is not something that interests me,” she said. “I would like to have enough money to re-stucco my house, and I would like to have enough money to help my father (whom she has cared for since he suffered a stroke 10 years ago). But I’m still going to be in Las Cruces. I know where my heart is and where my strength comes from: the landscape, the mountains, friendship, my cultura .

“I had no expectations of life. My dream was to work at the Dairy Queen. I look forward to becoming a viejita (a little old lady) ‘cause then I can really get into my characters even more.”

But like it or not, fame has reached Chavez because of mostly glowing reviews of her debut novel, which was a selection of the Book of the Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club.

In its September issue, Vanity Fair named Chavez as one of “Latina literature’s new doyennes.”

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The group of Latina writers, who call themselves “Las Girlfriends” and sing one another’s praises while providing endless support, include Ana Castillo (“The Mixquiahuala Letters”), Julia Alvarez (“How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”) and Sandra Cisneros (“The House on Mango Street”).

For the dust jacket of “Angel,” Cisneros calls Chavez a “ chismosa par excellence --a gossip, a giver-away of secrets, a teller of tales our mama told us not to tell.”

Teresa McKenna, a USC English professor who teaches a class on Chicano/Latino literature, said Chavez’s work stands out because it has a “performative writing quality.”

“Denise has a wonderful mixture of a narrative writer with a good grasp of character, and a playwright,” McKenna said. “It has to do with the visual quality of where you can almost see (her work) staged.”

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That may be because Chavez--who received her bachelor’s degree in drama from New Mexico State and earned master’s degrees in drama from Trinity University and in creative writing from the University of New Mexico--is also a dramatist whose plays have been produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and Joseph Papp’s Festival Latino de Nueva York.

A former member of the theater faculty at the University of Houston who now teaches creative writing at New Mexico State, Chavez has toured with her one-woman play, “Women in the State of Grace,” featuring nine diverse Latino characters ages 7 to 78.

“A synthesis of all my experiences have come together in ‘Angel,’ ” said Chavez, previously best known for her collection of short stories, “The Last of the Menu Girls.” “Drama taught me how to see things and also to listen to voices.”

Chavez also picked up storytelling skills from her mother (who died 11 years ago) and extended family, who spent summers in a small town called Redford in western Texas, sitting in the shade, eating watermelon and telling embellished stories.

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“The untold stories were always the ones that, as kids, we found the most interesting,” she said. “Like the one about why one of my uncles had only half an ear. The story was that he’d been in a terrible accident, but we knew there was more to it. Back then people seemed to live life more deeply.”

And when they weren’t telling stories, they were reading.

“It got so damn hot sometimes all you could do was read,” she said. “I remember my grandmother loved to read. She found a joy in the language. These were people who had a love of literature and language.”

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Her grandmother, however, might have bristled at some of the language in “Angel,” which at times is raunchy in chronicling three generations of women dealing with the Mexican tradition of serving husbands and God.

Chavez also talks about incest, alcoholism, religion, relationships and machismo, issues that many Latino families believe should remain behind closed doors.

“People might see this as an indictment and say it has too many (vulgarities), it’s too sexy, it has too much genitalia,” she said. “But that in itself is a liberation for a woman to be able to speak the unspeakable. Latinas never talk about their sexuality. I’ve had a miscarriage, and women never talk about miscarriages. Women never talk about their aches and pains.

“But I think I show the good aspects of our culture, too. That we are passionate, loyal and long-suffering. We are a people of survivors. These are secrets of the human heart. To empower people to become the faces that we are without these masks. To be able to speak the truth of our families without shame, without whispers.”

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USC’s McKenna agrees.

“Women writers want to confront the issues of sexuality in the family, especially in their complexity,” she said, “as opposed to presenting an image of what the family is. That runs the gamut from abuse to personal relationships.

“It’s not airing dirty laundry. Latinos are human beings. We no longer need to create an image of what we’re suppose to be to make ourselves acceptable to other people. It’s no longer an issue.”

And Chavez does not place all the blame on Latino men.

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“Women complain that men never change, but it’s not just the men. Women don’t change either. The mother is always running to take care of her sons and her husband. It’s the mothers who are responsible for bringing up children who are unbalanced.”

In “Angel,” “Soveida is making her pilgrimage in search for ways to become complete and balanced. She is asking why are we here on this Earth? Are we here to serve or to be served? It’s a little of both. We can’t help other people unless we take care of ourselves.”

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Conversations in the book are a mixture of Spanish and English, the way Chavez grew up speaking in southern New Mexico and Texas.

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“I purposefully did not want them to italicize the Spanish words because then they become separate,” she said of an early fight with her editor, who in one of their first discussions asked her what a pinata is. “It’s time for readers to pick up a little Spanish. It’s like a plate of food with salsa, with the Spanish words the salsa. It gives it flavor.”

Chavez said her next novel will be from the point of view of a 70-year-old man with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father. The working title is “The King and Queen of Comezon.”

Comezon is an itch,” Chavez explains, “but it is also a longing that can never be satisfied. When you straddle the world of multiculturalism, you live in a world where you are a Mexican but have another world to deal with.

“I have a lot to learn from men and being in the voice and heart of a man. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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But she doesn’t have an ending yet.


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