An engaging, lightweight read that also crosses into serious topics, sometimes in passing, sometimes in ways that intersect deeply with the lives of t...moreAn engaging, lightweight read that also crosses into serious topics, sometimes in passing, sometimes in ways that intersect deeply with the lives of the characters. The story follows six Latina women in their late twenties as they grapple with all the large and small dramas that life throws at them. The narrative voice switches chapter by chapter to each of the women in turn, so the reader gets a look at each character from multiple perspectives, in the process also hearing a lot about the internal variations and outer expressions of race and culture. Overall, I found it delightful. True, it’s a pop-culture version of reality, but to be honest I would be thrilled if every white person I knew read this book (and a lot of Latinas too, for that matter.)
They call themselves the sucias (dirty girls), a tongue-in-cheek play on the clichéd Buena Vista Social Club, with a defiantly naughty edge. They’ve been friends since one of those infamous raucous college-bonding-moment nights out, back when we thought we were oh-so-grown-up but now can never really talk about without that tiny little twinge of embarrassment. The sucias keep to a ritual once-a-year reunion, and their personal ties remain strong and evolve as the women mature. Through their voices we hear where they are in life, where they’ve been, and how they’re still learning about themselves and who they are as women, as professionals, as friends, as Latinas. There’s a big chunk of lighthearted romantic comedy involved, so naturally some perfect men and fairytale endings are in the offing. But at the same time, Valdes-Rodriguez has peopled her story with enough main characters to keep the place grounded with some more real-life relationships, where things don’t always work out as expected.
While I enjoy a light summer read as much as the next person, for me the big strength of this book is how author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez goes to great lengths to portray a wide mix of the Latin@ experience. (For those of you not in the know, that "@" is how we avoid all that nonsense of having to write Latina/o all the time to capture both genders.) Yes, we have Latinas that don’t speak Spanish, that don’t even think of themselves as Latina, or Hispanic, or, god forbid, non-white. We have Latinas who think their own ethnic/cultural experience – Nuyorican, Miami Cuban, LA Chicana, whatever – is the sum total of Latina experience in the US. And yes, as Valdez-Rodriguez writes, "we Latinas come in ‘Jew’ too—shame on you for being surprised." And we also come in Black, though we ourselves don’t often admit it. Valdes-Rodriguez takes such care with the details of all these lives and their differences that it could come across as a wee bit Hollywood-artificial, but to be honest, I don’t care. I would be happy if people read Dirty Girls for this reason alone: to step outside of whatever preconceived notion they have about Latin@ culture in the US, and take a look, a really good, long look around.
But it’s not a political rant-and-rave. It’s a good story that draws you in easily, and the women’s Latina identities are as much a part of them as one character’s straight-lacedness, or another’s conspicuous consumption. In fact, the worst thing about this book has nothing to do with the story itself. Rather, it’s how the book has been pigeonholed and essentialized as "Chica lit." (Get it? Get it?? It’s like "chick lit!" But with an "ah" at the end, to make it, you know, like, Espanish! New, improved, and even more patronizing, if that’s possible, with the added ethnic twist! Aren’t we clever?!) And the third one in the obligatory stack of blurbs in the paperback’s first few leaves gushes that The Dirty Girls Social Club "reads like the Hispanic version of Waiting to Exhale!" Oh, there’s so many things wrong with that, where do I even begin??? Except to say that somewhere, there must be legions of Asian-American women, Arab-American women, Native American women, all waiting, breathlessly hoping, "Oh, do we get one, too?!?"
[Edited to add:]
I make it a point not to read any reviews of a book until I've finished mine. After posting this review, I went and read a bunch of other reviews here on Goodreads. I just have to respond to one frequent complaint in a lot of the negative reviews. Many people commented that Valdes-Rodriguez makes the characters so different from each other that they'd never be friends in real life. I have to say that a lot of people are missing a big thing they do have in common (which was referred to in the book): a shared experience of being exotic "others" because of their ethnicity at their majority-white university in a majority-white town. The met and bonded over their shared otherness in college. What brought together this diverse group of women is the fact that as a members of a visible minority, people in the majority treated them (and continue to treat them) as though they were all the same.(less)
Bottom line: laugh out loud funny. I can't remember the last time I laughed this much through a book. I first heard Bill Santiago on an episode of Lat...moreBottom line: laugh out loud funny. I can't remember the last time I laughed this much through a book. I first heard Bill Santiago on an episode of Latino USA, and I was hooked from his first riff about riding the A-train through the oprima-el-dos corridor. Alerta a todos mis Spanglishistas out there: go pick up this book. If you've ever let slip a ¿Qué what?, read a bedtime story when it's time for mimí, or lived in dread of the pow pow, rest assured you will recognize yourself and your family in this book, and you'll laugh your way from beginning to fin.
But this is not really just a funny book. There's way more than that going on here. For one thing, hiding beneath that comic exterior is a serious cultural milestone. Pardon My Spanglish is a consciousness-raising call to all of us closet Spanglish practitioners, who have labored under and seriously internalized all the anti-Spanlish bias and hostility we've heard from parents, teachers, and pedantic followers of The Book -- by which Bill Santiago and I mean, of course, el diccionario de la Real Academia Española. At the heart of Santiago's very funny primer is a mighty revolutionary notion: Spanglish is not "bad" or "lazy" Spanish. It is a cultural marker born out of the deep well of creativity of a very distinct social identity, a bi-cultural community equally at home in Latina/o and American culture, and never fully of either one individually. And, as such, Santiago's call to all us closeted Spanglishistas is powerful and unambiguous: it's time to wave your freak bandera high. Own your Spanglish as proudly as you own your Latina/o heritage, and practice it to your heart's delight.
And there's even more in there. While the comedian may make light of the the Santiago Spanglish Institute for World Peace, the truth is you can't write a book this good without actually knowing something about what you're playing with. To a semi-professional linguist like me, Santiago's dirty little secret is pretty clear to see. He's really done his research. Yes, he does collect real world Spanglish specimens like birdwatchers log rare sightings. But he also knows a thing or two about grammar and linguistics. Don't worry, all the eggheady stuff is very well hidden and will not get in the way of the abundant laughter the book will produce, but it's there, and it makes his effort all the richer.
This book is an absolute treat -- funny, smart, and full of love for the Latin culture. And if all I've written doesn't convince you why you should read this book, the best I can do is leave you with the most beautiful words ever spoken in the Spanglish language: ¿Cómo que why? ¡Porque because!
Bonus feature: To see some vintage Spanglish, beautifully executed by none other than that august founding papucho of Spanglish, Ricky Ricardo, check out this video. And if for some reason that link doesn't work, nada más googléelo. :)(less)
This book earns a good chunk of its rating just by simply existing. Accessible, concise histories such as these, aimed at a general readership, are ne...moreThis book earns a good chunk of its rating just by simply existing. Accessible, concise histories such as these, aimed at a general readership, are nearly impossible to come by. And it mostly achieves its modest goals. The first half of the book is especially good -- the authors take care to deconstruct the Costa Rican myth of a history of benign conquest and colonialism leading directly to an egalitarian paradise in the 20th century. The reality is somewhat harsher, as the authors explain, and substantially more complex.
The book is seriously unbalanced, though, as it deals with a few centuries of history, form pre-Columbian times to about 1930 in about half of its 200-or-so pages, then spends the entire second half of the book focused on the period from about 1930 to around 2005. In the ensuing chapters, the narrative devolves into a mind-numbing alphabet soup of acronyms, statistics, and dollar figures -- it’s a level of specificity that doesn’t really suit this type of survey history. The reader quickly becomes mired in details and loses her orientation to the broader sweep of history. The authors would have done better to dispense with a purely chronological orientation and instead organize the book -- or at least the half dealing with the 20th century -- thematically. It would have been much easier to understand the flow of movements and tendencies in that way, and the book would have been a far more interesting read.
One especially nice feature of the book worth noting is that literally every page is illustrated with an image and/or sidebar quote. The images include maps, charts, drawings/paintings, and photographs, that provide meaningful context and visual resonance for the text presented. And the sidebar quotes run the gamut from colonial era primary sources, to ordinary-person observations of modern era events, adding perspective and amplifying the breadth of the narrative coverage. (less)