The King and Queen of Comezón by Denise Chávez, University of Oklahoma Press, 309 pages
South of Las Cruces, in a border town as raunchy as it is brokenhearted, the residents of Comezón, New Mexico, live at what the town’s estranged priest calls “the flaming, itching culo of the universe.” The King and Queen of Comezón is a panoramic portrait of Southern New Mexico personalities — unapologetically soaked in Spanglish, earnest and gritty as a town gossip airing a neighbor’s dirty laundry.
Comezón translates as an itch but also suggests unsatisfied longings and anxieties that come to dwell in the mind and persist there for decades. You won’t find the town of the same name on any New Mexico map, but the fictional village faithfully evokes a small town in Doña Ana County. Author Denise Chávez, executive director of the annual Border Book Festival in Las Cruces and author of the cult Chicano-lit hit Loving Pedro Infante, was born and raised in the county.
The narrative — bookended between Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day in mid-September — uses jokes, dreams, scandals, and family secrets to make a sharp, comic portrait of the manner in which history and families imprint themselves on people who thought they’d devised ways to escape their clutches. What happens in a place like Comezón stays forever in a place like Comezón.
As the center of the story is the town’s longtime master of ceremonies, Arnulfo Olivárez, a sweaty, boastful patriarch who never met a pair of riveted mariachi pants his belly couldn’t bust through. He is both a preening boor, who refers to Emilia, his wife of several decades, as “La Gorda,” and an impassioned man whose ceaseless and anxious babbling inadvertently spills over with poetry. The long-suffering Emilia kindly weathers her husband’s accusations that her hot flashes during pregnancy left their only biological daughter, Juliana, crippled for life. Quietly, and without complaint, Emilia also raises Lucinda, the daughter of Arnulfo and the family maid, as if she were her own.
Good suitors elude twenty-something Juliana and Lucinda. Lucinda becomes a bombshell Cinco de Mayo queen. She elopes to White Sands on the night of her coronation — a tiara still in her hair — with the town sheriff’s sleazy son. Wheelchair-bound Juliana spends her young adult life in her parents’ house, exploring the outside world through an intense devotion to painting, praying, and reading. Blessed with a naive and unflaggingly positive spirit, she fails to understand why most town residents pity her for her grossly deformed legs, just as she struggles to fathom why the town’s priest becomes so quickly inflamed by her perfectly formed breasts during their private catechism sessions.
Chávez is long on border-culture atmosphere, offering a plot that is a ritualistic account of a small-town summer: hidden love, early death, immigrant loss, and the unending anxiety of preserving a family’s name, identity, and honor. She has a special capacity for threading telenovela vulgarity into what is essentially a portrait of New Mexico village quirkiness. Here she is describing the smell of the town’s bar, El Mil Recuerdos: “a cross between booze and perfume, cheap aftershave and alternating hot and cold piss, horny men and hornier women on and off the proverbial gara. It was the smell of semen, old farts, moldy dust, and red enchiladas with an egg on top, over medium, New Mexico style.”
Through her characters, Chávez finds time to address the little-known sociocultural rivalry between Southern and Northern New Mexico. This is Arnulfo lamenting his wife’s roots among pious santeros of Truchas: “They were country people from the darkest recesses of New Mexico, those little landlocked northern villages in the mountains where people clumped together to keep warm on those cold winter nights and then begat offspring with little tails or webbed toes and extra ribs. ... They were fearful of so many things and disdained company. ... and they had THAT LOOK, which isolated them even further, as they didn’t know or care much about the real world. They were, in short, artists.”
By the book’s conclusion, Chávez has unearthed her characters’ flaws and passions while completing a portrait of life in Southern New Mexico that is pitch perfect. Most of the book’s characters seem either on the verge of adulthood or on the cusp of senility, showcasing the author’s humanistic impetus to reveal the multitude of ways in which our bodies are imperfect vessels for containing our dreams and expressing our desires.