In Other Words
Faith and Fat Chances by Carla Trujillo
In the fictional Santa Fe barrio of Dogtown, wily, hardscrabble locals must defend their quirky community against business and political interests who want to level their community and put a high- end winery in its place. But there’s a twist. The villain spearheading the wine project is a prodigal Hispano son, returned from urban California ready and willing to displace his own family to get what he wants. In response, the angry residents of Dogtown don’t just organize and agitate — they get supernatural.
Stepping well beyond her daily routine of limpias and readings, the local curandera dusts off her most potent herbs and vengeful spells, recruiting a mysterious young man who seems to be able to summon nature itself, if sufficiently provoked. Meanwhile, an artsy gay Latina takes matters into her own hands. She ditches her earthy outfits for high heels and fake eyelashes, vamping and flirting her way into the confidential circle of the town’s mayor, all the while tallying up his secrets and weaknesses to be used against him. The result is something like The Milagro Beanfield
War meets Bless Me, Ultima, set in a neighborhood that’s essentially a proxy for what remains of the City Different’s working-class Chicano bohemia. The novel is the latest offering from Carla Trujillo, whose last novel was 2003’s What Night Brings — a blistering bildungsroman set in 1960s Northern California that follows a young girl rebelling against ingrained machismo and Catholic propriety. The debut novel won the Miguel Mármol Prize for best first work of fiction by a Latino/a writer, the Latino Book Award for fiction, and the Paterson Fiction Prize.
In recent interviews, Trujillo has said Faith and
Fat Chances was partially inspired by her own childhood experiences growing up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, when a developer used eminent domain to wipe out her grandmother’s corner grocery store. Despite the sad real-life origins of this fiction al novel, Trujillo injects quite a bit of humor into the rowdy crew of Santa Feans. In one scene, Pepa the curandera and Camilo, her mysterious protégé, convince the neighborhood priest to allow them to burn a new type of herb during a mass addressing the winery development. Instead of being hypnotic, the incense is a deep sedative, and the Catholic mass soon becomes an embarrassing mass nap.
The conversations between slightly butch girlfriends Tala and Nina, as the latter dolls herself up in wigs and miniskirts for her undercover gig, are priceless — as is the dread Trujillo conjures up between adult siblings Tala and Gilbert Cordova when they attempt civil conservation over her brother’s business plan to destroy the neighborhood in which they were raised.
But Trujillo writes a convincing portrait of the city’s increasingly marginalized working-class neighborhoods, where roots run deep and problems—both criminal and social—tend to be dealt with internally, lest they attract the attention of police, tourists, the wealthy, or anyone else who would fail to fully understand them. Trujillo’s ear for New Mexico Spanglish is excellent. Unlike its loanword-happy California strain (“Pues, likearme en Facebook”), New Mexico Spanglish tends to insert whole strings of standard Spanish phrases into Englishlanguage conversation. Another aspect of the novel that is worthy of attention is how Nina and Tala, the lesbian couple at the center of the plot, are fully integrated into their families and community. While we may live in an age where books and movies abound with confident gay couples, few come from the side of tracks depicted in this book. Trujillo’s portrait of two women of color committed to each other, who run businesses and shoulder significant risks to defend their communities while remaining trusted members of their extended blue-collar families, is a narrative sorely lacking in the media landscape. It’s worth remembering that the other literary accomplishments for which Trujillo has been justly awarded is for her work as an editor of Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (Third Woman Press) and Living Chicana Theory (Third Woman Press), two anthologies that have remained in humanities grad school rotation since being first published in the 1990s. Unlike Trujillo’s previous work, Faith and Fat
Chances has a feel-good ending that manages to unite Pepa and Camilo’s supernatural strivings with the increasingly risky and bizarre undercover life Nina leads at City Hall with Rolo, Santa Fe’s boorish mayor. A subplot involving nuclear radiation exposure in the 1940s at the Los Alamos National Laboratory never goes anywhere, but perhaps that’s the point. As Santa Feans strive for social justice, it may be the author’s insistent reminder that the nuclear contamination of the past is an issue far too vast to ignore and far too ingrained to truly address. What we can do, the author insists, is organize our communities, defend our families, and fall back on the old spiritual folkways of our ancestors.