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  • Cristina Herrera

Para Las “Callejeras,” the “Bad Women,” and All Those Mujeres Our Mothers Warned Us About: A Review of Estella Gonzalez’s Huizache Women

My abuela, Mamá Chonita, was not an easy woman, nor was she what some would consider very affectionate. Her hugs and kisses were offered sparingly, so I took it as a sign of her deep love for me that my twin sister and I were among the select few recipients of her cariño. Like many women of her generation, she left México at a very young age, not quite out of adolescence, to migrate to California a mere weeks after she married my abuelo.


I often wonder how different Mamá Chonita’s life could have been, whether she would have been happier, dare I say, less corajuda, had she not left her mother and sisters behind at such a young age. How did the circumstances that shaped my grandmother’s life, and indeed those circumstances that so many immigrant and poor Mexican women face, contribute to her becoming the woman my own mother cannot recall without deep hurt and even anger? Are Mexican women like my abuela born or made?


These questions undergird much of Estella Gonzalez’s new novel, Huizache Women, which traces the tragic tale of its heroine and matriarch, Merced, her daughters, and the narrator, Merced’s granddaughter, Lucha.


In this brutal novel that does not shy away from topics like domestic violence, incest, and marital rape, we meet the kind of characters that rarely ever get their own story, except perhaps to serve as a cautionary tale. Alternating between these three generations of women spanning from the 1930’s to 1980’s, Gonzalez takes her readers on a transborder trek, starting with Merced’s humble beginnings in El Sauz, Chihuahua, as a teenager enamored by María Félix films; her desperate marriage as a teen bride to a much older man named Donaciono so she can flee her lustful and depraved father, Plutarco; and finally, her passionate, doomed affair with Leandro that leads her across the border to El Paso and eventually to East Los Angeles, where Lucha, one of our storytellers, comes of age. 

In this brutal novel that does not shy away from topics like domestic violence, incest, and marital rape, we meet the kind of characters that rarely ever get their own story, except perhaps to serve as a cautionary tale.

It’s what happens between these life altering events that serve as the heart of the story. As a young woman in El Sauz, Merced comes to rely on the trusty huizache tree in her family’s yard to hide her secret yearnings and desires, namely a life away from her father, Plutarco, who lusts after his own daughters. In its sturdiness and steadfast presence, the huizache comes to symbolize what in many ways is always out of Merced’s grasp, for she is never quite able to live a contented, tranquil life like the tree she admires. As a jovencita who flees one violent home only to enter another, the novel explores the grip of intergenerational violence that plagues the lives of Merced, her daughters, and granddaughter.


Merced, who is abused by her father, Plutarco and later by her husband, Donaciono, also learns to raise her daughters under the yoke of fists, slaps, and even sex work. So it perhaps should not surprise the reader that Merced is not always a compassionate figure, this hardened matriarch who looms over the family, who forces her daughter, Alma, to engage in sex work alongside her to supplement the meager income they earn as housekeepers at La Plaza Hotel in Juárez, doling out wisdom to her daughters in the form of, “women have to suffer in this world, thanks to Eve” (49).


Yet Merced is a fascinating character precisely because she embodies many contradictions; she receives and inflicts violence while also transcending the traditional ideals of Mexican womanhood, as the omniscient narrator sardonically explains: “Yeah, Merced knows. She’s a puta. She’s a cabrona. Not a decent woman. She likes to drink. Hell, Merced likes to get drunk. And she loves fucking men, big chingón men with smooth beautiful bodies” (24). Not exactly the kind of woman you bring home to meet amá, that’s for sure. But herein lies the complexity of Merced’s character, for Gonzalez reminds readers that, “Before she was wife and Alma, Norma and Suki’s mother, she had been a woman with dreams, craving a man she could love like a warrior, just like María Félix did in Enamorada (28).


And boy, does she love, falling head over heels for a catrín named Leandro while she is married to Donaciano. This same woman who plasters on a hard exterior to survive the brutalities that accompany poverty, a no nonsense barmaid who teaches Alma how to down shots of Presidente to numb the horrors of sex work, transforms into a lovelorn romantic who follows Leandro to El Paso and Boyle Heights, whose love for this sin vergüenza descarado never wanes, even after he leaves her for the younger, fair skinned Gertrudis and attempts to take her home from her, the very dwelling that “she and her daughters had worked their knees, hands and backs at hotels and bars to buy” (173).


In fact, in what is arguably one of the novel’s most humorous scenes, Merced crashes Leandro’s wedding to Gertrudis in epic fashion, stealing the show no less, by outperforming the mariachi’s rendition of “Amor Mío.” Merced never gives up this unrequited love, and her ill-fated attempts to win him back become the cross she willingly carries.


In addition to Merced’s emotional motivations to which the novel gives readers access, we also witness Lucha’s growing observations on the state of her family. Lucha’s love of music and all things 80’s rock often conflicts with Merced’s life experiences, but eventually the two come to a truce. It is Lucha, after all, who eventually promises to bury her grandmother’s remains under the beloved old huizache, who poignantly says in her letter to Merced that serves as the novel’s epilogue, “I understand now” (257). Following her grandmother’s death, a now adult Lucha travels to where her abuela’s story all began, a cycle of violence and brutality that ends with her, the granddaughter.


Reader, Merced is nobody’s sweet grandmother, nobody’s Abuelita, like the gentle face that adorns the box of hot chocolate Latinx families prepare around Christmastime. Instead, Gonzalez’s narrative takes readers deep inside this matriarchal family’s collective psyche to unravel what decades of violence and poverty do to women like her the world over. 

With this sweeping intergenerational tale, Huizache Women joins important works of literature penned by Chicana authors that decry violence against women.

Estella Gonzalez’s Huizache Women is an homage to those so-called “callejeras,” street women, those women our mothers warned us about, as Carla Trujillo once wrote, the indecent women, the “skanky and loud” (113) women like Merced that Lucha describes, the women who sleep with married men, a la Tere Ávila, the hopeless romantic protagonist of Denise Chávez’s masterful novel, Loving Pedro Infante. With this sweeping intergenerational tale, Huizache Women joins important works of literature penned by Chicana authors that decry violence against women, standing alongside texts such as Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek,” Erika Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and Josie Méndez-Negrete’s Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed. In its stark, no-frills treatment of Merced’s hardened life of tequila, sex, and violence, Huizache Women pays abiding respect to women’s stories of endurance and survival.

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08 feb

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