Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Hope and A Box of Saints. (Books)

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Hope and A Box of Saints. (Books)

Article excerpt

Maria Amparo Escandon burst onto the international literary scene in 1999 with her novel Esperanza's Box of Saints, published in English by the prestigious North American house Simon and Schuster. The following year Plaza & Janes published Santitos, the Spanish version, translated by the author herself. The book has received rave reviews on both sides of the border. Newsweek pegged Escandon as a rising star, and Jorge Ramos, of the Spanish-language television station Univision, called the publication of Santitos "an event in Latin American literature." The novel has been translated into thirteen languages and has inspired a film, whose script was also written by Escandon. Produced by John Sayles and directed in Mexico by Alejandro Springall, the movie was released in January 2000, and was a tremendous success in Mexico, the author's native country. Esperanza's Box of Saints is a highly audacious piece of work. The author dares to tell a story about the most tragic event imaginable for a mother--the death of a child--with humor. In the dreamy little town of Tlacotalpan, Esperanza Diaz, the book's protagonist, takes her daughter Blanca to the hospital for a routine tonsillectomy, and, inexplicably, the girl dies. Or at least, that's what they tell Esperanza. But since she can't verify the facts, Esperanza refuses to believe it.

Suddenly, Saint Judas Tadeo, patron of desperate causes, appears in the greasy oven window of Esperanza's stove and tells her that Blanca isn't dead. Convinced that her daughter has been abducted and sold to a brothel by a prostitution ring dealing in teenagers, Esperanza--whose name means "hope" (her most salient characteristic)--undertakes a long journey to search for Blanca. Her travels take her to the red-light district of Tijuana and to the most sordid comers of Los Angeles. Her journey is one of self-exploration, of course, and through it Esperanza, a widow who has remained faithful to the memory of her deceased husband, learns to love again and, finally, to accept her daughter's destiny. During her expedition through Baja California and the southwestern United States, Esperanza accumulates statues of saints, which go into the "box of saints" that accompanies her everywhere. Her santitos guide her and help her to maintain a pure mind and body during this period of terrible tribulations. In her travels she lands in some outrageous situations, where she meets some truly grotesque and laughable characters. But through it all, Esperanza never loses sight of her goal, and her faith never flags.

Escandon's face lights up when she speaks of her protagonist. A stunning, vibrant woman with an easy laugh and a slightly mocking tone, the author gives the impression of not taking herself too seriously. Escandon makes fun of her own naivete when she set out to write, translate, and create the script for Esperanza's Box of Saints. Like her protagonist, she is frank and to the point, and she exudes tremendous human warmth. But when it comes to her writing, she is earnest, dogged, and almost chillingly clear-sighted.

Escandon explains that she wrote Esperanza's Box of Saints, her first novel, after asking herself what she would do if someone told her that her daughter was dead, and she was unable to confirm it. "My immediate response would be to deny it," she says. "And to prove them wrong, I would do what any mother would do in such a case: everything. Anything and everything. Ask God for help? Of course! Search the world up and down? Naturally! Become a prostitute? Without a second thought. And searching for her, I'd have to find myself. And that's how my character Esperanza undertakes this trip of self-discovery that is ordinary and extraordinary, funny and spiritual, profound and irreverent all at the same time. I wanted to write a sad comedy in a direct, lively, whimsical, and sexy way, one you could see, smell, taste, and touch, and one that made the reader burst out laughing and afterwards feel guilty about having done it. …

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