"The Spirits Talk to Us": Regionalism, Poverty, and Romance in Mexican American Gothic Fiction

By Hedrick, Tace | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

"The Spirits Talk to Us": Regionalism, Poverty, and Romance in Mexican American Gothic Fiction


Hedrick, Tace, Studies in the Novel


This essay examines Mary Castillo's 2012 Lost in the Light and Alisa Valdes's 2013 The Temptation ofDemetrio VigiL both Mexican American gothic romances. The characters of both novels traverse parts of what are usually called the West, but which Americo Paredes called Greater Mexico, a term that I adapt to show the often-suppressed presence of Mexican Americans throughout the region. In these novels each heroine's close relationship with her ghostly protagonist--one a poor Mexican American liquor smuggler in the 1920s, the other a poor cholo gangbanger from the near present--reveals specificities and differences between regional experiences, especially those of working-class and poor Mexican Americans. Through the lens of gothic theory and critical regionalism, I consider the ways that specific Mexican American cultures are evoked through the plot elements of a popular genre like the gothic romance. I argue that the striking prevalence of scenes of Mexican American regional and ethnic poverty in what would seem to be "beach read" popular novels suggests that in the Mexican American gothic, the sense of anxiety and abjection requires uneasy scenes of Mexican American destitution and violence, scenes which function as the true heart of gothic fear and uncertainty for their heroines.

African-American authors' appropriation and revision of Gothic
conventions shows that the gothic is not a transhistorical, static
category but a dynamic mode that undergoes historical change....
--Teresa Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation

In gothic temporality the past does not dissolve itself smoothly
as the present takes its place. Instead, traces of the past remain
active, rebounding upon, clawing back, interrupting, exposing, and
even mocking the actions and intentions of today....Gothic meets
regionalism when pathological or corrupt historical residues are
located, not in a rotten patrilineage or a family secret, but
rather in a community mentality....
--Jennifer Lawn, "Scarfies, Dunedin Gothic, and the Spirit of
Capitalism"

"We're Orihuelas and Mexicans. The spirits talk to us.'"
--Mary Castillo, Lost in the Light

At the beginning of Mary Castillo's 2012 modern gothic romance Lost in the Light, present-day, working-class, Mexican American1 police detective Dori Orihuela is at a low ebb in her life. Wounded in a shootout, on leave pending an investigation, suffering from mild PTSD, not sure she can afford her tumble-down Carpenter Gothic home, she is hyperalert and vulnerable. To make things worse, the handsome Mexican American contractor on her house turns out to be Gavin, her ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her because he believes she cheated on him. In this state, on one particularly bad day a stranger suddenly appears, first outside, then in the parlor of her house, as if by magic. The man, we will discover, is in fact a revenant, a ghost tied to a specific place: he is Vicente Sorolla, a poor Mexican American from the barrio who, for a time, made good during the Prohibition in the violent, unstable liquor smuggling business on the California-Mexico border. His betrayal and death in Dori's house (he doesn't know what happened to his body or to his love, Ana Vasquez, after he died) ties him ineluctably to the house itself. Dori is forced to watch as Vicente relives his last day and his graphic beating death by Anglo deputies in her parlor:

Two red-faced men stood over Vince, laughing as he fought for breath.
His jacket was half ripped off, dirtied with boot prints. A pool of
blood oozed off the rug and onto the wood floor. His fingers were so
broken and mangled, they were more pulp than skin and bone.

"No one's going to miss one more grease bag Mexican," the two men
joked. Dori saw the deputy stars on their belts. One had a bloody
chain wrapped around his fist....

Through the swollen folds of skin [Dori] made out his eyes, staring
straight into hers. "Do you see me?" he wheezed. His cold, bloodied
hand squeezed her foot. … 

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