In her father’s Peruvian family, Marie Arana was taught to be a proper lady, yet in her mother’s American family she learned to shoot a gun, break a horse, and snap a chicken’s neck for dinner. Arana shuttled easily between these deeply separate cultures for years. But only when she immigrated with her family to the United States did she come to understand that she was a hybrid American whose cultural identity was split in half. Coming to terms with this split is at the heart of this graceful, beautifully realized portrait of a child who “was a north-south collision, a New World fusion. An American Chica.”
Here are two vastly different landscapes: Peru—earthquake-prone, charged with ghosts of history and mythology—and the sprawling prairie lands of Wyoming. In these rich terrains resides a colorful cast of family members who bring Arana’s historia to life...her proud grandfather who one day simply stopped coming down the stairs; her dazzling grandmother, “clicking through the house as if she were making her way onstage.” But most important are Arana’s parents: he a brilliant engineer, she a gifted musician. For more than half a century these two passionate, strong-willed people struggled to overcome the bicultural tensions in their marriage and, finally, to prevail.
Though this memoir of growing up in America and Peru centers on Arana's parents' turbulent marriage, her real focus is the way cultures define, limit and enrich us. At one point, Arana, whose mother is American and father is Peruvian, recalls her first lesson in the color politics of Latin America. She was living in a gated house, in a factory town high in the Andes, and wanted to invite the daughter of the family cook to her birthday party. Of course she can come, said Arana's mother, but if she does, none of the mothers of the other little girls will allow them to attend; an Indian girl is not accepted at a party of aristocratic schoolchildren. "I am reminded of my political innocence," Arana writes, "when I go to Latino conferences in . When I see the children of Spanish-blooded oligarchs line up alongside migrant workers for a piece of affirmative action." It is this willingness to slice through convenient classifications, to see the rifts in every group, that distinguishes Arana's account of how she learned to navigate between a culture that encouraged family loyalty and another that fostered independence. She writes beautifully, whether describing hunting for ghosts in Peru's highlands, chewing tobacco in Wyoming, attending an American school in Lima or finding friends in New Jersey. Arana, the editor of the Washington Post Book World, blends a journalist's dedication to research with a style that sings with humor. Her memoir is an outstanding contribution to the growing shelf of Latina literature.
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