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Patricia Engel: Vida

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By Patricia Engel

Black Cat, paperback

Fact: It’s going to be a long time before another stream of American art comes as close to capturing the lives of Latin American women in America as Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics/spinoffs, if only because Los Bros Hernandez have now been following some of their characters for more than 20 years. Colombian-American author Patricia Engel, though, kicks off an impressive start to her own journey in that realm with her debut collection of stories, Vida, which episodically traces the life of one woman from her early teens through young adult, twentysomething drift.

Her name is Sabina, and she’s the American-born, New Jersey-raised child of parents who immigrated from Colombia before La Violencia and La Situacíon took over the country by the mid-1980s. Sabina grows up in a rural New Jersey where “Latino” is the boilerplate marker for anybody originally from south of the Rio Grande River—even though she can tell the Costa Ricans from the Puerto Ricans, the Guatemalans from the El Salvadoreans—and young alpha-girls make fun of her by calling her skin the “color of diarrhea” and saying boys don’t like her “because you looked like their maids.” Vida’s nine stories offer snapshots of Sabina’s life—the suburban high-school experience, the New York college experience, the disorienting trips back to Colombia, the kicking about in Miami—that chart brief loves and almost-romances, monumental historical moments overshadowed by personal experiences. And she mines these life events in emotionally blunt simplicity that’s disarmingly poetic: a cute boy’s long eyelashes “could split your will into shards;” singles in bars on Valentine’s Day have faces like “stray dogs looking for owners.”

What Engel captures so acutely is the vast cultural inner-life of second-generation Americans. “Colombian-American” isn’t merely a convenient ethnic marker but a modest glimpse of the scope of Sabina’s experience, one that isn’t part Colombian and part American but the continuum that bridges two countries and cultures. Engel’s observational touch not only admits that immigrant families often contend with two sets of class differences—those suburban/urban wealth indicators that all Americans confront and those between parents and their relatives back home—but she nicely illustrates how they play out within the family, between spouses, and between young cousins.

This lovely, heartbreaking subtlety is best displayed in “Paloma,” in which Sabina’s aunt—an unmarried and childless New Yorker who enjoys crossword puzzles and word finders—becomes ill. It’s less a story of illness than an exploration of different kinds of acculturation. Paloma, Sabina’s mother’s half-sister, lives in a tiny midtown studio apartment and in many ways is a consummate Manhattanite: “She always wore slacks and supportive shoes for walking the city streets, and had the glare of a real lonely New Yorker with a list of complaints about the taxes, the pollution, crime, and the mayor.” Even so, she still “spoke English as if she had arrived last week” and “recklessly spliced her two languages.” Sabina’s mom, on the other hand, is a suburban woman who through dress alone can remind her husband of her social stature back in Colombia. And during the story’s economical 20 or so pages, Engel thumbnail sketches the lives of these two close but very different women—and, in an understated example of coming-of-age universality, views those lives through the eyes of a young woman who is beginning to realize that life can offer her more than either her mom or aunt could imagine.

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