With Lucia Zarate, award-winning author Cecilia Velastegui has woven a beautiful tale of the late 1800s, when superstition still abounded and life was both freer and far more dangerous. It was a time when that which was strange and unusual was exploited for profit. It was into this world that our eponymous Lucia Zarate was born. She was a tiny thing, standing the height of a two-year-old though she was twelve. Effectively sold by her family to a “Yankee” agent, Lucia was destined to travel around the world that people might gawk at her diminutive frame. In her home region, Lucia was considered to be “chaneque,” one of the wee folk said to be mischievous river sprites. Truly, it was better for her family to send her abroad.
The story is told mostly from her guardian, Zoila’s, point of view, and it is with her circumstances that we begin. Aged twenty-five and unmarried, Zoila is put in rather dire straits when her father dies and his web of lies becomes exposed. As an interpreter and vanilla-trader, he had brokered double-sided deals and breached his own supposed code of linguistic ethics, making promises that would never be kept. When he died, he owed a substantial amount, and that taint passed to Zoila. With the death of her one friend and secret love, Felipe, and being considered a top suspect in a murder she had nothing to do with, Zoila is sent all the way to Veracruz, where she is lucky enough to discover a unique position that would make use of her sharp mind, her cleverness and knowledge, and the many languages her father taught her. In short, she would travel with Lucia, being her chaperone, to keep her safe and to teach her.
At first Zoila desired to abandon Lucia once in the US. After all, getting to the States had been Zoila’s primary concern. Upon seeing the treatment Lucia received, though, she stayed on. Years passed in the sideshow circuit, with Lucia touring first with Frank Uffner and later with PT Barnum briefly. She traveled throughout the US, UK, and Europe, meeting queens, presidents, and other important figures. Lucia became rather full of herself and had numerous conflicts with other troupe members. She was incredibly extroverted, possessed of a playful nature and sharp intellect. A decade passed thus, and her prestige slowly waned. She died shy of age 30, not far past Donner Pass in California, like that ill-fated party so long before, victim to the Sierras’ fearsome winter weather.
Velastegui has woven a most interesting biography, full of rich, lyrical imagery. I had never heard of Lucia Zarate and found her life fascinating. Insights into just how grueling sideshow work was floored me. These people were treated to terrible conditions and crude mockery as if they were not human at all, at times. They were poked and prodded as “medical curiosities” and “missing links,” called freaks and made to entertain audiences for a pittance while their so-called managers raked in cash. What petty beings are we…
Not only did I learn of Lucia Zarate and gain a greater appreciation for the full nature of exploitative behavior toward the more unusual among us, the anthropologist in me was treated to a glimpse of Totonac culture and vanilla cultivation. Threaded through the story is beautiful symbolism tied to seemingly ordinary events, connecting things like the lore of the owl to the Totonac and what is presaged for Felipe, the flutist Birdman, and later for Lucia herself.
I enjoy reading authors of other cultures because culture surely shapes writing. It echoes values and reflects sociocultural frameworks. This was my first experience with both Velastegui’s works and a Latina author. It comes as no surprise to me that this book should have been among the finalists of the 2017 International Latino Book Awards.
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