This week, we lost writer Michele Serros to cancer at the age of 48 – a blow to the many who were inspired by her unique, wry voice and observations on Chican@ identity and culture.
A California-born Chicana who didn’t speak much Spanish, Serros was a voice for those who grappled with their cultural identity – capturing the “ni de aquí ni de allá” feeling that often comes from being second (or third, or fourth) generation in sharply humorous essays, stories and poems. Her writing, most notably Chicana Falsa: And Other Stories of Death, Identity, and Oxnard and How to Be a Chicana Role Model, has come to be regarded as a staple of Chican@ studies syllabi, and Newsweek once dubbed her a “Woman to Watch for the New Century.”
In many ways, Serros was a forerunner for the type of writing and perspective that made websites like ours possible; her explorations of what it means to be Latino/a were deeply insightful, but above all entertaining – a one-two punch. Her humorous point of view even landed her a job writing for the George Lopez sitcom in 2002.
Remezcla spoke with Bianca Bracho, a close family friend of Serros’, who contributed this statement on Serros’ impact – not just as a nationally recognized writer, but as a truly remarkable person:
“Most people knew Michele as a writer and Chican@ culture connoisseur, but I knew her as my godmother. She wasn’t my godmother in the traditional sense, as our bond was not sanctioned by any church or holy ceremony. I met Michele when I was 10 years old, as she was a friend of my mom and uncle’s, and we quickly hit it off. She asked me to record some of the voices on her Chicana Falsa CD and after that I don’t think there was a week that went by where we didn’t talk or hang out, since she lived in our neighborhood.
I spent the formative years of my adolescence with Michele. She reveled in the drama of Judy Blume-style teen life. She would invite me over for sleepovers, and I remember watching Heathers for the first time with her and making chicken cordon bleu, or the time we set up a lemonade stand and the local fire department rolled up in their truck and bought our entire batch. We’d have long talks as we drove around the Westside, gossiping about cute guys in bands and at the local Trader Joe’s, or if J. Lo really had padded underwear on under the purple jumpsuit she wore in Selena.
Michele had great taste in music, from Esquivel to Elliot Smith. During the height of my indie rock years, she got me a Death to the Pixies t-shirt along with their entire discography…teenage dreams come true. She introduced me to one of my favorite bands to this day, the Make-Up, and we reveled in their ye-ye garage chant Pow! To the People. I was so inspired that in 10th grade, she took me to chop off my lengthy brown hair into a Spock-like pixie cut, despite my mom’s protests.
Michele was a total ham and a comedian, she was always cracking jokes and playing pranks, making goofy voices and faces. She idolized all things John Waters and 60s kitsch/trashy. From years of avid thrifting she had an enviable collection of vintage clothes and accessories that I would covet, and she would show me photos of her mod bob and scooter days in Oxnard. She could make a good story out of anything, even the politics of frozen vegetables. When I think about who I am today, I see all of the ways she inspired me, like she did for countless others through her words. I was lucky enough to know the Michele between the lines, past the pages. She was my mentor, confidant, friend, teacher and godmother.
Thank you for all your love and the time you spent with me Michele, it meant everything.”
To honor Serros’ life and work, we have compiled a list of Chican@ lit must reads, curated by Gabriela Nuñez, an Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, focused on Contemporary Chicana/o/Latina/o Literature and Culture.
Chicana Falsa: And Other Stories of Death, Identity and Oxnard by Michele Serros
This collection of poetry and short stories about Latino/a life in America was Serros’ first book, capturing her experiences growing up in Oxnard and forging an outsider identity that bridged working-class Mexican-American culture with So-Cal pop culture. Her entertaining, humorous voice made the book nationally successful, and it eventually became required reading in many high schools and universities in Southern California.
How to Be a Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros
“The wisecracking, bicultural/bilingual, self-deprecating, post-Valley Girl author of Chicana Falsa once again serves up a slice of her own life, this time focusing on the lessons she has learned about being a writer and de facto role model. Chronicling the experiences and responsibilities of semisuccessful Chicana poet and writer “Michele Serros,” the book is divided into a series of The House on Mango Street-style vignettes, each titled with a numbered “role model rule,” like “Seek Support from Sistas” and “Honor Thy Late-Night Phone Calls from Abuelita.” Sandwiched between these stories are thematic riffs and an ongoing debate with a conference organizer over an honorarium that was never paid, or correspondence with teacher fans who want to correct the fictional Serros’s English or her Spanish. “Let’s Go Mexico,” one of the longer stories, is a humorous take on immersion language classes set in a tourist town outside of Mexico City. For all of Serros’s wit –and she can be absolutely hilarious – there is a darker side to her humor. The fictional Serros moves from menial job to menial job. She recognizes that like her father (a “brown ghost” to his Anglo co-workers), she is too often either invisible or assumed to be a maid, and that Latinos can be as prejudiced as whites. She takes several swipes at academics and critics who assume that one Latina writer is much like another. She comes down especially hard on anyone who doubts her talent: “To my family, writing was not important. Writing was somewhat selfish. Writing was just plain rude.” Serros turns out a funny yet poignant defense of her craft.” – Publishers Weekly
Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa
“Rooted in Gloria Anzaldúa’s experience as a Chicana, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer, the essays and poems in this volume profoundly challenged, and continue to challenge, how we think about identity. Borderlands / La Frontera remaps our understanding of what a “border” is, presenting it not as a simple divide between here and there, us and them, but as a psychic, social, and cultural terrain that we inhabit, and that inhabits all of us.” – Amazon
Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes
“This novel adds another important chapter to the existing body of literature about the Mexican-American experience. Viramontes (The Moths and Other Stories), who teaches at Cornell, does not offer deep characterization or psychological complexity here. Instead, working firmly in the social-realist vein of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, she paints a harrowing ensemble portrait of migrant laborers in California’s fruit fields. The family of 13-year-old Estrella, and the others with whom they travel and work, burn under 109-degree heat until the backs of their necks sting; women nurse their babies in the backs of pickups. Viramontes depicts this world with a sensuous physicality, as when Petra, Estrella’s mother, digs a fingernail into the melting tar of a blacktop highway. And the close quarters in which her characters are forced to live promotes a collective intimacy that Viramontes evokes with a sure hand, conveying the solace to be found in solidarity while never losing sight of the fact that these people enjoy absolutely no privacy. Slow and wandering at the outset, the novel picks up after a small plane releases a white shower of deadly pesticide, which washes over the face of Alejo, a teenager who is perched in a peach tree, busy stealing the soft, ripe fruit. Alejo is drenched with poison, much to the horror of Estrella, who has fallen in love with him. Alejo becomes sick with what the migrants call “da?o of the fields”?so sick that the de facto leader of the workers wants to leave him behind. But Estrella makes it her mission to help save him, and she is driven to great sacrifice in order to do so. Into this unforgiving world, Viramontes pours archetypal themes of the passage of time, young love, the bonds and tensions between generations and, above all, the straining of the spirit to transcend miserable material conditions.” – Publishers Weekly
...Y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera
“… y no se lo tragó la tierra/ And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971) is a milestone in Mexican American literary history, set explicitly within the social and political contexts of the agricultural laborer’s life in the years after World War II. Winner in 1970 of the first Quinto Sol Prize for literature, the most prestigious literary award in the early years of Chicano literature, Rivera’s novel, from which the present selections are drawn, became a primary element of the new Mexican American literary history.” – The Heath Anthology of American Literature
The Love & Rockets comic series by Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez
“The original, seminal Love & Rockets comic book series, which ran for 50 issues from 1981 to 1996, singlehandedly defined the post-underground generation of comics that spawned Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and so many others. Now collected into 15 volumes, Love & Rockets is a body of work that The Nation has described as “one of the hidden treasures of our impoverished culture.” Created by brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez, three Southern California Mexican-Americans armed with a passion for pop culture and punk rock, Love & Rockets gave a voice to minorities and women for the first time in the medium’s then 50-year history and remains one of the greatest achievements in comic book history.” – Goodreads.
Eulogy for a Brown Angel by Lucha Corpi
“Corpi (Delia’s Song–not reviewed) brings a Chicana feminist perspective to the mystery genre and does so with enough originality to overcome some stilted and murky writing. The story begins when civil-rights activist Gloria Damasco discovers the body of a murdered child on an L.A. street during a Chicano demonstration in 1970. Damasco has a “dark gift,” an uncontrollable extrasensory awareness that’s stirred by this discovery and that will bring her back to investigate it time and again until the truth is finally revealed in 1988. When a gang member who may know the killer’s identity is also murdered, Damasco works with a dying police detective to reveal a second killer, but that effort apparently closes all the doors to the mastermind behind the killings. She eventually returns to her family in Oakland, believing the crime will never be solved, although she keeps collecting information about the case over the years. Many readers will have pinpointed the killer’s identity long before the heroine does, but one last nasty little secret is revealed in the bloody conclusion that adds an extra wallop to the convoluted goings-on. Awkward and slow moving at times, but still worthwhile mystery-reading.” – Kirkus Reviews
So Far From God by Ana Castillo
“Castillo’s ( Sapogonia ) inventive but not entirely cohesive novel about the fortunes of a contemporary Chicana family in the village of Tome, N.M., reveals its main concerns at once. Sofi’s three-year-old daughter dies in a horrifying epileptic fit but is resurrected (and even levitates) at her own funeral, reporting firsthand acquaintance with hell, purgatory and heaven. Magic and divine intervention in varying ways touch each of Sofi’s three other daughters: the eldest, mainstreamed yuppie Esperanza; Caridad, whose path leads toward folk mysticism; and the more mundane Fe, who–seized with a screaming convulsion when her fiance jilts her–is brought to silence only months later through the intercession of the resurrected youngest sister, “Loca.” Castillo takes a page from the magical realist school of Latin American fiction, but one senses the North American component of this Chicana voice: in her work, occult phenomena are literal, not symbolic; life is traumatic and brutal–as are men–but death is merely tentative. She sounds a secondary note as a proponent of feminism and social justice, but her hand falters when she attempts to blend the formation of an artisans’ cooperative or an industrial toxins scandal into a universe of magical healings and manifestations. Castillo is also a critic, a translator and a poet.” – Publishers Weekly
Loving in the War Years by Cherrie Moraga
“Weaving together poetry and prose, Spanish and English, family history and political theory, Loving in the War Years has been a classic in the feminist and Chicano canon since its 1983 release. This new edition—including a new introduction and three new essays—remains a testament of Moraga’s coming-of-age as a Chicana and a lesbian at a time when the political merging of those two identities was severely censured.
Drawing on the Mexican legacy of Malinche, the symbolic mother of the first mestizo peoples, Moraga examines the collective sexual and cultural wounding suffered by women since the Conquest. Moraga examines her own mestiza parentage and the seemingly inescapable choice of assimilation into a passionless whiteness or uncritical acquiescence to the patriarchal Chicano culture she was raised to reproduce. By finding Chicana feminism and honoring her own sexuality and loyalty to other women of color, Moraga finds a way to claim both her family and her freedom.
Moraga’s new essays, written with a voice nearly a generation older, continue the project of “loving in the war years,” but Moraga’s posture is now closer to that of a zen warrior than a street-fighter. In these essays, loving is an extended prayer, where the poet-politica reflects on the relationship between our small individual deaths and the dyings of nations of people (pueblos). Loving is an angry response to the “cultural tyranny” of the mainstream art world and a celebration of the strategic use of “cultural memory” in the creation of an art of resistance.” – Goodreads
Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros
“In this collection of Mexican-American stories, Cisneros addresses the reader in a voice that is alternately buoyant, strong, funny, and sad. The brief vignettes of the opening piece, “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” are tiles in a mosaic. Taken together, these vignettes give a vivid, colorful picture of life on the Texas/Mexico border. Family ties are strong: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents are all present. The stories are often about the romantic dreams of young girls longing to escape stifling small-town life who discover that things are not much different on the other side of the border. Cisneros has an acute eye for the telling detail that reveals the secrets and the dreams of her characters. She writes with humor and love about people she knows intimately.”- Library Journal
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
“Plascencia’s mannered but moving debut begins with an allegory for art and the loss that drives it: a butcher guts a boy’s cat; the boy constructs paper organs for the feline, who is revivified; the boy thus becomes the world’s first origami surgeon. Though Plascencia’s book sometimes seems to take the form of an autobiographical attempt to come to terms with a lost love, little of this experimental work—a mischievous mix of García Márquez magical realism and Tristram Shandy typographical tricks—is grounded in reality. Early on we meet a “Baby Nostradamus” and a Catholic saint disguised as a wrestler while following the enuretic Fernando de la Fe and his lime-addicted daughter from Mexico to California. Fernando—whose wife, tired of waking in pools of piss, has left him—settles east of L.A. in El Monte. He gathers a gang of carnation pickers to wage a quixotic war against the planet Saturn and, in a Borges-like discovery, Saturn turns out to be Salvador Plascencia. Over a dozen characters narrate the story while fighting like Lilliputians to emancipate themselves from Plascencia’s tyrannical authorial control. Playful and cheeky, the book is also violent and macabre: masochists burn themselves; a man bleeds horribly after performing cunnilingus on a woman made of paper. Plascencia’s virtuosic first novel is explosively unreal, but bares human truths with devastating accuracy.” – Publishers Weekly
The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue by Manuel Muñoz
“Manuel Munoz’s dazzling collection is set in a Mexican-American neighborhood in central California-a place where misunderstandings and secrets shape people’s lives. From a set of triplets with three distinct fates to a father who places his hope-and life savings-in the hands of a faith healer, the characters in these stories cross paths in unexpected ways. As they do, they reveal a community that is both embracing and unforgiving, and they discover a truth about the nature of home: you always live with its history. Munoz is an explosive new talent who joins the ranks of such acclaimed authors as Junot Diaz and Daniel Alarcon.” – Goodreads
Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza
“Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.
Imaginative, inspiring, lyrical, and beautifully written, Still Water Saints evokes the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the spirit through the journeys of the people of Agua Mansa, and especially of the one woman at the center of it all. Theirs are stories of faith and betrayal, love and loss, the bonds of family and community, and the constancy of change.” – From the Hardcover edition