An American Irony, Independence Useless Without Authority.
A lot has happened between 1976 and 2011 that a reader of MARÍA JUANA'S GIFT has to keep in mind, yet this novel, based on real events, resonates with present day themes and emotions. The "borderlands" is that part of our geography that belongs to the people of both the southwestern United States and Mexico, where apprehension and deeply felt humanity coexist and intermingle in ordinary everyday lives. In broad strokes, our "borderlands" experiences are repeated all over the world.
This direct narrative — no stylistic frills — has enormous implications. The plot is simple: A nice man is trying to save the life of his newborn child and he cannot get the cooperation of the people who have authority to help him. The story opens in suspense and action, where every decision and attitude count, we discover later.
Alternating with the race for help in Part I are delicately detailed scenes leading up to this crisis, when two idealistic young teachers from California fall in love and decide to teach in a small Arizona border community, predominantly Spanish speaking. They are welcomed because they know the language and are determined to serve local needs.
In 1976, the 200th year of American Independence, retirement communities were just beginning to appear in southern Arizona. Mexicans who had immigrated to what was originally part of their native land, but changed into a U.S. Territory with the Gadsden Purchase, frequently visited their relatives left behind in Sonora. Sonorans shopped regularly in Tucson. Tucsonans played on the beaches in Sonora. There was almost no difference in culture in the 150 or so miles straddling the political boundary — much of it was nearly uninhabitable — yet there were a few crucial differences.
One was the way the young people in Mexican American families had begun to distinguish themselves as Hispanic, and sometimes distanced themselves from their ancestors. Another was the improvement in economic circumstances once new arrivals from Mexico became U.S. citizens and educational opportunities opened doors for them. They became middle class and even prosperous, while back in Mexico their relatives were living close to poverty.
I first felt irony between the lines of this story when I understood that so many young people in the borderlands wanted what Jake and Tina had turned their backs on to lead more authentic lives.
Where there is poverty there is scarcity of services; any health care available on the Arizona side of the border was (and is) important to Sonorans. On the border there were (and are) clinics where well-educated doctors were (usually temporarily) assigned. Or, depending on their networks and beliefs, sick people trusted women called curanderas who had inherited knowledge of how to treat ailments, and whose great gift was to learn to observe their patients closely.
Against this reality, the author writes of Jake and Tina Friend who could afford the best of care if it were available. Tina has had two early miscarriages, but in her first year teaching at this school is pregnant again, and all goes well until it is time to deliver at the small local hospital. The author here exposes a flaw in the credentialed medical system — arrogance. The first individual to concur with Tina that something was wrong with the baby is the least-credentialed hospital worker, whose Mexican heritage stands in the way of her knowledge being taken seriously.
But María does have power, and among the surprises in the denouement is how she uses it.
Although the author made this fiction, along with his first book, Grey Pine, set in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption on Mt. St. Helens, I believe he is a trustworthy documentarian, and the information he imparts is vitally important for us to understand.
T. Lloyd Winetsky grew up in Los Angeles, joined the Peace Corps, then went to teach 7th grade among impoverished families in 1968. His life thereafter was deeply influenced by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. After four decades in education, he retired, but continues in his mission to teach English to those who lack access to quality education. Currently, he serves adult farm workers in Wapato, Washington.