Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Lee and Low Books, 2011 (Currently Available)
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Poetry
Face Value: Perfect. The more I look at this cover the more I’m in love with it. It’s not all that flashy but it has a quiet complexity that reflects the story inside. You can’t see the details of Lupita’s features, but the silhouette looks right, the colors are gorgeous and so is the silhouetted mesquite tree. When you look at the book more closely you can see the nearly invisible words in the background – Lupita’s handwriting in the background of the sky and a map of Mexico beneath her feet, growing out like the roots of a tree. This is just one of those rare examples where the publisher gets it totally right.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes! In both big and small ways, Lupita is a Slatebreaker and her story is a powerful one. At a core this is a story about growing from girlhood to womanhood, chronologically, physically, intellectually and emotionally. Heartbreak and responsibility make her grow up faster than she might want to, but Lupita responds to these challenges with ferocity and strength as she figures out what it means to become a woman.
Who would we give it to? Guadalupe Garcia McCall has gotten a lot of awards for this book (her first!) and they are totally deserved. Hopefully the Pura Belpre & Morris recognition will get this book into the hands of a lot of kids. As an educator who works in Arizona with a huge Hispanic population, I’m always searching for great titles with Latina protagonists, and this one is particularly good.
Review: Novels in verse, in my experience/opinion tend to be either incredibly beautiful, with the sparse simplicity of the poetry telling a story more effectively than straight prose could OR cloying and overwrought. It always feels like a risk when I open up a book and see all that white space on the pages. Luckily, Under the Mesquite falls completely and totally in the former category. I flew through this book and the delicately chosen language wrapped itself around my brain and settled there. Passages like this one will stick with me for a long time:
Later we would lie on Abuelita’s bed
in her one-room house,
listening to Mami talk about America
and all that she loved about it:
about having children who belonged
to two countries, spoke two languages
and would someday be at home
on either side.
Our narrator is Lupita, the oldest of eight children in a family of Mexican immigrants living in Texas. Lupita is a good student and an aspiring actress. She plans to be the first person in her family to go to college. But her plans are put on hold when her mother is diagnosed with cancer. We follow Lupita’s family over the course of several years, getting just enough glimpse into their lives to care deeply about what happens to them.
As the oldest daughter in her family who steps into a maternal role when her mother gets sick, Lupita spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a woman. As she approaches her fifteenth birthday she notes what other people expect as she becomes a señorita.
For Mami’s sisters, my tias
Maritza and Belén, who live in Mexico
señorita means measuring me,
turning me this sway and that
as they fit me for the floral dresses
they cheerfully stitch together
on their sewing machines
For my father, señorita means
he has to be a guard dog
when boys are around.
For my sisters, señorita means
having someone to worship:
it is the wonder of
seeing their oldest sister
looking like Cinderella
on her way to the ball.
It’s a lot of expectations, many of which have far more to do with the idea of becoming a woman than with Lupita’s experience of growing herself. Lupita can see all of these changes that take place with her transition into adulthood. But as she takes on the additional responsibilities being placed upon her, she worries as well. She’s not sure she’s ready to let go of her childhood, especially knowing what could be coming for her and her family.
But for me, señorita means
melancolia: settling into sadness.
It is the end of wild laughter.
The end of chewing bubble gum
and giggling over nothing
with my friends at the movies, our feed up
on the backs of the theater seats…
Señorita is a niña,
the girl I used to be,
who has lost her voice.
All of these expectations – including her own – leave Lupita alone in her sadness, figuring out what kind of a woman she’s going to be. Which is a lonely place to be. But she also finds out how strong she is. Her drama class and her teacher Mr. Cortés are one way she finds herself. Which obviously, I loved – theatre was a huge part of my own growing up and a part of the person I was and still am today. As a writer and an actor, she’s able to find her voice and speak out on behalf of herself, her friends, her family and the two countries that make up her home. She’s able to make the sacrifices she needs to to care for her mother and she’s ultimately able to find the strength to set out on her own. “Acting has been my life raft,” she tells us, the outlet through which she finds herself able to cope. Anything through which the arts are a means for healing, strength and self-identity will pretty much always win me over as a reader and when Lupita brings home her speech trophy I wanted to cheer out loud for her.
The Mesquite tree of the title works its way through the story with it’s presence and symbolism. Prickly, stubborn and growing up and apart regardless of anyone’s influence, the mesquite that plagues her mother’s rose garden is ultimately another thing that gives Lupita strength. The book starts with a dictionary definition, describing how “to survive in harsh climates, the mesquite can adapt to almost any soil, can endure droughts by reaching deeper than other trees to find water, and can grow back from even a small piece of root left in the ground.” Early on, Mami rails at the mesquites invasion of her rosebushes, furious to the point of tears at her inability to root it out. But near the end, Lupita and her mother look out at the tree, what it’s grown into, despite their best efforts:
With heavy pruning and much-needed
guidance, the tree has become
a graceful and imposing presence
in Mami’s beloved rose garden.
“Who’d have known it would be
so beautiful,” she marvels.
I agree, but it isn’t its beauty
that strikes me. I envy the mesquite
its undaunted spirit, its ability to turn
even a disabling pruning
into an unexpected opportunity
to veer in a different direction,
flourishing more profusely than before.
By the end of the book, it’s clear to us that Lupita is that mesquite tree. Despite the harsh climate of her loss, she finds the strength to grow back from what’s left.
Reviewed from library copy.