Meet Your Neighbors
Review by Nora Hickey
The Block Capitan’s Daughter by Demetria Martinez is often like Albuquerque itself: ringing with beautiful language, finding humor in dark places and, above all, honoring the multiple voices inhabiting any place. In the novella, we are plunged into the lives of six friends. Lupe, Flor, Maritza, Corey, Peter and Marcos live and work in Albuquerque. Anyone familiar with city, and the University area in particular, will appreciate the references to local restaurants and organizations. The characters meet at these places to figure out ways to change the world—the activist thread that binds them together.
With such a short page count, at 95 pages, there is not a lot of room for backstory, but Martinez manages to make the characters come fully alive in the present through her unique characterization. In Martinez’s lightly-fictionalized city, Maritza keeps track of accounts for the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center, while her partner Flor takes a more public role organizing and speaking at weekly vigils for anti-war groups. Together, over eggs at the Frontier, they balance out: Maritza is overly cautious and attentive to numbers, while Flor believes in change and thrives in the chaos of the book’s Bush-era political climate.
Cory and Peter, the book’s less steady couple, contend with their ability to speak Spanish. Peter, a white male, speaks fluently, while Cory yearns to better understand her mestiza identity through a language of which she knows little. Having lived in New Mexico for three years now, I laughed when Peter describes himself to Cory on their first date: “I confess, Cory, I’m a cliché. I moved to Santa Fe to start life over ... Cocaine. Classes in shamanism.” I swear I’ve bumped into Peter at the Farmer’s Market.
Most enjoyable is Lupe, the book’s central, pregnant character. In contrast to her friends, Lupe seeks to act in the world in specific, local ways. As the captain of her block, she makes sure her elderly neighbors are safe and reads all the latest literature on “How to Report a Crime and Be a Good Witness.” She narrates these and other lessons to her future daughter in letters that anchor the book’s theme and voice. They briefly touch on the story of Lupe’s origins and life in Nogales, Mexico, her harrowing migration to the States and her husband, Marcos, who is away in his home country of El Salvador. Her innovation, drive, and joy come through, too. Although she thinks herself a bad writer, by the end of the novella, we are grateful she “decided to say yes to posterity.”
Despite the brevity of the story, The Block Captain’s Daughter comes alive. The story would be at risk of becoming a wisp, merely a skeleton with no commanding muscle if it were not for the details and thoughtful rendering of each voice. Although a bit chaotic at times, the six voices sound real. It’s a credit to Martinez’s choices and characterization that the underlying themes of humanity, social involvement, political involvement and risk present themselves to the reader so clearly and uniquely. We witness as each of the characters face decisions from green or red? to whether or not to raise a human in this disordered, raucous world. Martinez makes us see the depth in each, in all.
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