When Lupita discovers Mami has been diagnosed with cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of their close-knit Mexican American family.
In the midst of juggling high school classes, finding her voice as an actress, and dealing with friends who don’t always understand, Lupita desperately wants to support her mother by doing anything she can to help. While Papi is preoccupied with caring for Mami, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. Struggling in her new roles and overwhelmed by change, Lupita escapes the chaos of home by writing in the shade of a mesquite tree, seeking refuge in the healing power of words. — [X]
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall is a verse novel that will, in my professional opinion, completely annihilate you. *ahem* But I’m sure you gathered that from the summary? Good. Because I am here to convince you to let this book completely annihilate you.
Heartbreak can mean so many things and although, yes, Lupita’s mother’s deteriorating health is the biggest heartbreak– there is so much more, so many uprootings that Lupita has next to no control over. One of these heartbreaks is the one that comes with growing up. Typically, a quinceañera is an occasion for great pomp:
But for me, señorita means
melancholía: 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 feet up
on the backs of the theatre seats.
Growing up brings with it a unique set of challenges. One of which, is figuring out what happens after school. For Lupita, she hopes that the future may involve a place in the spotlight. She joins the drama group at school where Lupita is informed that her accent may mar her otherwise wonderful performances. Even though Lupita had not been aware that she had an accent, she works hard at a new one … something that doesn’t go over well with her circle of friends:
“Let me translate for you,”
Sarita sneers. ‘You talk like
you wanna be white.”
Of course, growing up also means being constantly, frustratingly aware of everything: of your place in the world, of the place you want in the world, how you view yourself, and how others view you. What is interesting is the way this hyperawareness is presented, not only through Lupita, but also through the people around her. For example, when her friend Mireya returns Lupita’s lost diary to her, Lupita notes that under the entry describing the confrontation between her and her friends over her accent …
“all the girls around me
dropped their scarlet
mouths wide-open, like a circle
of Venus flytraps, and laughed
hysterically at me”
… there was a tiny scrawl from Mireya: “I’m sorry”.
Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, yes, even the writing is heartbreaking. Especially when Lupita’s mother is mentioned:
she who once held the stars captive
in her eyes looks up at us
from between her sheets
as if she doesn’t recognize us anymore.
While Lupita’s parents are away, making sure her mother gets the appropriate treatments, Lupita is the one caring for her younger siblings– a challenging task in itself– all the while, waiting and waiting for either her mother to get better or … not.
Waiting for la Muerta to take Mami is like
being bound, lying face up on the sacrificial
alter of the god Huitzilopochtli, pleading with the Aztec priest,
asking him to be kind
while he rips out my heart.
The writing flows beautifully; sometimes it will making your eyes water and sometimes it will steal your breath away. It is kind of magical, the force of emotion it can evoke from just a smattering of words. It is also a pretty good classroom book. Even before the dedication, the first thing mentioned is what a mesquite is. The last thing in the back, right before the acknowledgements, is a very detailed glossary with even meanings of names and historical information. I like, again, that there are no footnotes to interrupt the story and pull you out of the narrative. I read this one all in one go. I really don’t think the book gave me much of a choice. Lupita’s voice is magnetic to say the least.