“Chola Salvation” is the title story of Estella González’s compelling debut collection.
The story is about the emotional turmoil of 14-year-old Isabela growing up in a Mexican American family in East Los Angeles in the 1980s. She suffers sexual, physical and verbal abuse.
The tipping point for Isabela is when she refuses her mother’s demand for a quinceañera. Isabela contends she’s fat and has no friends, so why have a party? Feeling trapped, she flees to live with her Tía Rosa in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Two other characters – the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and La Virgen de Guadalupe – seem to hold the unexpected power of a deus ex machina for Isabela.
However, the author sees their roles in a different light.
“I think they are a part of Isabela,” González said in a phone interview from her home in Tucson, Arizona. “They are projections of what she wants to be and she is too afraid to be. They have the guts to say what she wants to say and do.”
Frida and La Virgen are street-savvy feminists. In modern times, González said, La Virgen “is very much a Chicano icon, transformed by Chicano activists. … She is seen as a blend of the Mexican American woman with the Aztec goddess. She’s a Chicano goddess, a bad-ass, an activist.”
The story introduces Frida and La Virgen in the first scene. Isabela is drinking her dad’s beer in the family restaurant when the two women show up – with attitude and advice:
“La Frida is in a man’s suit, a big baggy one like the guy from the Talking Heads but this one’s black, not white. All her hair is cut off so she isn’t wearing no braids, no ribbons, no nothin’. The only woman thing she has on are those hand earrings,” González writes.
Y La Virgen?
“She has blonde hair, lots of white eyeshadow, and she’s wearing chola clothes. You know, tank top with those skinny little straps, baggy pants and black Hush Puppy shoes. And she has this lipstick like she just bit a chocolate cake. Her hair is so long, it touches the back of her feet. Her bangs are all sprayed up, like a regular chola, but she wears a little gold crown.”
Isabela finally recognizes them, La Virgen by the crown and Frida for her emblematic unibrow. Isabela’s recognition is confirmed when Frida gives her a cigarette, defying the “Thank you for not smoking” sign, and La Virgen holds up a lighter.
Frida smiles, opening the conversation with Isabela and asking, “Qué ondas, comadre? Whassup?
The women offer the teen a set of rules to live by, hoping to boost her self-image. Rule No. 1: “Have as much sex as you want but don’t get pregnant.” Rule No. 2: “Go to school. You’re gonna have to work the system.” Rule No. 3: You’re in charge of your own genitalia. Rule No. 4: “Spread the word,” especially to the homeboys; maybe they’ll “quit with all this macho” stuff. Rule No. 5: “We’re all indias. …Be proud of the indígena inside of you.”
An armed Virgen makes a surprise reappearance in Juárez, saving Isabela from the unwanted advances of Cowboy Dude, a stranger making kissing noises and calling her mamacita.
“Chola Salvation,” the book, is mostly set in working-class East L.A., and sprinkled with rawness, obscenities and Chicano slang. The author grew up there but wasn’t a chola.
“Chola Salvation,” the title story, won first place for the Martindale Literary Prize given by Pima Community College. Winning the prize solidified González’s determination to write more short stories and poetry. She is currently working on a screenplay based on the title story.
She is developing a novel based on the origin story of hotel housekeeper Merced, lead character of “Angry Blood,” a tale in her 16-story collection that received Pushcart Prize’s Special Mention.
“The novel is about a woman who falls in love and wreaks havoc on everybody,” the author said.
“Powder Puff,” another story in the same collection, was selected as a Reading Notable for The Best Non-Required Reading anthology.
In Tucson, González is in a writing group, an involvement she said has been helpful for her literary aspirations. “We have prompts and they start me on stories. That’s important for writers. It has sustained me. One of the hardest things to do is to sustain the writing spirit,” she said.