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A daughter’s emotions add texture to immigration tale

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the novel “Ocotillo Dreams,” Isola moves into her late mother’s house in Chandler, Ariz., and is surprised to learn her mother led a secret life helping undocumented immigrants and was apparently romantically involved with one.

The novel grapples with the politics of immigration. Woven through the story are elements of intrigue, love and trust.

Melinda Palacio said her debut novel contains a single parallel between Isola’s loss of her mother and her own.

“Ocotillo Dreams” by Melinda Palacio
Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, $26 cloth, $16 paper, 188 pp.

“I was able to infuse Isola’s character with all the emotion of having a lost mother, going through the grief,” Palacio said in a phone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“I’ve had the luxury of several years to process the grief. In the novel we don’t have that luxury. … I wanted the quality of the loss of the mother but I didn’t want people to think that that was my relationship with mine or say that it’s a veiled autobiography. It’s a complete work of fiction, but it tells its own truth about a mother-daughter relationship, about grief, about immigration.”

Palacio said she had lived in Chandler during the 1997 Immigration and Naturalization Service “sweeps” of illegals in the city. “So it wasn’t too far-fetched to imagine myself being taken up in these roundups, especially since they arrested several Chandler citizens. They were not undocumented workers,” she said.

Palacio tried to make the story compact and condensed. For example, she compressed the passage of months, or maybe years, that it would normally take to settle Isola’s mother’s estate.

The author wrote the manuscript with the aid of a 2007 fellowship from PEN Center USA Emerging Voices. Under the almost yearlong program, she took writing classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, was helped by author Luis Rodriguez in a book group and was mentored by best-selling author Leslie Schwartz.

Palacio was expected to bring new chapters to her mentor for what amounted to twice monthly meetings. “By the end of the program I had completed a draft,” she said.

During the period she was writing the novel, Palacio wrote poetry. But the poems were separate in subject matter.

After the fellowship ended, she wrote a poetry chapbook titled “Folsom Lockdown” that won the 2009 Kulupi Press Sense of Place Award.

“Those poems I wrote after visiting my father in Folsom Prison in 2008. When I went I didn’t think I would write about the experience. I have an estranged relationship with my father. My parents divorced when I was really young,” Palacio said.

Melinda Palacio reads from, signs “Ocotillo Dreams” at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at the Cultural Center de Mesilla, 2231 Calle de Parian, Mesilla, and at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at Alamosa Books, 8810 Holly NE, Albuquerque.