July 01, 2006

Reading Alburquerque

I usually try to read a book about the place where I live. Especially when you're in a place that seems new, it helps give you a sense of where you're at. When I lived in New Orleans, I read the quintessential Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, as well as Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Before that, when I lived in San Antonio, I read a forgettable book called San Antonio, and I stayed away from accounts of The Alamo. I don't think I read a fictional book about Milwaukee, but I was too young to care about that at the time. There are no fictional books, as far as I know, about the place that I grew up, though once I read a book by T. Coraghesson Boyle, Budding Prospects, which was set in the forests between our town and the next one to the east and had to do with marijuana growing.

However, the only book that I read that even mentioned the area where Albuquerque was located was Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is a wonderful book but is set in the 1800s and therefore doesn't tell me much about the Albuquerque of today. So, when Megan brought home a book entitled Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya, I put that on my list to read at some point. I just finished the book a couple of days ago, and I must say that I enjoyed it.

Set in Albuquerque in the early 90s, the book encompasses the length and breadth of the city. The death of a white artist, Cynthia Johnson, from cancer sets in motion a series of events that leads a young Mexican-American boxer, Abrán, to question his upbringing and a nurse, Lucinda, to befriend him and fall in love with him. Her death also affects a mayoral race, featuring the incumbent Marisa Martínez, a young and beautiful Latina woman, an elderly business scion, Walter Johnson, who also happens to be the father of the artist and who disowned her, and a political climber, Frank Dominic, with dubious hereditary links to the Duke of Alburquerque and ambitions for the eventual governorship. Abrán, discovering that Cynthia was his true mother, begins a quest to find his real father, and is pulled into city politics. He agrees to a fight in return for information Dominic says he can get about Abrán's father, and has a brief one-night affair with the incumbent mayor. He is given advice during the novel by Joe, a burned out alcoholic Indian Vietnam vet from Santo Domingo who is chasing his own demons, and Ben Chavez, a jaded poet who knows more than he reveals to Abrán.

Rudolfo Anaya is largely known as the founder of Chicano literature, and Alburquerque is filled with references to many cultures which make up Chicano culture -- Mexican, New Mexican, Indian, and Spanish. However, Anaya also references all of those cultures which make up New Mexico, including whites, and even crypto-Jews. It is telling that Abrán, the hero, is the product of the forbidden love between a white woman and a Mexican-American man, and symbolizes the best and strongest of both cultures. Everyone in power needs Abrán, and tries to manipulate him in their own best interests, but Abrán, armed with the knowledge given to him by an old curandera when she utters to him "tu eres tu," manages to keep his sense of self about him and eventually gains those things which matter to him most.

Readers of this book will find a lot of Albuquerque in it -- including Tingley Beach, the University of New Mexico, West-side development, the Country Club district, the Sandias and Old Town and New Town. There are also references to Albuquerque's past history and development, and at least a few visions of what Albuquerque can become (both good and bad).

Alburquerque was a nice first book for me to read about my present city, and I hope that some of you will consider reading it too, especially if you live in the shadow of the Sandias.


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