Author: Emma Chaves
Publisher: Floricanto Press
In ‘Tales From Alturas: The Puerto Rican Mystique’ Emma Chaves has crafted a mix of moving and penetrating short stories that passionately recreates a cultural perspective as well as a place of residence depicting the sadness, harsh life, nightmares and dreams of the inhabitants of the fictitious mountain village of Alturas, Puerto Rico, which is located deep within the Cordillera Central Mountain Range. At either end of the road leading to the village are the non-existent towns of San Pablo and San Pedro.
Intermingling her vignettes with a liberal use of Spanish forms of expression such as words, idioms and whole sentences, Chaves presents us with an array of carefully drawn characters each of whom is the focus of a separate story. The prose is brutally honest and unrelenting as Chaves threads her brief narratives with such themes as rape, abortion, adultery, and the sexual politics within marriage, producing a unified tone in a compilation of otherwise differing tales. Moreover, Chaves refuses to merely gloss over the pain experienced by her characters who, as we discover, manage somehow to keep on living. The scenes are easy to visualize, and this coupled with powerful dialogue produces vignettes that resemble the watching of a movie.
Among the cast of diverse and sometimes eccentric characters is Altagracia, a child coping with poverty and is able to rise above her situation in her own way. Petra is the widowed mother of Altagracia and unfortunately is fighting alone a losing but courageous battle against the limiting mores of her time. Anglélica de los Santos is a lonely woman surrounded by a dozen jabbering children and who bears a child every year. The love story of Dolores and Nicolás delves into the themes of machismo, infidelity, abortion, marital rape, and attempted murder by enraged individuals. Brunilda, who is a single woman, has been entrusted by her dying mother to look after her mentally challenged sister, “la boba,” or the Ninny, while her detestable neighbors plot against her. She does, however, find love at an advanced age and is willing to transfer the care of her sister to her aunt.
Characters for the most part are depicted as ignorant, illiterate, and superstitious and Chaves informs us in the introduction that they are composites of people she knew in Puerto Rico, when she lived there as a child as well as elsewhere from different strata of life. Their homes are made of weather-beaten wood, palm fronds and zinc, from the 1920s through the 1940s, and beneath their struggles for survival is their challenge to maintain their dignity despite overwhelming economic odds.
One of the stories that I found particularly heart-rending was that of Lola, who is the sister of Petra, as she narrates how her older sister, Maria, who was moderately mentally challenged, burns down her family home to the ground and to her dying days she would see the flames and buckets of water passed by her neighbors to no avail. As a result, she and her sisters except Maria were split into different homes. In the same story Lola describes the wake that was held for her father Papa Nicolàs and some of the hypocritical freeloaders who only came for the food or the flirting with the neighbors and not out of respect for her father. Some of the attendees had nothing of substance to say and spread juicy innuendos and rumors.
My only gripe about this book is that the printing format needs much improvement. The opening sentence of each page is much too close to the title on the top of each page as there is not enough room between the title and the opening sentence. As for the bottom of each page, here again there is not sufficient room from the last sentence. Nonetheless, with this debut collection of short stores, Chaves has earned our full attention with a feast of stories that will captivate readers.
Thanks to the author for offering a complimentary review copy of this book for an honest opinion.
Follow Here To Read Norm’s Interview With Emma Chaves