Chola Salvation

By Brian Dunlap

East L.

Earlier this year Arte Publico published Estella Gonzalez’s debut story collection Chole Salvation. These stories center the lives of Mexican Americans, mostly in East Los Ángeles, by complicating common tropes and conceptions.

“In the title story,” it says on Amazon, “Isabela is minding her family’s restaurant, drinking her dad’s beer, when Frida Kahlo and the Virgen de Guadalupe walk in. Even though they’re dressed like cholas, the girl immediately recognizes Frida’s uni-brow and La Virgen’s crown. They want to give her advice about the quinceañera her parents are forcing on her. In fact, their lecture (don’t get pregnant, go to school, be proud of your indigenous roots) helps Isabela to escape her parents’ physical and sexual abuse. But can she really run away from the self-hatred they’ve created?”

Gonzalez was born and raised in East Los Ángeles which inspires her writing. She says in a La Bloga interview “Growing up in a working-class Mexican/Chicanx family sometimes means developing a thick skin and a sharp tongue to maintain hope and set boundaries. In my collection, working class characters and their children struggle with stereotypes placed on them in American cities and educational institutions. Some protagonists succumb to their circumstances while others transcend them through wit and creativity…East L.Á. prominently plays a role in each of the stories, as setting, memory or lingering influence.”

Gonzalez describes her collection as “‘East Los real,’ a mixture of harsh, even brutal situations mixed with dashes of playfulness and dark humor.”

In “Sábado Gigante,” Bernardo drinks himself into a stupor every Saturday night. “Aquí no es mi tierra,” he cries, as he tries to ease the sorrow of a life lived far from home. Meanwhile, his son Gustavo struggles with his emerging gay identity and Maritza, the oldest daughter, is expected to cook and clean for her brother, even though they live in East L.Á., not Guadalajara or Chihuahua. In “Powder Puff,” Mireya spends hours every day applying her make-up, making sure to rub the foundation all the way down her neck so it looks like her natural color. But no matter how much she rubs and rubs, her skin is no lighter.

Gonzalez says in the same La Bloga interview, that her favorite story in the collection is, “the titular story, ‘Chola Salvation…’ since it reflects the empowerment I longed for when I was Isabela’s age, 15. That year was a watershed year for me. I struggled with expectation of being a Mexican daughter and an American teenager. I struggled with the double standards inherent in patriarchal cultures, both American and Mexican. I longed for some ‘superhero’ friends to help me get out of East L.Á. and all that it represented to me at the time.”

Not only has Estella Gonzalez published her debut story collection, Chola Salvation, but she has received a Pushcart Prize “Special Mention” and was selected a “Reading Notable” for The Best American Non-Required Reading. Her story, “Chola Salvation,” won first-place in the Pima Community College Martindale Literary Prize and she was a finalist for the Louise Meriwether Book Prize for a short story collection.

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