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Ay, ¡Caramba!

Nina Marie Martínez answered her own identity questions by creating a rollicking work of fiction

THE MUSE is a fickle creature, temperamental the way only a woman can be, one moment munificent, the next ready to tuck her charms away in a snit.

Or so the men of letters tell us. Nina Marie Martínez has a different view. In her novel ¡Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card (Knopf, $24.95), the muse takes the form of a tall, gray-blue-eyed, black-haired dead man named Don Pancho Macías Contreras. Don Pancho, or DP, is a great wooer of women, although now that he is dead his charms are not always so evident. Nevertheless, he persists in appearing to women in dreams, and when he appears to Natalie, one of the two main heroines in ¡Caramba!, his appeal spurs a quest that changes her already adventuresome life. Natalie, DP beseeches, must save him from the doom of Purgatory ("the Perg") by traveling down to Mexico, to his hometown, and gathering the townspeople to pray by the railroad tracks where he was killed.

Natalie considers the request and then complains, "But I don't wanna go by myself."

Natalie, you see, is best friends with DP's daughter, Consuelo, who has such a fear of travel that she cannot fulfill her father's request herself. Growing up together in Lava Landing, population 27,454, has perhaps given the two girls a shrunken vision of the world—but why roam when your town boasts such treasures as a bar with a bucking bronco, numerous loncheras (lunch wagons), drag queens who serenade and hold Tupperware parties, a famous cheese factory and a rumbling volcano?

It all sounds like a strange combination of San Jose, Costa Rica, home of the Monteverde Cheese Factory and the Arenal Volcano, and our own San Jose, Calif.—birthplace of ¡Caramba!'s author, Nina Marie Martínez. In fact, Martínez says, Lava Landing is a composite of many California farming towns, places where it's a major event when the rodeo passes through: Castorville, Watsonville, Gilroy, where there's a roller rink, or Hollister, where there's a cheese plant. Martínez spent most of her childhood in Hollister, the only child of a Mexican-American prune picker/carpenter/contractor and a German-American housewife.

Martínez's combo-plate heritage lends the 34-year-old a high-cheeked, dark-haired mysterious attraction that wins her second glances during an interview at Taqueria Vallarta in Santa Cruz, the town she now calls home. Growing up, she was tall enough to play basketball, bounced in and out of six high schools before dropping out and didn't learn Spanish until she was an adult. "People are always asking where am I from?" she says. "In a way, ¡Caramba! is an answer to that question, for me ... a connection to culture that's not just about language or religion, but about trying to find your home, even if it's just a fictional place." Martínez sees Don Pancho's Purgatory as a metaphor for living between cultures, a neither-here-nor-there place from which one can only escape through community.

For Martínez herself, the trip between cultures has created one of those magical dissonances that inspires art: everything in her life seems to have been born out of the need to reinterpret reality. After dropping out of high school, Martínez found herself pregnant at the age of 20 and realized that she would be forging her own path as a single mom. She got her GED, set up a business reselling thrift-store clothes—which is, partly, how she learned Spanish, by bargaining at flea markets—and enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

It was at Santa Cruz that she realized she could write. But rather than basing a fictional world on her own life, like most young writers, Martínez says she "made the whole thing up."

"Hemingway said you should stop when you know what's going to happen next, but for me it seemed to keep branching out," she explains. "I would sit on my living-room floor with chapters in piles, trying to order them, flipping from character to character."

Martínez doesn't like the term "magical realism," although parts of ¡Caramba! might be classified as such. The literary charms of ¡Caramba! lie in large part in a blurring between the fantastic and the could-be real—a blur so convincing that Martínez herself, it seems, is not quite sure where the boundaries are. Take Javier, for example, the born-again Christian mariachi who experiences a crisis of the soul in ¡Caramba! When she began writing, Martínez says, she'd never heard of a born-again Christian mariachi, but she figured there must be one out there.

"I did research, but nothing," she says. "Then one day, I was at the flea market, and I looked up and saw this man in his traje de charro [mariachi costume], but instead of a regular shirt he had one on that said, 'I blow the horn for Jesus.'"

Too afraid to go up to him for fear he would vanish, Martínez didn't talk to the man.

"But I know he was Javier," she smiles. "Or at least, to me he was."

Don Pancho, too, is based on a real figure—that of José Alfredo Jiménez, a legendary mariachi who was said to have written 600 songs—and his story draws from a Sonoran tradition in which the spirits of those who died away from home, "castaways," are said to be able to perform miracles.

In this excerpt from ¡Caramba!, Natalie obeys Don Pancho's request, and a fiesta turns into a divine experience. In the book, however, just as in real life, the results are not what everyone expected.

Traci Vogel

Nina Martinez reads from '!Caramba!' on Thursday, June 17, at 7:30pm at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 3600 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose.

Don Pancho's Flight From Purgatory

IT WAS the morning of her third full day in the pueblo, and Natalie didn't know what she liked best about the room Doña Elena had prepared for her—the white chenille bedspread with the red roses in the center and along the edges, the outdated calendar with the reproduced painting of El Rebozo Blanco, the glitter-covered picture of San Martín de Porres, the votive candles with other Saints and Jesus, the red-painted concrete floor, the green gauze curtains and the breeze that came through them, or the way the room smelled of gardenias. But she was sure of one thing: The framed photograph of Don Pancho sitting in the doorway of the white stucco house with his guitar in his lap, wearing a solemn countenance and a straw sombrero was the one thing that did not let her sleep at night.

Down the hall and around the corner in the kitchen, Doña Elena sat at the table drinking a cup of Nescafe. "Buenos dias," said la Doña as Natalie entered the room.

"Buenos," agreed Natalie.

"¿Como ameneciste?" la Doña asked.

That was all it took, and it all came out, that Natalie was losing sleep even when she was sleeping, and she didn't know what to do. ¿Why hadn't anyone told her that it was fiesta week? ¿How was she to get the people away from the fiesta long enough to get Don Pancho out of Purgatory?

"Es más complicado todavía," said la doña.

"¡Ay! dios," replied Natalie.

La Doña quickly explained ...

Angry, impatient, and always wearing a guayabera and huaraches, that is how Don Pancho appeared in the dreams of the women who had been his lovers. Over the gossip table, the ladies would curse him and his bad habits, claiming they could smell his body odor. In nightmares he would wear his usual guayabera-based ensemble, but with the shirt in a shade of mustard and his jeans glowing like Prestone, as if he had peed himself. Huaraches in a shade of salmon would round out his clownlike combination. And the things he would say ... Oh he would start with some standard come-on like "Que guapa andas, mi amor." The women would recognize his voice and remember his hot loving ways. From behind a bush or a blooming cactus he would spring, and there would be not hot loving, only insults and threats. He would call the women little fatty and tell them things like "There ain't nothing to do in this godawful place but practice inglés, gordita. ¡Get me out of here or else!"

Doña Elena divulged all of this causing Natalie to wonder: ¿Just how did she know so much about Don Pancho and the nighttime havoc he wreaked from his purgatorial place?

Natalie was aware that Doña Elena was the chief gossip in town, and that she was also Don Pancho's sister-in-law, but what Natalie didn't know was this: Dona Elena too had been one of his mistresses. Of course la Doña didn't share this with Natalie. Instead she explained that many of the town's residents felt that Purgatory was the second safest place for Don Pancho's soul. Not that anyone wanted him to go to that other place, but at least if he were down there, there would be no hope of him getting out. Considering all the trouble he made from Purgatory, imagine what he might do if he made his way to Heaven.

Natalie could hear the thud of a soccer ball being kicked back and forth outside, interrupted by the occasional automobile. Doña Elena stirred her coffee further contributing to the monotony of the moment. Then it occurred to Natalie: ¿What if Don Pancho came to her in a dream saying, "Get me out of there and nobody gets hurt"? ¿What if she told the entire pueblo a lie? That Don Pancho was good and angry and he wasn't going to take it no more. He might have been stuck in the Perg, but he still had a few strings he could pull. If the people didn't come to his aid and rápido, he was gonna give them the worst curse of all: the curse of nightmares.

Natalie knew what she had to do, and instinct told her to shrug her shoulders, shake her head, and sigh in Doña Elena's presence, as if she had accepted that her task was impossible.

Natalie got up from the table, excused herself, then went about her day as if she had given up on the idea of releasing Don Pancho's soul. She played soccer, gave afternoon English lessons to the children and adults alike, and helped Doña Elena and the girls prepare dinner, before she headed out with La Marta, Doña Elena's oldest daughter, to walk the plaza. And when the day was finally up, she came home, sat down on her pretty blanketed bed, kicked her high heels off, and lay down.

And then a funny thing happened. Don Pancho appeared to her in a dream. Even though the Saints and Angels had grounded him for twenty-five years, he was able to sneak out with a little help from his friends, so his arrival in Natalie's dreams was a very funny thing indeed.

He stood atop a high jagged cliff, his hair cut and combed beneath his sombrero, while Natalie waited all alone on a beach with the waves ripping and roaring behind her. She shaded her eyes with her hand, then looked up at the rocky precipice. Don Pancho strummed his Fender guitar and sang her a song. Even though he was so far away, it seemed as though he were singing softly in her ear. The song was the most beautiful she had ever heard and it brought her to tears right there in her dreams. It said, I wish I had wings, so I could fly to your side.

Natalie ran toward the rocks, and tried to climb, but only succeeded in sleepwalking to the east wall of her room. The commotion was enough to awaken Marta, Natalie's closest neighbor, who walked across the hall to discover Natalie sprawled on the floor.

Marta's other six spinster sisters soon arrived on the scene, and sought to wake Natalie, but it was no use. They tried to subdue her, but these attempts were also in vain. Finally, one of the sisters walked up the stairs and roused the matriarch of the house, who quickly concluded: La Catrina is stuck in a fitful sleep provoked by some Demon or other.

Outside help was solicited as the sisters fanned out and spread the word. Within no time, the people of the pueblo began to arrive at Natalie's side.

When Natalie finally woke up, she was touched to see so many people had come to her aid. The crowd was so large, it spilled out into the street. She sat up in bed. Her luxurious curls had faded to frizz. Veiny purple bags sagged beneath her eyes. Her chapped and flaking lips were an unenticing lavender tinged in white, as if she had been foaming at the mouth. The crowd, torn and tattered itself, was in various stages of prayer.

Natalie was thankful for such a large turnout, all the better for her to put her plan into action, and then, all of the sudden, she was speaking perfect Spanish, telling everyone that Don Pancho had come to her in a dream. He was "bien enojado" and wasn't going to take it no more. If somebody didn't get him out of Purgatory y ¡rápido! he was going to make them all pay, ye que iban a pagar ¡bien caro! But if the people came to his aid, he would never bother them again, and would, in fact, consider each and every one of their requests since, being that he was a tiradito, he could perform miracles, if and when he got out of Purgatory, that is.

The men and women began to chitter-chatter. They liked the idea of these miracles. Natalie scratched her head with both hands and further frizzed her hair. She got up, didn't even bother to change out of her nightgown, and slipped on her high heels. The crowd followed her out the door. They headed for the railroad tracks, growing in numbers as they walked down the broken sidewalk, everyone blessing themselves en el nombre del Dios Padre, Dios Santo, y el Espírito Santo as they passed the church of the pueblo.

In a few minutes, they reached their destination. The train tracks were unchanged from the day Don Pancho was run down. There were no crossing bars or lights to warn pedestrians, equestrians, or motorists of pending danger, just an abrupt change in slope on each side, then the tracks themselves, bordered by cacti of various genuses. A small rock mound still marked DP's burial site. The men, women, and children added to the pile one rock at a time, until it was so large, they had to start a new one.

The people immediately began to pray. Hail Marys and Our Fathers permeated the air as they chanted the Rosary. The voices young and old and out of sync pleased the ears of the Lord.

A little south of Heaven, Don Pancho sat in a white lawn chair watching the earthside goings-on. It is a common misnomer that white is the hue of Heaven. Heaven is a multishaded environ, while in Purgatory, the only thing that breaks up the whiteness of the place is the violet of the jamaica, nature's Kool-Aid, and the only drink allowed in the Perg.

So there he sat, Don Pancho Macías Contreras, surrounded by white, dressed in white, kept prison, or rather, purgatorial-bound, not by white steel bars, but by a sea of white foam replete with floating icebergs, bordered by dunes of white sand. Even DP's knuckles were white, his hands being clasped so tight in prayer. And then came the realization that he was about to be set free. It was just a feeling, a premonition, a psychic moment on his part, but it was so full of certainty that he began to jump around as if he were dancing a fast-paced quebradita. He even went so far as to curse the Saints and Angels Who ran the place. "Hijos de la chingada, ya me voy de aquí," he said rubbing his hands together, for he knew even Saints and Angels couldn't keep him in that horrible place any longer now that he had the prayers of four hundred and sixty-seven of his paisanos and one extranjera in his favor.

And then a strange thing began to happen: Don Pancho's hair began to shrink in length, thicken in girth, and change from white to black. His nails shortened, his skin unwrinkled, his back straightened. When his transformation was complete, he wore a pair of black western-tailored suit pants, a cream-colored long-sleeved dress shirt, a black leather western-tailored suit jacket detailed with brown crocodile skin which matched his boots of the same exotic leather, and a straw sombrero. His ensemble accented by a respectable, though ungaudy, amount of gold—around his neck, a twenty-four-inch serpentine with a cross dangling from it, a thicker serpentine bracelet on his wrist with his full first name—Francisco—engraved on it, and a horseshoe pinkie ring for good luck.

By the railroad tracks, the men and women were close-eyed and praying. They were approaching the six-hour mark, and still going strong, except for Natalie. She simply didn't have the prayer ethic they did. Her eyes were open, her hands unclasped, her mouth barely moving. But it was a good thing, since when Don Pancho showed up alongside the railroad tracks, in the middle of his very own dust devil, no longer looking like a don, but like some young guapetón, Natalie was the first one to see him. He clapped his hands, pointed an index finger at Nat, winked and said, "Papi's back in town," to which Natalie and the rest of the women replied, through sighs of longing, "¡Ay! papi."

And then, just like that, como si nada, Don Pancho snapped his fingers and said, "I be back later, mamacitas," and disappeared.

Credit: From '¡Caramba!' Copyright © 2004 by Nina Marie Martínez. Published by Alfred A. Knopf. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York. All rights reserved.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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