Book Review: Sabrina & Corina

Jane Mushabac 

Sabrina & Corina: Stories 
Kali Fajardo-Anstine
One World, 2019

Sabrina & Corina is a collection of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s eleven short stories about Latina people of indigenous ancestry in Denver and in the small fictional town of Saguarita, Colorado. The book is dazzling and groundbreaking. The author’s bright, spare prose engages us intensely with her characters and their relationships.

If readers familiar with literature about the Latinx of New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California don’t expect to be reading about Colorado Hispanics, perhaps it’s worth a quick look at the Denver tourism website to learn that 34% of Denver’s population today is Hispanic. The site goes on to tout all the cultural, culinary, and celebratory excitement Hispanics offer visitors to this mountain city.

The tourism site, of course, doesn’t mention another key fact about Denver today, gentrification. Fajardo-Anstine’s stories focus mostly on marginalized individuals and families who have been displaced, their neighborhoods razed, squeezing them off the land and out of neighborhoods once their own, if not in their own generation, then in previous ones. The author’s Chicano Southern Colorado heritage dates back to 1848. These are not recent immigrants but people with a deeply vested attachment to the land. 

So, interestingly, while Denver today extols the money Hispanics can bring in with their colorful holidays, in their own everyday experiences, the people in Fajardo-Anstine’s stories find that they are invisible, literally—as one nurse in scrubs complains to her daughter. Although she was standing in a supermarket line a long time before stepping aside for a moment, the Anglo woman behind her accuses her of cutting when she returns to her cart. The woman says, “I didn’t see you.” Or Randy, a tall Anglo young man, has never noticed the “water treatment,” which his Spanish girlfriend explains to him occurs when a Hispanic asks for a Coke, and is given a glass of water instead:

“It’s called getting the water treatment,” Tina said. “You’ve never heard of that, Randy? It happens to us all the time.” 

“Why would I notice that?” Randy asked, digging into his drive-in movie popcorn. 

“Because you’re a big tall American boy,” said Tina, sarcastically. 

Randy smirked, “And you’re my little Spanish girl.”

The short stories develop a variety of close interpersonal relationships, with three of the most remarkable stories introducing thirteen-year-old girls who are in battles of love and despair with their mothers. They are intermittently sassy, subservient, deeply affectionate, and determined as they try to find a way to survive their mothers being mired in age-old patterns of defeatism and fear. Another relationship is that of two sisters charged by their mother to be husband-hunting in 1960s Denver, especially for Anglo men who earn more and can go more places than Hispanics; Mom gives them $27 each for their fresh start in new jobs. Or two cousins, who are such good friends for years, but part ways as one self-destructs, and the other, a cosmetologist at Macy’s, ultimately cleans up her cousin’s horribly bruised face for the moving, well-attended ritual of her wake. Another story introduces an ex-convict young woman and her video-game obsessed nephew who is failing a course called “Read and Relax.” And another gives us the nurse’s daughter and her beloved Native American boyfriend who has been missing for days as she tries to study for a final exam in her college’s course on “The History of the American West.” As the story explains, “If she fails, she’ll lose her scholarship, the Displaced Fund, given to the grandchildren of Denver residents, mostly Hispanic, who once occupied the Westside neighborhood before it was plowed to make way for an urban campus.” 

This book, in effect, tells the history of the American West. It tells it through the scarred lives of its marginalized Spanish and native people. And in doing so, it is an extraordinary work of American literature. As I see it, it gives the reader the hidden heart of America. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s writing is fierce, and full of surprises, tragedy, gentleness, and shafts of light. Most of all her writing steadies us with the pulse of her characters’ longings. 

A conscientious maintenance man in a senior residence loves his two very American daughters. One wears her mother’s Betty Boop T-shirt, the other sleeps on a Little Mermaid pillow case. The two girls compare notes on who in the building has crappy candy. They enjoy the residence’s dowdy rec room after school, racing each other on the stationary bikes, but when they are playfully considering which of the sisters the father loves most, the older one says their father loves their mother the most. The family share the desire that the mother’s breast cancer, discovered late, will not kill her but they cannot afford the care she desperately needs. The girls imaginatively plot to save her, but it’s a bold girlish dream. They have no resources for a real plan. 

In the story “Remedies,”—originally published in the Bellevue Literary Review in 2010—another girl does better with a different problem. Hearing her mother sobbing about the head lice they cannot get rid of, which they keep getting from a relative they’re trying to help, the daughter goes against her mother’s fierce dictum that she not tell her great grandmother about the problem, and her plea for help works. Here is a trope from all human history, women as healers.  

I often wonder how it is possible that white America doesn’t know its own Spanish heart. It’s too busy thinking about itself in exceptional terms, grabbing the high moral ground in bizarre ways, and striking out in depression and anger. Or perhaps depending too earnestly upon the high intellectual ground, or swirling with enjoyment of America’s vast opportunities for entertainment. 

Characters in the stories repeatedly comment on how hollow the “Anglos” are, but the remarks are so quick that we hardly notice them at first. But the modern wealthy blond Anglos of today’s Colorado haven’t grown up with tragedy, are oblivious to the lives of others, and ride ignorantly on the vehicle of privilege and its assumptions. The book opens the hidden Spanish heart of America; it flips the usual assumptions of white superiority. It flips the hierarchy that is deep in our culture.

I say the Spanish heart because this great American work is flush with unitalicized words in Spanish, the mamaloshen here of grandmothers and mothers yearning to help their offspring and descendants find joy and steadiness in life. Neither “mi hija” (my daughter) nor “mi hijita” is ever said in its long form. But the book quietly resonates with the affectionate contractions sprinkled in on twenty different pages, almost unnoticeably until you see the pattern: mija, jita, my beloved girl, as we hear these characters address their granddaughters and daughters in a way that is quiet and sustaining like trees bearing fruit. And their love does bear fruit. Some characters in the book—women and men, Hispanic and Anglo—are violent, incapable of good aspirations, but we see other characters—mistreated women and men—keep their balance, calm, and dignity. 

This is not ethnic literature. Sabrina & Corina is American literature, brilliantly done, with glimpses of jagged mountains and terrible alleyways and unairconditioned tiny houses during a horrible heat wave—hardships, but pleasures too in bursts that matter. Every line is intentional yet fleeting in its subtlety. Here is the ultimate stability of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s world, the calming of great story-telling, graciously, memorably bringing people together. And if the shadows the book casts ultimately are tragic like in an opera, it suits a time when our whole human enterprise threatens all our earth, all our vast inheritance of the good, and good souls yearn for a way forward.