Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Contradictions in Sense of Place in !Caramba!

Place is the setting in which the events of a story and the actions of its characters take place. In the final scene of !Caramba!, the songs “Red Hot” and “La Cigarra” exhibit the contradictions at work in the sense of place manifested in Lava Landing, represented in the Annual Lava County Labor Day Parade.
In the final scene, the sense of place is defined by those characters and events that inhabit the setting as well as by the things that are absent from it. The most conspicuous characters at the site of the Annual Lava County Labor Day Parade are Lucha and Fabiola (along with their kilo of heroine), April May, and the Volcano, whose lingering threat has lurked through much of the novel. Conspicuously absent are the majority of our other main characters: Consuelo, Natalie, Lulabelle, and Javier, who have all embarked on a journey outside of Lava Landing for the first time in the novel. These are the defining elements of the final scene; each of them, in their own way, interacts with the aural elements of the scene, or what may be called the soundtrack to the events in these characters’ lives. The playlist on this soundtrack consists of “Red Hot”, “La Cigarra”, and also, arguably, April May’s scream and the rumble of the earth’s quaking, as described in the final paragraph of the novel: “April May fills her large lungs with air. She screams…and the Earth responds in kind.”
“Red Hot” and “La Cigarra” inform the sense of place by working in opposition to each other, thus revealing some of the paradoxes in Lava Landing. In so far as it is a mass public gathering that celebrates the town, the Labor Day Parade may be said to represent Lava Landing. Therefore, exploring the contradictions at work in the parade’s “soundtrack” may provide important insights into the sense of place evoked by Lava Landing at large. The Labor Day Parade also happens to be the climax of the novel. Therefore, we expect these contradictions to resolve themselves, or, on the other hand, to explode from the pressure created by their opposition. Of course, we find the latter to be the case, as the final page explains: “Area rocked by 5.9 Quake; County wakes up without queen.”
The opposition between “Red Hot” and “La Cigarra” is most prevalent in their shared subject, which is, very generally speaking, love and/or romantic relationships. While this is readily apparent from “Red Hot’s” chorus, which features the narrator boasting about the superiority of his “gal” over any other, (“My gal is red hot – Your gal ain’t doodley squat”) “La Cigarra” requires some closer reading to identify its subject. The greater part of the song is devoted to a description of the narrator’s great sorrow. It is not until the third stanza that the source of this despair is revealed, which is none other than unrequited or painful love.

Un palomito al volar
Que llevaba el pecho herido
Ya casi para llorar
Me digo muy afligido
Ya me canso a buscar
Un amor correspondido

A little dove upon flying
Bearing a wounded breast
Was about to cry
And told me very afflicted
I’m tired of searching for
A mutual love


The paradox between the two songs revolves around the fact that while they share a general subject, their attitudes are in complete discord with each other. “Red Hot” is fun-loving, self-assured, even flippant. The narrator’s descriptions of the “gal” in question are limited to shallow expressions of her physical characteristics (“six feet four”), behavior, (“Well she walks all night, talks all day”) and the like. Meanwhile, “La Cigarra” is mournful, tragic, and deadly serious. Although the object of affection is not described, his/her impact is very tangible in the life of the narrator:

Y quiero morir cantando
Como muere la cigarra

And I want to die singing
Like the cicada dies

Likewise, the sound of “Red Hot” and “La Cigarra” are at odds. “Red Hot” is an upbeat rockabilly tune; “La Cigarra” is a sorrowful ranchera song. As suggested by their association with each of the characters, “Red Hot” and “La Cigarra” may be said to be the theme songs of April May and Fabiola, respectively.
In the final scene, the sense of place derives from the tension in identity between these two characters. April May goes to great efforts to win over the judges on the Miss Magma panel, and for nine years her efforts have proved fruitful. However, some discontent is growing in the ranks of the judges, a sentiment expressed in the observation, “APRIL MAY MIGHT REPRESENT OUR VOLCANO, BUT SHE DOES NOT REPRESENT US.” April May also happens to be ugly, Anglo (if we can judge by the description that she was “so pale her veins showed through her skin”), and apparently biologically male. Fabiola is beautiful, Mexican-American, and, of course, female. She isn’t interested in the prestige of Miss Magma—in fact, she’s not even registered as a contestant, and casts off the Miss Magma crown after it is placed on her head.
April May and Fabiola reflect on the oppositions at play in Lava Landing. Although located in California, the city—or at least the part of it the reader sees—is thoroughly Mexican-American, and Mexican culture permeates the pages of the novel. Earlier in its history it was devastated by a volcano eruption, and yet the lava flow ultimately became a boon for the city’s inhabitants: it made the soil especially fertile, resulting in a mass migration of Mexican laborers every harvest season. Brujeria, loosely translated as witchcraft, plays a major role in the story, and yet the same characters who ply its trade exhibit religious devotion, or exhibited it at one time (Lullabelle and the brujo that Fabiola and Lucha visit). Thus, the sense of place is ultimately one made deeply familiar through the characters we are introduced to, yet rife with contradictions that complicate the sense of place and push the community to the point of explosion, in the form of the earthquake. When the earthquake does occur, it signals the climax of some of the characters’ narratives, namely, the characters present in Lava Landing when the earthquake strikes. Fabiola and Lucha are arrested; jail will likely prevent them from enjoying their newfound riches or avenging Fabiola any time in the foreseeable future. And April May is deprived of a tenth consecutive Miss Magma title. However, Natalie, Consuelo, Lullabelle, and Javier are not present during the climactic earthquake. Will Javier learn to balance the demands of mariachi masculinity with his devotion to missionary religiousness? Will Lullabelle finally decide who is the real keeper of her soul: God or the Devil? Will Natalie and Consuelo come to terms with the tension between their regular dancing and flirting with boys on the one hand, and their deep commitment to one another on the other hand? These contradictions are not resolved.

No comments:

Post a Comment