Book Review: Lucia Zarate by Cecile Velastegui

***This book was reviewed for the San Francisco Book Review

With Lucia Zarate, award-winning author Cecilia Velastegui has woven a beautiful tale of the late 1800s, where superstition still abounded, and life was both freer, and far more dangerous. It was a time when that which was strange and unusual was exploited for profit. It was into this world that our eponymous Lucia Zarate was born. She was a tiny thing, standing the height of a two year old, though she was twelve when she began her adventures in show business. Effectively sold by her family to a ‘Yankee’ agent, Lucia was destined to travel around the world, that people might gawk at her diminutive frame. In her home region, Lucia was considered to be chaneque, one of the wee folk said to be mischievous river sprites. Truly, it was better for her family to send her abroad.

The story is told mostly from her guardian, Zoila’s, point of view, and it is with her circumstances that we begin. Aged twenty-five, and unmarried, Zoila is put in rather dire straits when her father dies, and his web of lies become exposed. As an interpreter, and vanilla-trader, he had brokered double-sided deals, and breached his own supposed code of linguistic ethics, making promises that would never be kept. When he died, he owed a substantial amount, and that taint passed to Zoila. The death of her one friend, and secret love, Felipe, and being considered a top suspect in a murder she had nothing to do with sent Zoila all the way to Veracruz, where she was lucky enough to discover a unique position that would make use of her sharp mind, her cleverness and knowledge, and the many languages her father taught her. In short, she would travel with Lucia, being her chaperone, to keep her safe, and to teach her.

At first Zoila desired to abandon Lucia once in the US. After all, getting to the States had been Zoila’s primary concern. Upon seeing the treatment Lucia received though, she stayed on. Years passed in the sideshow circuit, with Lucia touring first with Frank Uffner and later with PT Barnum briefly. She travelled the US, UK, and throughout Europe, meeting Queens, Presidents, and other important figures. Lucia became rather full of herself, and had numerous conflicts with other troupe members. She was incredibly extroverted, possessed of a playful nature and sharp intellect. A decade passed thus, and her prestige slowly waned. She died shy of age 30, not far past Donner Pass in California, like that ill-fated party so long before, victim to the Sierras’ fearsome winter weather.

Velastegui has woven a most interesting biography, full of rich, lyrical imagery. I had never heard of Lucia Zarate and found her life fascinating. Insights into just how grueling sideshow work was floored me. These people were treated to terrible conditions, and crude mockery, as if they were not human at all, at times. Poked and prodded as ‘medical curiosities’ and ‘missing links’, called freaks, made to entertain audiences for a pittance, while their so-called managers raked in cash. What petty beings are we…

Not only did I learn of Lucia Zarate, and gained a greater appreciation for the full nature of exploitative behaviour towards the more unusual among us, the anthropologist in me was treated to a glimpse of Totonac culture, and vanilla cultivation. Threaded through the story is beautiful symbolism tied to seemingly ordinary events. The lore of the owl to the Totonac, as to many other cultures, and what is presaged for Felipe, the flutist Birdman, and later for Lucia herself. The brujo and the mental legacy he left with Lucia and Zoila, that followed them place to place to place, holding them captive in its fear.

I enjoy reading authors of other cultures, because culture surely shapes writing. It echoes values and reflects sociocultural framework. This was my first experience with both Velastegui’s works, and a Latino author. It comes as no surprise to me that this book should have been among the finals of the 2017 International Latino Book Awards.

????? Highly Recommended

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