"Sonora is tought," Ana Consuelo Matiella will tell you, but in the next breath she'll describe Nogales in the 1960s as "Leave It to Beaver for Mexicans. It was this wholesome town where I could walk from my house on the American side of the border to my grandmother's house in the hills on the Mexican side without worrying about anything. But now, between the drugs and the maquilas [the low-wage, foreign-owned border factories], the town has been transformed."
It's the old, wholesome Nogales that figures in much of Matiella's The Truth about Alicia and Other Stories, a sometimes magic-realist, always gently cynical collection of short fiction recently published by the University of Arizona Press. Matiella's Nogales is a town where old women still dodge hexes, where a crow explains adults to a child, where a dead grandfather comes back for a Christmas visit and, more realistically, where women gossip about how to deal with unreliable men. But although those women are sometimes abused, they don't let themselves become victims.
They're Sonoran. They're tough.
"I didn't know any submissive females," says Matilla, sitting tall and solid in a hotel café in Santa Fe, where she now lives. "You didn't mess with my mother or my aunt or my grandmother, and I think it's because they're all from Sonora.
"In the south of Mexico, they call Sonorans 'broncos' because we're loud and ill-mannered, and we exaggerate," she says, noting that the preliminary title of her collection was Gossip, Stories and Lies. "Sonora has always been full of tough ranchers and a ruling class that ran everything with an iron fist. And the Indians weren't submissive in Sonora, either; the Yaquis were as fierce and mean as the ranchers."
Matiella was born on the Sonoran side of Nogales, but her family moved to the U.S. side so she could attend school here. Which side of the border she was on didn't matter much in the 1960s. She crossed easily to visit relatives, or to pile into a car with other high school kids to explore the forbidden pleasures of Canal Street--"Not a cool place to be if you were a girl," she admits.
"Being a border person--you can't shake it. The border is like another country all its own. We Mexicans forged a whole new race out of the Spanish and Indian, and in the same way the border is both Mexican and American without being really like either one. One of the reasons I'm an adaptable person is because of the dichotomies and dualities I was raised with."
Matiella graduated from Nogales High School in 1970, then enrolled at Pima Community College when it was housed in hangars on Old Nogales Highway. "Yeah, I couldn't get away from being in a place called Nogales even when I left town," she says, "but Pima was this totally happening college."
Eventually she transferred to Northern Arizona University--one of her stories revolves around a college professor in Flagstaff--and obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1976. She worked as a rehab counselor for the Department of Economic Security in Tucson for 10 years, getting a master's in English as a Second Language at the UA along the way. Then she worked a while for an educational publisher in California, and in 1991 wound up in Santa Fe, where she produces educational fotonovelas and writes a monthly newspaper column on Santa Fe life.
"The good thing about New Mexico is it embraced all the cultures," she notes, sitting in the elegant hotel owned by a Native American tribe.
It took years for Matiella to embrace her potential as a writer of short fiction. She'd draft the stories longhand, in bed, then put them away for as long as a decade. At last her writing coach persuaded her to send a query to the University of Arizona Press, and the result is now out in paperback. A literary agent saw a favorable review of it in Publishers Weekly, and asked Matiella if she happened to have a novel ready to go. Indeed she did.
"She liked the first six chapters, but I haven't heard if she liked the other 21," says Matiella. "It's a stalker romance that takes place in Tucson and Spain, about a bad boyfriend you can't get rid of."
Right now Matiella is working on a historical novel set in Guaymas, and what she calls "a really cool short-story collection. It's 13 Mexican feminine archetypes--the virgin, the whore, the witch, the old maid, all those. I offer it up with a good dose of Mexican cynicism, so although it's about the archetypes, it challenges the myths. That's evident in these Something about Alicia stories. There's always some sort of twist, so it's not like the Henry James female archetype, where if you're a woman, you're gonna lose, no matter what."
Despite her subjects and settings, Matiella doesn't talk about being part of any Latina literary movement; in fact, she's skeptical that much progress has really been made in Mexican-American arts and letters.
"People keep announcing that this is going to be the Decade of the Hispanic," she says. "Well, I've been living the Decade of the Hispanic for 30 years. Where's the literature? Where are the movies? People watch soap operas on Galavision and they think we're really like that! It's terrible! It's telebasura--trash TV! They finally come up with a good series about a Mexican-American family, but they have to put it on PBS, not on mainstream television. And then they don't even tell you when it's on! [American Family airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on channel 6; consider yourself told.]
"It's enough to make you think there's some big plot against us, but then it's really up to us to write the stories and get them out into the world, isn't it? It's a good thing I'm not paranoid, that's all I have to say."