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More than fifteen years ago, I discovered the work of Alma Luz Villanueva on the shelf of a used bookstore. A slim chapbook, Mother, May I?, published by an obscure small press (Motherroot Publications, 1978), caught my eye because it was written by a Chicana poet, a rarity in those days. As I read her book, I was struck by the young, honest voice that spoke from the pages. For the first time I was reading about experiences that I knew but had never heard articulated. This was the voice of any number of young Chicanas from the California neighborhood of my childhood. Some of the pages made my heart skip: here were words I myself had thought but had never written or said.

I didn't find anything else by or about Villanueva again until 1985, when Marta Sanchez' groundbreaking Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature was published by the University of California Press. It was there, in the fifty-odd pages devoted to Villanueva, that I learned something of her personal life.

She grew up in the Mission district of San Francisco and lived primarily with her Mexican grandmother until she was eleven years old. She never knew her father, who she later found out was of German descent. After her grandmother was taken to a rest home and subsequently died, Villanueva was raised by her young mother and a Mexican-American aunt through her adolescent years; she then became a teenage mother herself. Her early poems are all autobiographical, drawn from a childhood marked by poverty, abondonment, domestic violence - and, at the same time, by love, self-protective rebellion and adherence to an ever-changing community of women.

As a young mother, Villanueva began writing during the late sixties and early seventies. In 1977, a collection of her work, titled simply Poems, won the University of California at Irvine's Chicano Literary Prize for poetry. She has since published a number of poetry books, and her first novel, The Ultraviolet Sky (Bilingual Press, 1988), was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1989. But her two most recent books may finally earn her the audience and attention she deserves. Villanueva's second novel, Naked Ladies, displays her ability to tell a gripping, page-turning story with an array of complex characters; and her latest book of poetry, Planet, includes the long out-of-print Mother, May I?

"Mother, May I?" is a child's game of advance and retreat: when the "mother's" back is turned, you advance toward her. If she turns around and catches you moving, she can either banish you back to the starting line or grant you permission, in "baby" or "giant" steps, to move forward. Villanueva's series of poems adopts this child's game as a metaphor for the chronological and emotional distance the poet travels - from present to past, from experience to awareness to wisdom.

If this title indicates that Villanueva is asking permission to tell her story, then the poems reveal that she had to go back to her earliest memories in order to speak with an innocence that's not merely youthful or naive:

I like to play outside with my panties off; the air feels so good between my legs. I love to swing and spread them wide. I love to put my dolly's hand there and make her tickle me...

But later, as the child begins to interact with the adult world, she internalizes the judgments of her elders. She becomes secretive in her activities, recognizing how her behavior leads to adult embarrassment or shame. The poet, too, is finally shamed into self-censorship: "grandma," she remembers,

made me wear long pants under my dresses so she would know the wind couldn't smell me. and then I learned how to hide.

At the heart of Mother, May I? is a woman's growing awareness and acceptance of herself: her body, her soul, her sexuality, her relationship to her Mexican American family, her working-class community and the larger society that defines who she is in the context of those labels.

Villanueva's voice finds strength in the halting chronology of her story, where a victim undergoes the delicate transformation into a woman with a strong sense of herself as a survivor. In the final stanzas of Mother, May I?, the speaker, now in her mind-thirties, recognizes that women - grandmothers, mothers and daughters - are "the thread of this story":

this is a story of women raging against women; of women loving women; of women listening to women, because men don't have time to, because men move on...

The thread of women's voices continues in the newest poems of Planet. In these, Villanueva sings, praise and pronounces her views even more forcefully than in Mother, May I? She is "Sassy," "No One's Child," "Changing Woman" and "Not Emily Dickinson." In "Former lebanese prime minister saeb salam dismisses witnesses' reports as coming from ignorant old women," she uses the patronizing slur "ignorant old women" to show how male arrogance masks helplessness:

The ignorant old women were present at your birth they wiped your body fluids, and your ass - they protected your sweet sex from jealous violations of crazed fathers, soldiers, they cushioned your soul with love...

What I still enjoy most about Villanueva's poetry, aside from the strength of her images and the way they convey her inner life, is her voice. That voice is confident, direct, unflinching, intimate. Yet as much as I appreciate Villanueva's poetry, it's in her prose that she really brings to life a multitude of speakers. As she herself recognizes in "Splendid Moments," another poem from Planet, she must allow her characters "their own/words and will if they are to live."

We meet some of these characters in her newest novel, Naked Ladies. Here again, women are the thread of Villanueva's story. The book's title refers to a flower that grows wild along the highways and meadows of northern California. These are not fragile little blossoms but distinctive pink blooms, each standing open and tall on thick mauve stems. Like these flowers, the women of Villanueva's novel are hardy individuals.

Naked Ladies focuses on the friendships of four women who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. They forge inextricable bonds with each other despite different class and ethnic backgrounds. One friendship, between Alta, the book's main character, and Katie, is formed in the opening pages of the novel. Alta deliberately drives her car into a man who is trying to steal Katie's purse:

The wheel turned without effort, and Alta's aim was perfect. The beautiful panther-man wasn't expecting this, and his face registered shock and pain as the front bumper caught his strong, lovely legs. He'd dragged the woman halfway down the street. Now he let her go and his eyes connected to Alta's.

Alta felt the contact with his body. She heard bone. The choice was hers - live or die - a fence was behind him... The color red, behind her eyes, turned to black and white, and she stopped as he limped away in great pain.

The novel's plot builds Katie and Alta's friendship over several years, with this unforgettable scene establishing Alta's ferocious sense of justice.

While Villanueva's poetry expresses raw, immediate feelings, her novel displays the texture of many different relationship. Most of the secondary characters in Naked Ladies weave in and out of Alta's story. As the first half of the novel unfolds, their lives pull together and apart accordion-like, with the everyday struggles of jobs, college classes and child-raising played against the larger discordance of alcoholism, domestic violence, cancer, attempted suicide and AIDS. Although the novel emphasizes the support the women give one another, it's refreshing to overhear their occasional disagreements. Villanueva also shows a friendship between Alta and a schoolmate, a Black man named Steve, that includes a realistic dose of attraction and inter-racial bantering.

One of the pitfalls of writing about relationships between women is that the men in their lives - husbands, lovers, exes - may seem to be one-dimensional, insensitive, macho bad guys. Villanueva not only avoids this trap, she leaps beyond it; she give us a complex community of men and women, complete with individual strengths and weaknesses. For example, she offers more than one perspective on Alta's husband Hugh. When we read that Hugh has spent all but $40 of one week's paycheck on a drinking spree and that he has violent sex with Alta, we fear for her, but also wonder why she stays with him. Then Alta's friend, Jackie, calls, frightened by teenagers trying to break into her house. Alta and Hugh rush over the help her, and he shows a gender, protective side:

"That's what I need, muscle! was about to make dinner. Some tacos. Do you want some?" Then Jackie's face collapsed. "Those guys scared the shift out of me. I guess they didn't think it was home' cause I parked in the garage. What a neighborhood - you're either mugged or raped." She was shaking.

"Why don't you two take it easy. I'll get the tacos," Hugh said, leaving them alone....

"You must love it when he acts like this," Jackie indicated Hugh with her eyes.

Throughout Naked Ladies, it's incidents like these that ring true. Our increasingly violent society lelads to this uncomfortable contradiction: while many women are victimized by men, they continue to look to men to "save" them as well.

In Part Two of the novel, which resumes after several years have passed, we learn that not all of its characters or relationships have survived. But Villanueva doesn't bring readers to a predictable conclusion, in which those characters who survive live happily ever after. Instead, she tells of new friends and relationships, with an ending every bit as dramatic as Alta's attempt to run over the mugger on the street.

If Villanueva's writing has an flaws, it's that she gives us too much: too many characters and situations, too many sexual couplings, even the threat of history repeating itself when Alta 's daughter, April, chooses a marriage that may replicate the same mistakes her parents made. But that's also what makes Villanueva's fictional community so embraceable; real life isn't simple and uncomplicated, and her characters are people I recognize. I believe others will recognize them, too, and come away from Alma Luz Villanueva's novels and poems feeling as if they've experienced the pain, exhilaration and wisdom of a life fully lived.
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Author:Wheatwind, Marie-Elise
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1994
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