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Winter Books

Letters kept these women rooted

By Marjorie Agosín and Emma Sepúlveda
University of Texas Press, 180 pages, $30


The unanswered question about this book with a title in Spanish was initially very basic. Is it an epistolary novel or a collection of short stories, or perhaps essays between two women academics? The book is fragmented. Some letters have been rewritten. Is it telling a story?

The title is true to the contents of the book. The 180 pages of letters of Amigas reflect the almost 35-year epistolary relationship between two Chilean women. These women, renowned scholar Marjorie Agosín, and waiter-to-professor Emma Sepúlveda, are examples of how the semi-privileged, Latin America-educated woman, immediately on arrival in the United States, becomes underprivileged. Both are immigrants who walk the United States’ educational “yellow brick road” to doctoral degrees and valued tenured professorships at American universities while suffering the tremendous culture shock and resulting nostalgia for what life once represented.

They both embark into the territories of academia and intermarriage with American non-Latino husbands, birthing children who will be 100 percent Americans, yet perhaps one day will question their identity.

There is a strong “paper identity testimony” recorded in Amigas. What I mean are letters as evidence of a lived, recorded life -- statements that make them archeological objects from a dig of only one generation ago. This book has the spirituality of an archeological site. The spiritual exercise of writing and receiving letters, of waiting and expecting -- as well as sending and stamping with the hope that they will cure someone else’s solitude for a moment -- cannot go unnoticed by the reader.

We also see the hardcopy evidence of the letter and note junkies we have become, before the overdose of e-mails. Patience is a quality exercised prior to the Internet. We, the Baby Boom generation, don’t experience patience while reading the collection of letters in a book, yet we understand the value of recording it as a dream-like way of communicating with our yesterdays, our history.

To these two women, a friend is a spiritual gift that no one can take away. The reader cannot help but think of people in his/her past, lost in the vacuum of distance, missed through resettlements, internal or external exile, education and the daily necessities of life. The letters in her purse with which the mother of one of the protagonists leaves Chile (while exiting with very few other personal objects) make a strong statement about the meaning of written and stamped words to those in exile.

Letters are a shield that protects the immigrant, exile or person in solitude. The continual doubt about having chosen the correct country -- “I wonder what the other developed countries are like” -- resonates, I think, through the mind of most U.S. citizens who know their ancestors chose this country. The unequaled affirmation and frustration about not being able to change a historical reality is also evident. Writes one, during a visit, “I want you to also realize that this [Chile] is no longer our homeland about which we dream everyday in our adoptive country in the North.”

The letters are sounding boards, counselors that the reader -- first her friend and now us -- have to hear in order to end processes begun in the same letters.

Other important themes that emerge in the letters concern class issues. These immigrants traverse three classes: working class, middle class and the intellectual class, and convey a concept of class that is almost nontranslatable without understanding cultural idiosyncrasies about the United States and Latin America and, specifically, language. Susana works as a waitress/hostess on the road to becoming a politician and a professor. The almost ubiquitous feeling that immigrants, minorities and the underdog have in American society of not belonging, of feeling like one is planted in the wrong field, emerges throughout the book.

The writers also reveal reality in Latin America through their travels and observations recorded in letters to each other. In the 1970s, one travels with indigenous women up a windy road to Machu Pichu on a potato truck. The passengers, including the protagonist, throw up on the Indian women who, sitting on the potatoes, daily take this trip with their children strapped to their backs. In another letter the protagonist mentions the almost tyrannical reality in Guatemala, not dissimilar to the rest of Latin America where, with words unspoken, Indian women give up their seats “to any white person that gets on the bus.”

In their existential quest while traveling the world, these writers, in their letters, show solidarity with women and question the unjust systems that oppress them all over the globe. It did not surprise me that this book is a well-disguised political statement.

Finally, it is possible to call this an epistolary novel. Amigas goes much deeper than the quest for identity and sexuality. This is a historical novel in a very nontraditional sense, with testimonial value, pictures and all. Any immigrant who arrived in this country as an older child, teenager or adult can relate to the nostalgia on display in Amigas.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, a Chicana poet and academic, is assistant professor of foreign languages at Seattle University.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001