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Review: Alexandra V. Méndez’s WHAT THE JAGUAR TOLD HER



Alexandra V. Méndez

What the Jaguar Told Her

Levine Querido / 2022 / 416 pp / $18.99


Reviewed by Jeremy Paden / April 2023



 

Historical Fiction, Magic Realism, and the YA Novel: A Look at Alexandra Méndez’s Debut, What the Jaguar Told Her


At first glance, What the Jaguar Told Her is a classic young adult, coming-of-age, school novel, pitched to readers between ten and fourteen. It follows thirteen-year-old Jade O’Callaghan as she navigates her family’s move to Atlanta at the start of her eighth-grade year. This move coincides with her maternal grandmother suffering a stroke, with Jade wondering if her interest in drawing is mere childish fancy, with her first crush, with getting her period, and with the shock caused by the collapse of the Twin Towers in September 2001. The world seems marked by uncertainty and she misses her maternal grandfather who died a few years before the move. However, soon after finding a mysterious obsidian mirror at the bottom of one of her boxes of clothes while unpacking, she meets a jaguar with a “golden spotted hide” in the woods behind her house. When she looks again at the big cat, her fright gives way to wonder as it is not a “jaguar standing before her, not a jaguar at all, but an old, old man.” This transformation pushes this school novel out of realism and into magic realism. The old man is Itztli, a Purépecha painter and storyteller who guides Jade into a deeper understanding of herself by telling her stories of pre-Conquest Mexico.


In a recent review essay on the rise of magic realism in YA novels, Josie Meléndez cautions that there is a “historical weight” that originates from the use of this genre—one developed in Latin America and which mixes literary realism with the miraculous in ways that disregard the despiritualized rules for understanding reality in a Western, post-enlightenment world—and that requires an understanding of the responsibility of “representing cultures and people.” Alexandra Méndez’s debut novel is an excellent example of YA magic realism that explores identity and culture by weaving past and present together. In fact, Méndez’s novel remembers the original connection between historical fiction and magic realism.


Children’s literature (and by extension the more recent designation of young adult literature) has long been close to historical fiction and fantasy. By the 1880s, the decade when Mark Twain and Robert Lewis Stevenson published The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Kidnapped (1886), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), both children’s literature and historical fiction had come into their own and begun to cross-fertilize—even blending fantasy with history in Twain’s time-travel novel, which predated H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine by six years. In 1922 the American Library Association held the first Newbery Awards for excellence in children’s literature. Most of the winning novels have been historical fiction. Only a handful, like The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle (1923), have been fantasy. But in 1963, Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction, time-travel novel A Wrinkle in Time won. Science fiction, which owes its origin to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, engages wonder through rationality, through technology and scientific advances.


Though Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges wrote science fiction in the 1940s, Latin America has been known not for science fiction but for magic realism, which engages wonder in a very different way. In 1949, the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier published The Kingdom of This World, a slim historical novel on the Haitian Revolution that included a prefatory essay that argued Latin American reality and thought were characterized by an openness to mystery and wonder. He worked on these ideas throughout his career. First, in a 1928 critique of Bretón’s surrealist manifesto, again in the novel’s prologue, which he expanded and published as On the Marvelous Real in America in Tientos y diferencias (1964), and other subsequent essays. If spiritually bankrupt Europe, he argues, has had to invent wonder through the artificial and arbitrary means of Surrealism, Latin America exists in a space marked by the Marvelous Real. Latin Americans do not have to suspend disbelief when confronted with magic or miracles because these are part of the warp and weft of daily life. We see this in Méndez’s novel in how Jade, her mother, and her grandmother accept without question that an obsidian mirror can show you who you are by showing a reflection of your spirit animal. Carpentier concludes his essay asking, “After all, what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?” Exploring the literary potential of the marvelous real through fiction that interrogated Latin American history and politics became his trademark.


While Carpentier argued that the marvelous real was not magic realism, without him there would be no One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez was so deft at creating his fantastical worlds it is easy to forget that One Hundred Years is not just magic realism, but also a metahistorical critique in the vein of Carpentier. As evident in his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, García Márquez was also committed to political critique through a reexamination of history. Not all his magic realism novels are metahistorical, and much magic realism fiction follows the latter examples of Love in the Time of Cholera or Chronicle of a Death Foretold where wonder, hybridity, myth, and magic are more elements of storytelling than an interrogation of history. Even if much magic realism is no longer metahistorical, certain classics, like Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991), undoubtedly are.


What the Jaguar Told Her, while written for a YA audience, follows in the footsteps of Carpentier and García Márquez. Jade and Itztli converse about history and its uses, about who gets to tell history, about why and how they tell it—these are questions that animate their conversations. But before her guide appears, before she makes a routine of finding him by the centenarian oak beside the stream that runs through the woods behind her house, we must get to know Jade.


Part of Jade’s settling-in in Atlanta is having to answer questions like: “Is that really your sister? . . . She’s so dark and you’re so pale.” The O’Callaghan girls are only part Irish Catholic; their mother, Sol O’Callaghan, is the daughter of a Mexican couple who migrated to Chicago from Jalisco for factory-work and who opened up a neighborhood restaurant known as the Casa Azul that catered to other Mexican immigrants in need of comfort through food. While Catholic on both sides, Jade learns over the course of the novel that certain practices of her Mexican family are decidedly syncretistic and have indigenous roots. In many magic realism texts (Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, those highlighted by Meléndez, and others), family often provides that connection to myth.


While Jade faces several challenges, perhaps the greatest is that on the threshold of adulthood she finds herself bereft of story. Jade’s principal connection to Mexico, aside from her mother’s cooking and Spanish, has been her grandparents. Stories, especially family stories, help give us a sense of identity. But silences mark her new life. She misses her “parlanchín” (chatty) grandfather’s stories of Mexico. And her grandmother, who has never been as garrulous, is now ailing. In this absence, Itztli becomes the storyteller. In their first meeting, she notices his eyes have “the same playful glint that used to light up Abuelo’s eyes when he would do a magic trick.” Through story, Itztli guides Jade back to family and instills in her the desire to ask her grandmother “for her stories.” She wants to know about “Abuelo and Abuela in San Juan de las Jacarandas [and] their early days in Chicago. She couldn’t accept that it had all been lost forever when Abuelo died.”


Jade’s mother, like Jade’s grandmother, is naturally reserved. Sol’s reticence has been reinforced by the masks she has had to wear as the child of immigrants and the grief she carries over the death of a brother during their teenage years. This reserve exacerbates the feeling of distance that growing up introduces between parents and children. While Jade understands her mother’s reticence, she still feels adrift. At the beginning of the novel, when Jade finds that small obsidian mirror, she asks her mother about it. Her mother only gives her a funny look, as if the mirror “reminded her of something.” When Jade presses, she is simply told, “Keep it.” And she realizes that “like so many things with her mom, this mirror was something unexplained but important.” Near the middle of the novel, after Sol sees Itztli’s map, drawn on bark, sitting on Jade’s desk, her mother tells Jade of how three “tecolotes,” or owls, began to visit her soon after the mirror came into her possession. They helped her navigate her early teenage years and the death of her brother.


Even as Jade joins the track team and makes friends at her new school, she continues to meet Itztli by the oak. Eventually, he tells her he planted it in memory of his wife and son who died in childbirth. During their meetings, he tells Jade stories of migration and identity. As he talks, he draws maps in the style of the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. Jade realizes that his maps are not about geography but “about the places and the journeys between [the places].” His stories recount the history and myths of pre-Contact Mexico: the origin story of the Nahua people, of their migration from the Place of the Seven Caves to Lake Texcoco, and of how Mexico was comprised of many people groups, like the Purépecha, who resisted the imperial dominion of the Mexica. He tells her he is of mixed heritage, a Purépecha mother and a Mexica father; and how, after his mother died of smallpox, he migrated north and eventually came to the forests that surrounded the granite mountain near the land on which Atlanta was built. As Jade watches him paint, fascinated “at how quickly he made forms bloom on the bark,” she begins to understand the role art plays in self-understanding and in preserving history. When she asks, “How can I paint a history, too?” He tells her, “You must first listen to the stories . . . Only then can you paint them.”


Listening to Itztli’s stories and those of her grandmother and mother, Jade comes to understand the complexity of Mexico’s history and herself. These stories give a fuller picture of her grandparents’ Catholicism by providing an understanding of the trunk onto which Christianity was grafted and which flowered into her family’s particular forms of syncretism; they let her see a more nuanced picture of human migration and colonialism; and they paint a history of indigenous Mexican art, of which she and her Mexican family are a part. She learns her mother’s family have all been weavers, painters, potters, and carvers of wood, jade, and obsidian. She further learns the obsidian mirror that shows who you are was one of the few precious family heirlooms her grandmother brought with her when they migrated to Chicago. As with the map painted on bark and the obsidian mirror, Itztli’s stories open a space where Jade can ask about her own family history.


These larger socio-political questions of migration, conquest, and identity come to Jade through stories told by an old man recounting pre-Conquest myths and the experiences of his youth. While set five hundred or more years before Itztli’s and Jade’s encounter, these stories help Jade find her way through the modern world. In one of their last meetings, Itztli tells her:


You wanted to know how to figure out who you are . . . I found out when people questioned me. When the people of Tenochtitlán who did not respect me said, You are Purépecha. You do not belong here. When the Spanish painters said, You are Mexican. You are not a real painter. And when a Spanish judge once told me seeing my work in an amoxtli [a Nahuatl manuscript] that told the history of the Mexica, What nice drawings. How lovely it would be if you had a true history. That is how I learned I was a jaguar, Chalchihuite [Nahuatl for Jade]. When I learned to stand up for myself in those moments, to tell them, No, you are wrong. I belong here. I am a painter, and these are our histories.


Young Adult novels focus on questions of coming-of-age and identity. Magic realism allows Méndez to layer the present and the past in ways that focus on how and why we tell stories. This lets her tell two parallel narratives of identity. Both Jade and Itztli face crises of identity brought on by moving long distances, being of mixed and minority heritage, the death of loved ones, and the world’s collapse (the 9/11 attack and the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica). Because magic realism, at its origin, is metahistorical, Méndez can explicitly ask, and then show, how history informs identity and how storytelling gives us a sense of who we are.


 

Jeremy Paden is a poet, translator, and professor of Spanish at Transylvania University and Literary Translation at Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. He is the author of three chapbook and two full-length collections of poems. His most recent books are world as sacred burning heart (3: A Taos Press, 2021) and Self-Portrait as an Iguana (Valparaíso USA, 2021). Self-Portrait co-won Valparaíso USA's first Poeta en Nueva York Prize. His bilingual and illustrated children's book Under the Ocelot Sun/Bajo el sol del ocelote (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2020) won a Campoy-Ada prize for Spanish language children's books. He has published four full-length collections of poems translated from Spanish to English.


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