The Last of the Menu Girls, by Denise Chavez.
The Last of the Menu Girls, by Denise Chávez. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986. paperback, 190 pages.
Haunting short stories by and about an Hispanic/Chicana woman.
Denise Chavez presents us with a cluster of stories about a girl moving into an adult world. The stories are not exactly about “coming of age,” but steps along the way to adulthood as a young woman grasps larger, often uncomfortable realities. The narrator is present in all the stories, but the places and issues vary. In the title story, Rocio works in a hospital as a “menu girl,” collecting menu preferences from patients, who expose her to their anger at sickness and death. Another story focuses on her changing models for the woman she wants to grow up to be. All the stories portray life of ordinary women in Chicana neighborhoods, women seldom depicted in mainstream fiction. Her writing is an example of how, in the USA, more and more authors are being published who reveal the deep diversity of our society.
I decided to read The Last of the Menu Girls, because Chavez is considered a local writer here in West Texas. Her base is the Chicano community of southern New Mexico, but she has relatives here. She spent summers with her mother’s family nearby, and I could easily recognize the small town that she depicts in one of her stories. (A word of clarification. Americans use the general term Hispanic or Latino/a to refer the various peoples who have come here from Latin America and the Caribbean. Chicano/a are those who lived in the southwest before the arrival of the Anglos or who came from Mexico. These are people descended from Indigenous Americans, Spanish settlers, and sometimes Africans.)
Chavez is a fine writer, able to capture the essence of a situation in a few words. A few examples may convey her ability.
A child’s sorrow is a place which cannot be visited by others…and the mothers, well they stand…solemnly, without horror, removed from children by their understanding.
She describes one of women working in her mother’s kitchen.
Emilia, who showed me the round, not rectangular world of tortillas and how you turn-push-down-turn-keep-turning, the rolling-pin, her instrument of grace.
In another story, she describes the various closets in her childhood home, including the one where rain gear was kept.
This closet was rain, the hope of rain. To desert souls, rain is the blessed sex of God. It cleanses and refreshes. It is still the best mother, the finest lover.
While Chavez focuses on women’s lives, she also treats men sensitively. Anglos play little role in her narratives. I didn’t always understand the stories in rational terms, but they haunted me anyway. Her dialog is sometimes in Spanish, giving me the feeling that Chavez was not writing primarily for readers like myself, but for others like her. I respect and approve her choice.
Arte Publico Press, which published this book, is a small press which has done impressive work making Chicano/a writers available to a wider audience.
I strongly recommend The Last of the Menu Girls to other readers, especially those interested in women’s lives and the Chicana community.