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The Flower in the Skull, by Kathleen Alcala.

May 26, 2015

The Flower in the Skull, by Kathleen Alcala.  San Diego : Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Indigenous Reading Challenge

4 stars

An insightful account of an Indigenous woman, driven out of the mountains of Mexico and, bereft of family and home, walking to a very different life in Tucson in the late 1800s.

Concha belonged to an Opata village deep in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.  Growing up, her life centered on her mother and the special room where the women gathered to weave and sing.  Life was hard but grounded in the family and the countryside. When Mexican settlers and soldiers endangered the village, the people left and Concha got separated from her family.  Alone she walked all the way to Tucson, where she worked as a domestic servant, experiencing good times and bad. She was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rosa, who recounts her own story and tells of her mother’s later years and death. The last section of the book is narrated by their descendant, a young woman with troubles of her own, who comes to Tucson and discovers traces of their lives.

Unlike many Indigenous stories, The Flower in the Skull focuses less on traditions, cultural conflict and domination and more on the loneliness and heartbreak of a woman separated from her family and from the place she knew as home. For a time she worked for a family that treated her well, but she never acclimated to the city and the noisy trains. As her daughter explains, her mother’s world centered on the women’s weaving room in the village, even after she had been gone for years. Rosa is not sure about whether or not to believe her mother’s stories, but sees their value anyway.  She describes how her mother became a different person when she told stories of her home village. Those story were “a part of her in a way Tucson would never be.”  Rosa realizes that her mother had not only lost her family, but all that grounded her.  To her mother, coming to Tucson was “the edge of the known world.”  Living there, she was “teetering the edge of a precipice, and she would never be comfortable living there.  The stories of this place was not her stories, the gods—Papago, Catholic or Protestant–were not her gods.”   Her god could not hear her over the noise of Tucson.  Yet her daughter, Rosa was comfortable being considered a Mexican.

Kathleen Alcada is the daughter of parents who came to the United States from Mexico. I read this book because I had been very impressed with her Spirits of the Ordinary, and I was not disappointed. References to some characters in the Alcada’s previous book appear in minor ways in The Flower in the Skull, but there is no need to have read it first to enjoy this one.   When writing about Indigenous peoples, Alcada’s language takes on a dignity and reserve that suits her subjects, a pattern I have sensed in some Indigenous African writers. She has thoroughly researched the history of northern Mexico and the American southwest, not simply as an author, but as the descendant of those who lived there, giving her words a particular depth. She writes historical fiction as stories we need to know about our shared past, not simply a fancy setting for a book. When she turns to the story of a contemporary granddaughter at the end of the book, I thought her book lost much of its force.

When I think about Indigenous people in my country and continent, I never quite know how to consider people from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America more generally. Over the centuries, ethnic lines have blurred and most Hispanic people are the descendants of Indigenous, European, and often African people. In the United States, all those with darker skins have been viewed as inferior. Distinctions have not always been made between Mexican and Indigenous people, as Concha’s daughter explains.  Alcada’s work clearly differentiates between the two and then shows how the distinction has been lost.

The Flower in the Skull is a fine book, enjoyable and informative. I recommend it highly, not simply to those interested in Mexican and Hispanic American topics, but to all interested to the variety of Indigenous narratives. In addition, this book recognizes the importance of a sense of place or homeland, something too often lost in today’s mobile world.


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 26, 2015 4:53 pm

    Sounds an interesting one to add to my reading list

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