First: Marcela Fuentes’s Malas

by
Rigoberto González
6.4.24

To the casual visitor, Del Rio, Texas, with a population just under 35,000, can seem calm and peaceful. One tourism site touts it as “The Friendliest Little Border Town,” promising a soft landing for travelers en route to Ciudad Acuña, its more densely populated sister city just one mile away. The two cities are connected by the International Bridge which, according to Del Rio’s official website, “continues to have one of the shortest crossing times along the Texas-Mexico border, making it the first choice for many tourists and businesses looking to enter into Mexico through Texas.”

Marcela Fuentes, whose debut novel, Malas, is published by Viking.   (Credit: Paula N. Luu)

Yet for those crossing from south to north, the town’s hospitable tone shifts quickly to hostility. In 2023, Del Rio became the second-busiest corridor for undocumented border crossings, and the Border Patrol made a record-breaking 71,000 arrests. The year prior, 15,000 Haitian asylum seekers lived stranded under that bridge. Images of Haitians assailed by agents on horseback—like overseers on a plantation—sent shock waves across the country.

“This is the border, this is Del Rio,” debut novelist Marcela Fuentes tells me. “A place of contradictions and strangeness.”

Although Fuentes now lives in Fort Worth, she was born in Del Rio and spent her formative years here. It is fitting to return to where it all began: Her first novel, Malas, published by Viking in June, is set in a fictionalized version of Del Rio. “But it’s not an autobiographical story,” she says. The characters, however, are very much inspired by the people there who made a lasting impression on her younger self.

Her family home where we talk is spotless and orderly, adorned with crosses and other religious imagery typically found in a Mexican Catholic household. Fuentes and her two brothers had long since moved out to start their own families, and her mother Enriqueta relocated recently to their youngest sibling’s home in Waxahachie, a suburb of Dallas. And though most of the family photographs have been stored away, memories of her childhood and her father Roberto loom heavily in the air.

“I grew up middle class, even though my father was a blue-collar guy,” Fuentes says. “He had a high school diploma and worked for the utilities company most of his life, but he insisted on giving us the best life possible.”

The family’s first home was in nearby Buena Vista, a mostly white neighborhood where Fuentes’s understanding of class and ethnicity began to take shape. “Del Rio is a small town, but the segregation is palpable,” she says. If Buena Vista was where the “high-spanics” lived, then San Felipe, the barrio across town, was where Chicano culture thrived. Fuentes’s father was deliberate in instilling a sense of ethnic pride in his children and encouraged outings to San Felipe during Mexican holidays.

At other times, Fuentes also found herself in barrio Chihuahua, the working-class neighborhood where her parents lived before marriage, and where her two grandmothers resided until their deaths. “Even as a girl I remember feeling self-conscious about knowing I had things and access that the kids in Chihuahua didn’t,” she says.

Access, however, was somewhat of a family enterprise. Fuentes’s maternal grandmother, Angela Aguilar, had moved to Del Rio with her two youngest children after her divorce. She enrolled in school to become a bilingual education teacher, a practice she continued past retirement. Her house became an unofficial tutoring center for children in the neighborhood who were falling behind at school. Fuentes beams and says, “She was my role model. She always told me: ‘Mija, they can do anything to you, but they can’t take away your education.’”

Fuentes’s mother espoused that motto when she, too, decided to return to school while her daughter was in high school, enrolling in a local community college to attain her special education certification to become an autism diagnostician. “Feminism wasn’t a word they would use,” Fuentes says. But it was through these acts of self-determination that she learned women could move through Mexican space outside of gender norms.

But these examples of agency were not realized without tension. Though Fuentes’s father supported his wife’s educational journey, he still expected her to fulfill her domestic duties. “My father was complicated like that: He was a real ethnocentric Chicano, but he held on to his machismo.” His relationship to his only daughter was just as complex, but it led to Fuentes’s participation in one of the most expressive, dangerous pastimes in Mexican culture: charrería.

“Charrería is the national sport of Mexico,” Fuentes explains. “Loosely speaking, it’s a Mexican rodeo that was shaped by the ethos of the Mexican Revolution: the horse, the horseman outfits with those iconic wide-brimmed hats.”

South of the border, Mr. Fuentes was a charro, performing feats such as wild bronc riding. Fuentes grew up standing next to her terrified mother, both of them watching him risk getting thrown off a horse. When he realized that his daughter’s extracurricular activities were limited to whatever the local 4-H Club could offer, he came up with a solution: adding an all-girls unit to the team.

“Escaramuzas are the female component of a charrería,” Fuentes says. “They wear these big colorful dresses to make them look proper, yet their performance in the arena is no less risky than the men’s.” A typical team consists of eight women riding side-saddle on horseback, showcasing intricate choreographies, at times at high speeds. Fuentes was the youngest member at the age of eight.

To this day, Fuentes has no idea where her father got the money to fund the additional horse maintenance and costumes, but there she was, fearlessly climbing on a horse every time a charrería was announced. “My dad just wanted to make space for me,” she recalls. “And whatever he wanted, he got.” Eventually, the cost was too much to bear, and by the time Fuentes reached high school age, both she and her father had left the sport, much to her mother’s relief. It was such an unusual interest that Fuentes didn’t talk about it outside of their home, but it helped her acquire some valuable skills.

“It prepared me for the public eye,” she says. “As a performer I got used to being under pressure in front of a crowd of spectators, so I have no stage fright. And it also prepared me for a love of lipstick. I had to be doing this dangerous thing and be beautiful at the same time, so makeup was my armor. It made me associate being very femme with being very tough; being feminine with being very strong and very daring.”

Having embraced this elegant style, Fuentes wasn’t difficult to pick out in the crowd at the annual AWP Annual Conference & Book Fair in Kansas City this past March. Long, curly hair cascading down her back, she wore a black-sequined jumpsuit with pink, glitter heels and an arresting, purple, fuzzy coat, its train trailing behind her. Most distinctive of all: her contagious laugh, which can only be described as muscular.

We break for lunch. As we exit the house, she points out the sheep grazing in an adjacent pasture. “There are also goats in the area,” she says. “Mohair is still an important business in Del Rio.” The town is also the site of the oldest winery in Texas, and of a celebrated bass fishing tournament that takes place in La Amistad Lake, a reservoir of the Rio Grande also used for kayaking and boating. It’s a side to the river rarely evoked by the media, Fuentes says. The Rio Grande remains inextricably bound to the charged subject of immigration and the use of deterrents across the river to prevent undocumented border crossings.

As we drive onto Highway 90, Fuentes tells me this was one of Del Rio’s cultural borders when she was growing up, separating the haves and the have-nots. “On one side was the country club with its fancy swimming pool and golf course, and on the other was Moore Park with its public swimming hole that we brown kids invaded in the summer. We called it the Bean Dip.” She unleashes one of her loud laughs.

We end up in Molcajetes, one of the many unassuming but tasty Mexican restaurants in town, where we indulge in fishbowl margaritas and tacos de tripa (chitterlings). During this meal, Fuentes walks me through her journey from Del Rio to Fort Worth, which includes a few side trips in between.

“There was no question that I would receive a college education,” Fuentes says. “But my dad wanted me within reach.” She completed her BA at the University of Texas at Austin in 1998. When I point out Austin is about 250 miles away, Fuentes reminds me that this is Texas. “That’s about a four-hour drive. It’s not that far for us.” After graduating with a low GPA (“I was overwhelmed by the size of the place and the number of people!”) she returned to more familiar territory, working at the local library as a reference librarian—a job she quickly disliked.

Like many public libraries, a white, conservative board was the gatekeeping entity that dictated all activities and book purchases. It seemed particularly unjust in Del Rio, a town where nearly 90 percent of the population was Latino. “I did what I could to make a difference, but it was never enough,” Fuentes says, sadness tinging her voice. A year later, she moved to San Antonio to work for a Spanish-language television production company. The year after that, she made a fateful decision: She would pursue a master’s degree in writing to fulfill a dream she had been secretly nurturing.

 “I have been a writer since high school. Maybe not in practice, but in the sense that I was dreaming of becoming one.” She had even created a nom de plume: Ann Fountains. (Ana is her first name, while “Fountains” is “Fuentes” translated into English.) “I thought I could only be published if people thought I was a white girl,” she says. “I didn’t know I could be a Latina writer until I started reading Latinx literature in college.” Particularly important to her were the works of Sandra Cisneros and Luis Alberto Urrea.

In 2000, Fuentes left Texas to pursue a master’s degree in English. “When I returned to Del Rio in 2003,” she recalls, “I was eight months pregnant and without a man in my life.” Whatever disappointment her parents felt quickly melted away when they realized she was going to be a single mother. After she gave birth to her son, her family closed ranks to offer the support she needed. “I never lacked for babysitting,” she says.

During this time, Fuentes set aside her writing dreams. Besides motherhood, she was weighed down by a heavy teaching load at Del Rio’s Southwest Texas Junior College. Still, she made a promise to reignite the creative flames once her son was potty-trained. That moment arrived four years later. At the suggestion of a friend to “collect her obligatory rejection letter from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” Fuentes applied with no expectations. Even if she was accepted, there was so much tying her to Texas—her history, her family, and a new relationship. But good news arrived. Making things both easier and more complicated, her boyfriend proposed and then suggested moving with her to Iowa so she could attend that prestigious writing program.

“If I didn’t have this unit with me,” Fuentes says, “I’m not sure I would have been as grounded. I was working on my marriage, I was a mother, and I lived in married-student housing where all the international students lived—a diverse community that was a good experience for my son. And none of this had anything to do with the workshop. My son started picking up Chinese from his little friends and developing a taste for Eastern African cuisine.”

Iowa itself, though, was isolating. “It was a strange place to be conspicuous,” she says. “I was a Chicana, I had a family, and I was older than most people in my cohort. But Iowa allowed me to write.” Though she was focused on short stories at the time, she began to gather the seeds of what would eventually become her first published novel.

Malas works with two timelines: The first, set in the 1950s, tells the story of a woman who has been wronged by her husband. In a moment of impulsive rage, she decides to do something unthinkable to her son, who survives the ordeal, though not without causing irreparable harm to the mother-son relationship. The second story is set in the 1990s, featuring Lulu, the woman’s teenage granddaughter who must contend with her father’s alcoholism and widower’s grief.

Those familiar with the tale of La Llorona will recognize the parallels to that Mexican legend, which dates back to the colonial era and demonizes the madness of a woman pushed to the edge. Versions vary across Latin America, but two elements remain constant: her crime, which usually involves a body of water, and her punishment—doomed to haunt the night crying out for her children.

“Once I became a mother,” Fuentes says, “I began to see that story differently. And I began to wonder about who could connect with a woman who can’t be forgiven—perhaps a girl who knows about feeling wronged.” Malas moves back and forth between Lulu and her grandmother as they navigate the masculine households and cultures of their respective times, their stories eventually converging.

Though the grandmother in Malas shares a name with Fuentes’s paternal grandmother Pilar, there is no further connection between the two. “I gave her that name because I wanted to draw strength from it. I couldn’t have written those characters without the strong women in my orbit, like my grandmothers, my mother, my beloved tía Boni—my mother’s older sister, who was Del Rio’s deputy sheriff.”

One early reader of the novel is Manuel Muñoz, who encountered it when he taught at Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Writers Workshop in 2011. He remembers it vividly: “I can’t say for sure if I saw the full character of Lulu as she exists now in the workshop, but I did see a character who was already pushing past the bounds of the draft she was in. A really good story was about to be afoot and I could tell that Marcela was being patient in figuring out its best path. Marcela had not only the gift of humor but also its application. We revere the storytellers in our families—our communities—who make us laugh because they know that it helps to balance the pathos, the more serious parts of our lives. I knew instantly that she was a writer with a resonant, unmistakable voice that would carry her as far as she wanted to go.”

Before Viking bought the book, Fuentes’s journey took a few more detours: After Iowa came Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she completed a PhD in 2016, followed by a year at the University of Wisconsin as a fellow at the Institute for Creative Writing. A few years earlier, in 2013, she adopted a German Shepherd named Ben to keep her company on her cross-country travels. “He’s a jelly donut of a dog,” she says, “but on cross-country trips home, he made me feel safe in the car.” In 2015, Fuentes’s father passed away. “There was a lot of tenderness and love in him, but he was very flawed, and made poor choices about his drinking and care.” Three years later, she accepted a tenure track job at Texas A&M University, which she left in 2023. She has since accepted a position at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, “because it’s a private school, and they can make commitments to DEI, and there’s no campus carry [legalized possession of a firearm on university or college campuses]. TCU offered me a little bubble, a little oasis away from the shift to conservative values.”

Fuentes is adamant about letting people know the many steps it took to get to where she is because, she says, “When people find out that I finished Malas in May of 2023, got an agent in June, and sold the novel in September, it sounds like it was quick and easy.” It wasn’t. Her many relocations, not to mention the many hours spent at the writing desk, were time away from her loved ones—lost moments that cannot be reclaimed, especially with those who are no longer living. “I think that’s another important reason I took a job at a university close to Waxahachie, because my mother is there. She’s seventy-one years old and I don’t want to lose any more time apart from her.”

Fuentes and I have overstayed our welcome at Molcajetes, which will be closing soon. Sated and slightly toasty, we make our way back to her car. The air is crisp, and night is falling. It’s odd to consider that, besides the temperature and light, everything else has remained the same. The outside is no more or less quiet, the mood no more or less subdued than when we first entered the restaurant. The stillness is unsettling, like listening to dead air.

As for the book, its reception in the hands of readers and critics has yet to unfold, but Fuentes can breathe a little easier knowing it is no longer under her control. She does hope that those who encounter it will recognize what she has been learning all her life, as a girl growing up in a traditional yet unconventional Chicano household, in the friendliest little border town of Texas: “Even within the walls, change is possible. In a place that stifles imagination, imagination still happens.”

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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