Norma Elia Cantú
Cabañuelas: A Novel
University of New Mexico Press
Paperback, 978-0-8263-6061-8 (also available as an e-book), 304 pgs., $19.95
March 1, 2019
Cada cabeza es un mundo is Nena’s favorite dicho. Each mind is a world unto itself. Nena, a university professor, travels as a Fulbright scholar to Madrid, Spain in 1980 to read about fiestas and plays at the Biblioteca Nacional in order to analyze the similarities with the fiestas of her home, Laredo, Texas. Before she leaves, during her family’s annual Christmas Eve tamalada, her father worries that his oldest, unmarried, “too independent” child will get hurt somehow or won’t come home, while her grandmother warns Nena not to fall in love, to come home at the end of her studies.
Once in Madrid, Nena discovers that reading about the traditional fiestas is not enough, of course, and she sets out to discover Spain. As she explores, she discovers Paco, a graphic designer of book covers, and grapples with what she’s learning about the world in general and Spain in particular, the evolution of tradition, the endless permutations of love, and herself.
Cabañuelas: A Novel is the second novel from Texas ethnographer Norma Elia Cantú, who is the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Endowed Professor of Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio. Her previous novel is Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, first published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1995 and updated in 2015. Both novels are autofiction, but we can’t know where Cantú diverges from Nena in Cabañuelas. What we can know, what is lyrically evident in Cantú’s latest novel, is her trust in commonalities and her love for both the people and the landscape of the borderlands. As Nena ponders,
The culture that protects and shelters. But also the culture that circumscribes and limits. How can she not love this land? How can she not hate this land? This land of her ancestors? This land of the future? How can she not love the cultural experiment that it is?
Cabañuelas is enhanced by many photos (Remember, autofiction.) scattered throughout the novel, which illustrate the many traditional fiestas that Nena attends and documents. The narrative unfolds in a third-person-limited point of view. We know the other handful of characters, including Paco, only through their interactions with Nena, but we know Nena intimately, and her excitement, trepidation, and confusion are visceral. Cantú’s sentences have a distinctive rhythm, short—almost Hemingway-esque—and evocative, deliberate. But those same declarative sentences are frequently followed by brief phrases or single words suggestive of choice: but, almost, until, or maybe not.
I highly recommend, if you’re planning a trip to Spain, that you consider using Cabañuelas as a travel guide: la Endiablada in Almonacid del Marquesado, Santa Águeda in Zamarramala, Valencia’s Falles y Ninots, Corpus Christi in Toledo. After all, Cabañuelas is a love story lovingly wrapped in cultural anthropology.
Cuentos. Commonalities. Nothing new under the sun. Take what is useful and nourishing from tradition, discard what is not, add to it, and pass it along.
Norma Elia Cantú is the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Endowed Professor of Humanities at Trinity University. Her earlier works include Transcendental Train Yard: A Collaborative Suite of Serigraphs, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and the coedited anthology Entre Guadalupe y Malinche: Tejanas in Literature and Art. Cantú cofounded CantoMundo, a national organization of Latinx poets, and has served as a senior arts administrator with the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work in the fields of literature, folklore, and Chicana studies have earned her the Américo Paredes Prize from the American Folklore Society, the National Association for Chicana ad Chicano Studies Scholar Award, and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters. She has undertaken two Fulbright-Hays research fellowships in Spain.