Flame Tree Press
Hardcover (also available as an e-book and in paperback), 978-1-7875-8603-1, 224 pgs., $22.95
June 22, 2021
In July of 2019, Belinda Alvarez returns to her hometown for the wedding of her best friend. Belinda escaped Alice, Texas, as soon as she could. She attended university, was accepted into law school, then hired by a large firm; along the way, Belinda married and had a son. But now her “skin [is] a mere bag to hold [her] tears and alcohol,” and she is otherwise empty after two divorces, a layoff (“just because your degree is printed on white paper, it doesn’t change those preconceived notions about your brown skin”), and estrangement from her teenage son.
In 1952 on a farm outside Alice, Milagros Santos, a farmworker from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, is tortured and murdered because “some people felt entitled to anything they laid their eyes on.” The Anglo power structure is inconvenienced but unmoved—the Bracero Program will provide another Milagros tomorrow. Serendipitously, the wedding in which Belinda is a bridesmaid is taking place at the restored farm where Milagros, now known as La Reina de Las Chicharras, was sacrificed.
The convergence of essential players at the right time and place stirs Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, who swore vengeance for Milagros all those years ago. Belinda has returned to Alice a shell, but now she can act as a vessel.
The Queen of the Cicadas is the newest novel from Violet Castro, a San Antonio native whose great-grandparents were farmworkers. A blend of historical and contemporary fiction, Mexican folklore and modern urban legend, The Queen of the Cicadas is powerful, feminist supernatural horror.
The briskly paced action moves between the 1950s and the present. The historical chapters are told from an omniscient, third-person viewpoint. The present-day action is told from Belinda’s first-person perspective, her voice changing from breathless regret as she recounts doing “anything to claw a way out from the barrio” to serenity as she decides to fulfill the role offered by the Queen of the Dead.
Castro is skilled at evoking a certain era with tiny details: Aqua Net, pencil-thin eyebrows, and lip liner a shade darker than the lipstick can only mean coming of age in the 1980s (“real chola-like”). She can also stop you in your reading tracks: the cotton fields are “cultivated by the workers’ bodily fluids”; the position of the farmworkers is “ghost-like vulnerability”; Milagros likens her family she left in Mexico to the serape she uses as a tent in South Texas, where she is a “loose thread.”
The inadequacy of Anglo Christianity, as perceived by an abused and oppressed people, is a theme running throughout this novel, though Mictecacíhuatl acknowledges that she doesn’t want to run afoul of this “jealous god.” A young girl says to her abuela, “I thought Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Revenge is wrong, it’s not the same as justice.” To which her abuela replies, “It all depends on who owns the hand that repeatedly slaps you.” But redemption is a possibility.
Another theme is entitlement. As Milagros’s murderer declares, “Of course, the case is closed. Because we tell the stories for them.” The irony is rich when the owner of the now-decimated farm is forced to write to his sister to ask if the family can come stay with her. In California. With only the clothes on their backs. Milagros had been planning to leave for California to meet up with a man named Chavez when her options were stolen from her.
Identity is also important to The Queen of the Cicadas. It’s essential that the women of this story get to tell us who and what they are, and why. In one memorable chapter, the goddess herself, resplendent in jade, turquoise, gold, and feathers, directly addresses readers, straight outta Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.
Castro claims her ingredients from the fertile ground of South Texas Latinx cultures and conjures an original tale that insists upon the power of voices often ignored or silenced. The Queen of the Cicadas raises the tiny hairs on the back of your neck (“next time you hear that scratch or howl . . . it is not science in the room”) and inspires a restiveness I’m not sure I’m ready to name.
Violet Castro was born in San Antonio, Texas to Mexican American parents. Since Violet was a child, she wrote short horror stories and was always fascinated with dark fiction beginning with Mexican folklore and the urban legends of Texas. At eighteen Violet left Texas for Philadelphia to attend Drexel University where she received her Bachelor of Science in Political Science and History.