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Even as she is robbed of her power, her identify, she answers so many questions...mostly asked by people who should know better. A sophisticated, college-educated struggling artist from Mexico City, this young woman would still be hanging with the other chilango hipsters back home, making her art and spending time at the Palacio de Belles Artes or sitting in the Zona Rosa, were economic life so harsh for Mexicans. She is resourceful and strong enough to find a job in El Norte, working for the Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, whose life together is suddenly downsized. That triggers Araceli's promotion, as it were, from housekeeper to housekeeper-nanny-cook. Some deal. Yes, the trickle-down economics, recession, real estate boondoggle collapse has hit the luxury crowd (they don't know they are rich), who are forced to make tough decisions, if mostly tougher for the gardener and childcare provider they let go, but also messing with their already messed-up marriage.
Reading that terrific section about the train's approach to Union Station, and the curious, frightened boys, I recalled the stories offered by my friend the retired Irvine teacher and legendary local activist Marilyn Vassos, who routinely led downtown LA field trips for OC kids who'd never, ever been to the apparently exotic locales of Pershing Square, Olvera Street, the Bradbury Building and Central Library, so frightened were their suburban parents of the city, the Other, the dirty and confusing metropolis where struggle and history and pain and extremes of joy and despair can be seen, right there, rich and poor together, that they had never been. Like these girls and boys, Brandon and Keenan had seen the city only from above, out the window of the SUV on the freeway, with the Disney DVD playing on the tiny screen. Later, as one of the boys begins to understand what has happened, he makes the leap, offering with the Gertrude Stein-esque wisdom of a smart reader kid moving intellectually and emotionally from apocalyptic fantasy to grown-up narrative: "Just because you don't see something doesn't mean it isn't there."
The novel involves a little lie (by guess who?) which of course gets out of hand. That means trouble for Araceli in the form of law enforcement, ICE and of course the justice system and its threat of incarceration, violence, deportation. The deception of the upper classes harms those below in the tradition of Silas Marner and all our literary justice and morality faves, and the consequences of a casual apartheid system bring out some heroes and plenty of comic moments and comic, if all too real, characters: Orange County's "surfing DA," eager to score political points, Tobar's Frankenstein of a marriage between Tony Rackauckas and despicable congressman Dana Rohrabacher; the harried Mexican-American lady Child Protective Services officer who has seen it all; the buffoonish Mexican consul (shades of the previous, real-life one, no doubt), the Barbara Coe-type anti-immigrant Minuteman Militia activist, not to mention the first Sheriff's officer on the scene who, taking a look around Araceli's room, seems genuinely shocked at seeing the work of the most famous surrealist beautiful Mexican woman pop star painter in the world: A baby with the face of an adult woman bearing a single eyebrow emerged from the woman's vagina.
Deputy Suarez said: "Jeez, that's really sick," and took a subconscious step backward. He had managed to complete four years of high school and two years at Rio Hondo College without studying a single work of modern art,and he was alone in the minority of people of Latino descent in Southern California who had never heard of Frida Kahlo.
The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel. Héctor Tobar, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 422 pp., $27
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program, Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.