As I slowly turned the pages of Fatima Castaneda's "The Girl With the Funny Name," it was as if I was savoring the flavor of a good glass of horchata.
Each time I began another page it was like I was performing a ritual, bringing a magic potion to my lips, reciting a sacred incantation.
I had been looking for some literature - a play, a novel, a book of poems -that would bring me back down home. Something like Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," or Alice Walker's "Can't Keep A Good Woman Down."
I needed words to fill me, to settle inside, to heal me. I needed words to uplift me, pick me up and dance with me, words that would allure me.
Though a short collection of poems, thoughts and short stories, this was what I was looking for.
It was childlike in a sophisticated way. It was a treat - like when you hear a nice piece of music for the first time or when your abuela decides to make that one rare but favorite dish of yours. Yes, it was something close to that.
Today was hot
It was sticky-hot, 5th-grade hot
when growing up was growing out
And I knew
and was embarrassed and self-conscious
and my ears would get red 'cause I
thought everyone else knew
which is why
I wouldn't take my sweater off
no matter how hot it got
I kept the sweater on
The one I never took off
because I had nothing to show
I was like the sun from far away
You couldn't see the flare ups, the
volcanoes, nothing. And there was nothing to see
And my best friend was huge, enormous
She was Mt. Everest erupting in
our fifth grade faces
So the sweater stayed on
for the entire school year
and it came on
And it was hot today
But I was not wearing an undershirt
and I had a reason to keep it on
I grew out and today I celebrate
Celebrate the little girl whose ears
turned red because everyone knew
who now smiles because she knows
and who grew not only up and out
but grew inside herself, inside
her head and her smile
who grew to know
Nostalgic. It reminded me of black asphalt and tetherball. It reminded me of the smell of old textbooks and of Cindy and Karen and Erica who were elementary girlfriends. It reminded me of childhood crushes and of that innocent humiliation that came with growing up.
But the great thing about "The Girl With the Funny Name," was that Fatima could be this little 5th grader but she was also at the same time many other ages. Throughout her collection of poems, short stories, and thoughts, the reader transverses alternate spaces: Fatima as a child. Fatima as a strong Chicana. Fatima as a lover. Fatima as an admirer. Fatima as a dreamer.
I think I am going to paste this one next to my desk:
I want one of those brown brothers
A mocha blend, double latte brother
The kind you have to blow on
Before you sip
A brown brother
Steam rising from him brother
Burn your tongue if taken too soon brother
Cafe con muy poquita leche brother
Get you sleepy brother
Make you warm inside brother
Make you feel at home brother
Want to take him home brother
Color like the earth
Arms strong like roots
Hair dark like night
Eyes like fine wood
Mind free like birds
Mocha blend double latte cafe con leche feels good going down brother
When I spoke to Fatima the other day, she told me that she recently did a reading over at Zen in Los Feliz. It was the second portion of the reading and she was thinking about which poem to recite. She said it always depends on the mood and the vibe of the other poets and of course the audience.
So on this night, she said she looked around the room to find only one male of color. She decided that this was the one, and she laid the words down. When the reading was over, this man came up to her. He was touched. I could bet anything he got chills too.
You can pick up a copy of "The Girl with the Funny Name" at:
Prospect of Art
4302 Prospect Ave., Los Angeles
4125 Norse Way, Long Beach
2009 East First St., Boyle Heights
or by reaching Fatima herself at firstname.lastname@example.org.