I thought I was well-acquainted with our neighbor. Having traveled through seven of her states and studied Spanish in Cuernavaca, I felt at home in Mexico.
Then I read the new edition of Kathleen Alcalá’s “Spirits of the Ordinary,” and my eyes opened wider. It’s a hero’s journey and a fabulous mind trip of a novel with, to my amazement, cover art by my favorite artist, Alfredo Arreguin.
First we meet Zacarias, the son of a Mexican Jewish couple who marries Estela, a Catholic. Zacarias is a mid-19th century seeker of gold along the Texas-Mexico border, but this is no traditional Western.
Alcalá paints the desert and cliffs with vivid characters: Magdalena, a woman of indigenous ancestry who becomes a successful entrepreneur; Corey the American photographer who disguises herself as a man to get access to work; Mariana, who hasn’t spoken since childhood but who communicates effortlessly with Julio, her husband.
Mariana and Julio are practicing Jews who must conceal their faith.
“Spirits of the Ordinary,” Alcalá told me, is inspired by her own Chicana-Jewish background and by her deep sense of connection to nature.
The title, she said, alludes to the link between the spirit world and our workaday lives on Earth.
In the novel’s 234 pages, we travel between the two worlds, with Zacarias and his horse, La Gata, with the women in his life and through the prayers and songs printed between chapters.
“Hear my prayer, oh Lord / I wait like a dove in the desert / coyotes all around … ” comes as Zacarias enters the land of the Tarahumara people, indigenes who run long distances over rough terrain — just for the joy of it.
Our wanderer finds the City of Gold he’s looking for. It’s time-transcendent, a place that changes him into a new and powerful man. Alcalá’s chapter about this comes like a sweet reward, the vista opening up after a long, switchbacking hike.
The story is an exploration of how we find our place in the world, Alcalá told me. Like her other books, “Spirits” is about our connection to the land as well as our obligations to it.
A resident of Bainbridge Island, Alcalá noted to me that she lives on Suquamish land.
She’s a longtime Pacific Northwesterner with Opata ancestors from northern Mexico; she was born in Compton, Calif.
“Spirits of the Ordinary” was first published in 1997 by San Francisco’s Chronicle Books; the nonprofit Raven Chronicles Press of Seattle is reissuing it with Alcalá’s new introduction.
Thursday at 7 p.m., the author will join Washington state poet laureate emerita Claudia Castro Luna for a conversation about “Spirits” on Zoom, and next Monday at 5 p.m., Alcalá will hold her book launch online.
Details about both events are at Ravenchronicles.org.
When the book first appeared, people wrote Alcalá “to say that, for the first time, someone was telling their story.
“Since 1997, dozens of books have been written about the hidden Jews of Mexico and other parts of the world. Some are written by people legitimately exploring the history,” while others find anti-Semitism in Latin America “a romantic subject for their musings.”
“They do not share the hesitation, the silences, with which those of us who inherited this history have always moved through the world,” Alcalá writes.
Later in her introduction, she wonders about people’s cruelty to one another. There are too many instances of it to ascribe it to any cause other than our frailty as human beings, she writes.
“What have we learned from the past? Only to persist and survive. That magic and holiness are all around us.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.
Her column runs the first and third Wednesday of the month. The next will appear May 19.