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Voices From the Gaps

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Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers
edited by Esmerelda Santiago and Joie Davidow

Las Mamis

Reviewed by Julie M. Grazier

In the foreword to the anthology Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers, Joie Davidow describes the mother-child relationship saying, "I saw that all of us live, not standing alone, a solitary tree in the wilderness, but in the shadow of the older tree that begot us" (ix).

In an effort to recognize and celebrate the women who gave life to them, coeditors Davidow and Esmerelda Santiago sought out favorite Latino authors to write about their mothers. Las Mamis represents a tribute not only to the mothers of the fifteen writers who submitted pieces to the compilation, but to every mother who endured the pain of childbirth to give life, and the struggles of the world to cultivate life in their children.

Although the details revealed in the stories are not always flattering to the authors or the mothers, each story signifies a symbolic step toward a child's deeper understanding of the woman called "mommy" and her compelling influence on the children she raises. Most of the short stories relate various memories of "la mama" that are forever burned into the mind of the author as he or she grows up. Each story is written in the unique style of the author.

Some authors choose one moment in the past that epitomized the spirit and life of their mother. In "September 19, 1985," Ilan Stevens wrote about the day an earthquake threatened his mother in Mexico and in turn shook his heart with the fear of losing his greatest supporter. Others use another text to draw a comparison to their own story as in Alba Ambert's "Persephone's Quest at Waterloo: A Daughter's Tale," which uses the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone to describe her relationship to her deceased mother.

Yet, among the many stories, there are two that I believe particularly capture the intent of the anthology. The first is Esmerelda Santiago's story "First Born," which begins with Esmerelda's birth by her teenage mother, Ramona Santiago, in Puerto Rico. This story presents her own relationship with her mother through descriptions of poignant memories spanning the decades between her birth and adulthood: "Through the years, her life has served as both an example of what we should avoid and what we should aspire to. It is her generous spirit, courage, creativity, and dignity that I, her firstborn, try to emulate, her lessons written on every page of my life. " (Santiago 21)

Although the information is presented in a straightforward, honest manner, Santiago delicately conveys the pride and dignity of her mother as she faced the difficult challenges of immigration to the US, spousal unfaithfulness, as well as the arduous task of providing for her large family. A graduate of Harvard University and author of two books of memoirs entitled When I was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, and the novel America's Dream, as well as coeditor, with Joie Davidow of Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, Santiago weaves into "First Born" her own path to maturity showing the constantly growing relationship with Ramona this maturity produced.

The second story, Liz Balmaseda's "Travels with Mami," although different from Santiago's in the style of presentation, describes a similar evolving relationship of Cuban-born mother and daughter, Ada Mas Balmaseda and Liz Balmaseda. Balmaseda co-authored, with Pedro Jose Greer, Waking Up in America: How One Doctor Brings Hope to Those Who Need It, as well as won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist with the Miami Herald.

As she describes their mother-daughter cross-country casino-searching trip, Balmaseda describes the history of her mother as she has heard it told countless times. The story is told in segments, broken much like their road trip to Vegas. Ada's life was filled with obstacles such as a poverty stricken childhood, unattained dreams, exile from Cuba, a challenging new life in the U.S. , and finally breast cancer.

The final trip that mother and daughter undertake in this story symbolically reflects the stages of their relationship. As the trip and the story come to a close, Balmaseda recognizes in her writing the importance of simply living and loving while "mami" is near: "I will seek no answers on the twisting mountain road to the next casino. As the highway gets steeper and the night gets darker, shrouding the mountains in drizzly, misty veils, I will pray in the thick silence between Mami and me. " (Balmaseda 97)

Balmaseda chose to look past the differences of perspective that separated herself from her mother, and instead focused on the ties that bonded them together. I believe these stories are representative of the essence of gratitude that fills the pages of this mesmerizing compilation. Each piece is a beautiful celebration of Latino heritage, life and language embodied in the figure of the mother: "rich or poor, they link their children to something precious that might be otherwise lost: to another country, another time, another language -- the mother tongue" (Davidow vii).

Each of the authors offers the reader glimpses of this "mother tongue" by interspersing into the writing words or phrases their "mamis" used. Many of the stories are accompanied by a photograph of the mother as well as a short biography of the author. This work is an tribute to the women who not only gave birth to these extraordinary Latino authors, but also brought them into maturity, educating not always through words but through example as they faced the difficulties of poverty, degradation, discrimination, and illness, while still reveling in the bliss of laughter, love, and life.