Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Melinda Palacio

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Nell Campbell

Ocotillo Dreams, Bilingual Press, 2011.

Melinda Palacio holds two degrees in Comparative Literature: a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.A. from UC Santa Cruz. A 2007 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, she writes a column for the online journal La Bloga. Melinda’s poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, won the Kulupi Press 2009 Sense of Place award. Tia Chucha Press will publish her first full-length poetry book, How Fire Is A Story, Waiting, Spring 2013.

Ocotillo Dreams is set in Arizona, arguably the country’s most embattled state regarding issues of immigration because of its controversial policies, including the one at the center of this novel: the 1997 undocumented immigrant sweeps called “Operation Restoration.” Its similarities to “Operation Wetback” back in 1954 are duly noted in the book, and readers will also make connections to Arizona’s more recent legislation attempt, S.B. 1070. What compelled you to explore this politicized place and time and what were some of your concerns during the writing process?

I lived in Chandler in 1997, the year of the immigration sweeps. It wasn’t difficult to imagine myself rounded up since many Chandler citizens were arrested. Arizona was my home for four years. Living in an anti-immigrant environment seemed strangely appropriate as I struggled with grief, a universal injustice, and a world without the person who meant the most to me, my deceased mother. I gave Isola the same quality of also having lost her mother in her early twenties.

When I moved back to California, writing about my years in the desert seemed an obvious subject. The fact that Ocotillo Dreams is set in Chandler was a selling point to Bilingual Press, housed in Arizona State University.

While writing about a politicized place and time, I was most concerned about portraying complex characters who are not romanticized images of Mexican-Americans, such as the watered-down stereotypes often depicted in moves and television.

Readers encounter quite an array of human stories, struggles and journeys in the land where “Ocotillo Dreams Come True” (or so claims the postcard mentioned in the novel): Epifanía, a hard-working cleaning woman who is with child (and will likely be accused of carrying an “anchor baby”); Trini, who exploits undocumented immigrants by charging for the use of basic amenities such as a shower; and Cruz, who steals his documents in order to protect himself from the sweeps. What do you hope this novel will add to the perceptions about Mexicans in the U.S. and in Arizona in particular?

There is much irony in the postcard I made up guaranteeing that Ocotillo Dreams Come True. I hope to add complexity and depth to perceptions of Chicanos and Latinos so that people, no matter who they are or where they are from, can sympathize and identify with the characters. I trust readers will see more than a woman carrying “an anchor baby” in Epifanía. In both the characters of Trini and Epifanía, I hope readers will perceive Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as putting family first. Trini doesn’t have to do a thing for Cruz, but she helps him because he is from her hometown in Mexico and is a close friend of her niece and nephew. Cruz is the most complex character in the book, a villain you love to hate. Behind the difficult position of all the characters, lies the desire to work hard and to succeed.

Isola is an intriguing protagonist. She’s a college-educated Chicana from San Francisco who speaks a little Spanish and who has come to Arizona after the death of her mother to settle her estate. Isola’s political consciousness awakens when she witnesses the fears and anxieties of the Mexican population living in the shadows. After much turmoil, she chooses to help. But she also has the power to hurt, as evidenced by her revenge on her lover–she assists in his deportation. What does this say about the responsibility and/or capacity of people on the U.S. side of the border? Or is Isola not a symbol of agency?

From the U.S. vantage, it’s difficult for most people to imagine themselves in Epifanía’s or Cruz’s shoes. In the narrative, Isola gains empathy when she is mistaken for an undocumented immigrant. The novel unfolds around Isola’s actions. Her consciousness awakens on many levels: politically, spiritually, emotionally, and personally. In the end, Isola finds her voice, her will to help her family and fulfill a duty that she wasn’t ready to accept early on. Isola adopts a sense of forgiveness and maturity when she embraces her extended family.

Where are you headed next in your writing? Is this the last readers will see of Isola? If so, what do you imagine she’s doing in 2011, fourteen years after we last see her at the end of the novel?  

I’m working on a new novel, set in East L.A. in the 1960s. Currently, this is the last we see of Isola as I am having fun developing completely new characters who live in an era much earlier than Isola but as compelling as that of Ocotillo Dreams.

Fourteen years after the novel’s end, I imagine Isola as having received tenure due to a strong shift in her dissertation thesis from a literary to a more political focus. She learns she can champion the Constitution while deconstructing the politics of Arizona and Border Literature that incorporates the work of an obscure Chicana author, Melinda Palacio. Isola’s direct exposure to the immigration sweeps and her literary activism make it impossible for Arizona to ever think of passing a law such as SB 1070.