Pura Belpré Award-winning author Guadalupe García McCall draws readers into the war-torn years of the Mexican Revolution with her latest novel, Shame the Stars. We spoke with the author about the heartaches of the two families at odds during this contentious period, the inspiration from her own heritage and more.
Many reviewers have compared your novel to Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, with the strife of two feuding families on opposing sides of a rebellion and a love story of honor and resistance shrouded by fighting. What other works influenced your characters and narrative in Shame the Stars? What other writers and poets did you draw upon for inspiration and direction, and why?
Margarita Engle writes wonderful, lyrical historical novels-in-verse. Two of my favorites are The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom and Hurricane Dancers. Her work in these particular books inspired me to continue to use poetry to find the voice of the characters in my fiction because I think narrative poetry lends itself beautifully to that end.
I also really liked how Christina Diaz Gonzalez used newspaper headlines to introduce every chapter in her first novel, The Red Umbrella. I knew I wanted to do something like that, but I was torn, because I wanted young people who read my book to be exposed to more than the headlines of newspapers of that time period. I wanted them to see the actual articles that shaped the novel and the plot development, so I decided to have the news articles appear as epistolary matter, as newspapers pieces literally ripped from the pages of history. Not only did it lend drama to the novel, it imbued it with a sense of secrecy, urgency and danger that I felt was in keeping with the tone of this particular piece.
You were born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, then immigrated with your family to the United States at the age of 6, and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas, a few miles from the border. What did your unique perspectives on Mexican-American heritage bring to this story? How much of yourself is in Joaquín and Dulceña?
Growing up along the Rio Grande, sitting on both banks of that river, treading waters that were shallow and meek one minute and deep and rough the next, with parents who knew the true history of our borders, gave me a very unique perspective. It was that muddled, dangerous, fascinating perspective which made it important for me to explore this setting. I grew up hearing stories about prejudice and injustices from my father, who came to the United States in the 1950s when he was 15 years old with a letter from a rancher who guaranteed him work. The stories he told were interesting, told with passion, outrage, even disgust. But what I found most fascinating was his self control, his ability to speak about those times with such integrity and composure, such courage in the face of injustice.
I think there is a lot of my father in this novel. Joaquín has my father’s passion, his dignity, his fearlessness. But there is a lot of my husband and my three sons in Joaquín, too. He is torn and a little confused by his desire to be good and kind and compassionate, but also to fight for what he believes in, and that is something I see in all the men in my life. Joaquín’s mother, Jovita, aka “La Estrella,” by the same token, is like my mother. She has my mother’s heart, her defiance, her strength in the face of adversity, always defending her gente, doing whatever it takes to make sure they don’t come to harm.
As for Dulceña, I think she’s a lot like me. As a Mexican-American woman, it is hard to navigate the modern world, juggling both passion and compassion, fear and courage, weakness and strength, especially when there are so many mixed signals as to how a woman should act in our society. Dulceña is a romantic, a dreamer, an idealist and an artist, and those things are not necessarily perceived as strengths, but they are; they can be. It takes a lot of courage to let the world see your heart, to lay it down on the ground in front of the enemy and say, “This is it. This who I am. This is what I’ve got,” and that is what Dulceña does.
“It takes a lot of courage to let the world see your heart, to lay it down on the ground in front of the enemy and say, ‘This is it. This who I am. This is what I’ve got.’”
You’ve interspersed your novel with Joaquín’s poems, his letters to and from Dulceña, and newspaper clippings surrounding the historical events of the main story. What did this use of multiple sources and styles enable you to do or say that you couldn’t have otherwise?
The artifacts for this book were carefully chosen to help me tell the story in the most creative, but also most authentic, most realistic way possible. The newspaper clippings I chose helped me foreshadow events in the novel. The poems helped me characterize Joaquín, his fears, his dreams, his hopes, and illustrate what he was up against. The notes and letters between him and Dulceña show their motivation and evolving points of view. All artifacts, whether fiction or nonfiction, are parts of the puzzle, like bricks on a wall, that help either clarify or shed light on the issues surrounding the conflicts in South Texas in the time period of 1915 to 1919.
Of all your characters, I found Joaquín’s father, Don Acevedo, to be the most intriguing. He’s an astute businessman with so much to lose in the revolution—including his lands, his family and his very life. As readers, we can tell that he loves all of them very much, but his political positioning prevents him from outright backing the rebels, even though he supports them in the shadows. How common and necessary would you say Don Acevedo’s quiet and tempered resistance was to the larger rebellion?
Acevedo’s position was very common during this time. He had to be diplomatic and play the game of politics, because to speak his mind would have meant certain death. In 1915, during the matanza, Tejanos couldn’t afford to antagonize the Texas Rangers. The Rangers and their posse (local sheriffs and deputies) would often hang Mexicanos and leave them out in the brush as a warning to other “rebels.” More often than not, this lynching came with a warning to the family, too. If they tried to recover the body, to perform any kind of burial rite, that would put a target on their backs, and they would be next on the cuerda. So the people had to do things in secret. Their loyalties were always in question, and they didn’t know who to trust, so they just didn’t speak about their troubles. It was a matter of survival.
“The struggles on the border are far from over, and we can’t afford to repeat old patterns, make the same mistakes; to do so would be indefensible.”
In American History classes, students are often taught about the glorious battles, sacrifices and victories of the Texas Rangers. However, within your novel, you’ve painted quite a different picture of these historical figures—filling in the gaps between the myth and the reality. Why was this so important for your novel, and what do you hope to achieve by sharing the darker side of this story of these unlawful lawmen?
I’m a big fan of Chinua Achebe, and when I was reading about him and his book Things Fall Apart, I read an old African proverb he shared that said, “As long as the lion has no voice, the story of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” That proverb explains exactly why I felt it important to write this novel. I know that the Texas Rangers have a reputation for being fierce and fighting for justice, but there is this dark moment, this period of prejudice and injustice in their history that I felt can’t be ignored, for to ignore it would be to condone it and all that it implies. There was a time where along the Texas border, the Ranger was the most feared, most brutal, most dangerous creature in the brush, and we can’t forget that. We can’t deny it or leave it buried under the dust in the chaparral. We have to dig those old bones up, expose them, share these injustices with the world so that we can be mindful and not let it happen again. The struggles on the border are far from over, and we can’t afford to repeat old patterns, make the same mistakes; to do so would be indefensible.
Both your main and supporting characters have to deal with unwarranted searches and seizures, physical abuse and even rape from unlawful Texas Rangers—most of which is incited simply by race and unchecked power. How does your story connect with the current state of American relations with our neighbors south of the Mexican borderline? How have race relations since changed in the United States for people of Mexican descent? How does having these fictional characters dealing with real-life public and political issues in a historical context help people still dealing with this kind of mistreatment today?
I’d like to say things are different now. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We live in similar times. There are still things coming in, crossing over our borders, drugs, human trade, all sorts of illegal activity, done by a small group of people that mars the landscape, puts the average, hardworking Mexican-American citizen in a bad light. So we get politicians and law enforcement groups and even common men looking sideways at us with narrowed, distrusting eyes. But the fact is that the majority of us are not involved in that violent, dangerous lifestyle. There are so many of us who live honest, decent lives on the border, and we resent being lumped in with “criminals and rapists” when we are American through and through. We love this country, we believe in this life we’ve built here as much as we love and believe in the life of our families and friends on the other side of that coppery sliver of water, the Rio Grande, El Rio Bravo, that river that knows and remembers everything we’ve sacrificed, everything we’ve endured, everything we’ve lost.