The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans
Trade Paperback, 136 pages
ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-036-1
Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-037-8
Library PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-038-5
Called a "world-class writer" by Alex Haley, Carmen Tafolla is the author of numerous works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for both adults and children. Her work has appeared in over 200 anthologies, and she has performed her one-woman show, "My Heart Speaks a Different Language," all over the world.Known mainly as a poet — hers was an important voice in the Chicano Movement — Tafolla's fiction appears here for the first time in book form. As the title indicates, The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans is a literary feast. Tafolla skillfully combines the spiritual mission of a magical tortilla with that of a heart-transplant patient's bedside marriage, and the blessing of a handful of dirt with that of a cross-dressing streetperson.Spiced with the specific flavors of bilingual/bicultural South Texas, The Holy Tortilla takes on hypocrisy, prejudice, institutional pomposity, and other modern myopias with a fresh humor and a deep understanding of the human spirit. This is the human comedy. Welcome to the feast!
Below: Carmen Tafolla reads from The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans at the 2010 San Antonio Luminaria.
This is a powerful and moving collection, full of fascinating and enchanting characters. . . . Carmen Tafolla is one of the best writers in Texas.
— Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima
These stories are wonderful. They are poignant; they are funny; they make you think. Carmen Tafolla is full of pep, full of love and experience. The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans is just plain delightful. I love the lingo and the boistrous attitude. Saludos to the Queen of Mean, the obstreperous young girl who marries her priest, the lady bawling at the wrong funeral, and Elfiria with a hickey on her neck: They are all just popping with life, and so is this book. Read it and laugh; read it and weep; read it and feel so much better than you did before you opened to page one and got sucked right into the magic by Chencho's cow. ¡Qué obra más maravillosa!
— John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, The Empanada Brotherhood, et al.
"This is quite a ride!"PaperTigers.orgJune 2009
After reading the selection of short stories that make up The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, worthy winner of the 2009 Tomás Rivera Award, you almost feel as though you are closer to touching the essence of life — and touching is the right word here! The stories explore human relationships both between humans, as you might expect, but also between people and the natural world around them, and especially with the earth. The soil of the earth has a tangible spirituality about it. Sometimes, this spirituality is explicitly palpable in Carmen Tafolla's writing; at other times it is just a whiff — and in those stories where characters are out of kilter with the rhythms of the earth, horrors seem to be lurking.
There are stories to suit every mood and temperament — "The Holy Tortilla" of the title is beautiful and uplifting. The optimism and profound calm engendered by the miraculous appearance of a miniature Virgin Mary renders those who do not allow themselves to step out of their everyday lives ridiculous; and the influence for good engendered is emphasized by its unexpected connection with a later story. A pot of beans has an important role in both the first story, "Chencho's Cow", a rather sinister trickster tale, and "La Santísima María Pilar: The Queen of Mean", whose ending renders its narrator (almost) speechless. The rest of the book runs a whole gamut of events and emotions: "I Just Can't Bear It" is a hilarious story about a funeral; and "Federico y Elvira" is a touching and at the same time highly-amusing depiction of newly-weds. There are stories filled with intense pathos; and there are much darker stories which expose the horrors and repercussions of hate, war, racism and abuse.
Carmen Tafolla has published many acclaimed books for children of all ages, including the significant That's Not Fair!: Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / ¡No es Justo!: La Lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la Justicia. It also comes as no surprise to learn that she is a renowned performer: her written dialogue fairly sizzles with energy. Her language is unmistakably rooted in Latino culture: indeed, she slides effortlessly in and out of Spanish -- and I strongly recommend that anyone who needs to make use of the excellent glossary, arranged chronologically, does so before embarking on each story. In this way, readers can enjoy the full effect of the liveliness of the writing and soak up the culture which is embedded in the narrative. The story contents demand a certain level of maturity from young adult readers; for those who are ready to embark on The Holy Tortilla's journey, this is quite a ride!
Marjorie Coughlan, June 2009
To see the review: http://www.papertigers.org/reviews/USA/papertigers/TheHolyTortilla.html
Masa and MagicTexas Books in ReviewJuly 2009
Reviewed by Will Padgett
Anthologized as a poet and well-known for her one-woman performances, Carmen Tafolla takes a different artistic route with The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans by offering readers 16 short stories, a self-proclaimed "feast of short fiction." As the subtitle suggests, these stories of South Texas capture the tastes and smells of the region. With this collection Tafolla proves that she knows how to create authentic Tex-Mex literary cuisine.
Reminiscent of Ruldolfo Anaya and John Nichols -- both of whom praise Tafolla's stories on the back jacket -- these stories contain magical elements and focus on Chicano community and culture. Tafolla writes with a certain buoyancy as she depicts the characters and issues that define the region. Her style reflects her culture, and her content provides valuable perspective. Confronting the heights and depths of human nature, Tafolla conjures the laughs, rage, misery, and solace of Texas Latinos.
Stories such as "La Santísima María Pílar, the Queen of Mean" exhibit Tafolla's feel for humor. "María Pílar wasn't the meanest character I ever met," she writes. "But that's just because the devil made regular appearances in our part of town." "I Just Can't Bear It" serves as another laugh-out-loud piece, poignantly describing the heights of ridiculousness some individuals reach, mourning and moaning at funerals.
Tafolla writes with seriousness too as she grapples with darker subjects in stories such as "The Stuff to Scream With" and "El Mojado No Existe." The former confronts issues of abuse, pedophilia, and repression, and the latter deals with racism, violence, and loss. With both, Tafolla provides jolting experiences, ones that expose the region's violent underbelly.
Some of Tafolla's most compelling writing centers on community. In the community, food unites people and serves as both spiritual and physical sustenance. Tafolla employs sustenance as a motif throughout the collection. Fajitas, mangos, tacos, and coffee bring people together. These stories, ripe with imagery, contain evocative fragrances, tastes, and textures. With each breaking of bread, Tafolla's characters assert the value and meaning found through unity.
Tafolla also captures the sound of the community through her command of bilingual idiom. Seamlessly oscillating between English and Spanish, she reflects the region's multiculturalism and colonialism. She uses authentic language to affirm cultural values. In "Waiting Between the Trees" Tafolla emphasizes the Mexican saying, "Solo lo barato se compra con dinero. . . . Only cheap stuff can be bought with money." Through language and culture, Tafolla conveys what is truly meaningful.
Another way Tafolla sheds light on values is through magical realism. Her mimetic language serves as an excellent counterweight to the magical elements, keeping the reader anchored in reality. "The Holy Tortilla," the title story, tells of the infamous tortilla, the one South Texans went loco for because it was thought to portray an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Tafolla presents the tortilla as a religious hologram projector that captivates the townspeople of Alma Seca. The resulting activity promotes goodwill and prosperity in the community at the expense of racial and religious tension.
The magical realism is easy enough to swallow, but in this feast Tafolla does insist on force-feeding readers a bit of gristle. My primary complaint is one of form. Tafolla's frequent use of words in all capital letters for the effect of emphasis quickly becomes irritating, as does her penchant for using successive exclamation marks or question marks. Maybe these decisions aim at authenticating the language, but it comes off as juvenile. Tafolla's collection, nonetheless, stands as a coalesced and relevant accomplishment in Latina literature. Passionate and insightful, her work brims with love for the past, an appreciation of the present, and hope for the future. Carmen Tafolla is an exciting Texas writer. The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans leaves readers ready for seconds.
Soutwestern American LiteratureSummer 2009
Carmen Tafolla dedicates her latest work, The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, to "the reader, mi gente, and to all the magic, hope, cariño, and scary stuff that lies beneath your skin, inside your chest, and rooted in your alma." La tremenda Tafolla completely captures the essence of all those things in this divine "feast of short fiction." There isn't one story in this collection with which I don't identify. There isn't one story in this collection that doesn't spark a memory of joy, pain, or sorrow. And there isn't one story in this collection that doesn't remind me of where I'm from or who I am.
The collection is comprised of 16 stories; versions of eight of these stories have previously appeared in other journals, books, etc. The stories are grouped into three sections. The first section, "Our Daily Tortilla," contains "Chencho's Cow," "La Santísima María Pilar, the Queen of Mean," "The Holy Tortilla," and "The Pot Has Eyes." While each of these stories is unforgettable, "La Santísima María Pilar, the Queen of Mean" is most memorable not only for the character of the mischievous, out-spoken María Pilar but also for its use of unique language. With Google available to the masses, virtually anyone can plug in an English word or phrase for translation then plug that translation into his or her work to add a cool bit of spicy flavor to the writing. Tafolla is a native — she doesn't need Google to supply her with local or cultural idioms. In "La Santísima María Pilar, the Queen of Mean," Tafolla uses the exclamation "Fuchi!" to describe the stink of a perfume María Pilar gifts her grandmother for her 80th birthday. I can't recall reading any other piece that employs fuchi. I think I've heard Amalia Ortiz use it in her spoken word, but I have never seen it in print. Fuchi! Now if you Googled a translation for "disgusting" or "smelly," Google is most likely not going to give you fuchi. It isn't a word that is heard commonly, at least not at work, around town, or on a daily basis — unless you run a daycare or have a small child. (I only hear fuchi if I'm the one saying it or if a relative, usually a female or child, says it.)
The second section of the book, "The Mountains, the Trees, the River, this Dirt . . . the Whole Familia," contains the stories "Inheritance," "Whispers from the Dirt," and "Reclaiming." Eighteen pages in length, this part is the heart of the book. The connection to and passion for place is powerful and most intense in these three stories. Vacationers might be able match Tafolla's description of the river, dirt, and landscape. What cannot be matched are her characters, chiefly the elder characters and voices she gives to nature's elements. Tafolla uses these characters and voices to connect the reader to the region. Whispers of elders past and a distant echo of home calling to be visited again answer these voices leaving the reader nostalgic and wanting to take an immediate trip to the family cemetery to visit with the earth, the trees, and the ancestors for awhile.
The final section, "Children of Corn," is made up of a vibrant and melancholy assortment of stories: "El Mojado No Existe," "Invisible," "The Stuff to Scream With," "I Just Can't Bear It," "How I Got Into Big Trouble and the Mistakes I Made, in increasing order of importance," "Federico & Elfiria," "Waiting Between the Trees," "Black Leather Lu," and "Tía." "El Mojado No Existe" and "The Stuff to Scream With" are sad and maddening stories reminding the reader of cruel injustices of the past and present. "Invisible" and "I Just Can't Bear It" each start with a sad and depressing tone but soon turn to enlightenment and laughter. "Federico & Elfiria" is a hysterical story of a man's idea of the "good girl" he married contradicting his wife's "bad girl" behavior toward him — one which he provoked and then can't come to terms with. "Waiting Between the Trees" takes the reader back to the "Holy Tortilla." Many of these stories foreshadow or go back to mention characters or occurrences in other stories of the collection. Tafolla weaves bits of one story into another reminding us that they are connected too, which reinforces her theme of our gente being connected to the land and each other.
All in all, Carmen Tafolla's The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, leaves its readers fully satisfied and craving seconds, even thirds — hell, I want the recipe. Whether it's through language, character, or place, there's something that reaches out, like the duende in "Waiting Between the Trees," takes hold, and stirs the soul to tears, laughter, or anger. But most of all, this collection evokes memories and the reminder to celebrate and cherish the blood, earth, tears, and sweat in which I was raised.
Reviewed by Tammy Gonzales, Texas State University — San Marcos
School Library JournalSeptember 2008
Adult/High School Readers will be rewarded by the wisdom, wit, and hope in these 16 short stories. The selections range from the mystical appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in "The Holy Tortilla" to the haunting yet empowering story of a victim in "The Stuff to Scream With." Other stories include the importance and power of cultural heritage in "Inheritance"; a frisky housewife and doubting husband in "Federico and Elfiria"; and the strong sense of community in "Black Leather Lu." What all of these stories have in common is the optimism that comes from taking emotional risks and forming relationships with family, friends, and community. Most of them take place in San Antonio and are peppered with Spanish words and phrases, giving the stories an authentic feeling of place. A well-organized glossary is provided. This collection will be sought after by both teens and teachers looking for strong characters and an eloquent voice in Chicana literature. While regional appeal will certainly drive purchase of this book, libraries looking to diversify and modernize their story collections will also want to consider adding this worthy title.— Lynn Rashid, Marriots Ridge High School, Marriotsville, MD
El Paso TimesJune 29, 2008
"Over the years, Carmen Tafolla has cultivated a reputation as a folklorist of the Chicano-Mexicano community, very much in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, whose writings also captured the range of regional speech patterns and the everyday lives of working class people. With the release of The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, Tafolla solidifies that role, proving that she has maintained a perceptive hand over the pulse of San Antonio. "Gesturing toward the realm of allegory and fable, the opening quartet of stories demands that the reader suspend disbelief, which is done rather easily with Tafolla's distinctive prose — a combination of colloquial language and small-town wisdom that exudes honesty and authenticity. . . . Few writers can achieve such richly-textured stories like Carmen Tafolla can. Her work continues to teach and entertain. The love and respect for the people she writes about fills every sentence with 'an emotion that leaves its shadow there.' The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans is storytelling at its best."
INTERVIEW By Steve Bennett, Book Page EditorSan Antonio Express-NewsJuly 14, 2008
Carmen Tafolla stands on the shoulders of several centuries of storytellers.
About 15 years ago, the San Antonio poet, essayist, children's author and fiction writer was down in the Río Grande Valley, searching for inspiration. During an interview with a woman in her 90s, the writer asked why la vieja had stayed so long with her husband, who liked to drink and then scream and then beat up people who got in his way. " En esos dias," the old woman replied, " Nos casamos pa better o pa worse."
"And then she said, 'And I got stuck with worse,'" Tafolla recalls. "Wow! 'In those days, we got married for better or for worse. And I got stuck with worse.'
"What a powerful line. She perfectly expressed the tone of her time period. You get what you get. This is fate. If I can capture some of that strength, some of that beauty, some of the eloquence in that very simple language then I am honored to be the scribe that writes it down."
Tafolla hasn't written that scene yet. But she will.
Best known as a poet — 976's "Get Your Tortillas Together," with Reyes Cárdenas and Cecilio García-Camarillo, is considered a touchstone of Chicano literature — Tafolla occasionally has turned to the short story format, which she calls "front-porch storytelling."
With the help of San Antonio's Wings Press, Tafolla, 56, has just gathered together more than 20 years of her short stories, many previously published here and there, in a collection titled "The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans."
Here is the story of Chencho, whose passion for life drains away when his cow kicks over a pot of his famous homemade beans, and of Federico, who learns from his wife Elfiria, a "good girl," the true meaning of the term, and of Diamante and Willie and Juana and Black Leather Lu.
The book, which Tafolla will celebrate with a reading and signing at the Twig on July 23, is appropriately subtitled "a feast of short fiction."
E-N: You must be very excited about this new book. Can you give us a short introduction to this collection?
C.T.: I think the title says it all. Because it's about those things that are really holy and miraculous, but it's also about those very common, underappreciated blessings, like a homemade pot of beans.
It is about San Antonio and South Texas, because that's where the stories are set. Although they could be set a variety of places. But they have the flavor of South Texas. It really is a hymn of praise to the everyday people, the working people, the ones who sweat and cuss and pay their taxes and struggle to pay their rent, and who don't pay their taxes and who get evicted.
E-N: You've said that "many of my works are dictated by ancestors whispering over my shoulder." Tell me more about that.
C.T.: I'm from San Antonio. I'm very proud to say I'm from San Antonio, as a recognition of those who came before me that made me who I am. I don't believe in the self-made man. I think it's a myth. All of us are made by those that came before us. And those that help us make it through today, tomorrow. We're part of a family. I kind of see myself as a documentary maker. The story keeper. The person who hears the stories and writes them down.
E-N: What inspired you to become a writer?
C.T.: I think the desire to do it was in me all along. But those opportunities were not present at that time. Nobody offered creative writing workshops in my high school years. At least not where I was at, anyway. I grew up on the West Side, and we were constantly being told that our Spanish was bad and our English was bad. I was told over and over again, 'You have the potential to make it all the way to high school.' Not through high school, but to.
E-N: Was there anyone who took you by the hand? Any writer you looked up to as a model or a mentor?
C.T.: The literary models I had were the elderly storytellers. They weren't published writers, but they were carrying on a storytelling tradition that went back centuries. And they were telling stories that had been polished through centuries. Stories like La llorona. They were my literary mentors.
Now my professional mentors were the poets and writers and publishers of the Chicano movement. They nurtured me. (She mentions writers and publishers such as Angela de Hoyos, Moises Sandoval, Reyes Cárdenas and Cecilio García-Camarillo.)
E-N: What were the days of the Chicano literary movement like for you?
C.T.: People said, so the other world doesn't want to publish us. So the other educational world doesn't want to listen to what we have to say. And the other world of the visual arts doesn't want to recognize us. So we will do it ourselves. They won't publish us in their magazines, we'll publish our own magazines. And so people like Cecilio García-Camarillo — he was the Johnny Appleseed of Chicano literature. He went and planted a whole orchard in a city and then he'd get up and move to another city. Start all over again. He inspired a lot of people: Do it yourself. If they won't listen to you, get it out there. We have an audience that's hungry to listen to you.
E-N: How much has that changed? How far do Latino writers still have to go?
C.T.: I think we're in a very good position. I don't think the struggle is over with, by any means. But we're visible.... There's an international hunger for this work. We've opened the door just wide enough for some of us to get in.
E-N: In the story "Reclaiming," you write: "If you won't look back, you'll never see forward." That seems to be a theme in all your work.
C.T.: Yeah, I think we need to know where we come from. One of the stories in the collection, which I had heard when I was in my 20s, is about a young man, a wetback, who was killed, set on fire. And people said it didn't really go in this collection, but I thought it did. Because part of accepting our human reality is that we have tragedies. And we have the fun moments and all of this together makes who we are.... If we look backward, we get to know who we are, we appreciate who we are, we celebrate who we are. So it's a tragic story in the midst of some funny ones, some touching ones, but that's life. If we deny that we deny our human existence. I think God has a tremendous sense of humor. I think she dies laughing every time she looks at us because of all the funny things that human beings do. But part of humor is recognizing that there is the potential for tragedy.
"The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans," is a feast of 16 stories that skillfully combine the spiritual mission of a magical tortilla with that of a heart-transplant-bedside marriage, and the blessing of a handful of dirt with that of a cross-dressing streetperson. Spiced with the specific flavors of a bilingual, bicultural South Texas, it faces hypocrisy, institutional pomposity, prejudice, and modern myopias head-on with a fresh humor and a depth of human understanding that sharpen the reader's omprehension of self, culture, and the human spirit.
Few other collections of Latino short stories so delightfully and flavorfully highlight the compassion, the human comedy, and the sense of centuries past with which "The Holy Tortilla" blesses and converts us into willing believers in miracles. Or you could call this fiction "down-home magical realism." Something powerful survives the varied voices, to leave us a spiritual food, holy because it reflects the power in our everyday lives. Readers familiar with the bilingual bicultural world of the Texas-Mexico border as well as those who find themselves exploring this world for the first time will both laugh and cry and celebrate the beauty of the human spirit in these stories.
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