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Guillermo Reyes’ smart, gentle memoir, Madre and I, deftly braids together the story of the author’s mother, who emigrates from Chile to the U.S., with his own story of growing up in both countries. Maria Cacares comes to America, like most immigrants, full of hopes, dreams and plans to make a better life for herself. Through a connection with a friend, she lands in Washington, D.C. and becomes a cleaning woman. Maria soon sends for Guillermo and they live the immigrant life in America – working long hours, learning English, and for Maria, becoming an American citizen.
Maria is rich with contradictions, a proper woman who claims to not be overrun with sexual thoughts, but whose affair with a married man in Chile bore the illegitimate Guillermo. Maria is fighter and although she doesn’t achieve her dreams, she pushes for Guillermo to have a better life and never stops blazing her own trail. She manages to get better cleaning jobs, working for politicians at first and then moving across the country to work for folks in Hollywood. There is an endearing story of her cleaning in Charles Joffe’s house and posing for a picture holding his Oscar for Annie Hall. It’s a quintessential moment full of the promise that anyone can achieve anything in America. Maria never achieves her own Oscar, but she continues on an upward trajectory, sometimes unorthodox, and achieves owning a home and starting a daycare business.
In the center of the book there are black and white photos of the author and his mother, including the classic photo of Carmen and Joffe’s Oscar. A gem.
Reyes unpacks his own story honestly, embracing his gayness, his arrogance and his battle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1987 after when most of the story takes place. He plainly lays out his insecurities with making friendships and finding love, even while living in the hypersexual West Hollywood.
This wonderful story of a boy and his mom is told with the backdrop of Chilean politics of Pinochet’s military coup and the familial rifts it caused. It’s also set against the fabulous 1970s and 80s, replete with thumping disco music and feathered hair. The mother and son also share a passion for movies, especially the idyllic The Sound of Music, one of the common grounds of their relationship.
Reyes’ writing is straight-forward and clean. At times the facts get repetitive, like the story of his cousin Catalina, told about three times in the novel. There are other particulars repeated as if the author felt he needed to remind the reader of the facts. The book also starts out slow, perhaps because the author wanted to get some of the back-story down, but by the third chapter the book takes off. This touching memoir is an important addition to the canon of gay memoirs and brings Reyes’ queer Latino experience front and center as simply an American story.
MADRE AND I: A MEMOIR OF OUR IMMIGRANT LIVES
By Guillermo Reyes
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, $18.95, 288pp