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Set in the state of Puebla in southern Mexico, Erik Orrantia’s debut novel, Normal Miguel (Cheyenne), offers a unique experience for English readers: a heart-warming story about a young Mexican teacher in search of his soul in a rural, mostly-indigenous community.
25-year-old Miguel Hernández is openly gay, and even in mostly-liberal Mexico City, he cannot escape the hostile response to his sexuality from a mother who alienates him any chance she gets, especially when he encounters homophobia or enters a romantic relationship.
So he accepts a teaching internship in the neighboring state because “sometimes the best way of improving a family situation was by leaving it.” In the village of Comalticán, he is quickly charmed by his charges—middle school children who are already dealing with oppressive situations in their impoverished homes.
But so too is he seduced by the availability of clandestine sex with repressed homosexuals who waste no time taking advantage of the newest “butterfly boy.”
The pressure of upholding a positive public image while engaging in illicit affairs with closeted men quickly takes its toll, and Miguel begins to neglect his teaching duties. La Directora, headmistress of the school, is the first to offer Miguel some hope by giving him a second chance and revealing that she knows his plight: “Remember, these children need you, whoever you are.”
Eventually, Miguel begins to heal: He teaches the children to be conscious of the permissive climate of homophobia in school and he learns to control his impulsive sexual urges by attempting a monogamous relationship with another gay man in town, Ruben, the candy seller. But just when he thought he had reached a blissful state of tolerance and happiness, buried anxieties began to surface when his mother demands that he return to the city and Ruben is suddenly forced to choose his own familial obligations over his commitment to Miguel.
Now Miguel must choose between the world he knows best but which pains him, or the world full of uncertainties, but which he has grown to love.
Few novels in English or Spanish have attempted to address the issue of homosexuality in a rural environment, which is depicted in Normal Miguel with extreme sensitivity for the working class people. If anything, Orrantia seems to be applauding and celebrating the indigenous community by having Miguel experience more acceptance and respect in Comalticán than he did in the big “educated” city.
When la Directora asks the children, for example, what they truly think about their teacher and his partner who have been the subject of malicious grown-up gossip, they answer: “No, Directora, they are not normal. They have treated us far better than normal people. They have taught us so much more.”
Indeed, there is an endearing mutual affection at the center of Miguel’s journey; though he arrived to guide the children, it is when he allowed himself to be guided by them that he learns to make peace with his imperfect life in the imperfect world.
Erik Orrantia has written an unusual but welcomed story of one young man’s love for the many parts that keep him whole: his lover, his profession, his community and himself.