Review

Frontera Street

by Tanya Maria Barrientos



The worst thing about FRONTERA STREET is that it's marketed like
something produced by the "WE" television network. Or worse, the
Lifetime Channel. It's part of New American Library's Accent line,
whose tagline is "Fiction for the Way We Live." Accent claims that
its books "touch on subjects close to a woman's heart, from
friendship to family to finding our place in the world" --- the
type of things that men, those insensitive beasts, presumably never
ponder.

This type of wide-niche marketing always irritates me. Art created
"from a woman's perspective" --- as if there is only one ---
insults both the artist and the audience (not to mention the
fellas!). And the worst part is, in the case of FRONTERA STREET,
it's unnecessary. Tanya Maria Barrientos's novel is strong enough
to stand just fine on its own.

FRONTERA STREET is an exercise in contrast and, at the same time, a
celebration of sameness. "Frontera" means "border" in Spanish, and
the novel is set in the fictional West Texas border town of Los
Cielos. Although the town is on the U. S. side, it's neatly divided
by a border of its own. There's the Westside, where all the rich
white people live, and then there's the barrio. Only the Mexicans
cross the line, and only to work. The barrio men work in the
white-owned fields or repair the large colonial houses; the women
stand in the downtown plaza early Tuesday mornings for what
Barrientos calls "Pick-and-Pray," where Westside matrons drive by
to pick out a maid and pray she won't steal the family silver. Not
exactly a peacefully integrated little village.

The book is told from three points of view: Dee, a 28-year-old
widow who, alone and pregnant, wanders into the barrio in a haze of
grief and ends up being rescued by a job at a fabric store; Alma, a
young Mexican woman who works at the store and reluctantly takes
Dee into her home; and Socorro, Alma's teenage daughter, who can't
remember meeting her father. At first, it seems Alma and Dee have
nothing in common, apart from being single mothers. Soon, however,
they become close friends. Dee is welcomed into the network of
barrio women, joining them to make tamales on Sundays, practicing
her Spanish grammar, helping Socorro with her homework. It seems
that she has managed to cross the line that divides Los
Cielos.

But Dee hasn't been completely honest. She owns a house on the
Westside and has a large bank account. Afraid that the women on
Frontera Street will reject her if they know where she came from,
she keeps her secret. But when the fabric store's future is
threatened and the entire neighborhood faces economic crisis, Dee
has to decide when and how to fess up.

Meanwhile, others in Los Cielos are crossing lines, too. Alma finds
herself softening toward Socorro's music teacher, Richard, and
Socorro has won a scholarship to attend Arts High School on the
west side of town.

As each of the women tries to navigate her suddenly winding path
without losing touch with her past, they learn not only the
importance of family, but the fact that it can be defined in a
variety of ways, not all of them traditional.

The book does have flaws, mostly to do with pacing. Dee and Alma
overcome their initial hostility with a suddenness that strains
credulity, and in the final third of the book events move so
quickly it feels like you're watching a puppet show. Characters pop
up, speak their lines and instantly vanish; parties are planned,
canceled, revived, relocated, planned again and celebrated at
lightning speed. Then again, one person's hasty denouement is
another's page-turner. In any case, the emotional range of the
characters --- their realistic mistakes and crises and triumphs ---
outweighs any minor quibbles about the story. It even conquers the
saccharine aftertaste left in the mouth by the marketing tagline,
"Fiction for the Way We Live." And that's no easy task.

Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen (becky_ohlsen@yahoo.com) on January 22, 2011

Frontera Street
by Tanya Maria Barrientos

  • Publication Date: July 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0451206355
  • ISBN-13: 9780451206350