Mama Fela’s Girls
Mama Fela’s Girls is a multi-generational tale in a fresh setting: Santa Lucίa, a small town in New Mexico in 1934. The generations of the Romero family are Mama Fela, an aging seamstress; her daughter, Cita, who longs to pursue a career as an artist; her daughter-in-law, Graciela, a schoolteacher who is also her family’s main breadwinner; and her granddaughter, little Cipriana, who loves Shirley Temple movies. Their good points and flaws are all well rendered, and their dialogue is convincing and natural, even down to the Spanish phrases these Mexican-American characters use on occasion.
The male characters are somewhat less successful than the female ones; with a couple of exceptions, most seemed unsatisfactory in some way, being either absent, undependable, or worse. Given the novel’s title, I wasn’t surprised that the female characters overshadowed the men, but I would have liked to have seen some more strong male characters alongside the many strong female ones. That, however, is purely a personal preference.
Though the settings are completely different and the plots and writing styles have little in common, Mama Fela’s Girls kept reminding me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, another novel about a family dominated by strong women. Perhaps that’s because what is at the heart of both novels is family life, with its attendant frustrations and joys. Indeed, much of the action of Mama Fela’s Girls involves characters who must choose between staying in the family circle and leaving it. In this debut novel, Baca excels at presenting both the conflict and the tightly knit family that gives rise to it.