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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

This is a memoir of Arana’s childhood growing up between the US and Peru. American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood is the story of one little girl navigating two drastically different cultures and customs. The story starts with young Arana in her family’s home in Peru. Her parents also sit...

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This is a memoir of Arana’s childhood growing up between the US and Peru. American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood is the story of one little girl navigating two drastically different cultures and customs. The story starts with young Arana in her family’s home in Peru. Her parents also sit at the base of the cultural divide. As much as Arana considers her own experience as a child between two worlds, she is intrigued by how her own parents came to terms with these differences. The chapters bounce between her firsthand experiences of the past and her reflections on them. The first chapter is titled “Ghost.” Here she considers her Mother’s struggles with Peruvian culture. Her Mother was born in Wyoming and had a great appreciation for American progress and forward thinking. She struggled with Peru’s historical appreciation. Even more so, she disbelieved and disliked Peru’s strong belief in ghosts. Arana then delves into the ghosts of her parent’s past. For example, her Mother had been married twice before meeting and marrying her father. Their marriage was rocky ever since, but they survived and loved one another deeply.

Arana turns to consider her father’s side of the family. Her relatives in Peru have a long, winding history. One relative was a well-respected public official, while another was known for enslaving Indigenous peoples. Arana reflects on the ways in which family history impact us today with ever-changing meaning. Her parents lived between the countries and were both generally unhappy wherever they ended up. In Peru, her mother felt confined. In America, her father would leave to travel frequently. She ends by wrapping up the unconventional nature of her family. They were each stuck between two worlds, but were constantly adapting. Her parents survived by developing their own new meaning of marriage. She as a child survived by making her own identity. She is not the perfect Peruvian or perfect American. However, she is content in the in-between.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784

 

In the epigraph to American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is quoted as saying that he has “half my soul at sea and half my soul on land.” The passage continues, “With these two halves of soul, I see the world.” These lines not only state the subject of Marie Arana’s memoir but also suggest her purpose in writing the book. American Chica is about divisions and connections, both external and internal. It is also about the author’s pilgrimage into the past, undertaken when, as a middle-aged adult, she realized that she must come to terms with her own divided soul.

American Chica begins in Peru. Before dawn, four-year-old Marie Arana is awakened by shouts and laughter; from her window, she can see her beautiful, blonde, American mother and her handsome, dark-haired Peruvian father, who have just arrived with their friends. Her parents are young, happy, and deeply in love. Oddly, Arana has no recollection of a much more dramatic event that had taken place just three days before, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. However, she soon senses that, as she puts it, like Peru itself, “my parents’ marriage was shot through with fissures.” In her prologue, Arana thus poses one of the questions with which her search began: Were her parents ever able to resolve their cultural differences, and if so, how?

Even though American Chica begins with what was evidently one of the author’s earliest memories, the book does not proceed chronologically. The prologue ends with a present-day episode, and the ten chapters that follow move back and forth through time, as their topical headings dictate. Even the epilogue is not so much a conclusion to the story as a presentation of what the author has concluded. Although some of Arana’s more compulsive readers may find themselves driven to create their own chronology, it is hard to fault the author for choosing this method of organization, for it reflects her own attitude toward history: that it is not linear but circular, that every moment in the present draws upon, repeats, and recombines elements from the past.

Arana emphasizes the presence of the past in the first chapter of American Chica, appropriately entitled “Ghosts.” All people are haunted by fragrances, she believes. For her, it is the smell of sugar, specifically, the brown sugar that was produced in Cartavio, a company town in the sugarcane fields of Peru, where her father, Jorge Enrique Arana, or “Papi,” was the engineer in charge during Arana’s early years.

In Cartavio, Arana first became aware of the existence of ghosts. When a worker was injured, everyone knew that a ghost was responsible; everyone, that is, except Arana’s mother, Marie Elverine Clapp Campbell Arana. During her childhood in rural Wyoming, Marie Clapp had absorbed the values of the Western frontier. She was committed not to the past, but to the future. Therefore, she sees the Peruvians’ obsession with history, tradition, and convention, like their belief in ghosts, not only as foolish but also, more seriously, as an impediment to personal independence and to social progress. These feelings undoubtedly account for Marie Clapp Arana’s steely refusal to speak about her own past, even to her young daughter. It is only in adulthood that Arana begins to put her fragmentary memories into a factual context and thus to clear up some of the mysteries that pervaded her childhood years, including such questions as who her parents really were, why they were married, and, most puzzling of all, why they remained together.

When the family is called to the deathbed of her maternal grandmother, for example, Arana discovers that the surname of her maternal grandparents is not Campbell, the name her mother had always used, but Clapp. Later she finds out more interesting facts about her mother. Marie had been married three times before she met Jorge; Campbell was the surname of her third husband, who had died in World War II. Jorge learned about Marie’s past history only when the two were filling out the papers for their own marriage. The fact that a man from so conventional a society was still willing to proceed with so unconventional a union seems highly significant to Arana. Obviously, Jorge was very much in love with Marie. However, their cultural differences made for a marriage so stormy that their children often feared they would break up. American Chica is punctuated with domestic earthquakes, with quarrels, ultimatums, and even geographical separations. At the end of the book, however, Arana reveals what she now understands about her parents’ relationship: that from their very divisions, they drew the energy that enabled them to “rise to a higher plane,” as she puts it, to make the spiritual connection that is perhaps “the start of a twice-blessed soul.”

During her childhood, Arana is puzzled by the fact that her father’s father, Victor Manuel Arana Sobrevilla, is a virtual recluse. She knows that he was well educated, an engineer, that he became a college professor, and that when he was still a relatively young man, with a wife and six children to support, he quit his academic job and retired to his study, where he had remained ever since. The family explains his action as a matter of honor; however, Arana finds that herabuelito quit his job because his pride would not permit him to serve under the colleague who had been made head of his college, a man with whom he routinely disagreed. Oddly, pride did not prevent her grandfather from leaving the support of his family to his oldest son, Jorge, who was just a boy when his father decided to retreat from the world.

However, after extensive research into Peruvian history, Arana becomes convinced that there was more behind her abuelito’s behavior than just pride or unbending arrogance. His decision did indeed involve honor. She had always wondered why the name Arana brought forth such strange reactions from other Peruvians; it had also seemed strange that her immediate family had nothing to do with more distant relatives and, indeed, disclaimed any connection to them. Her research leads her to a relative, Julio Cesar Arana, who at the turn of the twentieth century established rubber plantations in the Putumayo section of Peru. This Arana enslaved rainforest Indians, set brutal overseers over them, and proceeded to get rich while the Indians died by the thousands.

Ironically, at the very time that Julio Cesar Arana’s atrocities became public knowledge, the author’s great-grandfather, Pedro Pablo Arana, a revolutionary hero, a populist, and a reformer, was serving as governor of Cusco. Feeling that his own name had been tainted by his cousin’s deeds, Pedro Pablo Arana resigned his post and disowned his whole extended family, though by doing so he deprived his son Victor of the financial backing and the personal contacts that would have insured his success.

However, Victor still had his honor. Unfortunately, he became so obsessed with defending it against real or fancied slights that eventually he could no longer live in the real world. Thus, his granddaughter believes, it was indeed honor that sent him into isolation. The reaction of his wife, Rosa Cisneros y Cisneros de Arana, was just as much dictated by Latin tradition as was that of Victor. Though her husband was no longer providing any support for his family or even displaying much interest in his offspring, Arana’s abuelita continued to treat him with the respect that was due to the male head of the family, while in reality it was she who was in charge.

It is not surprising that Rosa disapproves of her American daughter-in-law. Marie does not feel bound by tradition, nor does she understand the need to keep up appearances. Her answer to unpleasantness is characteristically American: She just moves elsewhere. When her mother-in-law keeps snatching her first child away from her, Marie walks out, and Jorge finds them another place to live. When, during her second pregnancy, she feels neglected by her husband, Marie takes off for Wyoming, where she has her baby, returning to her husband only after her father, James Bayard “Doc” Clapp, talks her into doing so. Though she always feels stifled in Peru, Marie remains there with Jorge for fourteen years. Then, once too often, Jorge abandons her for a night of drinking with his friends, which he has been taught is one of the rights of the superior sex. When he returns home, Marie knocks down their Christmas tree and announces that she is going back to the United States. She has taken over.

Not surprisingly, Jorge is as unhappy in the United States as Marie had been in Peru. The children, too, have difficulty settling in. When they mimic the speech and the actions of their Wyoming cousins, they learn that what they thought was typically American is not acceptable in New Jersey. They adapt. Jorge never does. Instead, he finds more and more reasons to travel. Again, it seems to their offspring as if Jorge and Marie are drifting apart. In the end, though, it becomes clear that they have simply invented their own mode of marriage.

As the title American Chica suggests, Arana sees herself, too, as somewhat of an invention. She is neither the Latina lady her abuelita would have liked to make her nor a woman like her mother, who seldom feels the pull of place or even of family. Arana does not pretend that it is easy to grow up as a child of two very different cultures. Sometimes, as when her father’s family tried to make a good Catholic out of her, she knows that she behaved very badly. At other times, she remembers making up fictions to explain things that her father’s family would not admit or that her mother would not reveal, and, of course, to excuse her own offenses. Yet if, as she now realizes, she was “forged by family denials,” the tension within her own divided soul produced the “burning curiosity” that led her back to Julio Cesar Arana and a terrible truth. What she came to understand in the process of her research, however, was not merely that evil begets evil but that good is always laboring to be born. Just as in her parents’ case, where cultural differences became the basis of an enduring relationship, so the divisions within Marie Arana herself led her to new insights, to real wisdom, and to the writing of this thoughtful book.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (April 15, 2001): 1511.

Library Journal 126 (April 15, 2001): 106.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (May 13, 2001): 7.

Publishers Weekly 248 (April 2, 2001): 48.

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