American Chica

by Marie Arana

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Marie Arana was born in Peru and spent her childhood there and in the United States. Her father was Peruvian, and her mother was from the United States. Arana is straightforward about the difficulties both parents faced in adjusting to the periods spent away from their native country but sees that it was more difficult for her mother. Although the book is about national, racial, and ethnic identity more than about gender, Arana is especially effective when exploring how Latin American cultural expectations weighed on the outspoken, independent American woman.

Arana’s memoir, a National Book Award finalist, focuses on her early years on a Peruvian sugar plantation. She powerfully evokes learning how her position within a well-to-do family located her differently than some childhood playmates. The fragmentary nature of memory, as sensory impressions such as the smell of sugar are unevenly imprinted, is used as an organizing principle. Reaching back into her own past, Arana confronts the meanings of family legends that were equally fragmentary and hard to grasp: some ancestors held public office, while others were slave owners and ruthless businessmen, making a fortune in the rubber boom.

Arana's mother, Marie, had in some measure re-invented herself in Peru. Married three times and widowed by World War II before she met Jorge Arana, Marie prided herself on looking forward. Thus, the “ghosts” of the past for the author were associated primarily with her Peruvian roots.

The periods spent in the United States, in contrast, made her familiar with a different type of hierarchy, in which her in-betweenness was not only racial and national, but U.S. regional as well. When her family went to the United States, they settled in New Jersey rather than her mother’s native Wyoming: the children were Westerners as much as foreigners. In later years, she would grow accustomed to the idea of her commonalities, as a U.S. Latina, with people from so many different nationalities.

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