Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
Face of an Angel specifically addresses the quest for identity of Soveida Dosamantes, a hardworking waitress at El Farol Mexican Restaurant in southern New Mexico. The rich cast of characters around Soveida provides detailed portraits of the lives of Mexican, American, and Mexican American working-class men and women in the Southwest. The work describes these characters’ various struggles to know themselves and to be accepted in a multicultural setting. The novel speaks compellingly of the importance of the individual self and the social attitudes that allow the individual freedom to function.
Soveida, who narrates most of the novel, has grown up in Agua Oscura, a fictional small town in the desert Southwest. Soveida explores the boundaries of her life through her interactions with her mother Dolores, her grandmother Mama Lupita, her cousin Mara, and a wide cast of other townspeople. As Denise Chávez brings this population of memorable characters to life, their actions and motivations are shown to be reflections of social attitudes about race, ethnicity, gender, and class. It is difficult for them to break through these received attitudes to wholeness and acceptance of others. Soveida, for example, seems destined to repeat the same mistakes other women in her family made in their choice of partners, and she becomes involved with a number of lazy and hurtful men, including her two husbands.
Soveida eventually writes a handbook for waitresses, called “The Book of Service,” based on her thirty years of work at the El Farol. The advice she gives about service reflects her ideas about her life and her connections with other people, and it shows her growing sense of pride in herself as a Chicana. She has learned to question and reject the limited roles assigned to Mexican American women in a male-dominated society, and instead she develops a philosophy that encompasses individual strength and endurance combined with a genuine respect for others, as shown through service.
Soveida’s philosophy is reinforced by the novel’s unrestrained, irreverent, and hilarious scenes, by the effective use of colloquial bilingual speech, and by the in-depth exploration of such universal issues as poverty, personal relationships, illness, and death. Chávez’s characters are all individuals with distinctive voices, and she draws them together in ways that show the possibilities of changing social prejudices. Her major themes focus on the rights and responsibilities of the individual and on the need for an evolving social consciousness.