Denise Elia Chávez’s The Last of the Menu Girls is a collection of seven interrelated stories about Rocío Esquibel, a young Mexican American woman in southern New Mexico who seeks to understand herself, her family, and her community. Rocío’s development from girl to woman gives unity to the collage of stories. Rocío observes those around her she provides a portrait of a culturally diverse community and a clear insight into the human condition.
The title story introduces Rocío at age seventeen beginning her first job as an aide in a hospital in her home town. It is the summer of 1966. One of her tasks is to take menus to patients and get their requests for meals. Rocío studies the patients with great attention. She sees them as individuals with differing needs, and her heart reaches out to them so fully that she suspects she is too emotional for the job. Her emotional investment, however, helps Rocío understand others and makes her better able to understand herself. By the end of the summer Rocío has been promoted to other duties in the hospital and the system has changed; she is literally the last of the menu girls. Her compassion for others continues to serve her well as a way of understanding herself and her relationship to the world.
In the other stories Rocío increasingly looks to the past, to her personal history and to that of her Mexican American culture. She also tries to envision the future, to create the woman she hopes to be. By the end of the stories Rocío has found her mission. As her mother says, it would take a lifetime to write even the story of their home; there are stories all around. Rocío dedicates herself to writing the lives of the ordinary people she knows, people who often cannot speak for themselves. In the process of telling their stories, Rocío will speak for herself and for her culture.
Chávez’s talents as a playwright and a poet give a distinctive quality to her fiction. She captures the small gestures and the precise voice of her characters and shows rather than tells their actions. Her work is filled with humor and the hope of the heart that makes her characters enduring.