Spirituality and Otherness in Nineteenth-Century Northern Mexico: A Review of Kathleen Alcalá’s Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes

A hybrid culture of Indigenous folklore and mysticism mingled with Latin American magic realism and imbued with the resonance of Jewish Scripture and ritual: this triumvirate creates a gathering place for the divine and the perfunctory in Kathleen Alcalá’s first novel, Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes. Originally published in 1997, this new edition from Raven Chronicles Press features a strong cast of characters who negotiate an intricate web of identities–sacred and secular, racial and interracial, religious, and gender-based–and what, ultimately, it means to be Mexican. Set in the nineteenth century northern Mexico and the southern United States (like several of Alcalá’s succeeding novels, including Treasures in Heaven, which revisits some of Spirits’ central characters), the poignant themes recall twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s own ideas on the I and the thou, the way we as humans make sense of and build connections with the people and creation of this world, differentiating between the physical experience of an object and the holy encounter of an other, a person, and ultimately the divine presence of God within us.

Readers of fellow Chicanx author Rudolfo Anaya may recognize similar narrative veins pulsing in Spirits. An adventurous father irresistibly drawn to the siren call of the llano; a homebound mother with academically vocational goals for their son; mythically proportioned prophetic dreams; coldhearted priests; bloodthirsty men; deep reverence for nature; and strong women who possess formidable powers. It is easy to draw parallels to Bless Me, Ultima, as both Anaya and Alcalá consider the “Mexican” before “Mexico,” the infiltration of politically and religiously organized oppression, and the search for identity within the land and person. But this is where the similarities end. Alcalá’s story does not belong primarily to one voice, but a chorus of many.

Arguably the most prominent, fascinating character is Zacarías, a quixotic gold prospector and negligent family man whose name betrays an otherwise hidden Jewish lineage. This calls into question the historical identity of conquistadors bringing blood-soaked tyranny to the western hemisphere on the mantle of Catholic “evangelism.” The novel sheds light on the fact that many migrants from Spain were themselves coerced to abandon their Jewish ties in favor of the dominant religion. Zacarías’s obsessive, Homerific odyssey for gold is juxtaposed with his father Julio’s quest for knowledge: while the son studies the land and the indineous language to carve out locations for gold nuggets, the father studies the scriptures and the ancient language to carve out clues for the coming of the Messiah. Both pursuits wrestle with what it means to be Jewish in Mexico, as Zacarías and his parents, Julio and Mariana, would identify as both (they eat the unleavened bread of corn tortillas, “food of the people, foundation of the meal–napkin, starch and silverware all rolled into one,” for instance), though the identities would demand a negation. 

Although Julio had been born in Mexico, as had many generations before him, he was a spiritual product of the old world, never quite at ease in this wild, open space, where the races intermingled freely and a many could outrun his reputation, if he ran far enough. Julio was rooted to place, to order, to predictability.

Spirits of the Ordinary plays out cinematically on the page: lush descriptions of red gold sunsets and sweeping deserts; illicit love affairs; intense battle scenes. But there is a quiet, yet urgent refrain interwoven throughout Spirits of the silenced Jewish voice, embodied by the character Mariana. Sanctified through her muteness, which occurs after an anti-Semitic attack when she was twelve, Mariana carries a supernatural command of her world, and she articulates great depths of knowledge and acute perception in spite of her silence. “All nature seemed in accord with her, as though in opposition or apology for the terrible treatment she had received at the hands of humanity as an innocent child.” Placing Mariana in the context of what she exemplifies gives a thematic image of the holy sufferer, a concept familiar with all parties in the novel. Though Jewish, she offers an intersection of the two main colliding religions, as her very name and Alcalá’s reverent descriptions of her as the perfect, pondering woman (“a vessel filled with perfection”) pays homage to the Holy Mother. Her condition also recalls the Gospel of Luke’s record of Zechariah’s muteness after a divine encounter (Mariana’s last word was “Ángeles,” and an angel of the Lord takes Zechariah’s words). She watches as her husband lays waste to his garden in counterintuitive attempts to invite his son back to the faith. Alcalá generously offers many emblematic objects–fountain, garden, gold, mountains–linking the Mexican landscape and culture to Mosaic tradition and history.

It would be a mistake to classify Spirits as a Jewish novel, however. Among the compelling roll call of characters is Estela, Zacarías’s long-suffering Gentile wife, postured here as a Mexican response to Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” In an era when a wife’s identity and purpose are tied to her husband, Estela revels in newfound liberty in the first chapter after severing her husband financially from the household. Her future navigates sexual exploration, but for her it is less about consigning herself to a new mate and more about discovering a sense of self and sexuality. 

Less prominently featured but compellingly crafted, the outlier characters give voice to the pressing discourse of gender roles and identity. Though she is present in only a few chapters, American photographer Corey builds a career for herself by posing as a man, and with the freedom of movement and safety from molestation in this created identity as “Mr. Findley,” she also discovers a reshaping of herself in her adopted role. Estela’s enigmatic twin siblings, known only by their nicknames “Membrillo and Manzana” (“Quince” and “Apple” in English, respectively), are endowed with mythic powers and Ultima-like training for their vocation as diviners (of water, literally, but Alcalá explores the multifaceted implications of the word). One being born male and one being born female but both firmly tethered body and soul to each other, they confound their community and even family members from distinguishing them: “By being neither male nor female, young nor old, the twins forced the people around them to conjecture everything, which is what made them enormously appealing. The human energy that was generated around and directed at them probably aided the diviners in their quest for water…” Lastly, Zacarías’ employer and lover Magdalena reverses the power dynamic assigned her sex and race. Sold at age fourteen by her Indigenous family into a sexually abusive marriage, she inherits an estate and presents a refreshingly empowering portrait of an independent business entrepreneur and agent of her own body. In fact, she dismisses the sexually submissive role by training Zacarías in the bedroom, and as she is never positioned in a seat of weakness, she can offer sustenance to and even rescue the men in her life. This contrasts steeply with the more typical depiction of women in the novel, such as Estela’s sister in her eighth pregnancy and two grown but financially dependent daughters, who resemble more recognizable concepts of society women, but are nonetheless caught up in the restless narratives of change and power.

Zacarías embarks on a journey that ultimately draws him into the spiritual realm. The family he leaves behind charts new waters in a changing society with alluded tensions between political parties and classes. Yet, there remains a message of hope to bridge the chasm. In one scene, Zacarías attempts to share his father’s stories with the Indigenous village that has rescued him time and time again. “He struggled to tell the story in el llanero, the common language used for trade in northern Mexico, phrasing the complicated Hebrew ideas in his sparse Indian vocabulary. He did not know much Tarahumaran. As he spoke, he heard the muttered translations roll to the back of the room.” Kathleen Alcalá’s Spirits of the Ordinary is a story that looks backwards and forwards, sharing bread and post-Babel conversation between pagan-based founders of Dia de los Muertos and an Old World library of hidden Hebrew Scripture, melding together these characters’ collective communities into a shared understanding of humanity and divinity.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, The Literary Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Cream City Review, Image, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. A Fulbright Scholar and Pushcart Prize nominee, she currently lives with her husband and children in Wichita, Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @shan.violinlove.