Friday Culture Piece: Chicklit from the Block

Donna Levin
California novelist and author of California Street (Simon & Schuster)

What’s a nice suburban dude doing writing Chicano-chicklit?

Something right, apparently, because Mike Padilla’s second book and first novel, The Girls From the Revolutionary Cantina (after the short story collection Hard Language) is finding fans among readers of the genre.  This from ChicklitClub.com: "I did not want to put this page-turner down, there is so much happening at once yet it all ties in brilliantly."

"Initially, when people started applying the ‘chicklit’ to my novel, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it," he says.  "I didn’t want to be pegged in a specific category."

He got over it quickly.  "I’ve become comfortable with the label.  In fact, I’ve embraced it in all of its positive connotations.  The audience for ‘chicklit’ is enormous.  I’d be a fool to reject that kind of readership.  Every writer wants the largest possible audience for his work."

This is a pleasantly honest admission.  (I’m not a big fan of the Jonathan Franzen "I’m too cool for this room" school of literary pretentions.)

A first glance at the book jacket tells us that the story fits the chicklit mold:  The Girls from the Revolutionary Cantina centers around a group of mostly 20something women from the San Fernando Valley who are juggling men, careers, friendships, and the rivalries that inevitably enter into that juggling act.  They have something else in common, too: they’re all of Chicana descent.

Their attitude toward their heritage varies.  "[Julia] had always been proud of her heritage.  Ime, on the other hand, often downplayed hers."

Every immigrant culture in the United States (which means most of us) has had to live the tension between honoring their roots and assimilating into the composite society known as "America."  Padilla has a poignant story that dramatizes the dilemma.  His father "felt that speaking English and being as American as possible were important for his success."  Finally he banned Spanish speaking at home and even forbade Mike’s mother from going to the local Spanish-language movie theater.  "My mom says she cried for two weeks, but my father wouldn’t budge."

But the wheel turns quickly.  The latest craze among affluent New Yorkers is hiring Spanish-speaking nannies so that their children will grow up bilingual

And so, in just this one generation, Padilla Son has become Padilla Author, and he isn’t writing about the struggles of newly-arrived immigrants struggling to fit in, but about girlfriends in the San Fernando Valley.  They include Ime, a career-obsessed real estate agent and party-animal Concepcion.  "The Revolutionary Cantina, where the women hang out, with its pictures of Mexican revolutionaries on the wall, harkens back to a history they are only vaguely aware of.  It highlights the growing distance between their past and present."

Padilla may be happy with the chicklit label, but he’s not exploiting it.  He’s already written two-thirds of his next book and, "I’m exploring male friendship now."  Not only that, but it has all male characters.  "It’s primarily a father-son story, Latino characters, a small family in Northern California in the early ‘70s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War coming to an end."

Historical fiction?  A bildungsroman? Or maybe a whole new genre: "Latino Dad Lit."

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