Summary Review: An utterly charming read. This story sings to those who will listen.
A Guest Review by Victor J. Banis
Miguel Hernández is a teacher who has left Mexico City to complete a one year student internship in the rural hills of Puebla. He came to the school intending to focus on his teaching and his students but quickly learns that it is impossible to keep his private and professional lives separate—particularly as his experience turns into a voyage of self-discovery.
His students, the Directora of the school, the baker, and other people from the town all contribute to his growing awareness. But most important is Ruben, the owner of the candy store who progresses from merchant to friend to lover. He will be the man who has the most effect on Miguel — who, in turn, is transformed by the impact of Miguel on his own life.
This is a lyrical story that brings to life the countryside of rural Mexico, with its grinding poverty but care of the people for their native land; expressing prejudice and hate but at the same time affirming the power of love and acceptance in overcoming obstacles. As a slice of life in the year of Miguel, Normal Miguel will certainly capture the hearts and imaginations of those who join him on his journey in the pages of the book.
An utterly charming read, and quite unlike anything else I’ve run across. The setting alone, a primitive village in the mountains of Mexico, sets it apart from most gay fiction—though I am perhaps doing a disservice by labeling this “gay fiction.” It is really more about universal truths, but while that makes it sound portentous, the author has reduced these truths in the way that a great chef reduces a stock, until he has produced a clear and particularly savory sauce.
This, then, is a delicious broth of a book, about real people dealing with real issues, only some of which relate to the gay experience. Even those, however, are about the gay experience in its purest, most basic essentials. How does one accept oneself as a homosexual, in a society that generally reviles the homosexual? How to cope with homophobia, both internal and external? What does love really mean, and can it be possible between two disparate men in a culture that does not view that as acceptable?
Living in a near-slum neighborhood in Mexico City, Miguel Hernández discovers early that he is gay, but his mother, his friends, even his earliest sex partner, turn away from him when he comes out to them. He finds a lover, who quickly begins to abuse him, both emotionally and physically.
Graduating from the Normal school (in this country, more commonly called a teachers’ college) Miguel chooses to accept an internship teaching at a boarding school, the Internado, in the distant mountain village of Comalticán. “High, high, high up the twisty highway, horses, mules and, rarely, cars meandered along pockmarked asphalt. The temperature dropped off markedly, tall trees gave way to shorter shrubs, and mist flowed down the mountainside like soda foam down the side of a cup. The land was solitary and spacious.”
Miguel is plagued with fear that the students will recognize him as gay and reject him, and struggles with doubts about his ability as a teacher; and the students do challenge him at first. “How could a person teach under these conditions? Miguel wondered if his family was right. Had he made another mistake?” He perseveres, however, and in time the students come to respect and love him. “We’re the only chance these children have,” the school’s Directora tells him.
Miguel remains ever mindful of his obligation to the children placed in his care, and comes to understand that he can learn as much from them as they from him. “It was the tiniest of moments, really a non-event. Yet the utter sincerity of it began Miguel’s journey in a whole new direction. It was the kind of moment that people who’ve never had them could not even understand. Perhaps only those sorts of people, like teachers or parents, who work with those whose gratitude is almost always implicit, recognize it. A good waiter receives a tip, a good salesman a bonus, a good artist sells work for high prices and hears about the brilliance of her work. What does a teacher get? Poor students have no money to give and, even if they did, they couldn’t give it.”
When Miguel meets the owner of the local candy store, Ruben, their attraction is immediate, but in contrast to the way these relationships so often develop in glbt fiction, building quickly to a wild crescendo, the blossoming of their love is played more as a sweet adagio. “…the two snuggled on the bed beneath Ruben’s only wool blanket in the cold night air of the last days of fall. Their first time happened as naturally to them as everything else had. They were laughing as they undressed, eager to find warmth under the covers. Then they hugged and rubbed each other for body heat. The laughter changed to smiles. The smiles turned to quiet stares into open eyes. Then the kiss, with eyes still open… ”
The cast of characters is large—little Abimael, with warts around his mouth “wasn’t even a meter tall. The youngest born, he was always lost in someone’s skirt. Get away from the fire. Don’t stand by the river. Don’t tease the pig. Get away from the ant nest. Someone always had to watch out for him;” Jesse, whose mother travels in her wheelchair nearly two hundred miles to the miraculous Basilica of Guadalupe, to be blessed, only to die a few days later. “When he looked up at the cross on the hill, he could imagine her smiling face as she sat in the same wheelchair with the same knitted sweater… She had promised to never leave him alone. And he imagined her there with him. But then why did he feel so lonely at times? He felt the sweat on his back and the dry dust in his throat as his own penitence, his sacrifice, for having not been the perfect son that he promised to be;” waspish Dona Conchita, who makes plain her disapproval of Miguel and Ruben; Dahlia, Ruben’s highly religious and disapproving mother, who nonetheless manages to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality and his relationship with Miguel over a memorable Christmas holiday; the two young Nahuatl Indian girls, Misol-Ha and Xochitl, “like the flaming yellow petals of the flower she was named after.” These and many others are so indelibly drawn they remain in memory long after the book is finished.
The reader quickly finds himself caught up in the day to day events that brighten these lives – some of them small events, like climbing the mountain to reach the cross at its top, or skinny dipping in the river, or the infrequent arrival of Don Coco, the ice cream cart; market day as “brown, round women balanced baskets on their heads and carried turkeys hand-cuffed at the feet like suitcases. The birds contorted their long necks to keep their heads upright as they were walked to market. They looked like tourists quietly taking in the sights as they were transported through the streets.”
The big events, though necessarily played small, are still far from insignificant: Independence day, celebrated with sparklers instead of the fireworks that would brighten the night in Mexico City; Christmas when the children perform for their parents and the townspeople; The Day of the Dead, with its paper skeletons and a homely shrine for those who have passed on.
There is drama, to be sure. A violent storm isolates the village and leaves the Directora with a fractured leg. Miguel and Ruben, and Ruben’s beloved horse, Micha, come to the bridge into the village: “Part of the bridge had been washed away. In the middle, there was about a two-meter gap of raging river. When the water came up above the level of the bridge, it splashed hard against the leftover railing…’The longer we wait to cross, the higher the river’s going to get!’ shouted Ruben over the turbulence…Micha’s hoofs pounded the ground anxiously. Ruben prodded her closer. He nudged at her ribs. ‘Come on, Micha!’ She looked at the water as it kicked up from the bridge, calculating her footing, doubting the jump.”
There is laughter, too, especially when the children steal an aged wedding dress from the local museum and secretly arrange for Miguel and Ruben to marry in a ceremony both humorous and deeply moving.
All of this is played against what might have been a depressing backdrop, but the author makes clear throughout the difference between the poverty of the spirit, and the wealth that, despite the meanness of their existence, these people share with one another, especially the priceless gift of their affection.
This is a story told, in fact, with great affection, a celebration of the human spirit and of love. Here, for instance, Miguel and Ruben: “finally sleepiness overcame them and they passed from this dream-like state to truly dreaming, never letting go their embrace until orange morning light hit the white walls and the new day was a new song.”
Like that new day, this story sings to the heart of those who will listen. A lovely song indeed. Highly recommended!