Other Free Encyclopedias » Brief Biographies » Biographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) Biography » Denise Chávez: 1948—: Writer Biography - Cultural And Literary Roots, Confronted Issues Of Sexuality, One Of Las Girlfriends

Denise Chávez: 1948—: Writer - Confronted Issues Of Sexuality

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Her experience in theater has also strongly influenced Chávez's fiction. "I consider myself a performance writer," Chávez commented in Contemporary Authors. "My training in theater has helped me to write roles that I myself would enjoy acting." Among the notable characters she has created is Rocio Esquibel, the young woman whose coming of age is told in the seven linked stories of the collection The Last of the Menu Girls. Though her background and aspirations are modest, Rocio is no stereotypical Chicana who accepts traditional gender boundaries, but a strong woman who insists on finding her own path. Indeed, Chávez herself sees the book—and all her work—as a chronicle of how women's growing demand for independence challenges relationships between men and women.

This frank treatment of gender roles has brought Chávez critical acclaim. Her first novel, Face of an Angel, touches on such controversial subjects as incest, alcohol abuse, sexuality, religion, and macho traditions—issues that many Latino families prefer not to air in public. People might complain that "it's too sexy, it has too much genitalia," she observed of the book to Los Angeles Times writer Julio Moran. "But that in itself is a liberation for a woman to be able to speak the unspeakable. Latinas never talk about their sexuality." But, Chávez continued, "women writers want to confront the issues of sexuality in the family, especially in their complexity, as opposed to presenting an image of what the family is. That runs the gamut from abuse to personal relationships." She added, "[i]t's not airing dirty laundry. Latinos are human beings. We no longer need to create an image of what we're supposed to be to make ourselves acceptable to other people."

Face of An Angel, which won an American Book Award, tells the story of Soveida Dosamantes, a waitress in a fictional New Mexico town. As she works on a handbook for newcomers to her profession, Soveida reflects on her relations with her family, friends, ex-husbands, and lovers. Chávez, who had worked as a waitress herself for five years, drew on personal experience for the book and incorporated both Spanish and English into it to reflect the speech patterns of her native region. Creating the right kind of bilingualism in the novel was her most challenging task. She wanted the prose to move smoothly between English and Spanish without making the Spanish sections too elementary, but without having to provide English translations—a style that approximates the way people really speak in the region. The novel, hailed for its humor and earthiness, received widespread attention. World Literature Today contributor William Nericcio described it as a "literary tribute to servants" and an "antisentimental family history" that provides a powerful exploration of the bonds between generations of women. "Teeming with unforgettable characters and voices, laced with earthy humor, Face of an Angel is the story of the many faces women wear in their various lives as mothers, wives, lovers," Publishers Weekly writer William Clark observed.

No less sexy is Chávez's second novel, Loving Pedro Infante, which recounts the story of Teresina "La Tere" Avila, a teacher's aide, and her friend Irma. Both unhappily single and in their thirties, the pair develop a cultish worship of Mexican film idol Pedro Infante, who died decades earlier at age 40 in a plane crash, and who serves as the women's ideal of masculinity. Like Face of an Angel, the novel deals frankly with women's physical desires and with their frequent disappointments in love. In one passage describing a group of older women at a religious retreat, Chávez has Tere comment that "they were all losers, all of them, divorced, single or in bad marriages, with husbands who drank and knocked them around every weekend after the bars let out at two, or who had sons who rifled through their purses for drug money." Though Tere is unhappy with her married lover, who treats her carelessly, she has enough intelligence and hope to keep looking for love. "Chávez's spicy storytelling," observed Maggie Galehouse in the New York Times Book Review, "reminds us that women today, fictional and real, have other options."

Galehouse also appreciated Chávez's loving depiction of Tere's social world. "In hyperspecific and tireless detail," she wrote, "Chávez records the food, the hang-ups, the turn-ons and worldview of a thriving border culture. When she describes … the way the women of the fan club band together when its only male member goes missing, the reader understands how tightly these families and the community are bound up together." Indeed, as Chávez noted in Contemporary Authors, "My characters are survivors, and many of them are women.… They all have something in common: they know what it is to love and to be merciful."

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