Monday, December 21, 2015

The King and Queen of Comezón by Denise Chávez

Denise Chávez
2014, I read paperback edition
309 pages, character study, psychological

Thank you to the University of Oklahoma Press for providing a review copy of this book, part of the Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Américas series.

It is really important to me to include works by marginalized writers from the United States on this blog. I think it sends the wrong impression to only feature novels from “foreign” countries, whether in translation or in English; this blog is about the global diversity of literature and film,  including the native diversity in the US. That is why I have chosen to include this book by a major Chicana writer.

In Comezón, a small town on the Mexico-New Mexico border, everyone has some comezón – a yearning for something that will never happen. In this series of interconnected character studies, the author examines what each individual wants – and what, exactly, is keeping them from getting it.

The main focus is on the dysfunctional Olivárez family. Arnulfo, the aging father, is slowly (and quietly) dying of lung disease and alcoholism but continues to take the stage as master of ceremonies at the local Mexican-American festivals of Cinco de Mayo and 16th September. His wife, Doña Emilia, is disabled and cannot control Arnulfo, but she has the patience of an angel even when he doesn’t deserve it. Their daughter, Juliana, though bound to a wheelchair, has a rich inner life of reading and painting and a hidden love for the local Spanish priest. Arnulfo’s daughter by an affair, Lucinda, knows that she doesn’t quite fit into the family and wants to escape as soon as possible, running away with the son of Comezón’s Chief of Police. And then there is Isá, the housekeeper, cook, and best friend of Doña Emilia who also helps take care of Juliana.

With these and other characters from the town, the author takes us on a journey into the trials and tribulations – and loves and passions – of a small town on the Mexican border.

Machismo and Patriarchy

Beneath his rough exterior, Arnulfo is actually a sensitive man, at least where it concerns Juliana’s well-being. The best part of this book was seeing how patriarchal ideas of how a man should act prevented Arnulfo from acting the way he wanted to. He is determined to keep up appearances of manliness by, for example, wearing cowboy boots when they kill his feet rather than the more appropriate Hush Puppy shoes that his wife bought for him.

One of the biggest ways this machismo appears is in his alcoholism. Instead of allowing himself to be overtly loving to Juliana, or to Emilia, he drags himself to the bar to get drunk. This is apparently a more masculine activity. One of the saddest parts of this novel is when Arnulfo admits that he sometimes pretends to be more drunk than he actually is when he returns from the bar. Why? So that Emilia will take care of him and they can have sex. He can’t bring himself to just ask his wife to care for him, so instead he comes home “drunk.”

He is terribly worried about what will happen to Juliana when he dies. For now, she is taken care of by Emilia and Isá, but Isá hates taking care of her. As soon as Emilia dies (and she's not in the best of health), Isá will leave. So how can he provide for her? Arnulfo knows that he is dying, but he hasn’t told anyone about it, not even Emilia. And again, this is because of his stubborn adherence to his masculine identity.


What does Juliana want? To be quite honest, she wants sex. She wants to be held by a man and made love to. But she thinks that this is beyond her reach because of her disability. She is constantly told that no man will ever want to marry her, or sleep wit her, because of her helplessness.

So she has a great attraction to the priest, possibly because he is the only man around her age that she sees regularly. She pretends not to know the doctrines so that he will continue coming for her private scripture lessons. This leads to one of the most bizarre phone-sex scenes ever, which left me highly amused and a bit shocked. I would recommend this book just for this scene, actually.


Religion plays a big part throughout this novel, and not just in Juliana’s erstwhile relationship with the priest. The catholic faith is constantly invoked, and some sections of the novel contain debates about the merits of various doctrines. At times this seems a bit tedious, but it meshed well with what little I know about Chicano culture.

One very interesting chapter describes Arnulfo’s personal belief that God is actually an old, kind Indian woman, based on the mother of a friend. This is most interesting because an old, patriarchal, alcoholic man like Arnulfo is not the sort of person that one would necessarily expect to have a well-thought-out understanding of religion that varies from the official discourse. But again we find that Arnulfo is a much more complex person and character than expected.


Probably the most difficult part of this book is the language. I would guess that around 1/10th of the novel is actually in Spanish. This Spanish is not translated unless it is very important, so for non-Spanish readers there is a lot of indecipherable text. I am fluent in Spanish (at least for the purposes of reading!), so I didn’t have much trouble understanding it. I liked the code-switching, which felt very authentic, but I wonder how much of a problem this would be for people with no Spanish background.

Each chapter is told from a different person’s perspective (even Arnulfo’s dog!), providing a multifaceted glimpse of life in Comezón. There were a few cases where this became very confusing because the chapter would begin with one person’s perspective and then shift to someone else’s without warning. When this happened, I found myself going back to find where the shift happened but was usually unable to locate it. I would have preferred if these random shifts were taken out.

This tragicomic novel is an interesting character study of the inhabitants of a small border town. I would recommend it particularly for bilingual Spanish speakers, who will have less difficulty understanding the Spanglish.

The King and Queen of Comezón can be purchased in the US from Amazon and indiebound,  in the UK from Amazon, in India from Amazon and flipkart,  and worldwide from the Book Depository. 

Further Reading: 

"Four Ways Sexist, Macho Culture Hurts Men" by Erika L. Sanchez (Everyday Feminism)
"Why It's Important for Men to Feel Their Feelings" by Jason Gaddis (Everyday Feminism)
"The itch that riles Frontera author Denise Chavez" interview by Neil LaRubbio (2012, High Country News)

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