Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings
By Estela Portillo Trambley
Originally Published by Tonatiuh International,
1975 (First Edition)*
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #2 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
One of the most historic books in the canon of Hispanic-American literature, Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings is iconic on several fronts. It was:
- the first collection of short stories written by an American Latina that was published in the United States;
- the first book written by an American Latina to win an important national literary award (Quinto Sol Award, 1972);
- the first book written by a woman to win the Quinto Sol Award;
- one of the first books published in English by a Latina in modern American literature, coming on the heels of Nicholasa Mohr’s pioneer novel, Nilda (1974).
The breadth of Portillo Trambley’s literary output—novels, drama, poetry, and nonfiction in addition to short fiction—contributed significantly to the evolution of Hispanic-American literature until her death in 1998 at the age of 62.
Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings includes nine short stories and the title piece, which is a novella. Although most of the stories are set in the southwestern United States, Portillo Trambley effectively uses international backdrops to elucidate some characters’ struggles and mindsets—ranging from Paris in “The Paris Gown,” to Spain in “Duende,” Vietnam in “Recast,” Germany in “The Secret Room,” and Mexico in various stories. This strategy imbues her writings with an eclectic flavor that makes her characters even more universal.
Often referred to as a feminist, Portillo Trambley created strong women whose resilience and resourcefulness emanated from their premiums on family, self-knowledge, community, and love. Her female cast is wide-ranging, but their lives are all circumscribed by a male-dominated society and unyielding tradition. Breaking free of restrictions requires Portillo Trambley’s women to buck tradition, to invent and reinvent themselves in their own image, and—sometimes—even to commit crime.
There is the aristocratic Clotilde Romero in “The Paris Gown,” who sacrifices her reputation in her last-ditch effort to evade an arranged marriage and thus win her freedom; Nan Fletcher in “Pilgrimage,” whose husband deserts her for a younger woman, and who now, through the religious piety of her housekeeper Cuca, must find her own peace in the world; Marusha, the alienated Spanish gypsy in “Duende,” whose family emigrated to America for a better life but whose poverty cuts through her soul as she seeks financial and career success in vain; Lela, the pagan healer in “The Burning,” whose ministerings to the village people were gifts of love that were ultimately rejected in ideological ignorance; and Lupe, an obese, unattractive young woman in “Rain of Scorpions,” who leads life to the fullest despite unfulfilled fantasies and who embodies selflessness and wisdom.
The boldest rebel against male oppression appears in the last short story of the book, “If It Weren’t for the Honeysuckle,” set in an isolated Mexican village. Beatriz, “a slender, small woman,” juxtaposes her abiding gentleness with a deliberateness that shocks. At the age of fourteen, she ran away with Robles, an abusive, middle-aged drunkard whom she knew was married and had children. But Beatriz was a virtual slave in her own home, cleaning and washing for nine demanding brothers, and saw an opportunity to establish her own life apart from men by becoming Robles’ lover, a traveling vegetable vendor who was often absent. A hard worker, Beatriz built her home with her own hands and even took in another of Robles’ mistresses. Beatriz’ tolerance of Robles’ abusiveness reached its limits, however, when he left a young, ailing girl with Beatriz one day and planned to ravage her upon his return a couple of weeks hence. Beatriz’ protectiveness toward the girl and her hatred of Robles’ violence toward women fused with her knowledge of gardening to conjure a plan that stopped Robles dead in his tracks.
Though Robles is Portillo Trambley’s most unsavory male in this book, there are others: Clotilde’s autocratic father in “The Paris Gown,” a man who cares more for social aggrandizement than for his daughter’s happiness; the Ayala brothers in “The Trees,” who give in to carnal pleasure, jealousy, and greed, thereby destroying the proud family heritage their father had built for them; Manolo, a New York actor who denigrates other struggling actors in his quest to become a star, and who loses more than his integrity in “Recast”; and Chucho, an alcoholic wastrel in “Pay the Criers,” who steals and squanders his dead mother-in-law’s money intended for her funeral, then tries to belatedly make amends.
Yet Portillo Trambley, who strove to “discover…the miracle of people and a world,” as she wrote on the back cover of her book, saw beauty and goodness in men’s souls as she did in women’s. The most touching, sympathetic males in her book are not oppressive and rigid. In “The Secret Room,” Julius (Julio) Otto Vass Schleifer, a German heir in Mexico, reflects upon his deceased father’s fascination with Hitler and the “master race,” and realizes that there are greater things in life—such as social justice and true love—than one’s own culture and wealth,. In “Duende,” the gypsy immigrant Triano is widely known in his impoverished neighborhood as “a good listener…who melted well into life…[and] mended things and people.” His greatest unhappiness is his little sister’s lack of joy in life. Everything Triano does is aimed at helping her; his illiterate, devoted mother; and the struggling women he sees all around.
But Portillo Trambley saves her best for last: the title novella, in which brave, ordinary people, young and old, male and female, join forces to fight a greedy corporation’s destruction of their community and their people through unbridled pollution and deception. The male heroes in this novella—a war veteran named Fito who lost a leg in Vietnam; Papa At, who is Smeltertown’s resident sage and patriarch; and the twelve-year-old Miguel, an insightful boy who loves to learn and help others—ultimately meld their demands for justice, their pride in their Indian heritage, and their determination to solve their problems in a touching manner that forges a deeper level of community and peace in their daily lives.
Portillo Trambley is highly poetic in her writing. Her incisive observations of people and of life itself are so profound and so elegantly stated, one could write a small book of quoted excerpts from this work. She delves into the souls of her characters and helps us feel their suffering. She expresses her recurrent themes—especially the preciousness of freedom, the importance of orderliness in life, and the diminution of women by a male society—in a cadence reminiscent of verse and great speeches, replete with alliteration, repetition, metaphors, and imagery.
For example, the author states: “It had been decreed long ago by man-made laws that living things were not equal. It had been decreed that women should be possessions, slaves, pawns in the hands of men with ways of beasts. It had been decreed that women were to be walloped effigies to burn upon the altars of men.” (p. 106) This elevates her prose to heavenly heights at many points in her book. Yet this quality is sometimes intertwined with the shortcomings of her work as well.
One criticism that has been leveled against the early work of Portillo Trambley, especially Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, is that it is sometimes heavy-handed with preaching, that she editorializes rather than lets the story tell itself. This is a valid critique of her book. In addition, sometimes her descriptions, striving for poetic impact, are convoluted and thus not as effective as they might be were they streamlined and direct. For example: “A convex reflection of mood, the older woman was a human focal point against the subjectivity of artistic experience in meaningful arrangement around the room.” (p. 2) Stated simply: the woman was surrounded by beautiful pieces of well-placed art.
But experience shows us that the “firsts” of anything important are not as developed as they will eventually be. Portillo Trambley’s pioneering literature broke ground and glass ceilings. It gave voice to women authors where no woman’s voice was prevalent. It portrayed a unique culture that had been largely invisible on the literary stage. The testament to Portillo Trambley’s artistry came in her evolution, as all writers ideally grow and evolve. In the re-issue of Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (see footnote below), Portillo Trambley’s refined critical eye caused her to replace a handful of the original stories with new ones and caused her to inject substantive changes to characters and themes in the original stories she kept. She had grown immensely as an author, but this should not diminish the validity and beauty of her early work.
* A testament to the importance of this book is its 15th anniversary re-issue by Bilingual Press in 1993. Portillo Trambley revised the book extensively and re-titled it Rain of Scorpions and Other Stories. Fans and scholars are thus able to compare the two versions of the book to better appreciate the evolution of the author’s long, distinguished career.
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.