THE ULTRAVIOLET SKY
Written by Alma Luz Villanueva
Publication: 1988, Bilingual Press; 1988, Anchor Books, Doubleday
Thelma T. Reyna
Book Review #9 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
From the outset, defiance runs through this book—not like a thread, but like a surging river. It is a stubborn defiance, rock-hard and take-no-prisoners style. It’s also vulnerable, collapsing in tears and castigations. It’s a defiance that stabs us with discomfort, that makes us see ourselves in painful recognition, or that makes us weep to remember the times we wrestled with those demons, too. It is a defiance built of granite and wolves, built of clouds and angels. But it is a defiance that has no choice but to exist.
What else could we expect of Alma Luz Villanueva, one of the first prominent Latina feminist authors in the U.S.? A poet, essayist, and short fiction writer as well as a novelist, Villanueva has devoted her artistic life to exploring and exposing the ugly terrain of misogyny, of misguided oppression and abuse of women, of the destruction of our planet by militaristic patriarchies, the violence of war, and the obliteration of spirituality that springs from connection to natural life and the forces of the earth. Villanueva is the voice of the voiceless, and defiance in the face of destructive forces is her weapon.
Rosa, the Novel’s Hero, and Her Battles
When we first meet Rosa Luján, we recognize her immediately as a woman who will not be subjugated. She’s arguing bitterly with her husband Julio regarding their infant daughter, car repairs, schedules, and typical trivia that unhappy couples often quarrel about. The first few dozen pages of the novel are saturated with her fury and defiance against Julio’s attempts to impose his will upon her. Her stubborn resistance is, in fact, too heavy for a contemporary reader, with Rosa baring her teeth like an animal, clutching a knife, threatening her reclining husband with a sharp fireplace poker, and risking her safety by sleeping outdoors late at night when even she realizes it’s dangerous. Whatever she can do to resist Julio, to make him squirm, to show him that he doesn’t own her, she does. In the beginning, being sympathetic toward Rosa is a bit difficult. The reader wonders if she can tone it down, if she can be less domineering herself, less preachy about female oppression and machismo, and if she can get that gigantic chip off her shoulder.
But then we learn more about this 35-year-old artist, teacher, and mother of a teenage son. We learn that she was abandoned by her mother as a young child and raised by an aunt and grandmother. We learn that Rosa became pregnant as a young teen, that she is half-German and regrets this heritage because of what Germans did to humanity, that she raised her son Sean alone and has struggled mightily to survive. All she has known is barriers and male expectations that she bow down to stereotypical roles and that she—especially as a Latina—must accept her status in life. We see how her aunt and grandmother were trapped thus in servitude to the dominant men in their lives.
Rosa describes the “Mexican Man,” or “M.M.,” (p. 243) as she sometimes jokingly refers to him, an archetype she has vowed never to marry: “He’s the man I’ve seen women make the endless piles of tortillas for, as he grows fat and stupid while his brain shrinks to fit his narrow mind that dictates boys are better than girls, boys become men, girls become wives, men have moments of freedom, release, women count the tortillas and the children. Men have affairs, women become whores. Puta. La Puta. You know, that word used to send shivers down my spine.” Rosa tells her husband about M.M. and why she fights for her freedom and independence. Julio is no M.M., but he often seethes against her stubbornness to do things as her soul dictates, such as when she leaves him to go live alone in the mountains.
The Mountains and Their Symbolism
Rosa’s spirituality and connectedness to nature, to Earth, is a theme throughout this book. She is part Yaqui and also knows about the history of the ancient Mexican people: their gods and goddesses, especially “the infinite, ever-present Quetzalpetlatl,” whom she often invokes. Rosa’s dreams elucidate many of her struggles, with goddesses and animals often the source of revelations for her waking life. It is in a dream that Rosa “sees” a cabin in a remote part of the mountains six hours away, surrounded by wolves and other creatures. Rosa seeks that mountain, that cabin, and finds it.
She realizes that she must sever all tethers to status quo: leave Julio, leave the city, leave the trappings of civilization to find her inner core, to establish her independence fully, to allow her art to flourish unbounded. She wants this need to be understood and accepted by people close to her—her husband, son, friends—and is disappointed when their concerns for her safety and their ties to stereotypes trump their embracing of her journey. But her power struggles with Julio, his jealous possessiveness of her, especially regarding her platonic male friends, overwhelms her spirit, and she buys the cabin and moves alone to the mountain.
She wonders: “If he loves me, why does he continue to insist that I relent and relent and relent. As though that would be proof that I love him. This is why people kill each other….This is why nations war.” (p. 286) But Julio—a Vietnam War veteran often tormented by his experiences, a Nativist with Mayan roots, and a polished professional—is yet too bound by his culture to understand Rosa’s rebellion and support her quest. Though he, as well as Sean and Rosa’s friends, visit her at the cabin, maintaining their ties to her, each of their visits is a battle to make Rosa return home. Rosa feels alone and fights even harder to prove them wrong.
Some of the most important events in Rosa’s evolution as an independent human being occur in the mountains: giving birth to her and Julio’s unplanned baby, raising her alone, having her first extramarital affair after she and Julio agreed to an open marriage while Rosa decides whether or not to return to him. But most important: Rosa’s art flourishes, and the title of the novel comes into play: Rosa’s most cherished painting, one in which the exact color of a lilac sky long eluded her, is completed, with “an ultraviolet sky.” In a flash of insight, Rosa says: “That’s the color of the lilac sky. That’s why I can’t see it. I’ll never be able to see it. I can only witness what it does. The way it births us, the way it kills us…the ultraviolet light, like love.” (p. 378)
One particular incident captures Rosa’s soul and view of life. While her neighbor and son are visiting her one day, an immense hawk accidentally flies against a window of her cabin. Stunned, the hawk lies on the ground, and Rosa instinctively goes toward it. Both men shout at her to stop, saying the hawk’s talons will rip her apart. Still, Rosa slowly picks up the hawk, its talons jabbing against her palms, and she speaks soothingly to it, carrying it gently to a hollowed stump, where the hawk slowly gathers itself, looks at Rosa, and flies away. Later, Rosa admits she had been afraid, “but I had to pick him up anyway.” (p. 368) Rosa’s life has been a continuous battle against her own fears as well as dangers, but it is a fight she faces, with a faith in the life forces of nature and her own instincts.
The Importance of this Novel and Villanueva
Besides Julio and Sean, almost all the male characters in this book hew the line regarding the subjugation, overt or subtle, of women: the husbands and lovers of her friends, the men who live in the remote mountains near Rosa, and even the doctor charged with saving Rosa’s premature baby’s life and Rosa herself. Rosa therefore has ample, recurrent confirmation of how women must fight for their identities and self-esteem. The female characters, with few exceptions, are connected to one another through their love of nature, of being together in natural elements, and believing in their dreams.
The sociopolitical flailings against male chauvinism in this book thus sound overwrought at times. But readers must read Villanueva’s words in their historical context: The modern American feminist movement was relatively young, and the cultural shifts that have enabled many attitudinal and social changes regarding women at this point were hardly in sight in 1988. Also, Latinas openly embraced the feminist movement later than their non-Latina sisters, so the issues Rosa faces were raw and hurtful ones when this book was published. A winner of the prestigious American Book Award in 1989, The Ultraviolet Sky is still considered significant in feminist fiction and is often deemed Villanueva’s most popular work.
Alma Luz Villanueva’s focus in almost all her writings has been giving women a voice, shining the spotlight on “poverty, the mistreatment of women…painful issues in women’s lives, such as drug abuse, rape, incest, prostitution, and murder.” (p. 1607, Norton Anthology of Latino Literature) Having had a traumatic childhood and highly difficult, turbulent adolescence herself, Villanueva often interweaves autobiographical elements into her poems, stories, and novels. She writes from the heart because her heart has experienced much of what she describes.
Villanueva’s body of work includes seven collections of poetry, with her most recent, Soft Chaos, published in 2008; one short story collection, Weeping Woman: La Llorona and Other Stories (1994); and three novels, with The Ultraviolet Sky being her first. Prior to this award-winning book, Villanueva, first and foremost a poet, had published four of her poetry books. Testimony to the pre-eminence of poetry in Villanueva’s arsenal of talents is the poetic language that is often interwoven into the descriptions in The Ultraviolet Sky. When we read this novel, we know we are in the presence of a mighty poetic soul.
Alma Luz Villanueva has taught in various colleges and universities, the latest one being Antioch University in Los Angeles. Villanueva has won numerous other literary awards, including the PEN Oakland fiction award; the Latino Literature Prize, New York; the Best American Poetry Award; and the 1976-1977 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. Her website is http://www.almaluzvillanueva.com/
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009), which has won four national awards. Her third book, a poetry chapbook titled Hearts in Common, will be issued in June 2013. It was a semi-finalist in a national poetry competition. Her other books include Breath & Bone (2011), another award-winning poetry chapbook; and the forthcoming Life & Other Important Things (Spring 2013), a collection of mini-essays and sociopolitical commentary excerpted from her published writings of the past 30+ years. Dr. Reyna has served as an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and at California Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.