Juana Macho is one of my favorites of Thelma T. Reyna’s collection of short stories. The title immediately drew me back to East First Street in San Juan, Texas. It was the early 50s and I was still not in school when mother referred to a woman walking down the street as Juana Gallo. I was familiar with the name Juanita. The diminutive (“ito” for the male; “ita” for the female) which Chicanos added at the end of a word, signified a softening. Sounds of words—the inflection—mattered. I had never heard of the name Juana. “Juana” sounded hard. And to my young mind, when combined with the masculine “Gallo,” and then properly inflected, the name had implied all kinds of nefarious and detestable character traits. A gallo is after all a rooster, and a metaphor for fighter or macho. Mom was showing her disdain for the woman by calling the woman a pachuca and a toughie or roughie. Her use of this code word to personify Juana has been imbedded deep in my sensibilities.
Thelma‘s use of the character’s name as figurative speech is creative, and its use as a code word is an especially useful literary device for her older Chicano audience . For us, she effectively sets a historical time and place with the use of the name. Her technique is to use a uniquely Chicano artifact to set up the environment for her story. As a chicano and bilingual reader, I appreciate the depth of her work. For not only am I generally entertained by her story, I also feel a special affinity with the setting which makes the reading experience much more enjoyable—more of my senses seem to be involved.
Those who attempt to write short stories can tell you how we dread the art. Juana Macho is an excellent specimen of a short story. It opens with action, moves through to the climax (and will make you weep, I assure you) and on to resolution. The story has none of the clutter or background noise that interferes with the reader’s desire to become one with the story and simply experience it as it proceeds.
Thelma T. Reyna initially misdirects the reader both with the use of her title in settling up the introductory scene. Her Juana Macho becomes the mirror image of my Juana Gallo. At first blush, Juana Macho confirms my ancestrally-coded disdain: this is the pachuca of East First Street. With creative brevity and compactness, Thelma quickly slaps us out of our fallible perceptions and preconceptions. How horrible we are to have judged this woman: this woman whose scars are not from hand-to-hand combat in beer joints with big, bullying lesbians. We have a need to apologize to this poor victim of a gas heater explosion who has been branded for life. The accident during her early adolescence left scars on her face and arms and tore away her breasts. Juana Gallo’s appearance has become her survival mask. She covers her femininity and internal “softness” with her façade.Thelma, you make us weep!
*The Heavens Weep For Us and Other Short Stories, by Thelma T. Reyna, Outskirts Press Inc., Denver, Colorado, Copyright, 2009
Review by: Chuy Ramirez, author of Strawberry Fields, A Book of Short Stories