By Sandra Bentez
445 pp., $22.95
As I was waiting for the train one morning recently, a middle-aged woman with long black braids strolled by, munching a rolled-up tortilla. Arranging her skirt around her high heels, she settled on the bench beside me, her face tilted to receive the sunlight. Then I noticed that what I had taken for a tunic was a huipil, the pre-Columbian traditional dress of the Maya.
They're here: people who drink Coke and converse with ancestral spirits; who chase away evil with aerosol sprays; who send money home to palmetto-roofed huts in mountain villages.
Instead of hashing over contradictory statistics on the costs and benefits of immigration from Central America, it would help to learn more about the immigrants themselves. "Bitter Grounds," by Sandra Bentez, will be part of that process.
The novel begins in El Salvador in 1932, with the discovery of a headless soldier. The body is found by two women, Mercedes and Jacinta, her teenaged daughter, near a cave dating from Mayan times. For these women, and their Mayan ancestors, volcanoes and trees were as sentient as humans, and shamans mediated between the spirit and material worlds.
The corpse turns out to be the victim of an uprising that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Indians. The two women make their way to San Salvador, giving up their tribal ways. They are hired as servants in the home of a coffee-plantation owner.
Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the book, the women's transition from Mayan animism to European materialist consciousness, passes quickly. Mercedes and Jacinta succumb to a hacienda filled with modern conveniences.
There are occasional touches of the supernatural, but the Mayan world vanishes as completely from their thoughts as from their surroundings. The voices of a radio soap, "Las Dos" ("Two Women") replace the advice of the tribal shaman.