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A 'Chiquita ' Escapes the Cocoon : Culture: As a young Latina, Bettina Flores dreamed of a good life away from the grape fields. The dreams--and a subsequent book--have paid off.


Bettina Flores grimaces when she recalls her life as an 8-year-old.

She is stooping alongside her widowed mother and six siblings in a field outside Fresno. She is picking grapes--for 2 1/2 cents a tray--and dreaming about living in an air-conditioned home, wearing pretty clothes, playing with a mountain of toys, jingling a pocketful of quarters she will use to buy candy.

At 12, Flores moved a step closer to her dreams. She packed her possessions in a cardboard box and left her home in the barrio and her summers in the fields.

At the time, Flores says, the only thing she knew was that she wanted out of her mother's cocoon, an existence defined by poverty, a large family, the tenets of Catholicism and long dusty days of grape-picking.

Flores had answered a classified ad for a mother's helper in an Anglo household. She earned room and board and $5 a week and found herself living in an upper-middle-class world of new clothes, shiny shoes and an abundance of toys. She worked for a number of well-to-do families during her teen years.

But despite a young life of servitude, the exposure to better schools, to luxuries and new opportunities, strengthened her resolve for a better way of life. Flores knew that one day her own life would include an air-conditioned "castle," a husband with a briefcase, college-educated children and, most important, a book about her struggle to break away from the confines of her traditional Mexican upbringing.

Now, at 48, Flores, who attended Fresno City College and Fresno State University, has achieved her goals: a five-bedroom, three-bath house (which she doesn't clean herself), a 24-year marriage to an attorney, four children ranging in age from 18 to 30--two of whom are in college--and a book that is raising Latina consciousness across the country.

The self-published author of "Chiquita's Cocoon" (Pepper Vine Press; $13.50), Flores writes about how she, as a chiquita or young woman, flew away from the "cocoon" that imprisoned her mother and other Latinas for generations.

The 12-chapter book has many messages: Latinas must reclaim their self-esteem, delay marriage for an education and a career, practice birth control and stop serving others first, especially macho men. The book includes a "Know Thyself" questionnaire, a work sheet on how to plan careers and 10 pages on career opportunities and salary scales.

The book, which started out as an autobiography and took five years to complete, also includes vignettes from 200 Latinas from ages 14 to 70.

Like Flores, the women she interviewed were conditioned at an early age to believe that poverty was a virtue, that education was unimportant, that a man would provide for them.

"I had to deal with my own conflict. I had to break out of that cycle," Flores says. Other Latinas, she adds, also want to break out, but they don't know how. That's why she wrote the book.

Reaction from readers, professional women's groups, educators and book distributors has been positive. Since publication about six months ago (B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Brentanos and soon K mart Stores in Los Angeles), "Chiquita's Cocoon" is in its second printing and has been picked up by 10 national distributors, including Baker & Taylor, Quality Books and Bookpeople.

Flores, who lives in Granite Bay, a suburb of Sacramento, also has been in demand as a speaker at women's conferences, high schools and universities. She spoke Sunday at the National Organization for Women's state conference in Sacramento, and in September she will address the Gender Equity Conference in Sacramento sponsored by the California State Department of Education.

Monica Udvardy, an anthropologist at the University of Kentucky, has ordered 50 books for "The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective," an intensive four-week class she will teach this summer.

"Bettina Flores conveys a respect for the retention of the positive aspects of Latina culture and provides a simple method for Latinas to improve their lives," Udvardy says. "And this point of respect for her own culture is one of the cornerstones of anthropology."

Julie Chavez-Bayles, a business teacher at Montebello High School, says she quoted passages from "Chiquita's Cocoon," while serving as a speaker at a recent gathering of Adelante Mujeres, a group of business and professional Latinas.

"Even though I'm educated, it made me open my eyes because those cultural obstacles on a personal and professional level still come back to haunt me. As a Latina, you have to really reclaim yourself over and over again," Chavez-Bayles says.

Montebello High School librarian Bernice Ewing says she has ordered 10 books for teachers to review. She is certain that "Chiquita's Cocoon" will be in demand and that orders could soar to 200 because more than 90% of the school's enrollment is Latino. "Beside, you don't have to be a female Hispanic to get something out of this book. It cuts across all lines. Cultural oppression is universal," Ewing says.

Flores is thinking back again.

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