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BOOK REVIEW

Defining life by way of blurring language

Killer Cronicas Bilingual Memories Susana Chavez-Silverman University of Wisconsin Press: 152 pp., $19.95

April 27, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

"KILLER Cronicas," Susana Chavez-Silverman's stirring memoir, is an audacious mix of English, Spanish and the hybrid some casually call Spanglish.

"I looked at myself up and down en esos vegetable mirrors, bien sheepish, y me di cuenta that I was wearing red, fuzzy slippers! In Safeway!" the Pomona College professor writes, describing a frazzled moment early in the life of her rebellious toddler. "Pero there I was, in slippers. You know, esos hideos pantuflas como las housewives in newspaper cartoons wear?"

It's practically a performance. In fact, Chavez-Silverman, who teaches Romance languages and literature at the prestigious Claremont school, is developing a reputation as a lively public reader of "Killer Cronicas," here and abroad.

Chavez-Silverman began these "cronicas," or chronicles, as a series of e-mailed travel dispatches in this blend of Spanish and English to friends, family and colleagues while doing research in Argentina. "I can't not write it like I hear it," she says in the book's opening, "Glossary Cronica," written to explain herself. And she urges readers to dive in, to listen to the text as actively as one reads it: "Go on, lanzate. Lance yourself."

The book is teeming with such bits of clever bilingual wordplay, such as "feliz" (happy) to refer to homosexuals, and "anyguey" for "anyway." Mixed in are countless Latin American regionalisms, joking phonetic spellings and faux translations, such as "ternura" for "tenure." "I know, ya se, mama," she writes.

"It's not the real word for it and I should speak right. La gente va creer que [The people are going to think] I don't know right from wrong.... I've always done my own thing anyway, que no?"

Is the U.S. reading public, with a growing population of Latino bilingual-bicultural consumers, ready for a literary enterprise that breaks nearly every rule of English and Spanish usage? And is this "slanguage" actually a language?

Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts who has written extensively on Spanglish and is considered its most ardent proponent, would say yes. He made a stab at compiling a Spanglish dictionary -- the 2003 book, "Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language." It was an exuberant if ultimately incomplete effort, not least because the Spanglish spoken in L.A. doesn't sound like Spanglish in Miami or Denver.

"Killer Cronicas" is peppered with such California cholo slang terms as "carnal" (bro or brother), "orale" (right on) and "simon" (heck, yeah). This might be expected in a memoir about finding ones identity in the barrio, the 'hood or the Sonoran Desert. But Chavez-Silverman, who describes herself as a bisexual, Jewish Chicana, offers a record of the kind of worldly, sensuous life experiences we commonly associate with larger-than-life diplomat-poets such as Pablo Neruda and Carlos Fuentes.

She writes vividly about her youth in the San Fernando Valley, Mexico and Madrid, about her post-college adventures in South Africa and about her triumphant residency in Buenos Aires as a "cacademic."

In achingly self-aware parables drawn from her personal life, Chavez-Silverman seems to inhabit multiple lands. She writes of feeling at times a "dis/locacion," then seeing a row of "baroquely blooming" jacaranda trees on a wide avenue in Claremont. They remind her of jacarandas she has admired elsewhere in the world. The trees give her welcome, her anxiety of in-betweenness dissipates.

In this way, "Killer Cronicas" is a testament to the maturing sense of global and pan-Latin citizenship being claimed by Chicanos and U.S.-born Latinos in the American West.

Combine this with such innovation in language, and her book may one day be regarded as a refreshing turning point in Latino literature, maybe even the truly bilingual literary voice that the pioneering Chicana critic Gloria Anzaldua called for.

That's for the "cacademics" to figure out. Or as Chavez-Silverman might say, "Pero esa es otra historia" (But that's another story).

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