On the back there’s a date stamp of when the photo was printed-and because when I count back nine months it falls exactly on the month my family and I fled from Columbia and arrived in L.A., I turn back photograph to look intently at the baby, to register every wrinkle and bulge around the dark hole of his gaping mouth, to decide whether he is crying or laughing, because I know exactly where and how he was conceived and that’s how I lose track of time, thinking it was my fault that the girl Petrona was just fifteen when her belly was filled with bones, and when Mamá comes back from work, she does not yell (even though she sees the photograph, the envelope, the letter from Petrona address to me)-no, Mamá sits down next to me like taking off so much weight, and together we are quiet and sorry on our dirty stoop on Via Corona in East L.A., staring at at that fucking photograph.
Set in Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar we meet two young girls from very different backgrounds and through their contrasting livelihoods and shared experiences we begin to understand how circumstance dictates ones life and also how certain parts of growing up can be shared across all boundary. Drawn from the author’s own experiences, Ingrid Rojas Contreras has written a rich story brimming with suspense and the endless hardships faced by families of all social class under Escobar’s frightening regime.
“Chula, listen to me. I’m in danger. I mean I’m in hiding. But you can’t tell anyone because I have nowhere to go.”
“You mean someone’s after you?”
“Don’t tell anyone. Niña? Not even your sister. Do you swear? Not your mother either.” The receiver was hot against my ear. Patrona leveled her voice: “I mean it when I say I’m in danger. You don’t want to end up with my blood on your hands. Do you? Niña?”
Her words brought bile to the back of my throat. “But you are okay now?”
“Swear on your mother’s life. Niña? For your own protection. I can’t tell you more, but I’ll be safe as long as you don’t say anything.”
Chula is a young girl growing up in a privileged household within the wealthier area of Colombia where their only exposure to the dangers of their country are through the news broadcasts or as a result of the choices of their slightly revolutionary mother—that is until even their protective barriers cannot keep reality at bay. Chula is seven when the story opens and she is all innocence and perception, but nothing captivates her quite like the maid her mother hires.
Petrona is all mystery to Chula and her elder sister Cassandra, coming from a different part of town and displaying the early signs of young adulthood that bemuse our young narrator. But, as we soon hear from Petrona in short snippets, it becomes clear that the persona she embodies upon entering the Santiagos’ household is something quite different from who she is at home and on the dangerous streets of her neighborhood. Worse still, her true self lives somewhere in between and she is so caught up in helping save her family, both financially and from ever-present danger, that she cannot be true to that self.
I hated Gurrión and hated the Santiagos’ too for not seeing what was happening to me, nobody there to pull me from this freefall and I put my mouth over the dust and then Gurrión gave me a bottle of aguardiente to chase it down with. Gurrión took away his arm from my shoulder and walked away into the shadows of the fire again, and I was afraid, and as the men descended on me like a pack of wolves, I held onto the only thing I had left- the sound of my pet name, the one from the time of before, Petro, how nice it sounded to my ears.
As Chula and Petrona grow up and the unrest and instability of their country increase, we see the stark contrast between their lives. After a series of events bring the looming threats closer to home, both Chula and Petrona are forced deeper into their shared secret at the possible expense of their own safety. The suspense builds at a steady rate, paced to follow the tense hunt for Pablo Escobar that is filtered into the narrative through news reports and when the dust settles we see how Colombia begins to look on the other side.
Contrereas’ has turned her story into something compelling—drawing from a comprehensive personal account she has created a tender look at the coming of age of two young girls under vastly different circumstances during a brutal period in Colombia’s history.
A review copy of this title was provided by Doubleday Books