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Northwest Passages: Kathleen Alcala

Pete Springer/OPB

Writer Kathleen Alcalá was born in California to Mexican parents. But fragmented stories half-told in her childhood hinted at a hidden ancestry. In her most recent book, The Desert Remembers My Name, she says she began writing fiction to explain the world to herself.

My stories seemed to make my mother nervous. What was it that she was so worried about? Were there deep family secrets to be uncovered? Scandal? Had someone in our family actually had sex? Difficult to believe.

When Alcalá dug into her family’s background, she found “skeletons”— ethnic and religious ones.

One of the family stories was that we were descended from two brothers who came from northern Spain in the late 1700s. They were Jewish. I didn’t think too much of this when I was young, and figured we were merely an anomaly among our Mexican American neighbors, who were all good Catholics, with a couple of Baptist families thrown in. We were, as far as I knew, the only Mexican Jewish Protestants on the planet. I began researching this aspect of our family only as a part of the whole fabric of life in nineteenth century Mexico.

She learned that the cruel arm of the Spanish Inquisition reached Saltillo, her ancestral home in Northern Mexico. Her family arrived later, but she says this connection grounded her stew of heritage firmly into real history. Combining her Crypto-Jewish background with her also hidden native Opata ancestry gave Alcalá fodder for a rich trio of novels.

Her first, Spirits of the Ordinary, follows Zacarias, the son of Jewish parents, married to a Catholic, as he abandons his family for the lure of gold and serendipitously becomes the leader of a spiritual and political uprising in Northern Mexico in the 1870s. The Flower in the Skull traces three generations of Opata women. Last in the trilogy is Treasures in Heaven, a wonderful tale that picks up where the first novel left off, set in the social upheaval of Mexico City before the Revolution of 1910.

Alcalá calls herself a “visual writer.” She says she sees movies in her head and writes down what happens. She contributed to the recent anthology Seattle Noir and from her home on Bainbridge Island is now working on a new novel.

Crossing ethnic, linguistic, geographic and cultural boundaries define her work.

I have come to realize, finally, that my life’s work, whatever it has been called, is the act of translation. Not necessarily from one language to another, but between world views. I am a translator between worlds, between cultures, between jargons and contexts. And in trying to explain these many worlds to others and myself, I have become a writer.

Have you read any of Alcalá’s books? What did you take away from her stories and reflections? What role does writing play as you navigate the borders in your life?

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