Monday, August 15, 2011

VIPER by John Desjarlais

For the last two years, I have been a Mexican-American woman.

Well, figuratively speaking. And only when writing. The protagonist for my latest mystery is Selena De La Cruz, a feisty Latina insurance agent who was a minor character in BLEEDER. Once she walked onto that stage in those three-inch-heel Giuseppe Zanottis, I knew she had a story of her own and she had to be the lead figure for the sequel, VIPER.

But I’m a fifty-something Anglo guy, and so I was terribly worried about getting this character and her culture right. It wasn’t that I hadn’t written from a woman’s point-of-view before; I had done so a few times in earlier novels. But those were only short scenes, and I was faced with the daunting task of sustaining a credible presentation for a whole book.

So I immersed myself in the experiences of Latin women vicariously in many ways.

I read a few books by Latinas about Old-World expectations placed upon women who are trying to fit into New-World American society. Like any good researcher, I took many notes – just as with any other research I had to do for VIPER (DEA undercover operations, police interrogations, firearms, Aztec myths, snake handling and such). I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty and lifestyle issues. I visited Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what they talked about, paying special attention to anything related to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!"

I interviewed Latinas, too, and from all this built a composite that reflected their experiences. I browsed through my notes repeatedly to remind myself of small details that were of possible use as ‘bits’ in the story, as in this description of Selena visiting her old neighborhood in Chicago:

When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Like Julia Alvarez once said in a poem, Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.

She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice -- who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe -- caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.

“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”

Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.

Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.

“Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.

“Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”

“Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”

“En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”
There’s a line in the movie “Selena” where the father complains, "We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!" It’s a tension I hoped to capture in the book. A Latina translator who helped me with the Spanish and reviewed the work-in-progress said at one point, “I am SO into Selena!” Then I knew I was getting it right.

My reviewer also made great suggestions for Selena’s footwear. Latinas dig the zapatos.

John Desjarlais

Visit Johnny Dangerous

VIPER - Amazon links – USA paper

BLEEDERS - Amazon links – USA paper, Kindle, & UK paper, Kindle

RELICS - Amazon link - USA paper 
THRONE of TARA - Amazon links - USA paper 


  1. No comments yet? Surely someone in this forum would like to know how a guy got to know so much about women's shoes.

  2. Hi Johnny, I think Blogger is blocking the comment feature - or at least it was blocking me. I've changed the feature to show up below post instead of a pop-up. Maybe that will help. Your book sounds like a good read - you've certainly done your research.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  3. I'll bite, how did you learn so much about women's shoes? I did read the whole post and thought you really took on a big job and sounds like it worked for you.

  4. I subscribed to Latina Magazine and took notes on the lifestyle/clothing features. I learned early on that high heel shoes were important in the culture as a sign of a woman's femininity and power. 15-year-old girls, in their elaborate coming-of-age prom-like ritual called the Quinceanera, receive their first pair of heels from their fathers and put away their old shoes and dolls as a symbol of entering womanhood. was a help and my Latina readers, examining the work-in-progress for authenticity, made some suggestions.