by Nina Marie Martinez

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Natalie and Consuelo are like-minded individuals who live in Lava Landing, CA. When they aren’t working at The Big Cheese Plant, they get all dolled up for the racetrack, or go for at a tequila float at The Big Five Four. They urgently need to get Consuelo’s father out of Purgatory: he won’t stop turning up in women’s dreams until they


Natalie and Consuelo are like-minded individuals who live in Lava Landing, CA. When they aren’t working at The Big Cheese Plant, they get all dolled up for the racetrack, or go for at a tequila float at The Big Five Four. They urgently need to get Consuelo’s father out of Purgatory: he won’t stop turning up in women’s dreams until they do. But that means a trip to Mexico, and Consuelo still hasn’t gotten over her fear of long car rides . . . .

Inspired by La Loter’a, a Mexican game of chance not unlike bingo, the novel is a joyous story of mamacitas and mariachis, fiestas and tupperware parties, rodeos and Miss Magma beauty contests. In Caramba! the American experience emerges in a brilliant new language and landscape, both touching and dazzlingly fresh.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Endlessly inventive . . . very funny. Martinez’s deadpan perspective on faith, romance and the uneasy bonds of family is truly wonderful.” —The Washington Post Book World

“An absurdly entertaining first novel . . . . With a born-again mariachi and his witchcraft practicing mother, a vixen recently jailed for her involvement in moving tamales stuffed with mala hierba, a beautician who’s part mamacita, part papacito, and a volcano that could blow at any moment, Caramba! is a dizzying Mexican hat dance . . . . "—Los Angeles Times

“A triumph of whimsy and imagination–Monty Python meets 100 Years of Solitude” —San Francisco Chronicle

"May be the most entertaining, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience many folks will have this year." —St. Petersburg Times

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
¡Caramba! -- Martínez tells readers it's a word to use "when you don't know what to say." So what better title for this rollicking, wholly original novel? Martínez weaves several interconnected plots throughout the text, but the narrative (English with a healthy mix of Spanglish) revolves around a cast of appealing characters. Javier is the leader of a band of born-again mariachis; and Lucha is a drug-trafficking ex-con with whom he falls in love. Then there's Javier's mother, Lulabell, who he fears is in cahoots with the devil. True-Dee is a drag queen/beautician whose two best friends, Natalie and Consuelo (Nat and Sway), work at a cheese plant. And let's not forget Don Pancho, Consuelo's recently deceased father, a onetime philanderer who makes regular appearances in the dreams of the living while he awaits release from "The Perg." Also sprinkled throughout the book are Martínez's "artifacts" -- maps, newspaper clippings, legal documents, and a listing of jukebox songs, as well as pictures and prophetic sayings from La Lotería, a popular game of chance.

As sensuous as Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, as magical as a mariachi serenade, and as much fun as the title suggests, Martínez's novel is pure pleasure, Mexican-American style. What more is there to say but...¡Caramba! (Summer 2004 Selection)

Carmela Ciuraru
¡Caramba! is so endlessly inventive and full of such oddball humor that it remains compelling throughout.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Lava Landing, Calif., home of a dormant volcano and the annual Miss Magma beauty pageant, is the setting for this effervescent, luminous debut. Although the novel has a slew of protagonists, readers first meet Natalie and Consuelo (Nat and Sway), two firecrackers with an "ever growing fascination with the wideness of the world." Sway's father is recently deceased and stuck in purgatory ("The Perg"); the only way to get him out is to go to his hometown in Mexico, gather the townspeople, visit the railroad tracks where he was killed and pray for him. As Sway has a phobia of long car rides and public transportation, Nat must go. Meanwhile, Martinez, in a bubbly mix of English and Spanglish, spins a plethora of side plots, among them the struggle of a born-again Christian mariachi who falls for an ex-convict; the search for true love by Lulabell, who's fashioned an anthropological map of Mexico detailing which regions are known for which kinds of men; and the triumph of True-Dee, a frustrated drag queen/beautician. Martinez draws on magical realism, kitschy humor and tongue-in-cheek cliches (e.g., "True-Dee was oh so nervous as she walked into the Bowling Alley Cafe"), but there's truth behind the zany humor. Martinez's soap opera-silly story belies serious truth telling about love and happiness in life and death. And as if the fabulously ludicrous plot weren't enough, Martinez illustrates her work with "artifacts," including Mexican Loteria cards, letters written by True-Dee to an advice columnist and the classified ad Lulabell runs in the local paper, selling her soul to the highest bidder. Agent, Susan Bergholz. (Apr.) Forecast: Martinez's brand of Mexican-American humor should appeal to fans of Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo. She will go on a nine-city tour and make national media appearances, including NPR. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This manic first novel, about the wacky goings-on in small Lava Landing, CA, is written in the form of la loteria, a Mexican version of bingo. Each chapter represents a turn of the cards, in which characters play out their destinies against the backdrop of a dormant volcano. Among them are Javier, a born-again Christian mariachi; his mother, Lulabell, a practicing witch; Lucha, Javier's beloved, who wants to sell her former lover's several kilos of cocaine; and True-Dee, the transvestite beautician. Central to the narrative are Natalie and Consuelo (Nat and Sway), best friends since second grade. Their two goals-rescuing Sway's deceased father from purgatory and overcoming her phobia about driving long distances-impel much of the action. The book is imbued with magical realism and features dichos (Mexican proverbs), pictures of Loteria cards, and Lava Landing artifacts like the playlist of the jukebox at a local bar. Essential for public libraries serving Hispanic populations and a great read for the rest of the country as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Never calling themselves Latinas or Hispanics or hyphenated anythings, the Mexican-Americans in a southern California town enjoy the hell out of pretty much everything in a slangy, self-assured debut. Best girlfriends Natalie Stevens and Consuelo "Sway" Gonzales Contreras, a couple of cuties in their 20s are at the heart of things in this confection, but they share the stage with a fairly large cast of ghosts, whores, evangelical mariachi musicians, day laborers, transvestites, and a volcano as an eventful summer elapses in Lava Landing, a community miles from the news but not far from the Mexican border. Nat and Sway work, not too awfully hard, in a cheese factory, spending their off-hours shopping, getting their hair done, cruising in Nat's Caddy convertible, flirting, and problem solving. One problem that's stumped them so far is Consuelo's fear of public transportation, a phobia linked to the tragic death of her father Don Pancho, who met his end one boozy evening back in Mexico when his truck stalled on the railroad tracks. Don Pancho's ghost pops up time and again, seeking help getting out of Purgatory and visiting the many ladies in his earthly life. While the girls put their agile minds to Don Pancho's problem, their friend and grade-school classmate Javier, a virginal, born-again musician, tries to reconcile his lust for the loose and lovely Lucha with his religious code, and Lulabelle, Javier's mum, tries to decide whether to break her decades-long pact with the devil and give up all the household maintenance and yard break she's been getting from studly day laborers in trade for her sexual favors. True-Dee, everybody's favorite beautician, has all she can handle seeking advicefrom agony aunts about a sex change, organizing her annual Tupperware party, and, finally, getting involved with a gang of crypto-vulcanologists. Everybody dances when there's a little bit of time, and there's always something interesting to eat. It's all totally inconsequential and a great deal of fun. Chica-lit to be savored in small bites. Author tour. Agent: Susan Bergholz

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.24(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Tabla 1

An Introduction to the Players


Natalie and Consuelo were best friends since the second grade when the latter stuck a piece of ABC gum in the former's hair while they were engaged in a fistfight over a boy whose name neither of them could remember. When Natalie had to cut her then waist-length hair up to a chin-length bob, Consuelo followed suit. Both girls realized at the early age of eight, a man is the last thing that ought to come between friends.

On a Saturday night Consuelo called Natalie, not for any of the usual reasons, but to inform her that she had just killed a man. This scared Natalie even more than the time she was shoe-jacked by a mental ward escapee who made off with her favorite pair of black platform slides. Consuelo forwent the details, but implored Natalie to "come quick."

Natalie ran to her closet and pulled out her favorite dress, which was long and black with spaghetti straps, and her favorite sweater: a pink mohair cardigan with pearly buttons. She threw on a strand of faux pearls she had bought after watching Breakfast at Tiffany's on late-night TV-trouble she normally wouldn't have gone to, but it was a Saturday night, and if it really was true, if Consuelo really had committed the crime she had spoken of over the telephone, then it was all the more reason why the girls ought to have a good time while they still could.

On the way to Consuelo's, Natalie considered herself lucky to have eight cylinders on her side. She had worked every summer between the second and ninth grades either picking or cutting apricots, and sometimes both, in order to earn enough money to buy the car of her dreams: a 1963 convertible Cadillac El Dorado. As she pulled into Roscoe's to fill up, she was struck by a sense of pride and sentimentality. In that day and age as well as any other, a girl needed all the advantages she could get, and Natalie was happy to have a car that was on the one hand beautiful and elegant, and on the other, responsive and powerful-characteristics she strived for in herself. With that sentiment in mind, she eased into the full-service island and said to the attendant, "I'll take a tankful of Super Unleaded, and be sure to top it off, please." Common sense and the movies told her that when two girls go on the lam, a full tank of gas is an essential starting point.

The dust followed Natalie down the back roads while Eydie Gorme y Los Panchos hummed "Mala Noche" from the AM radio. When Natalie arrived, she was surprised to see Consuelo sitting on the wooden steps which led to her front porch, idly smoking a cigarette. Consuelo did not appear the least bit vexed, her composure failed to resemble that of a murderer or even a man slaughterer. With her long black hair parted down the middle and sectioned into two neat ponytails, she wore a white tank top and a pair of red terry cloth shorts.

As Natalie approached Consuelo, she looked into her eyes and tried to find the dancing devils Consuelo's mother insisted dwelt within, but all she saw were two mossy puddles. Consuelo claimed her mother was crazy, a point Natalie wouldn't argue against, but the fact is, most Mexicans don't get green eyes, so when one does, it's a big deal.

Natalie remembered something Consuelo once told her. When Consuelo was four years old, she met her tía Concha for the first and only time. Taking the child's chin in her hand, Concha looked into Consuelo's eyes saying, "You only get one life, chica. Live it up." With those words, claimed Consuelo, it was as if Concha had planted a seed within her, then, momentarily opening her up, she had shed sunlight and rainwater upon it, causing it to grow and grow, wrapping its vines around her innards, seeking its escape.

Consuelo considered this her most formative moment. She would always remember her tía with a strange mixture of reverence and fear, as if Concha were a member of the clergy who commanded respect while inciting fear, and was so close to something so powerful and irresistible, it could not be overcome. It might have been completely coincidental, but Concha had single-handedly been responsible for the de-frocking of seven priests in her hometown of Culiacán, which is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. A devout sinner, but a Catholic, Concha believed in confessing her sins as well as the other Sacraments. It might be relevant to mention, Concha also had green eyes.

"Consuelo," said Natalie taking a deep breath. "I got a whole tank of gas if you feel like gettin on out of here."

Consuelo took a long drag off her cigarette. Natalie scooped up the soft pack of mentholated Marlboro®s, removed one, and let it dangle from the corner of her mouth. A nonsmoker but a fidgeter, it gave her solace to have something to chew on.

"I may have gotten you more worked up than the situation calls for," said Consuelo. "Not to say that it ain't shockin, because it is. Only it ain't probably nearly as bad as you're thinkin."

"Give it to me straight and start from the beginnin," said Natalie, tossing her long, naturally curly and naturally auburn hair.

"¿Promise not to laugh?" Consuelo began.

Natalie crossed her fingers, held them up, and nodded, then sat down on the steps next to Sway.

"A few days ago I decided to start exercisin. In case you haven't noticed, I'm growin quite a gut and I just can't imagine givin up the finer things in life such as menudo or carne asada." Consuelo pinched her abdomen and held it. "So, I figured I'd start out slow. Maybe just walk around the block or somethin. It's hard for a girl like me to know where to begin when it comes to a thing like physical fitness. For starters, I ain't got no walkin shoes, so I put on my most comfortable pair. ¿Member them suede platforms I got on sale last spring at Leroy's?"

"Think so," said Nat.

"Well I don't own no sweats either, so I put on a pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt. No makeup mind you. You might say I was keepin a low profile. I'm about to walk out the door when I start hearin the voices." Consuelo scanned Natalie's face for a reaction, seeing none, she continued. "¿You ever hear voices, Nat?"

"Not usually. Which isn't to say I haven't, because I have. Only mostly I don't usually hear voices unless somebody's talkin to me, and even then it's questionable."

Consuelo moved closer to Natalie and lowered her voice. "Sometimes I hear voices, and usually it's my momma that's speakin. My tía Lila says it's a gift, the voices that is, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm on my way out the door when I hear my momma as if she's standin right behind me and she's sayin, 'A girl dressed like you can't have no good intentions, you little sinvergüenza.' It shocks me, but only for a second, because it ain't the first time I heard my momma say that, and it don't matter that she's gone to that other world either."

"Geez, Sway, that's purty incredible and a bit creepy if you don't mind my sayin so," said Natalie.

"Not in the least. The best things in life are just a little creepy," said Consuelo. "I walk out the door and around the corner. Purty soon I notice this guy slowin down in his car to take a look, but I don't pay him no mind because I'm thinkin about all them calories I must be burnin. Plus I got my Jackie O shades on, which always makes me feel sorta protected. The eyes bein the windows to the soul and all, I prefer to keep the shades drawn. I was mindin my own business."

"And the world would be a better place if everybody did the same," contributed Natalie.

"Out of nowhere there's a screechin of the brakes, and the next thing I know, there's a dead man in the street," said Sway. She bit her bottom lip, then elaborated, "There was this little old guy tryin to cross the street and he got himself runned over because some pervert was busy checkin out my nalgas. He was even usin the crosswalk." Consuelo dropped her cigarette to the dirt, stretched out one of her long long legs, then extinguished the Marlboro® with the wedge heel of her sandals.

"¿That's it, Sway?" said Nat.

"I'm afraid so," said Consuelo. "¿Were you expectin somethin more action-packed?"

"Oh, no," said Natalie swatting at the air in front of her. "Well I hope you're not feelin bad about it, because it ain't by any means your fault. That's just the price of bein purty."

The girls sat silent for a moment staring off into the not so distant fields where a slight breeze rattled the pepper plants.

"You know it's funny," said Nat. "People turn the wrong way down one-way streets all the time, but that don't always spell disaster."

"No it don't," said Sway. She knew precisely what Nat meant: that the world was a place where anything could happen and everything did, and that even the most simple and well-intentioned acts could provoke disaster.

"May the good Lord rest that poor man's soul, but it's Saturday night, and I was just wonderin, ¿what's the plan, chica?" said Nat.

"Was thinkin maybe we could head on out to the racetrack for some watch and wager horse racin," said Consuelo.

"¿You feelin all the sudden lucky?"

"Not hardly, but that ain't never stopped me before. Wait on me while I go in and change," said Consuelo rising to her feet.

"Before you go, I just want you to know that you really scared me there for a second," said Natalie waxing suddenly sentimental. "I figured you'd be sent up and I'd be lucky to see you maybe once or twice a year. And with your fear of public transportation and long car rides, you might go crazy on the bus ride over. It ain't often a person runs into a like-minded individual, least not as like-minded as I consider you."

"Don't worry about a thing," said Consuelo. "I ain't goin nowhere except to change, then we can hit the road. Chin up, chica," Consuelo shouted as she ran up the steps and into the house.


Consuelo's given name was Consuelo Constancia Gonzales Contreras until, when she was eighteen, she legally changed it to Consuelo Sin Vergüenza. She had been told so many times that she was shameless, which is what sinvergüenza means, that not only did she believe it, but she came to consider this alleged shamelessness her most admirable attribute.

Her most practical problem in life was this: She was afraid of public transportation and long car rides. With Natalie behind the wheel, Consuelo could get into the Cadillac and go around the corner to the grocery store, or across town to the flea market. She could make it to bingo, to the baile, or anywhere else, just so long as it was within her thirty-mile travel zone. Why she was even known on occasion to hitchhike. But board a bus, never. Much less a train.

Consuelo's father, Don Pancho Macías Contreras (Q.E.P.D./R.I.P.), was runned down by the midnight freight train from Guanajuato. He drove a white Chevrolet pickup truck he called El Caballo Blanco to which he sometimes sang the legendary song of the same name. Like any complex character, Don Pancho was filled with contradictions. He loved his wife, but not nearly as much as the collective charms of his many mistresses. Seven days a week he worked hard, long hours at numerous jobs, only to gamble his money away. He was concerned with physical fitness, ran several kilometers a week, yet he undermined his health by drinking every night.

To get right straight to the point, Don Pancho was a real parrandero-he liked to live it up drinking, dancing, womanizing, gambling, and barroom brawling.

One evening, while on his way home from the cantina, Don Pancho forgot to cross himself as he passed the village church. He was sure this would bring bad luck, so he stopped quite literally in his tracks. (The realization of his oversight occurred just as he attempted to cross the train tracks.) Don Pancho put the Chevy in reverse, but it didn't wanna go backwards. He put it in first gear, but it didn't wanna go frontwards either. It didn't wanna go at all.

DP didn't get out, pop the hood, and try to figure out what was the matter. Nor did he push-that truck was far too heavy for just one man. Going for help crossed his mind, but he had heard enough corridos to know that a real man never leaves his horse, and while the only horse he'd ever had he'd lost in a poker game, he still considered his trusty white Chevy the next best thing. So instead of getting out of the saddle, he took off his sombrero, set it on the bench seat beside him, killed the engine, then began to sing. He sang "El Corrido del Caballo Blanco" over and over. Drunk as he was, it wasn't long before he fell asleep. Nor was it long before the train swept him away.

Back home, Don Pancho's wife, Doña Luisa, was fast asleep in bed. In dreams Don Pancho came to her. "Forgive me, vieja," he said with his sombrero in hand. "I always loved you more than any of the others. Leave me where I have fallen. I don't deserve more."

Doña Luisa knew something was up, because Don Pancho spoke to her in English, and she understood every word of it. She also knew that her husband was gone for good, as opposed to just spending the night with another woman. So when the men showed up at her doorstep with Don Pancho's lifeless body dangling over the back of a burro, Doña Luisa told them to take him back where they found him, and that he had wanted it that way, then she went back to sleep. Don Pancho might have been the father of her six children and the one on the way, but it's hard for a woman to get all broken up over a man who spends most of his time and all of his money womanizing. And besides, Doña Luisa needed her rest. She was less than a month shy of her due date.

Don Pancho had it his way. He was put under with little ceremonia in approximately the same spot where he had taken his last breath, but he really didn't know what he was getting himself into. In Don Pancho's home state of Sonora, a man buried in unsanctified ground without the benefit of a priest saying fancy words over his body is known as a tiradito, and some tiraditos can perform miracles.

Meet the Author

Nina Marie Martínez was born in San José, California to a first generation Mexican-American father, and an American mother of Germanic descent. A high school dropout, she holds a Bachelors degree in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In addition to writing novels, she is also a vintage clothes enthusiast and dealer and an avid baseball fan. She currently resides in Northern California where she is at work on her second novel.

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