Let Their Spirits Dance

( 2 )

Overview

Let Their Spirits Dance is the moving story of a family's journey across America. Thirty years after the death of the family's son and brother, Jesse, in Vietnam, the family has remained in many ways locked in a time of grief and pain. Having heard her son's voice, Alicia makes a vow to touch his name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and her decision inspires her warring children, along with hundreds of strangers across the country.

Stella Pope Duarte portrays a...

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Overview

Let Their Spirits Dance is the moving story of a family's journey across America. Thirty years after the death of the family's son and brother, Jesse, in Vietnam, the family has remained in many ways locked in a time of grief and pain. Having heard her son's voice, Alicia makes a vow to touch his name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and her decision inspires her warring children, along with hundreds of strangers across the country.

Stella Pope Duarte portrays a family struggling with the universal scars suffered by all who have been touched by death through war. In this powerfully evocative novel, Pope Duarte connects family, friends, and an entire nation with the names on the Wall, honoring the men and women who served in Vietnam as well as those who watched and waited, but never forgot.

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Editorial Reviews

Victor Villasenor
“Stella Pope Duarte’s novel is utterly alive and feels absolutely true! The characters and the story had me hooked!”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“A delightful, heartening first novel.”
Victor Villasenor
"Stella Pope Duarte’s novel is utterly alive and feels absolutely true! The characters and the story had me hooked!"
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“A delightful, heartening first novel.”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
"A delightful, heartening first novel."
Publishers Weekly
A cross-country trip to the Vietnam Wall is the subject of Let Their Spirits Dance, Stella Pope Duarte's tearjerker of a first novel (Fragile Nights, a collection of short stories, was published in 1998). Elementary school teacher Teresa Ramirez is skeptical when her ailing 80-year-old mother hears voices telling her to make a pilgrimage to touch her son's name on the wall, but the whole extended Ramirez family and assorted friends set out to drive to Washington, making a name for themselves along the way. Duarte's narrative is meandering, but the density of the detail she packs in gives the novel emotional clout and historical depth. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Duarte's first novel is an inspirational road book full of energetic Latinos exorcising their cultural, political, and personal demons. A fortyish schoolteacher, Teresa is failing at her marriage and is haunted by the memory of her beloved brother, Jesse, who was killed in the Vietnam War 29 years ago. One night, Teresa's mother hears Jesse's voice, which tells her to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Then surprise, surprise she finds out that the government owes her $90,000 because it had mistakenly delivered her son's body to the wrong address. Despite poor health, Mrs. Ramirez rounds up Teresa, her other children, and friends and heads to the nation's capital by auto caravan. The press picks up on their junket and follows them through American towns large and small. As they near the memorial, the mother takes sick but not before meeting Jesse's Vietnamese wife, his son (raised in America), and his grandchild. Duarte's considerable talents shine in the entertaining travel sections, but red-flagged plot devices and an excess of cultural and historical apposition about Chicano history undermine the narrative's complexity and aesthetic enjoyment. Recommended for collections of Latino literature. Harold Augenbraum, Mercantile Lib. of New York Fuentes, Carlos. Inez. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Duarte (stories: Fragile Night, not reviewed) skillfully treats the wounds inflicted on a Chicano family by the war in Vietnam. The death in battle of young Sgt. Jesse Ramirez during the Tet offensive of 1968 broke the spirit of his Arizona family. The eldest of four children and the favorite of his sister Teresa, narrator of this unpretentious and moving story, Jesse was adored by three generations, none of whom completely recovered from his loss. Three decades later, Teresa is a grandmother and elementary schoolteacher on the brink of losing her career after a catfight with her estranged husband's girlfriend. Her siblings' lives are as messy if not messier. Baby brother Paul, who's been in and out of jail, has lost custody of his brilliant son Michael. Younger sister Priscilla can't get over the loss of a child. And now Teresa's mother, in poor health and widowed after years with an openly unfaithful husband, tells her daughter that she's heard Jesse's voice in the night. She informs Teresa that Jesse wants her to go to Washington to touch his name on the Vietnam Memorial, that she has promised to do so, and that it is more or less up to Teresa to make it happen. Quickly. There's no doubt that the trip will occur or that the ending will be emotional. What keeps Duarte's story from tipping into the dangerous swamps of ethnic sanctity, magically realistic plot rescues, or made-for-TV simplicity (and the wheels get frighteningly close to the berm from time to time) is the author's formidable skill in rendering a large family whose Mexican Indian past has shaped, toughened, and, occasionally, handicapped them. No one's a saint here, not even the grandmothers who set up altarsevery night to the Virgin of Guadalupe. These old ladies are as tough and as dominant as their Calabrian or Bengali counterparts, and their children nurse youthful slights long into adulthood. Still, an enviable core of good humor and loyalty prevails. Intelligent, unpretentious, and appealing. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060089481
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/4/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 953,850
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Stella Pope Duarte began her literary career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father related to her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her first collection of short stories, Fragile Night, (Bilingual Review Press, 1997) won a creative writing fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and was named a candidate for the prestigious, Pen West Fiction Award. In 2001 Ms. Duarte was awarded a second creative writing fellowship for her current novel, Let Their Spirits Dance. (HarperCollins, 2002). HarperCollins has described Duarte as a "major, new literary voice in America." Ms. Duarte’s work has won awards and honors nationwide, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in Literature. Let Their Spirits Dance is on the Book Sense List, and was awarded the AZ Highways Fiction Award for 2003, and nominated as a ONEBOOKAz in 2004. Ms. Duarte won the 2003 "Excellence in Latino Arts & Culture," Award, presented by Valle del Sol. In 2004, she received the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for an excerpt from her current work in progress, The Women of Juárez., and in 2005 she was awarded the "Outstanding Alumni of the Year," by the American Association of Community Colleges. She is a highly sought-after inspirational speaker for audiences of all ages, on topics related to her work, as well as on issues related to: women’s rights, culture, diversity, leadership, education, literacy, Chicano/Latino history, writing, and storytelling. Ms. Duarte was born and raised in la Sonorita barrio in South Phoenix.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



1968



The passion vine bloomed until late November the year Jesse died. Amazing. Every morning I walked out on the rough slab of concrete that led to the wooden trellis leaning against the side of the house to check for blossoms. Warm September days in Arizona fueled the vine's growth, and the cool days of October should have signaled it to stop. Still, in 1968, truth was suspended in midair, and the passion vine forced blooms into the cold, gray days of November. Each blossom lived one day. All that beauty for just one day.

Early missionaries saw the mystery of Christ's passion in the flower's intricate design. The petals symbolize the ten apostles at the Crucifixion, the rays of the corona are the crown of thorns, the five anthers the wounds, the three stigmas the nails, the coiling tendrils the cords and whips, and the five-lobed leaves the cruel hands of the persecutors. The flower was fully open, a purple-white disc, translucent in the gray dawn. Dewdrops shone on the petals. I felt around the flower's delicate stamen, feeling pollen under my fingertips; the petals felt thick, rubbery. The smell of dead leaves, wet earth, and moist wood hung in the air.

I shivered in my flannel nightgown and bare feet. My face felt numb. I knew my nose was turning red. The evergreen tree in the front yard and the skinny chinaberry tree growing by the woodshed glowed in the early morning light. Across the street, Fireball, the Williamses' rooster, crowed. El Cielito, my old barrio, was coming alive — awkwardly, like a dinosaur rising to itsfeet.

I spotted Duke, our old German shepherd, walking toward me from the backyard. Jesse had named our dog Duke for the song "Duke of Earl" that we practiced dancing to in the living room. We made the old 45 go round so many times the needle cracked. It was worth it, because all our dips and spins matched perfectly, and Jesse felt so good about his dancing he even asked Mary Ann to dance with him at his eighth-grade graduation party.

Jesse said Duke was seventy-seven years old in dog years. That was two years ago. Poor Duke, no wonder he was walking so slow, dragging around over seventy years of chasing cats and cars. He padded toward me in silence, yawning once. Seeing me there was no surprise. Duke picked a path parallel to the water hose that ran along the hard-packed earth to a row of hedges that grew against the chicken-wire fence, separating our property from our neighbors, the Navarros.

Duke came up to me, brushing along the side of my leg. He nuzzled the hem of my nightgown with his wet nose. I saw patches of bald spots on Duke's brown back, and his tail wagged like a melancholy pendulum between his back legs. "Good dog," I said patting him. "Sit, Duke. Sit here." I pointed to the spot next to me. Jesse had taught Duke how to sit, jump on lawn chairs, retrieve a baseball, and scare the mailman.

With Duke at my side, I stared at the tangled passion vine and through its spidery web of stems and leaves at my mother's bedroom window, blocked off from the outside world by curtains that had faded in the sun. I knew my mother was in her room crying. Crying was all my mother did after Jesse was killed in Vietnam.

I hardly recognized her anymore. I had grown used to every expression of her face, all the ups and downs of her eyebrows, and the way the tiny wrinkles on her chin smoothed out when she smiled. I couldn't describe her face anymore. I didn't want to. I had to make myself stop wanting to hear her sing in the mornings while she made breakfast for me, Priscilla, and Paul, got coffee ready for my dad, and clattered the dishes around until we all got up. I couldn't even talk to Jesse about it, this whole worry about my mom, unless I went out to the passion vine.

I knew my father wasn't in the bedroom with my mother. How could he be? He could only take so much of her tears, then he pulled back, retreating into his own thoughts, into the circle of smoke made by cigarettes he forgot to finish smoking. He let his coffee, café con leche, get cold. Cigarette ashes got all over the kitchen table. When he felt the cigarette burn his fingers, he put it out in one hard motion in the ashtray, then he gulped down more coffee, but he wouldn't go back into the bedroom with Mom. My parents lived in the same house as strangers long before Jesse died.

There was more between my parents than Jesse's death. There was Consuelo. Since I could remember, Consuelo's name was whispered, shouted, and swept out of our house over and over again, and it reappeared, a spider's web stubbornly clinging to a dark corner of the living room. The spider's web stood up to blasts of air spewing from the swamp cooler that made wheezing sounds when the humidity was up. It was a reminder to me that Consuelo was there, entangling us in a web of lies and shame, holding us captive, hexing my father, Tía Katia said, with his own photograph and a pin pushed right into his heart.

Anger was a balled fist between my breasts. It made me want to rip the passion vine apart, reach for my mother right through the glass, and make her stop crying. No one was around except Duke, keeping guard. It was too early for El Cielito's winos to begin their morning trek down the alley to the liquor store. It was two hours before I had to catch the bus to Palo...

Let Their Spirits Dance. Copyright © by Stella Pope Duarte. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Table of Contents

1968 1
El Cielito 5
Solitary Man 17
Tlachisqui 31
Private War 39
Miniature Islands 45
El Ganso 51
Jimenez Elementary 59
Two Doors Gospel 65
Yoloxochitl 77
La Manda 87
Parallel Universe 95
Rothberg 105
El Nino Comes Through 111
Sacred Meal 119
"Bendito" 129
Gold of Asia 137
Pilgrims of Aztlan 147
Changing Landscapes 159
Brown Berets 167
Chicano! 171
Albuquerque 183
Los Griegos 193
Penitentes 201
El Gato 207
Yellowhair 213
Time Warp 221
Blue Doors 229
Little Saigon 237
Deja Vu 241
Thom 255
Stable Light 267
Crossing El Rio Salado 273
Frederick 285
The Wall 291
Epilogue 311
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First Chapter

Let Their Spirits Dance
A Novel

Chapter One



1968



The passion vine bloomed until late November the year Jesse died. Amazing. Every morning I walked out on the rough slab of concrete that led to the wooden trellis leaning against the side of the house to check for blossoms. Warm September days in Arizona fueled the vine's growth, and the cool days of October should have signaled it to stop. Still, in 1968, truth was suspended in midair, and the passion vine forced blooms into the cold, gray days of November. Each blossom lived one day. All that beauty for just one day.

Early missionaries saw the mystery of Christ's passion in the flower's intricate design. The petals symbolize the ten apostles at the Crucifixion, the rays of the corona are the crown of thorns, the five anthers the wounds, the three stigmas the nails, the coiling tendrils the cords and whips, and the five-lobed leaves the cruel hands of the persecutors. The flower was fully open, a purple-white disc, translucent in the gray dawn. Dewdrops shone on the petals. I felt around the flower's delicate stamen, feeling pollen under my fingertips; the petals felt thick, rubbery. The smell of dead leaves, wet earth, and moist wood hung in the air.

I shivered in my flannel nightgown and bare feet. My face felt numb. I knew my nose was turning red. The evergreen tree in the front yard and the skinny chinaberry tree growing by the woodshed glowed in the early morning light. Across the street, Fireball, the Williamses' rooster, crowed. El Cielito, my old barrio, was coming alive -- awkwardly, like a dinosaur rising to its feet.

I spotted Duke, our old German shepherd, walking toward me from the backyard. Jesse had named our dog Duke for the song "Duke of Earl" that we practiced dancing to in the living room. We made the old 45 go round so many times the needle cracked. It was worth it, because all our dips and spins matched perfectly, and Jesse felt so good about his dancing he even asked Mary Ann to dance with him at his eighth-grade graduation party.

Jesse said Duke was seventy-seven years old in dog years. That was two years ago. Poor Duke, no wonder he was walking so slow, dragging around over seventy years of chasing cats and cars. He padded toward me in silence, yawning once. Seeing me there was no surprise. Duke picked a path parallel to the water hose that ran along the hard-packed earth to a row of hedges that grew against the chicken-wire fence, separating our property from our neighbors, the Navarros.

Duke came up to me, brushing along the side of my leg. He nuzzled the hem of my nightgown with his wet nose. I saw patches of bald spots on Duke's brown back, and his tail wagged like a melancholy pendulum between his back legs. "Good dog," I said patting him. "Sit, Duke. Sit here." I pointed to the spot next to me. Jesse had taught Duke how to sit, jump on lawn chairs, retrieve a baseball, and scare the mailman.

With Duke at my side, I stared at the tangled passion vine and through its spidery web of stems and leaves at my mother's bedroom window, blocked off from the outside world by curtains that had faded in the sun. I knew my mother was in her room crying. Crying was all my mother did after Jesse was killed in Vietnam.

I hardly recognized her anymore. I had grown used to every expression of her face, all the ups and downs of her eyebrows, and the way the tiny wrinkles on her chin smoothed out when she smiled. I couldn't describe her face anymore. I didn't want to. I had to make myself stop wanting to hear her sing in the mornings while she made breakfast for me, Priscilla, and Paul, got coffee ready for my dad, and clattered the dishes around until we all got up. I couldn't even talk to Jesse about it, this whole worry about my mom, unless I went out to the passion vine.

I knew my father wasn't in the bedroom with my mother. How could he be? He could only take so much of her tears, then he pulled back, retreating into his own thoughts, into the circle of smoke made by cigarettes he forgot to finish smoking. He let his coffee, café con leche, get cold. Cigarette ashes got all over the kitchen table. When he felt the cigarette burn his fingers, he put it out in one hard motion in the ashtray, then he gulped down more coffee, but he wouldn't go back into the bedroom with Mom. My parents lived in the same house as strangers long before Jesse died.

There was more between my parents than Jesse's death. There was Consuelo. Since I could remember, Consuelo's name was whispered, shouted, and swept out of our house over and over again, and it reappeared, a spider's web stubbornly clinging to a dark corner of the living room. The spider's web stood up to blasts of air spewing from the swamp cooler that made wheezing sounds when the humidity was up. It was a reminder to me that Consuelo was there, entangling us in a web of lies and shame, holding us captive, hexing my father, Tía Katia said, with his own photograph and a pin pushed right into his heart.

Anger was a balled fist between my breasts. It made me want to rip the passion vine apart, reach for my mother right through the glass, and make her stop crying. No one was around except Duke, keeping guard. It was too early for El Cielito's winos to begin their morning trek down the alley to the liquor store. It was two hours before I had to catch the bus to Palo...

Let Their Spirits Dance
A Novel
. Copyright © by Stella Pope Duarte. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Plot SummaryThe Ramirez family, living in El Cielito, a Chicano barrio in South Phoenix, suffers the loss of their son and brother in Vietnam during the Tet offensive of 1968. Thirty years after her son Jesse's death, Alicia Ramirez, now approaching her own death, "hears" his voice one night, and his "friends." She recalls that before boarding the plane to Vietnam, Jesse had assured her that one day she would hear his voice again. Unknown to her, Jesse had secretly told his sister, Teresa, that he would not return, but that someday she would read about him in a book. Adding to the mystery surrounding Jesse's death is a prophecy proclaimed by Don Florencío, El Cielito's Aztec seer, that Jesse would return "in a new form." Alicia later connects the voices she heard to a photo of the Vietnam Memorial Wall shown to her by her daughter, Teresa. She realizes that she is being called to the Wall, and makes a promise, una manda, to reach the Wall before her death to touch her son's name and honor his memory. Teresa, a newly divorced school teacher now living with her mother, tries to dissuade her mother from making the journey insisting that there is no money for the trip which will be made by car, as her mother refuses to board a plane. Alicia's faith in God's providence proves correct, as the family receives an unprecedented amount of money owed to them by the military due to an error in the handling of Jesse's death. Eventually, the entire family including Jesse's younger brother Paul, an ex-con, his flamboyant sister Priscilla, his wiz kid nephew Michael, Irene one of Alicia's friends from the sisterhood of the Guadalupanas, Jesse's vet friends, and people they invitealong the way, join them in their journey across America. Michael sets up a web site for his grandmother and engages the family in speculations of universal parallels that "jump into our orbits and start traveling with us." The entire nation is caught up in the journey of the Ramirez family, connecting with their suffering, loss, faith and love that reaches beyond the grave. The family comes to realize that unanswered questions about Jesse's death will be revealed at the Wall. Stella Pope Duarte's stunning debut novel portrays the universal suffering caused by war while honoring the men and women who served in Vietnam, and those left behind who watched and waited, but never forgot. Questions for Discussion
  1. How does Alicia Ramirez's "call" to journey to the Vietnam Memorial Wall open up family wounds and unresolved conflict? What are some of the struggles the family faces? How has Jesse's death changed each family member?
  2. What circumstances, both social and political, lead to the turmoil of the story's setting in the '60's? In what ways is the structure of the Chicano family threatened by war and discrimination?
  3. To what extent does Pope Duarte use the theme of Teresa's near drowning to uncover the Chicano's sense of helplessness during the Vietnam War? How does this theme connect to what happens at the Chicano Moratorium demonstration in 1970 and the killing of Rubén Salazar in east L.A.?
  4. In what ways does faith shape the journey to the Wall? How do belief in El Santo Niño and La Virgen de Guadalupe contribute to Alicia's confidence, and Teresa's changing attitude towards the unknown?
  5. How does Alicia's promise, la manda, fulfill itself, and in what manner does it affect family and friends? What characteristics do the doñas, Alicia and Irene share in common? What characteristics do the Vietnam vets, Chris, Willy, Gates, and Yellowhair share in common?
  6. How does Pope Duarte handle the theme of betrayal by men as it relates to Teresa's life and that of her mother? On a larger scale, how does betrayal happen during wartime? What types of betrayal did the soldiers fighting in Vietnam experience?
  7. What is the importance of Jesse and Don Florencío's prophetic messages in revealing a timelessness in the story that transcends earth time? What other dreams, prophecies and premonitions occur? What is their purpose? How do Michael's speculations about universal parallels and the movement of light draw on this theme?
  8. In the first page of the novel, the passionflower is described as depicting the suffering of Christ. How does the theme of suffering continue to surface in the novel? What does Teresa learn about the suffering of indigenous peoples, and the possibility that if "We're pursuing (pain), does that make us more powerful than pain?" How is the flower, yoloxochitl, identified with suffering?
  9. In what manner does Pope Duarte link the ancient custom of human sacrifice and the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, to the modern-day custom of drafting young men to war? In what ways was the Vietnam experience different for men of Chicano/Latino descent?
  10. Don Florencio believed in Aztlán as the birthplace of the Mexicas, or modern-day Chicanos. What reflections does Teresa make throughout the novel that are related to the search for Aztlán? What is the meaning of her statement, "Are we moving closer to Aztlán, or did we already pass it by?"
  11. What are the similarities between Palmira, the curandera, and Don Florencío, the tlachisqui? How do their powers help Teresa and her mother?
  12. In what manner does guilt play havoc in the lives of the characters? How is guilt linked to practices of the religious cult of penitentes in Albuquerque? What does Chris reveal about his own guilt as related to Jesse's death?
  13. What does the Ramirez family learn about America on their cross-country trip? What does the nation learn about them?
  14. What information is revealed in Jesse's letters about the Vietnam War? What attitude has Jesse formed about the Vietnamese, and most specifically about the woman he loved? When does he show a premonition of his own death?
  15. How is Jesse's character revealed in Chris's explanation of how Jesse died? What do we know about how battles were fought through Jesse's experience?
  16. Altars play a prominent role in the novel. What meaning do they have for Alicia and Irene? How might the Vietnam Memorial Wall be described as an altar? What is the significance of the term "America's wailing wall"?
  17. How is transfer of la manda done from Alicia to Teresa? What occurs between Teresa, Priscilla and Paul after their mother's death? How is each changed by the journey?
  18. The uniting of Chicano and Vietnamese families at the end of the story creates a new understanding of how pain is suffered by both sides. What are some of the factors that kept Thom alienated from Jesse for so many years?
  19. At the end of the story, Teresa reflects, "I've learned not to doubt the impossible." To what, specifically, is she referring?
About the Author: Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in la Sonorita barrio in South Phoenix. She began her writing career in 1995 after a dream in which her deceased father related to her that she was destined to write. She holds a B.A. in education from Arizona State University, and an M.Ed in Educational Counseling. She has been awarded two creative writing fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for Fragile Night (1997), her first collection of stories, and for Let Their Spirits Dance (2001). In 2000, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Literature.
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  • Posted June 26, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    LOVED THIS BOOK I live in Phoenix so this book was interesting

    LOVED THIS BOOK
    I live in Phoenix so this book was interesting to me, I was born & raised in Southern California in a very large Mexican family so I could relate to this story, parts are so true to my own family and parts made me laugh out loud. I've given this book as a gift to my sisters, cousins and aunts and they too laughed, related to so many parts and LOVED it! I also highly recommended to my friends here in Phoenix.

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    Posted May 23, 2011

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