What It Takes to Get to Vegas

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Overview

What It Takes to Get to Vegas is an arresting novel of desire and ambition set among the gyms and street fights of East L.A.'s boxing hopefuls. Growing up, Rita Zapata knows her destiny is not to be a good girl. In a neighborhood whose heroes are made under the bright lights of the boxing ring, Rita attaches herself to the circle of wanna-be fighters in hopes that she'll meet her ticket to something better. At eighteen, she's earned the title "Queen of the Street Fighters." Then she meets Billy, an enigmatic, ...
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Overview

What It Takes to Get to Vegas is an arresting novel of desire and ambition set among the gyms and street fights of East L.A.'s boxing hopefuls. Growing up, Rita Zapata knows her destiny is not to be a good girl. In a neighborhood whose heroes are made under the bright lights of the boxing ring, Rita attaches herself to the circle of wanna-be fighters in hopes that she'll meet her ticket to something better. At eighteen, she's earned the title "Queen of the Street Fighters." Then she meets Billy, an enigmatic, passionate fighter from Mexico who begins systematically clawing his way to the top of the fighting heap. Their passionate connection gives Rita two things she's never had: a love that is real and respect in the neighborhood. From the alleys off Cesar Chavez Avenue to the carpeted suites of Caesars Palace, Rita learns exactly what it takes to get to Vegas, as Billy turns out to be the best thing that has ever happened to her - and the worst.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rita Zapata, the Mexican-American heroine of Murray's (Locas) beautifully written but patchy second novel about coming of age in East L.A. in the '80s and '90s learns early on that it's no blessing to look just like her mother, Lola, a woman born with a "face pretty enough to make other ladies mad." Abandoned by her husband, Lola shacks up with every hombre she can find in order to forget him. Rita, too, finds attention from men thrilling, and she sleeps with every would-be boxer in the neighborhood, earning herself the title "Queen of the Streetfighters." Things change when Billy Navarro, a boxer with real promise, shows up from Mexico, and Ruben Lopez, a former pugilist who once made it to the "Vegas Bigs," agrees to train him. Billy is the first man to recognize that Rita's meant for something "bigger and better than this place," and she seizes her chance to get there. Hanging onto Billy as he climbs to the top, Rita dreams of the good life that awaits her. "Who are the women with the most gold? Boxers' wives, of course." The unfolding of Billy's secret past parallels Rita's own quest for self-knowledge. Ultimately, Billy earns himself a shot at the title in Vegas, and his success brings Rita a brief moment of respect and acceptance from other women. Her dream isn't fated to last, however, and as she watches it collapse (after she catches Billy with another woman), the city's political tension reaches a boil and a riot destroys East L.A. The novel is populated by colorful, richly drawn characters who tell stories so fascinating that at times they detract from the narrative's focus, but nothing matches Rita's own fabrications. Everything she gains, she attains by deceit, and Murray never spells out a moral position, leaving it for the reader to decide whether Rita has taken responsibility for her actions and come to any true understanding of herself. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Murray portrays the rise and fall of Rita Zapata, known as the Queen of the Street Fighters in her poor and decaying East Los Angeles neighborhood. Rita is tagged as a girl with a reputation early on, and because it's too hard for her to fight her reputation she decides to live up to it. Rita's mission in life is decided after a chance encounter with Cherry Salazar, girlfriend to the most famous ex-fighter in East L.A. Rita decides that in order to have the life she wants she will need to hook up with a boxer--not just any old streetfighter but a champion. Two years later, Rita has been through all the talent at Ruben's Superbox, and her sister's successful romance with Rita's last-chance would-be champion freezes her. Seven years later Rita meets Billy and finally finds her ticket to Vegas. Murray (Locas, LJ 4/1/97) chronicles Rita's rocky relationship, her long-awaited arrival in Vegas, and the surprising consequences of her return in lively and colorful language to tell Rita's story, but that can't compensate for underdeveloped relationships and a lack of depth throughout. For larger libraries.--Dianna Moeller, OCC/WLN Pacific Northwest Svc. Ctr., Lacey, WA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Men will break your heart, but sisterhood is powerful in this uneven but arresting second novel by the author of Locas (1997). That's sisterhood as a blood relationship, not a political movement, though there are also echos of "brown female power" feminism in Murray's gritty tale of growing up scandalous in East L.A. For the most part, however, Rita Zapata finds the Mexican-American women in her poverty-stricken neighborhood quick to judge her a putana like her promiscuous mother. It's Rita's younger sister, Dolores, who saved her after she accidentally set her hair on fire as a teenager, who claims her heart and her fiercest loyalty—until Billy Navarro shows up. Rita has slept with most of East L.A.'s aspiring boxers (indeed, most of its men, period) in her search for someone on his way up and out who'll take her with him, and in Billy she finds not only a potential champ but a man who understands her. "You want better than what you got," he tells Rita, "You got dreams." For a while Billy seems to fulfill them. He takes her with him on his ascent to a title bout in Las Vegas, and his win gains her some grudging respect from "las girlfriends," even though they prefer the respectably married Dolores. But identity won through a man can be lost the same way, and Rita hits bottom around about the time Dolores's political activism indirectly gets her husband killed and riots in 1997 nearly incinerate the Hispanic ghetto. Murray has a sharp eye for the particulars of Mexican-American life, and her prose is juicily vivid. But there's a fine line between affirming the values of an ethnic subculture and reinforcing its stereotypes; Murray's hot-mama Latinas and their swaggering men seemperilously close to the latter. Readable and intelligent, though this writer of promise and ferocious energy needs to scrutinize her subject matter a little more deeply.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802137371
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.44 (w) x 8.47 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


The Fake Saint


    W e could hear them doing it down the hall. Us and the rest of the world, it turns out, because it was a hot spring night with weather so thick that everyone in East L.A. had left their windows wide open to catch a breeze that might blow in and cut through the molasses air. The house was colored with after-midnight shadows and creeping moonlight, but Mama and Mr. Hernandez were busy whooping and praying as the springs bucked and sang under their bodies, while church-going neighborhood women laid stiff as twigs in their clean clean beds and tried to stuff a pillow inside each ear.

    "I know what that is," my sister Dolores said. It was May 1986, and she was eleven then, and I'd just turned thirteen. "I know what they're doing."

    I hitched up on my elbows to hear better. Mama was laughing. "No you don't. You're a liar."

    "I am not." Dolores's head was under her pillow.

    "Liar."

    "I do too know." She peeked from under the pillow and shrieked. "They're making sex!"

    I looked out the bedroom window. There was the neighborhood pretending to sleep, the black houses like humped giants, the naked trees reaching up the same as praying padres. The red sundown was hid now, nothing left up there but blue moonglow.

    Mama's laugh floated into the street, making one of the houses finally flick on its electric eyes.

    Señora Montoya, done up in sponge curlers, swung open her frontdoor and threw a witch-shaped shadow on her front porch.

    "Putana! Hey, Zapata la putana! Cut out your fucking so we can get some sleep!"

    Her yelling made the other mujeres who'd been staring at their ceilings brave enough to switch on their lights and join in on the complaining. Pretty soon we had a row of those cat-eyed monsters staring right at us.

    "Lola Zapata! Shut the hell up!"

    And Mama, like to answer them, quieted her laughs down into low chuckles, then pitched a wild Siamese howl that must have perked up the ears of every tom for miles around.


    M ama always was braver and louder in the nighttime, especially when she had her hands on a man. The next morning, after Mr. Hernandez had gone home to his wife, she sat at the kitchen table in a red poly-silk robe that matched her manicure and smoked her second Marlboro Light sort of moody and quiet, like a Mexican Bette Davis but without the bitchy one-liners. She was a beautiful woman. Dark, with good skin and high bones and a mouth that could go without lipstick, but not much of a talker at that hour. I ate my Lucky Charms and Dolores had her Raisin Bran out of the plastic blue bowls we'd bought at our next-door neighbor's garage sale, and we might as well have tried to figure out Mama's thoughts from the smoke signals she was making as expect her to string more than ten words together. Still, even if we threw her simple questions she was too grouchy to give us the answers we wanted: when we asked her right then to take us shoe-shopping over on César Chávez Avenue, she just shook her head no.

    "You know I hate that place," she said, then lit up a third cig.

    Dolores looked at her. "But my sneakers are busted."

    "And I need sandals for summer," I said.

    "No."

    "Please, okay?"

    "Please, Mama?"

    "No."

    It took us two hours of whining to get her out the door, but as soon as we hit the streets I was happy. Back then I usually liked our town and could sometimes fool myself into thinking I fit in it; I liked walking through it, looking at it, thinking on how far it stretched and what was hid in its four corners.

    My piece of east was this big: wide and deep enough to fit a mess of hoboes, boxers, nine-to-fivers, nutso church ladies, trigger-happy con men, knock-kneed Catholic-schoolers, and a handful of sexy-walking women in a space about twenty-five miles back to front. Up on top is our old street, Fisher, a nice stretch of fixer-uppers decorated with dead lawns and chained-up dogs, and to the west there's Eastern Ave where the homeless tip back Bird in the shadow of the 710 Freeway. Down south there's the number streets where the super-low-renters squeeze five or six into kitchenette studios, and then turning to the east is Divine Drive, the richest block in town, where you'll find the church ladies who stay busy barking at their maids and polishing their silverplate.

    Some of the biggest action, though, was where we were walking to right then. After Mama got dressed, her, me, and Dolores headed down three blocks until we hit Chávez Ave, which is a straight black line that cuts all the way through the town like the Nile or the Styx, full of beggars and sinners dipping into the waters. César E. Chávez Avenue is that road that's named after el King César with the grapes and the marches. In L.A., there's this funny thing with naming the streets, everybody's got to see their hero up there on a sign like it means something. There's that big stretch of Martin Luther King Avenue by downtown, the Sun Mun Way in Chinatown, even the Anglos got MacArthur Place out in Oxnard. And when the Mexicans made a big enough stink we earned ourselves César Chávez Avenue running from Dodger Stadium all the way down to Monterey Park. Orale, the day they changed it from Brooklyn to Chávez, you'd think that we'd had a Second Coming or something, I remember how there was the biggest parade with the balloons and the beautiful mariachis and the neighborhood people standing out on the corners smiling, but walking there now alongside my silent mama, my sister with her flapping sneakers, and about a hundred neighbors, I knew that the street wasn't special because it got haunted by César's ghost. The place was great because it moved, with these slow-footed viejas gliding back and forth down the sidewalk, a purse snatcher streaking through the crowd followed by three thugs and a cussing churchie, and a couple sweet young things in spikes swaying past the display window showing the leopard prints that were all the rage that season.

    Chávez was the place for shopping: Anything you needed you could get on the Avenue. Feeling religious? Here on the corner of Arizona was the santos shop run by that spooky Señora Gallegos who'd read your palm for free. Hungry? Right next store was Rudy's Super where you could get the city's cheapest frozen chicken, and across the street Sancho's coffee shop sold two-dollar chocolate malts. Fashionwise, farther down you'd find Carlita's Fashions for sexy-girl dresses and Diamond Jeweler's for your two-carat cubics, but since we needed sneakers and sandals we went to Payless Shoes, where you could get half off on Reeboks and my favorite jelly sandals.

    "You coming in?" Mama said, holding open the door.

    I went straight for the new arrivals and sniffed at the tangy plastic shoes. Dolores was already by the sportwears. She wound up spending close to an hour trying on all the size-five sneakers until she settled on some white Vans. I picked out a jelly sandal in violet. Even Mama bought this wild pair of five-inch heels in fuchsia which the love-struck shoeman sold to her at an 80 percent discount. She was laughing when she teetered out of there, and was trying out the kind of Mae West walk that a woman can only work on that height heel, when we passed by a couple of Divine Drive churchies wearing the same poodle hairdos and eye-blinding diamonds.

    "Ay, look out," one of them said when they saw Mama, "here comes the home wrecker."

    That was the Widow Muñoz, a triple-chinned busybody who got the money for her pre-owned-Halston habit from her lawyer husband's estate. I guess she used to be a skinny looker with a lot of legs but by this time she'd turned into a retired matriarch who liked to dress up in name brands and run around judging and nagging everybody to death. The more dangerous poodle was the other one, her best and closest friend in the world as well as her next-door neighbor, Señora Hernandez, who we all called La Rica Hernandez, she had so much money. La Rica was a redheaded, Dior-outlet-wearing Evita Peron wanna-be, not to mention Mama's boyfriend's wife and the unofficial mayor of East L.A. Every big decision went through this woman first—not just where to hold the church bake sales or how many turkeys each family should donate to the homeless come Christmastime, but even what to do about the wayward wife with the gambling problem (she'd cut up all of Lucy Campos's credit cards with her kitchen scissors), or how to punish a borracho ex-husband who'd stopped making his child support payments (her and six friends had gone over to old George Medina's house and carried out all his stereo equipment and his two TVs). I knew La Rica had plans for Mama, too, who hadn't just bedded down her man but didn't care who on this green earth knew about it, either, so I was relieved when she only slowed in front of us, huddled up with her crony, sucked on her teeth, and said: "Get back, putana."

    "Nah, you get back, you old bulldog," Mama said.

    And then those two made a big show of staring at us sideways and stepping around us like we stank.

    Still, relieved or not, I did wish then that I hadn't made us come out there. Of course, I didn't feel like I fit in now, and neither did Dolores, who was pretending not to notice and was staring weird at the display window showing metallic loafers. But what was worse was watching Mama try to walk away from those churchies as though she was a fine señora, and like she didn't hear the Widow Muñoz saying bitch under her breath, because it was a real trick to step ladylike in those new fuchsia shoes. Just as she was trying to walk off without switching her behind, her heel caught in a sidewalk crack, and then there was a god-awful moment when she had to flap her arms around her head, lift up one foot, and balance on the other like a tightrope walker, just so she wouldn't go crashing to the ground. When the churchies finally passed us by she took off those shoes and slipped on her old cheapies, and didn't say one word the rest of the way home.


    M ama learned that balancing act from all the times she'd got knocked flat on her behind, but when she'd first come out to L.A. from Calexico she could get tripped up pretty easy.

    A few hours after we'd run into the churchies she took out some old pictures that she stored in a shoebox and looked at the one a stranger took of her when she'd been here for just two days. She did that sometimes when she got in a funk: sit on the living room floor with a scotch and spread out the snapshots on the carpet and make me and Dolores look at them with her. We didn't mind, though. We liked it.

    "Here it is," she said, picking the picture up. She was on her stomach, barefoot, flipping through the old black-and-whites and Kodachromes. "Now don't you think I could have been a Bond Girl? Couldn't you see this honey kissing Sean Connery?"

    "Who's Sean Connery?" Dolores asked.

    "Sean Connery was a Scottish guy who played Double-Oh-Seven," Mama said.

    We just looked at her. She stared some more at the picture.

    "But I don't remember ever seeing a Mexican Bond Girl," she said.

    I reached out my hand. "Let me see it."

    It was my favorite picture of her, and still is, but it took me until I was a grown woman myself to puzzle out the story behind her pretty face. It's a washed-color three-by-four glossy with a white border that's dirtied up with little-girl thumbprints from all the times me and Dolores took it out to look at our red-lipped Mama standing in front of a pagoda and grinning.

    She really was something. Just looking at her bubble hairdo and Peter Pan collar you could see that the girl was green. It makes you wonder: How'd a chica like that get on a Greyhound with just sixty bucks, then drive to a town where she didn't even have one tía or abuelito to call?

    Well, who knows. And I guess who cares when you got a face like that? What she saw in the mirror must have asked her, Why not you, Miss Thing? Go on and take your shot in the big city, where any pretty sucker can make it, if she lives through it. City's where they got con artists in leather-interior Caddys passing for fire-studio money men, and studio men hid up in their high-rises screwing the cherries they promise starring parts to. Not that Mama ever got to set foot in one of the high-rises, although she did wind up seeing her fair share of cowhide backseats. But back then she believed in it, the hands and feet pressed in concrete, the ice-cream counters where you're sure to be discovered while sipping a soda. And so there she was froze in 1967, fresh from the border town and posing outside Mann's Chinese wearing her best Barbarella bouffant and Rita Moreno smile, looking so fine you barely noticed that homemade skirt cut like a lamp shade, the clunker church-sale shoes, the Naugahyde handbag ugly as a dead dog. That takes some talent, too, because those off-the-bus Calexico clothes she was wearing must have stuck out sore in Hollywood. But Mama had what it took for Technicolor, I'd say. She had star quality.

    That's what she was going to be. A movie star. Could have been one, too, in another life. She had the knockout body, the husky cigarette voice. Even yard-sale clothes hung neat and tidy off her curves, and she walked slow and swivel-hipped, like she was made of money. She'd learned how to move from watching old black-and-white movies, copied the strut-your-stuff from Grable and Crawford, the slinky-cat from la Superloca Lana Turner, the make-them-cry from Monroe, but she was born with that face pretty enough to make other ladies mad. Same as me. I loved it when people told me I was just like her; I'd run to the mirror and smile at my lashy eyes, black hair, big wide mouth. But when I got older and a little bit smarter, I saw how they didn't mean it as no compliment. Good looks and a trip to Hollywood didn't bring my mama any luck. Didn't get her name on any marquees. Just gave her high hopes and a bad reputation.

    Neighborhood folks forever been saying Mama's a putana and even the God-fearing church ladies forget their love-thy-neighbor where she's concerned, but she wasn't nothing but a stripper for a couple years. Before she came to the city she'd been stuck in Calexico, California, the border armpit where all they've got is some cowboy bars, a third-run movie theater, and a fill-'er-up gas station for the blondie surfers passing through on their way to Mazatlán, and it's the kind of two-bit place where Mexican girls work a couple years behind a counter before they squeeze out a six-pack of niños and get old too damn fast. Not my mama, though. After she'd spent her early years feeding up on B-movie dreams she ditched her folks and hopped that Greyhound all the way to Sunset and Vine, looking out for Eastwood and Brando and waiting to get discovered by a big shot director while strolling down the street in her hand-sewn dress.

    And why not? Lightning had struck brown girls before. Bet you never knew Rita Hayworth was a hot dish of Spanish rice and beans, and then there's old Dorothy L'Amour, dressed up in that sarong and as dark skinned as an Aztec. It didn't hit Mama, though, and the Boulevard gets dark and lonely if you don't get picked up by that producer right away. She got hungry, then scared, and instead of heading back home she broke down like most pretty and proud things do. Started dancing at the Cathouse, this downtown stripper dub, and that's where she finally got famous for a while.

    They called her the Spanish Fly and fools from all over L.A. paid good money to drink watered-down whiskeys and feed her G-string full of dollar bills. She met lots of men that way, had her pick of deep-pocket gangsters who wintered in Palm Springs and boozer CEOs with money to burn. But she wasn't a hustler, at least in the love department. She didn't choose the one who could set her up nice, with minks and penthouses, a convertible and a checking account. Mama wound up falling hard for this love-and-leave road boy, a California Mexican trucker named Eddie D who came by the Cathouse once a month with roses and poems and a busy way in bed. The man was as fertile as a field, and seemed marriage-minded. He bought her a powder-blue suit and kissed her in front of a preacher before he knocked her up with us, but then one night he said he was taking a haul of eggs down to Barstow in his eighteen-wheeler and that he'd be right back in the morning. She never saw him again.

    "Mr. Romance," she said now, in our living room. She was still rustling through the shoebox and she'd picked up his picture. Mr. Romance was what she always called him. Her voice when she said it makes you think of burned-black Valentines and Don Juan devils with slippery hips and toothpaste smiles, but you wouldn't know he was a playboy just to look at him. The man was, to put it plain, ugly. The picture she held up showed a guy with a crop of black curls and a face that was kind of crooked in the nose and jaw; he looked like an old boxer who'd took too many hits.

    She was quiet for a minute, tapping her ash into a saucer. "Wonder where Mr. Romance is now, eh? Probably drunk. Or dead, maybe. I bet he died in that damn truck of his."

    I took the picture from her and looked at my dad's busted mug. I knew Mama was wrong but I kept my mouth shut. I was sure Eddie D was still trucking through the dust bowl. I knew this because I'd once seen him alive, right on our doorstep, but I'd never told her or Dolores nothing about it.

    I t'd happened the year before. He'd come by the house after school, dressed up in a red tie and black pants and carrying cellophane-wrapped flowers, but I'd seen that picture of him so many times I knew who he was right away.

    "Your mama home?" he'd said, then stepped back to give me the once-over. "Jesus, little Rita. Just like her. You should be proud you look so much like your mama. What about your sister, eh? Dolores? And Lola? Lola girl, you in here? Surprise, surprise. It's your old lover man come back for a visit, baby. Sweeping you off your feet."

    The dusk was coming in through the door, but Mama had still been at work. She'd lost her Spanish Fly moves when she birthed Dolores, and had been short-order cooking at Denny's ever since. I knew she'd bust a vein if she came home and found the man who'd put her behind that stove standing on her steps like a salesman and asking nosy questions. And I didn't like him much myself, either. He was peeking past me into the house, seeing the rat-colored rug, the flower wallpaper losing its stick, and when he stepped up close to get a better view I saw how his suit was patched and he was starting to sweat. So no way. Even at my age I could tell he was a con man, and I wasn't going to let him weasel in here and try to razzle-dazzle Mama and Dolores with his slick talk and his rayon tie and his supermarket roses. Before he could push his way through I opened up the screen, leaned over, and spit on his suede shoes, which were pinhole wing tips with rubber soles.

    "Go away," I hissed, wiping my mouth. "Get out of here. We all hate you." And then I shut the door on his wide eyes, bolted up the locks, and sung the theme song to the telenovela Maria de Nadie until I heard him shuffling away.


    "S hoot," Mama said now. "He sure was a charmer, though." I could tell she was feeling a little bit of the scotch because of how hard she concentrated on the picture, and then how she stared steady and not blinking at my sister. I put the picture back in the box. I was glad I'd never told her. In that whole year he'd never come back, which was proof that he wasn't nothing but a wolf in bargain clothes, anyways. And we had enough of those fools running around already, didn't we? Hoosh, our place was a halfway house for every dog in town who had an itch. That's why I kept my meeting Eddie D a secret. We didn't need another no-good jitterbugging in the bedroom and eating every damn thing in sight.

    Since Eddie D had split on Mama, she'd shacked up with every kind of hombre there is to try and forget him. We'd never know who'd show up in the kitchen at seven in the morning, dressed in his boxers and rattling through the fridge, looking for the coffee, coughing after his first cigarette. Could be the grocer, the mailman. The janitor from across the street. Only Mr. Hernandez, who worked in a bank, was more regular than most—every few months like clockwork. She never let him or anybody else stick around for long, though. When a few weeks had passed she'd get bored and snappy, start humming show tunes, and then buy a new pair of high heels. After that it wasn't too long before she'd shoved the poor bastard out the front door, got dressed, and set out to the Pink Lady, where she liked to get smooth-talked by the barflies. Those nights she would usually come back with a stranger, and Dolores and me would wake up to the sound of her stumbling drunk in the dark.

    But you didn't need no Ph.D. to know why Mama and her men never worked out. All you had to do was look at her right now, leaning her elbow up on the coffee table and staring at Dolores. She couldn't really forget her first love, even after a hundred one-night stands. Not with my sister around, looking like she does.

    Mama scooted over to her and cupped Dolores's chin in her hand.

    "Aw honey," she said. "You're so pretty, just like your daddy."

    Dolores shook her head. "I'm not pretty."

    Mama was right in one way, though. Dolores was short and thick and crooked with a heap of curly hair, and sitting there, surrounded by those old pictures and watching her and Mama sprawled out on the rug and smiling at each other, I thought again about that flimflam man who'd stood on our porch and tried to hustle his way into the house. It was true—my sister was a copy of him: She'd been a chip off the old blockhead ever since she was born.

    But only on the outside.


    T here was once a miracle in our neighborhood. It happened a few months after our trip to Payless for summer shoes. A sharp-dressed stranger named Mr. Quiñones had moved a couple blocks down from us three months before, and by the fourth or fifth day we'd had him figured for a check-washer or a drug dealer because he didn't seem to do anything for a living besides sit on his front porch in zoot-suit pants and an undershirt and toss back beers. He seemed harmless enough, though. Quiet. Pretty much kept to himself.

    But that Saturday morning we all woke up breathless to the sound of that Mr. Quiñones hollering out the rosary, and when we looked out our window we saw him running down the street barefoot with the whites of his eyes showing and his bathrobe flapping wild behind him.

    "HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE," he's yelling.

    Afterwards we heard what happened. Mr. Quiñones, never mind the porch beers, called himself a religious man. He told anybody who'd listen he took a plaster Mary with him everywhere he went, so as to do his prayers. But that morning, when he'd gone to kneel, confess, and kiss the cross, he'd looked up and instead of staring into Her all-forgiving but chalk-dry face, he saw how She was crying real living tears.

    Well, all us had to go and check that out, of course. It isn't every day you hear about a miracle north of the border.

    So we went. On Sunday Mama pulled out her finest black head lace and made me and Dolores wear our blue dresses and white tights, but we didn't get one block down before we were already standing in line. Every mujer, niño, and even a number of dragged-along men from the neighborhood had skipped church to see the sign and bring an offering. There was old Widow Lopez with the dead arm that curled like a bird claw, and next to her was the half-deaf Widow Perez. Farther up, I saw the neighborhood crazy Panchita Sanchez wearing a bathrobe and chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, and Lupe Salinas the beautician with the red beehive. And up in front the huge-butted Divine Drive ladies—La Rica Hernandez, the Widow Muñoz, and their friend Señora Miranda—were busy flashing their quarter-pound cubics and smacking at their giggling, hiccuping hijas so they'd hush.

    We all marched up slow, past the sinking houses and winking cats curled up on the driveways. Past the chain-link fences that had split in half and rusted gold-red. When we got closer I saw Mr. Quiñones standing in front of his open door waving so folks would go inside, and there were viejas spilling out that same door waving their hankies to the sky and bawling and hollering like TV Baptists. Then it was our turn. We got one minute each. Mama wanted to go in alone and when she came out she was whooping into her black lace the same as the viejas. Next it was me and Dolores, and we went in together, holding hands, to get blessed by la Virgen.

    I'd never seen nothing like Her before.

    She was three feet tall and standing in a back corner of the messy kitchen, all white and gold and flickering shadow, with Her eyes closed, Her head bent, Her stone-pale hands stretching up. The shades were down and She was circled by glowing candles, so it looked like She was swimming in sun-colored water. She was surrounded by a truckload of presents, too: gold- and pink-wrapped boxes done up with satin ribbon, fruitcakes, bottles of tequila, jars of red jam, a dish of cold tamales, and, most of all, money. There were lots of fives and tens stuck between Her white fingers, but some of the rich churchies had left crisp fifties and even hundreds spread out at Her feet, anybody could guess who. Me and Dolores just had one dollar each. I reached up to give Her mine and that's when I felt it, what we'd come for. Mary's hard cold face was leaking warm water and it spilled on my skin.

    "Dolores! She's crying!"

    I squatted down, trying to remember my Hail Marys, but my heart was beating triple time from the hand of God reaching into this little kitchen and all I could remember were the words to "Feliz Navidad." If He could make plaster of paris cry, what else would He do? Turn me from flesh and blood into salt? I was whooping now myself the same as Mama, the same as the viejas, and trembling all over with the holy fever and religion. Dolores was calm, though. She held on to her dollar and stepped up to la Virgen, pressing her face close to Her face like she was trying to breathe in Her living breath or hear the Word whispered from Her mouth, but then she turned to me and started saying something that didn't make sense.

    "What?"

    "It's fake. Look at these holes in the eyes where the water's coming out."

    I stayed where I was, blinking in the glowing dark. Dolores was fussing around now, digging under the presents, poking behind the Mary. Then she stooped down and snooped under towels thrown on the floor, and saw how they weren't dumped there careless, but on purpose, because they were hiding a green snake that was crawling under the back door.

    She picked it up. It was a garden hose, hooked up under the hollow Mary and pumping the miracle tears from a backyard faucet.

    Mr. Quiñones started calling to us. "Okay, girls, let's get a move on in there."

    Dolores covered up the hose again quick, then looked at me with jumping eyebrows.

    "We've got to tell somebody," I whispered. "You got to tell them."

    She reached up to snag my dollar from between Mary's fingers. "Yeah, I'll tell Mama."

    But when we went back outside she put the dollars in her pocket and watched the believers carrying on like a holy circus full of sister freaks speaking in tongues and shuddering with the faith. The Divine Drive ladies fell all over each other with the weepy hugging and scripture quoting, even while their hijas bit their nails and their husbands stuffed their hands in their pockets and shot looks at each other. The viejas had lost their heads, too, because Widow Perez started yelling I CAN HEAR YOU at the Widow Lopez, who stretched out her claw and hollered that she was healed. Even two clear thinkers like Lupe and our mama were shaking like grass while Panchita Sanchez smoked furious, grabbed hold of Mr. Quiñones, and sang out "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

    Then Mama looked up at us and smiled beautiful. She held her hands out and we ran to her, hiding our faces in her skirt.

    "Did you see it?" she asked. I held my breath.

    Dolores sucked on her lip for a minute, then nodded her head and shut her eyes. I closed my eyes too and smelled Mama's warm skin, and then both of us listened to the sound of Mr. Quiñones calling out to the new crowd of suckers lining up, Come in, come in, come on in.


    L ater I asked her, "Why didn't you say nothing?"

    We were in the front yard, watering the lawn. Dolores put her thumb over the hose mouth and sprayed a rainbow over the grass.

    She shrugged. "I don't know." She kept watering while I ran in and out the rainbow. She did all the grass and the gold-brown hedges and even sprinkled the neighbor's dirt lawn. Then she turned off the water and stood there with her toes turning in and looked at me. "Because they'd be sad?" she said.

    I nodded. "Yeah, they would have been sad you told them."

    But they found out anyways. The next week one of the husbands got up the nerve to tell their wife that the whole thing was a phony, and so La Rica Hernandez and her army of Divine Drive ladies went and busted up the house with broom handles and baseball bats and ran Mr. Quiñones out of town.

    He still made out pretty good, though. Later we put our minds to it and figured he must have robbed the neighborhood of more than two thousand dollars, not counting the dollar of mine that Dolores had been smart enough to snatch back from that Virgin's cold, stiff, thieving fingers.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2008

    This book made me think of the real things in life

    This book makes you think so much about the real things in this world. I knowing what it is to live in a place in East L.A knows that these things in life really do happen. This story shows how a girl can make and manage her mistakes. But no matter what she stays strong and does what she thinks is right. This book talks about everything which is what I look for a lot in a story. I just completely felt in love with it and just couldn't stop reading it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2002

    enthralling

    a very true to life story of a woman who feels she must bed the best to come out on top, she goes after the bext boxers in town and when she finally meets billy everything changes for the better (and worse).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2000

    Rita Delivers a TKO to Sexism, Insecurity, Et al and ends up in the real Vegas

    This book has been bubbling up in my head for days! I will simply add to what has already been said. Rita is reality, people. First, the story itself is fantastic! But the added joy of reading a novel that simply does not enter in one eye and exit out the other is largely a result of the high level of writing. This writer is putting out some powerful imagery, that blends and blurs issues of race, class, gender, and culture just to name a few. I take issue that the author is simply adding stereotypical latinos from East LA. In the story numerous characters are not gang-bangers. In fact, Rita's sister is totally opposite from her, unlike Rita she is strong and a real leader. If anything, Ms. Murray's legal background is precisely why she is able to fashion a novel of such complexity and depth. Initially I was intrigued with Rita, later I hated her and in the end I cared for her because I was challenged by her condition to ask...why?

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