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Still Water Saints

Still Water Saints

3.3 3
by Alex Espinoza

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In the Latino town of Agua Mansa, the people flock to the Botánica Oshún seeking charms, herbs, and guidance from the shop's owner, Perla Portillo. Among her customers are a businessman dealing with the death of his father, an addict looking for peace, and a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself.


In the Latino town of Agua Mansa, the people flock to the Botánica Oshún seeking charms, herbs, and guidance from the shop's owner, Perla Portillo. Among her customers are a businessman dealing with the death of his father, an addict looking for peace, and a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
If the fluorescent lighting in the drugstore chains makes your head hurt and your eyes glaze over, rest assured that a cure is at hand. Just open Espinoza's beguiling novel, and enter the Botánica Oshun, a unique shop in a run-down Southern California strip mall, with remedies for a host of ailments.

The botánica is run by Perla Portillo, an older woman whose healing power was recognized years earlier by the shop's former proprietor. Eluding classification, the botánica carries a hodgepodge of religious, curative, and spiritual items, from rosaries to crucifixes, from statues of saints to oils, candles, and herbal remedies. But Perla's customers are what give it life -- their lives as varied as her wares. Can she help an overweight teenager who's be falling in love with the wrong boy? That seems manageable. Can she save a young, illegal Mexican immigrant who's fallen into dangerous hands? That will be much harder.

Still Water Saints offers up a slice of life we rarely get to see, a world where hope can trump despair and faith can trump science. Do Perla's cures work? The answer is elusive but a joy to discover, in this evocative and poignant debut. (Spring 2007 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
Perla Portillo, 72, owns the unofficial spiritual center of the Southern California Agua Mansa community: at Bot nica Osh n, she doles out relics, potions and sage advice to clients coping with death, wrestling with transsexual identity and seeking refuge from sexual predation. In telling their stories, Espinoza skillfully weaves together the alternating narrative viewpoints of Perla and her customers. Poignantly rendered are Az car, a transgendered dancer who is given an unexpected chance at motherhood while mourning the loss of a friend, and Rodrigo Zamora, a Michoac n teen illegal recovering from a traumatic crossing. Encroaching violence in the community shakes Perla's confidence in the talismanic power of her wares and words. The significance of her constant presence amid the changing situation is clear to many of her returning customers, but Perla must redefine her position within the community in order to find strength to change along with the world. The parade of affliction can get wearisome, and Espinoza, making his debut, doesn't quite bring Perla all the way into focus. But he handles the proceedings with a steady, well-rounded reportage that suits the story. (Feb. 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This debut novel by Espinoza (creative writing, Univ. of California, Riverside) chronicles a tumultuous year in Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town outside Los Angeles. For decades, locals have flocked to Perla Portillo's shop with an almost religious intensity, seeking charms, herbs, prayers, and candles. Among those Perla helps are Rosa, an overweight teenager trying to find herself; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Juan, who must come to terms with his father's death. The most intense story is that of Alfonso, an illegal immigrant with a disturbing and mysterious past. Perla becomes obsessed with him, in part because his situation forces her to confront her own unfulfilled dreams and concerns about her place in a rapidly changing world. Despite stellar endorsements by such esteemed writers as Sandra Cisneros, this novel follows an overworked theme: the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the human spirit. Reminiscent thematically of Joanne Harris's Chocolatand Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, this work unfortunately falls flat in comparison. Not an essential purchase.
—Sofia A. Tangalos
Kirkus Reviews
Kaleidoscopic portrait of a Southern California town whose nexus is an indomitable botanica owner. For about three decades, Perla has been running Botanica Oshun, which sells charms, votive candles, books and a host of Mexican folk remedies. At 72, she has no family to speak of-her husband is dead, and they had no children-but she has plenty of interactions with the people who (often tentatively) step through the door of her shop in a strip mall about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles. Tracing a year in the life of Botanica Oshun, Espinoza's debut shuttles between empathetic but unromanticized glimpses of Perla and snapshots of people who live in the neighborhood. At first her customers' concerns are relatively modest: Rosa badly wants to lose weight; Juan tries to come to terms with his mother, who seems to be mourning Elvis Presley's death more intensely than her own husband's. But the novel's tone and subject matter soon darken and intensify. A young woman attempts to expose her father's infidelities to her self-deluding mother. Two friends drift deeper into meth addiction after one hooks up with a bad-news girlfriend. And a 15-year-old male prostitute who's beaten and abused by his lover slips out of Perla's reach. Title notwithstanding, the novel doesn't try to sweeten, let alone sanctify, the troubled people it depicts. Perla is no saint, either; she's even skeptical about the usefulness of what she sells. Espinoza occasionally overworks the end of a chapter to engineer a big finish, but he demonstrates a deep understanding of his characters. Setting their lives against Perla's provides an inventive way to reflect the community's diversity as well as its shared needs. A well-craftedcollection of vignettes, neatly stitched together. Agent: Elyse Cheney/Elyse Cheney Literary Associates

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Still Water Saints

By Alex Espinoza

Random House

Alex Espinoza

All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400065399

Chapter One

Chapter 1
She could walk on water.

She roamed the banks of the Santa Ana, among the long green stalks, chanting to the moon, to the gods of Night and Shadow. She rose and stepped onto the river, her footsteps gently rippling the surface.

She summoned the spirits of the dead. They whispered their secrets to her, and she scribbled their messages on scraps of paper and in the margins of her phone book:

Tell Ramón the locket fell on the floor between the bed and the nightstand.

I'm all right. It's like Disneyland up here, only without rides.

I don't miss my ears because they were too big.

She fought the Devil. Every night he came to her, his head crowned with horns, his skin covered in scales. He cursed and called her names. She beat him back with her bare hands and sent him running, his cloven feet tapping against the tile of her kitchen floor.

She was a Bruja. A Santa. A Divina. A Medium, Prophet, and Healer. Able to pass through walls and read minds, to pull tumors from ailing bodies, to uncross hexes and spells, to raise the dead, and to stop time. When doctors failed, when priests and praying were not enough, the people of Agua Mansa came to the Botánica Oshún, to Perla. The shop sold amulets and stones, rosaries and candles. They bought charms to change their luck, teas to ease unsettled nerves, and estampas of saints, the worn plastic cards they carried in theirpurses or wallets for protection.

As thanks the customers brought her booklets of coupons and long strips of lottery tickets. They gave her fresh bouquets of roses and carnations. They showed her pictures of aunts and uncles she had helped see through heart surgeries and hip replacements. They brought in the children she had saved from drug addictions and prison sentences. They told her of the abusive husbands and gambling wives she had chased away for good. Men often grew uneasy in her presence. The women always opened up.

"I think I have bilis," Gilda Mejía said, walking up to the register where Perla stood. "Look." She stuck out her tongue. "It's all yellow. Plus my stomach's upset."

"What happened?"

"Where do I start?" Gilda rested her hands on the glass countertop. She rented an apartment over at the Agua Mansa Palms. Her brother and his new wife had moved in a few weeks ago, after he lost his job. The couple was making it hard for Gilda to relax when she came home from work because they were always in the living room watching television with the volume turned all the way up.

"You think they'd turn it down, but no. They're not deaf. And his wife. I can't stand her. The way she talks to my brother. And she's cheating on him. I see the way she looks at that guy from 312. There's something going on there." It was too crowded for three people in a one-bedroom apartment, she explained. Her brother and his wife fought well into the night, making it hard for her to sleep. She was irritable all the time, and her nerves felt ready to snap at any moment.

Simonillo was perfect to cure strong cases of bilis, to relieve tension and stress. Perla stepped away from the register and walked over to the packets of herbs that hung from pegs on the left wall of the botánica.

"I want you to make a tea with this," she said, handing the bag to Gilda. "Drink it on an empty stomach. It's bitter, so suck on a sugar cube or put some honey in it."

"Okay," Gilda said, handing over money for the herbs. "I just want to be better."

Perla took a blue seven-day candle from the shelves behind the register. She pointed to the picture of Our Lady of Regla on the glass candleholder. The Virgin, holding the infant Jesus, floated on a bed of clouds high above a cathedral. "Light this veladora before going to bed. Keep it lit all night while you sleep."

After Gilda left, Miriam Orozco's van pulled up. She got out, but her husband stayed in the car.

"Hi, Miriam. How can I help you?" Perla said.

"It's not me this time." She pointed to the van. "It's him. He's embarrassed to talk to you."

"Embarrassed? Why embarrassed?"

Miriam shrugged her shoulders. "Men. You know how they're like. Big babies."

Perla walked out into the parking lot. The car door was locked. "Talk to me, Jorge," she shouted and knocked on the window.

He rolled it down. "Hi," he said, resting his elbow on the door.

"What are you embarrassed about? Miriam says you don't want to come in."

Miriam stood behind Perla, jiggling the car's keys. "Tell her. Don't act dumb." She crossed her arms and sighed.

But Jorge stayed quiet.

Miriam said, "Here's what happened: Jorge went to a doctor who said he has depression. The pills the doctor gave him made his mouth dry. Jorge, tell her! You've missed work." Miriam walked over and leaned against the van's hood, watching Jorge through the windshield spotted with mud. "He doesn't touch me anymore."

"The doctor," Jorge said, raking his hair with his fingers. "He says I'm going through a midlife crisis. Menopause for men. Is that for real? I cry a lot. I'm no fun to be around. I can't look at my wife in that way. When we're in bed. Together. You know?"

"Come with me," Perla told Miriam. Back inside the botánica, Perla asked her, "Has he been eating anything strange?"

"No," she said.

The oils, bath salts, and scents were kept on the shelves next to the herbs and teas. Perla picked up a bottle of "Love Musk" cologne. "Has he been drinking?" She took a prayer card of Saint Job from the plastic rack on the counter.

"No," Miriam said. "He's been sober now for fifteen years."

"I'm only making sure. Have you been putting a lot of pressure on him? To do things? Around the house? Are you fighting over money?"

"No. Everything's good. Except for this."

They walked back out to the van together, and Miriam got in. Perla handed the bag to Jorge and said, "This is a cologne I want you to wear. It'll help you with your love problem. There's an estampa. Job." She showed him the picture on the card. "He's the patron of depressed people. Pray one Rosary to him. And I want you to keep taking those pills the doctor gave you. Even if they make your mouth dry."

"He's bad at following directions," Miriam said. "I'll make sure he does, though."

"Good," Perla said. "If he's not better, have him go see the doctor again. If still nothing, bring him back here."

Miriam started the car, took the rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror, and handed it to Jorge. "Hold this," she said as they pulled away.

Perla helped a man whose daughter was fighting hard to kick a drug habit. Someone else needed luck in starting up a new restaurant. An old woman Perla recognized but whose name escaped her memory brought in her grandson because the boy was wetting his bed.

"He's thirteen," the old woman said. "Too old to be peeing in bed. I think he needs a limpia."

"I don't wanna do this," the boy protested. He crossed his arms and glared at Perla. "It's stupid."

The old woman tugged at his shirt. "Stop it, Tony."

Perla took the sign that read BACK IN A FEW MINUTES and taped it to the door. She led the boy and his grandmother behind the counter and through the curtain that separated the front of the store from the back.

The small kitchenette, with the mini-refrigerator and microwave Darío had given Perla when he left her the store, occupied much of the cramped stockroom. The rest of the space housed three bookshelves about six feet tall on which Perla kept her back stock. The narrow hallway separating the kitchenette and shelves from the bathroom and utility closet was where she held private consultations.

Perla worked slowly to gather the items, trying to remember what Darío had taught her. "Limpias are delicate because you're cleansing a body and chasing away evil spirits," he had said. "So it's important to concentrate." He had used a cigar, feathers, and an egg. He had chanted and whispered, rocking back and forth on his heels.

She covered the floor with a sheet and stood the boy in the middle. She coughed when she took a puff from the cigar, then blew the smoke around his body, letting it drift and settle around his head. After beating the air around him with a gray plume she pulled from her feather duster, Perla told Tony to close his eyes. She took an egg from the refrigerator and rubbed it over his body and face.

"This is lame, Grandma," the boy said, then opened his eyes. "Can we go?"

Perla turned to the boy's grandmother. "There."

The old woman pointed to the egg. "Aren't you supposed to break it and look inside?"

"Oh," Perla said. "Yes." She cracked the egg and poured it into a Styrofoam cup.

"Tony," said the boy's grandmother, pointing. "See that red swirl? Inside the yolk? That's what was doing it. That there."

The boy looked. "Yeah, right."

His grandmother pinched Tony's arm, leaving two red marks on his skin. "We'll see what you say when it starts working."

Perla covered the cup with plastic wrap she kept on the shelf above the kitchenette's sink. "Throw this out before you get home."

"Why?" Tony said.

"Because if we don't," the old woman said, "the spirits will stay with you. So we have to get rid of it to lose them. Right?" She looked at Perla.


"So we're just gonna, like, throw that egg out the window of a moving car?" Tony asked. "What if it hits somebody?"

"Would you rather we not? Would you rather the spirits follow us? Keep making you pee in bed? All your friends will find out and make fun of you, Tony. And that girl you like. You want her to know?"

The boy blushed. "No."

"All right then," the old woman said. She took some money from her purse and handed it to Perla.

Perla walked them outside and found a group of customers waiting for her in the parking lot. She sold a "Quit Gossiping" candle to a high school girl and a jar of "Adam and Eve" love oil to a man who rode up on a ten-speed bike. Then Rosa Cabrera came in with her four-year-old daughter, Danielle. Rosa was one of Perla's favorite customers. She had been in high school when her mother had first brought her to the store. Now, she was in her late twenties, married, and taking classes to become a hair stylist.

Danielle's hair was pulled back in two pigtails that glistened wet. She wore faded denim overalls and a red-and-yellow-checkered undershirt. She held out three wild clovers to Perla.

"We came from the park," Rosa said. "When I told her we were coming to visit you, she picked them."

Perla stepped around the counter and bent down to hug Danielle. She took the clovers and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "They're pretty," Perla said. "Thank you."

She put them in a mug and set them next to the statue of Santa Bárbara to the right of the front door. The statue stood on a square pedestal, holding a gold scepter in one hand, a chalice in the other. Long curls of her brown hair rested in folds on her shoulders. Perla turned to Danielle and pointed at the saint. "I think she'll like them, too, no?"

The girl smiled and pressed her face against her mother's thigh.

"I need something to keep me calm. To help me focus. I have a big test coming up." Rosa pointed to the incense sticks by the herbs and teas. "Can I get cinnamon?"

Perla took the pack, then walked over to the register to ring her up. "How's school?"

"Good. Just a lot of things to memorize, you know?" She sighed, unzipping her purse. "Who knew studying cosmetology would be so hard?"

"It's worth it, though." Perla put the incense in a paper bag and handed it to Rosa. "You'll see."

"I hope so." She took Danielle's hand, and they turned toward the door. "We'll come by your house tomorrow. After my test. I'll let you know how it went."

Hayley Garrett burst through the door, nearly knocking Rosa and Danielle down.

"Envy," Hayley said, tucking back strands of blond hair and shoving her keys in her back pocket. "Someone has that envy thing for me. What you told this one man last time I was in here."

"Invidia?" Perla asked. "The Evil Eye?"

"That's what I mean. I was in the bathroom at work, in one of the stalls. I overheard this girl, Iris Camacho, tell someone else she hated skinny white girls. She said my name. She said 'I want 'em all to go away. They're so stupid.' Something like that. I didn't catch the rest because somebody flushed."

Perla thought a moment. "How have you been feeling? Tired? Anxious?"

"Well, I always feel that way."

"Has your period come on time?"

"Yeah." The girl smirked.

"Stomach feeling okay? No heartburn?"

"Nope," Hayley said. "I've been too freaked out to eat. Working two jobs is a lot. I lost ten pounds. Everything fits me baggy." She laughed. "This Evil Eye, isn't it like a curse? Maybe she cursed me, and that's why I'm not eating. That possible?"

Perla said, "Well, yes."

"Yeah. I think that's what she did. She cursed me." Hayley paused, then laughed again. "Maybe it's a blessing. I'm starting to look good."

"Losing weight quickly like that could do bad things to your body and your system."

Hayley touched her stomach. "Well, I guess it's not worth it then. All right, all right.


Excerpted from Still Water Saints
by Alex Espinoza Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, the youngest of eleven children. At the age of two, he migrated to southern California with his family and grew up in the city of La Puente, a suburb of Los Angeles. Earning a B.A. from the University of California at Riverside with honors, Espinoza went on to receive an MFA from UC Irvine, where he was the editor of the university’s literary magazine. He now teaches creative writing at UC Riverside. Still Water Saints is his first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Still Water Saints 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
_Still Water Saints _ is a powerful first novel. The author, Alex Espinoza crafts a beautiful braiding of stories, stories that delight, that break one's heart, stories that save lives--and this is what literature is all about. Perla is the bright flame woven throughout these stories. Espinoza develops this character beautifully and achieves this development with the other characters who come in contact with her. Espinoza's special hand at landscape reminds me of a painter--layer upon layer of sensory description that serves as another vehicle for readers to further understand this strange world these characters inhabit. Don't miss reading this book! Espinoza will take you where you haven't been before. I agree with Sandra Cisneros who wrote: 'Alex Espinoza's _Still Water Saints - is a cycle of tales as perfect as the beads of a rosary.' Orale! A Must-READ!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I did not ejoy Still Water Saints. I read half of it, slowly, hoping for something special to happen, before I deemed it not worth forcing myself to read anymore. The main character, the 'bruja', was somewhat likeable, but otherwise unengaging on the page. The different stories are clearly intended to have some sentimental impact and to intertwine, but are altogether deflated. The characterization of all the different inhabitants of the title location leaves much to be desired. Whatever the resolution was, I have to admit, I was not even interested enough to try to get to it. I felt bored and depressed throughout most of the story, and somewhat aggravated by how disjointed the flow of events in the stories was. It seems to be little more than a manifesto for poor, ordinary Hispanics in California and various sad circumstances that seem to befall Mexican immigrants. I would have given this book one star were it not for this new author's ability to write just well enough for me to read half of it and to have hope for a good book. But as I my '2' rating indicates, I was highly disappointed.