Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short story collection is about Latinas and their indigenous roots in the American West — a history almost completely missing from the canon of American Western literature. For Fajardo-Anstine, Sabrina & Corina is also a form of historical preservation and a way to bring to life the folklore and stories that she heard growing up.
The book, which recently already went into its second printing after its April release, is a journey through the in-between of Latinidad and American cultures in Colorado, where she was born and raised. In the mid-1800 western Colorado was one of seven territories ceded to the U.S. for $15 million after the Mexican-American War. In 2015, there were more than one million Hispanics living in Colorado, according to Pew Research Center, making up 21 percent of the population.
Fajardo-Anstine’s family had been in the West for generations when the cultural shift began, shortly after the border moved and the indigenous community slowly evolved into an amalgam of these two Americas.
“I was inspired to write fiction that honored my cultural group, making us more visible in the mainstream,” Anstine told HipLatina. It’s that thread that connects her to her ancestors, that brings their stories to life on these pages, brimming with magical elements and allusions to nature as an entity itself. The women are portrayed with strength as enduring as the Colorado mountains, their spirits rooted in their indigenous heritage, their beings blossoming in the deserts of the American West, in this case the northern New Mexico/ southern Colorado region. These are not just 11 stories of fiction, they are odes to the generations of women that laid the foundation upon which the resilient and poderosa Latinx women of today built their lives.
Fajardo-Anstine began writing the book ten years ago but the topics she confronts are timelier than ever, specifically violence against women and gentrification. The story “Sisters” — set in the 1950s — explores the idea of marrying a white man for stability and how one of the sisters, Doty, is adamantly against that notion which results in a brutal moment of violence that has a life-long effect. The man presumably never has to deal with the consequences and she doesn’t say a word, an all too common occurrence according to data. Nearly half of domestic violence goes unreported, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and an estimated 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (excluding sexual harassment) though some studies estimate it can be upwards of 70 percent. When someone tells Doty she was lucky it wasn’t worse, she replies: “No one says anything about it at all.”
“To me, literature provides a space where I can safely ask questions — why does society often display such violence towards women? What happens to women who come from generational trauma? How can we love those who also harm us?” Fajardo-Anstine asks. “In my work, I am not sure if I provide any answers to these questions but… I hope I have in some way expanded a reader’s empathy.”
Within its 209 pages, readers will encounter several opportunities to do just that with every story, in some way, dealing with death. However, the presence of death throughout the book was not intentional, according to Fajardo-Anstine.
“I must be truthful and admit that I do not choose my themes — my themes choose me. I have been drawn to death and art about death since I was a child. I attribute this to many factors — Catholicism, Dia de Los Muertos, honoring ancestors who have passed, the great violence that has in many ways defined the American West,” she says.
The titular story “Sabrina & Corina” dealt with loss and trying to reconcile the past with the present in the evolution of a relationship between primas. At one point, Corina recalls the tragedies that have affected the women in her family for generations and realizes that what her cousin wanted most was to “be valuable.” In a sense, this applies to all the women in the book, who find themselves navigating a new, gentrified land in search of or discovering their value with their heritage acting almost like a balm for their pain.
The fictional place of Saguarita is home base for some of the stories and is inspired by the San Luis Valley, a region in south-central Colorado. But the gentrification she depicts draws from reality: On average, a greater number of Hispanics are being displaced in neighborhoods in Denver, experiencing the most rapid gentrification than in any other major U.S. city, according to a report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
In “Galapago,” Fajardo-Anstine writes: “Since the newcomers had started moving to Denver, they’d changed the neighborhood names to fit their needs, to sounds less dangerous, maybe less territorial.” She jokingly refers to her style of writing as “Rocky Mountain Gothic” but considering her allusions to death amid the American West and its violent history, it’s an apt descriptor. Among the authors in the back of the book that praised the novel is Sandra Cisneros who states “How tragic that American letters hasn’t met these women of the West before, women who were here before America was America. And how tragic that these working-class women haven’t seen themselves in the pages of American lit before.”
These women battle generational trauma and find that among the antidotes available to them, sometimes it’s best to go back to basics in the form of indigenous medicine. In “Remedies,” a character named Clarisa lists various holistic remedies she learned from her great-grandmother Estrella, who learned them from her own grandma in a pueblo in northern New Mexico.
“I am interested in the ways we are able to heal ourselves from the earth and how that is a form of ancient wisdom,” Fajardo-Anstine explained.
Estrella shares a story about a great-great-aunt named Milagros who used herbs too often and her lustrous hair — which made her more attractive to suitors — choked her to death. The lesson? “Vanity is risky.” It’s stories like these that Fajardo-Anstine grew up listening to courtesy of her mother who is an artist and storyteller. Both she and her mother “share a strong desire to document, retain, and further the study of our heritage and ancestors in the Southwest” and that was the intention that led to the stories in this book.
“I hope [they] offer an account of the American West, both urban and rural, from an indigenous Latinx perspective. I wrote this collection to present the American West as I know it, a populated urban center with skyscrapers, universities, homelessness, gentrification, a legacy of racism, and an on-going historic cycle of boom and bust… My region is one of great beauty, but it is also a place of great destruction, where violence cuts into the landscape as much as the people. Still, the West survives and that endurance informs my work,” she said.