I don’t read very many memoirs. I think the last one that I read that made a strong impression on me was Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, by Dorothy Allison, required reading for my “Prose by Women Writers” class in undergrad, and I’m not even sure that counts as a memoir (I seem to recall a class discussion in which it was mentioned that the veracity of the work was in doubt). But my mother gave me an autographed copy of Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America in 2010, and it has waited patiently on my shelf since then for its turn in the spotlight. So let’s give credit where credit is due.
It’s fitting that Farmworker’s Daughter should have been a gift from a mother to a daughter, because the most constant thread weaving together the childhood and adolescent memories of Guilbault is her mother’s love and understanding. This love and understanding is rarely a focus for one of the book’s chapters, but it gets mentioned at several key points in the memoir as a sustaining force for Guilbault. In both Mexico and California, Guilbault portrays herself as calling out from the social margin, and without her mother, one gets the sense that Guilbault would not have had any place in the world at all. Life in this margin is painful for her time and again, as she is misunderstood, minimized, and feels pressure to conform to social norms she has no say in. And yet Farmworker’s Daughter is also a story of agency, particularly feminine agency.
Many of the key lines of dialogue in Farmworker’s Daughter make use of Spanish – presumably Mexican Spanish, I do remember from my high school classes in the language that there is a difference. While I appreciated the choice to not translate terms into English in order to strive for authenticity of experience and culture, I did get frustrated a few times because I didn’t have a Spanish/English dictionary on hand, wasn’t near a computer terminal and don’t like making use of that type of application on our mobile phone. I ended up making use of context clues several times because my Spanish vocabulary from those high school classes is pidgin at this point. Imagine my forehead-smacking surprise when I got to the end of the book and found a glossary of every Spanish term that had been used! It would have been nice if the editors had either included a prominent note at the front of the book advertising the existence of the glossary, or gone more academic with the formatting and included some footnotes or endnotes like I did for my thesis. By the time I was aware of the glossary’s existence, it was pretty much useless for me. Next time I read a book that is similar in format to Farmworker’s Daughter, I will make sure to check for a glossary right at the get-go.
But sitting in her class the first day of school, I found it difficult to imagine the diminutive woman as the terror of San Lorenzo Elementary School. She must have been in her late fifties. Short and plump, she wore her gray-streaked hair in a coiled braid around her head, adorned with Spanish combs, her one pretension. Her wardrobe consisted of pleated skirts topped with long, colorful vests. The look was decidedly ethnic at a time when ethnic was not chic. (Guilbault 85)
Guilbault’s background in journalism is very evident in her writing style, particularly in her use of visual description, her balance of diegesis vs. memesis. She knows that the reader craves the “showing”, the vivid details that paint pictures in the imagination, but she also recognizes that there are many pieces of information relevant to her life story that will only come across in the “telling.” So she balances the two principles expertly, giving frequent visual descriptions of characters and scenes that bring her memories to life, but avoiding fiction’s trap of floridity and effusiveness – she never goes on for a full paragraph about a woman’s hat, for example (as I once heard a fantasy/sci-fi reader who had been burnt by the novelist Robert Jordan claim that author was wont to do). Guilbault chooses her details effectively and like any good journalist she loves words because of their power to convey information, not for their own sake. I enjoyed her style very much, but I don’t know if it would have worked well for me with a longer work (Farmworker’s Daughter clocks in at 189 pages, including the glossary). For books that go on for more than 200 pages, I prefer a more literary style that mixes the prosaic with the poetic.
The theme that comes up time and again in Farmworker’s Daughter is the question of conforming to norms and expectations. The norms of Guilbault’s extended Mexican family do not conform to the norms of her nuclear Mexican American family, and neither of those sets of norms mesh well with the norms adhered to by Guilbault’s Anglo schoolmates. Guilbault feels isolated, set apart and different from the people she cares about in every context. The stepfather that she adores as a child when her mother works at Aunt Rafaela’s restaurant and bar, Guilbault eventually loses respect for; the girls that she want to befriend inevitably disappoint her, let her down or flat-out disappear. While Guilbault’s love for her mother remains constant, it is a quiet background force in the book, which makes sense because Guilbault’s mother was far more isolated than Guilbault herself for most of the length of the book (Guilbault’s mother never learns English, or how to drive a vehicle, and spends most of her time several miles out of town at the family farmhouse, whereas Guilbault gets to attend school). It is clear from the “About the Author” page at the end of the book that Guilbault achieved many things in her life after the years she recounts in this book as her ‘growing up’ time. Another word that I have heard used for these years in a person’s life is “formative”. What would she have achieved, I wondered as a reader, if she had felt like she truly belonged somewhere during this time in her life? Guilbault never speculates about this.
I recommend Farmworker’s Daughter to anyone who enjoys memoirs, nonfiction feminist writing, or journalism that deals with diversity and immigration. I would not recommend it to people who do not enjoy realism in their readings, or who require heightened drama in order for a work to hold their attention. Guilbault’s story of social tensions in 20th century California demonstrates that a well-written account that documents real life can trump a poorly-written flight of fancy any day of the week. I especially enjoyed the chapter that contained her and her mother’s subtle support of the work of Cesar Chavez.
Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.