The historian John Charles Chasteen has brought a classic of Mexican literature from the late 19th century into English
Santa: A Novel of Mexico City
Federico Gamboa, translated and edited by John Charles Chasteen
2010, University of North Carolina Press
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
JOHN CHARLES CHASTEEN has brought to the English language what for Mexico was (for a while) the equivalent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Remaining taboo, but paradoxically also recommended as a classic moral tale, 1903s Federico Gamboa’s Santa tells the story of an innocent girl’s downfall after the man who under the promise of marriage gets her pregnant decides later to abandon her. Rejected by her family, particularly her big brothers, who consider her behaviour as an affront to the family name, she has no other choice than moving to Mexico City where she could not find a better way to make a living than to sell herself.
She soon turns into the most-popular courtesan in town, who grows bitter and cynic, and cashing on her beauty and hooked on the adulation this brings her, Santa rejects all chances for better-and-for-worst that life and her prestige offer her to quit the profession. Later, she turns to drinking, dies in the squalor, full of regret, with only the love of a blind best friend to see her back to the town of her sweet beginnings.
One can imagine one or two current celebrities going down the same route. Maybe they could pick this book for a change!
Federico Gamboa, a ‘Naturalist’, was one of the most important novelists of Mexico at the end of the XIX and beginning of the XX centuries. With Santa he managed to portray a vivid picture of the culture and morals leading to the Mexican Revolution, the wide spread expectations on gender roles at the time and individual corruption. For him Santa is a product of machismo, her environment and the social conditions of her time.
But like in the case of Lady Chatterley, Santa more of its critics (and readers) allude more to the sexual content, and not to the social comments made by the authors. Still the novel is highly enjoyable.
The novel became so popular that inspired the first ever Mexican sound movie made (Santa -1931), three other film adaptations and a popular song score by Agustín Lara. In 1978 Santa (the soap) was broadcasted in the high ratings, but only after the 10:00 watershed.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer