- by Michael Rickard II
Destruction and Diaspora: Life in "Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel"
Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Rickard II
Editor's Note:The border is a hot topic right now thus my class in borderland literature provided some insight into authors' thoughts on living between two worlds. Here is an essay I wrote on Emma Pérez' Loving Pedro Infante. Spoilers abound:
Helena Maria Viramontes’ Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel (“Dogs”) deals with the effect of ever-changing boundaries on individuals and culture, showing a microcosm of the borderland theme of displacement. Here, Viramontes shows the effects of a neighborhood mutilated by the construction of a highway, focusing on a group of individuals over ten years. The book’s often disjunctive storytelling simulates the effects of displacement including uncertainty and unpredictability. This ties in with the borderland theme of “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” as the residents’ community is taken without their permission and with no regard for the effects on them. This displacement destroys the traditional nuclear family and the community, with little chance of escape for its victims.
Viramontes’ novel is not easy to follow, but this seems to be a conscious effort to simulate the lives of the novel’s characters. Each character’s life is disrupted by the construction of the freeway and continues to be disrupted until the novel’s end, often with tragic results. The narrative can be confusing and Viramontes’ jumps back and forth in time, with the reader experiencing uncertainty what is going on and where they are, similar to the novel’s characters.
Dogs” explores the concept of the postmetropolis—Edward Soja’s concept of the postmodern metropolis. Dale Pattison’s article shows the impact of the postmetropolis on a traditional urban setting, “One of the chief features of the postmetropolis is the disappearance of an urban center, or a downtown district that functions as a hub for commerce, housing, and cultural production for the city, at large” (120). This can be seen in “Dogs” as the characters’ world is destroyed by the highway construction which divides and destroys portion of a once strong community. The destruction of the neighborhood disempowers its residents. As Pattison notes, “Erasing these sites of memory and co-opting the channels for necessary psychological and spatial production, the city enacts subtle, but powerful, institutional violence” (122). The neighborhood’s destruction leads to a diaspora, with both physical and mental consequences. Consequences include the destruction of the nuclear family, the loss of cultural identity, and mental health problems.
The traditional nuclear family is destroyed in “Dogs” with children raised by their grandparents, single parents, or even raised on the streets. Mirroring reality, the characters find surrogate families whether it’s siblings Luis Lil’ Lizard and Turtle finding attachments in a street gang, Ermila’s sororal bond with her girlfriends, Tranquilina’s devotion to her faith, or sister Ana’s almost motherly devotion to her troubled brother Ben, a situation caused when Ana and Ben’s mother disappears.
The theme of displacement is central in “Dogs” with characters unable to navigate their world as it is in constant flux. This often results in tragic consequences. For example, young Ben is sent into a store to buy sneakers, but the young boy is unable to navigate the world, confused about what to do and fearful of his father. The father has relied on the child’s mother for things such as buying clothes and has no idea how to interact with his son. Ben wanders the store, similar to how the novel’s characters wander the city in search of meaning and stability. Turtle finds herself displaced from her home, living on the streets and trying to escape the gang. Her chance at a job is destroyed when she immerses herself in drugs and forgets she is supposed to start a new job. Her drug-induced fog mirrors the fog the characters find themselves in thanks to the displacement caused by the freeway construction.
In “Dogs”, memory is often all that is left to remember, and memory is always a tricky thing. Pattison establishes the need to remember early on, “Chavela seems to realize the importance of preserving the memory of the blue house and its symbolic role within the community” (123). Chavela is shown to have had a long life in the neighborhood, with rich experiences that will soon be left to memory. Ermila does her best to remember Chavela, taking scraps of wallpaper from the house and burning her fingers with a cigarette left on a windowsill, but the destruction of landmarks, i.e. buildings, makes it difficult for memories to last.
Escape is seen as impossible in “Dogs” with characters longing to escape, but finding escape difficult to achieve. Luis tells Turtle of solace in New Mexico, but has no idea how to get away. Luis also finds escape from the city, but it is in the form of being drafted to Vietnam, a proverbial case of escaping the fryer and going into the fire pan. Nacho tries to escape the city, but is murdered before he can. Ben’s attempts to escape the department store caused by his father’s admonition not to “dilly-dally,” coupled with Ben’s lack of skills in purchasing a pair of sneakers, results in tragedy when Ben drags a child with him, resulting in the child’s death and Ben’s physical and mental injury. Ben’s life is forever altered by this escape attempt as he lives with the guilt of causing the boy’s death, but being credited with trying to save the boys life. While “Dogs” is ambiguous about whether Ben’s mental state already existed or was furthered by this incident, there is little doubt the postmetropolis has contributed to Ben’s problems.
Viramontes’ Their Dogs Came with Them provides powerful examples of how diaspora impacts people, focusing on a neighborhood level (as what takes place the novel), but providing an allegory for larger settings such as the displacement of Mexicans after the Mexican-American War. This diaspora destroys families and individuals on a mental, spiritual, and cultural level as seen with the novel’s characters and their bleak lives.
Pattison, Dale. "Trauma and the 710: The New Metropolis in Helena María Viramontes’s Their
Dogs Came with Them." Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, vol. 70 no. 2, 2014, pp. 115-142. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/547166.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel. Atria Books, 2008.