Book cover: American Chica

This month, Our Daily Lives features the story of a woman with a dual identity–American and Peruvian. The child of an American mother and a Peruvian father, Marie Arana was raised with two cultures. In telling her story, centered on her parents’ difficult marriage, Arana describes a feeling of incompleteness and confusion belonging to both, but not entirely either, nationality. She illuminates the class and racial tensions in Peru and in America, how they are similar in their color scheme, but different in their undertones. Arana is the editor of the Washington Post Book Review.

In this excerpt from “American Chica,” Arana has just entered an American school in Peru and has pretended to read English poorly in order to be placed in a Spanish-speaking classroom.

There is a story they tell in Cajamarca about four sons from an honorable family that knew the value of honesty, the pleasures of hard work, and the worth of a job well done. The first son set out to build houses. The second became a general in the army. The third founded a bank. The fourth went east and made hats. Time passed, and the hatmaker fell in love with a green-eyed woman. He asked her father for her hand. But, as fate would have it, her father rejected him. It wasn’t only that the commerce of straw hats wasn’t grand enough. The suitor’s skin wasn’t fair enough, his eyes not clear enough, his language not elegant enough, and, to seal the rejection: Of all his brothers, he was told, he had the least clout.

The hatmaker wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was intent on winning the green-eyed lady. First, he took stock of his situation. There was nothing he could do about his shade of skin, the brilliance of his eyes, nor the cleverness of his tongue, but he certainly could do something about his clout in the world. He swindled a mansion out of his first brother; he killed the general and took over his men; he kidnapped the banker and created an empire. And when he was done, the green-eyed woman was his.

So what is the moral of this story? The answer out of Cajamarca is: Do what you can. You can’t change the skin, can’t fix tongues, brighten eyes, but power is for the taking. Steal it, lie for it, kill if you have to. You can win the girl with the interesting eyes.

Looking back, I understand what was happening–though I certainly didn’t understand it at the time. Mother had made a bargain with Papi: He could take the risk of resigning from grace and joining his brothers, he could even put us in a smaller house, but the first cut of his salary would go to the Roosevelt School, and her children would be educated as Americans. She hadn’t factored in the realities of that decision. Roosevelt was where the prosperous Americans were. It was where the sons and daughters of diplomats, industrialists, bankers went to be schooled. Had I continued to be a little princess of the Grace regnancy, I might have had some currency there. As it was, we had become children of diminished circumstances–we never said so, never complained–but the knowledge that we had lost our power did not come without its consequences. My instinct was the Cajamarca instinct: Do what you can. Get it back.

I had no power among rich Americans. I could fool them, however. Trip them up. Dodge their game. I would lie for it, cheat for it, dance fast if I had to. I would get the girl with the bulgy eyes.

Marie Arana is a Washington-based feature writer and the editor of The Washington Post Book World. She has served on the board of directors of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Book Critics Circle. This is her first book.