Book Review: ‘Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer,’ by Jamie Figueroa

Book Review: ‘Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer,’ by Jamie Figueroa

By Jamie Figueroa

Not so long ago you could travel to other landscapes, peopled with men, women and children who might not look like you, who might not speak your language, who seemed to have been created just so you could build memories. When you’re a tourist in someone else’s home, you’re there to get away from your own life, to preserve and post images of your adventures and experiences on social media, proof that you’re curious about the world and that you can still have fun. To you those foreigners — preferably wearing traditional dress or an approximation of it, their bodies adorned in patterns and textures you find charming but wouldn’t wear yourself once you touch down at home — are there to fill holes in your life so deep you don’t even see them anymore.

It is you, dear tourists, whom Jamie Figueroa addresses in her debut novel, “Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer.” Her otherwise third-person narration is sometimes spoken directly to you, guiding your gaze with injunctions like “Don’t take your eyes off her,” pointing out what you might otherwise either deliberately or subconsciously ignore: the performers forced by economic circumstance to amuse you, the shopkeepers who sell what they can’t afford to own. The residents of these “exotic” places know they don’t exist for you unless they’re right in front of you, in a shady plaza in a mesa surrounded by mountains, waving their arms, singing, strumming, dancing, begging for your attention. But Figueroa — who describes herself as “Boricua by way of Ohio,” and now lives in New Mexico — knows those picturesque people have lives as complex as yours, with fewer resources to help them cope. She sees them. And, be warned, she also sees you.

“Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer” packs a lot of story into just over 200 pages. The titular siblings, Rafa and Rufina, are in their late 20s and mourning the recent death of their mother, Rosalinda. To support themselves they dress in colorful costumes made by “the Explorer” — the white man who invaded their home when they were children, peddling out their talents for his own profit — and pose as living statues in the plaza of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas. A basket at their feet receives the crumpled bills of visitors, who ask no questions about what has brought these brown individuals to pretend they’re not human in the plaza dotted with cottonwoods. The tourists do care, though, whether they can snap a selfie.

All their lives Rosalinda, Rafa and Rufina have been caught in the maelstrom of history, unable to affect it but scarred by events far beyond their ability to control or comprehend. While pregnant with Rafa, Rosalinda escaped “a country that wanted all of her kind dead,” and made it into this one (which remains unnamed) thanks to the humanitarian work of the Grandmothers to All, a commune of elderly women who “rescue women in need. Because aren’t women just an extension of the natural world?” Safely across the border, she tries to make a life for herself and her children — born 20 months apart by different fathers — and to leave behind her pain, with mixed results. Well into adulthood, her children are still trying to make sense of her erratic, often disturbing behavior. Even once she is gone, Rosalinda’s ghost haunts the house, kicking doors, breaking dishes, rattling cutlery. Rafa, devastated by her loss, considers suicide. Rufina can’t handle her brother’s break from reality, but she can’t just let him go. So she challenges him: If they can make enough money over a weekend performing at the plaza, he will leave Ciudad de Tres Hermanas and live on an island, where he has always been happiest. He agrees, reluctantly, and they return to the plaza, Rafa playing a guitar without strings, Rufina singing, poorly, about a lost baby. A white husband and wife stop to watch the performance, Rafa and Rufina’s “earnest seduction,” and deem the sadness and poverty “part of the charm.”

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