By Kari Heil
La Perdida (2006) by Jessica Abel is a graphic novel for grown-ups. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, La Perdida might pleasantly surprise you. If you’ve never given this type of book a try because you assumed that it was just for kids or super-geeks, maybe now is the time to let go of that old idea and pick one up for the first time. I guess a lot of people think “comic book” when they hear “graphic novel,” but La Perdida is not silly or light, nor is it action-packed or terribly violent – no “BLAMO!” word bubbles here. And, unlike many of the comic books people are most familiar with, La Perdida does not depict any superheroes, fantasy creatures, robots, or space aliens. It’s a book about a young American woman, Carla, who moves to Mexico to discover her roots. In Abel’s book, the combination of pictures and dialogue is a really cool and effective way to convey emotions, as well as details of plot, setting, and character.
The novel’s title means “Loss” in Spanish, which captures the sense of the story perfectly. La Perdida is an account of Carla’s attempt to claim her Mexican heritage and her ultimate failure to live what she thinks of as an “authentic” life in her father’s home country. She wants to live like other Mexicans, but she can’t shed her inborn privilege as half-American. She remains an outsider in Mexico, despite her strong desire to belong.
When Carla arrives in Mexico City with her hiker’s backpack, Frida Kahlo braids, and huaraches, she is happily blinded by idealism about working class people and what living within her meager means in Mexico will entail. It’s not as wonderful as she thought, being poor in Mexico City. But it turns out that it’s somewhat better to be American and poor in Mexico City than Mexican and poor in Mexico City. Carla becomes an English teacher for students who barely can scrape up enough money to pay for lessons. She is helping her students, but unintentionally, she also is taking advantage of their desire to succeed in a world dominated by the United States, its language, and its economy. Guiltily, she realizes that this isn’t exactly the role she would choose for herself, but it’s a role that’s available to an American woman in Mexico.
Growing up in the U.S. with her mother, Carla came to love Mexican culture and history, though she rarely saw her father or visited him in Mexico. For years, she idolized Frida Kahlo. When Carla, now a young adult, moves to Mexico, a new “political” friend convinces her that Kahlo and her artwork are kitschy and have been co-opted by cultural capitalists to make money off of idealized notions of Mexican and peasant culture. Carla’s own complicity with distasteful commercialism dismays her so much that she tears up a cherished poster of Frida.
Carla’s loss is complex and many-layered. She doesn’t lose her Mexican heritage, of course, but she loses her illusions about it and sees Mexico more fully, more realistically, in all its beauty and its ugliness. In the end, she even loses the freedom to choose to live in Mexico when she gets deported back to the U.S. for her involvement in illegal drug-related activities. The fact that she is never allowed back in Mexico leads Carla to reflect that she feels like an exile, though she lived in Mexico only a year or so, overstaying a tourist visa. Abel doesn’t preach an anti-drug platform or moralize in any way, but La Perdida does not at all glorify drug selling or drug use, either. Instead, Abel shows how being around drugs can cause pain and move people further from their dreams rather than closer to them.
La Perdida is built mainly on dialogue, and Abel includes “subtitles” for some dialogue in Spanish in the first chapter. From the second chapter on, she “translates” the Spanish into English for readers. But interestingly, Abel still sprinkles Mexican Spanish idioms and slang into the dialogue in English because she feels those particular words are important and lend flavor to the story. There simply are no direct translations for those words. I mostly used context clues to figure out the meanings of those words as I read. But, luckily for me and other readers who don’t know Spanish, Abel also included a glossary at the end of the book to define and explain unfamiliar terms. I read every entry with relish because I didn’t want the book to end and I was hungry for more of Carla’s Mexican experience.
In La Perdida, the language is rich, the pictures are exciting to look at, and the story of one person’s search for identity is meaningful, even for those of us who don’t count two cultures in our heritage. Abel’s story of one individual not quite figuring out who she is gives us all a glimpse of the importance of self-knowledge.
For the Kiddos
Recently, my 7-year-old daughter and I re-read an old favorite, Ox-Cart Man (1979) by Donald Hall, illustrated by the wonderful Barbara Cooney. If you think you might enjoy feeling warmly nostalgic for a kind of pure, close-to-nature, farm-based, pre-industrial living that most of us never have known, this book is for you. Truly, Hall’s simple, poetic narrative and Cooney’s detailed yet dreamy watercolor pictures kind of almost make me wish, for a moment, that I lived on a remote farm with no modern conveniences and made my own candles and linen. It’s that good a book, and I recommend you read it with your children.