This is a gem of a book, exquisitely produced and poetically written. No surprise that the author is an award-winner.
Lucía Zárate is the poignant story of Mexican-born Lucía Zárate. At 20 inches tall and just four pounds in weight she remains world’s smallest woman. She made her debut at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. For a few short years, when performing midgets were a popular entertainment, she was the toast of America and England for her coquettish singing and dancing performances.
The story is mostly told through the voice of Zoila, Lucía’s madrina (godmother) and self-appointed protector who educates and cares for the tiny person as though she were her own. Zoila is a wonderful figment of Velástegui’s imagination – she is from Paplanta, the vanilla-growing region of Mexico, rich with tales of the wrath of the chaneque (evil spirit). Recognising that Lucía was clever, Zoila taught her English and educated her in current affairs, but mostly she cared for her. Her charge had a feisty temper, a sense of her own worth and a love of beautiful clothes and jewellery.
The story is one of the exploitation of the vulnerable with the connivance of poverty-stricken parents, ruthless managers and agents taking advantage of their charges and currying favour with the press. It is full of period details and locations, a seedy backstage look at the front-of-house glamour.
The text is sprinkled with real people of the time – there’s an identifying asterisk against these names – such as P. J. Barnum, the American showman who employed Lucía for a short time; Tom Thumb, the tiny man who became a millionaire and committed suicide, the Prince and Princess of Wales, the American president. Reading, you hope against hope that the outcome will be happy – that Zoila will realise her dream of spiriting Lucía back to Mexico…
A pleasure as the book is to read, in my opinion it would be improved with tighter editing, cutting out repetition, and correcting the few typos.
San Francisco Book Review
Star Rating: 5 / 5
With Lucia Zarate, award-winning author Cecilia Velastegui has woven a beautiful tale of the late1800s, when superstition still abounded and life was both freer and far more dangerous. It was a time when that which was strange and unusual was exploited for profit. It was into this world that our eponymous Lucia Zarate was born. She was a tiny thing, standing the height of a two-year-old though she was twelve.Effectively sold by her family to a “Yankee” agent, Lucia was destined to travel around the world that people might gawk at her diminutive frame. In her home region, Lucia was considered to be “chaneque,” one of the wee folk said to be mischievous river sprites. Truly, it was better for her family to send her abroad.
The story is told mostly from her guardian, Zoila’s, point of view, and it is with her circumstances that we begin. Aged twenty-five and unmarried, Zoila is put in rather dire straits when her father dies and his webof lies becomes exposed. As an interpreter and vanilla-trader, he had brokered double-sided deals and breached his own supposed code of linguistic ethics, making promises that would never be kept. When he died, he owed a substantial amount, and that taint passed to Zoila. With the death of her one friend and secret love, Felipe, and being considered a top suspect in a murder she had nothing to do with, Zoila is sent all the way to Veracruz, where she is lucky enough to discover a unique position that would make use of her sharp mind, her cleverness and knowledge, and the many languages her father taught her. In short, she would travel with Lucia, being her chaperone, to keep her safe and to teach her.
At first Zoila desired to abandon Lucia once in the US. After all, getting to the States had been Zoila’s primary concern. Upon seeing the treatment Lucia received, though, she stayed on. Years passed in the sideshow circuit, with Lucia touring first with Frank Uffner and later with PT Barnum briefly. She traveled throughout the US, UK, and Europe, meeting queens, presidents, and other important figures. Lucia became rather full of herself and had numerous conflicts with other troupe members. She was incredibly extroverted, possessed of a playful nature and sharp intellect. A decade passed thus, and her prestige slowly waned. She died shy of age 30, not far past Donner Pass in California, like that ill-fated party so long before, victim to theSierras’ fearsome winter weather.
Velastegui has woven a most interesting biography, full of rich, lyrical imagery. I had never heard of Lucia Zarate and found her life fascinating. Insights into just how grueling sideshow work was floored me. These people were treated to terrible conditions and crude mockery as if they were not human at all, at times. They were poked and prodded as “medical curiosities” and “missing links,” called freaks and made to entertain audiences for a pittance while their so-called managers raked in cash.What petty beings are we…
Not only did I learn of Lucia Zarate and gain a greater appreciation for the full nature of exploitative behavior toward the more unusual among us, the anthropologist in me was treated to a glimpse of Totonac culture and vanilla cultivation. Threaded through the story is beautiful symbolism tied to seemingly ordinary events, connecting things like the lore of the owl to the Totonac and what is presaged for Felipe, the flutist Birdman, and later for Lucia herself.
I enjoy reading authors of other cultures because culture surely shapes writing. It echoes values and reflects sociocultural frameworks. This was my first experience with both Velastegui’s works and a Latina author. It comes as no surprise to me that this book should have been among the finalists of the 2017 International Latino Book Awards.
Reviewed by J. Aislynn d’ Merricksson
MANHATTAN BOOK REVIEW
Star Rating: 5 / 5
Lucia Zarate really existed, renowned as the world’s smallest woman. Zoila, the voice of common sense, is her godmother, mentor, and friend. Over the first chapters we are introduced to Zoila and her sad background in rural Mexico, a scene paving the way for a series of adventures beset with cruelty and connivance. She is reluctantly still living surrounded by the region’s vanilla orchards but the redolent scent is not in keeping with her yearning to escape her father’s unkindness. For years he has mocked Zoila’s unbecoming appearance, stressing the likelihood she will never find a fitting suitor. When he dies, despite all his brags of riches, he leaves her virtually destitute.Without money, but with plenty of spirit and a fine business sense, Zoila leaves home with a vial of her dead lover’s blood and a few vanilla beans concealed in the cleft between her breasts. When she hears about the tiny 12-year-old girl, her maternal instinct swells and she resolves to help the tiny girl escape the superstitious surroundings where she is regarded as a chaneque or sprite. They make a brave twosome. Zoila acquires fake papers that take them to New Orleans, where aYankee agent is all too ready to find a quirky new performer. Before long, Lucia is taken under the wing of a dastardly impresario, Francis Uffner, who, with lasting dishonesty, vows to make Lucia and Zoila rich. Together, they all go on the road–intermittently accompanied by Lucia’s father, who hopes to put away money to set up his own business in Mexico. For a while, Lucia is compliant, even happy, dressing up in pretty and sophisticated clothes that might fit a doll, dancing on stages set up for displays of mini-people, enjoying her audiences’ applause. But as the years pass, she becomes less enamored of her status and more fearful that brujos or sorcerers are pursuing her.
By the time she reaches her early twenties, she has spurned Zoila, suffered a nun satisfactory romance with one of her fellow performers, and recognized that her appeal is waning. PT Barnum has arrived on the scene and his cast of performers are pushing Uffner’s sideshows away.
The highlight of Lucia’s travels, and of the book, is a last hurrah touring England. All are invited to meet Queen Victoria and other members of the royal family. An intended honor becomes an embarrassment when Lucia is impertinent to the monarch and is whisked back to the States. Uffner, intending to make his fortune exploiting the poor little woman, sees his potential wealth evaporate.
Cecilia Velastegui’s historical novel succeeds on several fronts. Right away readers recognize Zoila as the author’s alter-ego and can perceive her intense sympathy for the small ape-woman and other “freaks” in Uffner’s entourage. Her extensive research results in a remarkable story, identifying real-life doctors and scientists of the 1860s and 1870s and supporting the saga with newspaper articles gleaned from numerous archives.
Today’s historical novels tend to include modern expressions in conversation, both adding and diminishing the legitimacy of the story. Here, the language is relevant and weaves in several Mexican folkloric expressions. After the narrative and an epilogue, readers are invited to answer a series of questions and musings to stimulate their memory of a distasteful form of entertainment.
A word for the colored end pieces – they are quite beautiful and add a delightful touch to the book.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster
Latina Book Club Awards
Latina Book Club picks Parisian Promises as one of the year’s best fiction and my children’s bilingual fable, LALO LOVES TO HELP, is selected as a top book this year: http://www.latinabookclub.com/2015/12/3rd-annual-books-of-year-list.html
My children’s book Howl of the Mission Owl, a mystery about California history, was a finalist at the ForeWord Reviews Independent Book Awards during American Library Association convention in San Francisco.
Paris Book Festival Finalist
Latina Book Club
PARISIAN PROMISES is a sensual, suspenseful and satisfying novel and our February Book of the Month. The characters are passionate; the setting authentic (it’s Paris, the center of the world!); and the action quick with nail-biting suspense.
Velastegui’s writing is captivating and elegant. Parisian Promises is a historical fiction novel with elements of intrigue, suspense, fairy tale dreams of the perfect romance and even the perfect touch of heat that sparks the naughty mind. Velastegui writes with purpose, and it is apparent that she is well traveled. Highly recommended!
Multicultural Indie Author Gives Readers the World
*****FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE
Parisian Promises gets a perfect Five Star review:
Angeleno Magazine and Riviera Magazine:
The Spanish edition of Traces of Bliss was selected as a finalist in Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards.The awards ceremony will take place on June 28, 2013 at the American Library Association conference in Chicago.
Missing in Machu Picchu is another beautifully written novel by Cecilia Velástegui. Combining historical fact with a modern fictional takes the reader on an incredible journey. The mysticism and beauty behind the mallqui adds to the drama.
*****FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE
“The women hikers stood on the narrow path, their weary backs resting against the cool rock face of the cliff. They caught their breath and allowed the revelation of their ultimate purpose to sink in: they were on nothing less than a quest for their very future; they were on a sacred pilgrimage for love.” As Cecilia Velástegui makes clear in her epic saga Missing in Machu Picchu, these delusional dames are unlikely to find true love: Owing to a series of mysterious coincidences, they are in the thrall of a lady-killer.
Rodrigo is a to-die-for, handsome megalomaniac posing as a tour guide; he has lured a flock of willing flirts to Peru, where he promises to take them on a perilous hike to Machu Picchu, the “city of the Incas” high in the Andes Mountains. Rodrigo has an eye for conquest, convinced he is an Incan god; the women—Gabby, Hilary, Tiffany, and Mercy—have come to break their addiction to Internet dating and find lasting love. Each of them secretly believes she will find it with Rodrigo, little suspecting how evil and corrupt he really is.
Behind the scenes, but in pursuit, are two old crones. Taki and Koyam go unnoticed as they sell their handmade crafts in the public square. With nearly a century and a half of wisdom between them, they know Rodrigo’s maleficent nature and are determined to keep him from working further harm. Taki, who is a “clairvoyant, healer, seer, shaman, priestess” plagued with dark visions about Rodrigo’s influence, is protected by her old friend Koyam as they dog the villain’s tracks. As the journey progresses, omens such as heavy rain plague the party; when they get farther from the known world of cybercafés and tourist dives, the gringas begin to realize just how isolated they are. Still ahead lie bloodlust, terror, death, and “one final soul-awaking experience.”
Velástegui, an International Latino Book Award author, has crafted this story like the mystical patterns of the shawls that Taki weaves. In her creation the author draws together threads of her own life. Born in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, Velástegui was raised in California and France, speaks four languages, and stalks the globe in search of her stories.
Missing in Machu Picchu is more than a thriller. Velástegui wants her readers to not only be enchanted by this tale of seduction, vengeance, retribution, and, for one character at least, atonement, but also to be educated about Latin American culture and mythology: the legends, the history, and the classic clash between earthly desires and the will of the gods. She has included photographs of sacred Incan shrines, mute and eyeless mummies, and the recently discovered “ice maiden.” A lengthy bibliography and a study guide appear at the end of the book.
Velástegui’s prose is dreamlike and evokes comparisons with the best writers of modern magical realism. The simple lives of peasants and the complex schemes of city slickers reveal special meaning when drenched in the romance, violence, and pure zaniness of folk memory. Velástegui brings the genre up to date, with peasant grannies struggling to understand computers and identify with their clever but insensitive grandchildren, and college-educated women forced to do battle with ancient spirits and cosmic forces well beyond the reach of the worldwide web.
Foreword Clarion Review
*****FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE
Traces of Bliss is full of surprises, switchbacks, and skillfully evoked vignettes of an ancient world of supernatural events that bleed into present-day reality. Its focus on strong but otherworldly females will remind some readers of the books of Isabel Allende and Margaret Atwood, while its blend of everyday happenings with step-through visions from the world of ghosts and spirits is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Velástegui, an Ecuadorian author who has also written Gathering the Indigo Maidens, spins her lush tale with a sense of the sacredness of inner vision. Hers is a celebration of language that readers have come to expect from Latin American writers; Velástegui deserves to be recognized as a distinguished member of that group. READ MORE>>>
US Review of Books
The author cleverly weaves historical persecution of various races and religions into a modern day twisting tale of deception and predation of the elderly. Introducing a sordid cast or characters, each filled with tragedy and darkness and unable to either recognize or control the “duende” or spirit inhabiting them, they are forced to come face-to-face with the realities of their lives while deciding their roles in this novel of tragedy. Proving that the righteous are rewarded while the wretched receive their due as well, the author continues the unpredictable plot to the bitter end. The reader is taken on a true journey across not only time but landscape as well, as they delve past historical fiction and into a boundless exploration of love, love lost, and the stakes associated with reclamation. READ MORE>>>
“Traces of Bliss” by Cecilia Velástegui was quite unlike any other book I’ve ever read. Her ability to seamlessly weave the past and the present together in a fashion that defies description, coupled with a great sense of language and meticulous research, resulted in a story which at times read like historical fiction, bordering on fantasy, and at others was a very insightful view of class and race issues in the contemporary California. Some of the scenes from the past, as well as the ones from Octavio’s childhood, were almost dreamlike, and some of the ones happening in the seedier parts of contemporary Los Angeles or to its seedier characters were downright disturbingly harsh, yet brilliant. The incredible cast of characters was rich and drawn with lots of detail, and each one of them turned out to be more complex than what one would expect of them at a first glance. There is a heady mix of Moorish invasions, Basque Witch trials, duende, prehistoric caves, flamenco dancers and gypsies, cross-dressing military officers fighting for the Spanish crown in the 17th century, mermaids, missing teenagers, Sephardic Jews, poets, shamans, involuntary memories, magic mushrooms, violent husbands, crying babies, impersonators, gigolos, and more… and somehow it all makes sense in the end.
“Traces of Bliss” is a hauntingly beautiful book, which will certainly appeal to readers of intelligent fiction, particularly those who are truly interested in history and not opposed to some novel views. While happiness might not be found easily in this story, it definitely exists, and reminds us time and again what really and truly matters. READ MORE>>>
Reader View on Gathering the Indigo Maidens
“Gathering the Indigo Maidens” tells an incredible story that incorporates both the beauty and history of Spanish art into a modern story about the evils that come with greed in our society. The author does an excellent job of taking us to different times in history where we can see that things weren’t much different even going back as far as 1699. Lack of respect and abuse towards women existed then and still exists today. By sharing this story, my eyes were opened.
While paintings which depict women don’t suffer physically, they do experience some of the same disrespect that the young women do. Neither the paintings nor the women are seen as anything more than their monetary worth. There is no humanity or appreciation for the beauty of both. The exception to this is in Paloma’s eyes.
“Gathering of the Indigo Maidens” is an exceptionally written story that is guaranteed to hold you captive and stir at your heart strings while you read it. I highly recommend it, especially for readers who enjoy a mix of history, art and mystery. READ MORE>>>