Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas

Publisher/Date:  Cleis Press, Sept. 1996
Genre:  Hispanic Fiction
Pages:  249

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

While Achy Obejas’ MEMORY MAMBO starts off slow, by the next few chapters, you will be hooked on Juani Casas and her colorful Hispanic familia. The Casas will weave their way into your heart, dysfunctionalities and all. And believe me, they are dysfunctional with a capital D.

Juani, a Cuban immigrant whose family sought refuge in America, is surrounded by a cast of characters: dad, Alberto, mom Xiomara, and siblings Nena and Pucho. They settle in Chicago after Fidel Castro’s regime takes over the island and her mother decides it’s best to leave.

In America, a new life awaits them. It’s filled with new customs and better opportunities. The Casas family opens a Laundromat where the management is split between Juani and Nena.

Despite their great hardships to arrive in this country and their success here, the Casas and their extended family have serious issues. Papa Alberto drives the family crazy with his conspiracy theories about the U. S. government. Cousin Caridad weathers an abusive husband. Aunt Celia can’t sober her husband or stop him from cheating. And our poor protagonist, Juani, is a lesbian trying to work through her still-fresh break up.

Sounds like your typical all-American Cuban family, right?

In first person, Juani tells the sordid history of her family through flashbacks and with great detail. She gives the reader every idiosyncrasy of every one of her kinfolk. Juani’s vivid details of her life is not chronicled in exact order, but through the memories triggered by everyday events. For instance, a day in her life as a laundromat manager can make her think about the first time the family laid eyes on Jimmy, Caridad’s abusive husband-and how they lived to regret it.

In Memory Mambo, Obejas presents a family with history and, most of all, love. They are fiercely attached to each other, almost to the point of suffocation. Obejas writing is mesmerizing, and proves that no matter what the race, all families are simply the same.

Reviewed December 2005

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