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  • Written by Alex Espinoza
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A Novel

Written by Alex EspinozaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alex Espinoza

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On Sale: January 30, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-575-0
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“As perfect as the beads of a rosary.”
–Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street

“Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative” says Lisa See, about this wonderful first novel by Alex Espinoza. Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.

Imaginative, inspiring, lyrical, and beautifully written, Still Water Saints evokes the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the spirit through the journeys of the people of Agua Mansa, and especially of the one woman at the center of it all. Theirs are stories of faith and betrayal, love and loss, the bonds of family and community, and the constancy of change.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
She could walk on water.

She roamed the banks of the Santa Ana, among the long green stalks, chanting to the moon, to the gods of Night and Shadow. She rose and stepped onto the river, her footsteps gently rippling the surface.

She summoned the spirits of the dead. They whispered their secrets to her, and she scribbled their messages on scraps of paper and in the margins of her phone book:

Tell Ramón the locket fell on the floor between the bed and the nightstand.

I’m all right. It’s like Disneyland up here, only without rides.

I don’t miss my ears because they were too big.

She fought the Devil. Every night he came to her, his head crowned with horns, his skin covered in scales. He cursed and called her names. She beat him back with her bare hands and sent him running, his cloven feet tapping against the tile of her kitchen floor.

She was a Bruja. A Santa. A Divina. A Medium, Prophet, and Healer. Able to pass through walls and read minds, to pull tumors from ailing bodies, to uncross hexes and spells, to raise the dead, and to stop time. When doctors failed, when priests and praying were not enough, the people of Agua Mansa came to the Botánica Oshún, to Perla. The shop sold amulets and stones, rosaries and candles. They bought charms to change their luck, teas to ease unsettled nerves, and estampas of saints, the worn plastic cards they carried in their purses or wallets for protection.

As thanks the customers brought her booklets of coupons and long strips of lottery tickets. They gave her fresh bouquets of roses and carnations. They showed her pictures of aunts and uncles she had helped see through heart surgeries and hip replacements. They brought in the children she had saved from drug addictions and prison sentences. They told her of the abusive husbands and gambling wives she had chased away for good. Men often grew uneasy in her presence. The women always opened up.

“I think I have bilis,” Gilda Mejía said, walking up to the register where Perla stood. “Look.” She stuck out her tongue. “It’s all yellow. Plus my stomach’s upset.”

“What happened?”

“Where do I start?” Gilda rested her hands on the glass countertop. She rented an apartment over at the Agua Mansa Palms. Her brother and his new wife had moved in a few weeks ago, after he lost his job. The couple was making it hard for Gilda to relax when she came home from work because they were always in the living room watching television with the volume turned all the way up.

“You think they’d turn it down, but no. They’re not deaf. And his wife. I can’t stand her. The way she talks to my brother. And she’s cheating on him. I see the way she looks at that guy from 312. There’s something going on there.” It was too crowded for three people in a one-bedroom apartment, she explained. Her brother and his wife fought well into the night, making it hard for her to sleep. She was irritable all the time, and her nerves felt ready to snap at any moment.

Simonillo was perfect to cure strong cases of bilis, to relieve tension and stress. Perla stepped away from the register and walked over to the packets of herbs that hung from pegs on the left wall of the botánica.

“I want you to make a tea with this,” she said, handing the bag to Gilda. “Drink it on an empty stomach. It’s bitter, so suck on a sugar cube or put some honey in it.”

“Okay,” Gilda said, handing over money for the herbs. “I just want to be better.”

Perla took a blue seven-day candle from the shelves behind the register. She pointed to the picture of Our Lady of Regla on the glass candleholder. The Virgin, holding the infant Jesus, floated on a bed of clouds high above a cathedral. “Light this veladora before going to bed. Keep it lit all night while you sleep.”

After Gilda left, Miriam Orozco’s van pulled up. She got out, but her husband stayed in the car.

“Hi, Miriam. How can I help you?” Perla said.

“It’s not me this time.” She pointed to the van. “It’s him. He’s embarrassed to talk to you.”

“Embarrassed? Why embarrassed?”

Miriam shrugged her shoulders. “Men. You know how they’re like. Big babies.”

Perla walked out into the parking lot. The car door was locked. “Talk to me, Jorge,” she shouted and knocked on the window.

He rolled it down. “Hi,” he said, resting his elbow on the door.

“What are you embarrassed about? Miriam says you don’t want to come in.”

Miriam stood behind Perla, jiggling the car’s keys. “Tell her. Don’t act dumb.” She crossed her arms and sighed.

But Jorge stayed quiet.

Miriam said, “Here’s what happened: Jorge went to a doctor who said he has depression. The pills the doctor gave him made his mouth dry. Jorge, tell her! You’ve missed work.” Miriam walked over and leaned against the van’s hood, watching Jorge through the windshield spotted with mud. “He doesn’t touch me anymore.”

“The doctor,” Jorge said, raking his hair with his fingers. “He says I’m going through a midlife crisis. Menopause for men. Is that for real? I cry a lot. I’m no fun to be around. I can’t look at my wife in that way. When we’re in bed. Together. You know?”

“Come with me,” Perla told Miriam. Back inside the botánica, Perla asked her, “Has he been eating anything strange?”

“No,” she said.

The oils, bath salts, and scents were kept on the shelves next to the herbs and teas. Perla picked up a bottle of “Love Musk” cologne. “Has he been drinking?” She took a prayer card of Saint Job from the plastic rack on the counter.

“No,” Miriam said. “He’s been sober now for fifteen years.”

“I’m only making sure. Have you been putting a lot of pressure on him? To do things? Around the house? Are you fighting over money?”

“No. Everything’s good. Except for this.”

They walked back out to the van together, and Miriam got in. Perla handed the bag to Jorge and said, “This is a cologne I want you to wear. It’ll help you with your love problem. There’s an estampa. Job.” She showed him the picture on the card. “He’s the patron of depressed people. Pray one Rosary to him. And I want you to keep taking those pills the doctor gave you. Even if they make your mouth dry.”

“He’s bad at following directions,” Miriam said. “I’ll make sure he does, though.”

“Good,” Perla said. “If he’s not better, have him go see the doctor again. If still nothing, bring him back here.”

Miriam started the car, took the rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror, and handed it to Jorge. “Hold this,” she said as they pulled away.

Perla helped a man whose daughter was fighting hard to kick a drug habit. Someone else needed luck in starting up a new restaurant. An old woman Perla recognized but whose name escaped her memory brought in her grandson because the boy was wetting his bed.

“He’s thirteen,” the old woman said. “Too old to be peeing in bed. I think he needs a limpia.”

“I don’t wanna do this,” the boy protested. He crossed his arms and glared at Perla. “It’s stupid.”

The old woman tugged at his shirt. “Stop it, Tony.”

Perla took the sign that read BACK IN A FEW MINUTES and taped it to the door. She led the boy and his grandmother behind the counter and through the curtain that separated the front of the store from the back.

The small kitchenette, with the mini-refrigerator and microwave Darío had given Perla when he left her the store, occupied much of the cramped stockroom. The rest of the space housed three bookshelves about six feet tall on which Perla kept her back stock. The narrow hallway separating the kitchenette and shelves from the bathroom and utility closet was where she held private consultations.

Perla worked slowly to gather the items, trying to remember what Darío had taught her. “Limpias are delicate because you’re cleansing a body and chasing away evil spirits,” he had said. “So it’s important to concentrate.” He had used a cigar, feathers, and an egg. He had chanted and whispered, rocking back and forth on his heels.

She covered the floor with a sheet and stood the boy in the middle. She coughed when she took a puff from the cigar, then blew the smoke around his body, letting it drift and settle around his head. After beating the air around him with a gray plume she pulled from her feather duster, Perla told Tony to close his eyes. She took an egg from the refrigerator and rubbed it over his body and face.

“This is lame, Grandma,” the boy said, then opened his eyes. “Can we go?”

Perla turned to the boy’s grandmother. “There.”

The old woman pointed to the egg. “Aren’t you supposed to break it and look inside?”

“Oh,” Perla said. “Yes.” She cracked the egg and poured it into a Styrofoam cup.

“Tony,” said the boy’s grandmother, pointing. “See that red swirl? Inside the yolk? That’s what was doing it. That there.”

The boy looked. “Yeah, right.”

His grandmother pinched Tony’s arm, leaving two red marks on his skin. “We’ll see what you say when it starts working.”

Perla covered the cup with plastic wrap she kept on the shelf above the kitchenette’s sink. “Throw this out before you get home.”

“Why?” Tony said.

“Because if we don’t,” the old woman said, “the spirits will stay with you. So we have to get rid of it to lose them. Right?” She looked at Perla.

“Yes.”

“So we’re just gonna, like, throw that egg out the window of a moving car?” Tony asked. “What if it hits somebody?”

“Would you rather we not? Would you rather the spirits follow us? Keep making you pee in bed? All your friends will find out and make fun of you, Tony. And that girl you like. You want her to know?”

The boy blushed. “No.”

“All right then,” the old woman said. She took some money from her purse and handed it to Perla.

Perla walked them outside and found a group of customers waiting for her in the parking lot. She sold a “Quit Gossiping” candle to a high school girl and a jar of “Adam and Eve” love oil to a man who rode up on a ten-speed bike. Then Rosa Cabrera came in with her four-year-old daughter, Danielle. Rosa was one of Perla’s favorite customers. She had been in high school when her mother had first brought her to the store. Now, she was in her late twenties, married, and taking classes to become a hair stylist.

Danielle’s hair was pulled back in two pigtails that glistened wet. She wore faded denim overalls and a red-and-yellow-checkered undershirt. She held out three wild clovers to Perla.

“We came from the park,” Rosa said. “When I told her we were coming to visit you, she picked them.”

Perla stepped around the counter and bent down to hug Danielle. She took the clovers and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “They’re pretty,” Perla said. “Thank you.”

She put them in a mug and set them next to the statue of Santa Bárbara to the right of the front door. The statue stood on a square pedestal, holding a gold scepter in one hand, a chalice in the other. Long curls of her brown hair rested in folds on her shoulders. Perla turned to Danielle and pointed at the saint. “I think she’ll like them, too, no?”

The girl smiled and pressed her face against her mother’s thigh.

“I need something to keep me calm. To help me focus. I have a big test coming up.” Rosa pointed to the incense sticks by the herbs and teas. “Can I get cinnamon?”

Perla took the pack, then walked over to the register to ring her up. “How’s school?”

“Good. Just a lot of things to memorize, you know?” She sighed, unzipping her purse. “Who knew studying cosmetology would be so hard?”

“It’s worth it, though.” Perla put the incense in a paper bag and handed it to Rosa. “You’ll see.”

“I hope so.” She took Danielle’s hand, and they turned toward the door. “We’ll come by your house tomorrow. After my test. I’ll let you know how it went.”

Hayley Garrett burst through the door, nearly knocking Rosa and Danielle down.

“Envy,” Hayley said, tucking back strands of blond hair and shoving her keys in her back pocket. “Someone has that envy thing for me. What you told this one man last time I was in here.”

“Invidia?” Perla asked. “The Evil Eye?”

“That’s what I mean. I was in the bathroom at work, in one of the stalls. I overheard this girl, Iris Camacho, tell someone else she hated skinny white girls. She said my name. She said ‘I want ’em all to go away. They’re so stupid.’ Something like that. I didn’t catch the rest because somebody flushed.”

Perla thought a moment. “How have you been feeling? Tired? Anxious?”

“Well, I always feel that way.”

“Has your period come on time?”

“Yeah.” The girl smirked.

“Stomach feeling okay? No heartburn?”

“Nope,” Hayley said. “I’ve been too freaked out to eat. Working two jobs is a lot. I lost ten pounds. Everything fits me baggy.” She laughed. “This Evil Eye, isn’t it like a curse? Maybe she cursed me, and that’s why I’m not eating. That possible?”

Perla said, “Well, yes.”

“Yeah. I think that’s what she did. She cursed me.” Hayley paused, then laughed again. “Maybe it’s a blessing. I’m starting to look good.”

“Losing weight quickly like that could do bad things to your body and your system.”

Hayley touched her stomach. “Well, I guess it’s not worth it then. All right, all right. What do I do?”

The white wood chips of the cuasia rattled inside the plastic bag when Perla reached for it on the peg and handed it to Hayley. Cuasia, Perla explained, worked to strengthen the body and restore balance.

“I want you to soak these wood chips,” Perla said. “Use one teaspoon of the chips for each cup of cold water. Steep this for twelve hours, then strain it. Drink one cup in the morning on an empty stomach and a second cup at night. Understand?”

The girl nodded.

Perla also sold her a bottle of “Repel Evil” bath salts and a “Hex Removing” veladora. “Here,” she said. “Bathe with the ‘Repel Evil’ salts in the morning before work. It’ll protect you from the girl’s invidia. Light the candle at night when you’re alone.”

Hayley ran her finger across the pictures on the front of the candle.

“Horseshoes,” Perla said. “Rabbit’s feet. Crosses. Lucky symbols. Positivity.”

“I hope this works,” Hayley said. “Even though I might gain back all that weight I lost.”

• • •

It was time to close. Perla began where she always did, dusting the figure of San Antonio, who stood guard on the wooden table by the front window. She took a bottle of ammonia and, using a crumpled-up sheet of newspaper, wiped down the window’s glass. She straightened the statues displayed on the right-hand wall and made sure they all faced forward. She organized the shelves of soaps and oils, bath salts, and incense sticks. Some of the pegs on the wall were empty, so she grabbed some herbs from the back to fill in the gaps. She rearranged the gems and crystals, the books and decks of Tarot cards, the amulets and pendants, the rosaries and crucifixes inside the glass case where the register sat. She took inventory in her binder— noting which candles were low, what packets of incense sticks had sold, what herbs and teas she was missing—and set the list next to the phone. I’ll place an order first thing tomorrow morning.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alex Espinoza|Author Q&A

About Alex Espinoza

Alex Espinoza - Still Water Saints
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico. He came to the United States with his family at the age of two and grew up in suburban Los Angeles. Author of the novel Still Water Saints, he received an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. A recipient of the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Espinoza is currently an associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Alex Espinoza

Random House Reader’s Circle: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you have a specific place where you write? A specific time of day when you write?

Alex Espinoza: With a first draft, I aim for a thousand words a day, and I do very little editing. When that first draft is done, though, that’s when the heavy lifting begins, and then I’ll spend hours working over that first draft, rewriting, restructuring, rethinking, revising, and polishing. I’ll edit like this a few times. With Still Water Saints, there were characters who saw their roles diminished or who vanished entirely during the editing process, and others who took on more significant roles or who appeared for the first time in a later draft. There were places and events that were emphasized differently.

As to when and where I write, I wrote the initial draft of Still Water Saints largely late at night, because that’s when I could find quiet. While I’m writing, I can’t have any distractions–no music, no phone, no television. I have an area by my desk I refer to as my altar decorated with photos, mementos from trips to various places, relics from my childhood, gift from friends. It’s a fairly eclectic collection–there are some sugar skulls, pictures of a trip to Mexico, a few seven-day candles, a model of Stockholm’s City Hall, a carved wooden duck from Michoac‡n, and a Batman Pez dispenser, among other things. Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to writing directly on my computer, rather than with pen and paper. I’m using the same method for my second novel. But with another project I’m working on at the same time, which looks to be developing into my third novel, I’ve gone back to writing longhand, in a notebook, to help me keep the two projects separate. I’ll be interested to see if this has any effect on my process.

RHRC: Where did you get the inspiration to write Still Water Saints? What came to you first–the characters, the bot‡nica, the town of Agua Mansa, or something else entirely?

AE: When I was taking writing classes as an undergraduate and it was time to start thinking about a senior thesis, I was casting around for something to write about. I thought about writing a series of stories based on the weird folk remedies my mother, who grew up in a rural part of Mexico, would subject us to as children. The traditions fascinated me. For example, she would heat tomatoes, mash them up, place them in rags, and wrap them around our feet at night as a cure for tonsillitis. But I didn’t know where the stories would be set. Around that same time, I started visiting a bot‡nica in a strip mall near my mother’s home in Colton, California. I’m not quite sure why I first went there, but I quickly became a bit obsessed with the place. I’d go there and roam the aisles, taking in all the sights and smells, overhearing customers who came in and told the owner about their most personal problems–infidelity, unemployment, sickness. The customers would end up with some sort of suggested treatment, sometimes combining an herbal remedy (a tea, for example) with something else–a candle, a prayer card, a medallion–to treat the more spiritual or psychological element of their problem.

I’d worked retail jobs for many years. In fact, at the time I started this book, I was an assistant manager at a store in a local mall. I noticed that while what was being sold in the bot‡nica was quite different than anything I’d ever sold, I could recognize the patterns and relationships. There were the regular customers, whose lives and needs were well known to the shop owner. There were people who would come in knowing exactly what they wanted or needed, who weren’t at all interested in the opinions of the shop owner, but who would still find themselves drawn into conversation, sometimes buying a little something extra. And there were people who came in genuinely seeking the advice of the people in the shop. There was a kind of intimacy there in the bot‡nica, and I saw then that this was a way to combine the folk remedies and traditions I had initially been drawn to with the more modern and commercial world that I was familiar with. Only once I’d found the bot‡nica did the rest of the community and the people who lived in it begin to coalesce.

RHRC: Your novel has so many different characters with their own distinct viewpoints and personalities. How did you go about creating your characters? And was it difficult to write from several different perspectives? Do you have a favorite character?

AE: One of the things I have always admired about Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is how in it Anderson provides multiple views of a single place through the lives of the people who live there. With Still Water Saints, I tried to invert that approach, so instead of one narrator’s view of the many people who inhabit a place, there is instead a range of people, each giving us a unique view of one community. Because I was trying to depict a complex and varied community, I wanted to populate it with characters who encompassed a range of ages, classes, ethnicities, genders, and occupations. I was determined to have no two voices sound exactly alike, no two chapters hit the same emotional pitch. A lot of those voices were exercises, attempts to stretch myself as a writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing from the perspectives of characters who are wildly different from myself, whose lives are nothing like my own. I welcomed the challenge of writing from the perspective of a teenaged girl, then a drag queen, then a white, twenty-something man, and seeing just how much I could get away with, how far I could push the story, how deep into the character I could sink.

During the initial draft, each first-person chapter was, for the most part, self-contained; that is, I wrote each one as if I was writing a story from beginning to end. When I went back to edit the work as a whole, it was much harder, because of the tones and emotional shifts between the characters. It was a bit like having muliple personalities, living with a chorus of voices swirling about in my head.

There are many characters I’d like to revisit because I feel their stories aren’t quite done. Shawn was one of the most fun to write. He kept me guessing. At times, I felt I didn’t know from scene to scene what he was going to say, what kind of trouble he was going to get into.

RHRC:Why did you decide to set your novel in a fictional city? How does Agua Mansa reflect a typical Southern California town? In what ways does the novel challenge traditional views of Southern California?

AE: I decided to create a fictional city, because I didn’t want to have to compete with someone else’s versions of a real place. If I had written about Colton or San Bernardino or Riverside or Fontana or any other specific community in inland Southern California, my fiction would be occupied by other people’s ghosts. Something I’ve learned from many writers I admire who have used fictional communities–not only Sherwood Anderson, but also William Faulkner, Juan Rulfo, Toni Morrison, and Susan Straight–is that a wholly fictional place also allows for a more universal, even mythical story. I’ve been pleased to hear from readers living far from Southern California that they recognized elements of their own communities in Agua Mansa.

Agua Mansa, then, is not just one specific city, but one that embodies many elements of communities here in Southern California. I’m pretty sure there is no “typical” Southern California town, but there is certainly a version of Southern California that dominates popular culture. In the popular version, Southern California is oriented almost entirely towards the Pacific Ocean, anchored by Los Angeles (which often seems to be reduced to Hollywood), the beach cities of Orange County, and San Diego. It is the Southern California of surfing, skateboarding, punk rock, and movie stars. These things really do exist here, but my Southern California is different. It’s oriented eastward, toward the desert, and it’s changing as people move away from the coast in search of affordable housing. I did include elements that I think are very Southern Californian, though: the blend of cultures and ethnicities, the freeways, the constant construction, the disappearance of landscapes and ways of life, the eucalyptus and palm and citrus trees, the Santa Ana winds and smog and flash floods and earthquakes and wildfires, the terrain that encompasses mountains, foothills, and deserts alongside the beaches. My goal in this book, and for much of my writing, was to look at this “other” Southern California, the one I grew up in and live in, the oftentimes misunderstood and misrepresented Southern California.

RHRC: There is fair amount of Spanish in this book, intended, for the most part, for English-speaking readers. How did you decide what you could include in Spanish, and what would be better in English? How does the mix of Spanish and English enhance the novel?

AE: I tried to use Spanish only where the Spanish word had nuances or specificities that were difficult to translate (such as the word “bot‡nica”), or where a character really was peppering his or her English with Spanish, in a way many of us bilingual English/Spanish speakers do (such as when Roberto’s mother asks him “entiendes?” at the end of an otherwise English language question). This mixing of Spanish and English, along with the colloquial Spanglish, is a sort of regionalism. It reflects the real use of words and phrases from multiple languages found among people in my part of Southern California, especially Mexican-Americans. Some of my favorite southern writers, like Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, have used regional dialect well, and I’ve been inspired by their work. The regionalisms they use in their writings reveal much about who their characters are, where they are from, and what they know. Likewise, in Still Water Saints, the way various characters use Spanish and English is a reflection of who they are. Azucar is very different from Nancy, for example, and I tried to let their uses of Spanish and English be one sign of this.

I tried to provide enough context to allow any reader to understand the Spanish words that I used, in the same way that a reader might be able to infer the meaning of an unknown word or phrase in English from its context. What I was determined not to do was to write something in Spanish only to then translate the exact word or phrase into English. I don’t think that’s a natural speech pattern, and I think it shows an unwillingness to trust a reader’s intelligence. To me, it’s the mark of a writer imposing Spanish on a work, using Spanish as flavoring.

In a similar vein, there are passages where the context dictated that the characters should be speaking entirely in Spanish to one another–for example, when Rodrigo talks with people in Mexico. Because I’m writing in English for an English-speaking audience, it seemed artificial to write these in Spanish. I trust my readers’ imaginations to understand that the characters are “really” speaking Spanish, just like the English-accented Romans in a gladiator film are “really” speaking Latin.

RHRC: You were born in Mexico and moved to Southern California with your family at a young age. Did your own life experiences shape this story? If so, in what ways?

AE: There’s very little of my life in this book, beyond being raised in this geography and culture. No character is clearly based on me or anyone I know, but there are certainly elements of my life and family history that color the book. Rodrigo, for example, is from the Mexican state of Michoac‡n, which is where my family comes from. My many years working retail–selling everything from eggs and milk to furniture and custom-framed art to rock T-shirts and body jewelry–colored the way I looked at and depicted Perla and her shop. And I was raised Catholic–I’m a failed altar boy–and have always been fascinated with the Church’s rituals and iconography, the way it syncretizes and incorporates indigenous beliefs and practices.

On a deeper level, my coming from such a large family, where each member has such a distinct personality and perspective, likely influenced the way I look at and depict my characters.

RHRC:Random House originally published Still Water Saints in hardcover in English and Los santos de Agua Mansa, California in trade paperback in Spanish. What was it like to have your book published in two languages? Did you get different reactions from your Spanish and English readers?

AE: It was quite a thrill to have the book simultaneously published in Spanish and English. My relationship with the Spanish language has always been a very intimate one; I spoke it only to my parents, my oldest siblings, and my relatives. Spanish was a very personal thing for me, a language I used only when addressing my elders, people I respected, and myself when I was alone. I’ve been told I speak Spanish in my sleep, never English. So to have a book translated into the language I spoke to members of my family, and for those words to be out there in Spanish, is a very public thing, and that was very strange.

My first initial reaction was, “Oh, great, my mother and older sisters and aunts are going to be able to read this.” That actually made me uneasy, because I thought they’d read it and think I was crazy because of some of the darker parts of the book. Thankfully, they’ve read it and haven’t had such reactions, at least not that I know of. But it’s been gratifying to go to readings where generations of families have bought copies of the book in English and in Spanish. And it was equally gratifying to have worked with my wonderful translator, Liliana Valenzuela, who did a superb job with my novel.

RHRC: What was the most surprising or difficult thing you encountered once you started working on this book? What do you think is the easiest thing about being a writer, and what is the hardest thing?

AE: One of the most surprising things about the process of writing this book was seeing the vast knowledge that a bot‡nica owner must have. They embody so much and have to serve many functions within their respective communities: They are counselors, spiritual advisors, pharmacists, doctors, and healers. They possess an encyclopedic knowledge of herbal medicines, folk traditions, multiple religions, and various holistic approaches to healing. It is an incredibly complex role. They do all this from their bot‡nicas, and each bot‡nica has its own unique personality and vibe. The easiest thing about being a writer is reading, because I enjoy it so much. That’s not to say it’s not also work for me, or that I don’t study other writers to see what they do and how they do it–how they use language, how they structure their stories, etc. I would have to say the hardest thing about being a writer is taking on the responsibility of writing about people and places that are far too often overlooked, and that can be intimidating. I often question myself and my motivations, ask myself what right I have to chronicle all of this.

RHRC: Do you have any plans to return to Agua Mansa in your writing? And what are you working on now?

AE: I do plan to return there, because I feel there are still so many characters to write about. The first-person chapters I cut from Still Water Saints, which I affectionately refer to as the “B-sides,” I am developing into a collection of stories. And in the book I’m working on now, a novel about a Mexican actor who comes to California during the Golden Age of Hollywood, I’m returning briefly to Agua Mansa, but in the 1930s.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Time flows in several directions and at different rates in Still Water Saints. Perla’s story unfolds over the course of a single year, punctuated by a series of saint’s days, while the first person chapters take place on different time-lines–some during the same year, some at earlier times. What indications of the passage of time appear in the various parts of the book? How did this structural choice affect your reading of the novel? Why do you think the author used this structure?

2. Perla’s chapters are all set on feast days of specific saints. How, if at all, do the first-person chapters that follow each of these chapters relate to those saints? Are they connected by date? By theme?

3. While Perla is the central character of the novel, a number of other characters pass through the various chapters of the book, sometimes in very subtle ways. Trace how Rosa, Nancy, Rodrigo, Juan and Debra, Shawn, and Beatrice appear at various points in the novel. How do they cross paths with one another and with Perla?

4. The first-person chapters in Still Water Saints are told from many different viewpoints. Which character was your favorite, and why? Are there any other characters whose stories you would have liked to have read more about?

5. Perla fills various roles for different members of the community: She is a shop owner, a healer, a teacher, a spiritual leader, a surrogate parent. Do other people in the community serve roles that overlap Perla’s? How do they react to Perla? How does she react to them? What other roles does Perla serve?

6. Agua Mansa is a southern California town with a largely Mexican-American population. How do various characters express their dual heritages as both Americans and as people of Mexican descent? What aspects of their cultures do characters like Lluvia, Alfonso, and Juan embrace? How do characters like Shawn, an Irish-American, interact with the dominant Mexican-American culture in Agua Mansa? What about the Mexican-born Rodrigo?

7. Agua Mansa is a fictional community located in California’s Inland Empire, an area located about sixty miles east of Los Angeles. What can you gather about the town’s history and geography from the details the author provides in Still Water Saints? How does this California mesh with other depictions of California you know from books, the media, or personal experience?

8. In the opening pages of Still Water Saints, Perla appears to have magical powers, but these are quickly discounted. What powers, if any, do you feel Perla has? What does Perla herself think or claim about her abilities? Is she a charlatan or a fraud? What point do you think the writer was trying to make by opening with a scene of magic?

9. Perla provides many of her customers with the tools or instructions they need to perform various rituals. For example, she sells Azucar a rosary with which she can perform a novena for Beatrice, and she supplies Juan’s mother with sugar skulls for her Day of the Dead altar. What other rituals appear in the book? What function do the rituals serve for the people who perform them? Do you think they work?

10. Still Water Saints is written in English, and yet there is a Spanish-language presence in the novel. How does the author’s inclusion of Spanish and Spanglish function in the novel as a whole? What does a character’s use of English, Spanish, Spanglish, or other languages reveal about him or her? How did the author’s inclusion of Spanish and Spanglish add or detract from your reading experience?

11. A major theme of Still Water Saints is change/transformation. Discuss how Perla, Azucar, Rosa, and other characters transform throughout the novel, as well as how the town of Agua Mansa undergoes change. Why do you think the author chose to set his novel, and create his characters, around a time of change and transformation?

12. Music plays an important role in much of the novel. How does music factor into each character’s story, and how does it affect them? Do you think music has power? Explain your answer in the context of the novel.

13.We learn that Perla took over the Botanica Oshun from Dario. When the time comes, who do you think will take over from Perla?


  • Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza
  • February 12, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $16.00
  • 9780812976274

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