American Chica

Two Worlds, One Childhood
Trade Paperback

Also available in …
Add American Chica to Goodreads

In her father’s Peruvian family, Marie Arana was taught to be a proper lady, yet in her mother’s American family she learned to shoot a gun, break a horse, and snap a chicken’s neck for dinner. Arana shuttled easily between these deeply separate cultures for years. But only when she immigrated with her family to the United States did she come to understand that she was a hybrid American whose cultural identity was split in half. Coming to terms with this split is at the heart of this graceful, beautifully realized portrait of a child who “was a north-south collision, a New World fusion. An American Chica.”

Here are two vastly different landscapes: Peru—earthquake-prone, charged with ghosts of history and mythology—and the sprawling prairie lands of Wyoming. In these rich terrains resides a colorful cast of family members who bring Arana’s historia to life...her proud grandfather who one day simply stopped coming down the stairs; her dazzling grandmother, “clicking through the house as if she were making her way onstage.” But most important are Arana’s parents: he a brilliant engineer, she a gifted musician. For more than half a century these two passionate, strong-willed people struggled to overcome the bicultural tensions in their marriage and, finally, to prevail.


"Lush, mystical ... a memoir that blends family historia and the puzzling deadly politics of Peru."—USA Today

"American Chica is a fascinating blend of autobiography and soap opera, memoir and meditation. ... full of larger-than-life characters and stranger-than-fiction situations. ... delightful."—Washington Post

"Arana's intimate and intelligent memoir captures exactly the pulse of a changing America. ...[C]learly demonstrates her ability to write crystalline prose and make erudite cultural observations."—Library Journal

"Part history, part family memoir ... American Chica reads like a collaboration between John Cheever and Isabel Allende.... One of the many reasons the reader can't put this memoir down is the author's impressive command of her craft.... Arana has left her own imprint on her material, while at the same time displaying virtuosity in the storyteller's traditional gifts: spareness, clarity, and a passion for allegory."—The New York Times Book Review

A South American man, a North American womanhoping against hope, throwing a frail span over the divide, trying to bolt beams into sand. There was one large lesson my parents had yet to learn as they strode into the garden with friends, hungry for rum and fried blood: There is a fundamental rift between North and South America, a flaw so deep it is tectonic. The plates don't fit. The earth is loose. A fault runs through. Earthquakes happen. Walls are likely to fall.
—from American Chica



The corridors of my skull are haunted. I carry the smell of sugar there. The odors of a factory—wet cane, dripping iron, molasses pits—are up behind my forehead, deep inside my throat. I'm reminded of those scents when children offer me candy from a damp palm, when the man I love sighs with wine upon his tongue, when I inhale the heartbreaking sweetness of rotting fruit and human waste that rises from garbage dwellers' camps along the road to Lima.

I am always surprised to learn that people do not live with memories of fragrance as I do. The smell of sugar is so strong in my head. That they could have spent the first years of their lives in places like Pittsburgh or Hong Kong and not gone for the rest of their days with the stench of a steel furnace or the aromas of fungus and salt shrimp tucked into some netherfold of cortex—how is that possible?

I had a friend once, from Bombay, who told how baffling it was to travel this world smelling turmeric, coriander, and cardamom in the most improbable corners of Nantucket or Palo Alto, only to find that they were Lorelei of the olfactory, whiffs of his imagination, sirens of his mother's curry, wafting in like she-cats, flicking seductive tails.

He chased after those smells, cooking up curries in rented houses in New Jersey, in tidy chalets in Switzerland, in motel rooms along the Shenandoah, mixing pastes from powders out of bottles with Scottish surnames, searing ghees in Sara Lee aluminum, washing out lunch boxes in Maryland rest stops, trying to bring it back. Bring it back. Up into the sinus, trailing down the throat. He was never quite able to recapture that childhood blend: mashed on stone, dried in a Mahabharatan sun, stuffed into earthenware, sold in an old man's shop, carried home in string-tied packages, measured onto his mother's mortar, locked into the chambers of his heart.

So it has been with me and sugar. I look back and see piles of it, glittering crystals of it—burned, powdered, superfine. I smell sugar everywhere. On whispers, in books, in the loam of a garden. In every cranny of life. And always—always—it is my father's sugar I am longing for: raw, rough, Cartavio brown.

Cartavio was the name of our hacienda: a company town as single of purpose as Akron or Erie or Turin or anyplace where pistons and steel drive residents' lives. It was the mid 1950s, boom days for sugar in Peru, and the American industrial giant W. R. Grace was making the most of it in this remote coastal hamlet, five hundred miles north of Lima. Cartavio was surrounded by fields of sugarcane, fringed by a raging Pacific, and life in it was an eerie mirror of Peru's conquistador past. On one side of the hacienda were the cinnamon-skinned indigenous in a warren of cinder block. On the other, in houses whose size and loveliness depended on the rank of their inhabitants, lived Peruvians of Spanish ancestry, Europeans, North Americans, the elite. There was a church on the square, a mansion for the manager, a Swiss-style guest house, a country club, and a clinic. But in the middle, with smokestacks thrusting so high there could be no doubt as to why the unlikely multitude was there: my father's factories.

Cartavio was nestled in the heart of the nation, just under the left breast of the female torso that Peru's landmass defines. But it was, in many ways, a foreign place, a twentieth-century invention, a colony of the world. Its driving force was industry, and the people who had gathered there were, one way or another, single-minded industrialists. The Americans had come with dollars; the Limenos with political power; the villagers with hands. Although their objectives were shared—a humming production of sugar and paper—Cartavio citizens lived in uncertain harmony. The laborers were willing to surrender themselves to the practicalities of an iron city by day, but under their own roofs by night they returned to ancient superstitions. The Lima engineers were willing to obey the gringo directives, but they suspected they knew a great deal more about those factories than any mahogany-desk boss in New York. The Americans soon learned that if the indigenous believed in ghosts and the criollo overlords resented gringo power, then Grace's fortunes turned on such chimera as phantoms and pride. They understood the social dynamic, used it, and with old-fashioned American pragmatism, made it work for them.

I knew, with a certainty I could feel in my bones, that I was deeply Peruvian. That I was rooted to the Andean dust. That I believed in ghosts. That they lived in the trees, in my hair, under the aparador, lurking behind the silver, slipping in and out of the whites of my ancestors' portraits' eyes. I also knew that, for all his nods and smiles at the gringos, my father believed in ghosts, too. How could he not? He faced them every day.

To the hacienda of Cartavio, Papi was Doctor Ingeniero, the young Peruvian engineer in charge of the people and the maintenance of this whirring, spewing, U.S.-owned mill town. He was a sunny man with an open face. Although his hands were small, they were clever. Although he was not tall, his shoulders filled a room. There were photographs my mother would point to when she wanted us to know she thought him handsome, but they were of a man I didn't recognize—gaunt and angular, black wavy hair, eyes as wide as a calf's, mouth in a curl. The Papi I knew was barrel-chested, full-lipped. His hair had receded to a V. His cheeks were cherubic and round. His eyes bulged. In the subequatorial heat, he wore his shirt out, and it flapped in the breeze, revealing skin that was brown, smooth, and hairless. He was not fat but taut as a sausage—bien papeado, as Peruvians like to say. Potato-tight. When he laughed, he made no sound. He would lean forward as if something had leapt on his back and held him in an irresistible tickle. His eyes would squint, the tip of his tongue would push out, and his shoulders would bounce vigorously. He'd laugh long and hard like that—silent, save for the hiss that issued from between his teeth—until he was short of breath, red-faced, and weeping. When he wasn't laughing, he was barking orders. When he wasn't doing that, his mouth was ringing a cigarette, sucking hard, his eyelids fluttering in thought.

Papi would not so much walk as strut. Not so much drink as guzzle. Not so much chat with a woman as flirt, wink, and ogle. He was clearly not the slender, soulful man in Mother's photographs. Not anymore. From the moment he registered on my brain, he was straining buttons, bien papeado—threatening to burst.

He was a machine virtuoso, improvising ways to go from desert to sugar, from burned plants to Herculean rolls of paper. He could take a field of sugarcane into his steel colossus, shove it through squealing threshers, wet it down with processed seawater, suck it dry of crystals, and feed it onto the rollers to emerge warm and dry from the other end as flying sheets of paper. He could take a faulty German turbine whose only hope for survival was a spare part eight thousand miles away in Stuttgart and, with a knickknack here, a length of wire there, make it hum again. He could pacify the gringos when they came from New York, matching them eye for eye on the intricacies of macromechanics or spherical trigonometry or particle physics. He inspired fervent loyalty from his laborers, striding through his iron city in an impeccably white suit, teaching them the way to an industrial future. The American way.

Every morning he would head for the belching beast long before the whistle sounded. In late afternoons, he returned to survey his pretty wife over lunch and take a brief siesta in his chair. But there seemed to be no end to his work. Even as he walked back through the gate for a late lunch or dinner and the servants fluttered into the kitchen to announce the senor was home, he was on call. Ready to pull away.

That he had to work with ghosts was a fact of life and everybody knew it. A worker's hand might be drawn into the iron jaws of the trapiche as it gathered cane into its mandibles and pulled the mass into its threshers. A finger, a foot, a dog, a whole man might be lost to that ravenous maw as it creaked and shook and thrashed and sifted everything down to liquid sugar and a fine bagasse.

Los pishtacos, the workers would say to one another whenever such tragedies occurred. Pishtacos, their wives and mothers would whisper the next day as they combed the market or polished the silver services on the richly carved aparadores of the engineers. Ghosts. Machine ghosts. Pishtacos norteamericanos. And as anyone who knew Peruvian historias understood: They needed the fat of indios to grease their machines.

Our house stood on the corner of prime real estate, behind the offices of head engineers but far enough from the factory to allow us to ignore the less pleasant aspects of a churning industry. Finished in white stucco and shielded by manicured rows of tropical botanica, the house loomed above its compound walls like a castle behind a barricade. Flowers cascaded from its ramparts. In the garden, trees pushed forth pineapples, lucuma, bananas, and mango. An iron gate shut out the world. Behind the gate and the wall and the garden, the house itself was impervious to vendors, to factory workers, to ordinary Peruvians, to the sprawl of humanity that struggled a few hundred feet from its door.

The house was skirted by a capacious veranda. Inside, it was filled with high-ceilinged white rooms, heavy doors, yawning keyholes, arched passageways, Spanish tile. The living room—the sala—was dominated by my mother's ornate ebony piano. The master bedroom lay behind it, on the other side of a carved double door, so that when those doors were thrown open, the entire sala was surveyable from my parents' bed—a bizarre feature, but houses in outlying haciendas were often capricious and irregular. Through an open arch, you could go from our sala to the dining room, which held two massive pieces of furniture—a table and an aparador, carved with undulating scallops and garlands. The kitchen was stark, a workroom for servants, stripped down and graceless. A cavernous enamel sink—pocked and yellow—jutted from the wall. There was a simple blue table where we three children and our servants took meals. The kitchen door led to a back atrium garden. On the other side of that, behind a wall, were the servants' quarters, a shabby little building that could sleep six in two spare rooms. There was a stall with a spigot where our mayordomo and amas could wash, a storage area, and a concrete staircase that led to their rooms. To the left of those stairs, under a shed of bare wood and chicken wire, were the animal cages. At four, I was told very clearly—as my older brother and sister, George and Vicki, had been—that I was not allowed in the servants' quarters. The cages were my demarcation line; they were the point beyond which I could not go.

Our own rooms were upstairs, well away from our parents' bedroom and out of the circuit of revelers when a party was afoot. After dinner, which we regularly took in the kitchen, the amas would trot us upstairs and bathe us, struggling with their small arms to balance us in the tubs. We would loll about in our pajamas thereafter. There never seemed any urgency to get us to bed, which was just as well because all three of us were terrified of the dark, afraid to look out the windows at tree branches, so well had our amas taught us that pishtacos were perched there, slavering and squinting in.

Had we overcome our fears and looked out those windows onto Cartavio's main residential street beyond our own house, we would have seen five other houses of the first rank, equally grand, equally walled. Behind them, a row of modest ones for the lesser company families. Our immediate neighbors were the Lattos, freckle-faced Scots whose brogue-filtered Spanish made George and me horselaugh into our hands. Their eight-year-old son, Billy, was the undisputed object of Vicki's affection. He was a straight, good-looking boy with an easy smile. He would direct his grins freely to Vicki, but George and I—who thought ourselves far more appealing than our prickly sister—had to work hard to draw his charms: We'd stand on our heads, swing from trees, make fools of ourselves if we had to, for the incomparable joy of gazing on his teeth.

As a young child, my days unfolded in the garden. It was, as every garden in that coastal desert is, an artificial paradise: invented, deceptive, precarious. Without human hands to tend it, the lush vegetation would have dried to a husk and sifted down into an arid dune. For years, I did not know how tentative that childhood environment was. Walled in, with green crowding our senses and the deep sweetness of fruit and sugar in the air, I felt a sense of entitlement, as if my world would ever be so richly hung. But it was an illusion, and many had labored to create it: to make us feel as if we were emperors of a verdant oasis on the banks of the Amazon just north of the Andes, where the green was unrestrained.

Fooled, happy, ignorant, George and I would splash in the duck pond our father had built for us. Or we would play with the animals we kept in the cages out back where the servants lived. We'd pet the rabbits, feed them fragrant verbena. We'd put chickens on the backs of goats and shriek with laughter as the bewildered creatures scrambled around in circles, the goats wild-eyed under their unruly riders, the chickens pounding the air.

George was my hero, my general, my god. He was as bright and beautiful as I was fat and slow. He could prance and swagger as well as any cowboy in Mother's storybook litany of Wild West valiants. He would hector; I would follow. He'd do mischief; I'd do cover-up. He'd get caught; I'd confess to everything. He'd be spanked; I'd yank down my pants. He'd yawp; I'd bawl louder. And so we spent our days, crawling under the house, devising schemes to scandalize the mayordomo, scare Claudia the cook out of her wits, or pester Vicki, whose prissy ways cried out for redress and revenge. If only to force her to look at us over an eternal rim of books.

Reader's Guide

1. In the book’s opening pages, Arana describes how she carries the smell of Cartavio sugar with her from childhood. Are there sense memories that remind you vividly of your own childhood?

2. Arana says she has “puzzled over my mother’s heart for over half a century.” How does she know as a child that her mother has secrets? What is Arana’s response as a child, and then later as an adult, to her mother’s mysterious past?

3. What is the infamous “Mark of Arana,” and how does it influence Arana’s family? Describe how her family members respond to the shame incurred by Julio Cesar in the rubber-rich jungle of the Putumayo.

4. How does this shame influence Arana? Has your own identity been “forged by family denials”?

5. What kinds of cultural differences cause problems for Arana’s mother and father as they live together in Peru? How does Arana’s mother maintain her independence in her new family? Why do you think she does not take her violin with her to Peru?

6. Arana’s imagination is informed from childhood by the dioses y brujas, or gods and shamans, of Peru. She relates, “I’m haunted by an unseen dimension in which everything has roots, logic, and reasons—a tie to another point in time.” Describe how your own childhood imagination was shaped by the beliefs and traditions of your culture.

7. What important lesson does Antonio teach Arana when they are alone together? How does his guidance prepare Arana for her later understanding of power?

8. How does Arana’s home schooling by her mother in Cartavio contribute to the child’s sense of rootlessness? What is her mother’s intention in teaching her children herself? Do you admire her decision?

9. How is life different for the Arana family in Paramonga than it had been in Cartavio?

10. What does Dr. Birdseye tell Arana and George about their cultural heritage? How does this affect Arana’s feelings about herself and her family?

11. When Arana’s mother receives the news that Grandma Lo is dying, she decides the family should go to Wyoming. On that journey, how does Arana begin to view race differently in the St. Louis train station?

12. Of her Great-Grandma Clapp, Arana says, “She had been born in the age of the musket and would die in the age of the nuclear bomb.” Have three or four generations of your family crossed paths? If so, how has this affected your sense of history? Of progress?

13. In Lima, at the Roosevelt School, why does Arana pretend not to be able to read English as well as she reads Spanish? What does this say about her identity and her perception of power?

14. Arana relates that in Lima the “coin of the realm” was the knowledge that she was a member of the Peruvian upper class. How does her appetite for power arise in Lima? Describe the factors in her life that contribute to her interest in following “the Cajamarca instinct” to recover lost power.

15. In discussing her parents’ challenges, the author observes, “In the best of circumstances—in a good match between people of a single culture—merging two lives is an unruly task.” How do Arana’s parents ultimately resolve their bicultural differences to raise their children? Does their nonconformist decision prove beneficial or costly for their children?

16. Arana recounts that while studying linguistics at the British University of Hong Kong, she discovered a theory that bilingualism can be harmful. What was the nature of that theory? Are there ways in which one can feel an impostor in his or her own culture?

17. What happens to Arana’s cultural identity while she lives in the United States and sees less and less of her father?

18. What effect does Abuelita’s request in the coffee shop have on Arana’s perception of her parents’ “turbulent fusion”?

19. In the epilogue, Arana refers to her “twice-blessed soul.” Earlier, she states, “I had the palsy of a double soul.” How has she come to understand and appreciate her heritage? Has her memoir given you insights into your own cultural identity?

20. In the closing pages, Arana says, “I love to walk a bridge and feel that split second when I am neither here nor there, when I am between going and coming, when I am God’s being in transit, suspended between ground and ground.” What does this suggest to you about the permanence of identity, culture, and power? How has Arana achieved this kind of personal freedom? Are there ways you can bridge your own historias?

21. What traces of family history may have shaped the storytelling in Arana’s recent novel, Cellophane? Does the voice that carries her fiction echo her voice as a memoirist?

The Sisters Sweet

A young woman in a vaudeville sister act must learn to forge her own path after her twin runs away to Hollywood in this richly immersive debut about love, family, and… More

Get Untamed

This stunning hardcover journal is a bold, interactive guide to discovering and creating the truest, most beautiful lives, families, and world we can imagine, based on the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed. “We… More