American Chica

Last summer my husband and I got married. We’ve been together for three years, and we’ve been getting to know more about each other’s cultures. Although we met in Spain in 2012, I’m American and he’s Peruvian. Before our wedding, he lived here with me for seven months, and I lived with him in Lima, Peru for nearly a year. Spending so much time in his home city was an amazing experience, but still I’m always aiming to learn more. After reading a handful of history, culture, and travel books about Peru, I decided it was time for something a little more personal. My search led me to American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, a memoir by Marie Arana.

Marie Arana grew up straddling two cultures. Her mother was a white American woman from Wyoming; her father was a Peruvian man from Miraflores, a neighborhood in Lima. Though the two met in Massachusetts, they decided to raise their family in Peru. Marie’s story takes us to her childhood, starting in the 1950s in Cartavio, a town 500 miles north of Lima. She describes the freedom of her early years, and her vivid imagery makes it easy to conjure up pictures of her first home.

As the story moves on, we follow the family south, to Paramonga, closer to the country’s capital, and eventually to Lima itself. We get to know Marie’s Peruvian family – her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in Lima – as well as their cultural norms, their communication styles, their dreams and goals. While depictions of Marie’s Peruvian family and their time spent in Miraflores feel familiar to me – I’d lived in Miraflores with my husband and his family – her depictions of her homes outside of Lima offer insights into a side of Peru I didn’t get to see.

When she’s seven, Marie and her family briefly move to Wyoming, where she gets to know her American grandparents and that side of the family. This opens up a whole new side of Marie’s identity. Even at that young age, she’d already felt different compared to her Peruvian family – never quite as Peruvian as they were, even though she’d spent her whole life there. But being in America both fills in a side of her she didn’t know… and also furthers the nagging feeling that she doesn’t quite fit in there, either. What is her race? What is her nationality? How can she and her siblings find themselves in both of their parents and yet neither of them?

Although Marie feels a particular confusion over her own identity and place, her parents are facing a similar but different trial. They love each other and sacrifice a lot for each other. And yet, each of them struggles constantly with their relationship and how they fit into their home.

Marie’s mother, in particular, struggles in Peru. We have to remember, it’s the 1950s, and global communication and travel weren’t as easy then as they are now. Marie’s mother often clashes with her neighbors, her in-laws, and even her own husband. The cultural differences are real, and though she speaks Spanish, that can still pose a barrier at times. She often feels like an outsider in her new home, but how long can she stand to be in Peru before the family relocates to the United States?

American Chica is an amazing memoir that describes how two cultures can clash and mesh, how love can form between the two against all odds. It deftly examines what it’s like to straddle two cultures, to feel at once a part of both and a part of neither. Ultimately, though, it shows that deep down we’re all the same, surface differences notwithstanding; we’re all people trying to live our lives fully together.

American Chica feels like an important book for me personally: If I could see myself and my husband in it, we would be in the roles of Marie’s parents… albeit decades younger and inhabiting a very different, much ore connected world. But it makes me wonder how our different cultures will impact our marriage, where we live, how we get along with each other’s families.

Marie Arana has written a lyrical, vivid memoir that is engrossing and speaks to relevant themes in today’s world. American Chica is an excellent book I’d recommend to others, and I’ll certainly read her novels in the future.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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