Loving Pedro Infante tells the story of Teresina Ávila,
or Tere, a divorced thirtysomething teachers’ aide in
Cabritoville, New Mexico. Tere has a mother who’s always there
for her, a best friend she can tell anything to, a string of romantic
failures, and mixed feelings about her job, but what really defines
her life is her passion for Pedro Infante, the long deceased Mexican
movie star. In meetings of the Pedro Infante Club de Admiradores
Norteamericano #256 (for which Tere takes the minutes), in trips to
the El Colon movie theater to see Pedro’s classics on the big
screen, and in weekly VCR Pedro-athons with her best friend, Tere
escapes from her day-to-day problems by studying, analyzing, and
reveling in every nuance of Infante’s life and films.
For those who don’t know him (and be warned: Chávez has
some harsh words for you), Pedro Infante was an actor and singer who
enjoyed the same status in Mexico that Elvis Presley had in the United
States – and, like Presley’s, his legend has grown since
his premature death (in a 1957 plane crash). He made several dozen
movies in the 1940’s and 50’s, in which he played
characters tragic and comic, but always romantic. Tere and her
friends, especially Irma (also known as “La Wirms”—host of the
Pedro-athons) superimpose Pedro’s roles onto their own lives, so
that every situation they encounter and every emotion they experience
is seen in light of how Pedro would have handled it, or how he did
handle something similar in a movie. At times they’ll go even
farther, and look at recurring patterns in Infante’s life as a
way of understanding abstract issues in their own—for example,
Infante’s predilection for young blondes becomes a metaphor for
the problems plaguing Chicanas’ self-images.
Over the course of the novel—which is closer to a
stream-of-consciousness string of anecdotes than a linear story—Tere meets, falls in love with, and tortures herself over a
married man named Lucio Valadez. Although wealthy, ambitious, and
enamored of his young daughter, Lucio doesn’t have much to
recommend him. He makes Tere miserable, tells her again and again that
he doesn’t love her, and breaks up with her repeatedly only to
call whenever he’s feeling lonely. Consequently, Tere’s
life reads like a soap opera, and one that she intentionally
perpetuates. It’s hard to sympathize with the pain Lucio causes
her, when she can list all the reasons why he’s bad for her and
then beg him to take her back anyway. Part of the problem here is that
Lucio never comes alive for the reader; for all that we hear Tere
wailing about him, we rarely see the man and almost never hear him
speak. We get no sense of what attracts her to him, and so her
suffering over him seems both misguided and unnecessary, a drama she
invents to keep herself from getting bored.
There are some piercing episodes in that drama, however. Chávez
knows how to make hay of a potentially dreary scenario. In the scene
in which Tere first makes love with Lucio, Chávez is both funny
and insightful on the subject of what women bring to such encounters.
The pair meet and tumble into bed relatively quickly, and as she
narrates, Tere can’t get over the speed. “I wasn’t
prepared,” she complains. “I hadn’t shaved my legs. Things
happened so fast I didn’t have time to worry about how clean I
was or if I smelled down there or if my legs were like sandpaper ” She
is unprepared for the coupling emotionally and spiritually as well as
physically, and Chávez depicts this with warmth and compassion.
Tere is the sort of romantic who wants life to measure up to Pedro
Infante’s movies. What she gets instead is hurried sex with a
married man on a night when she knows she’s not at her best.
The entire novel is narrated in Tere’s voice, which is at times
very effective but too often problematic. Tere’s faults as a
narrator are manifold. Lucio forces her to carry a dictionary around
with her, and to learn ten new words a day, as a way of improving
herself. We are reminded of her unsophisticated vocabulary every few
pages, as she misuses or mispronounces (or misspells, in the textual
equivalent) words. Tere seems most comfortable speaking in informal
Spanglish — often without translation, which may be a problem
for readers unfamiliar with Spanish. She is prone to cutesy
euphemisms, as when she refers to male genitalia as different kinds of
Mexican food (“his flauta,” “his chimichanga,” “his huevos,” etc.).
And yet, as narrator, she’ll occasionally lapse into formal
English diction, using phrases like “belied her formidable girth” or
correctly distinguishing between “who” and “whom.” These
inconsistencies in voice, while small in themselves, are jarring
— the more so because Chávez goes to such lengths to
emphasize Tere’s down-home way of talking.
Chávez has some incisive points to make, most particularly
concerning the tendency women (Chicanas in particular, but also women
in general) have of putting men at the center of their lives. Yet on
the whole, Loving Pedro Infante is a jangly, unsatisfying read.
While Tere is a likable character, she makes so many wrong choices,
and takes so many implausible turns, that I often found her whiny and
irritating. Some of this might be blamed on timing; I read this book
in mid-September, 2001, when Tere’s man-problems could not help
but seem trivial in light of larger world events. Yet by the same
token, if the novel had really spoken to me, Tere’s search for
love might have seemed the most important thing in the world.
Sometimes a compelling story can make the rest of the universe easier
to bear, as Tere and her friends know only too well.