River of Angels
(Arte Público Press, paperback )
This third novel by Alejandro Morales is a compelling, evocative portrait of two very different families whose lives become intertwined through their children, in ways both loving and tragic.
Set in the 19th and 20th centuries, River of Angels is also the story of a burgeoning U.S. city divided by a dangerous river yet linked by bridges and marriages, as well as shifting economic, cultural and racial balances.
Los Angeles today is divided by many ethnic, political and financial lines. And these divisions have been defined not only by major currents and undercurrents in California and American history but also by the river powerfully described in Morales’s book: El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, “The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.”
The completion of a bridge over that river in 1887 provided a more convenient way for people to cross from either side, the author makes clear. But the bridge also helped set discriminations into easier motion.
“Most of the Los Angeles residents and people in neighboring communities were soon enjoying the convenience the bridge offered,” Alejandro Morales writes. “Laborers who worked on the west side of the river used the bridge every day to return to their dwellings on the east side. On certain days and hours during the week, it seemed that only workers moved back and forth across the river. Mexicans, blacks and Chinese had settled in the center of the city around the old plaza. However, that was changing, and [after the bridge was built] there was a deliberate and obvious push to house Mexicans on the east side of the river. The City Council made it easier for Mexicans to buy property and build houses on the Eastside.”
Some years later, a savage storm and flooding washed away the first bridge, and two more were built. Meanwhile, as this tale of families makes clear, the growth of Los Angeles’ Anglo population continued to push and squeeze minority groups, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Chinese and Japanese, out of their homes and businesses and into other areas of the city.
“The residents of the original Mexican colonias in Los Angeles proper–near La Placita and other sections newly designated as Anglo-only–were evicted and forced to relocate to the immigrant quarters of Los Angeles that were thought of as Mexican reservations,” Morales writes. “The city’s Anglo population needed the Mexicans for labor. The Mexicans had to live near, but not among, the Anglo families.”
That segregation sets up major tensions and drama within this engrossing novel as two families from widely separate realms are forcibly pulled together.
River of Angels delivers a unique and vivid portrait of Los Angeles at some of its worst and best. At the same time, Alejandro Morales skillfully illuminates racial, cultural, political and economic tensions that can be found today in virtually any other American city, whether a river runs through it or not.
— Si Dunn