Fruit of the Drunken Tree
By Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Read April 2019
This is a vivid and engaging book set in Columbia in the time of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and narrated by two major characters, Chula and Petrona.
The book opens with a brief description by 15 year old Chula of a letter she has just received from Petrona, her family’s former housekeeper in Columbia, which includes a photograph of Petrona holding a newborn. The photograph’s date stamp was 9 months after Chula’s family fled Columbia and arrived in Los Angeles when Chula was about 7. Thus we learn that Chula’s family fled Columbia and we become aware that Petrona didn’t.
The book then shifts back to the when Petrona first started working for Chula’s family. The story progresses by alternating narration between Chula and Petrona. Chula (7) and her sister Cassandra (9) live in a well-heeled gated community in Bogota with their mother and father. The father is usually not at home as he works at a distant oil field. Petrona (15) lives with her family in an invasione (land owned by the government on which poor and displaced people have settled) outside Bogota. Chula’s mother prefers to hire girls in this situation for her housekeeper since she grew up in a similar invasione but since had climbed out of poverty.
Through both narrators we hear about the happenings in the two households and get as well bits and pieces of the political and societal turmoil that is the backdrop to the lives of the narrators. The author does a very credible job on the perspectives of each narrator. Chula is somewhat aware of what’s going on through newscasts but is more interested, as expected for any seven year old, in playing Barbies with her sister and spying on the neighbors with her sister and friends. She is also fascinated by the new and very quiet housekeeper, Petrona. Petrona is living a difficult life as her brothers are being seduced into working with the guerillas and/or taking drugs to escape their reality. At the same time, however, she is experiencing the universal trials and tribulations of attraction to a boy she probably should be avoiding. Chula’s mother is intent on helping Petrona rise above her circumstances and even enrolls her in a First Communion class and throws her a First Communion party after the ceremony.
As the story progresses, the family and Petrona are buffeted by increasingly unstable situations. Chula’s family leaves the city briefly and stays with Chula’s maternal grandmother who has improved the original shack in the invasione substantially over the years. Unfortunately they don’t completely escape the fighting between the government, paramilitary, and guerillas (the definition of each not told by Chula or Petrona). While the family is away, Petrona and her boyfriend take up residence in Chula’s house and Chula becomes aware of this but keeps this secret to herself. Petrona’s love interest involves her in a dangerous plot against her employer which turns out very badly for Petrona. In parallel, Chula’s father joins the ever expanding ranks of the kidnapped. A recording of his kidnappers on the phone becomes an essential ingredient to Chula’s family’s successful “Credible Fear Interview” as they enter the US and are accepted as refugees.
Chula’s entries describing the family’s integration into the US is especially riveting. Chula’s remarks in the opening section become more poignant. “US was the land that saved us; Columbia was the land that saw us emerge.” “We understood how little we were worth, how small our claim in the world.” We learn the family gains US citizenship when Chula turns 15. Meanwhile Petrona’s final entry describes her dream to leave someday with her son (to where is not clear) and that she think often of Chula.
The author introduces the reader to a number of aspects of Columbia as experienced by both girls. Among them: Chula’s mother is insistent Petrona take her First Communion but is equally devoted to various supernatural practices. Petrona’s family is of nearly pure Spanish blood and Chula’s mother is Indian. Petrona’s mother’ prejudice based on bloodline makes her especially angry as Chula’s family is wealthy while Petrona’s family essentially has been thrown to the ashes.
The credibility of the vivid descriptions about what things were like during this period and about Columbian culture is due, in part, to the author’s own experiences as she herself grew up in Columbia during the Pablo Escobar period and came to the US as a refugee.
This reader very much appreciates that the author writes without any clear political stand on any of the situations she describes. Rather she tells a story that provides a believable picture of how people try to live in a country with an unstable and generally corrupt government while a drug lord reigns economically through terror and violence. It was impossible for this reader not to reflect on the current “immigration crisis” and wonder what influences our views of it.