Peace Corps Writers

at Chusma House

Letters from the Prettiest Girl in Arvin
by Rafaela G. Castro (Brazil 1964–66)
Chusma House Publications
September 2006
162 pages

Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 1979–81)

THERE ARE THREE MAJOR THEMES that thread their ways through this intriguingPrinter friendly version collection of essays by Rafaela Castro. One is related to Rafaela Castro’s experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil. The other two themes have to do with her cultural heritage and the tumultuous relationship between her mother and father.
I was most fascinated with the story of her parents’ migration to California from small rural communities in Texas and New Mexico towards the end of the Great Depression, and their struggles to make ends meet as farm laborers in their new state. As the author writes at the beginning of Essay 4, “We always called ourselves Mexicans when I was growing up, never Mexican American, or Chicano . . .. It was a recurring motif in our dialogue . . .. In Arvin we went to school with white kids whose parents came to California during the dust bowl migration of the 1930s . . .. There was no identity problem among us because we were mostly Okies and Mexicans.”
Years later, looking back on her Peace Corps Volunteer service, the author expresses surprise at the fact that she ever was accepted into the Corps. “Peace Corps Washington, composed of great white men educated in America’s elite universities, wanted the cream of American youth to become the pioneers of the New Frontier in foreign relations. Their ideal volunteer was middle-class, college educated, blond, blue-eyed . . .. In our group, the three young Mexican women and I were an anomaly . . .. Yet, ironically, even though the four of us Mexican women might have been accepted as an administrative oversight, we were absolutely perfect for Peace Corps life. Our cultural heritage, language aptitude, social experiences, and the ability to work extremely hard prepared us well for the rigors of Peace Corps training and for life in South America.”
The major theme of this collection of essays has to do with the description of the relationship between the author’s parents and of her own relationship with her mother. The first essay is a description of a photograph taken of the author’s family and of how the photograph reflects the character of each family member. In describing the early years of her parent’s marriage, “we do know that he had more than one extramarital affair. He was in his early 20s, handsome, and Lola was either pregnant or overweight; there was much bickering and fighting between them in the first few years after my birth.” Earlier, she wrote that “He was almost puritanical in his sexual values and outlooks and wouldn’t allow my mother to be seen in shorts while in public . . .. ” In Essay 8, the author relates that her mother lived with her in an in-law apartment that her husband remodeled for her, but grew discontent and began to complain and eventually moved into a mobile home to live by herself in San Francisco. Her mother eventually died alone there, in her sleep. In spite of the amazing descriptions throughout the book of how hard her mother worked to work through her many disappointments with her marriage and through all of the difficulties she encountered while struggling to make ends meet I sensed the author’s dissatisfaction with her and their relationship at the end of the final essay. In that essay the author writes, “I cannot think of a more mysterious and complicated relationship than that between a mother and her child . . .. ” It is interesting to me that we have such high expectations of our mothers and of our relationships with them, and I wonder sometimes why we do not have the same expectations of our relationships with our fathers.
Overall, I found the essays were a delight to read, refreshing, thoughtful and, yes, very provocative.

Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She just ran in her third Marine Corps Marathon for a personal record and is currently working on a creative non-fictional account of her years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica. She has two daughters, one who is an alumna of George Mason University, the other a senior at same.
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