The inspiration for American Copia comes (according to Javier Huerta’s preface, at least) from Huerta’s citizenship interview. As part of the “English test”, he was asked to write the sentence “Today, I’m going to the grocery store.” At the time, Huerta was an English major in college, and so to add a flourish to the interview, he marked the scansion of the line, and pointed out that it is in iambic pentameter. This tension between the immigrant Spanish speaker and the English Lit buff pervades Huerta’s work, and it is not unusual for him to reference Keats while describing the aisles of the Fiesta supermarket.
According to the preface, Huerta promised the aforementioned immigration official that he would write an epic starting with the line “Today, I’m going to the grocery store,” and this book sets out to do that. Grocery shopping is a major theme, and through it Huerta explores issues of class, culture, family and literature. The book as a whole cuts back and forth between “American Copia” episodes, in which he collects short prose anecdotes based on grocery shopping, giving brief asynchronous flashes of his life and relationships, jumping between time and place. Huerta sees shopping and food as windows into all sorts of experiences and issues—family and relationships weave throughout the scattered narrative. One episode describes how Marisol, a pregnant Yale student, steals a shopping cart to keep next to her apartment, just in case it is the only way to get to the hospital when she goes into labor. This observation, both humorous and serious, highlights the juxtaposition seen throughout much of the work—privilege and poverty, the lyrical and the mundane.
Other short works fill out the book: a short drama, many poems, pieces of short fiction. Huerta switches fluidly between English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Especially in dialogue, English and Spanish sit comfortably side-by-side in what I imagine (though I am no expert) is an accurate rendition of dialogue in a bilingual culture. Therefore, reader, you will find much of this work difficult to access if your Spanish is rusty, but that’s part of the point—this work is not for everyone. This is emphasized early on in an episode that concludes
I remember also one time when Saul and his friends were watching music videos and “Fiesta” by R. Kelley came on. In the video R. Kelley is at a party, and he and all of his entourage chant, “Fiesta, fiesta.” Then one of my brother’s friends said, “Hey, fu, sería más tight if they sing, ‘la michoacana, la michoacana.’” And we laughed. We started dancing and chanting “la michoacana.” We could not stop laughing. It was a joke not meant for you.
In all, I found the book very interesting, but I didn’t feel much emotional connection. Great poetry stands out for me when I feel an emotion sting acutely while reading, or come across a line which stays with me all day because it is so true. Nevertheless, I can’t judge Huerta’s work by these standards—it is clear that though I may appreciate it, this book is not for me, nor does it have an obligation to be. And I do, certainly, appreciate Huerta’s wit, style, and insight.