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Six 'Unique' Latinas With Stereotypes Aplenty


May 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.
St. Martin's. 320 pages. $24.95.

Ever since the U.S. Census confirmed that Hispanics are a powerful consumer group, few female Hispanic writers have been spared the pitch. The publishing industry was looking for an author who would do for Hispanic fiction what Terry McMillan did for African-American fiction: popularize a cultural experience and turn it into a blockbuster sales success.

With Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's The Dirty Girls Social Club, a first novel about six Latinas who meet in college and remain best friends as their lives unfold, marketers have landed the Latinized version of McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. But whether the book will have the desired impact remains doubtful. For one thing, Dirty Girls is not a powerful, moving book; it's junk-food reading, a chatty, watered-down view of 18- to 34-year-old Latinahood and a failed attempt to dispel stereotypes (just check out the cover for plentiful Jennifer Lopez hotness).

Yet there is something charming about the novel, which has the feel of a night out with the girls that's both comfortable and adventurous. Reading about las sucias, the dirty girls, as the women call their sisterhood, is undeniably fun. But Valdes-Rodriguez doesn't present a complicated view of a multifaceted and complex community, nor does she advance any social causes.

The character who gives the book its voice is Lauren Fernández, a half-Cuban, half-Irish columnist for the fictional Boston Herald. Lauren is obviously modeled after Valdes-Rodriguez, best known in the newspaper industry for her criticism of The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times for their lack of expertise and tact in the coverage of Latinos.

Some of the wittiest parts of the book are insider digs. An editor asks Lauren what ''the Latina people, you know, the Latina community,'' think of protesters outside the newspaper offices. The protesters are angry over a columnist's rants about how the United States should stop allowing Puerto Ricans into the country.

''I don't know,'' Lauren replies, ``but as soon as we all get on our daily conference call this afternoon, I'll ask them and get back to you.''

The editor, who ''twittered and chirped with all the brilliance of a little yellow canary,'' actually believes her: ``He not only believed that all Latinos think the same, but that we all get on the phone with each other every day to plot our next short, swarthy, mysterious, and magical move.''

Some of the best writing comes in the form of snippets from Lauren's newspaper column titled ''My Life.'' Every chapter starts with part of her columns, a testament to Valdes-Rodriguez's newspaper writing talent.

''Sometimes, it's best to move on when something has gotten old and tired. But in the case of our wonderful ballpark, it's better to stay put,'' Lauren muses in an ode to Fenway Park.

With a varied cast of characters, Valdes-Rodriguez aims to show that Latinas embrace a mix of nationalities, heritages, race, religions and sexual orientation. There's Rebecca, the editor of Ella, a Latina women's magazine who is of European and American Indian heritage; Elizabeth, a black Colombian television newscaster who is gay; Sara, a wealthy, blue-eyed Cuban Jew; Amber, a Mexican-American rock singer who considers herself Aztec and changes her name to Cuicatl; and Usnavys, the Puerto Rican vice president of the United Way. But the women are only unique outwardly; their voices sound too much alike.

As for stereotypes, there are plenty in the book: the furniture tastes of poor immigrants, the overdressed Latina and Cuca, a poor Dominican, ''an older woman with bright red hair with gray and black roots, black hot pants, and a leopard-print sweater'' and ''a jangle of cheap bracelets.'' Writing doesn't get more stereotypical than that.

It takes a different set of skills to compose moving literary narrative and create unforgettable characters, and Valdes-Rodriguez doesn't display such talents here, even if she does hit the J. Lo cultural phenomena note well enough. That may be why, despite a bidding war that earned its author $475,000, Dirty Girls may not spark the desired boom.

Or maybe it will. Waiting to Exhale wasn't a particularly deep book either.

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