Mary Helen Ponce grew up in a Pacoima barrio in the middle of World War II. Hoyt Street is her memoir of the times, the places, the people and the food as she experienced it as a sheltered, bratty, impish, bright, sassy, questioning young girl. She’s bilingual, raised in a household so overflowing with kids that she lives with an adopted abuelita next door, who also helps her mother with laundry (an all-day affair involving cooking starch, cast-iron irons, and a wringer), cooking endless pots of beans and oatmeal and teaching Mary Helen about Mexican folkways and religion.
The prose is naive and the humor is deadpan, but you can see the beginnings of awareness as Mary Helen grows from a toddler to an eighth grader, delighting in games, gossiping about clothes, emulating her chic older sisters who work in offices and factories, and experiencing a bit of the outside world, both its prejudices and opportunities. The facts are presented without comment or apology, much as any kid would describe her neighborhood, her friends, her life (the houses are made of found wood, and not all have indoor plumbing; if you hit your mother, God will shrivel your hand in punishment; everyone has a pile of “yonque” in the backyard, many die of tuberculosis each year). Poverty and discrimination are givens, travelling to Camarillo to pick walnuts is the closest anybody ever comes to a vacation, and life, full of interest and intrigue, revolves around the local Catholic church, Pacoima Elementary, and games of kick-the-can in the street.
Mary Helen Ponce grew up to earn a Ph.D. in American Studies and to teach creative writing at UCSB (she now lives in Sunland and is a grandmother herself). Hoyt Street began as an anthropology project; she calls it a community history; her friends call it her Macondo, à la Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There is a golden shimmer to the work that makes dirt streets, and one pair of shoes a year, sound impossibly idyllic, but as Mary Helen says, she was happy then. Hoyt Street is a time capsule, one girl’s experience of a time that gave rise to Chicano awareness. You can see the glimmers of what is to come through the dusty back alleys, the progressive priest who appears halfway through the book, and the shimmering leaves of the pepper trees that line Hoyt Street.
A colleague at Flintridge Prep turned me on to this book after we both read The Barbarian Nurseries. It makes a great companion to any novel about the contemporary experience of Mexican immigrants/descendants today.
Find it on Amazon here.