by Melissa Hart

Seal, 2009. ISBN 978-1-580-05294-8.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 11/09/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

In Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, Melissa Hart finds her 1970s life in a Los Angeles suburb disrupted when her mother takes her three children and leaves the family's gated community to live in Oxnard, 60 miles away, with her Hispanic lesbian lover. For Melissa, her new life in the poor Latino neighborhood where they settle seems joyous and free. But it is interrupted again when her father appears with a court order for Melissa's custody saying, "You can't grow up parented by two women. It's unnatural."

And so the contradictions and conflicts begin. Melissa's longing to live with her counter-culture mother, rather than with her "normal" father and her stepmother, is maintained as a long thread throughout this memoir of a young girl's rebellion. She is conscious enough to appreciate her stepmother's efforts to be a good mother, but also knows that her father cannot understand her. She portrays her mother as a delightful, independent woman, but one who sometimes wonders how she produced her driven daughter. It takes fine writing and courage to give oneself the contrary, often unsympathetic, image seen in these pages—a young woman struggling to find her own path within very different and contradictory cultural and family expectations.

The secondary theme of Gringa is Melissa's deep desire to join the warm, Chicano community to which her mother seems to belong—a desire that is frustrated by her own middle-class Anglo background. She can't speak fluent Spanish and she has trouble making Hispanic friends. Her first serious boyfriend drinks, does drugs, and is uneducated. His Mexican family disapproves of her because she will not stay in the kitchen with the other women. She begins to see that it's difficult to fit the model of a woman in a large, loving, loud Hispanic family if she doesn't also fit the family's model of a domestic woman. Her insistence on being her individual self alienates her.

This coming-of-age memoir will appeal to women who have had the audacity to be a rebellious teen while at the same time longing for a stable, understanding family. Gringa is well written with hilarious, but real, recipes relating to each chapter. Recommended for young women in high school, as well as older readers.

Melissa Hart teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and memior writing for UC Berkeley's on-line extension division. She lives in Oregon with her husband and her daughter. Visit her website.

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