In Search of Kerouac's Mexican Girl
A conversation with author Tim Hernandez.
In 1955, The Paris Review paid $50 for an excerpt from an unpublished novel by Jack Kerouac. That excerpt, which ran as a short story titled "The Mexican Girl," concerned a man named Sal Paradise and his two-week romance with Terry, a beautiful Mexican woman from a family of California grape pickers who is trying to escape an abusive husband. Kerouac hit pay dirt: The story was featured in The Best American Short Stories the next year, and Viking Press published the novel in 1957. That oft-rejected manuscript became the legendary “Beat” classic On the Road, Kerouac's deeply autobiographical celebration of American individualism. Many writers have been influenced by it, perhaps none more so than Fresno native Tim Z. Hernandez. But it was the Mexican Girl who eventually captured his imagination, leading him on a journey to find the real Terry, a woman named Bea Franco. The award-winning writer found more than he could have imagined, and was inspired to create his own “Mexican Girl.” In his new novel, Mañana Means Heaven (University of Arizona Press), he fictionalizes the love affair between Franco and Kerouac. HCN correspondent Daniel A. Olivas recently spoke with Hernandez.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS When you first read Jack Kerouac's On the Road, did Terry enter your imagination, or did it take a while for her to become what some might call a literary obsession? What was it about Terry that fascinated you?
Tim Z. Hernandez I first read OTR as a teenager, read it again in my mid-20s, and then once more for a class at Naropa University, and that was when Terry/ Bea Franco first registered for me. The professor said that in some way, all of us writing students were an extension of that OTR lineage. I left class feeling skeptical, since by then my own mentors were writers like Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, and Victor Martinez – who had emerged from the "Floricanto generation" – the Chicano literary and arts movement that emerged in the late 1960s. I opened OTR and started searching for something that I could identify with. The "Mexican Girl" section caught my attention. I was fascinated by the fact that I knew this woman. Not personally, but I knew the people, the landscape, and the reality of her situation. I started right away to see if there was any information about who she was. There wasn't much. After a few hours of searching, I had this idea to write a fictional account about her.
HCN In your hunt for Bea Franco, did you ever worry that your search was keeping you from writing your novel?
TZH Not in the beginning. When the idea was still to create a purely fictional account, the writing was flowing smoothly. It wasn't until I got to around 100 pages into what I now call the "highly fictional" version that I realized I had to put down my pen and do some more digging. In one of the Kerouac biographies, I read that Franco had some letters housed at the Kerouac archives in New York. I just couldn't get myself to write until I saw those letters. In June of 2009, I went to New York, and as soon as her letters were in my hand, I could instantly see the Selma and Fresno area that I knew so well. I put the writing on hold for a little more than a year, and I completely immersed myself in the search. I even hired a private investigator at one point, but to no success. A few months later I found her. She was living about one mile from my house, there in Fresno. The fictional account was put on hold indefinitely and I started all over, beginning with our interviews.
HCN Your fictionalized story of Franco's relationship with Kerouac includes quotes from Franco’s letters to Kerouac. Did you rely on interviews with her, too?
TZH For the first time ever, four of her letters to Kerouac are published in their entirety in my book. But because Bea was 90 years old when I interviewed her, her memory was spotty, so I had to build the timeline based on when her letters were dated, and based on dates Kerouac had in his journals. In fact, this is how the whole book was written. The real difficulty was in trying to capture Bea's voice in the telling of her story. Sometimes during our interviews, she would go into long-winded anecdotes about her first husband and her father, and how cruel these two men were, and I knew the only way to do the book justice would be to capture some of her own train of thought in the narrative. My hope is that the reader gets the impression that she is the one telling you the story at times.
HCN What does Kerouac's fictional treatment of Franco tell you about him? About literary license?
TZH Kerouac's version only serves Kerouac's story, and I guess the only thing this really tells me is that he's a writer. Although I had combed numerous Kerouac biographies for information, I couldn't allow myself to be swayed by their interpretations. I did my own extensive research and came to my own conclusions about who Bea Franco really was/is. In the end, we decided to label it fiction because I had to fill in gaps where memory was elusive, but even so, my fictional account of Bea Franco is closer to who she really was/is than any nonfiction out there. As a result, this book is less about "Kerouac's girlfriend" and more about Bea Franco, and the difficult choices a Latina in the 1940s had to make in order to survive, to forge a decent life for herself and her children.
Editor’s note: On Aug. 15, Beatrice Kozera – Bea Franco – died in Lakewood, Calif., at the age of 92. Just a few days earlier, Tim Z. Hernandez had tweeted a photograph of Bea holding a copy of his new novel, Mañana Means Heaven. Its cover bears an image of her younger self.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press). Olivas's seventh book, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews, is forthcoming from San Diego State University Press. On Twitter @olivasdan.