Grounding and grandmothers in a gentrifying Denver

Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s rich debut story collection centers young female protagonists.

 

Many of the young female protagonists in Sabrina & Corina, Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s poised, rich debut story collection, grow up in fractured families, in which one parent leaves, dies or simply fails at the job. But these families’ roots run generations deep in Colorado, and often a grandmother brings stability through her staunch love and practical caregiving, offering simple remedies derived from a Mexican-American or Indigenous heritage: garlic for warts, potato slices on temples for headaches, herbs instead of brain-addling fentanyl for the pain of cancer patients, and for “a cold or a broken heart … a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.”

Although these women demonstrate abundant love, they are far from stereotypical or saccharine characters. One, armed with a gun, defends her home from an intruder, and all of them tell it like is. The grandmother in the title story says her granddaughter’s absentee father “was a nobody — some white guy with a name like a stuffy nose, Stuart or Randall.”

Fajardo-Anstine’s protagonists might struggle to pass their history exams or revert, for a night, to their youthful graffiti days, but they still feel grounded. They may not know exactly where they’re going, but they know who they are and where they belong as surely as they know the traditions that will mark each rite of passage. In the title story, Corina explains, “I had experienced enough Cordova deaths to know one pot was filled with green chili, another with pintos, and the last one with menudo. Deaths, weddings, birthdays — the menu was always the same.” They watch with a kind of astonishment as Denver gentrifies, and neighborhoods known for decades as the Westside or the Northside become the “Highlands.” “Since the newcomers had started moving to Denver,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “they’d changed the neighborhood names to fit their needs, to sound less dangerous, maybe less territorial.”

In many of these expertly crafted stories, there’s one woman whose life, or untimely death, serves as a cautionary tale. In the title story, Sabrina is strangled, and her cousin and former best friend, Corina, contemplates her short life and tragic death. Corina wonders why she escaped Sabrina’s fate; was it because she was not as pretty and therefore perhaps not as self-destructive or attractive to dangerous men? “These pretty girls,” the funeral director tells Corina, “they get themselves into such ugly situations.” Corina is determined to buck tradition rather than become yet another victim of the “line of tragedies” so many women in her family endured. “The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore,” she decides.

In the haunting “Sisters,” Fajardo-Anstine transports readers to Denver in 1955, where teenage sisters Doty and Tina Lucero live in a duplex off Federal Boulevard. They moved to the city from southern Colorado when their mother took up with an “older Anglo rancher” who gave the girls unwelcome attention. Now they are both working as receptionists, and Tina is determined to marry well to secure her future, while Doty “had no interest in men.” But at a time when men control most aspects of public life, pretty, Patsy Cline-loving Doty struggles to escape a persistent suitor.

In the affecting story “Tomi,” Nicole returns from La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, where she spent time for crashing her car through “an elderly couple’s picture window at four in the morning.” Nicole comes home to the Denver house her brother, Manny, inherited when their father died. Manny’s wife has left him, and his son, Tomi, is adrift — overweight, failing his reading class, and spending all his time playing video games. Nicole, who years ago stole money meant for Tomi’s education, unexpectedly becomes a good influence on him, though her brother is the only person who believes she’s a decent person at heart.

In “Ghost Sickness,” Ana is trying to make a better life for herself but is in danger of failing her “History of the American West” class. “If she fails,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “she’ll lose her scholarship, the displaced fund, given to the grandchildren of Denver residents, mostly Hispano, who once occupied the Westside neighborhood before it was plowed to make way for an urban campus.” Although historical facts elude Ana on the final, a Diné creation story her wayward boyfriend once told her saves the day.

In story after story, characters who are on the verge of slipping into the abyss are saved from it somehow, mainly by the profound pull of indestructible family ties and shared culture in the form of stories, rituals and remedies. Wealthy newcomers may keep coming to Colorado, Sabrina & Corina suggests, but their money can’t buy the sense of heritage and interconnectedness shared by the Latino and Indigenous residents they’re displacing. 

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardianand McSweeney’s. She is on the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -