The Girls in My Town
(University of New Mexico Press, 2016)
Angela Morales’s debut collection of autobiographical essays paints a portrait of a complicated Mexican-American family in 1970s Los Angeles with soft humor and unflinching honesty. Confronting questions about life, memory, and the significance of why we remember the things we remember, The Girls in My Town is a coming-of-age story that takes the reader from childhood to motherhood and reveals how the author discovered her voice as a writer. Writing truthfully about grim realities, Morales offers reassuring reminders to look for the beauty hidden within dark and dismal landscapes.
Self-sufficient, introverted, and a fiercely tenacious girl, Morales views the world as a dangerous and uncertain place with little room for weakness. Serving as the primary caretaker of her siblings, herself, and her beloved dogs, Morales is conscious, at a unusually young age, of her independence: “if all the adults should die suddenly in some adult only plague” she could have “survived very comfortably, much more naturally than other girls and boys” her age. Before entering junior high Morales shopped at the grocery store, used a sharp knife, and finished her homework “without a parent nagging” her about it. This early sense of independence instilled an acute awareness of the power she had to shape her future: “I knew that my life belonged to me and that if I wanted a good life, I would have to work hard.”
In “Gunslinging” and “Chief Little Feather, Where Are You?” Morales characterizes her relationship with a wholly absent father who spent most of his time working at his successful appliance store: “He did not belong to me in the way that some dads belong to their daughters or vice versa… Outside of those walls, he simply evaporated.” What Morales does best in these essays is to create moments of “yes; exactly” for readers who have shared similar experiences and who can empathize. Giving voice to painful universal experiences such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, abandonment, and divorce, Morales illuminates the raw emotions behind these events with such immediacy and clarity that readers are not only able to identify with her sentiment but are even driven to re-examine their own feelings and experiences.
Reflecting on her childhood, teenage years, and experiences of sexual assault and harassment, Morales expresses a vital necessity she has, as a mother, to inform her young children of the reality that dangerous people exist. “Do I have a choice?” Morales asks. “My children learned words in this order: Mama, Papa, Sun, Moon, Kidnapper… safety is nothing but an illusion.” Morales believes that growing up ignorant and oblivious to the harsh realities of life is the biggest danger of all.
Morales ends her collection with the essay, “The Girls in My Town,” in which she describes observing a group of teenagers from the “Bad Girls School” while pushing her daughter in a stroller. Morales depicts these girls as if they are prisoners completing their “one mile forced march.” Examining these girls from a distance, Morales situates herself as an outside spectator—someone who does not share the same fate as the teenage mothers. This essay centers around the extent to which our lives are predestined by circumstances beyond our control. Morales explains,
most of their babies’ fathers will not marry them. Most will continue living in poverty as single mothers. The majority of their children will have learning and behavioral problems. Some of those babies will end up right here, back on this very same track.
Morales notes that most American women are now unburdened by many traditions, have access to birth control pills, and attend integrated schools with specialized programs and guidance counselors who support the successes of students of color. Nevertheless, despite these progressive strides, Morales calls attention to the limited opportunities faced by many young women born into generational poverty. While the girls in her town may have more choices than their grandmothers did when they were young, the odds are still “stacked so high against them” because “when you’re young and you’re poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find.”
The essay closes with a scene from the night Morales gave birth to her daughter. She shares a hospital room with another new mother who is only 14. Despite being 17 years apart, Morales characterizes the common ground they both shared as new mothers. Morales gives birth to her daughter at the age of 31, but what exactly separates her from her peers? What allows her to escape the same fate as most other Mexican-American girls in her town? Readers can speculate: was it the fact that Morales did not grow up in poverty? Or perhaps it was because she didn’t “look for love in all the wrong places,” didn’t become pregnant at the whim of “love or revenge.” Morales characterizes how poverty shapes lives, but never addresses whether her own circumstances of growing up in a financially secure family played a role in forming her motherhood.
Recognized for its excellence and universality, The Girls in My Town is winner of the 2017 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and winner of the 2014 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Encouraging readers to find compassion in unexpected places, Morales’s voice embodies triumph, hope, and growth in the face of hardship. In recalling Sandy, her cherished dog who was hit by a car, Morales uses delicate and poetic prose to capture the painful experience of watching her beloved companion pass away: “Seeing you through a blur of tears, morning sunlight through water, shards of soft glass.” Through intimate and heart-wrenching storytelling, Morales provides a deeply personal reflection on the beauty and light that can be still be found within a broken and dangerous world.