By Carmen Baca
Paperback, 233 pages, © 2022
Fourteen-year-old Bella is bored. A visit to her grandmother’s ranch in New Mexico leaves her with nothing to do in the evenings, so she climbs into the abandoned attic in search of a book. Instead, she falls into a photograph in an old album. She’s not prepared for the adventure that follows. But when the inhabitants task her with a life-long mission, Bella must search inside herself for the strength and determination to carry it out.
Bella’s story takes place in the world of the forgotten. This is where all forgotten souls go when they die: relatives no one remembers or talks about, mythological characters whose stories have been lost, animals whose existence has been erased from memory. Through their meetings with Bella, we hear their stories again, and learn of real cultural icons, as well as ways of life in a culture that, in Bella’s real world, is also being lost.
The major theme of El Mundo is cultural erasure. When done by a predominant social group, this is a timeworn and common means of domination over minority groups. It starts in such an insidious fashion, with seemingly insignificant things like suppressing the old tales so that eventually, they are forgotten. Then it progresses to things like ruling against the practice of a native religion or forbidding the use of native languages. But culture is constructed of many threads, like strands in an intricate tapestry. If one or more of those threads is pulled out, it diminishes or even destroys the whole, just as it demeans the people from whom it grew.
In Bella’s world outside El Mundo, all the stories parents once told their children have been forgotten. The old ways and practices of daily living have been lost. Bella has even been forbidden to speak Spanish in her school, so her parents and older siblings all speak English at home to make it easier for her. By the time Bella falls into the photograph, she has nearly forgotten how to speak her native language at all—an unacceptable situation which her abuelo—her grandfather, who lives in the World of the Forgotten—is determined to reverse. Baca uses Spanish in select spots throughout the book, most of which I was able to understand in context; at first, I was confused by its use in this way, but as the message of the story became clear, so did the author’s purpose in her word/language choices. It wouldn’t be the same story without that detail.
I found it charming to read the tales in El Mundo, to learn of Tom the Trickster Coyote and his friend Jack the Jackalope, Santa Muerte, La Serpiente, El Coco, La Llorona, and all the others, some of them from stories told to children by their parents to keep them in line. I loved reading about Bella’s abuelo, who she’d never even known about. His customs and practices made me long for a simpler life. Or Bella’s tía, her aunt, who made Bella feel welcome and loved perhaps for the first time in her short life.
There is much to love in this story, but don’t come to it expecting complex plot lines and fast-paced reading. El Mundo is a delightful, uncomplicated story full of old-world allure, and it might just teach you a thing or two.