In the opening chapters of Juliana Delgado Lopera’s Fiebre Tropical, 15-year-old Francisca has just moved from Colombia to Miami, where she lives in an ugly townhouse with her mother, sister, and grandmother. She likes smoking and reading Sylvia Plath, whose suffocating sadness goes well with Francisca’s black eyeliner. She doesn’t like wearing dresses. Her mother, who packed two jars of holy water on the flight, has now abandoned Catholicism for an evangelical church and hired a pair of professional black-clad “lloronas” to mourn (at a cost of $15 an hour) the baby she miscarried 17 years ago. Meanwhile, her younger sister plays Christian rock on repeat, and her aged grandmother, who has a not-so-secret boyfriend, drinks rum all afternoon out of a Sprite can.
The tropical fever of the book’s title refers not only to Miami’s oppressive heat, but also to the community’s manic devotion to Jesucristo, and Francisca’s own feverish love for Carmen, the pastor’s daughter. Both hilarious and quietly sad, Fiebre Tropical explores the fractious relationship between religious faith and same-sex desire. In its refusal to exoticize Latin America or to translate for monolingual English speakers, it also successfully avoids some of migrant writing’s biggest clichés.
Delgado Lopera’s novel reads in some ways like a pointed rejoinder to the perhaps best known “Spanglish” novel, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Delgado Lopera’s book has a similar structure, moving back in time through three generations, starting with a misfit teenager who recently migrated to the United States. It too has an unreliable narrator that speaks directly to fellow Latinxs and playfully invites non-Latinx readers to do their research (“now, damas y caballeros, if you don’t know who El Chacal is, I dare you to google it”). The difference is that, unlike Díaz’s novel, with its hyperbolically macho narrator, Delgado Lopera’s is populated almost entirely by women (the Martínez Juans are a “five-to-one female-to-male ratio familia”) and the novel is addressed, more often than not, to a woman reader. Though they seem, sometimes, to be barely holding it together, the women in Francisca’s family look after each other in quiet ways and are united by their sadness, which belongs not to any one individual but rather to “the larger collective Female Sadness jar to which we all contributed.”
This almost total absence of male energy is refreshing, especially as the men who do merit a mention tend to be either absent or plain disappointing. Two such characters are Francisca’s adolescent admirers: Pablito, the Star Trek fan next door she uses for cigarettes, and her short-lived boyfriend, Wilson, an “awkward bag of bones” who “smelled like balls.” Of her father, Francisca merely notes: “Homeboy was there and then he wasn’t.” The loss of her virginity is mentioned in passing as vaguely humorous: “I chuckled at the thought of him,” Francisca says. “So tiny and desperate.” In contrast, the brief moment when Carmen sucks on her earlobe swells to monumental proportions. Francisca’s attraction to the other girl feels like “swallowing the rain,” transforming her into a vessel for an endless storm. She is horny, scared, and ashamed of her fantasies, in part because Carmen herself wears t-shirts that say “Got Jesús?” and tries to convince her to join a church that is openly homophobic.
Meanwhile, both Francisca’s mother, Myriam, and her grandmother, “La Tata,” have gone from being privileged but ambitious young women to their family’s sole breadwinners. Each ends up struggling to make ends meet, and their physical and mental health suffers for it: Myriam’s depression and her grandmother’s alcoholism form a tragic backdrop to Francisca’s occasionally trivial preoccupations. In chapters that narrate the family’s past, we learn that La Tata refused countless suitors who presented themselves to her well-to-do Cartagena parents––some because they didn’t fit her caricatured understanding of masculinity––before eventually marrying a man who allowed the family fortune fall into the hands of narcos. Years later, forced to move to Bogotá with her mother and live a more modest lifestyle, Myriam developed a teenage friendship with a rich “niña de papi” whose father was in business with cartel gangsters, an anecdote that goes some way to explaining her entrenched classism. These two incursions into the family’s past serve to bring Colombia’s history of drug crime to the fore, but they nevertheless feel underdeveloped, never quite managing to fold themselves constructively into the main arc of the narrative, but rather unraveling a series of threads that are then left loose.
On the other hand, one satisfying thing about Fiebre Tropical is that it does not bait American readers with the lure of the exotic south. It avoids the tendency to “tropicalize” Latin America—a term used by bilingual Latina writers Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman to refer to how “Latinidad” is constructed via imagery of passion, heat and “spice,” rendering Latinxs as an objectified foreign “other.” Rather, the emphasis here is on how inextricably entwined the cultures of Bogotá and Miami really are. The tired depiction of migration as a surreal, paradigm-shifting mega-event is cast aside, and instead, its sheer mundanity is highlighted: “It was all so different and yet so similar and yet so boring. I noticed these slight differences with zero excitement. They passed right through me.”
Francisca’s family does not leave Colombia for economic reasons or to escape a lack of opportunity—her mother was the manager of a multinational insurance company, and in the opening pages laments that their housekeeper wasn’t able to join them on the plane––but to help Myriam get over her divorce. It’s the US, not Colombia, that offers her precious little in the way of employment opportunity. Delgado Lopera’s frank and un-sensationalist depiction of migration is particularly welcome given the recent all-consuming coverage of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a book that has been accused of perpetuating damaging stereotypes and presuming to give a voice to the “faceless brown masses.”
Perhaps most striking about Fiebre Tropical is a performative mixture of English and Spanish that frequently assumes a Colombian reader, specifically a “cachaco,” a resident of Bogotá. The author makes no apologies for using all the linguistic tools at their disposal. Just as Francisca explores the spaces in between genders and sexual orientations, Delgado Lopera explores the spaces in between languages, thereby writing herself into a tradition of Latinxs—Gloria Anzaldúa, Giannina Braschi, Susana Chávez Silverman—who have shown how queer desires and practices can be expressed through bilingualism, or by writing in a language that isn’t your “mother tongue.”
In a recent TED-talk, Delgado Lopera talked about the joy they took in language as a child growing up in Colombia and how that joy disappeared when they moved to the US, where their accent was policed and their writing ridiculed. It wasn’t until they found a queer community in a Latinx bar in San Francisco that they were able to take ownership of their language again. There Spanglish blended creatively with queer slang to construct an idiolect that could be worn on your body like clothes, a personal “language wardrobe.” “We wear glitter on our bodies and glitter on our language,” Delgado Lopera says. “We feel seen.”
Fiebre Tropical may be a little too loose in its structure and character development, but its language––funny and intelligent and fresh––glitters. The excitement and anxiety experienced by its teenage protagonist as she discovers her body’s new shapes and desires are echoed in the molding of language into its own exciting new forms that highlight the many connections, rather than the differences, between the cultures of Colombia and the United States.
Ellen Jones is a researcher, editor, and literary translator from Spanish. Her translation of Bruno Lloret’s Nancy is published by Giramondo Publishing.