by Amanda LaMadrid
We’ve come a long way from the days in which children were to be ‘seen and not heard.’ Though the independence and value of childhood is more celebrated in today’s age, many young people, particularly those on the margins of their communities, grapple with the decision to choose peace or provocation – to stay invisible or to disrupt the still water. In Donna Miscolta’s short story collection, “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories,” Angie Rubio, a smart Mexican-American girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, searches for her place and for herself during a period of civil unrest not unlike the one we find ourselves in today.
We first meet Angie in kindergarten, and stick with her for over a decade of her life in thirteen chronological short stories that do the work of framing small, character-defining moments in the context of the civil rights era and the Cold War. The collection shines when Angie’s actions and reactions, and those of the people around her, are used to tell a larger story of being young and brown in ‘60s and ‘70s America.
Angie understands her position in the world early on in her life. In the story “Monster,” the elementary-aged protagonist finds a new playmate in her white neighbor, Susie Wren. As the only brown girl in the room, Angie is wary of a game proposed by Susie called ‘Prettiest Girl’ before she even knows the rules. Susie goes on to establish that she, of course, will play the titular ‘prettiest girl in the world,’ and that Lou Ann, their other playmate, will be the ‘handsome prince’ who saves her. Resigned before she asks the question on her mind, Angie nevertheless prompts Susie – “saves you from what?” – to which Susie replies, “the ugly monster,” a role reserved for Angie.
In Susie’s games, Angie is always relegated to roles such as mailman, grave robber, burglar, wicked stepmother, etc., often playing the antagonist to her paler counterparts. Angie’s response to the casual racism is to attend school in her prettiest dress in an effort to feel like the princess for a change, and then finally to cut Susie out and tell her ‘no’ when she asks Angie to come play. It’s an early example of Angie’s burgeoning but strong sense of self, which will persist and come to define key moments in her life in which she will refuse to compromise who she is in order to accommodate the norms of the ‘popular.’ Angie stands up for herself, and though she will come a long way in accepting and understanding that she doesn’t need to emulate ‘Miss America’ to be celebrated, she knows from a young age that she doesn’t have to take what the world is dishing out to her.
That defiant but quiet confidence grows bolder as Angie navigates high school, where she truly comes into her own. Prior to her entry into that “unfun funhouse,” she has already promised herself in the story “Class Play” that she will someday “narrate her own story.” As she begins freshman year in “Extracurricular Activities,” she is excited to “solve the problem of her and her invisibleness.” As a Mexican-American girl in a big family, displaced several times growing up due to her father’s position in the Navy, Angie often feels overlooked and invisible. It’s a current running through this collection of her experiences, and one that persists regardless of where she is. In Hawaii, she looks more like the invisible Hawaiians than her non-native schoolmates. In California, she learns quickly that appearance matters more than talent.
Even within her family, Angie often feels like an afterthought, as her parents work to provide for the children, and are often concerned with the little ones, so that Angie and her older sister, Eva (a brilliant character in her own right) begin to make their own paths. Her mother neglects to pass on her Spanish to her children, leading to a conflict in Angie that remains latent but palpable – she is not American enough to fit in with her peers, but she can hardly speak her parents’ native language. Against the backdrop of a charged political landscape, Angie’s quiet search for identity in the face of the world’s apparent indifference leads her to understand the importance of telling her own story. Shy, scrawny, quiet, and brown, she often feels like a fly on the wall in her own life, which leads to a rich interiority from Angie, and which serves as the beating heart of the collection. During her high school years, when Angie’s observations, wit, and needle-sharp commentary move from her brain to the page, it’s immensely rewarding.
Miscolta’s steady prose and keen interest in Angie as the main player in a world just as realized, alive, and colorful as she is make for a unique reading experience that nevertheless feels like coming home. “Living Color” is historical fiction, but through the lens of being a girl in the civil rights era, the age of the hippies, in a ‘nightly news in living color’ America, an America that has enough in common with today’s to make Angie’s burgeoning power feel not only relevant but urgent. When editor Judy scornfully tells Angie, who has proposed a column on social issues in the school newspaper, that “All the important stuff happened in the ‘60s,” Angie’s maturity and intelligence are apparent. She is simultaneously ahead of her time and exactly where she is supposed to be, and “Living Color” is at its best when it leans into this portrayal of Angie as an artist, a progressive, and herald who still feels and doesn’t shy away from a desire to find her niche in a tempestuous America.
The stories really sparkle during Angie’s time in high school, as she finds her strength and power as a writer and decides she’d rather be seen and heard than invisible. Understanding at this point that there is no peace in staying silent, she makes a pact with herself to be “bold” and “provocative” at this stage in her life, and the reader, cognizant of every moment leading up to this well-earned progression, roots for her to “go, fight, [and] win.”
Amanda Lamadrid is an MFA candidate at the University of Miami with a B.A. in English – Creative Writing from the University of South Florida, where she completed a creative non-fiction thesis on her family’s journey from Cuba to the U.S. She writes both fiction and creative non-fiction, with an interest in hybrid work. She is an alum of VONA/Voices and is currently at work on fiction novel with historical elements.