Rated 5 stars ***** 2014. Arté Publico Press. 267 pp. Includes Author’s Note.
Alex is invited to the Los Angeles Central Library to hear a famous author. Uncomfortable with the crowd Alex decides to explore, and is enthralled by photos from the 1930’s showing the construction of the city’s bridges. Lost in the faces of the Mexican workers, the present fades away and is replaced with the past world of the city of Los Angeles where Abelardo Ríos and his wife Toypurina live at their home bordering El Río de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula (the Los Angeles River) in 1882.
Abelardo learned the ways of the river from his family, the local Indians and from years living at the water’s edge. After forming a successful business with his sons Otchoo and Sol ferrying visitors across the river, the impending growth of the city later led them to form the Sun Construction Company. At the time Otchoo’s name was changed to Oakley Rivers to avoid confusion over mispronunciation of his name.
In time Oakley married a wealthy banker’s wife and has a son. Raised among wealthy whites, Albert eventually falls in love with Louise Keller from a rival construction firm. She challenges him to think about his heritage and, as Albert truly understands for the first time that he is part Mexican, he soon discovers his heritage is a stumbling block to narrow-minded whites intent on keeping Mexicans and other racial groups from becoming successful. As Albert and Louise’s lives become inextricably mixed with hatred and prejudice, the love of family, friends and neighbors keep them from drowning in the depths of despair.
As Morales tells this epochal story of the union of families from different racial backgrounds, he incorporates Lizard people myths from the original Yangna Indian tribe and some fantastical elements, along with the trials, tribulations and successes of the Mexican, Chinese and African immigrants. Also included are historical accounts of events in Los Angeles, the United States and the world.
Readers learn of the many ways in which Mexicans helped create the Los Angeles of today, and gain insights into the sting of racism that, unfortunately, continues to this present time. I was not happy with the way some in the Keller family ignored the racial problem from an extended family member but I could see how Morales may have wanted to show that many people today turn a blind eye to racism, hoping it will go away if it’s ignored.
A copy of “River of Angels” should be in every public and academic library.
Recommended for Adult readers.