Ana Castillo's 'Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home'

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
Share this Post:
author Ana Castillo
author Ana Castillo

"Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home" is the latest collection of short stories by literary legend Ana Castillo. It features seven beautifully told stories that come to life as they seamlessly straddle the cultures and move between locations in the US and Mexico.

The prologue, although brief, strikes just the right chord, inviting the reader to slow down and step into Castillo's world because we are all on this journey together, inching toward wisdom and understanding: "It starts with the journey; as ever, whether Quixote or Kerouac, you are in search of the Divine. In search of Light... Does an ant recognize the elm by the single root it so industriously scurries around?"

In "Cuernavaca," when an architect travels to Mexico and ends up visiting the house his father's musical band The Heartbreakers had rented one summer in their youth, they discover that a ghost story he often retells points toward a disconcerting true event. Familiar tales passed down were only partly told with the most important parts left out, like the imprisonment in Mexico of the band's handsome lead singer.

The reader is left pondering the enormous well of undeveloped and underdeveloped talent in the Hispanic community. The promising band The Heartbreakers in the story, for whatever reason, despite their charisma, reached a certain level of success and no further. Like the hit singer Freddie Fender of the 1970s, to succeed at the time they had to break through so many levels stacked against them, and although Fender was featured singing with Dolly Parton on her TV Show, he still can't get into the Country Music Hall of Fame to this day.

In "Ven," a gay man retraces the life of his accomplished sister, a professor in Chicago, after she dies suddenly. Everyone assumes she was single with no children, but the truth is far more complex. We are astonished to learn otherwise. In reading through her papers, her brother pieces together clues into her secret life in Mexico, and he encounters a secret child she had given birth to and was raising.

The title story, "Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home," set in Chicago in the 1970s, centers around an intelligent, down to earth character. Although alienated, even within her own family, the 18-year-old main character attends a dictatorial school in working class Chicago and must deal with equally dictatorial immigrant parents. In a family devoid of affection and with no real allies, she has just graduated from high school the first person in her family to do so. She takes part in the graduation ceremony in borrowed shoes painfully small for her to meet the school's strict dress code for the event. None of her guests bothered to attend.

After graduation, her emotionally distant father sends her to Mexico to try to bring back her runaway mother. In the squalor of an affordable tenement her grandmother calls home, she discovers her mother is living with the love of her life: another woman. In just a few months they have built a secret life together and have found acceptance in an LGBTQ enclave in Mexico City.

At times almost satirical, the story arc takes sharp turns and bends as we get to know their community of friends as they market their Dona Cleanwell cleaning products.

These are timeless tales of unmet potential, family secrets, hardships, insecurities, acceptance, judgmental gossip, and true love that insure that "Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home" will surely stand the test of time.

'Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home' by Ana Castillo. $22.39

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.