Oct 12, 2011

When Beth Alvarado was a child in the Fifties, her parents moved to Grand Junction, Colorado at the time, a uranium hotbed. They came with a proud legacy: They were from a line of people who had seized opportunity and done well.

The family roots are pre-Revolutionary War. One grandmother had been a Mormon pioneer, another, a store-bought bride. A gambling grandfather won a handsome family home in Hayward, California. Through the generations, gambling and hard work had paid off. By the 1950's, the family was upper class, propertied and educated.

"The landscape of my childhood," Alvarado writes, "is tree-lined and green." In winter, "shadow blue ski trails wind through the streets." In summer, she swam in Grand Junction's Country Club pool. Her parents wouldn't allow her to swim in the public pool where just anyone could swim.

Her family didn't often say what they thought. There were baffling silences. In Anthropologies, Alvarado puzzles out the family silences, sketching a legacy of sorrow woven into the successes: One grandmother, the mother of nine, slipped into silence when her husband abandoned her for his mistress; one philandering grandfather sat watch for hours while his wife suffered from stroke, only calling for help when it was too late. Secrets a child senses. Silence and bitterness can get passed through generations.

In 1968, the family moved to Tucson, and fourteen year old Beth met Fernando. She was taking summer art classes, he the Mexican waiter at a banquet. They hooked up. Literally. Got high in Tucson's Barrio Hollywood, where the junkies wore dark glasses como el James Dean. By the time she was eighteen she had needle tracks on her arms. Hoping to get her "back on track," her parents sent her to Europe, but she was in love with Fernando. When Beth abandoned her silent family, preferring Fernando's lively one, her mother cut her losses. "Take only what you can carry," she said.

The obstacles were huge: heroin addiction; recovery; racial prejudice. On the Southside, Beth faced hostility, and it was personal. "I can't help it if I'm white," she told Fernando. "I'm not responsible for all of the misery in the world." He said, "White people aren't the only people who can be prejudice."

Anthropologies is a love story. It's the story of two people who choose to stand by each other, building a three decade marriage, blending customs, raising children, and grappling with those treacherous questions: what does it mean to be an insider and an outsider even within one's own family.