EDITOR”S NOTE | Voices’ own Claudia Meléndez Salinas is a woman of many talents. In addition to her career as a journalist, she’s also the author of the young adult novel “A Fighting Chance,” published in 2015. This Friday, May 17, from 5-8 p.m., she’ll sign copies of her book at Downtown Book & Sound in Oldtown Salinas — a perfect setting, since the novel is set in Salinas. “A Fighting Chance” tells the story of 17-year-old boxer Miguel Angel, who dreams of becoming a champion and getting his mother and siblings out of their cramped one-bedroom apartment in the Alisal.
We’re taking this opportunity to share an excerpt from the book, and hope you’ll be able to attend the book signing and support this newly opened independent bookstore.
Excerpt from A Fighting Chance | Arte Público Press
Miguel Ángel lifted his head and saw her sitting at the foot of the bed, leaning against the post. She was smoking her favorite brand of cigarettes. The sweet smell of the burning rice paper reached him before the sound of her voice.
“Ita, you startled me again. I thought you were going to give up smoking.”
“I’m too old to abandon this vice. Besides, what good would it do? I’m already dead.”
“Well, yeah, but you’re setting a bad example.”
“Stop changing the subject and tell me what on earth you have under there,” the skinny woman growled, slapping her whip on the bed covers.
“You can probably see for yourself. Why you ask?”
“Because I want you to be honest with me. So tell me, what’s that?”
“It’s a gun, Ita. I’ll give it back soon, OK?”
Miguel Ángel had seen Ita for the first time on his grandmother’s altar many years back. Abuelita Leo kept a picture of her mother surrounded by flowers and candles on a small table by the stove. “This is your great-grandmother, Ita,” she’d told him. Every time he paid a visit, Abue Leo made him say hello to the young woman wearing two ammunition bands crossing her chest. Ita had fought in the Mexican Revolution along with the soldiers of Pancho Villa, and grandma told him she was one of the toughest women in the entire continent.
He was staring at the picture one time when he noticed the woman’s lips began to move. “Hey, muchacho, bring me a cigarrito,” he heard Ita whisper.
He shook his head. The picture was as still as ever, but he had clearly heard something. He turned around to discover his grandma in the bathroom, two rooms away from the kitchen.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” he heard the voice again, the lips of the soldadera moving once more. “There, Leo keeps the cigarettes in the first drawer to the right.”
Miguel Ángel moved slowly toward the kitchen counter. He pulled the drawer open, found the pack of Faros and pulled one out. Hesitantly, he placed it on the altar in front of Ita’s picture.
“Ay hijo, please,” the woman cried in exasperation.
Just then, Abue Leo was coming back to the kitchen.
“A cigarette for Mamá Ita? She shouldn’t be smoking, you know? That’s what killed her. But if you’re going to place one for her, you need to light it up,” Leo said, as she walked to the stove and placed the cigarette in the burner’s flame.
Little by little, Ita became a permanent figure in Miguel Ánge’s life. She would show up if he called her or when he least expected her, on his long runs by the mountains or before his bouts out of town. At some point, he stopped wondering whether she was real or a fragment of his imagination. He’d gotten used to her antics, her sense of humor, and her wild stories about the Mexican Revolution. And her outfits. Today, Ita was wearing pants and a riding whip.
Ita shook her head and mumbled something under her breath. She looked into the distance for a few seconds, took a drag off her cigarette, and turned to Miguel Ángel again.
“How many times have I told you to be careful? Haven’t I told you to stay away from Beto?”
“I know, I know, I know. But he looks for me. He doesn’t have any friends.”
“Yes, he has lots of friends. Those good for nothings who are nothing but trouble. I told you, you either help him get out or get away from him. Gang life brings nothing but grief.”
“Ita, he’s a boy just like me. He doesn’t mean no harm.”
“Gosh, you make it sound like gangs are these big monsters. They’re not. They’re just fools kicking it.”
“If that was true, why do they end up in juvie or in jail?”
Sometimes, Miguel Ángel just hated Ita. He could not argue with her. “Ita, he’s a boy just like me. He don’t mean no harm.”
“Look at me, muchacho. If he don’t mean no harm, why is he going around robbing stores? You think that those old ladies he assaults are not harmed? I know he’s been your friend since you were little, but he’s hurting a lot of people. And he’ll end up hurting you if you don’t watch out.”
Ita reminded him a bit of Coach, but she was a much grouchier version. Sometimes she made him laugh, especially when she told stories of chasing the soldiers who spied on her when she took baths in the river. Lately, when she showed up unexpectedly, it was to give him a hard time about something he was already worried about.
He needed her, though. “Ita, have you seen Grandma Leo?”
“Yeah, she’s still battling against being dead. It’s taking her a lot longer than the average spirit. But I think she’s coming around.” She took another drag from her cigarette, which was getting smaller and smaller. “Speaking of having a hard time, your mamá here doesn’t look so good. She’s lost some weight.”
Miguel Ángel tried to peek out of his bed to see his mother still banging pots in the kitchen.
“She looks OK to me,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Nah, she’s very lonely. I overheard a conversation she had with Leo this morning.”
“How can she be lonely with six children running around the house all day long?”
“You don’t understand. It’s different kind of company she needs. She needs a man.”
“She has me. I’m a man.”
“Ah, this machito thing starts so damned early. You’re her son, not a man, man,” she said with a playful snap of her whip to his head.
“Ita, can you tell Grandma I miss her?”
“Maybe you’ll tell her yourself soon,” Ita responded, turning her face away from him.
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