A Story of Possession and Dispossession
“She walked out onto the street down Eighth Avenue, past the fish markets, down Hudson Street, past the old drugstore on the corner of Eleventh, down past Grove, and east away on Leroy”
The Rivers are Frozen is a novel set in the early twentieth century, at the height of Little Spain, when fourteenth street was decorated with windows from which rang out Spanish music. It is the story of Leonora, also known as Leo, who herself, is American but who loves all things Spanish. Her story opens with the loss of her job, this, she decides will be a point of inflection in her life. Thereafter she rebrands herself “Leo.” Leo will find work again, at the Cafe de la Pelota.The story follows Leo as she falls in love with Mikel, a Basque immigrant and former prisoner of war, who happens also to be married with a child.
The Cafe which Leo works in, becomes a sanctuary for her, where she can retreat to the eavesdropping of Basque words and where she was liked – “The Spaniards she met liked her, and so did the owner Don Alfredo Arana. He was not a Spaniard at all, he was a Basque, and told her uncle she looked like a Basque girl.” – and where she liked that she was likened to one of them.
The cafe in the novel is a thinly veiled portrayal of Valentin Aguirre’s Jai Alai, once on 82 Bank Street. The novel nods to Jai Alai’s role in the community as the cafe functions in the same way. It is a place of gathering for the Spanish community of West 14th/Chelsea, especially the Basque community. Parties are held, immigrants convene and watch eachother become naturalized, or not, and the business will be passed down from generation to generation of Basque men.
“Years and years ahead in the future, if there was any future for anyone, there might well be the Café de la Pelota. Great-grandchildren of Don Alfredo would run it. They might try to change its character, make it modern with chromium and mirrors; but they wouldn’t be able to keep the men from the waterfront away entirely. The place itself was too near the docks, and it belonged to the travelers of the world.”
The cafe is the first of many real-life references to locations and people and phenomena of Little Spain. The author, Colton, makes reference to “rebound immigrants,” which many Spanish immigrants in New York were – they often landed in Latin American countries before relocating to the United States. She makes reference to a ship, the S.S. Manuel Arnus, when Leonora reminisces of a time when her Uncle Bob visited her as a child. She saw the S.S. Manuel Arnus from the dock and wanted desperately to travel with him. Leonora cites this ship specifically. This ship existed and was involved in a court case in which an “alien” was discovered aboard in November 12, 1926. He was sent for inspection and then ordered to be processed at Ellis Island. The “stowaway” escaped at the port of New York. The US charged the shipowner with violation of a statute that required anyone who brought an immigrant to prevent their landing anywhere in the U.S but where the immigration officers indicated. The District Court dismissed the case during opening statements. It was appealed in the Second Circuit. The decree was reversed, and the cause was remanded. Colton also references the Spanish Royal line. Her mention of the Arteaga’s Grocery Store evokes images of a store like Carmen Barañano’s Casa Moneo. The store appears market-like, selling groceries near the front, preparing takeout dishes, selling shoes, clothing, pottery, and even Mexican goods. And perhaps all of these references were deliberate, or perhaps some more historically dense ones like the ship were somewhat of a lucky accident but they all pay homage to a community that was once thriving.
And yet, Colton’s biggest testament to the Spanish immigrant experience in New York City isn’t achieved through historical references or even Leo’s love story with Mikel, instead, it is her development of Leo that reveals the most about what it means to be an immigrant, to be displaced and dispossessed.
Leo’s character is not Spanish. She resides, drinks, dances, works with Spanish people, and even her former fiance, Peter, had recognized an affinity in her for all that was Spanish, but she remains an outsider. Her blond hair, her eyes, her skin, her dancing sets her apart, forever from this world, no matter how intertwined she may or wants to be. Which sets forth important questions of cultural belonging, but it isn’t simply a cultural dispossession which Leo experiences; Leo can be classified as dispossessed in many respects because of her lack of belonging. Leo does not have a family, even Peter is away. We even meet her as she has lost her job and as she decides to rebrand herself Leo instead of Leonora. But this isn’t exactly the source of her dispossession or displacement – it’s that they are things that never really belonged to her in the first place.
Her childhood she feels went quickly because she was always thinking of growing up and thus never actually grew up -so that she neither belongs to her childhood or her adulthood.
She explains how she felt no pain leaving her family when she left home, and thus there is the impression that she never felt the proximity and belonging in her family to begin with. There is little mention of missing them, if any at all.
The job she is fired from, she absolutely despised and would rather work for less money than go back – again, she experiences a loss of something she felt no connection to.
Even her name, as much as she has rebranded herself, she feels no remorse at the loss of the conception of “Leonora” – an identity she neither liked or wishes to hang onto.
And Mikel – this person whom she feels for the first time able to love, she loses the idea of him as the war scarred boy with Spanish cakes and the possibilities of her daydreams of their life together when she discovers he is married, but this idea, was not real or ever possible, and never truly belonged to her.
Leo is in a constant state of dispossession. But hers is one of never having possessed – not even herself.
In this way, Colton is able to approach the plight of an immigrant in a new nation, a stranger in a new place from an inverse angle. She portrays the American as the one without a sense of belonging, whereas her Spanish characters, especially Mikel have extreme ties to the community in which they reside. Where Leo seems not to belong at all in the very country she was born, the immigrants in the story find an immense sense of belonging. However, this is a constructed belonging; it is one dependent upon and shaped by the Cafe, the grocery story, the pillars of this corner of New York which have been made and are preserved by the Spanish people themselves. Colton seems to suggest then, that an immigrant is to find a sense of belonging upon migrating, but that this is constructed, not artificial but also not primordial.