By Stella Pope Duarte

Let their spirits dance



A novel by Stella Pope Duarte
HarperCollins 2002

The mother of a deceased Vietnam veteran hears an inner call to make a journey to the Vietnam Memorial Wall as her own death approaches.  Alicia Ramirez makes a promise to reach the Wall to touch her son’s name and honor his memory.  Her promise sets into motion an invisible dimension that links the family to the history of the Mexicas, proud ancestors of the ancient Aztec Nation.

Interspersed with flashbacks of their life in Arizona in the late 1960’s thru 1980’s, Let Their Spirits Dance, is the story of a family’s illuminated journey to Washington, D.C.  Along the way, the cross-country trip becomes a time of discovery and healing, especially for the main character, Teresa, the recently divorced school teacher daughter who feels the loss of her older brother almost as deeply as her mother does. In-between the struggles, Michael,  the family’s wiz-kid, presents a convincing look at parallel universes, and life beyond the grave. A lyrical, vivid novel, the writing of Stella Pope Duarte is reminiscent at once of Laura Esquivel and Alice Hoffman.  Let Their Spirits Dance spins mysterious threads, connecting family, friends and an entire nation with the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

The passionate story of a family’s spiritual journey to the Vietnam Memorial Wall by a new and vibrant voice in fiction.


“Stella Pope Duarte reclaims middle America not only for the Latino family of the lost soldier Jesse, but for all families
who try to make sense of senseless loss. Duarte is a magical weaver with a sure hand and a pure heart.”
Jacquelyn Mitchard, Deep End of the Ocean

“The characters and the story had me hooked!”
Victor Villaseñor, Rain of Gold

“Stella Pope Duarte is a writer who will not be stopped. Her story takes its power
from a larger love, and the quest is as pressing as any I’ve ever read.”
Ron Carlson, The Hotel Eden

“Partly a political novel and partly a family story, Duarte’s tale seems barely able to contain the welter of emotion
that tumbles from its pages. Deeply felt and often moving, this is an impressive first novel.”

“Intelligent, unpretentious, and appealing.”
Kirkus Review

“An incredible first novel. You won’t want to leave the world and the people Duarte brings to life in this pilgrimage
of a Chicano family from Phoenix to the Vietnam Memorial Wall.”
Charlene Taylor, Reader&rsquot;s Oasis

“A story about the power of love and faith, family and commitment. A delightful, heartening first novel.”
Sybil Downing, Denver Post

“Such a rich and important book will have no trouble finding its place among the best
in this country’s literature about the American wars.”
Rigoberto Gonzalez, El Paso Times

“A compelling picture of loss grief and hope.”
Ann Brown, Arizona Daily Star

“Duarte proves herself a writer with great style and a unique voice that will hopefully continue to speak for la gente.”
Gaile Robinson, Ventura County Star

“A moving, beautifully crafted first novel.”
Marc Leepson, VVA Veteran

“Duarte’s novel rings true. It’s funny and it makes us care about these raucous and contentious people, especially the mother,
whose wisdom and goodness are as irresistible to the reader as they are to her family.”
Edward H. Garcia, Dallas Morning News

September 2009

Questions on Let Their Spirits Dance.

1 – Your novel is the first to be written by a Chicana on the Vietnam War. Were you aware of this when you began writing it?

When I began writing the novel, my goal was to give voice to the “names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” and specifically to the Chicano/Latino soldiers. I had not yet realized that a novel of its kind had never been written.

2 – Why did you choose this theme?

In my first book, Fragile Night, I wrote a story entitled; “Cobra,” about a returned Chicano Vietnam vet who struggled with flashbacks and nightmares of the war. He was confronted by his wife and the two faced the effects of the war together. The story triggered my own memories of the war, as a student in high school and college, and the memory of the flag-draped coffins returning home caused me to realize that I had never mourned the war. Tears followed.

3 – Did you read many other earlier Vietnam novels?

I read everything Vietnam related I could get my hands on, including watching actual footage of the protest at Laguna Park in California, viewing documentaries, and walking in the jungles of the Mekong Delta and visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall six times.

4 – How do you see yourself in terms of difference from standard (non ethnic) U.S. writers?

Although my work encompasses the multicultural canopy of American life, it deals specifically with a Chicano/Latino family struggling with the “unfinished business” of their son/brother’s death. It is by way of the mother, Alicia Ramirez’s decision to travel to the Vietnam Memorial Wall that the family is emboldened to confront the pain.

5 – You have written in English, although the book includes Spanish phrases, given that the book is about the Chicano/a Vietnam experience is it appropriate to write in English?

(Of course I am very glad you did since it allows me to include it in my research!)

Yes, very appropriate, as English is the major language of numerous Chicano families who have been in the U.S. for generations, myself included.

6 –Do you think Chicana writers are more prominent than Chicano?

No, I would say not. I have both male and female Chicano writer friends. Chicano, by the way is a term that came to life in the 70’s, and is an abbreviation of the word, “Mexica,” the Aztecs. This is what they called themselves, “Xicano/a” was the original spelling taken from the word, “Mexica.”

7 – Who are the writers who have influenced or are important to you?

There are numerous. As pertains to social issues and war, I would say, Charles Dickens, His renditions of war and the poor alarmed me as a child. I ran around in my poverty-stricken ‘barrio” (an indigenous word, meaning a “neighborhood”) skipping through an alley, reciting the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Others are: Pearl Buck, the poor working classes in China and the wars fought forever; Alfredo Vea with his, gods go begging, which caused me to see the war directly through the eyes of a Chicano vet; Tim O’Brien’s story, “The Things They Carried,” was so true-to-life; Charlie Trujillo’s Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam, which included great information on the thoughts, feelings, and sentiments of the Chicanos during war.

Others not necessarily war related: Annie Proulx, The Shipping News; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; Terri Tempest Williams, Refuge; Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

8 –What do you believe that you, as a Chicana, bring to the Vietnam novel which up to now has not been available/explored.

I feel that I opened the deep feeling of “unfinished business” that afflicts so many families as they struggle to make sense of war. The family has “lost its identity,” and must reconfigure to recognize themselves again. PTSD, the plague of the Vietnam vet is ever-present, and the loyalty of the mother, the “manda” or promise she made to God, her pledge to honor her son, energizes a warring family..and in the end they are healed and transformed.

9 – To what extent is your novel autobiographical? I don’t mean in terms of particular characters perhaps being based on actual people, but rather to get an idea of your personal experience of Vietnam.

It is quite autobiographical. Teresa is a caricature of myself in some ways, and the families are those I have seen all my life. The Riverside is where I met my ex-husband…but I never jumped a woman there! The religious beliefs, the altars, the promises, all of it are things I have seen since I was a child. Grandpa Pope, my Irish grandfather shows up as Tata O’Brien. Interviews with vets led me to form the personalities of the men. Tony Cruz’s family was the first I interviewed, and I had vowed that I would dedicate the book to the first soldier whose family I interviewed who had died in Vietnam. I had no idea Tony “Jesse” had told his family that someday he would be “famous” and they would “read about him in a book”…that he would “make history.” It seemed his prophecy led me step by step.

10 – How do you think the experience of the war was a process of skewed naturalization of Chicanos/as into America (for all the wrong reasons i.e. unfair drafting, exploitation of ethnic youth, racism)?

There was huge disparity in this war, with the barrios, ghettos, and slums of America emptied by the draft. Many Chicanos were not going to pursue a college education, so they were targets. Prejudice, unfair labor and educational practices and the system of America to produce a “caste system” set up a perfect “selection proeess.”

Addressing the flight from realism –

11 – Your novel is enriched with all kinds of belief systems, myths, dreams, prophecies , traditions and rituals and a form of resurrection for Jesse in his continued presence (by way of his family) not just in this world, but also in an unearthly parallel universe – what motivated you to go beyond the blunt reality of 21st American life?

I was brought up to believe in the things that the Ramirez family experienced. To step over the line into the spiritual dimension was something “normal,” in my world. To get messages from the beyond in experiences or dreams was something that was real to me..and continues to be. My whole writing life is based on a dream of my father in 1995, with his message that I was to write. To include the magical and explore myths, prophecies and parallel universes, for me, was a given. The connections with my readers are astounding, especially Chicano/Latinos.

12 – Is this alternative belief system individual to you or in Chicano America is it widely held and therefore a necessary addition to the commemorative narrative?

It is widely held, even by the younger generations. They may not speak Spanish, nor have the same experiences as the older generations, but if you talk about “la Llorona” (the ghost of Mexico) and mention the numerous customs and beliefs in the book, MANY associate meaning with them, and see these things play out in their own lives. I present to thousands of youth each year, and can attest to this.

13 – Would you describe the novel as an example of magic realism?

Not necessarily. I researched this novel THOROUGHLY, not sparing myself in traveling and interviewing vets, experts, families, etc. It is indeed a historical novel with much vital information on the war; yet it does not exclude the humble yearnings for justice and recognition of the Chicano veteran by a traditional matriarchal-led family.

14 – When Alfredo Vea, author of Gods Go Begging was asked whether his use of the “unreal” could undermine or usurp realism he replied – “Only if your cultural walls begin and end with Germanic or Anglo-Saxon religions, the Puritans, or other manifestations of ultra-linear, confirmation biased thinking.”[1] Do you agree with him and if so why?

Just like Alfredo, to answer in this “complex” manner! I can say that war is one of the hardest realities we must face as a global society. Nothing takes the edge of realism from it, nothing. However, there are numerous “unexplained” events and experiences that have no known cause/effect that families and soldiers in war experience. It is these experiences that are just as real as war, e.g. a mother knows her son has been killed even before she is notified…this was very common in this war.

15 – Outside the mainstream of contemporary American life there are two belief systems in the novel for Chicanos – the ancient traditions espoused by Don Florencio, and the devotion to the Virgin. However the Catholicism which is so deeply embraced by the older generation of women has been historically imposed through conquest and imperialism – because of that is it less valid, in your opinion?

Absolutely not. The Virgen de Guadalupe (Guadalupe means “without stain”) is an icon throughout the world, and especially in Spanish speaking countries. She is venerated, and I MEAN venerated with great enthusiasm to this day. I have seen people on their knees for long distances as they approach her image in Mexico City. Here in America Her image is everywhere. She appeared as an indigenous woman, an Aztec princess, and spoke the ancient language, Nahuatl…she never “spoke” Spanish, in the legend of her appearance in 1531. Don Florencio “rushed” into the novel one day in a most extraordinary manner, and almost took over the book. I had to “settle him down.” He brings in the custom of seers or a “tlachisqui,”powerful figures in the Mexica world. Here in America we call them “curanderos” healers, or medicine men. He brings in the world of looking into the soul, and having the powerful ixpetz, or an “eye” that can see into the “manner of things and understand their meaning.”

16 – It would seem that the forces which bring Jesse’s voice to Alicia are the forces of the ancient world rather than the Catholic world – is this correct?

As mentioned I am accustomed to bridging the visible and invisible worlds. Other-worldly experiences are inherent in those who have them, and they are not labeled as coming from the Catholic world or ancient world…they just ARE.

17 – Throughout the novel there are many references to devotion, prayers and altars – would you agree (or was it your intention) that “the Wall” in effect becomes another kind of altar for everyone involved in the war, regardless of ethnic background – it has a universality which transcends difference – making it a place of general lamentation for the loss of everyone and the suffering of those left without loved ones?

It wasn’t until later in the four years I worked on this novel, that I realized that the Vietnam Memorial Wall was in fact, American’s Wailing Wall. The altars, so much a part of my life as a child, were epitomized at the Wall and made larger than life. The act of bringing offerings to honor and immortalize those we have loved goes back to the beginning of humankind, and is globally embraced.

18 – Even so, if it is a universal place for commemoration, why are the names read from it in the closing pages of the book only Latino? Is this because their sacrifice/exploitation had gone unnoticed?

The focus of the novel was to commemorate the men of Spanish surname, Chicanos, Latinos, Hispanics, Mexican-Americans who had not been recognized for their service in Vietnam. Their proportion as a population in the war was definitely skewed…unusually high. As Alicia says it best when Teresa tells her the Chicano men will be honored: “Era hora,” It’s about time.

19 – Is Aztlan a state of mind?
No, Aztlán is a homeland, a real place, the “Land of Whiteness,” the “Land of the Herons.” It was a land of peace and plenty, and the place from which the Mexicas were called to move forward by their war god, Huitzilopochtli, when the peaceful god, Quetzalcoatl was ousted. He was scheduled to come back, per prophecy, and did so, in the form of Hernan Cortés in 1519. This is all part of the actual history of the Aztec nation. Aztlán is also a “state of mind,” in the sense that it is unknown where this region was located…and when a homeland lacks borders, the people BECOME the homeland.