Archive for April 22nd, 2011

Current Reading: Gabriella De Ferrari’s ‘Gringa Latina’

April 22, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

As a schoolboy I was fascinated by the Atacama desert, partly because of the music of the name, and partly because my geography textbook declared it to be the driest place on earth. What would life in such a place be like? I had no inkling until I read Gabriella De Ferrari’s uniquely evocative memoir: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds.

Although the book is indeed a story of a journey, from South America to Europe and the United States, it is centred mostly on the first of the two worlds of the subtitle: this is the town of Tacna, in Peru, which sits upon the northern tip of the Atacama desert. Gringa Latina reveals Tacna to be a completely unexpected kind of place: the stretches of sand that surround it are rich in mineral deposits, and as a consequence the town is home to many enterprising immigrants. Despite its remoteness it is strangely urbane (the fountain in the main square was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel); even though it hardly ever rains, its markets are well-stocked and its kitchens produce mouth-watering fare. That such a place should be peopled by unusual characters; that its walls should hide many intriguing secrets, is perhaps only to be expected – but that these people, and their pasts, should linger in the reader’s memory is a tribute not just to Tacna, but to the warmth and skill with which the town is brought to life on these pages.

Gringa Latina is a wonderful book, about an extraordinary journey, and it is written with a charm and openness that make it a delight to read. Here are a couple of memorable paragraphs:

I still remember the rains of 1956. So much water came down that the gringo Cooper’s plane could not land. For more than a week we were cut off from the world. When the rain stopped, the thin dust that was usually suspended in the desert air was gone, and everything shone with extraordinary vividness. The pale pink adobe walls of the houses turned a deep salmon shade, and the dusty palm trees glowed a brilliant green. The smell of wet adobe saturated the air with an unfamiliar earthiness, which mingled with the scent of jasmine. The wet ground felt unnaturally soft beneath our feet. Everything seemed refreshed.

A true miracle took place in the desert. The vast landscape, which had been barren and brown, was covered by a mantle of lavender-pink flowers. It was soft and lush, and every day for as long as the flowers lasted my parents took us to roll in them, just as my children rolled in the soft just-fallen snow of the New England winter.

From: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds by Gabriella De Ferrari

Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995.

Amitav Ghosh

April 22, 2011

Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds



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