Can one woman take on Mexican corruption?

Pierced by the Sun. Laura Esquivel. AmazonCrossing. 216 pages. $14.95 in paper.
Pierced by the Sun. Laura Esquivel. AmazonCrossing. 216 pages. $14.95 in paper.

Laura Esquivel’s international bestseller Like Water for Chocolate delved into one woman’s spirited tale of love and family during the Mexican Revolution. Her latest novel tackles her country’s politics much more overtly. With its depiction of how one troubled woman must navigate a labyrinth of criminality and cronyism, Pierced by the Sun takes an uncensored look at her Mexico’s troubled present, in which corruption and crime have rocked Mexican society.

In this novel, we meet a policewoman named Lupita, who is falling apart after witnessing a murder. A local politician named Don Larreaga has had his throat cut in public in Mexico City, mere feet from where Lupita is standing, although “there was no evidence of anybody in the vicinity having any sort of knife or blade.”

In front of far too many bystanders, Lupita humiliates herself with her reaction to the crime. “What had all those people thought of her when they realized she had pissed herself?” Lupita wonders frantically. “What would they think of her now? How could she make them forget the pathetic image of a fat policewoman standing in the middle of a crime scene with dripping pants?”

With sharp, take-no-prisoners details and fast-paced language that mirrors Lupita’s racing thoughts, Esquivel plunges us into the reality of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In her intense first chapter, Esquivel sets up a mystery to be solved but also a precarious situation: Will Lupita keep her wits, or allow her demons — alcoholism, memories of childhood abuse, and contempt for her own weaknesses — derail her efforts to solve the murder?

Esquivel, who’s also the author of the novel Malinche, reveals aspects of Lupita even in the chapter headings, which are abrupt, declarative sentences such as “Lupita Liked to Feel Sorry for Herself,” “Lupita Liked to Dance,” and “Lupita Liked to Protect.” Gradually, as the details of the crime emerge, the policewoman pieces together some clues about herself as well: “Were there two Lupitas?” she asks herself. “A sober Lupita and a drunk Lupita? In that case there had to be two minds: a sane mind and a demented mind that governed their respective Lupita.” Her out-of-control behavior leads Lupita to publically confront a highly influential narco-trafficker, an action that nearly results in her death.

Esquivel weaves in references to ancient Aztec lore and history throughout the novel, and we begin to realize Lupita’s story is in fact an allegory: This big-hearted, potentially brilliant woman embodies present-day Mexico, a great country that — at least in the writer’s view — has lost its way. (Even Lupita’s name makes reference to the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadeloupe.) Drug cartels, political corruption and violence have caused much of Mexico’s potential to be squandered, just as alcohol and emotional trauma have plagued Lupita.

When an attempt is made on her life, the policewoman is rescued by an enigmatic shaman and taken to “an indigenous community nestled within the mountainous state of Guerrero.” Esquivel now reveals another aspect of the policewoman’s persona: “Lupita Liked to Sow.” As in, “she liked to walk across the fields at dawn to see how much her plants had grown during the night. . . . Lupita could even hear the cracking of a seed in the ground as it gave way to a new sprout.”

Her love of farming and the land helps Lupita adapt to her new community, composed mainly of women, children and elderly men. In the face of so much drug-related violence, these women had taken control: “tired of living in anxiety, they spoke to the Council of Elders and they all decided they would no longer tolerate hit men, drug traffickers, and addicts. It was decided that anyone who violated these terms and affected the community would be banned forever.” The women enroll the aid of the indigenous community police, who, “sick of so much death in their town and the cartels’ way of ruling . . . gathered their grandfathers’ rifles from the Revolution and . . . killed the narcos.” Readers may be surprised and even uncomfortable with the community’s prescription to end the terrible violence: Eradicate the evildoers. As one woman succinctly puts it, “Dead dogs don’t bite.”

In the end, Lupita does not embark on a gun-toting rampage to avenge Mexico’s innocents. She does, however, take a brave step toward bringing a prominent, well-connected criminal to justice. With her portrayal of Lupita, indigenous culture, and ancient mythology, Esquivel is making a case for a Mexican renaissance that reaches back to the earth itself and the pride and strength of the Aztec past. Pierced by the Sun is a passionate call for justice and healing from one of Latin America’s most notable voices.

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.