By Graciela Limon
Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1995
ISBN # 1-55885-460-6
216 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2011

Elena Santos, a newspaper reporter, dissatisfied with her lowly position and uninteresting assignments, approaches her editor for a paid leave to investigate a murder which occurred nearly 25 years ago. He is rather surprised, but she convinces him that it will be a human interest story of note since Rosario Cota, convicted of the murder of three of her children 25 years ago, is about to be executed.

The editor reluctantly agrees, and Santos decides she will have to contact Rafael Cota, the only surviving child. He was just a year old at the time, in the home in his crib when his three siblings were shot to death. He is the one LEFT ALIVE.

Rafael has had a tough life. His father is quite rich, seemingly uninterested in the child and they never got along. Rafael went on his own very early in life, got into the drug culture and other self-destructive behaviors, ending up first in a high security mental institution and is now seemingly on the road to recovery and in his last days in a low-level security mental institution.

Elena makes contact and Rafael agrees to see her. She is fairly honest, telling him she’s looking into a story, and would Rafael tell her his view of being the one left alive, what it was like and what does he think about it all. The rough, angry, uneducated and foul mouthed Rafael agrees and thus begin the book’s heart, the daily discussions they have for some months about Rafael’s life and whether he really believes his mother did the shooting or did someone else?

It’s a difficult task for author Graciela Limon to get inside the head of Rafael in a convincing manner, and in this she is skilled and insightful as she makes believable and palpable how Elena, the news reporter cannot comprehend the inner life of Rafael. As a reader I can appreciate the convincing descriptions Limon gives, but I just can’t get there myself. My failure, not Limon’s.

Along the way we discover that the trial which convicted Rosario of the crime was a bit shoddy. On the one had the evidence seemed at first glance quite overwhelming. She was found passed out, drunk, on the floor next to the children with the gun in her hand. Yet little forensic evidence seems to exist and there were vague charges that perhaps it was made to seem she had killed the children.

It turns out that Rafael clings to that hope and wants to somehow prove his mother’s innocence, and, in part, sees Elena and these interviews as a way to advance that cause.

There is a sort of “off-stage” important character, Sister Gladys Miranda, who works in community service helping the mentally ill. She has been very close to Rafael and has gone over all these discussions and arguments with him. She will NOT declare a belief in Rosario’s case and doesn’t really care about it. She is opposed to the death penalty in principle, which is difficult for Rafael to understand. He asks Elena

“Was she sayin’ that Rosario ain’t guilty, or way she just sayin’ that fryin’ people is bad even if they are guilty?

The novel follows these discussions and we get deeper and deeper into Rafael’s mind with Elena never quite sure when he is giving an accurate portrayal of happenings nor does she always trust his claimed thoughts, wondering when he is confused or even lying.

As their interviews advance we get more into the story and I was just so gripped I couldn’t stop reading. At one level it seems to be centrally about the guilt or innocence of Rosario, yet, in fact the novel is much more centered who is Rafael and what is going on in his head.

This is the sixth novel of Graciela Limon which I have read and I’m extremely impressed with her ability in so many different contexts to tell gripping and difficult stories. I highly recommend this book to all readers.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu