The Chicana Detective as Clairvoyant in Lucha Corpi’s Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992),
Cactus Blood (1996), and Black Widow’s Wardrobe (1999)



Judy Maloof

The University of New Mexico



Lucha Corpi, whose detective fiction is the subject of this essay, has written four mystery novels that explore Chicano politics, history and culture from multiple perspectives, including that of a Chicana clairvoyant detective named Gloria Damasco.

Since the hard-boiled private eye of classic detective fiction is a white male, this writer and other writers of multicultural detective fiction are mapping uncharted territory with their detectives of color, and in doing so, are transforming and shaping the genre.(1) Recent detective fiction by women like Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Patricia Cromwell, who all have female sleuths, and by gay and lesbian authors have also brought new, fresh perspectives to the genre. Many of these authors, like Lucha Corpi, challenge assumptions about race, gender, criminal activity, and culture represented in the hard-boiled tradition of authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. (2) Tim Libretti observes that Corpi’s first detective novel Eulogy for a Brown Angel not only investigates the mystery of an individual crime related to the death of a young boy, but also highlights “the larger crimes against people of color through the mechanisms of colonialism and internal colonialism” (64).

In this essay, I examine the construction of the Chicana detective, Gloria Damasco, in Corpi’s detective novels; I explore how gender, ethnicity, and culture shape Gloria’s perspective and contribute to the non-hegemonic point of view and critique of the dominant culture inscribed in these texts. In particular, I demonstrate how Gloria Damasco, a clairvoyant detective, brings a new Chicana feminist aesthetic and cultural perspective to the genre of detective fiction.

Corpi’s narratives help to redefine American literature by inscribing the experiences of the Chicano community, previously excluded from the literary canon, in general, and from the genre of detective fiction, in particular. These novels are similar to Chicano detective fiction written by male authors like Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa, Manuel Ramos or Michael Nava in that they present an oppositional discourse to the ethnic discrimination and economic oppression of Chicano communities within mainstream Euro-American culture. However, Corpi’s critique goes beyond this; she voices protest against the gender discrimination suffered by Chicana women within a patriarchal social order and also denounces the male chauvinism of many Chicanos within the Chicano Movement of the 1970s. I argue that Gloria Damasco is a sleuth with a Chicana feminist consciousness and is an example of the new mestiza that Gloria Anzaldúa writes about in Borderlands.

One critic of multicultural detective fiction refers to this emerging genre as “murder with a message” and “murder from the other side;” she theorizes that the detective story is “in the hands of authors whose cultural communities are not those of the traditional Euro-American male hero, whose cultural experiences have been excluded from the traditional detective formula, and whose cultural aesthetic alters the formula itself” (Adrienne Johnson Gosselin, xi-xxi). The specific ways in which historical, political, cultural, and social conditions shape and inform the detective novels of writers of color represents a new area of academic discourse. My reading of Lucha Corpi’s three Chicana mystery novels in her Gloria Damasco trilogy is informed by recent theoretical work on multicultural detective fiction and by Chicana feminist theory, especially the work of Gloria Anzaldúa.

Largely due to ground-breaking contributions of Mikhail Bahktin and the postmodern questioning of the distinction between “high” and “low” cultural practices, and to the emergence of cultural studies as an academic discipline, the popular genre of detective fiction has become more widely accepted as “valuable” literary production, worthy of serious scholarship within academia. Classes on detective fiction are now being taught at many colleges and universities throughout the country; and largely due to multiculturalism, there is an increased awareness about the importance of including works by women and writers of color in these classes. Nevertheless, it is important to note that there is still much debate and resistance to the inclusion of detective fiction and other popular genres in the curriculum by some professors who defend the traditional canon. (3)

Prior to the 1990s, there were very few Chicano mystery novels. According to one critic, Chicano/a writers probably shied away from the popular genre of detective fiction because “they felt it lacked the intellectual respect and cultural capital to earn them the literary reputations they desired” (Rodriguez, 138). Recently, however, there has been a boom of Chicano/a writers publishing detective fiction. Rudolfo Anaya and Rolando Hinojosa are two of the most well known Chicano authors who have written detective novels. Hinojosa’s novel, Partners in Crime (1985) is characterized by murders and crimes in the Valley of Southern Texas. Other Chicano writers exploring this genre are Michael Nava, a prolific writer of seven detective novels, Max Martínez, Rudy Apodaca, Ricardo Means-Ybarra, Manuel Ramos, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Martín Limón. All of these Chicano detective novelists are male and their private investigators are also Chicano males.

According to Chicano literary critics, “These writers are producing new literary models that may be viewed as forms of social criticism and cultural representation. Moreover, these writers are modifying the genre by transforming the detective protagonist from white and middle- or upper-class, as in the classical tradition introduced by Edgar Allan Poe and honed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to Raza working-class personas” (Lomelí, Márquez, and Herrera-Sobek, 298). Another characteristic of the Chicano detective novel is a different worldview. Unlike the hard-boiled or classic detectives, who represent “solitary, existential perspectives, Raza detectives represent a community view” (Lomelí, Márquez, and Herrera-Sobek, 301). Most Chicano detectives have a worldview that is communal, acutely aware of racism and social injustice, and politically committed. As Chicano/a detective fiction writers “continue to explore and transform the traditional detective formula, the Raza detective promises to become a vigorous agent for social and cultural change” (Lomelí, Márquez, and Herrera-Sobek, 302). This is definitely the case with respect to Corpi’s Gloria Damasco trilogy, as my analysis will demonstrate.

The most well known writer of detective fiction with a Chicana private eye is Lucha Corpi. Also, Chicana poet and author Alicia Gaspar de Alba has recently published Desert Blood (2005), a mystery novel that raises awareness about the deaths of more than 350 young women who have been murdered in Juárez since 1993 and whose bodies have been found in the desert. This novel’s protagonist, like Gaspar de Alba, is from El Paso and has family living on both sides of the border; this writer wants to raise questions and find answers to the mystery surrounding the rape, disappearance, and death of so many innocent victims.

Lucha Corpi’s books present a Chicana, feminist perspective that is critical of the male dominance and sexism of the Chicano Movement; in Eulogy Gloria Damasco comments that “Chicano nationalism and feminism didn’t walk hand in hand before or during the summer of 1970” (66). She denounces machismo and violence towards women. This is particularly evident in Black Widow’s Wardrobe in which the protagonist Licia Lecuona, who murdered her husband after years and years of physical and emotional abuse, sees herself as the reincarnation of La Malinche. Carlota Navarro, a character in Cactus Blood, was sold in Mexico at the age of fourteen to an Anglo doctor in California, who sexually assaulted her.

In addition to Corpi’s critique of patriarchal gender relations and representation of the victimization of women, she presents very strong, independent Chicana women in all of her novels. As Carol Pearson has rightly observed, “the author resists by constructing Chicana subjects, and presenting their contributions to the struggles of their people. Her themes reflect several aspects frequently seen in Chicana cultural resistance and expression” (39). Referring to the strong women characters in her fiction, Corpi asserts: “I most definitely am attracted to the women characters that are strong, able to take responsibility for their actions and deal with the freedom they have . . . It always surprises me what I have learned and still learn from them. Through all of them I have been able to gain a much wider perspective and to review some things I used to believe” (Ikas, 76).

Corpi’s mysteries not only captivate the reader with their compelling “who done it plots,” but they also document important events in the Chicano Civil Rights struggle of the late 1960s and 1970s and explore Mexican and Chicano/a myths (like La Malinche), history, identity and culture. As Ralph Rodriguez rightly observes, Lucha Corpi “investigates the various historical shifts and constructions of Chicanidad since the Chicano/a movement (roughly 1965-75) more systematically than her Chicano counterparts writing in the detective genre. Her Gloria Damasco series seeks to better understand how history and memory shape identity and to gauge their corresponding impact on political movements” (140). Carol Pearson has also observed that “the individual growth of Corpi’s characters is never separated from the growth of the collective . . . Both Gloria Damasco and Lucha Corpi have found ways to make a contribution as a woman, and yet maintain a connection to, and the support of, their people and the movement” (50).

Gloria Damasco is the protagonist of Corpi’s trilogy Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992), Cactus Blood (1996), and Black Widow’s Wardrobe (1999). Corpi’s fourth detective novel, Crimson Moon (2004) features Dora Saldaña, another Chicana detective who first appears in Black Widow’s Wardrobe. Justin Escobar, Gloria’s business partner and lover, collaborates with Dora to solve the cases presented in Crimson Moon. Since Gloria Damasco doesn’t play a prominent role in Crimson Moon, I will not include an analysis of this novel in this essay. However, I do want to mention that Crimson Moon (like the Damasco series of novels) documents many important historical and cultural events in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. The backdrop of this latest novel is the student movement and strikes at Berkeley in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a militant “brown power” group in Denver, and the F.B.I. infiltration of the student movement. In this intriguing thriller there is also the representation of a link to the Zapatista movement in present day Chiapas, Mexico. Corpi chooses to inform and educate her readership about Chicano history and culture at the same time she entertains them with compelling plots in all four of her mystery novels.

Lucha Corpi’s mystery novels Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Cactus Blood and Crimson Moon document the experiences of members of the Chicano community, including political activists, and a wide range of male and female characters from different social classes, living in Los Angeles and the Bay Area during the 1970s and 1980s. These novels not only represent the experiences of Chicanos and record important events in the history of the Mexican American civil rights movement, they also present a critique of racial and economic injustice in the United States. Black Widow’s Wardrobe takes the reader from a traditional “Day of the Dead” celebration in San Francisco to a remote Mexican village in the Sierra of Tepozlán; this journey is also a mystical journey in time from the present to the past. The author explores the links between contemporary Mexican-American culture and the violent conquest of Mexico in the 16th Century. The protagonist, also a victim of sexual violence, who believes she is the reincarnation of the controversial, mythic Mexican icon, relives the sexual exploitation of La Malinche by Hernán Cortez.

Corpi’s fiction unsettles the conservative tendencies of the traditional American detective novel, which tend to reinforce the status quo of mainstream Euro-American culture. Generally speaking, the formula of the traditional detective novel restores order to society through the resolution of a crime by bringing the criminal to justice. The reader of this genre (presumably a White middle-class reader) derives pleasure from having participated in solving the mystery and from having witnessed a return to a stable and orderly world following the chaos brought about by the crime. Corpi’s novels provide an alternative perspective, which challenges many of the assumptions upon which the conventional formula of the genre is based. One of the main assumptions that is subverted by Corpi’s fiction, as well as by other writers of color of the genre, is that of the White, middle-class reader. She is reaching out to a wider readership, that includes Chicanos and other people of color. Her characters reflect the diversity of the Chicano/a community and include many working-class characters, recent immigrants, and other disenfranchised members of society. Corpi’s fiction uncovers the fact that sometimes the police are the criminals who unjustly harass and beat innocent protesters, such as revealed in her representation in Eulogy of the police brutality at the Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles. Also, in Crimson Moon an F.B.I. agent is guilty of infiltrating the Chicano student movement and raping numerous young women. This questioning of mainstream America’s assumptions about criminal behavior and race and class offers a unique twist that subverts the classical detective fiction genre.

Corpi’s writing is politically grounded and ideologically radical, in contrast to the conservative nature of most detective fiction. Tim Libretti has argued that Corpi’s “Chicana political perspective rethinks issues of criminality and injustice” (63). He argues that this writer not only solves crimes, but more importantly, exposes the history of racial oppression and “demystifies the ideologies of ‘race’ (criminalization, colonization, discrimination, etc.) which underwrite those mechanisms”(64). In this manner, Lucha Corpi offers an alternative point of view, which serves to deconstruct many of the racial stereotypes found in the mainstream mystery novel, which all too often criminalizes African American and Latino characters.

In the three novels, the reader witnesses Damasco’s spiritual growth, evolving feminist consciousness, and maturity as a private investigator over a period of two decades from the time we meet her in 1970 through 1992. At first, the protagonist is frightened by what she refers to as her “dark gift” of clairvoyance; we witness her growing acceptance of this quality and even her welcoming of it as a unique way to solve her mysteries in her detective work.

It is only after her husband’s death in 1988 that Gloria resumes her passion for solving crimes. Darío, himself a physician at the Helping Hands clinic, had pressured Gloria into choosing between him and their daughter or continuing the investigation into the death of Michael David Cisneros Jr., the child whose corpse she had discovered at the Chicano Moratorium march. Darío uses emotional blackmail when he issues his wife the following ultimatum: “These extrasensory experiences of yours are obviously more important to you than your own safety” [. . .] “What is more important for you, solving this case or keeping our marriage and family together? This is something you alone will have to decide” (121). In response to the pressure from her husband, Damasco makes the difficult decision to abandon the investigation for sixteen years while she continues to raise their daughter Tania and works as a speech therapist at the speech center, where she has been employed since 1970.

Although Damasco refuses to discuss the Cisneros case with anyone except her best friend Luisa, she continues to have visions and dreams related to Michael David’s murder. She confesses: “[S]ometimes in the middle of the night, I’d wake up to a soprano’s voice singing the aria ‘Un bel di,’ sounding so clear and near that I swore the singer was in the house. Whenever this happened, just before I opened my eyes, Lillian’s face would flash in my memory and a hand wearing a ring with a lion’s head would reach out and wrap around her neck” (122). This recurring prophetic dream foreshadows one of the final scenes in Eulogy. Damasco, unlike other detectives who are known for their fine skills in deductive methods and rational thinking, relies on her “irrational” visions and dreams as tools to help her solve crimes. These dreams, visions, and extrasensory perception are represented in the text as alternative, subjective realities. We, as readers, witness the protagonist’s growing tolerance for ambivalence and experiences that have no rational, scientific explanation. In Black Widow’s Wardrobe Gloria experiences a moment of doubt as to whether her seeing the conquistadors at the Day of the Dead procession was a regression to the past or a hallucination, she consciously decides “not to pursue questions that defied logical explanation” (159). She accepts these visions as real without trying to understand them through logical reasoning. This defies the mechanisms operating in the traditional, classic detective novel.

Gloría Anzaldúa provides a theory about the new mestiza in her groundbreaking Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. This Chicana theorist argues that the new Chicana feminist “operates in the pluralistic mode” and that she “not only sustains contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else” (79). One of the goals of this new mestiza consciousness, according to Anzaldúa, is to “break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (80). Through her affirmation of her mexicana/chicana cultural heritage and her growing acceptance of what she refers to as her “dark gift” of visions and extrasensory perception, I argue that Gloria Damasco contributes to the creation of a new consciousness that helps to break down the dualistic thinking that forms the foundation of our Western philosophical tradition and that dominates the genre of classic detective fiction. The binary oppositions between rational and irrational, scientific and spiritual, logical and intuitive, mind and body are called into question.

The inclusion of indigenous and mestizo perceptions of reality in these novels contributes to the creation of a new type of detective, such as Gloria Damasco, who has more tools to work with than the white male investigator such as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade in the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Critics of this genre have emphasized the positivistic nature of traditional detective fiction. That is to say, the detective fiction formula is based primarily on the assumption of the resolution of a crime through the use of deductive reasoning and the logic of cause and effect. With respect to the norms of the detective genre, William V. Spanos has pointed out that “the form of the detective story has its source in the comforting certainty that an acute ‘eye,’ private or otherwise, can solve the crime with resounding finality by inferring causal relationships between clues” (21). Damasco’s use of dreams and visions in her endeavor to solve mysteries provides an interesting twist and an important innovation that alters the reified formula of the traditional detective novel.

The characterization of Damasco as a clairvoyant is foregrounded in all three novels of the trilogy. The first reference to this detective’s psychic powers is found in the “Prelude” to Eulogy:

For many years, every so often, I would sense the shimmering energy of a presence, somewhere at a distance. It came to me in the shape of a blue light, with a revolving force all its own. Once, while I was shopping at Union Square in San Francisco, I felt that presence, like a sudden gust of blue light brushing my arm and swiftly moving away. I didn’t know then, but it was your energy, Justin Escobar, I was feeling. I shivered, not in horror, but in excitement, for I sensed that you and I would meet one day; and when we did, the solution to the mystery would be near at hand. Now, let me tell you the story. (13)

This “Prelude” informs the reader that this is not your typical “who done it” novel; the reader’s curiosity is sparked and we are enticed to continue reading in order to find out the answers to many questions. For example, what is this “blue light”? Is the narrator “crazy” or does she really have extrasensory perception? Who is Justin Escobar and what mystery will they solve?

Later in this novel, Gloria Damasco explains that she went through a difficult process of learning to accept her psychic powers and extrasensory perception: “At age twenty-three I had first confronted this other self, this psychic being who insisted on my relinquishing control of a part of my life to . . . to an automatic pilot. I went through two years of denial, and then worked slowly towards knowing what ailed me. Eventually, I learned to accept this dark gift and to build the delicate balance on which my sanity rested” (1992: 123). The confessional tone of the just cited passage offers the reader a window into Damasco’s private, intimate side. We are privileged witnesses to her inner turmoil and self-doubt as well as her growing self-acceptance and feelings of empowerment resulting from her clairvoyance. Yet, what she refers to as her “dark gift” is sometimes experienced as more of a burden than a gift. For example, throughout Eulogy Gloria Damasco expresses exasperation at her inability to decipher her many dreams and prophetic visions related to Michael Cisneros Jr.’s death: “What good were visions if there was no way to decode them? If their effectiveness as a tool to apprehend the murderer was nil?”(62).

During the first part of Eulogy the reader learns of Gloria’s confusion about her visions; she is reluctant to confide in her husband Darío about any details related to her psychic powers: “I purposely didn’t mention any of my ‘flying’ experiences. I suppose I felt embarrassed since I had always sought rational explanations for anything that happened to me, using intuition to support reason rather that the other way around.” (30)

However, the first-person narrator does let us, the readers, in on her “secret”; she describes her mental state, referring to it as “neurotic lucidity”:


After a long day of dragging around a psyche gone amuck, with only rage and fear as ballast, I now felt I was drifting into what I could only describe as neurotic lucidity. Sitting in the darkness, unable to go to sleep, I had a sense that I was looking at two sides of myself as if on a photographic negative—the lighter areas being “reality”; the darker shades of colors, even perhaps the absence of color, being optical illusions. (30)

Twenty years later, in Cactus Blood, this dark gift is represented as an asset in detective work that even her male partner and future lover Justin Escobar, under whose apprenticeship Gloria is working, has come to respect and rely upon. In fact, Justin takes Gloria’s visions very seriously and consults her about them in their investigation of Sonny Mares’s death; at one point Justin teases Gloria about not being sure he trusts her hunches, but he insists that he does trust her visions (79).

Gloria Damasco’s reliance on dreams and visions, in addition to scientific evidence and hard facts as an aid in solving crimes is a unique contribution to the genre of detective fiction. She attributes her keen perception, intuition, and “dark gift” of visions and dreams to her Mexican heritage. The belief in the value of dreams and visions as a form of prophecy and understanding reality is common in Mexican and Chicano popular culture and folklore. In this way, in can be argued that Corpi is opening up the mystery genre and allowing for cultural diversity by offering a non-Eurocentric perception of reality, one that includes knowledge and accepts as real, insights that come from mysterious, non-tangible sources such as dreams, visions, intuition, and extrasensory perception. 

María Baldomar, one of the characters in Cactus Blood who is a curandera, or healer, recognizes Gloria’s radiant spirit and clairvoyance as a special gift. She functions as a sort of spiritual mentor who encourages Gloria to, in her words, “let everyone know who and what you are” (95). Baldomar confides in Gloria and shares her perceptions: “To look into the past, Sabina and I were taught, is to look into the future. But it takes a certain kind of talent, a great gift, to see how the past will become the future. That’s what your gift is all about” […] “People make fun of you . . . they taunt you, unable to see the nature of your gift, afraid of it many times” (94). Another character in this novel with the ability to predict earthquakes by reading the signs in the mackerel sky and observing that animals go into hiding prior to a quake is Gloria’s mother. In fact, she has correctly predicted the devastating earthquake that shook San Francisco and caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse on Tuesday October 17, 1989. It is the older generation of Chicanas and mexicanas in these novels—such as Gloria’s mother and her grandmother Mama Julia, Justin’s grandmother, María Baldomar, and Carlota Navarro’s grandmother—who share these types of folk beliefs, home remedies, Mexican traditions, indigenous and mestizo cultural practices, and spirituality that enables them to see into the future. 

Gloria Damasco’s clairvoyance is a key element in her characterization and also in the development of the plot in each of these novels. For example, Cactus Blood opens with Gloria’s vision of a rattlesnake in a thicket of prickly-pear cacti and a naked women tied to a huge, old cactus in the form of “a slumping female Christ” (11). This recurring vision haunts Damasco until we, the readers, finally discover who this woman is at the end of the novel. Likewise, Damasco’s so called “flying experience” and her vision of Michael David’s abduction haunt her for many years until this crime is solved and we discover who killed the child in the final scenes of Eulogy for a Brown Angel.

Black Widow’s Wardrobe opens with the following description of Gloria’s recurring nightmare:

Not day anymore, not yet night, it is the hour of the wild cat, the ocelot. A woman fans the fire in a stone stove. She wears a mid-length skirt underneath a huipil with embroidered red flowers. Her long hair streams down her back. Her back is to me and I cannot see her face. Her young daughter plays by her side. A brooding young man sits at the kitchen table, playing with a dagger, a gift from his father. Suddenly, without saying a word, he gets up, picks up the dagger, and walks towards the woman at the stove. He raises his hand. She turns. The fire flares up, and her hair catches on fire, then her clothes . . . (1)

When Gloria first sees the Black Widow at the “Day of the Dead” procession in the Mission District of San Francisco, she immediately knows that she is the woman in this recurring nightmare. She comments, “I helplessly realized that my feelings and dreams had become inextricably meshed with the threads of Black Widow’s life. I knew that the visions would follow, and that I would give myself no choice but to work towards freeing myself from their hold” (1). At this stage in her career as a private eye, Gloria accepts the fact that her dreams and visions are inescapable and an integral part of her detective work. She no longer questions this, but rather, is resigned to accepting it as the reality of her life.

By the end of the novel, the reader discovers that the young man who stabbed Licia at the Day of the Dead procession was, like in Gloria’s nightmare, her own son. Also, the novel ends with Licia’s house mysteriously burning down: “The fire department had found no evidence of arson. Although neighbors swore they had seen a woman wearing a white dress enter the house just before the fire started, no human remains were recovered at the site that once was Black Widow’s dwelling” (193). Thus, although Gloria successfully solves the mystery of who had tried to kill Licia, the novel ends with many unanswered questions. This, of course, is another example of how Corpi subverts the traditional genre.

In solving the mystery of who is trying to kill Licia, Gloria Damasco has another recurring nightmare about a menacing hand: “Down a dark tunnel, I run after someone, but I can’t tell who. A man’s hand emerges from the darkness, the long, thin fingers and thumb wrapped around the pistol . . . The hand retreats back into the darkness. ‘Why did you take it from me?’ questions a raspy voice—I cannot tell if a man or a woman” (44). The inscription of these dreams adds to the suspense of the novel and invites the reader to participate in deciphering them in an attempt to solve the mystery.

In Black Widow’s Wardrobe other types of non-rational experiences are presented contributing to Anzadua’s claims about the new mestiza’s acceptance of ambivalence and the overcoming of the Western binary logic. For example, serious discussions of regression to past lives, reincarnation, karma, the law of retribution, and hallucinations are all presented as real possibilities. Ambivalence is embraced in this novel that raises more questions than it answers. Corpi questions the notions of an “absolute truth” or “History” as fixed and knowable. She accepts the fact that there are mysteries that can’t be solved and by the end of the novel she claims: “I nearly believed that Licia was the reincarnation of La Malinche. But despite everything I knew about her, Licia Román Lecuona had remained an enigma to me” (190).

In addition to her visions, dreams and feminine intuition as non-traditional tools in solving crimes, Damasco also has an historical understanding of racism in the U.S., police brutality, and the oppression suffered by ethnic communities in this society. Both Eulogy for a Brown Angel and Cactus Blood document the political activism of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and call for a return to the values of that important period in Chicano history. This call for political action is suggested in Cactus Blood when Damasco promises Carlota Navarro, an undocumented worker who had been poisoned when she ran through a pesticide-ridden field, that they will organize a picket line if a certain restaurant manager continues to serve grapes. At another point in the novel, Damasco confesses to a nostalgia for the political zeal of the 1970s and when confronted by Carlota about her current political complacency, admits: “I am growing politically apathetic and quite selfish . . . And when all of this is over, I know I have to do a lot of mental and emotional housekeeping” (174).

Early in Eulogy Damasco inscribes herself as a participant in the Chicano Movement and describes the commitment and heightened political awareness of many young activists during the 1970s. She uses the first-person plural pronoun “we” instead of the singular “I” to emphasize the consciousness that was shared by many members of the Mexican-American community who fought for ethnic equality and economic justice within a society that was hostile to Latinos:


In the summer of 1970 everything anyone of us did had to be considered according to its political impact on the Chicano Community . . . In some ways, I realized that our movement for racial equality and self-determination was no different from others like it in other parts of the the world. But we were a people within a nation. Our behavior was constantly under scrutiny, our culture relentlessly under siege. (64)

Tim Libretti has observed, “the commonplace theory of detective fiction as an inherently conservative genre fails to recognize that it is based in assumptions about the demographic composition of a readership and the ideological perspective of that readership and that if understood in a different cultural and demographic context, the detective fiction formula could easily serve a politically radical and social transformative function” (67). Both Eulogy for a Brown Angel and Cactus Blood inscribe a politically radical ideology and register a view of California’s history that is different from the mainstream Euro-American official history celebrating the Anglo takeover of the Southwestern United States.

As part of her investigation into the death of Michael David Cisneros, Damasco does research into the history of the Peraltas, an old California family, and discovers that they had been friends of the Vallejo family. General Vallejo was the head of the Mexican Army who surrendered to U.S. troops, prior to the colonization of California by Anglo settlers. Carlota Navarro expresses the view that Vallejo was an opportunist and our first vendido, who sold-out to the highest bidder in exchange for a post in the new state government (174). In this sense, the novel offers a different viewpoint or a revision of American/Californian history, not from the vantage point of the colonizer, but rather, from the perspective of the colonized people who were living in the region long before the arrival of Anglo American settlers.

Many of the characters in these novels, in addition to the protagonist Gloria Damasco, have been active participants in and/or shaped by the Chicano Movement of the 1970s. The influence of the Movement plays a prominent role in the plot and the character development in both Cactus Blood and in Eulogy for a Brown Angel. As mentioned previously, the crime victim in Eulogy was found dead on August 29,1970, the day of the National Chicano Moratorium. This event marks an important landmark in raza history when more than 20,000 people marched down Whittier Boulevard in the heart of East L.A. to protest the war in Vietnam and the induction of young Chicanos into the armed forces. That day is also remembered for the violence unleashed on the protesters by the police who were also responsible for the tragic shooting death of the well-known journalist Rubén Salazar at the Silver Dollar Café. Corpi’s novel recounts the injustice and repression suffered by Chicanos who were sprayed with tear gas and beaten with clubs at the hands of the LAPD at the Moratorium. Damasco reveals the outrage experienced by many Chicanos due to institutional racism within the legal system and the high number of incidents of police brutality committed against Chicano and African-American youth:


Without supporting the radical notion that every Chicano in jail was a “political prisoner,” we accepted as our right and responsibility the function of making sure that justice was dealt equally to everyone . . . For years, I’d walked around with unresolved anger delicately balanced against the hope that one day our social and political condition would improve for us. (65)

The Movement also plays a central role in Cactus Blood, which records important events such as the 1973 United Farm Workers’ Strike. Several of the novel’s characters—Art Bello, Sonny Mares, Ramón Caballos, and Carlota Navarro—had been activists dedicated to the cause of denouncing the deadly effects of pesticides, which caused cancer and birth defects in hundreds of farm workers who had been exposed to them. Navarro herself suffers from seizures, memory lapses, and a bipolar mental illness induced by her exposure to parathion. This novel addresses other significant political issues such as the persecution of undocumented Mexicans, ethnic discrimination, domestic violence, and the exploration of role of Chicanas in the Chicano Movement.

Luisa Cortez, Damasco’s close friend and poet who had been murdered in Eulogy, compiled and edited a manuscript entitled The Chicana Experience. This book, to be published by Women of Color Press, is based on interviews with Chicanas who were active in the political movement of the sixties and seventies, offering a feminist perspective that had been silenced in masculine versions of Chicano history. Another gender-related social issue presented in this novel is rape. Carlota Navarro’s rape by her former employer when she was only a teenager working as a housekeeper for a wealthy family is described in horrifying detail. Other rape victims in these novels include Lillian Cisneros who was raped by her own brother-in-law and Justin Escobar’s girlfriend who had been raped and murdered by a serial killer. Josie Baldomar suffered from physical and emotional abuse by her drunken father; and was nearly raped by one of his buddies.

The themes of domestic violence and rape are explored further and in more depth in Black Widow’s Wardrobe. Corpi makes it a point to mention that it was an all-male jury that “was out to get Licia” when they convicted her for murdering her abusive husband (17); they did not buy the defense attorney’s argument of “what we now call ‘battered wife syndrome’” (16). Also, her lawyer, Lester Zamora, argued that Licia’s husband Peter had sexually abused her, but “at that time, the courts had not ruled that a husband could commit the crime of rape against his own wife. When a husband forced himself on his wife, the act wasn’t seen as rape” (16). Domestic violence is represented in this text as a cycle of abuse that is hard to break. As a three-year-old child, Licia was in the same room and witnessed when her own father, driven by unfounded jealously “shot Licia’s mother, then blew his brains out” (15). The novel suggests that Licia was deeply affected by this tragic event, which haunted her all of her life.

When Gloria Damasco consults Rosa, an espiritista who had befriended Licia in prison and later betrayed her, she tells her to investigate Malintzin Tenepal’s death in order to find out who is trying to kill Licia. According to Rosa’s version, “a masked assassin stabbed Malinche thirteen times, outside her house in Mexico City . . . apparently this killer was sent by Cortés and Juan de Jaramillo, Malinche’s husband” (118-119). Thus, the cycle of violence is traced back to the 16th Century and a parallel is established in the text between the life of the modern day Black Widow and Malintzin Tenepal, the mistress and interpreter of Hernan Cortés. As Rosa points out: “He used her as his interpreter, in other words his tongue, ears, and mind. Without her, the Spaniard’s mighty sword would have been useless” (57).

Carol Pearson has rightly observed that a “key contribution of Black Widow’s Wardrobe is its reconstruction of the legend and history of Malinche . . . Corpi weaves together numerous accounts of various aspects of Malinche’s life, she employs many different voices and perspectives, both historical and fictional to tell the story” (45). In fact, one of the ways in which Corpi inscribes a Chicana feminist ideology into this text is through her references to Chicana scholars such as Norma Alarcón, who has written groundbreaking academic articles revising the figure of La Malinche. (4) When Gloria’s mother went to the Chicano Studies Library at UC Berkeley to do research on La Malinche, the librarian told her “to talk to Professor Norma Alarcón” (95).

As Gloria sets out to investigate the mystery of who is trying to kill the Black Widow, she simultaneously discovers valuable historical information about La Malinche that helps her to better understand her own cultural heritage and identity as a Chicana:


I surmised that Chicana scholars and writers aimed at creating a new and more positive view of La Malinche. In doing so, they hoped to give Mexicanas and Chicanas a better sense of themselves, not as las hijas de la chingada—the Indian woman violated and subjugated by the conqueror—but as las hijas de la Malinche—the daughters of an intelligent woman who had exercised the options available to her and chosen her own identity. (97)

In conclusion, Lucha Corpi presents us with an unforgettable Chicana detective, Gloria Damasco, a clairvoyant who uses her “dark gift” of visions and dreams to solve her murder mysteries. Damasco also has an extraordinary ability to see how the past is linked to the future, and how the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s is linked to current struggles for racial equality and social justice. Corpi’s novels are examples of a new type of multicultural detective fiction that calls for an end to ethnic, gender, and class exploitation.




(1). Other writers such as Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley, and Rudolfo Anaya also deal with multicultural detective fiction. Although the critically acclaimed Hillerman is of Euro-American descent, all of his twelve murder mysteries take place on the Navajo reservation and his detectives, Liutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee of the Tribal Police are Navajo and offer perspectives not usually found in the genre. Walter Mosley is an African American writer; five of his six Easy Rawlins’ mystery novels are set in postwar Los Angeles. Mosley explores issues related to race, police brutality, violence, crime, and oppression from the perspective of Easy Rawlins, a black male detective. Rudolfo Anaya three-volume Sonny Bacca series –Zia Summer, Rio Grande, and Shaman Winter – is enjoying wide mass distribution.


(2). See Priscilla Walton’s “Bubblegum Metaphysics: Feminist Paradigms and Racial Interventions in Mainstream Hardboiled Women’s Detective Fiction,” in Multicultural Detective Fiction, for a discussion of the ways in which feminist detective fiction transforms the genre. Also, articles by Phyllis M. Betz, Stephen F. Soitos, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, and Jeffrey Langham  on gay and lesbian crime fiction are found Multicultural Detective Fiction, edited by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin.  This collection of essays explores the ways in which multicultural detective fiction is shaped by ethnicity, gender, and culture; the essays are all grounded in contemporary cultural and critical theories and offer important insights into this genre.


(3).The so-called “Culture Wars” which fueled so much debate at Stanford University regarding the inclusion of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony comes to mind.  Debates and controversy are still very much alive at universities and colleges throughout the country regarding curriculm reform and challenging the traditional canon of literary works, mostly written by “dead, white males.” Many academics still view popular genres, such as detective fiction and the romance novel, as inferior to canonical literary works and unworthy of serious scholarship.


(4). See Norma Alarcon’s article “Traddutora, Traitora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism.” Cultural Critique 13 (1989): 57-87.



Works cited


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.


Corpi, Lucha. Cactus Blood. Houston: Arte Público, 1995.


----. Eulogy for a Brown Angel. Houston: Arte Público, 1992.


----.  Black Widow’s Wardrobe. Houston: Arte Público, 1999.


Johnson Gosselin, Adrienne, ed. Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the Other Side. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.


Libretti, Tim. “Lucha Corpi and the Politics of Detective Fiction,” in Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the Other Side, ed. Johnson Gosselin. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.  61-82.


Lomelí, Francisco A., Teresa Márquez, and María Herrera-Sobek. “Trends and Themes in Chicana/o Writings in Postmodern Times,” in Chicano Renaissance: Contemporary Cultural Trends, ed. David R. Maciel, Isidro D. Ortiz, and María Herrera-Sobek. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. 285-312.


Pearson, Carol. “Writing from the Outside In: Constructs of Memory and Chicanas as Private Eyes in Three Detective Novels by Lucha Corpi.”  Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory Vol. 4, Number 1 (Fall 2002): 38-51.


Rodriguez, Ralph E. “Cultural Memory and Chicanidad: Detecting History, Past and Present, in Lucha Corpi’s Gloria Damasco Series.” Contemporary Literature  Vol. 43, Number 1 (Spring 2002): 138-170.


Spanos, William V. Report in Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays. Ed. Paul A. Bové. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 11-39.