by Daniela Montes-Bellows
Carmen and Grace by Melissa Coss Aquino is a coming-of-age story set in Bronx, New
York set during the 1990’s. The girls live a hard life and while they’ve found success and friendships dealing drugs to high end customers, all of that is brought to a halt when the local drug queen, Doña Durka the closest thing Grace has to a maternal figure, dies. Carmen and Grace is about healing and how to rebuild your life after it changes forever.
The main characters, Carmen and Altagracia (who goes by Grace) are Puerto Rican girls who come from broken homes. Only a few months apart in age, the cousins grew up as close as sisters. The girls were raised primarily by their maternal grandmother because their mothers were drug addicts. After their maternal grandmother died, when they were twelve, the girls no longer lived together. Separated, Carmen stayed with her paternal grandmother and Grace stayed with her mother.
When the reader first meets Carmen, she’s in prison at a lecture called Walking the Spiral where she and the other prisoners learn “you will never get over what has happened to you. None of us do. However, you can, will, and must get through.” Carmen’s life was a little more stable when the girls were young. Her paternal grandmother took care of her. She was doing well in school, so well she and Grace were selected to fill out an application for private school. Even though the girls didn’t live together, they went to church on Sundays and dreamed together of the freedom adulthood would provide.
Carmen felt like the private school was their way out of their situation. She thought it would lead to bigger opportunities. The reader gets bits and pieces of her teen years, but most of the action happens in her twenties after Doña Durka’s death. Carmen’s story is centered around a secret she’s hiding from Grace, she’s pregnant and wants to break free of drug dealing and live a quiet life. She doesn’t know how to tell Grace because Grace is the reason, she has money and a vocation. The girls are each other’s constants. Carmen has been loyal to Grace her entire life. What will Grace do without her? What will she be without Grace?
For Grace life was different. Living with her drug addicted mother meant she dealt with more insecurity than Carmen did. When she was fourteen, Toro, her mother’s dealer, came calling, because her mother owed him money, but she wasn’t there. Impressed by Grace’s looks and her use of big words Toro took her to a diner for lunch. From there their relationship started. Grace didn’t know their relationship would always be imbalanced, he was at least ten years older than her but she kept his attention, in her mind that meant it was okay. Ironically, it wasn’t Toro who changed her life, but his mother, Doña Durka. She was the first woman to hug Grace since her grandmother died two years before. Durka protected Grace; she told Toro he was not allowed to touch Grace until she was older. She gave Grace a room of her own, sent her to private school. Grace was smart, and liked learning, Durka encouraged Grace to stay curious, and eventually got Grace involved in the family business.
Doña Durka tells Grace to form her own crew. Durka has high end clientele to cater to and Toro’s crew would be too suspicious in the lobbies of fancy hotels or apartments. The girls would pose as interior designers, cleaners, and other occupations that would blend in. Grace gathers a group of girls, like her and Carmen, who want more from life than they currently have, but can’t get it because of any number of different reasons: some of the girls wanted to provide for their children without having to rely on anyone else, others wanted to have nice things, but what they all had in common they were all loyal to Grace. Grace encourages the girls to learn as much as they can to fit in with their clientele. She brings in professors and other experts to teach the girls art, knitting, and meditation, but also, self-defense and gun safety because it is still an illegal enterprise and they are still women.
All is going well, business is good, and then Doña Durka is diagnosed with stage four cancer, which sends Grace reeling but Doña Durka dies unexpectedly from a gun shot wound and the tension skyrockets. Who shot the Doña is a question that looms throughout the book, and her absence changes everything. The girls don’t have the same security as before. It’s up to Grace to decide where her side of the business goes. She tries to keep her moves a secret from Toro, the loyalty between them long gone and all that’s left is suspicion on his part.
Coss Aquino structures Carmen and Grace in six parts all written in close third person divided almost equally between to the two main characters: two are attributed to Carmen, one to Grace, one part to both of them, and two parts to neither. She does this to not only give different perspectives of the same events but to also showcase the similarities and differences between the girls by showing their thought processes. This broader view allows the reader to understand both Carmen and Grace in a way that they wouldn’t be able to if only Grace or Carmen narrated.
Coss Aquino further differentiates the two characters through the use of time. All of Carmen’s attributed chapters are set in 2002. She’s living in the present and looking back at the past. Grace, however, starts in 1992 and works forward to 2002. Grace is looking forward not back, the opposite of Carmen. The unattributed chapters are the first chapter of the story and the last three. These four chapters are also the ones set after the events of the attributed chapters spanning from 2003-2014. They show the reader the result of all of Carmen and Grace’s actions. The book is about how they got through the roughest point in their lives and the unattributed chapters leave the reader with satisfying endings for both characters.
Melissa Coss Aquino does a wonderful job showing complex and layered the decisions are for Carmen and Grace. They aren’t just drug-dealers. The characters are multidimensional. There are no stereotypes or filler. Each character teaches the reader something about life, about loyalty, and freedom. The story shows the reader how the girls made it through their trauma and asks the reader how they will get through theirs.
Daniela Z. Montes received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California–Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She hosted writing workshops at her local public library. Her poems “Cocoxoxhitl (Dahlias),” “Nopal (Cactus),” and “Jacaranda” were published on Kelp Journal’s blog, The Wave. Kelp Journal also published her true horror story, “Hellhounds.” She was The Coachella Review’s Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California–Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.