The stories in Concepcion and the Baby Brokers take place primarily in the small town of Todos Santos, located high in the mountains of Guatemala, surrounded by 4 peaks named after 4 ancestral gods, and in some ways, the town itself is a main character of these stories. Its muddy streets, its gossipy inhabitants, its poor and hungry as well as its few educated and relatively well-off, its people’s traditional clothing and traditional mindsets as well all add up to complete the picture, filling in the background to create a full-bodied look at modern life in an ancient town.
The first story is the best, in my opinion. A novella told in 3 parts, A Cup of Tears looks at the problem of baby stealing from 3 points of view–a poor wet nurse who resents the home she works in and the loss of her own child, a jaladora (literally a hauler, derogatory term for someone who brokers in babies) who is fleeing her own past and has plenty of resentment of her own, and an adoptive American mother who only wants a baby of her own to love. The story is told unsentimentally, but nonetheless packs a raw, emotional punch. Deftly and with nuance and sensitivity, it touches on race (not just North American vs Central American, but Ladino vs Indian) and class (wealthy Indian vs poor Indian vs wealthy Ladino vs middle-class-but-feeling-stretched white American) and privilege. The author manages to present everyone’s points of view comprehensively and compassionately.
The other stories are also well done. In The Race, we follow the life of Fausto, raised on a deserted plain because of the civil war, doing well in school but not being able to continue because of his estranged father, eventually going north to work in Michigan but returning to his hometown to race in the town’s annual festival, a race that represents life in all its monotony and sorrow, and the story of his people as well. In The Flor we see how one woman deals with her husband’s infidelity in creative ways. Saints and Sinners follows a friendship between a North American man, Noah, and a Todosantero, Roberto. Roberto, a dignified older man, principal of the local high school and with a North American wife who divides her time between America and Guatemala, is being seduced by a young teenage girl with designs of marriage and status, and he’s in fear for his reputation and even his life.
All the stories are well told, clear-eyed and portraying people with depth of character. They show us the allure of drug trafficking and the siren call of the North, where there are jobs and money to be had and you can live in a house filled with other men from your hometown until you get in a fight and Uncle Sam pays your ticket home. Author Deborah Clearman’s characters aren’t angels or demons; even the ones making terrible choices have people who love them, and the “good” characters are also flawed. It’s really a beautiful collection of stories that will take you deep into another world. Highly recommended.