Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez
The University of Arizona Press, 2013; 230 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
When I think of novels that combine fiction and nonfiction, I think of two categories: There are the novels that are more like memoirs, that combine real elements of an author’s life with fiction in order to get at a stronger truth; and there are the novels, often historical fiction, that flesh out a real character or event. In Mañana Means Heaven, Tim Z. Hernandez does the latter, but he does it in a way that I’ve not seen done before.
Hernandez’ novel is built around a real historical character, but one that Hernandez only knew about because she had already been fictionalized in a novel. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac talks about a Mexican girl he met and had a brief affair with during his travels. This girl, Terry, always intrigued Hernandez. He began researching the historical Terry, Bea Franco, and eventually tracked down her children and ended up finding that she was still alive. He then used his conversations with Bea’s children and the letters she and Jack wrote to each other to retell the story of Jack Kerouac’s Mexican girl.
In Hernandez’ story, Bea Franco is a young woman who has an affair with the author Jack Kerouac. She meets Kerouac on the bus, while fleeing her abusive husband. He persuades her to spend a few days in a hotel with him, and they fall in love. Jack listens to Bea’s story and makes her feel important and understood. “She might have gone the rest of her life without ever knowing she had a story in the first place,” Hernandez writes, perhaps alluding to the fact that the historical Bea Franco never knew that she was featured in Kerouac’s novel.
Bea and Jack plan to make a new life together in New York with Bea’s children, but first they need money, so they go back to the labor camps in Selma, where they work in the fields together. The work is difficult for Jack, though, and soon Bea’s violent husband is after him. Bea persuades Jack to go ahead of her to New York, and she will follow as soon as she has enough money. The two maintain a letter correspondence for a few months, until Jack stops writing.
Hernandez’ novel fills an important void in American literature. He writes of the California labor camps of the 30s and 40s that are seen in other American novels, but he describes an often-ignored side of them – the Chicano side. These are people who work alongside the Oklahomans and other field workers, but with their poverty and hardship looms another threat. Bea tells Jack, “when all the picking’s done, the farmers call immigration on themselves so all the workers get deported, this way they don’t have to pay ‘em their last check.” Hernandez describes the families living in these conditions and gives them a voice and a face in literature.
On a smaller scale, though, this is a novel about a woman finding her own way to safety and self-sufficiency. Bea is smart and strong from the beginning. She stands up to her husband and to her father, but she is still afraid of them. She looks to Jack for salvation. Through her relationship with him, she learns to hope. “There’s always mañana,” Bea’s brother says once. Hernandez writes, “it sounded like a possibility, a promise of things to come.” Bea expects Jack to rescue her, but as the days without him pass, she finds that she can provide for her children on her own. In one chapter she takes her children for ice cream and sees their happiness, and “she wondered in that moment whether or not the kids actually needed [their father] at all. Or any man. It seemed entirely possible that she alone could continue on this way and things would still turn out as they were meant.” In the end, Bea goes looking for Jack, but when she cannot find him she finds instead strength within herself, and she returns to her children and her life in California, this time unafraid of the future.