The Parallels Between Mildred Vargas’ & Zora Neale Hurston’s Unfinished Stories of the Supernatural

By Mildred Vargas

“Sphinx” (2018), by Carla Jay Harris, from the series Celestial Bodies

Untitled by Mildred Vargas tells the compelling story about immigrants, gangsters and brujeria in the south Bronx, NY. The point of view chapters takes you on a journey of characters surviving in this exposé of the gritty and bougie depths of what it is to grow from the concrete pavements that nurtured people of Dominican, Puerto Rican and Colombian descent. While Vargas offers humanity to characters that would otherwise be dismissed as crude, machista and violent, she comes up short when writing about brujeria as we only experience this in the first chapter, Michael, and has yet to reappear in the subsequent chapters. Zora Neale Hurston received similar criticism following the release of her book based on Voodoo, Tell My Horse, where only in the third part of her novel does the reader learn about her experience in Haiti and her research in Voodoo. Scholars argue that it never showed a direct relation to Voodoo but rather a careful observation of the people who practiced this religion where one feels her fear of it on the page. Hurston and Vargas are similar in their stories about the characters living a life either inherited or learned and offer them that sympathetic voice they need to be heard.

In the first chapter of Vargas’ novel, Michael, a twenty-three-year-old man of Puerto Rican descent, joins a Bronx gang — with ties to the new Medellin cartel — in hopes to win the affections of the late Don’s youngest daughter, Minny. Desperate for money he believes he can win Minny’s heart when he turns to brujeria to cast a spell that would make her fall in love with him. The links to a larger than life, supernatural world that lives well within, not only family binds in Latinx culture, but also as a source away from the post-colonial historical context. Vargas explores this rich history from childhood stories and culture.

The ritual scene is Vargas’ most compelling yet as it serves the whole point to Michael’s purpose and what the author preps the entire chapter for. Amantina, his building’s bruja, can only cast or see what’s in store for him with a tangible gift. Michael steals a topaz necklace from the late Don Mano’s safe that, unbeknownst to him, once belonged to the late Don’s wife Maria Teresa. Vargas lays out the players and the mood for the ceremony in the following scene that sets up the pinnacle to the story.

Amantina nodded and asked if he had the necklace with him. He handed it to her and she did the same as he had heard. She chanted over it and said the words he couldn’t understand. The necklace glowed brightly at the center of the oakwood table and illuminated la bruja’s face. In the light of the necklace, she looked twenty years younger and was breathtakingly beautiful. The apartment shivered with him and the chair he sat on liquefied as he slipped down to the floor and everything spun before it all stopped. When it ended, the necklace swallowed back the light.

“It still works after all these years,” La bruja said as she held the necklace in her hand and stared into the gem. She offered her hand to help Michael stand.

Amantina smirked at the disbelief on his face, “I love the faces you ateos make when all is finished.”

“What just happened?” He looked at her face and saw it had returned to its normal state.

“What needed to happen, Miguel,’ she noticed his stare and laughed, ‘the necklace only works when it glows, niño,’” (Vargas, Michael, 10).

Audio of Mildred Vargas reading the scene where Michael meets with la bruja, Amantina.

Vargas depicts Michael’s reasons to turn to brujeria (or sorcery) to have Minny fall in love with him as a man with nothing to lose. At this point in his life, he’s lost his parents, grandmother and it is suggested he has aunts and uncles but refuses to reach out to them because of their negligence after his mother was diagnosed with AIDS. The author builds up a tragic character, whom the reader sympathizes with and hopes he’ll get one good thing come in his life besides an apartment in public housing. However, Michael has the capacity to change his life around but believes otherwise and that his only way out and way to find love and money is through brujeria.

An essay by Amy Fass Emery, The Zombie In/As the Text: Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, analyzes this trope in a character, specifically a male character, who can’t seem to deal with dire circumstances that makes them vulnerable to manipulation.

Hurston ponders the motives that might lead someone to traffic in souls: “Why do men allegedly make such bargains with the spirits who have such terrible power to reward and Punish? When a man is ambitious and sees no way to get there, he becomes desperate. When he has nothing and wants prosperity he goes to a houngan and says, ‘I have nothing and I am disposed to do anything to have money, (Emery, 330).

Mural of Zora Neale Hurston at Elizabeth Park in Eatonville, Fl.

Vargas’ Michael is that man that Hurston described and in his story he bargained with spirits who, in the end, punished him, or so it seems as we have yet to find out where he went wrong in his efforts to cast a spell for love and money.

Brujeria, in Vargas’ story is cryptic and we don’t hear about it again in the following chapters where Minerva, Mario and Tala, thus far, draw the lines on the violence and world of organized crime that seems to build up to a defining climax we have yet to see. There is a promise that some more brujeria is to make an appearance down the line, but as a reader one becomes antsy to discover who is truly behind Michael’s death, what is the deal with the topaz necklace and what other powers does this piece of jewelry hold?

These are questions that highlight the issues within this text as it exemplifies how much more this novel can be expanded upon and developed into something a reader can look forward to. While it is well versed in cultural stories regarding Santeria, Vargas evidently pulled from her background of her summers in the Dominican Republic, she does a fine job in fleshing out these stories that relate to what these people have lived through. What is missing is the premise of what makes this story intriguing from the start and stand out against all the rest: brujeria. She delivers in the first chapter and Michael meets his demise at the clutches of the cursed necklace and its where this story essentially begins. The follow-up is even more intriguing as we learn of the two characters who set the bar for the rest: Minny’s infamous parents, the late leader of the new Medellin cartel, Don Mano and his wife Maria Teresa. What follows is the traumas in Mario’s life as the product of a criminal and Tala’s struggles to protect her family and brujeria remains in the back end and isn’t mentioned again.

This can correspond to the issue Hurston had in Tell My Horse, the book she wrote after visiting Haiti to study and live the Voodoo religion and culture on the island. According to an essay by Wendy Dutton in The Problem of Invisibility: Voodoo and Zora Neale Hurston, the book was made up of three parts and Voodoo isn’t introduced until part three and at the end it feels unfinished. Dutton argues that this is in part due to the fact the Hurston did not finish her research after she got sick and the assumed superstitions and rituals of drum bopping and zombie watching became all too much as it all essentially drove her away and back home to Eatonville.

Just as she began to probe into the secret societies of Haiti, Hurston fell dramatically and mysteriously ill. Her biographer, Robert Hemenway, asserts, ‘Zora Hurston was convinced that her illness and her voodoo studies were related.’ Fearing death, she cut her research short and fled the island” (Dutton, 138).

Zora Neale Hurston interview on zombies at the Mary Margaret McBride Show in 1943

There’s a missing piece that is relevant to the story Hurston attempted to tell in her novel and it is the same issue found in Vargas’ Untitled, that makes the reader yearn for more which can be a good thing if she does ultimately deliver. Dutton goes on to describe the content in Tell My Horse being one that also details her experience in the study of Voodoo in Haiti and much like Vargas’ efforts in humanizing each of her characters infested in crime, drugs or otherwise, Hurston does the same with Haitians and Voodoo. Hurston in fact explained that from of her observations of the Haitian people where,

“believers conceal their faith. Brother from sister, husband from wife. Nobody can say where it begins or ends. Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing,” (Dutton, 140).

It is these ears that writers articulate to tell stories about people we don’t understand or haven’t lived their lifetimes that circle around us and Hurston and Vargas tell tales of those who aren’t heard or seen through their characters.

This is a common practice as 1994 Hurston/Wright Foundation Award winner, Manuel Martinez touched upon this recently in an interview with Mike Day. Martinez elaborates on his role as the writer telling stories about the past that have shaped us into who we are now. It’s important to offer the humanity even in the most grotesque of characters despite the misgivings that it may cause to our own experiences, i.e., Hurston believing that she was cursed in Haiti and thereafter fleeing the country and abandoning her research. Currently, Martinez lives in Florida and when asked if he thought his writing changed after he left New York City, he noted the sense of place that also plays a character in his own writings and when it comes to a place like New York City,

“the paradox of having a place that is so cosmopolitan can also be so centric because it doesn’t understand the things that exist outside of it,” (Martinez, Video).

Vargas essentially does this through her point of view chapters in a story placed in New York City as she captures that New Yorker appeal through sensory images of the starkness in the Bronx, the language that is only understood there and the limited understanding of what lies outside the street life these characters are born and raised in.

Tala’s chapter portrays that essence of a character that is very much a part of this world of grit and belief that you play the role you were given to survive. As Minny’s sister and first daughter of the late Don, Tala is complex in her will to protect her little sister as the only person she has in this world and do whatever it takes to survive a family she didn’t choose. There is a scene in particular that draws on what Martinez discusses about existing in a world that doesn’t understand what’s outside of it. Tala is at a trendy New York restaurant known for its glitterati patrons whom all have a hand in the world of organized crime. The detective investigating El Lobo, Tala’s boyfriend and capo of her late father’s organization, arrives to warn her he’s getting close to an arrest and that she should flee. We don’t know their relationship at this point in the story but its’ one riddled with sexual tension and familiarity and Tala notices how this detective is quite different from the others she’s known.

The cops she saw at her door were gringos with no flavor or sass, or even a lick of mystery to them. They didn’t have a connection to the communities they served or spoke the language that she knew all too well. It wasn’t Spanish she thought of. It was the language that wasn’t spoken at all. It was with every walk these men took and the swag that carried generations of sacrifice and hunger to grow for the next. It was something that couldn’t be articulated, but it lived within each and every one of them and that’s something these cops would never understand, let alone tell. Alex Torres, however, spoke it well. She hadn’t met a cop that carried this not only in his simple attire of plain dark jeans with a fitted t-shirt and a black bomber jacket. He wore it on his skin of a hot cortadito that lightly steamed in a small mug. He was a different breed of a cop and it made him dangerous. (Vargas, Tala, 7).

Audio of Mildred Vargas reading a scene in Tala’s chapter.

Vargas plays with language masterfully here and describes it is not only as the spoken word but also the energy and connection needed to serve a community and how important it is to relate to it. It’s nearly impossible to fully understand a place or its people when you haven’t experienced it and Vargas has the narrator say this through Tala’s perspective. Its compelling how she tackles this idea of the language in a person’s vibes and what’s understood without any words and like Zora Neale Hurston, who still sympathized with the Haitian people and their practice in Voodoo, Vargas offers Tala the empathetic ear and voice needed for those outside of her world to hear.

The empathetic ear is part of the creative artist and Miriam DeCosta Willis compares Cuban writer Lydia Cabrera to Zora Neale Hurston’s works as creative writers and folklorists with themes within the black diaspora in two different countries in her essay, Folklore and the Creative Artist: Lydia Cabrera and Zora Neale Hurston. While Willis identifies Cabrera’s work to be poetic and deeply centered on the study and data found in her Afro-Caribbean research, Hurston’s was a stark description of the voice of her people. In her essay, Willis notes a conversation between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes as she reminds him that,

I have to rewrite a lot as you can understand. For I not only want to present the material with all the color and life of my people. I want to leave no loop-holes for the scientific crowd to rend and tear us, (Willis, 8).

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Langston Hughes (1901–67). ILLUSTRATION: STEPHANIE DALTON COWAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Hurston rendered her characters to be racy with vivid descriptions of their surroundings and who they were, and according to Willis, was unapologetic in her novel, Mules and Men. It is no wonder that Tell My Horse wasn’t received well upon its release as these characteristics that Willis described from Hurston’s folk tales held “an almost physical language, and powerful dramatic effect of her best work,” (Willis, 8–9) that were missing in Tell My Horse. Vargas holds these same ingredients in her characters and the world she’s built in Untitled remains unfinished with brujeria at its forefront and as her characters wait for her to do them justice, we can only hope Vargas delivers in her most important role as the creative writer.

Mildred Vargas is a student in the MFA program for creative writing at City College. She currently works as a configuration analyst for a health plan in Brooklyn and is writing her first novel that she aims to publish by the time she completes this graduate program. She was born and raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and now lives in Queens, NY.

Mildred Vargas is a student in the MFA program for creative writing at City College and lives in Queens, NY.