My goal when I began rereading the Anita Blake books was to finally write up a post centering on Obsidian Butterfly. I wanted to talk about how OB stood out as an awesome treatment of mixed race issues. Because it takes Anita out of her surprisingly monoracial St Louis context, and plunks her down in the middle of New Mexico, you’d think there’d be tons of discussion of Anita as a mixed race Latina. Since the plot revolves around Aztec mythology, you’d also think there’d be something on the various ways indigenous beliefs inform mainstream faith experiences as well as understandings of history.
Like I mentioned in my previous post on the series, LKH writes Anita as a character with some serious issues with her identity as a mixed race person. While this is a laudable project, and has been well-handled in works like Toi Derricote’s The Black Notebooks, it’s not an identity treated with any sort of serious or critical analysis. Throughout the text, LKH reinforces Anita as an “exceptional female,” Adrienne Rich’s term for a woman or female character who forms her identity by the constant rejection of stereotypical traits. These characters do very little to debunk sexist notions of femininity; instead they treat those notions as real, as completely valid, and instead construct the character in question as being the awesome, exceptional female who’s not like (read: who is better than) the other girls she encounters. So there’s that. And it’s very very weird.
What’s even more troubling is the text’s handling of mixed race issues. Anita’s mixed. Her mother is Mexican, and it’s from this side of the family that Anita gets her awesome cosmic powers. I talk about the issues with LKH’s treatment of this here, where I describe Anita as a tragic mulatta. I want to further develop the race issues LKH presents in OB, especially since Anita’s also such an exceptional female.
On to the plot. Anita owes Edward (her psychopathic BFF) a favor. He calls it in by asking her to help him solve a case in New Mexico. Part of the team include Olaf, a serial rapist/killer, and Bernardo Spotted-Horse, a mixed race bodyguard/hitman. During their first encounter, Bernardo confronts Anita about her whiteness.
“You may be a little dark around the edges, but you can pass for white,” Bernardo said.
“I’m not passing, Bernardo. I am white. My mother just happened to be Mexican.”
“You got your father’s skin?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, what of it?”
“No one’s ever got up in your face about it, have they?”
At this moment, Anita engages in some self-reflection, remembering how her stepmother always had a disclaimer about her troublesome child: Anita’s not hers. Her mother was Mexican. She’s not adopted. It should be a good moment for the character, especially as they continue:
“Do you think of yourself as white?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Now ask me if I think I’m white enough?”
Bernardo looked at me. “Are you white enough?”
“Not according to some people.
“Like none of your damn business.”
He spread his hands. “Sorry, didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
“Yes, you did,” I said.
“You think so?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think you’re jealous.”
“That I can pass and you can’t.” (OB 131)
Later on, these same two characters talk about cultural authenticity. Bernardo’s brown-skinned but white-washed due to having grown up in foster homes. His father died, and the implication in-text is that he doesn’t even know what tribe he’s from. Part of his boorishness (indeed, part of what makes him a less honorable character than Olaf, our international serial killer) is his ‘massive chip on the shoulder’ (OB 147), his unexplained envy of whiteness. This lack of explanation is part of what makes this such a weird moment. Being able to pass has concrete material and social advantages in a world where race matters. To ignore that — to treat it as though Bernardo’s just a hateful jerkwad — is to ignore the very real benefits color grants Anita. She is a little dark around the edges — but if you made her phenotypically Chicana living in St. Louis, how much access to crime scenes would she get then?
So there’s that. I originally read that whole sequence as a sort of schizophrenia. Surely, this a moment where Anita’s getting complicated as a heroine, since, seriously, how messed up is it to present your ability to pass as a virtue, as something to be jealous of? However, near the end of the book, Anita uncovers the real big bad. He captures her, and surprise, surprise! He’s mixed too.
I stared up the line of his body, and the tongues were moving as if still trying to scream. He took off the helmet, and showed a slender, handsome face that reminded me of Bernardo’s, not the pure Aztec ethnicity I’d been expecting. He had turquoise ear spools in his lobes, and they matched the blue green of his eyes. (OB 542)
As they talk, he reveals that his purpose is to drive out the Conquistadors’ taint, even though he’s a bit late. He’s been in an enchanted sleep the last 500 years, along with his pet Quetzacoatl. In this treatment of Aztec myth, the patron deity of knowledge is reimagined as a ravenous, but beautiful, dragon. Anyways, Anita comments on the — to her — obvious disconnect between Red Woman’s Husband’s desire to fight the Conquest of indigenous people and his obvious mixed identity. This disconnect is a symptom of his overall insanity, much as Bernardo’s ambivalence towards his skin color is a symptom of his lack of honor.
“You must believe that I am a god. I am the Red Woman’s Husband. I am the body that will be revenged on those that destroyed my people.”
“You mean the Spanish Conquistadors?”
“Yes,” he said.
“There aren’t a lot of conquistadors in New Mexico,” I said.
“Their blood still runs in the veins of their children’s children’s children.”
“No offense, but you didn’t get those turquoise eyes from anyone local.”
The introduction of Bernardo and Red Woman’s Husband highlight another group of which Anita is an exceptional member. She’s not just an exceptional female; she’s an exceptional mulatta as well. While she’s tragic, she’s not insane. She’s not phenotypically marked as being mixed race in the same ways these other characters are, and, more importantly, she embraces and lives out her whiteness, without questioning the advantages this gives her. Bernardo and Red Woman’s Husband are physically marked as Other. Like Dominga (The Laughing Corpse) and Seraphina’s use of Anita’s Mexican mother as a temptation (Bloody Bones), their appearance here reminds both the reader and Anita what happens when that ethnic stuff is allowed to run free. You get people getting bitter about passing and questioning the Conquest, and we certainly can’t have that.