Sandra Benítez owes her life to these images. A picture of a tiny boy with the face of a grown man, dwarfed beneath the weight of his oversize gown. A drawing of a young woman, hair streaming down her back, whose head is wreathed in blinding stars. A yellowing photograph of a priest who stares obliquely off into some unseen space beyond the camera lens.
Benítez is removing these pictures from her wallet as she sits in a café inside Stillwater's Valley Bookseller, where she is preparing to read from her novel The Weight of All Things (Hyperion). She sets them on the table in front of her, leafing through them with a personal pride that most people reserve for showing off family portraits. At nearly 60 years of age, dressed in a sharp black suit and spreading her arms out authoritatively as she leans back into her chair, Benítez does look the part of the grand matriarch to a dynastic family. But in spite of a veneer that commands respect, there is also something delicate, almost mystical, about her. Benítez stands hardly five feet tall, and the way that the light comes in through the windows and illuminates the gold bracelets clinking on her thin wrists makes her hands look frail and small as she sorts through her pictures. She is at once commanding and diminutive.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that these images she keeps in her wallet--of the Infant of Prague, the Holy Mother, and canonized monsignor Josemaria Escriva--are also of a mystical cast. They have become a kind of lifeblood connection for Benítez, something she needs in order to survive. In her mind the idea of salvation through old pictures has nothing to do with metaphor or hyperbole. Benítez believes that the image of Monsignor Escriva literally helped to save her sister's life.
"My sister [Anita] was caught in downtown El Salvador during the civil war in 1984," she explains, shaking her head vigorously to emphasize the gravity of her story. "There was a gun battle between the Salvadorian army and a band of guerrilleros that stopped her car. One of the guerrilleros was standing on the hood of her car, and she was literally caught in the crossfire. My sister made everyone in her back seat lie down on the floor of the car, and she took out a picture of Monsignor Escriva, who was being canonized, and she prayed to him.
"She said, 'Intercede for me.' The guerrillero was killed on the hood of the car, right in front of her. And later she saw that there were only small bullet holes in her car; nothing pierced through. And there had been a hand grenade that rolled under her car but never went off. My sister was the one who gave me this picture of Escriva, and I carry it around with me. She says, 'If you ever want to be saved, this will help.'"
In the flux of Benítez's unpredictable life she has been saved many times, and the mix between social upheaval and religious faith that her sister experienced has been the motivating force behind her final calling as a novelist. Many of the political themes that have graced the pages of Benítez's novels have come directly from her own experiences growing up amid various forms of social and spiritual conflict in Latin America.
As the daughter of a relatively wealthy Anglo-American diplomat father and a Puerto Rican mother, Benítez was aware of class conflict from a very early age. Growing up in Mexico and El Salvador, she was often asked by her family's servants to help them write letters home to their own families. What she found in the letters--spouses' desperate requests for simple necessities like shoes and food, children's lonely pleas to see their parents, and countless prayers to the Virgin Mary to reunite families--would later surface in a novel, the multigenerational epic Bitter Grounds.
When Benítez was 14 years old, she began writing letters of her own. In the interest of providing a better education and an "Americanizing" influence, Benítez was sent to live with her paternal grandparents on an impoverished dairy farm in Missouri. She communicated with her parents only through the mail until the summers, when she would return to El Salvador. Benítez recounts that she prayed a great deal during this time. Decades later, when she was 52, these prayers coalesced into a narrative of faith and determination that became a theme in her first book, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, a novel-in-stories about daily life in Mexico.
Benítez's latest book, The Weight of All Things, centers on the experiences of a more unrooted child, Nicolás, a nine-year-old boy who manages to survive the violent conflicts of war-torn El Salvador during the 1980s. Caught in a riot that erupts during the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Nicolás's mother dies in crossfire similar to that which Benítez's sister survived. He refuses to believe that she is dead and sets off on an epic journey to find her. Throughout the novel Nicolás tries to prevent armies on both sides from using him as an ideological tool and, as a result, often feels conflicted about not being able to adhere to either side's agenda.