Cecile Pineda: She Confronted the Notion of Identity, Among Other Themes, in Works of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Drama

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Cecile Pineda, wide-ranging Latina author, dies at 89”:

Cecile Pineda, who burst onto the literary scene in 1985 with her debut novel, “Face,” about a Brazilian man who reconstructs his visage after a disfiguring accident, and who later grappled with the immigrant experience and dangers of the nuclear age in works that entered the canon of Latina literature, died at her home in Berkeley, Calif.

Ms. Pineda grew up in New York, the daughter of a Swiss mother and a Mexican father. Her father, she recounted, had entered the United States in 1910 as an undocumented immigrant, studied at Harvard University and became a philologist and linguist. He cultivated his daughter’s interest in literature and art but revealed little of his life before he came to the United States, Ms. Pineda told the online Hippocampus Magazine, leaving her “an orphan in the sense that I never knew from whom or where I came.”

Ms. Pineda confronted the often fraught notion of identity, among other themes, in works of fiction, nonfiction and drama spanning more than half a century. She first established herself as a theatrical director in San Francisco, founding the city’s experimental Theatre of Man in 1969, and embarked on her literary career after the company closed in 1981.

She described herself as interested in everything — from insects to people to politics — and based her first book on a newspaper article about a man who reconstructed his own face after an accident. In her fictionalized rendering, the man was a poor, nearly illiterate Brazilian barber, Helio Cara, who, while racing on foot to the bedside of his dying mother, slips off a rain-slicked cliff and destroys his face. Unable to pay for plastic surgery, he wears a rubber mask before eventually using his manual skills as a barber to remake his face — and himself.

“I was so touched by his trials and amazed by the notion of actually making a face,” Ms. Pineda told the Associated Press in 1985, referring to the subject of the newspaper article who inspired her novel. “To find somebody who makes a face, not a mask, but a face, what does that mean and what does that mean in our time?”

She continued, “Aren’t we all disfigured in one way or the other? Try being a divorced woman and you’ll find out how you’ll lose your face. … Try being a someone who just doesn’t look right because he or she can’t afford the money to buy a coat or a dress. This book is a metaphor for that.”

“Face” was a finalist for the 1985 National Book Award for first work of fiction. In an introduction to a later edition of the book, the South African-born writer J.M. Coetzee described it as “an extraordinary achievement, all the more extraordinary for being a first novel.”

“With exemplary freshness it asks of us: What is this thing, this structure of skin and bone and gristle and muscle, that we are condemned to carry around with us wherever we go?” he wrote. “And why does everyone see it rather than seeing me? Or — turning the questions on their head: Who is this I that dares to think of itself as concealed behind its face …?

Ms. Pineda’s other most noted novels included “Frieze” (1986), the story of a stonecutter set in ancient India and Java, and “The Love Queen of the Amazon” (1992). The latter book, selected by the New York Times as a “new and noteworthy” volume of the year, centered on a onetime convent schoolgirl who becomes a madam in Peru. Novelist Richard Martins, writing for the Chicago Tribune described the protagonist as “one of the few great Latin heroines not created by the male imagination.”

“Ana Magdalena’s amorous history provides a unique vehicle for the U.S.-born Pineda to look with a satirically feminine eye at the manners, mores and literature of all the Americas,” he wrote, “to which ‘Love Queen’ is a noteworthy addition.”

Ms. Pineda wrote 10 books in all, many of them reflecting her engagement with the anti-nuclear movement, environmentalism and activism on behalf of immigrants and other marginalized groups.

Her nonfiction work “Devil’s Tango,” published in 2012, examined the nuclear accident the previous year at the power plant in Fukushima, Japan. “Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World” (2015) was a literary exploration of environmental degradation and its consequences for the natural world as well as for humankind. In “Entry Without Inspection: A Writer’s Life in El Norte” (2020), Ms. Pineda recounted her family’s immigrant experience in the context of a broader investigation of immigration in the United States.

“My novels attempt to ask questions such as the following: Must the world be virtually wiped out by nuclear accident before human nature can begin the long journey back to a healing society?” she once told an interviewer. “Does history inevitably repeat itself? Is the shortsighted story of mankind the result of poor memory, defective or limited genetic development?”

Marthe-Alice Cecilia Pineda was born in Harlem on Sept. 24, 1932. Her mother, a draftswoman and illustrator, came from Francophone Switzerland, and the family spoke French at home. Referring to her father’s odyssey, she wrote in “Entry Without Inspection” that hers was a family whose “ties were severed long ago and whose culture was cast aside at the U.S.-Mexican border” when he “entered the United States under an assumed name, an extralegal immigration referred to by ICE as ‘entry without inspection.’ ”

Ms. Pineda was raised in a highly intellectual environment and absorbed literature ranging from the Bible to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She was particularly influenced, she once told the San Antonio Express-News, by a series of biographies about notable women in the arts.

Ms. Pineda received a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College in New York in 1954. In 1961, following her marriage to a French-born physician, Felix Leneman, she settled in San Francisco and received a degree in theater arts from San Francisco State University.

At Theatre of Man, Ms. Pineda directed productions based mainly on sound and movement. According to her publisher, Wings Press, the works often explored themes of “totalitarianism and gender role expectation.” She told the online publication Literary Hub that the theater company was her opportunity to “leave housewifery behind.”

Ms. Pineda’s marriage ended in divorce. Her sons, both of Los Angeles, are her only immediate survivors.

Ms. Pineda taught creative writing at institutions including the California College of the Arts, Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and the California State University System. Among her books were the fictional memoir “Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood” (2001), the novels “Bardo99” (2002) and “Redoubt” (2004), and a meditation on literature, “Three Tides: Writing at the Edge of Being” (2016). She lived for many years in Oakland Hills and then Berkeley, working in an office that teemed with works of art from her travels around the world.

“Latina letters will be with us for a very long time, as long as there remain folks who refuse cultural homogenization, who celebrate their diversity,” she told the Express-News.

“Hurrah for that! People will continue to write,” she continued. “The best of them may even offer new insights as to how best to conduct our lives in devastating times.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

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