Beauty, Death, and the Power of Place in “Cenote City”

In Monique Quintana’s Cenote City, Lune thinks to herself after seeing a woman in a handmade dress: “It made me think of a book I had read once that talked about beauty and the sublime. That certain things were beautiful because they make us think of death” (111).

When I came across these lines, I felt it was a reflection of the book itself. The novella, published by Clash Books, seeks beauty in the strange and sometimes violent community of Cenote City.

Quintana’s world is constructed around family and the overlapping of community: the book begins with a list of nuestros jugadores (our players), deficiones, and a mapa. This initial setup feels theatrical, like it is announcing the features of a production, all orbiting around the cenote, a pit in the ground full of groundwater. The cenote is a site of spirituality, mystery, and tension throughout; the cenote itself alludes to ancient Mayan ritual. Quintana uses water as a symbol of change, agony, and faith and this shifts with each character’s respective relationship with the cenote, a place that cannot be ignored.

The novella focuses primarily on Lune, a mother to Nico, and her relationship with her mother Marcina (whose “crying jags” fill the cenote and attract tourists), her friends, and her daily life around Cenote City in general. Lune is a character who knows; her awareness of her surroundings and the community inform much of the book, and Lune is always a few steps ahead of everyone else.

Death itself feels like an additional character, always lingering around or communicating with the living. With this presence, though, comes a sense of knowing and coexistence rather than fear. The residents of the city know that death or violence could be possible at any moment, especially given that it is surveilled by the military, Los Generales, and this awareness causes them to live alongside it or just ahead of it at all times.

The interwoven stories in this book are bound together by women — Lune and Marcina, in particular, often look out for others and have a deeper sense of awareness about the dynamics in Cenote City. The conflict is driven by this same energy, though, as Lune debates leaving Cenote City despite its significance to her. The divide between feeling at home and knowing you have to someday leave your home is clear — Lune grapples with this dilemma while her home is being uprooted and the government takes interest in her mother’s bouts of crying.

Ritual, healing, and seeking cures for mysterious ailments are recurring themes: characters are plagued with sleeping with open eyes, disappearing and reappearing, and insomnia. The relationship to the magical, though, is so ingrained in the city itself that it feels ordinary. Lune, marveling at young boys sprinkling dirt into the cenote, thinks: “I wonder why children know more about ritual than we do” (12). This adds to the sense of deep knowing that all the characters seem to possess; there’s a sense that residents understand their world better than anyone else can, even if that means understanding how to manipulate tourists as they gather to watch Marcina weep.

In Cenote City, Monique Quintana has grounded readers in the importance of community and protecting the people you love most. With sharp and precise language, Quintana is able to transport readers straight into her world, allowing us to wander around Cenote City, Storylandia, Marcina’s bright pink house, and look deep into the cenote for ourselves.

Mariah Bosch is a Fresno-based Chicana poet. She attends the MFA program there, where she teaches first year writing and works with Juan Felipe Herrera as a fellow in his Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio. Her work can be found in Peach Magazine, Flies, Cockroaches, & Poets, and voicemail poems