By Jaime Hernandez
I don’t know if it would be quite fair to describe Jaime Hernandez’s previous book Is This How You See Me as a nostalgia-fest, but its scope and heart were very decisively planted in the past. The purpose was to measure the scope and examine change, but to do so, Hernandez placed beloved characters Maggie and Hopey at the center of the narrative and had them walk through their old neighborhood in a pantomime their former lives. It was telling, compelling nostalgia.
On first glance, Tonta is a decisive move to the future, since it focuses on one of the youngest of Hernandez’s cast of characters and plants itself firmly within her life. At best, the world that Maggie and Hopey stomped through is a distant ghost. But at the same time, Tonta does pay a lot of attention to the past, though eschews nostalgia for a more sobering gaze. In Tonta, when you look into the past, there is a mirror staring right back at you. The past and the future are impossible to separate, even when it comes to the life of a high school kid existing at the far end of the future.
Tonta’s life is bound to the past, but the beauty of youth is that there’s an emotional bubble that allows for freshness to occur, with no acknowledgement of what came before you. That is for another time in life. For Tonta herself, this means obsessing about the band Ooot, having a crush on its new singer Eric, bickering with her two younger sisters, and nurturing a passive-aggressive friendship with Chata.
Tonta’s about to visit her older half-sister Vivian, and this is one way the story is linked to Hernandez’s earlier cast. Vivian, you may recall, is the hot-headed erotic dancer and combative girlfriend of Ray Dominguez, a force of nature who’s embattled approach to life leaves wreckage everywhere she attempts to settle. These days, she’s hanging poolside at a mobster’s mansion, causing the same sort of trouble as ever and pretty hostile to Tonta’s presence.
In typical Hernandez narrative style, you don’t quite know where this is all headed, and putting together the pieces might even have you running circles around yourself until the point that Hernandez shows you outright and you find the work you’ve been doing hasn’t actually been done for the purpose of solving a puzzle, but for enriching each moment that Hernandez presents.
And so the story seems freewheeling and on the surface unconnected as Tonta becomes more acquainted with Gretchen, a local girl who haunts a wooded area that seems like a fantasy fairy forest where the real world is shut out, and which makes Gretchen some form of mystical being in Tonta’s experience. In the real world, her family is careening to chaos as her mother becomes less accessible, as unexpected connections between people are revealed, as tragedy strikes and causes more family schisms to appear, and as Tonta attempts to add some levity to her experience by good old teenage hijinks. You know, something to make her forget all the drama that’s becoming overwhelming.
This is all where the past comes in. Tonta can’t really escape it and it seizes more power on her present as other people begin to craft certain narratives about it. These narratives have the potential to change everything about Tonta’s experience, perhaps even change her understanding of who she is. And that’s how the past becomes inescapable for people. It’s a force that’s out of our control and is so often wielded by scores of people with their own hurt and anger and need.
But Tonta ends up being Hernandez’s fable of defeating the onslaught of the past, or at least a story of how to survive it. It’s also about the acknowledgement that the past may be a haze, at least the full picture of it, and it’s small moments that become the treasures that bolster you in life. Tonta becomes a story about acknowledging a massive lack of control about so many things and the art of focusing on what you can control, which is often just your own perception and reaction. In an age of mass victimhood, Tonta chews up the idea of being a victim and spits it out at the people who would have it be so.