In the clubs where the glitterati of the New York mambo world strut their stuff, and the storied teachers of the various mambo schools make stylish...

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“Mambo Peligroso”
by Patricia Chao
HarperCollins, 300 pp., $24.95

In the clubs where the glitterati of the New York mambo world strut their stuff, and the storied teachers of the various mambo schools make stylish entrances, the dancing is competitive and endlessly innovative. Beautiful Catalina Ortiz, drifting after a career change and a farewell to her WASP boyfriend of seven years, awakens here to her Cuban roots in “Mambo Peligroso,” Patricia Chao’s second novel.

“People took her for Japanese, Chinese, Filipina, Mexican. She was sick of explaining, sick of their incredulous expressions when she told them she’d been born in Cuba, had grown up in the Boston suburbs … .” Raised by her widowed Japanese mother, her Cuban heritage is a mere whisper in her background, and her Japanese side has been silenced completely, especially after her mother’s death. The American erasure of immigrant identity is a powerful theme in the well-written first half of this novel.

A teacher of English as a second language, Catalina has occasional student papers to grade; but her passion is dancing and, increasingly, El Tuerto, her wolfish one-eyed dance instructor who is supposedly the danger referred to in “Peligroso.”

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The mambo-salsa style, which breaks on the second beat rather than the first, features a competition between dance partners. This gets complicated when jealous lovers are involved. Chao’s strength is in creating a convincing atmosphere for the New York mambo scene and vivid dance theatrics.

There is some suspense at the end regarding a plot to overthrow Castro by Cuban exiles in Miami, including Catalina’s beloved cousin Guillermo, but this is where the novel goes astray.

The one-thing-after-another kind of plot peters out with the heavy-handedness of the Cuban exiles, the relative passivity of Catalina as a main character and the lightly drawn character of Guillermo. Catalina’s story just fades out when Chao becomes busy tying up other loose ends.