Santa Barbara writer and poet Melinda Palacio had her first novel, Ocotillo Dreams, accepted and published in July by Arizona State University’s Bilingual Review Press.

Ocotillo Dreams by Melinda Palacio.

Ocotillo Dreams by Melinda Palacio.

Five years in the writing, and another five spent in finding a publisher, Ocotillo Dreams is a story of divided loyalties and the pressure of history upon the present, set during the well-known sweep of undocumented workers that took place in Chandler, Ariz., in 1997. Like that incident, Palacio’s novel has been the center of some controversy.

The book had its genesis in a kind of autobiographical coincidence. In 1997, Palacio, a California native, acquired a house in Chandler, a town about 100 miles to the northwest of Tucson, and moved there. From July 27-31, local law enforcement and federal authorities collaborated in what they called “Operation Restoration,” in which officers on bicycles patrolled Chandler asking people, whose appearance suggested Hispanic ancestry, for proof of citizenship. Those who could not provide proof were arrested. A 2004 inquiry in the U.S. Senate produced the conclusion that the Chandler operation was “the only major ethnic profiling incident actually related to immigration.”

Palacio, who had just arrived in Chandler when Operation Restoration was put in motion, recalls, “The neighbors suspected that the house I bought was a way station for undocumented immigrants.”

Living in the midst of such an explosive situation, and falling herself under suspicion, activated the writer in her. What a subject! Rather than produce a detailed documentary account of the incident, she quickly decided that the best way to get the story out was to write a novel.

“Since I lived (there while they were going on),” she said, “it wasn’t far-fetched for me to imagine myself being caught in the sweeps. … The Chandler round-up screamed ‘novel’ to me and was an obvious choice. It surprises me that more novelists haven’t taken up the subject.”

As summarized by the Bilingual Review Press, Ocotillo Dreams tells the story of “Isola, a young woman who inherits a Chandler home and relocates there temporarily. There she learns that her mother had lived a secret life of helping the undocumented workers. Isola must confront her own confusion and sense of loyalty in a strange and unwelcoming environment. As she gets to know her mother from clues left behind, she grapples with issues of identity and belonging that lead her on a journey toward purpose in life and reconnection with her roots.”

For the past couple of months, Palacio has been on a book tour across the Southwest. She made a couple of stops in Arizona to give readings and sign books. The announcement of her appearance drew angry comments in the local papers, expressing anti-immigrant sentiments. But the complainers couldn’t make it to the book signing.

“Instead,” Palacio said, “a very diverse and enlightened and friendly crowd showed up to my reading — about 60 people.”

Palacio will be at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St. in Santa Barbara, for a reading and book signing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27. Click here for more information about her and her book.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at gerald.carpenter@gmail.com.