Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mañana Means Heaven, the story of the "Mexican girl" from Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac passed away in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, October 21st, forty-five years ago.  His autobiographical novel On the Road, chronicling his restlessness and search for identity on a cross-country trip he took in the late '40s, is perhaps his best-known work today; it's still widely read and studied in American classrooms.

One of his most memorable characters from that work is "Terry, the Mexican girl," a migrant farm worker from California's central agricultural region who he met at a bus station in Bakersfield when she was trying to escape her abusive husband.  She had left her two children behind, temporarily, in an attempt to earn some money and set up a new life for herself first.  In the book, Terry and Jack's fictional persona, "Sal Paradise," have a passionate two-week affair that plays out in Los Angeles and in the migrant labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley before they part and move on with their separate lives.

Some years back, poet, performance artist, and writer Tim Z. Hernandez, an admirer of Kerouac's, had begun writing a novel about Bea Franco, the real-life inspiration for "Terry."  Scholars knew her name (and her family members' names) from his journals and her letters to him, but she was otherwise lost to literary historyThat is, until Hernandez got stuck during the writing process and decided to do some firsthand research on his subject.

He looked around in public records, phoned around to area cemeteries, and even hired a private investigator... but got nowhere.  This is where the story really gets fascinating.

From a 2013 piece from Public Radio International:

"The private investigator said to me before we parted ways, 'In all my years of experience, dead people are very easy to find. It's people who are alive that are difficult to find. Have you ever thought that she was alive?'" said Hernandez. 

Hernandez ended up finding Beatrice (Renteria) Franco Kozera, who was nearly 90 and living with her daughter just a mile or so from his hometown.  Neither she nor her children had known about Jack Kerouac's subsequent fame, or that she was immortalized in his novel or that they themselves had been mentioned in numerous biographies and works of literary criticism.

His award-winning novel, Mañana Means Heaven, is an intermingling of fiction and fact, based on his native knowledge of the region and interviews with Bea toward the end of her life.  It's an unusual historical novel in that it couldn't have been written with such depth and meaning without the cooperation of its subject.  A photo of Bea (circa 1942) appears on the novel's cover.

You can read more about the story in an interview with the author from the Fresno Bee.

I read Mañana Means Heaven this past summer, and much of it has stayed with me. No knowledge of Kerouac or his work is needed; Bea is the focus here, and Hernandez demonstrates that her version of their story is an equally important contribution to the historical American experience.  In 1947, when they meet, Jack is an aspiring writer whose background and sensitive outlook makes him different from the men Bea knows from the campo.  In the company of the man she calls "Jackie," she dares to dream of a life in which poverty doesn't weigh her down, but she feels torn between him and her love for her innocent children.  It's an emotional story, both honest and melancholy, and yet hopeful at the same time.  The setting isn't one that was familiar to me personally, but the portrayals felt so true that I was able to identify with Bea every step of the way.  I highly recommend it.

Mañana Means Heaven was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013.


  1. Replies
    1. Which "he" and "her" did you mean, and help her how?

    2. If you meant, did Jack help her out monetarily... they were both pretty broke.

  2. Sounds an unusual read.

    1. Unusual in how it came about, but a very good one!

  3. Interesting, Sarah, especially that Bea never realized the fame he garnered.

    1. And her children never knew about that part of her life at all (not surprisingly). She now has a Wikipedia entry.