Ni de aquí, ni de allá: reflections of belonging and finding myself in books

Blurry photo of the author when he was younger, wearing a sombrero and other Mexican clothing, standing in front of shelves
Blurry photo of the author when he was younger, wearing a sombrero and other Mexican clothing, standing in front of shelves

My personal understanding of my Mexican heritage does not solely reside in the country due south of the border, nor does it exist solely along la frontera. Instead, my relation to my family’s homeland lives in my memories of walking down the aisles of Mexican panaderias in northern California, ordering pozole after Sunday mass in Texan suburbs, fiestas in our municipal park, and playing tag in hot summer streets filled with other brown kids who looked like me.

It is memories of sitting with my Abuela Meche en la sala and watching the latest telenovela taking Latin America by storm. Or sheepishly walking up to my very old great-grandparents to offer a kiss as my Bisabuelo Panfilo slipped a five-dollar bill into my hand and told me how much he loved me and hoped he’d seen me soon (“si Dios quiere”). It was being forced to learn baile folklórico during Latino Heritage Month, only to then perform at a school assembly for my mostly white peers.

It was looking at a map of where I supposedly came from and where I thought I was from and trying to reconcile the difference. It was being ni de aquí, ni de allá.

Growing up I did not find depictions of my experiences of latinidad, nor my version of The United States, in the many books I read. I was mandated to read the canonical authors from across centuries of the “male, stale and pale.” Dickens, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Cervantes, Hemingway and Orwell were just a select few of the names that made up my reading lists. And yet, English was my favourite subject during elementary and high school. I excelled every semester and my love for books and writing quickly grew insatiable with each passing year.

But as I wrote more and read more, I began to feel something missing from my literary pleasure. As much as I consumed, I could not find my world in the very things that brought me joy. I could not see my reflection on the page. So even though I loved literature deeply, it did not feel like it loved me back.

I was twenty-three the first time I read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Immediately, Cisneros captured my attention with her rich depiction of life in her Chicago neighbourhood. It was full of colourful references of Mexican and Puerto Rican life. There was a vibrancy in each vignette and underlying danger that Esperanza’s world could unravel at any moment. Like when a group of white men accidentally happen upon her neighbourhood reminding her how brown bodies are viewed as dangerous and wild. To me it reflected the difficulty of being both from here and there, and nowhere at the same time. Inhabiting a brown or black body means never being seen as “really” from here. Something many Latinx immigrants and their descendants have to come to terms with at a young age.

Even though I was brought up in the American educational system, whose reading lists should reflect America’s rich literary history, I had not come across Sandra Cisneros until I was a grown adult. At that time, I was working at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. Which is fitting as it was in this very city that Cisneros founded Macondo — a space where “writers, artists, thinkers, scholars, and critics can come together and inspire and challenge one another in order to incite change in our respective communities.” It is a city where she spent many years creating spaces for Latinx writers to flourish as creators and storytellers and a city with such a rich history of being Mexican-American.

I happened upon Cisneros’ work while scouring the shelves of the centre’s stockroom one summer day. I had recently been hired as both the museum store manager and co-facilitator of a teen arts program. It was while I was roaming the shelves of countless books by Latinx authors during a stock take that I noticed a particular book. I was quickly drawn to the cover of The House on Mango Street, whose title intrigued me. As I delved into the novel, I was transported to a new world, unlike any that I had ever read because it felt like mine. I did not know literature was allowed to look like what I saw just outside my office window: a world of Mexican immigrants and first- and second-generation Americans going about life.

In the chapter, “Four Skinny Trees” Esperanza tells how the trees outside her window are the only things that understand her:

“Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here. […] Their strength is their secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth… and never quit their anger” (Cisneros, p. 74).

That vignette was so powerful to me. It reminded me of my four abuelos who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. In many ways, they had to force roots because no one was going to give space otherwise.

That anger and desire to stake a claim in the American Dream still resonates with me as I see a country being turned upside down by a hostile and racist government and president. It appears that the same conversations around immigration and belonging are happening now as they did back then. Sadly, these narratives are being highjacked by authors and publishing houses who see them as “of the moment” and “profitable.”

In many ways, I am grateful my abuelos are not privy to these recent conversations around Mexican and wider Latinx representation in literature. My abuelos may not see the outrage online over a recently published book touching on la migra, but a new generation of Latinx writers and readers have come together to say “no” to this kind of shallow and insidious representation making headways in the literary world.

I have seen my abuelos’ hard work reflected in the very lives my family has been afforded through each new generation. But I have also seen my right to call myself American questioned time and time again by a wider, close-minded society. I have learned that it is vital we have diverse, nuanced and inclusive representation of latinidad. I am grateful that outside of mandated reading lists, I have found other voices from across North, Central and South America, who have demonstrated to me just how diverse the Latinx experience truly is.

Fast forward a few years later, and I am twenty-eight and have seen on social media that a new YA novel is coming out by Mexican-American author Erika L Sánchez. Its title is what makes me want to order it immediately, both a call to arms and a reclamation of young female power. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, tells the story of Julia Reyes a young Mexican-American girl living in Chicago trying to unearth a family secret. The novel quickly drew much praise and well-earned recognition from the publishing world.

In her novel, Sánchez centres mental health within the life of young brown girl dealing with the aftermath of her sister’s death, which feels a revolutionary act for a book about coming into womanhood and belonging. Not only that, but a novel that is largely targeted for a younger audience. Julia resonated with me so much because she was like a conversation that I knew my community needed but was not having.

In the penultimate chapter, Julia updates the reader on her experience post-hospitalisation by saying:

“My depression and anxiety have softened with medication. My moods still dip everyone once in a while, but there are times I’m actually happy, not just tolerating life” (Sánchez, p. 329).

What powerful words, raw and direct from a young Latina. No one in family growing up talked about depression. The very idea of being on medication due to mental illness was unthinkable — a sure cause for vergüenza and judgement from la comunidad. I kept thinking as I read the novel how much I would have benefited from Julia’s story as a teenager. But, as a twenty-eight-years-old, I still found comfort in her journey and solace by the novel’s end.

Reading the words, “I’m actually happy, not just tolerating life” was like learning language that transcended my Mexican-American immigrant family (Sánchez, p. 329). Conversations around happiness, well-being and depression were non-existent in my house, and even now, broaching these subjects can be met with foggy understanding from my parents or grandparents.

But still I press on because now in my thirties I know that I have to help push toward that change in mindset. I have to share this new language so that these conversations can happen within my family context.

Cisneros and Sánchez, through their work, have helped me to better understand my Mexican-American heritage in relation to writing. By centring their protagonists in a world that was both Latinx and American, they have offered up countless readers an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the page. It is a specific type of identity, one that is both and neither at the same time.

There is still so much of my life that I have yet to see reflected in books or literary magazines. Things that are vitally important to help us understand what life really is like in The United States. Depictions of how impossible the American Dream is for most or how maybe the dream isn’t as illustrious as one might assume.

In my time, working in the westside of San Antonio, I saw the day in and out hustle of labourers trying to fight for work on construction sites, farms and countless other areas of inconsistent employment.

Growing up, I experienced frequent incidents of racism and xenophobia because, although I was an American citizen, my brown body and Mexican surname differentiated me from the white majority.

I’ve memories burnt into my retinas of watching my Abuela Maggie being yelled at in public for speaking Spanish. These deeply impactful memories shaped me as a child and silenced me from speaking up. I learned to accept microaggressions because it was easier than calling them out. I did it because often I felt as if I was the only one and I didn’t have the energy to fight society at large (or what at that age felt like my whole world).

I am now in my thirties and live in Edinburgh, Scotland. Through my professional and volunteer work, I continue to fight for representation and opportunities for marginalised communities to engage with the creative arts, especially people of colour.

My words and platform are my tools for creating space and starting dialogue about diversity within writing and publishing. Although, my experiences of latinidad are not as often reflected in books as I would like, novels like those by Cisneros and Sanchez have given me new insight on what storytelling can do in terms of representation.

My story was not formed in the streets of Juarez, or by time spent on the coastline of Acapulco, nor was it spending Fourth of Julys in The Hamptons or growing up with a white picket fence on the good side of town. Instead, my latinidad and Americanidad was shaped by a community trying to maintain their old and celebrate their new. It was born from shared language and memories with my now much older Abuelos, while identifying new markers with the younger generation of what it is to be both Mexican and American.

Much of my writing lives within that middle space. The concept of liminality has helped me to better understand myself both as Andrés the writer and the person. It is often the children and grandchildren of immigrants who have to learn how to balance being both and neither. For me, the writing that often moves me is shaped by the stories of people toeing the line of their old and new. Maybe the generation after me will find a way to fully cross that threshold, but until then, I will happily hold space in that middle distance for them.


References

1. Author Unknown (2018). About Us. Retrieved from http://macondowriters.com/.

2. Cisneros, S. (2009). The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books.

3. Sánchez, E. L. (2017). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf.

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