Self-made with love
Hispanic Heritage Month calls for many celebrations across our state and what I can almost guarantee: chips and salsa, piñatas and zarapes. This makes me cringe. I enjoy chips and salsa, but I find piñatas and zarapes innocuous yet dangerous, in as much as they are easy and reductionist attempts to evoke the nuanced and rich cultures of Latin America and its manifestations in the United States.
To counter the chips-and-salsa approach to celebrating Hispanic heritage, we share excerpts of three poignant memoirs written by notable, active and dedicated members of our community.
These authors are as diverse as the Latino community in our state and country, yet their autobiographical writings have something in common: the triumph of sheer determination, even plain stubbornness over life’s ups and downs; the pursuit of an evasive, confident and poised persona, and the nagging sense of “You don’t belong here” and its bicultural companion, “Ni soy de aquí, ni soy de allá.”
Cecilia Esquer will release her book this month titled The Lie of My Inferiority: The Evolution of a Chicana Activist. In June, Guillermo Reyes released Madre & I: A Memoir of our Immigrant Lives, and in July, Marisel Herrera-Anderson released Puerto Rican Goldilocks: A Lyrical Journey Through El Barrio.
I have known Cecilia and Guillermo for over 10 years; Marisel and I met years ago and just recently reconnected. One thing I know about these three individuals is that the success they have wanted for themselves they have also wanted para todos los demás. Perhaps this is why reading their memoirs feels like reading our collective history.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Cecilia, Guillermo and Marisel and discuss their work. Visit www.latinopm.com to read a transcript of interviews with the authors.
The following excerpts do little justice to their respective memoirs, but what follows will shed light on the writers’ relentless spirits.
Guillermo Reyes is a nationally published playwright and theater director. He earned an M.A. in playwriting from UC San Diego and is presently the interim director of the School of Theater and Film at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, where he is also an associate professor.
Reyes was born in Chile to María Cácares, who, single and surrounded by poverty, immigrated to the United States in pursuit of a better life for her and her only son. Once in California, María cleaned houses and later worked as a nanny.
Reyes started writing an autobiographical essay in the 1990s, which evolved into Mother & I, although initially he had tinkered with a different title: María’s Oscar, in reference to one of María’s favorite anecdotes. She was helping a friend clean the house of famous producer Charles Joffe (Annie Hall) when she came across his coveted Academy Award. In an act of defiance, she even posed with the Oscar as her friend snapped her photo.
As a child born out of wedlock in a Catholic family, the young Reyes struggled negotiating his identity and the many labels that came his way. In his memoir he confronts his “many issues,” first as an illegitimate son, then as a teen immigrant who just wanted to be American, and later in life as a gay man with body-image issues.
Reyes’s plays have been produced throughout the country and he is the recipient of numerous awards.
Madre and I
“My saddest regret is that I won’t be leaving you money,” my mother wrote down on a piece of paper the day her cancer was diagnosed in Portland, Oregon, “like other mothers would have done.” She repeated this confession over the phone with a nervous laugh. “I’m just not a responsible mother,” she said. I couldn’t help but feel a wistful longing for times when a smile was better justified—although a smile broke out of me nonetheless, quite defiantly of the situation. What was I smiling at exactly? At my mother’s uncanny ability for making me slip into nervous laughter at the worst possible moments. Recall President Reagan’s reaction to being shot in a nearly successful assassination attempt: “I forgot to duck,” he tells Nancy as she runs to his side that spring day in 1981. My mother gasped in delight to hear the newsman quote the injured president precisely at a moment when she thought she might cry, and managed to like Mr. Reagan for the first time. As a Chilean immigrant, and a progressive-minded person, and mostly a low-wage earner, she had never empathized with a man who “worked for the rich,” as she might have claimed once, but nonetheless, his sense of humor proved disarming. Mother voted for his re-election in 1984, the only time she voted for a Republican. In spite of my own battles with my mother, I became used to the same baffling energy of unlikely gaiety even in times of extreme sadness. The letter was one of regrets and apologies, and yet one of her most cherished examples of singing was Edith Piaf’s “No Regrets—Je ne regrette rien.” Always disarmed, always courted by her insane banter, I am an admirer of her esprit of alacrity, my one true form of “inheritance,” if such things truly matter. At times, they do, of course. I have despaired all my life over our humble background and our lowly immigrant status, and all those things that have ensured the marginality that one inherits in lieu of hard cash. But oftentimes, I forgot about them, even ignored them. I wanted to be a writer at the age of ten, but as it would turn out, writing as a career would prove elusive. I wrote plays: too marginal. Playwriting continues to evolve into the same status as poetry: lofty and out of touch with the masses, therefore inconsequential and, in some cases, elitist. But if I write screenplays that feature Latino immigrants, the Hollywood agents still complain. “You’re not writing for real Americans.”