By Daisy Hernandez, $24.95; Beacon Press; 185 pages
Hernandez prefaces her engaging memoir with a quote from Sandra Cisneros: "What does a woman inherit that tells her how to go?" For Hernandez, it is family background with its cultural and religious roots, language, class divides and sexual preferences. In this sensitive account of her personal story, the author shifts perspective between her childhood and her young adult life, beginning to learn who she wants to be and how painful it can be to hold onto her roots, all the while being her own person.
As a first-generation Latina living with her working-class family in New Jersey, she struggles with the dual intention of making her way in the dominant white culture and being a faithful daughter in her tradition-bound Latino family. She struggles to cherish her family's ways, yet honor their wishes that she break from them through her studies so she can make a better life for herself. In graduate school, listening to a fellow student read her work, she is struck by how it is possible to write about how you both love and hate where you come from. "… I can see for the first time that shame and memories need not oppress us," she realizes.
As a child, she looks at English as "a game of marbles." The words, she explains, "… bump and plod and leave tracks on the ground." But Spanish is the language in which everything real happens: complaints about work at the fabricas, warnings not to play in the streets, rage. At times being the only family member who can navigate English is heartbreaking. From a young age, she is expected to interpret and translate for her family.
Hernandez values words and becomes a writer, eventually landing a prestigious internship with The New York Times. She walks gingerly through that position, realizing how words have power and the decisions made at the Times as to what subject to apply them to are made by powerful white people. It feels, she says, "… like I have entered the collective mind of white people with political power everywhere and managed to see one of the strange rituals by which they reproduce."
Language is both a separating and a unifying influence in Hernandez's life. "Writing is how I leave my family and how I take them with me." At the end of this volume, she departs for a new job ( ColorLines, an on-line social justice magazine ) in Oakland, far from her family, but with their love and traditions guiding her every step of the way. "They are the lens through which I see the world."
Hernandez's relationship with her volatile Cuban father is complex. He often yells at her, but prays all night when she is seriously injured. She fills out his unemployment papers but he won't allow her to enter the unemployment office with him. His hands, she recalls, speak for him in many waysopening beer cans, yanking a phone cord from its jack, slapping the back of her head, then pulling her into hugs. Her father is a practitioner of Santeria, full of the "divine army" of guerreros who protect the family: Eleggua, Ochosi, Oggun, Osun. This religion is the source of the cup of water she finds under her bed, put there to protect her from the dead.
Hernandez defines herself as bisexual. Disclosure to her family ( recent immigrants from Colombia and Cuba ) of this preference causes all kinds of tensions. While most of her story focuses on how she maneuvers her way through the perplexities of two cultures, Hernandez also informs us of the evolution of her sexual identity. At the age of 10, she overhears the women in her family talking about a neighborhood woman who left her husband for a mujer. They find this scandalous. Hernandez thinks it romantic. "Two women in love confirms for me that there is a love that can push you beyond what everyone else says is possible."
In college she learns about lesbians. She has never actually considered the possibility of kissing a girl. The idea intrigues her so she sets out to find one she can kiss. She does and so begins a cycle of romantic adventureswomen, a transgender man, hetero men. She tells her mother, who is shocked. "A lot can be said," Hernandez explains referring to how her mother and her tias ( aunts ) look at dating, "about a woman who dates the wrong man. But dating the same sex or dating both sexes has no explanation." Hernandez doesn't need an explanation. She follows her heart. "… growing up in a female-centric home," Hernandez states, "and later finding supportive LGBT communities, gave me the confidence I needed to be out as bi Latina."
This book is a compelling glimpse into the life of a young Latina struggling to hold onto her background and make her way in a world she often finds difficult to embrace. Hernandez's use of language is often poetic, especially when intermingling Spanish and English, with the cultural tones of each.