I Read Latinx Authors To Connect With My Heritage — But I Learned A Lot More In The Process
Books have been described as portals, escapes, and vacations from the mundane of everyday life. But to me, books are a window — a window to a world that I do not know and yet is very much a part of me. And this September, during Latinx Heritage Month, I will connect with my roots through reading, just as I always have.
You wouldn't know I am Mexican American upon meeting me. I'm white, and I have a French last name. I find that I usually get a "But you don't look Mexican" from non-Latinx and Latinx people alike when I bring it up. As a child, I bristled at the cruel jokes people would make about Mexicans but was sheltered from the taunts myself. It wasn’t until high school that I was mocked and harassed; one girl exclusively called me a "stupid Mexican." I now understand that this was just a small taste of what many experience every day, and that my white privilege protected me and has continued to protect me from so much harassment, discrimination, and racism. But as a high schooler, I just wanted that part of me — the Mexican part of me — to go away.
"It wasn’t until high school that I was mocked and harassed — one girl exclusively called me a 'stupid Mexican.' I now understand that this was just a small taste of what many experience every day."
Growing up, Mexican culture wasn't a huge part of my life: I lived with my mother and visited my father every other weekend. I experienced bits and pieces, primarily through the food my abuela made for me when I went to visit. But other than that, my exposure was limited. Culture encompasses so much of an identity that it can be difficult to feel like it's part of you when you haven't grown up experiencing it day after day.
The first time I felt the stirrings of familiarity was while reading Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova. This vivid fantasy revolves around Alex Mortiz, a bruja who hates magic and aims to be rid of it at her 16th Deathday celebration. I was originally drawn to the book because of its promise of bruja magic and the beautiful cover of a girl in Día de los Muertos face makeup. I quickly noticed other small details that resonated with me, like a brief mention of a good luck rooster in the kitchen of the protagonist's home. I instantly recalled the brightly colored roosters that decorate my abuela’s cheerful kitchen.
After reading Labyrinth Lost, I began actively seeking books with Latinx characters. Each new story brought with it the comforting and familiar details, like a warm plate of empanadas or a lucky rooster. I was also introduced to experiences I'd never had, like quinceañeras.
However, I wanted to learn and understand more than just what it means for me to be Latinx. I wanted to better understand the diverse community of Latinx people in the United States.
In the novel, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, the main character, Julia struggles with the expectations her family has about her future, college in particular and the stigma of discussing mental health in the Latinx community. This wasn't my upbringing — both sides of my family supported me going to college — but it did help me understand the expectations that different cultures and communities place on one another.
In her memoir In The Country We Love: My Family Divided, Diane Guerrero of Orange Is The New Black writes about how her life was upended after her parents were deported when she was just 14-years-old. Likewise, this is nowhere close to my experience, but I found it important to understand the struggles and injustices perpetuated on Latinx people with less privilege than me. If I wanted to better understand myself and the culture I come from, I had to be willing to discuss the struggles as well.
While I normally skew towards fantasy and mystery novels, I found memoirs and contemporary books helped me connect with my culture in a social and political way. I had read about the government's immigration policies in the news, I had heard about the racial tension and the abuse people of color experience daily, but reading Guerrero's account made the immigration crisis real in a whole new way. In the moments a character was told to go back to their country simply for speaking Spanish on the phone I imagined the anger of being a citizen, paying taxes, raising a family, contributing to the community, and not being welcomed in it. These books and stories made me angry; they made me want to act.
If I wanted to better understand myself and the culture I come from, I had to be willing to discuss the struggles as well.
I began reading Latinx books to learn something about culture. But in the process, I learned a lot about the Latinx community... and myself. After reading a book where the protagonist eats empanadas, I asked my abuela to teach me how to make our family recipe. Reading sparked my curiosity and excitement, just as it always has. More importantly, it helped me understand — in some small way — a little bit of what it means to be a Mexican American.
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