I Want to Speak for Myself, Not the Whole Latinx Community
Underrepresented writers face a heavy burden—because so few of us are heard, we're expected to speak for everyone
It’s hard enough for memoir writers to figure out their relationship to “truth.” Our memories are faulty, and our real lives rarely offer tightly-plotted stories or clear lessons—so is your responsibility to the reader to be scrupulously accurate, or to give them some kind of insight into themselves, even if the details are blurry? (And can you really be scrupulously accurate, anyway?) This conversation gets even more complicated for memoir writers from underrepresented communities like Latinx folks. I’m not just trying to figure out how to tell my own truth. I also often feel responsible (or am made responsible) for representing my community.
I’m currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in South Los Angeles. The essays touch on higher education, race relations, immigration and similar topics. Through my writing, I want to lend complexity to a neighborhood that often gets stereotyped. I hope to highlight the unique way broken sidewalks and swooping palm trees come together.
I recently spoke with someone close to me about the fear of opening myself up to criticism through writing these essays. As a freelance writer and journalist, I’m more accustomed to telling the stories of other people, not my own.
“Write what is true,” she said in response. “As long as what you write is true, no one can criticize you for that.”
But I felt conflicted about this answer. Truth in memoir writing often gets murky, in the spaces where our recollection colors events in certain ways. And if I am going to tell the whole truth, I have to embrace my own flaws as well. The reader will decide whether or not they’ll take my story as the one that represents an entire community—that opinion is out of my hands.
Through the process of writing these essays, I reflect a lot on my position in relation to my first-generation, Guatemalan-American roots, but also my place in America. Because Latinx people are talked about by the media and pundits so often, but we rarely get to tell our own narratives.
At a panel as part of the Latina Writers Conference in Los Angeles last year, author Lilliam Rivera remarked that she heard concerns about her YA novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, overlapping with another book.
“The editor was worried about a book set in a bodega in Queens was too similar to mine set in a supermarket in the Bronx,” Rivera said. Both YA novels feature a Latina protagonist.
The message comes across clearly: we already found a story with your protagonist and audiences won’t be interested in reading more than one. As a reader, I feel like I’ve read and seen dozens of stories with white protagonists basically set in the same place (i.e. New York and Los Angeles). But apparently when it comes to publishing books about brown girls in certain neighborhoods, publishers only need one or two. The publishing world can often feel like it just wants to meet its diversity quotient.
This is nothing new to anyone who follows this world, but when you’re a young writer looking for agent representation—and then an editor and a publicist and a team that believes in the importance of your story—it starts to morph into a different, more urgent message. Because so few Latinx writers get the chance to tell their story, you better not mess this up. Perhaps that’s just the anxiety talking, but it’s a very real concern if you think about how your book might be one of a handful of Latinx books picked up by a certain agent or publishing house for the year.
If the publishing world feels like we only need so many Latinx characters in fiction, how much better can non-fiction fare?
Deciding to write your story in the face of publishing challenges is one thing, but in the midst of the current political climate, the writing feels more risky. For a while, I focused on what any aspiring writer does: scouting agents, reading up on recent acquisitions, trying my hardest to craft the best possible version of my writing. But for Latinx writers, there is often no separating the writing of your experiences from the news or current events. What you write could fuel hatred from certain groups already enmeshed in racist beliefs. I’ve often dreamed of publishing a book and going on a book tour to speak to others with similar experiences. Naively, though, I left out another type of audience member: the one who doesn’t want to hear my story. When I imagine myself at a town’s bookstore, standing in front of a crowd—the fear of violence, verbal or otherwise—can’t help but come up in my mind. Writing as an art form, when crafting your own narrative, often feels like a means of resistance.
Earlier this year, a shooter killed 22 people in an El Paso Walmart; the suspect told police he was specifically targeting Mexican people. An online post linked to him talks about the “invasion” of Mexican immigrants. This rhetoric surfaced again when a man allegedly threw acid at the face of Mahud Villalaz and asked: “Why did you come here and invade my country?”
How do you write the story of your life in the face of violence? How, in particular, do you write it in a way that speaks from the vantage point of your community, while also wanting to stay true to your own flaws and the malleability of your life choices?
If these examples seem too far removed from anything that could happen in response to a book, consider the experience of writer Jennine Capó Crucet earlier this year. In response to an exchange between the author and a student during Crucet’s lecture—the conversation hinging on the topic of white privilege—students burned a copy of her fiction book Make Your Home Among Strangers. The novel follows Lizet, a first-generation student who gets into a prestigious university and must reckon with a national conversation on immigration and her own cultural identity. The book won the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction 2016 among other accolades.
Crucet actually writes about a similar encounter before this incident in her collection of essays, My Time Amongst the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education. In the book, she explores her place as a writer and professor. She recalls conversations in which she’s expected to speak about what “her people”—read: all Cuban people—think about current events.
As I write about my own story as a first-generation college student who attended an esteemed, predominantly white university near my childhood neighborhood, Crucet’s challenges come to mind. I often felt like my presence on the campus carried a certain weight—that if I didn’t seem as smart or as accomplished as the other students there, it would reflect badly on my family and my community. This might sound, on the surface, like insecurities that are personal and local. But Crucet’s experience shows that the feeling of being an outsider can remain even at a professorial level. Even when you’re talking about an award-winning book at a university. Even for a young writer, seeing the odds are not in your favor makes you feel like there’s little room to make mistakes. So it starts to feel like when you’re given a chance, you can’t squander it. As an outsider in the publishing world, in many ways, I feel an urgent need to represent my community wel,l because people will flatten and distort whatever stories I tell to define other people who share my cultural identity. My people.
And with the 2020 election nearing, these anxieties feel global. When we hear the piercing noise of racist rhetoric in the media; when we leave our houses in fear of race-related violence; when we try our best to exceed in all our career goals in order to feel like we belong; there isn’t much room left for creating art.
If you realize you’re the only Latinx writer at a reading; the only one on an end-of-the-year best books list; or part of a small group of Latinx writers getting book deals, the responsibility might seem overwhelming.
I’m the subject of my own writing and that opens me up for an often overwhelming amount of vulnerability. This sparked another concern: of crafting a narrative of myself as the Latina girl growing up in a poor area who finally made it out. That would be simplifying the richness of my neighborhood. I need to be honest about the challenges of coming from an immigrant family living in a poorer neighborhood, but I don’t want to do it in a way that makes me seem more like a statistic, less like a person. I want my family and community to feel proud of what I write, but I also don’t want to leave out the flawed parts of my upbringing and my personal choices. I want to unpack my personal history without feeling like I need to speak for everyone—something that’s impossible to begin with.
Is there a way to write despite these stakes? Is it possible to write yourself as a less-than-perfect person, when you know that might be used as ammo for stereotypes against your community? It’s not that I think my memoir writing will be deeply confessional, it’s just that I want the space to be complex. Not perfect, but not demonized either.
Author Stephanie Jimenez also reflects on the process of writing Latinx characters in fiction; during the process of crafting a coming-of-age novel with a Latina protagonist, she had a nightmare that someone called her out for writing something that was not “authentic to the community.”
She writes: “Today, I wonder if white writers wake up panicked that their characters may not be authentic. I wonder if white writers question their authority to write their own books, to write their own representations of themselves in their own books … I was told that diversity is what editors wanted, and that they specifically wanted to publish books from writers of color. Why is it then, when I submitted my manuscript, I was told to write something ‘high concept’ instead?”
There’s a rawness to sharing memories and experiences with complexity—and it’s not always easy to take that leap. While writing her memoir Ordinary Girls, Jaquira Díaz initially wanted to tell the story of her life through fiction. But she eventually decided that felt too inauthentic. The book wasn’t easy to write, for a number of reasons, and Díaz often thinks about the place of Latinx writers within both the publishing industry and the country at large. It’s something that’s been on the minds of many Latinx writers, but the recent political events have put it in high relief.
In 2017, she wrote in the Kenyon Review: “For some of us, the 2016 presidential election didn’t change a thing. For some of us, just existing in certain spaces, getting through the day, and surviving has been an act of resistance. While white America woke up on November 9, the rest of us have been waking up in this America every single day.” This includes the lack of Latinx names in elite publishing circles, a double invisibility.
As a Latinx writer, it can often feel impossible to write just for yourself, when you recognize your position within a country that vilifies your community. But we need stories of all types: from neighborhoods around the country, from Afro-Latinx writers, from LGBTQIA+ writers, from people who are disabled. Because the Latinx community looks like all of these groups and more. We are not writing to fill your diversity quota, we are writing to tell our stories. We’re writing to sift through our histories and reflect on what they reveal about humanity, about politics, about genealogy. We need to talk about trauma, intergenerational abuse, immigrant narratives. But we also need joy, humor, grace. In Ordinary Girls, Díaz writes about her life’s challenges but also about the singularity of female friendship, the unbreakable bonds of girls who are now women living in a precarious moment.
In a way, the words “write what is true” have become a salve. Although a book might not seem like the first solution to bring about social change, I believe narrative influences the way we relate to each other — who we choose to see, who we choose to overlook.
I want to tell my story. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.