A couple of years ago I attended my first meeting as part of a Latina Writers workshop and I was asked the question about how I felt being thought of as a Latina writer. The question perplexed me. I had never really thought of it as that. I think of myself as a Latina because I am of Puerto Rican heritage and as a writer because I write. I hadn’t thought to identify myself or pigeon hole myself into a particular category because I am an always changing person.
My first experiences with reading were of sitting at the kitchen table with tears streaming down my face as my mother read passages of Elsie Dinsmore to us. When she noted that we were particularly moved or excited about an upcoming chapter she would gently close the book and send us to wash our faces. My mother later told us she did this in hope that we would think to pick up the books ourselves. She hoped that her actions would foster the love of reading to us that we saw she had throughout her life. Well, I have to say that her ruse worked!
My mother received monthly selections from the Readers Digest Book club. She also “sent away” for The Best Loved Books- a condensed version of classics- and her shelves were filled with Agatha Christie novels. Those books were also a salvation for us through many a difficult day and night. When my older sister became ill and was hospitalized for months at a time, my mother and I toted our “favorites” to our days filled with hope and prayers for what I now think of as “our survival”. A few months after my sister died in the summer of 1969, I remember my mother picking up a couple of novels. She had no memory of the words she’d counted on during that time and reread them all. This was a habit I soon picked up.
I devoured Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames stories. The vivid images of Nancy searching out clues and Cherry falling in love, in her starched white uniform, helped to form the person I have become. There were no Latina heroines for me to read about. I did not cut my teeth on Esmeralda Santiago, Julia Alvarez or Ernesto Quinones. Junot Diaz had not yet been born. In fact, when I first read the title When I was Puerto Rican I was horrified! What was Santiago trying to say? I was still Puerto Rican and nothing I did would ever change that. It took me a while before I stopped balking and finally picked up the title. I am glad that I did.
I had lunch with another Latina who I didn’t know would become my lifelong partner. We ate at a restaurant where the waiter thought she was French, she of Brazilian and Mexican heritage. We laughed that afternoon and walked over to a bookstore. She bent over one of the shelves and picked up The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. She blushed as she handed it to me. I’m still not sure whether the blush was from the bend or the act of beginning a deep friendship and love and of sharing the gift of reading. I went home and read that book. I am still in awe at the simplicity of the woven words. I had finally found a place where I identified with the characters and the experience of Ms. Cisneros’ writings. I cried that my perceptions of loneliness, belonging and understandings were finally on page and I could identify with the messages sent to me via her words.
My ideas of Latina readership and writership traverse many areas. I will continue to write on the multiple layers of what makes me choose to read or write a book or a story and hope to hear back from you!