By Tanya Estes
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the closest thing my mother could find to a doll that culturally represented her Mexican-American daughter was the Juan Epstein character from Welcome Back Kotter. Until Cabbage Patch Kids released a tan doll around 1983, he would shoulder the primary burden of the cultural void in my toy box. Despite this obstacle, my mother worked hard to instill cultural pride, to expose me to strong women and raise me without prejudice. Finding multicultural toys was one way she tried to achieve that. Finding diversity in books, however, became her white whale.
“I just want you to be proud of who you are,” she would tell me after another trip to the bookstore.
“I’m fine, mom. I don’t see why it’s so important. I like my books.” Often she said nothing. Reading was a cherished value in our household and she didn’t want to ruin it for me. We kept reading “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” together and I never felt out of place in those fictional worlds.
Over time, however, the absence of Latinos in both my education and popular culture evolved into the sort of self-loathing my mother feared without my ever noticing. Like plaque, it was the slow accumulation of an invisible thing.
Lack of cultural representation became compounded by a lack of female authors in school required reading, which were the books I thought mattered above all others.
My sophomore year of high school, I tried “Pride and Prejudice” for fun and enjoyed the first few chapters, but it was about love and not the sort of thing I was “supposed” to read. I quit reading it to move on to “serious” novels. Despite my mother’s efforts to get me to read “Jane Eyre,” I chose “Oliver Twist” instead. After two hundred years, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were still fighting for literary legitimacy and losing in my teenage mind because of a stigma defined by high school reading lists.
I knew girls that read raunchy romance novels with salacious covers, but Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” taught me what happened to those sorts of girls. I also knew teens were as vicious as Hawthorne’s puritans when it came to a girl’s reputation. Some girls read “Dune” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to appeal to skateboarders and guys in garage bands who liked edgier books. I liked those boys too but I was too busy trying, and failing, to decipher “The Sound and the Fury.” I had no time for fun things by Douglas Adams. I felt jealous that boys could read what they liked and their little harlots could too.
By the end of high school, understanding my place in the world as a woman was discouraging enough. As far as I knew, Latinas had no place at all.
Hispanics occupied fifty percent of my south Texas town. One would think such demographics offered no room for cultural shame, yet many in my class utilized my same coping mechanism. We ignored our ethnicity. Latino artists, politicians and writers were never discussed at school, on television, or in books, so as far as we knew, our ancestors were simply the “bad guys” at the Alamo who offered nothing else to the world.
After I graduated, I started to see an accumulation of books by Isabelle Allende and Alice Walker in my parents’ house. My mother’s favorite books in her growing library, however, were by Sandra Cisneros, a small Latina whose stories took place in south Texas towns, places we knew and passed through several times. She wrote about family, childhood and life in a Latina voice that my mother identified with, one that had the respect of other writers. Cisneros had established herself among the literary elite with a Fulbright scholarship and as a distinctive graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She won awards and Oprah loved her. This was the literary voice my mother longed for and wanted to share with me, but I wasn’t interested. Like Austen and the Brontë sisters, Cisneros was still fighting against Melville and Faulkner in my mind.
One day Sandra Cisneros came to town for a reading and book signing. I didn’t go but mother had a ticket. When it came time for the signing, my mother abandoned all decorum and hurdled across the rows of seats so fast that the momentum helped her leap onto the stage and land the first spot in line. The idea that literature inspired a dignified woman to rush the stage made me question everything. I wanted that sense of liberation and identity that I just didn’t feel with “Moby Dick.”
For the first time in my life, I needed to see myself in something other than a mirror.
I began my first semester at the University of Texas a few weeks later. I had never been away from home so, despite years of trying to overcome my hermit tendencies, my first reaction to a dorm full of new people was to hide in a bookstore. I came across a copy of “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel. Though I knew nothing of the plot, I knew that the popular new film version had the winning combination of subtitles and beautiful people. I bought the book and spent the next two days lost in the taste and romance of Mexico.
The next few years felt as though the world shared my cultural awakening. Mexican art became the hottest thing on the market, a fresh voice that felt alive in every medium. Books by or about Latino writers, artists and historical figures no longer lived on a single “Latino Studies” shelf in books stores, but actually stood alongside all the others in fiction, poetry, history and even children’s books. Sandra Cisneros quickly found her way into my library after I read Esquivel, as did Cristina Garcia and Julia Alvarez. “Latina Magazine” burst onto the scene and I read it cover to cover every month.
As I evolved in my self-discovery, I diversified my reading taste to include other cultures and historical periods. I had the confidence to read books I chose rather than what I thought I was supposed to read. My mother’s objective with my toy box and library became clear. For both our gender and our heritage, understanding our contributions to society was critical to our individual success. When we see ourselves reflected in our world, we understand the value of our own voice. We are also more inclined to use it.
Tanya Estes is a writer from Austin, Texas. While most of her career was spent as a bookseller and librarian, she now pokes around old graveyards and archives discovering unknown bits of Texas history for her upcoming podcast, Tales from the Moontower.
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