I began work on the text of Hijas Americanas officially in late 2005, but, the truth is, I began working on this book long ago as my life as a Puerto Rican girl in the Carolinas began to play out. Nevertheless, I never intended to write a book. My first career—and what I thought would be my only career– was as a high school teacher and coach at Garinger High School where I realized that the students that filled my classroom full of culture were navigating the world of first-generation, lower class immigrant that I had. I saw reflected in their eyes the childhood I had had and I ached to reach out to them, to help them capture and raise their voices. I had learned to gravitate towards voice when I was a child, losing myself in books for hours at a time. Writing my way through my adolescence, I am convinced, kept me safe, kept me from ever making a choice that was different from what I had expressed in my countless pages of journals. And so when I thought about helping my students get there, I packed myself off to get an MFA in Creative Writing so that I could really know how to coach someone into their voice through writing. After two semesters of graduate school, I was terrorized that I had nowhere to go with these divergent essays and poems I was writing. I had nothing that would yield itself into the final book-length manuscript that was required for graduation. I panicked to my advisor, and she looked at me so wisely and patiently and said, “All of this is about you coming to find yourself after casting a careful eye on your ethnic identity, beauty perception, and body image.” I went back and read the volumes I had written and found she was right. And with that my graduate manuscript, Giving Up Beauty, was born. Flash forward another year, and with my MFA degree in hand, my final advisor asked me to send my work out to books and journals. I don’t want to be a writer, I insisted. I just want to teach. But he asked me to appease him, to send things out for a year, to think about how I might have felt at 20 if I had been able to read what I had since written. You would have felt better, right, he implored, knowing that you were not alone. I nodded, I sputtered, I stalled, and ultimately I began to send work out that surprised me each time it was accepted somewhere. One of those pieces was called The Latina in Me and it is the essay that ultimately led my publisher to ask me to consider doing something more universal than just a collection of essays. That final work is Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, a book that looks at the coming of age experiences of 500 Latinas who had similar and yet unique experiences to mine. But I thought I would read tonight from that essay that started it all, an essay whose parts you can see in Hijas Americanas.
Opening of The Latina in Me:
The Latina in me is frustrated. She stays awake late and contemplates marriage and feminism while my gringa sleeps. I never fought this battle before, not until my friends started marrying and producing children, and my Latin mother started suggesting marriage to the man I consider her “Great White Hope.”
Mamacita has been praying for a husband for me for far too long. She lights candles and recites rosaries for her hijita soltera.
“Don’t ask for an esposo in my name,” I implore.
“Y que?” she replies.
“Pray for starving children. That’s the type of prayer for which you call upon God. Do that in my name.”
“Oh si?” She challenges, and I see I have done nothing to alter her agenda except add a whispered postscript for good measure to make this hijita less spitfire y mas feminina.
I figure it goes like this: I, the multi-ethnic child of Latino parents and American upbringing, should be able to take from my culture what I need and then add anything else as I go. A little bit of MTV here, some pizza there, football on Thanksgiving, a lifetime without dresses or make-up, and dating early without the parental inquisition. Throw that all in with the Taina in me: loud music, spicy foods, long embraces, energetic dancing, Spanish speaking, decibel-shattering conversations, and extended family tree and there you find me, as Americanized as the Native Americans: colonized, yet fighting the conqueror.
But, then, that was me figuring it out nice and neat and convenient, and the one thing I’ve learned in this America is that there isn’t much here that is nice and neat and convenient, and my ethnicity has affected my self-concept too much for me to ignore it. The Latina in me finally has to make peace.