The Writer's Page: On Writing the American Familia

I’ve always been fascinated by how people become part of the American tapestry. Some had ancestors who were enslaved. Others fled persecution, poverty, or violence. Their stories are often a potent mix of hope and tragedy.

My parents came to the United States during the mass political exodus of the Cuban upper and middle class in the early 1960s. All these years later, I still find joy in writing about families grappling with transition and about how children fit into that dynamic over time. That’s an experience familiar to fifty-four million people — seventeen percent of our population — who identify as Latino in the U.S. today. So it’s fair to say that I’m writing about the American family.

* * *

I met my extended family for the first time when they arrived in New York from Cuba in 1968. Their arrival soon thrust me into the role that many bicultural children face: Translator General. As the first American-born person in my family, I became the go-to expert on things far beyond simply English. My so-called expertise covered everything from how the intercom worked in the building lobby to how to tell U.S. coins apart. Sometimes the questions were unusual. One morning, my uncle called me into the bathroom. He was holding a razor and had a worried look on his face.

Mija,” he asked me in a quiet voice, “do men shave their armpits here?”

Thank goodness I wasn’t particularly diabolical. My uncle kept his hair.

medina_tia isa wants a carIn my writing I love to capture that oddly adult role, because children in immigrant families recognize it so easily. It identifies a power shift that is both alluring and terrifying. Readers often comment on that role in my picture book Tía Isa Wants a Car, where a girl and her aunt conspire to buy the first family car, complete with car-lot negotiations and figuring out how to save for remittances to send back home. Those readers already know what it is to partner with adults on decisions, how to translate their own parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments. I hope it helps them to see that experience represented in the book as a natural part of their family life.

My extended family’s arrival wasn’t only a burden, of course. Mostly it was a gift — and not just because I now had more people to love. My family came with a predilection for story — the story of the people they had once been and, by extension, the one that finds its way into my books.

My maternal grandmother, Abuela Bena, for example, was a Lucha Libre fan with an eighth-grade education who filled my head with tales of her pet cotorra in Cuba, a brightly colored bird that sat on a perch and chatted all morning, like one of the neighborhood ladies. (Or so she said.)

medina_mango, abuela, and meHer stories connected me to a place and a status far from Queens, New York, where we lived. It erased our accents, the reduced-price school lunch, and my now-absent dad. The stories opened inside of me a sense of cultural history that wasn’t reflected in any book I was reading in school or seeing on any of my favorite television shows. When I bought Abuela a green parrot at Woolworth’s, it was meant, I suppose, as an homage to that history. Though that bird turned out to be a miserable creature who never uttered a single word, when it was time to write Mango, Abuela, and Me, I turned back to that memory and the sense of connection I longed to have with my grandmother. In the story, Mia’s “far away” grandmother has come to live with her. Abuela speaks no English, and Mia’s Spanish is rudimentary — a typical scenario. Mia takes on the adult responsibility (naturally) of bridging their language problem by, among other things, purchasing a parrot named Mango to help them communicate. I added in the frustrations I had witnessed more recently between my own children and their grandmothers to answer the questions: what happens when people in a family don’t speak the same language? How are those connections then built?

* * *

brown_palacios_marisolmcdonald_matchLanguage is such a dilemma in multicultural families and in the books that represent us. The fact is, some of us speak Spanish, and some of us don’t — sometimes all under the same roof. That’s one reason I love good bilingual books, such as those by Monica Brown (Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina), and books with translations that are sensitive to capturing the many dialects of Spanish that are spoken around the world.

But I am also an unabashed fan of Spanglish, that much-maligned mix of Spanish and English. Latino writers often take heat for using Spanish words or incorporating Spanglish into their English texts. It interferes with my reading, some will complain. I need a dictionary! Spanish speakers might complain of the watering-down of the true mother tongue. It’s not a real language! I brush aside those complaints. All language is meant to be elastic and responsive to our needs. (I ask you, what was a selfie ten years ago?) The fact is that Spanglish is the way many multilingual families communicate. If we truly want books that accurately reflect families, then we need to embrace the ever-evolving ways we actually use language. For me, Spanish, English, and Spanglish are all fair game. It is how we bridge language barriers with the people we love and with our communities.

* * *

lainez_from north to southThe language of loss and trauma is something trickier. For all the impressive success stories of Latinos in the U.S., there are so many tales of hardship. Think of a child whose mother is deported, as in the tender work of René Colato Laínez, From North to South / Del norte al sur, one of my favorite picture books. Or consider the fact that people have made the decision to leave behind relatives they may never see again. What violence might these emigrants have seen — as in the lyrical novel Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez, that details the bloody Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic? Parents’ sadness and struggles most certainly affect the American children they are raising. So how do we as authors acknowledge those sad spaces and write those realities for the young?

My mother’s losses were traumatic. She had been a teacher in Cuba, a doctor’s wife. In a matter of months, she lost her country, her career, and her extended family. Once in the States, her marriage collapsed, too, and she was faced with raising two daughters alone in New York City. She took a minimum-wage job at a transistor factory in Queens, where she would work for the next thirty years. Her overwhelming sadness disguised itself as fear. Fear of making a mistake in English and fear of not making the rent. Fear of someone breaking into the apartment. Fear of being noticed in some way that would give people a reason to hate us. No llames la atención, I often heard. Don’t call attention to yourself.

But what I also learned at her knee is that fear and resilience aren’t mutually exclusive, especially for newcomers. My mother and aunts would never have said they were strong women, but of course they were. They had no choice but to press on, pool their resources, and reshape their lives. When I write Latino families — especially the women — I celebrate my mother and others like her who have endured hardships to get here and raise their children in an unfamiliar — and sometimes unwelcoming — landscape. In particular, I try to depict families of lower income and of atypical configurations like ours and cast them as loving and desirable, as opposed to broken and problematic.

At every turn, I’m fighting stereotype.

* * *

medina_yaqui delgadoYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass allowed me to explore the idea of resilience through this lens. The women in Piddy Sanchez’s life are almost all Latina, in every variation: austere women and overtly sexual ones; the academically driven and school dropouts; successful business owners and hourly wage workers. I gave Piddy a whole tribe of women that defied the prevailing stereotypes of (1) the sexy Latina in tight leopard-skin tops; and (2) the disengaged and powerless. The cast reminded me of the women I knew growing up. The ladies who worked with my mother testing and packing transistors were from many Spanish-speaking countries, and they worked alongside a small group of American workers with various disabilities. In short, it was a collection of “others,” all scraping by on meager salaries. I spent a lot of after-school hours with them — and even worked a few summers among them when I was old enough. I remember the dull nature of the work, the sorrows they shared about their challenging children. But there were happy moments, too. At two o’clock every afternoon, they enjoyed espresso that my mother brewed for them all in the back room. They loaned one another money in emergencies, cooked food for their children’s potluck wedding showers, and argued over utter nonsense. The friendships formed there would last a lifetime, as it turned out. As we’ve buried each of those ladies — including my own mother — there was always at least one of those other señoras in attendance to pay her respects. These were women who persevered in hard circumstances. Whether I knew it then or not, they helped shape me.

When I have to write about hardships and how to survive, I write with them in mind.

* * *

Am I a Latino writer if I don’t write in Spanish? If I don’t speak it? If I haven’t been to my parents’ country of origin? If I have no accent?

These are the kinds of questions that plague Latino authors like me. What, exactly, are the criteria?

“You’re not Cuban,” my mother once told me when I first started writing. “You’re American.”

It came as such a sting and a rejection. What she meant, of course, is what I long suspected. Cuba was hers, not mine. But what my mother couldn’t understand is that Cuba had become a phantom limb for me. The island had been infused into every aspect of our lives. It was a place I could feel, a place whose memory shaped everything although I had never set foot there.

My very wise friends, Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy — both beloved authors and intellectuals — spoke a couple of years ago at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference at the University of Alabama. They reminded the audience that the term Latino is unique to the United States. Everywhere else, people sensibly identify by our respective countries, each with distinct dialects, customs, histories.

medina_milagrosBut in my life, this odd umbrella term somehow has effectively named the secondhand experience of being a hyphenated American. I can’t possibly speak for so many nations, capture so many histories or the diversity of experience across race, politics, and economics. And yet like so many Latino authors, I feel as though I am part of a larger body of work. I identify with Sandra Cisneros, even if I’m not of Mexican descent. When I read the work of Junot Díaz (Dominican American) and Isabel Allende (Chilean American), I feel as though I’m home, as though somehow they are mine, regardless of our different origins. We’re all from the same house.

In that spirit, I’ve experimented with how to connect young readers to their Latino identity. One way has been to bring classic literary devices, such as magical realism, to readers in English. I wrote both Milagros and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind in the stylized way of the Spanish-language novels I have most loved. In my books, however, I suspended the stories in time and in place, drawing on commonalities of many countries and mixing them with the dreamlike elements that my family’s country of origin filled in my life. I tell the stories of loss and migration that are relevant now, but I leave behind the specifics. Some readers may find that difficult. They want to know when and where exactly the story takes place. It doesn’t help them that it is so many places and none at all, that it is the tale of so many of us and also of no one in particular. It doesn’t help them to know that it is, well, Latino.

tonatiuh_panchoNot that there isn’t a place for exactness. Every bookshelf should include books that bring to life our historical heroes, especially since they have been absent from the pages for so long. Currently, I think of the impeccably researched work of Lucía González (The Storyteller’s Candle), Duncan Tonatiuh (Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote; Separate Is Never Equal) and Ashley Hope Pérez (Out of Darkness) as just a few examples that celebrate important historical events and contributions. I treasure my copies of Caminar by Skila Brown, Silver People by Margarita Engle, and last year’s Pura Belpré Award winner, I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, as gold standards of how to connect to the histories of the Americas. Books like these matter because they give all young people — and Latino kids in particular — accurate examples of how history interlocks us and how Latinos fit into the world’s story.

* * *

But there is still plenty of work to do.

I’m always surprised to find that so few students and teachers are familiar with the Pura Belpré and other multicultural awards. It’s a serious lapse for children and their families to be without information about books that name their cultural experiences. So I encourage librarians to display the posters not only of the Pura Belpré winners (the award will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2016) but also of the Tomás Rivera list and the Américas Book Award list — as ways to engage all students with titles that reflect a diverse people. I ask librarians to follow the work of groups like CBC Diversity and We Need Diverse Books for current information and assistance in diversifying their bookshelves thoughtfully. As good teachers and librarians know, children who seem to have nothing in common with one another can love exactly the same story for completely different reasons. Students can connect across worlds through a book, but they first have to know the book exists.

There is no single Latino experience to capture, of course, but I’m encouraged by the voices that keep coming to the table. No single author can claim to speak to or about all of us, so in my view, the more of us writing, the better. And I even expect that over time we’ll continue to have more and more Latino authors writing books about experiences that have absolutely nothing to do with heritage specifically.

But for me, right now, the stories that resonate are the ones that in some way embrace the nature of transformation and strength. These are the stories of what came before us and the stories of what we had to lose in order to move on. They are the stories of our parents’ countries and, now, our own.

From the January/February 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Meg Medina

Meg Medina won the Newbery Medal in 2019 for Merci Suárez Changes Gears, whose sequel, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance published in April 2021, and Merci Suárez Plays It Cool (all Candlewick) is forthcoming. She has received the Pura Belpré Award for narrative as well as an honor award.

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Dianne H. King

Meg, this is such a great essay on the importance of telling family stories. I especially appreciate your references to specific, wonderful books, and I am also inspired by your last paragraph: " But for me, right now, the stories that resonate are the ones that in some way embrace the nature of transformation and strength. These are the stories of what came before us and the stories of what we had to lose in order to move on. They are the stories of our parents’ countries and, now, our own." Our upcoming book, Memoir Your Way, will help people find ways to share those heartfelt stories.

Posted : Jan 04, 2016 05:48

Patricia Tilton

I thoroughly enjoyed your article Meg. I've reviewed your books, but I haven't heard you speak at length about your past. I enjoyed getting to know you better and your passion for writing stories that help Latino children connect to their heritage. Excellent article that covers many interesting topics.

Posted : Dec 22, 2015 02:42



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