Here is the text of the speech I gave at REFORMA’s national conference last weekend, for those who are interested.
When I was a teenager growing up in El Paso, I was a voracious reader, consuming on average a book every day, most of them young adult novels. In all those young adult novels I consumed, I only encountered the world I was growing up in once, in a suspense novel by Lois Duncan. In the novel, a teenager’s sudden and mysterious death in Albuquerque draws his sister into a world of danger. To fulfill one of her brother’s debts, she ends up smuggling drugs across the El Paso/Juarez border. Okay, so….the world portrayed in that novel was not EXACTLY my world, my border, since I never encountered the harsh world of drug smuggling. But it was the closest I ever came to seeing my world in a book as a teenager. And it made it seem–well, exciting. Different.
My parents rather unusually chose not to live in the neighborhoods where other professionals gravitated. So instead, though I was a white girl with well-educated parents–my mother a journalist, my father a geologist–I grew up smack-dab in the middle of a working-class, immigrant-driven, Mexican and Mexican-American community. When I was eight, my friend Marylou’s papa let her drink beer, and her mother let us watch R-rated movies when I was staying overnight. When I was eleven, my friend Tina’s parents helped manage a private detention facility for refugees from El Salvador; I remember visiting her mother, who unlocked three doors to let us in. We gazed at the bars that separated us from them. It seemed like a peculiar place for a friend’s mother to work, especially since, from what my parents said, the people locked up had done nothing worse than flee war and poverty. When migrant workers followed the electric lines past our house, heading north to the chile fields in New Mexico, my parents always instructed us to be kind and generous if they stopped to ask for water or food. These are honest men looking for honest work, my father said. During high school, my friend Patti–who was living here illegally with her family–told me about wading into the Rio Grande in the dead of night with a few dozen Mexicans, all whispering, trying to avoid the infrared sensors of the Border Patrol. She was carrying her little brother and, during a panic when somebody shouted, “LA MIGRA,” she got separated from her mother as they all stampeded in different directions.
As an adult, I can see that I grew up in a very unusual, very interesting place. But when I was a teenager, reading those y.a. novels, I’d look around at my surroundings–the broken down trucks sitting in dry, dusty yards; the crumbling adobe houses, painted bright mint green or pink; the trash caught in tumbleweeds or collecting on fences–and I would think to myself that I lived in the ugliest, trashiest, most boring place in the world. I couldn’t wait to grow up and get the hell out of Dodge.
In Viola Canales’s young adult book The Tequila Worm–the story of a young Mexican-American girl growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas–two pivotal scenes provide alternate visions of what it means to grow up in a border community.
In the first scene, Sofia tells her father that she wishes she lived on the other side of town, where the wealthier white families live. She tells her father that they live in nice, warm houses. “Ah, but there’s warmth on this side, too,” Papa tells her. “But it’s really cold at home, and most of the houses around us are falling apart,” Sofia says. “Yes, but we have our music, our foods, our traditions,” Papa explains. “And the warm hearts of our families” (35). As they walk inside the cold house in the barrio, Sofia shivers and realizes she really doesn’t understand what her father is talking about.
In the second scene, Sofia’s best friend questions why she wants to leave home and go to some fancy boarding school in Austin, Texas. “We’re fourteen,” Berta says. “We should be planning our quinceaneras. And here you are planning your, what, your escape!” Sofia tries to explain that yes, she’ll miss her family, but that doesn’t mean she’s trying to escape. Berta tries again. “But what’s wrong with here?” she asks, indicating the border region where they live. “Nothing,” Sofia says. “But the Valley is not the whole world. I just want to see what’s out there” (44-45).
These two scenes demarcate two fundamental lessons that Sofia learned, lessons that are common to young people growing up here. In the first scene, Sofia learns that she must appreciate the riches of her warm, spirited Latino heritage with its willingness to embrace all that life has to offer, both the good and the bad, death and life, love and passion and anger all tangled up together. She also learns that material wealth–the kind you find among the wealthy whites on the other side of town–can never replace familial ties and loyalty. But the second scene provides an unfortunate contrast between the warm spirit of Sofia’s culture and the relative poverty of resources available to her in her own home town. To be educated, she faces a distressing dichotomy: leave home or stagnate.
There is a third scene later in the novel that takes this second lesson even further, in an even more uncomfortable vision of the border and its communities. At the end of the novel, Sofia–who now lives in San Francisco and works as a civil rights attorney–helps restore her beloved barrio in McAllen, which has been destroyed by poverty and political maneuvering. She creates a community garden, which rejuvenates the barrio’s historic neighborliness and tears down the psychological walls that were erected with the building of tenement apartments. While I commend the novel’s hopeful message of rejuvenation and restoration, I’m disturbed by the way that this third vision perpetuates the myth that to be anything or do anything in this world, you have to leave the Border behind, not just for your education but for your entire career. If you don’t leave, the book seems to say, you are stuck here forever, much like Sofia’s comadre, Berta; further, it suggests, those who can help the Border thrive again actually live in other places, like San Francisco.
Maybe I’m reading too much into The Tequila Worm. But I can say that many young people in El Paso believe similar myths.
By contrast, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, also set on the Border, provides an alternative perspective. The narrator, Sammy Santos, has a dream from the beginning of the book–to get an education, to get out of the barrio he’s growing up in, a barrio that feels like a dead end. But the summer before he plans to leave, to go to college in Berkeley, his father suffers a terrible accident at work, and loses his leg. The scene that I think is critical for understanding how and why Sammy is able to give up his dreams, to stay home, to make his life here, is the scene in the hospital, when Sammy tries to explain to his father–who has just woken up from surgery–what he’s lost.
“Talk to me,” he [Sammy's father] said. He wanted me to tell him.
I didn’t know how. I didn’t. But he was waiting, and I knew I had to tell him. “What’s worse, Dad, losing a leg or losing a son?”
“Losing a son,” he said.
“You still have a son, Dad.” That’s what I said. I waited, watched him nod, then I said, “What’s worse, Dad, losing a kidney or losing a daughter?”
“Losing a daughter.”
“You still have a daughter, Dad.” That’s what I said.
In this scene, we see Sammy’s realization that no matter what happens, if he still has his family, he’s a lucky young man. So a few scenes later, when he tells his father that he’s registered at the local university–that he’s giving up his dream to leave his barrio and go out into the world and get a good education at a fancy college–we know it’s the right decision. We’re not even so sad that he’s lost that dream. Why? Because we, too, know what’s important: he still has his family, and he’s still with them. If the Tequila Worm sends the message that you have to leave the Border to become somebody, then Sammy and Juliana suggests something altogether different: Sammy chooses to be who he is right where he is within his own community.
I’ve presented these two novels as though they offer contrasting visions of what it means to grow up on the Border. But there is a third way to look at them. The writer Terry Tempest Williams once said, “The most radical act we can commit is to stay home” (384). Because she said this in the context of talking about rebellion, I don’t think she means that we must physically remain home–rather, that it is a radical act to embrace our heritage, the place we come from, where we grew up and the people who love us. In that sense, both Sofia, the narrator in The Tequila Worm, and Sammy Santos, the narrator of Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, learn how to “stay home” even though only one of them lives out his life on the Border.
Like many young people who grow up in El Paso, I have not physically stayed home. I’ve gone out into the world for education, for a career, for traveling. Yet I have found myself returning again and again to this world, returning for the lessons of struggle and grace that can be learned here, in an immigrant community, in unique ways. When I graduated from college, I performed street theatre for six months in Australia and India. Though I loved the people I met, I was terribly homesick for El Paso. Homesick for my parents, yes, but I wanted more than home; I wanted to return for the whole community. I didn’t understand why, but I knew I needed to come back. A few years later, I left again, to get a master’s degree in history. When I left, Ben Saenz told me, “You’ll be back.” I’ve never asked him what he meant by that, but he was right: I returned a second time, moving home with my new husband, who suffered from social phobia. By then, I had figured out a few things about El Paso that made it special. I knew I wanted to bring him to a place where he could be surrounded by thousands of people who have learned important lessons about failure and forgiveness. In immigrant communities, in border communities like El Paso, people fail all the time; and they get right back up and start over. That’s what immigration and migration is all about–starting over again. My problem was that when I brought my new husband who suffered from social phobia to the U.S.-Mexico Border, I thought I was bringing him for his sake. When our marriage ended in divorce, I realized that I was the one who needed to be surrounded by people who have the grace to forgive failure.
There are a number of excellent young adult novels that deal with the migrant and immigrant experience. But the truth is, there aren’t many y.a. novels that are set in a border town–El Paso, McAllen, Laredo, Brownsville, Yuma. I’d like to see more y.a. novels that celebrate the border, and the kind of courage that grows here: the same courage that Sofia in The Tequila Worm shows when she leaves her family to seek her fortune in the big, bad world beyond the Border–following the example of generations of migrants and immigrants who leave their families behind but take their homes with them in their hearts; and the courage that Sammy in Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood shows when he chooses to seek his destiny in his own community, even if that limits some of his opportunities.
A few months ago, I was interviewing Claudia Guadalupe Martinez for an article I was writing about her new book, Smell of Old Lady Perfume. I asked her what she missed about El Paso, and she said, “When you’re here in Chicago, and you talk about finding role models [for kids of immigrants], it’s such a new community that people don’t have role models. But in El Paso, I remember thinking I could be anything and do anything, because you could look around and you could see people doing everything and being everything.” Her response rang true to me and reminded me again why El Paso–the Border–is a place that can and should be celebrated in literature for teens.
These days, I admit, I don’t live in El Paso. But I return four or five times a year. Both of my best friends live here. My parents, my in-laws, they all live here. I have a warm community of friends that I rely on–all here. Plus, much of my professional support as a writer is also here. I talk to my husband about returning all the time, but he’s not ready yet. And the truth is, career opportunities are very limited for him here. He was one of those who faced that uncomfortable choice–to leave and further his career, or to stay and stagnate. Maybe we’ll never return to El Paso but I hope we’ll find a similar community where we can settle down–because I can’t imagine a better place on earth to raise our kids.
Canales, Viola. The Tequila Worm. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2005.
Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. New York: Rayo Harper Tempest, 2004.
Williams, Terry Tempest. “The Village Watchman.” In The Stories that Shape us: Contemporary Women Write about the West, eds. Teresa Jordan and James Hepworth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 384-393.