When I was a teenager, there were two things I longed for most: my own room, and to somehow change my roots from Mexican to Italian. I got my wish for the former in my university dorms at the age of twenty-two; the latter, not unexpectedly, was impossible to achieve. Still, I tried.
I’d long been obsessed with Italian food, spending my free time trying to master dishes, especially lasagna. When my friends went on a trip to Rome, I thought I would die from jealousy. I practically crawled into their laps when they returned, sighing with longing at their descriptions of ancient stone ruins, endless glasses of blood-red wine, and the cutest boys they’d ever seen, each one flirtier than the last.
I knew I was meant to be Italian, somehow. I was mixed up from birth, or had a secret parent, or maybe a variety of past lives to account for my connection. I imagined myself a peasant, gathering sun-warmed grapes on a vineyard, or a baker, crossing each loaf of bread for protection before it entered the fire. When Eat Pray Loveby Elizabeth Gilbert was published, I was almost twenty, and I read about Gilbert’s travels in Italy over and over again. I hosted dinner parties centered around pasta, I brought home books on Italian cooking, on the language, on the history.
It's clear to me now, that although Italy has a rich and gorgeous history and culture, my attraction, my longing for my identity to be a part of it in some way was centered in the idea that who I was—Mexican American—just wasn’t enough.
All my life, I’d heard ‘Mexican’ as synonymous with an insult. People made jokes on our height, our food, the volume of our voices, the ways we celebrate, the ways we mourn. My mother told us stories of her childhood: being called spic by white men while walking on the street. How my grandparents, who were migrants, were forced to used separate facilities in their travels. How they encountered signs that proclaimed,No Mexicans allowed.
I remember, as a teenager, pronouncing empanada at a Mexican restaurant, and my friend’s white father becoming intrigued. “Say it again,” he told me. “Again.” As though I were a circus animal, saying things correctly for his entertainment.
I remember one of my sister’s white friends, making faces over my mother’s enchiladas, cheesy and bubbling from the skillet. She took one bite and ran to the trash to spit it out.
I remember my grandmother and her internalized racism, refusing to call any white man or woman by their first names, even at their insistence.
I didn’t realize that I, too, had internalized shame about who I was. I didn’t realize I wanted to be Italian because I was desperate to be something else, something I thought was more beautiful, more accepted. I was certain Italian girls weren’t asked to parade pronunciations like clown tricks. I was certain their friends didn’t dress up as caricatures of their culture for Halloween.
In graduate school, I was mistaken for the other two brown women constantly, and none of us were the same race (in fact, we were even separated by age in decades). One of my professors, upon reviewing a poem of mine, said that my mother’s and grandmother’s names, Maria Elena and Ofelia, were too stereotypical. So even though I didn’t escape microaggressions in grad school, grad school was where two mentors, Anne Caston and Elizabeth Bradfield, encouraged me to write about my family and identity.
It was hard, at first, because I had to realize whyI was scared to write about my family, my upbringing, my culture. And the truth of it was that I ashamed of it, and that I felt even more shame over this shame.
We were poor, so poor that Mom would try and convince us, at the end of the month, what constituted proper meals: sandwiches of mustard and cheese, baloney slices topped with mashed potatoes, and the always reliable rice and beans and tortillas like moons. We grew up in a concrete house without air conditioning in South Florida. If you looked closely enough, you’d spy a line of skinny sugar ants somewhere in the kitchen. Once, a high school teacher humiliated me because I’d brought in cold cake to share with the class. “Why on earth is it cold?” she’d asked, slowly, as though I were a small child. I couldn’t really say the truth, that I didn’t realize cake wasn’t supposed to be cold, that sugar ants hadn’t figured out how to break into the fridge, and so it was the only safe place for sweets.
We were brown and poor and Mexican and I didn’t know how to write about it. Who would even care? Or worse, would folks despise it, just like my sister’s friend who ran to the trash to spit out my mom’s enchiladas?
I started with my grandmother. She is the center of our familia, her shamanic practices the reason why I’d gotten my bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, her stories the source of my lifelong study of fairy and folktales. I started with Abuela, and from her, I wrote about everything.
I wrote poetry about moon-like tortillas and curanderas, about bears with handprints on their fur. I wrote about my family’s struggle with mental illness. I wrote about my childhood: warm Coke because the fridge was broken again, Friday night cheap pizza, and John Wayne on the television, and guitars and sombreros and lotto tickets. I wrote about South Florida, mangos, arroz con pollo, maíz y molcajetes y manos, my grandmother’s and mother’s and sister’s and my hands, grinding the chile and the garlic and the coffee. Along the way, I unlearned all I had been told about what it was to be Mexican. I learned that I, and my family, are worthy.
My grandfather, Apolinar, and his years and years and years of sobriety. How he taught himself how to play the guitar. How he loved Flight of the Concords.
My abuela, how doves come to her so she can mend their wings, and how they stay near her home for years, speaking to her in the mornings with their warm, throaty coos. She names each one Casper, and for a while in my childhood, a collection of feathered Caspers followed her all over the yard.
And then there’s tales of magic in our bloodlines: limpias with eggs and brooms, how the grandmother I was named after, Maria Raquel, threw blankets and sheets over each mirror with each rainstorm to keep the lightning away.
While I was working on my thesis essay for my MFA in poetry, I decided to take a break and walk around the neighborhood I was living in at the time, in Tallahassee. The air was sticky and sweet with the scent of blooms: hibiscus, roses, wisteria. The sky was the color of the sea, dark and haunted and endless. And that’s when an idea for a novel came to me, cool and sudden, like I’d been anointed with holy water.
I started writing novels when I was eleven, first styling them after The Babysitters’ Club. Throughout my childhood, I wrote and didn’t finish a dozen or so manuscripts, and when I was twenty, I started finishing them. I wrote fantasy and contemporary, magical realism and mythic retellings. Despite the differences in genres and plot and approach, all of my novels featured a young girl protagonist whose skin was light like milk quartz, whose eyes were green or gold or violet, whose hair was red or honey or white-blonde, and always straight, straight, straight like the edges of pale paper.
There is nothing wrong with these features in a protagonist. But the reasons why I wrote her, a girl I was nothing like, was because I couldn’t imagine anyone caring to read the tale of a someone like me.
This novel idea was different. I knew it centered around a UFO crash and a mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. I then saw my protagonist: a girl reading a letter, in class, to a boy who’d been hateful to her. This girl was dark, her hair black, her eyes black, her hips and thighs and lips all big and wide. I named her Sia. And that book, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, will be published in 2020 by Simon Pulse.
I have many hopes for Sia Martinez, and a big one, perhaps the biggest, is that this book will find its way to young Mexican and Chicanx readers, that they will read about a girl who is short and brown and angry and passionate and quiet and beautiful, and they will know that they, too, are all these things, and they will know that they, too, are worthy. That their—that our—stories are worthy. And that we, too, as people, are worthy. And that includes everything that makes us who we are: mariachis and cold cake and warm arroz con pollo and abuelas who mend the wings of doves between cooking blistered, hot, soft tortillas like moons.
- Raquel Vasquez Gilliland recently joined us as a 2020 Musa. She is a Mexican American poet, novelist and painter. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Alaska, Anchorage in 2017. She’s most inspired by fog and seeds and the lineages of all things. When not writing, Raquel tells stories to her plants and they tell her stories back. She lives in Tennessee with her beloved family and mountains. Raquel has published two books of poetry. Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everythingis her first novel.