How Do I Keep My History? How Do I Honor It? A Guest Post by Author Mia García

 

By Mia García

Okay, here’s the thing, I’m a rambler. I tend to talk in circles until I figure out what I need to say, which usually boils down to a sentence.

So bear with me if you can – if not I totally understand; I’m sure there are many things you could be watching on Netflix right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about stress and fear, particularly in relation to family and history, which sounds horrible and insulting, but it will make sense. At least I hope so.

For years, I’ve been that person who wanted to do that Ancestry DNA thing, but never had the time or the money or the motivation (most likely these last two). Plus as a Puerto Rican born and raised in PR, I’ve always been taught that my ancestry boiled down to Spanish, African, and Taíno. (Which is a crazy simplification of the diversity of people who lived on the island, which include the above and Chinese, Irish, Scottish, French, German…Okay, I should stop here before I go into a full history of the island and this parenthesis gets crazy long.)

But in terms of actual knowledge, I only know a little bit about my Spanish side, like which city my great-grandparents came from and a whole lot of nothing about the rest of it, which after the test (I finally did it!) turns out to be about eight different things, half of which made my parents go: “Where did that come from?”

For those interested, it included Spanish, African, Italian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Great Britain, and a few small traces in Caucasus and Ireland. My parents’ “WTF?” reactions came from the Great Britain, Caucasus, Middle East, and Ireland revelations.

The test itself didn’t cause the anxious thoughts, but rather sparked interest in my past. The fear and stress came from the links to my past that are slowly disappearing. It’s sad to think about the family history and stories I know nothing about and will, most likely, never know anything about because as time passes there are fewer connections to it.

Not long ago, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which after a few years of paralyzing sadness made me realize that I needed to safeguard as many of his memories as I could. And recently, I almost lost my mom due to a serious medical issue, but we were blessed enough to get the news we needed in time. Because of these events, I re-ignited my plan to sit my parents and family members down to talk about, well, anything they can remember while I record them on my computer (this is something that truly annoys my mother because I never give her enough time to fix her hair and make-up, but I digress), which doesn’t always happen, which then leads to the stress, the worry, and fear.

Even If the Sky Falls CoverHow much do we lose with each generation? What will I remember for my children? (I don’t have any at the moment, but that doesn’t stop my mind from going there.) But that’s only where it starts, because it’s not only about how do I keep this history, but how do I honor it? Then I start spiraling into thoughts about my book. A sweet romance about a Puerto Rican in New Orleans hanging out with a musician for a night…but maybe it should’ve been a book about my parent’s history? What have I done to represent and document my family, my people, or my culture?

I should’ve done it all in one book. Clearly, I am a failure.

And there it is.

That tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories, trying to capture every moment that has made up our lives (but not too much, because then it’s a memoir, right?), holding on tightly to the past because if we don’t who will do it? Wondering if it’s okay to just tell a story about a young Puerto Rican girl falling in love without a history lesson or maybe just a small one. Feeling like your culture flows in your veins, but you haven’t quite honored it yet…

I realize now this is not just a blog post but a conversation. That I don’t want to talk into the void, but I want to hear from my fellow Latinx community. So if you are reading this, I want to hear from you!

Have you had similar thoughts? Do you feel like you need to represent every part of your culture when you write? Tell me about yourself, your family, the stories you write!

What do you think?

If you are a Latinx creator and want to discuss the “tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories,” please email us at latinosinkidlit@gmail.com with your blog post idea. We’d love to keep this conversation going.

 

5pv_6utvxrzzwbjesfqoku0ic1kqe1dzq1c5cnsydmyM. García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York where she studied creative writing at The New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. Her debut novel, Even If the Sky Falls, from Katherine Tegen books (an imprint of Harper Collins) is out now. Visit her at MGarciaBooks.com

Author Maria E. Andreu’s Life with a Double Identity

You might say I was fated to be a writer – either that, or a con-artist or a spy or some other kind of criminal – because I was endowed at birth with a double identity. – Margaret Atwood

By Maria E. Andreu

For about the first four years of my life, I wasn’t quite sure what my name was, or that it was customary to have just one. My parents called me, “Nena,” (NEH-nah) when addressing me directly, and, using the Argentine habit of adding “the” to a person’s name when talking about them, “La Nena,” when pointing out my foibles between them. “Nena” means “little girl” in Spanish. “Nena” sometimes gave way to “Cheni,” for reasons I would not decipher for a decade. Sometimes, at odd times, they’d call me something longer, compound. I’d put my head down and go back to my coloring.

age 4

Maria E. Andreu, age 4

At four, I remember going to a playground with wonderfully, impossibly high swings of the variety that today would get a town sued and a large settlement paid for serious injuries, along with tall metal slides that burned the backs of your thighs on the way down and made your heart flutter at how high you had to climb to slide down. There were also my favorites: little horses on a metal chain at the front and back which, if you pushed the pedals, swung back and forth and sometimes caught your ponytail if you weren’t careful. This playground was heaven but for one catch: it had other children in it, most of whom only spoke English, a language I had not quite mastered. When I approached them asking if they wanted to play, they invariably asked one question: “What’s your name?”

I’ve always been a quick study, so I learned young that telling new kids my name was a recipe for confusion. I learned to dread it. My name is not Maria, you see, not just Maria. I told you through Ms. Atwood that I was born with an alias. I hadn’t yet learned to employ it at four, so, instead I would muster up my courage and tell them the long name, the one I understood was the whole enchilada: “Maria Eugenia.”

Let me stop here for a moment to tell you several things. First, the pronunciation. “Maria” you can probably pretty much get through, although I assure you the way you’ve heard it said in the United States bears little resemblance to how it’s pronounced in the Spanish-speaking world. American English has a certain confident laziness about it, like not all syllables are crucial, like enunciation is for sissies, which turns the crisp “Mah-REE-ah” to something more like “Mm-ree-uh.” Fair enough. Where it all falls apart is on the second part. Why-oh-why, parents, couldn’t you just leave well enough alone at “Maria”? Well, the reason, I later learned, is that Maria is a kind of catch-all in Catholic countries, an honor to the Virgin Mary, and so comprises at least some part of about 75% of female names from a certain generation back (I’m hoping mine was the last). In order to avoid the confusion, most Hispanic women with “Maria” in their names also have another part to them, a compound name, much like you’d add “red” to “bicycle” when trying to distinguish between models in a vast and full bicycle store.

So my middle name is Eugenia. That’s pronounced “Eh-oo-HEH-nee-ah” for those keeping score at home. (That was the source of the sometimes “Cheni” nickname, short for “Eugenia,” apparently). The full thing was real fun to share on a playground. When I gave them the whole package, Maria Eugenia, first kids would scrunch up their nose, then give it a valiant effort. “Mah-ree-HEN-ya?” I’d smile weakly and say, “Sure,” one of the few English words I had learned on Sesame Street, and lead them over to the swinging horse ponytail eaters.

When I was six we moved to Argentina for two years, where Maria Eugenia was something like Mary Sue. Everyone got it. Which is not to say I liked Argentina – I didn’t – but at least my name did not mark me a freak there (there were other things for that). Also, it’s where the second part of the story of my name really came to life for me. Maria was my father’s mother’s name, Eugenia my mother’s mother’s. We lived intermittently with both during those two years, and I was reminded again and again that my name was special, that I had been chosen, that Spain had had a queen with the same middle name as mine. I secretly wished the queen had been named Veronica instead. I loved “Veronica” ever since I encountered it in Archie comics. Maria Eugenia was the name of exactly zero snooty rich girls in any comic book in history.

I returned to the United States at age eight to peers more sophisticated in their verbal taunting. Luckily, I also returned craftier after two years of dealing with the teasing of my South American cousins: when asked my name, I decided on the fly to only offer up “Maria.” I banished the “Eugenia.” While it painted me vanilla and vaguely ethnic, it didn’t leave me exposed to outright abuse. So I went with it. It worked for me with my straight-As and my neat pigtails.

My brother was born shortly after we returned to the United States, and at about a year old, he decided my name was “Yaya.” Because what one-year-old can say “Maria Eugenia”? Once he was old enough to attempt it, it was too late. Thirty four years later, it is still Yaya, an identifier used for me by only one person.

By the time I was middle-school-aged, I was chafing against the boring-ness of “Maria.” What great actress or acrobat was ever named just plain old “Maria”? What great adventures were undertaken by Marias? What great poet fell in love with an alluring “Maria”? No one that I could find. (Later, when Mariah Carey hit the scene, I’d briefly flirt with the idea of adding an “h” to my name). When I shared this lament with my best friend at the time, she came up with a solution, my initials: “M.E.” Pronounced out loud, it sounds vaguely like the award, much more melodious than my full name. I would be M.E. all through high school and my first job. I can still identify what period of my life a friend is from based on what she calls me.

When I finished college, left my first job and started my own business, I got tired of explaining “M.E.” to every new customer. I met my husband around that time, in my mid-twenties, and he didn’t seem to get it, either. So I reverted back to “Maria,” unseasoned, color-within-the-lines, old white-bread “Maria.” I did this not with acceptance but with resignation. I lacked the energy to go through a legal name change or the resoluteness to pick the right one. Every time I heard of some American woman who had changed her name to “Shanti” or “Lakshmi,” I thrilled secretly at the courage in that. But I didn’t follow suit.

A few years later, I earned my favorite name of all: Mommy. To make up for my disappointment in my own colorless moniker, I gave my children names with Z’s and drama in them, unique spellings, flair and style. When they got old enough, they asked me why I had to make it so complicated. I suppose naming is that thing that both defines us completely and not at all: a thing that labels us but we do not choose for ourselves.

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Maria E. Andreu’s debut novel, THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY

I know writing convention dictates that I end this piece with a paragraph about how I’ve accepted my name, how I even love it now. And there are a few upsides to “Maria,” I will allow. I have more pop songs with my name in them than anyone else I know: the Ricky Martin “Maria” (a song that describes “Maria” as addictive and exciting and which I’m told is actually about cocaine) being my favorite. Alas, other than that small allowance, I must disappoint. I’ve accepted not accepting my name, knowing that I swim through the waters of life with camouflage, a name for every different pool, a thing that catches each different light I bask in. I like my aliases. That’s why I was so electrified to find the above quote in a passage of the writing book Negotiating with the Dead – A Writer on Writing by that most talented and smart of all writers, Margaret Atwood. In it, she explains that she was named after her mother and, as so many namesakes are, given a nickname. Her “real” name was not to be her own for many years and is the name she uses on books. But, like me, she has others.

Maybe writers need to be able to pretend to be other people. I don’t inhabit “Maria,” and for me, that’s okay. (And that’s not to disrespect the many wonderful women named Maria. This is about me personally, not a criticism of a perfectly delightful name). It’s just that when I think of naming the spirit of what I am – complicated, quirky, loving, maddeningly stubborn, inventive, sometimes afraid, always curious, I don’t think that person is captured well by the name “Maria,” or even “Maria Eugenia,” or “M.E.” or any of the others. But maybe that’s okay. Sometimes I feel like my name is something else but I just don’t know it yet. I like imagining I am something apart, unnameable, the essence of which can be approximated but never fully labeled. So call me what you will. I can learn to answer to it.

 

Maria E. Andreu is the author of the novel The Secret Side of Empty, the story of a teen girl who is American in every way but one: on paper. She was brought to the U.S. as a baby and is now undocumented in the eyes of the law. The author draws on her own experiences as an undocumented teen to give a glimpse into the fear, frustration and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being “illegal” in your own home.

Now a citizen thanks to legislation in the 1980s, Maria resides in a New York City suburb with all her “two’s”: her two children, two dogs and two cats. She speaks on the subject of immigration and its effect on individuals, especially children. When not writing or speaking, you can find her babying her iris garden and reading post apocalyptic fiction. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

The Secret Side of Empty has received positive reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, among others. The novel was also the National Indie Book Award Winner and a Junior Library Guild Selection.