In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we're thrilled to host this beautiful guest post by author Samantha Mabry. Sam's YA debut, LEAVES, will be published by Algonquin BFYR in 2016.
Thoughts About Bordered and Borderless Girls
I used to go collecting with my grandmother. Her job was in direct sales – she was like an Avon lady, except with Shaklee Vitamins – and she always settled her accounts late at night, usually on Fridays, after most of her clients were paid in cash. My parents hated when my grandmother took me collecting; I hated it, too. She had, after all, always promised us she wouldn’t. She’d swear she’d just babysit me at her house, making sure I was fed and didn’t stay up too late watching cable.
My grandmother would announce her arrival at a client’s house by banging her key ring against the front door. When that door opened, my grandmother would start speaking Spanish. She’d plop me on a sofa next to kids I didn’t know while she disappeared into some other room. The kids would show me their Hot Wheels. The women would offer me food, a stew of some kind or maybe tortillas with butter. I’d watch Sábado Gigante, not understanding what was being said and wishing I could go home. After what seemed like hours, my grandmother would come back out into the living room. She’d tap her watch and tell me it was getting late, that it was time to move on.
We could make several stops over the course of one night. Then, back at her house, my grandmother would begin the ritual of counting and re-counting her cash and marking the final amount in a wide-ruled spiral notebook that served as her ledger. After that, she’d rinse each bill under the water from the kitchen faucet to wash off the bad spirits. Then she’d lay the bills out on a bath towel to dry. Sometimes, as she was doing this, the phone would ring, and since her hands were wet, she’d make me answer. Usually, I wouldn’t understand what the person on the other line was saying until they said the name, “Señora Garcia.”
I hated collecting and the whole business of washing the money and the late-night phone calls because it made me feel like a stranger. But worse than that, it made me wonder if my grandmother – my mother’s mother - was the stranger. That language she spoke, those clients of hers, that weird ritual of magic and money: it was embarrassing. I was embarrassed for her, of her. I have crystal memories of sitting there at the kitchen table, too wound up to sleep, watching my grandma wash money in the sink, knowing I was related to this woman, yet feeling like she was from some other planet.
To say what I am is difficult. My dad’s mother was born in Puerto Rico. His father was white, perhaps also Native American, but a lack of records makes that last part impossible to prove. My mother is Mexican. My grandmother, however, always insisted the Garcias were purely Spanish, as in from Spain, but this would be coming from a woman who was very short and very brown, so I have my doubts.
My last name indicates whiteness. Growing up, there weren’t any religious or cultural traces of either grandmother around my own house. I didn’t hear Spanish at home. Mexican food was something you got at Taco Bell. Anything having to do with my being Hispanic appeared at Grandma Garcia’s, where there was a framed portrait of a weeping Jesus hanging on the wall next to a Quinto Sol. It also appeared on the nights I went collecting, when the kids talked to me in Spanish about their toys as if I understood them. Later, my being Hispanic showed up when puberty hit. The hair on my arms and upper lip grew in fuller and darker; kids at school made fun of my moustache. In the sun, my skin tone would deepen, like condensed milk turning to caramel on the stove. I became colored and curvier.
I may have looked more Hispanic, but I didn’t feel Hispanic because, in my mind, Hispanic kids spoke Spanish. At their homes, there were statues of the Virgin Mary on the mantels. Their mothers made their own salsa and carried it in a porcelain mug when they went out to eat because what the restaurants served wasn’t hot enough. Those kids weren’t like me. But they were like my grandmother.
This is where a narrative about girlhood turns into an appeal about how young people need access to books that speak to them, speak to where they come from, who they are, and who they might become. For much of my childhood and into my teen years, I felt neither here nor there. I was untethered: a mix, a mutt. Eventually, I discovered writers who essentially taught me how to be Hispanic. They taught me that being Hispanic is to exist in a matrix, to be by definition a mash-up, and about how identity is fluid, how it can be both bolted to the rock of the past and also a brave thing with wide wings.
I was introduced to One Hundred Years of Solitude in high school, also Woman Hollering Creek. Later there was Bless Me, Ultima, The House of the Spirits, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and When I Was Puerto Rican. There were poets such Carmen Tafolla (“They say I don’t look thirty/ They also say/ I don’t look Mexican”) and Julia de Burgos (“Hispanic people. People potent like suns/ braided in the orbit of America and Spain”). The magical realists keyed me into how right and true it is for war to be fought on the ground while pure-hearted girls are carried into the sky. Oscar taught me, sadly, that the quest for identity sometimes ends in tragedy – with a bang that’s also a whimper. Tafolla and de Burgos proved that there is power in self-identification.
Books help tell us who we are: Braided in the orbit.
And they tell us how we were wrong about who we thought we were.
So, how to reconcile all the pieces of me? Well, there is no reconcile. There is pride in ownership. There is honor for our ancestors who created us and for the writers who write boldly and brightly about us. There is me, doing what I can do to humbly grasp at the tails of a mighty tradition while writing stories for those like me, who are both and neither, who may have felt or feel like strangers in their own world, and who are trying to twine the strands of their past and their present to shape a future.
Braided in the orbit.
It took too long, many years full of books and poems, to realize how much I am my grandmother’s grandchild. She’s gone now, so I can’t tell her this, nor can I apologize for being embarrassed of her.
I also can’t tell her that I believe water can wash bad spirits away.