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Guest Post: Samantha Mabry

As you have probably all noticed, we at YA Highway have been on an extended hiatus for most of this year, and that hiatus will continue for the foreseeable future. However! We could not say no to the opportunity for a guest post by Samantha Mabry, author of A Fierce and Subtle Poison. We are huge fans of Samantha, and can't wait for her next book, All the Wind in the World, which has gotten starred reviews left and right and is out October 10th.  

How to Be a 50% Mexican-American, 25% Puerto Rican, 25% White Girl

Back October of 2014, I wrote a guest post for this site that was for Hispanic Heritage Month. The post was a personal story, about being mixed race and ultimately being ashamed of being ashamed of my Mexican American grandmother. Since then, I’ve had one novel published (A Fierce and Subtle Poison, 2016) and another that will release soon (All the Wind in the World), and now I’m back here with another post for Hispanic Heritage Month.

Recently, at a book festival, a young woman came up to me in the signing line. She said she was Puerto Rican, originally from Culebra, but that she had grown up in Texas. Over the years, she had lost her Spanish and had, in a lot of ways, disconnected from her culture and background. She was trying, recently, to reclaim it. She was re-discovering literature. She was practicing Spanish with her roommates. But still, she asked me, “Is it too late to get it all back?”

She asked me this question because when I talk about my books –specifically A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which features mixed race characters and is set in Puerto Rico –I often bring up the fact that I was raised in a very assimilated fashion. I grew up in a white, middle class section of Dallas. My parents never spoke Spanish, so the only time I ever it heard it was at my grandparents’ house. I thought my Mexican American grandmother was kind of weird with all her candles and pictures of Jesus on the walls, and I distanced myself from her. I spent my girlhood aware of my heritage, but much like the young woman in my signing line, I was disconnected from it.

The older I get, however, the more it seems like my personal history –my cultures and my bloodlines –demands to be re-discovered. Like a stubborn ghost scratching at the door, it refuses to be ignored. The process of re-discovery, of course, started with books. I remember being a teen and reading The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude and having those books strike me in some indefinable way. So, I kept going. I read more works by Mexican American and Puerto Rican authors (Martín Espada, Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago) as well as works from other writers from across Latin American (Alejo Carpentier and Pablo Neruda). Throughout high school and college, I re-learned Spanish, though I still wouldn’t consider myself fluent. I traveled to Puerto Rico and Mexico City. To this day, I try to find relatives to ask questions about my grandparents’ background: where were their parents from? I’m continuously interested in the interrogation of my complex, mixed blood self.  Sometimes I learn things that are wonderful. Other times, I learn things that are quite painful. 

This makes me think about Williams Carlos Williams. If you’re familiar with William Carlos Williams, perhaps it’s because of his poem about the red wheelbarrow or the “sorry not sorry” poem about eating the plums. Williams’ mother was Puerto Rican, and his father was British. He himself grew up in New Jersey and lived there his whole life. I re-discovered him when I started teaching a college course in Latinx literature, and a couple of his lesser-known works are excerpted in the anthology from which I teach. One of those works comes from a book of his published in 1925 called In the American Grain, which is a collection of essays(?) about history(?). I’m not really sure what they are; they are strange pieces of writing, sort of tough to categorize, but they take alternative looks at figures who made their mark on the lands we call America, from Christopher Columbus to Benjamin Franklin. In his introduction to these works, Williams writes, “In these studies I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in the chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid.” This is so incredible to me: borrowed titles, inappropriate, true character. In 1925, Williams was looking at history saying, “I’m going to do some digging with the intent of learning that what we think we know is probably not the whole story.”

My favorite is section from In the American Grain is called “The Fountain of Eternal Youth.” It’s about Juan Ponce de León, the conquistador who was eventually named First Governor of Puerto Rico by appointment of the Spanish crown. That piece starts: “History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. No we are not Indians, but we are men of their world.” Later, Williams writes, “We are the slaughterers.” So the “we” here are the Spaniards, and Williams is aligning himself with them. He’s admitting that a part of himself and his identity is complicit with the widespread destruction of native peoples. He’s not proud of this. He’s calling out white ignorance. He’s un-glorifying the traditional conquest narrative and calling himself a fool and a murderer.

Okay, so. At this point, I’ll circle back to the question: “Is it too late to get it all back?” The answer is, no, it’s not too late, but I also believe that every person’s work of re-discovery will be different from mine will be different from the next person. There is no guidebook. You may have to find your own way. Maybe you will find things that are inspiring and glorious, or maybe you will find things that are painful and shameful. I learn beautiful things all the time about Mexican American and Puerto Rican culture, but then I also learn that many people –members of my own family –have tried to self-erase that culture in order to be more White. They don’t want to “look back on the past” because they don’t want to dredge up some bad stuff. But the past is a mix of glories and regrets, and we have the great ability to go back and take it all in and learn from it. If you are interested in re-claiming a part of your culture and history, you should boldly do it because your heart calls you to do it, because you feel as if your history has been erased and/or was is left has been told in a slanted way, and you want to change that. You want to look at the whole complex fabric of you and the people who came before you with bright eyes.

~~

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. She is the author of the novels A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World (on sale October 10, 2017). Visit her online at samanthamabry.com or on Twitter: @samanthamabry.

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

Posts by Kaitlin

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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: Samantha Mabry Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward