Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America by Maria Hinojosa

Originally published at Latinobookreview.com

Maria Hinojosa’s memoir tells the vulnerable story of becoming her truest, unapologetic self, deftly woven with decades of American history. From U.S.-funded conflicts throughout Central America, to 9/11, to Hurricane Katrina, to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, Hinojosa has been on the front lines bringing both humanity and high-quality journalism to these devastating events. Always acutely aware of the human impact of these tragedies, Hinojosa identifies patterns in the political landscape while also humbly depicting the emotional toll of her reporting on her own mental health and family.

Beginning with her family’s move from Mexico to the U.S. when she was a baby, and her childhood growing up in South Side Chicago, Hinojosa formed personal relationships with some of the marginalized populations that she would one day report on. Immigrants, refugees, and grassroots political activists were some of the most impactful members of her community while she was a student at Barnard College. After first taking up the microphone to host a Latino segment on college radio, she went on to become a producer and reporter at major media outlets such as NPR and CNN. Hinojosa paved her way in a white male-dominated industry despite struggling with discrimination, profit-driven management in corporate media, and crippling imposter syndrome.

Her resolve to stay true to her values as a journalist led to some of her greatest work: POC-centered, community-based reporting and the founding of the independent, nonprofit Futuro Media Group. Beyond her career achievements, elements of her story are relatable on so many levels. She is an inspiration to bi-national and multicultural people who never feel “enough” of any specific identity, to women struggling in their industries and in need of strong mentors, and to anyone looking to others for validation. Once I Was You is rich in historical context and insights that will strike a chord with readers across borders and cultures.

“The people and stories I wanted to do focused on the forgotten, the other, those who are thought of as different. At the same time, I aimed to evoke universal themes so that anyone, no matter who they were, could see themselves in my stories.”

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon through North America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez

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[Originally published in Latino Book Review Magazine at Latinobookreview.com]

Noé Álvarez was nineteen years old when he dropped out of college and bought a one-way ticket to Canada to embark on a 6,000-mile run across North America. As a young, first-generation Mexican-American man struggling through his first year of college, Álvarez is captivated during a presentation about the Peace and Dignity Journey (PDJ), in which runners traverse the continent on a spiritual and physical journey to celebrate, heal, and unite indigenous peoples. During a time in his life when everything about his environment was telling him that he did not belong, the PDJ offered his wandering spirit the opportunity to join forces with other kindred souls seeking to honor indigenous values and lifestyles, carrying prayers and stories all across the continent to reclaim peace and dignity.

The PDJ is inspired by the ancient First Nations prophecy of the Eagle and Condor, which predicts a unification and solidarity of indigenous peoples after hundreds of years of colonization and destruction. From Alaska to the Panama Canal, the participants run relay-style over varied, grueling terrain. Álvarez soon learns that the challenge is much more complex than putting one foot in front of the other. The runners struggle with the same issues of tribalism, sexism, toxic masculinity, and distribution of resources that pervade the larger society. In addition to the daily physical strain and navigating social dynamics, Álvarez is forced to reckon with his own self-doubt and free himself of the damaged self-image imposed on him by others.

Álvarez’s biography illustrates how self-love becomes a radical act for Latinx and indigenous people who have been oppressed on their ancestral lands. As he encounters communities that feel both familiar and foreign, sometimes at the same time, Álvarez learns that “home is everywhere in movement.” From the Lillooet territory in Canada to the Zapatista territory in Mexico, there is wisdom and healing and unexpected moments of joy and pain to be discovered at every turn.

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“We create pacts over French fries and tacos, and stack onto our shoulders the kinds of promises that weight on first-generation youth: to be the ones who save our families from things like poverty, deportation, and harsh labor conditions.”

 

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

little-eyes_custom-157e1e8dc69e4e47029536ab51b87740a5bfe5fb-s300-c85Originally published in Latino Book Review magazine at latinobookreview.com

In Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, people around the world are delighted by a new technology bringing anonymous online relationships to a new level. Kentukis are small stuffed animals on wheels, like a robot pet—except behind their little eyes are live-streaming webcams controlled by another person connected to the device. Across languages and regions, kentuki “keepers” and “dwellers” are randomly connected when the device starts up for the first time, and people soon realize that this unique relationship is not easily navigated.

The arrival of kentukis establishes a type of hybrid being that is both gadget and human, intelligent and sentient, but with limited autonomy and ability to communicate. Schweblin’s vignettes of different pairs of kentuki users around the globe explore the full spectrum of demented outcomes when this technology is left unregulated. As kentuki users attempt to establish their ideal dynamic, whether it’s as a voyeur, a tourist in another lifestyle, a companion, a caretaker, or a star of their own reality show, the relationships devolve into obsession and emotional turmoil when issues of privacy and freedom surface.

The novel is an exploration of the artificial boundaries we perceive when we interact virtually. It is an epic thought experiment into how these anonymous actors change peoples’ concept of self-identity. The psychological highs and lows that unfold will bring readers deep into the complex lives of these thrilling devices and the power dynamics that users must negotiate.

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

31XkWuncUYL*Originally published in Latino Book Review at latinobookreview.com*

Fernanda Melchor’s debut English-translated novel is a haunting masterpiece reminding us that there are no winners when it comes to intolerance. In a rural Mexican village marked by misogyny, addiction, machismo, and homophobia, the Witch is a lifeline for the local women and the target of violence by men who are threatened by her audacity to live outside of their sphere of power. As the second-generation resident witch, she knows she is safest only on the fringes of society. When she is violently murdered and tossed in the irrigation canal, the twisted events leading up to her death and the ugly aftermath reveal how deeply her existence was intertwined in the dysfunctional community relationships.

Through the unfiltered, rambling consciousness of her troubled characters, Melchor reveals the depths of human greed and the desperate actions it drives us to commit. In this place dominated by poverty and violence, the only redemption is the persisting memory of the Witch of La Matosa, a tormented woman who recognized a shared pain among her comrades and had the inexplicable compassion to heal others despite her own suffering. The Witch is both everywhere and nowhere in our society. She is the queer outcast who never got to tell her own story. She is the living fantasy and greatest fear for those oppressed by the patriarchy. She is like so many victims of femicide in Mexico for whom there is no justice.

 

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My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet

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Growing up in Miami, Cuban-American author Jennine Capó Crucet saw her ethnicity represented in every facet of her community. Having never been singled out for her otherness, she experienced many of the privileges afforded to most white Americans. Her race is simply rendered invisible by its prevalence. When she is suddenly immersed into affluent white America as a first-generation college student at a private university, she begins the painful journey of learning what it means to be an outsider and unlearning “whiteness” as the ultimate achievement.

As a college student, she finds little affirmation of belonging in an institution that was meant to help her reach her full potential. The more she advances in academia, the more she recognizes what it requires of her—to essentially erase her brownness in the process of molding herself into a model of white success.

Her poignant, unabashed writing goes beyond statistics about inequality and provides glimpses into her personal struggles—everything from ongoing imposter syndrome in her professional and personal life to choosing a suitable DJ for an interracial wedding. Her essays pick apart the flawed paradigm that shaped her own parents’ aspirations and her decisions as a young woman.

Crucet’s essay collection is not just a reflection on her upbringing and early career—it is a hand extended to all the young minorities in the U.S. who have had to change their name, their hair, their accents, and more, in an effort to thrive and advance in this world. It is a reality check for white Americans. It is a call to action for widespread systemic change, despite the fact that even the smallest acts of reform are often met with derision and defensiveness by the people who continue to benefit from and uphold the status quo.

 

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“If I stop paying close attention, academia can be a comfortable, recognizable place, one where I am encouraged to buy into the falsehood of a meritocracy that promises the American Dream to anyone willing to work hard. But I’ve come to see the American Dream for what it really is: a lie my parents had little choice but to buy into and sell to me, a lie that conflated working hard with passing for, becoming, and being white.”

Erosion: Essays of Undoing

What if beauty dwells in the margins of our undoing and remaking?

downloadErosion is a collection of essays depicting the ways that modern priorities and lifestyles have led to the spiritual, physical, and political erosion of communities in the United States. At the core of Williams’ melodic, impassioned writing is a deep connection to her homeland of Utah and an earnest empathy for all living beings. Written over the last several years, Williams examines environmental legislation and the political environment that enabled the gutting of national monuments and the auctioning of public lands to the Big Oil industry. These acts of aggression are emblematic of new incarnations of colonialism that deny indigenous sovereignty and the right of the American people to access wild spaces that are central to cultural identity and vitality.

Informed by her own journey from the Mormon church to a unifying “cosmic faith”, Williams unravels the delusions and misplaced priorities that led to the oppressive, consumerist culture that is threatening life-giving systems. Her stories encourage readers to embrace the entire spectrum of human reactions to the long-term and everyday tragedies we are living through—sitting with our sorrow and grief, remaining hopeful, and pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and normal to us in order to make progress.

Williams writes about the landscape not as a privilege to be cherished, but as the very lifeblood that enables us to flourish. To ignore its needs is to ignore our own during this precarious transition into ecological and political collapse. Erosion is both historical, and deeply personal—a glimpse into an individual’s heart as well as the collective consciousness of a nation.

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Not until we begin to understand the true costs of what we have lost and the pain we have inflicted on people and nature through the destruction of fragile landscapes and communities in the commodification and extraction of the Earth, can a healing between us take place. Our collective crisis of conscience and consciousness in this era of climate change is based on self-delusion, privilege, and our sense of entitlement, all of which continue to fuel the power and rapaciousness of our appetites. It is killing us.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

51ITzTfc7pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In this fragmented memoir of her relationship with an abusive long-term partner, Machado imbues her own personal story with an exposition of the “archival silence” on the topic of abuse in the queer community. It starts with a fervent crush on a beautiful, charming acquaintance. Progressing through the stages of friendship, torrid love, and polyamorous romance, the “woman in the dream house” gradually transforms into a manipulative, living nightmare. Their mutual infatuation, tangled up with the euphoria of love and lust, leads to a co-dependent relationship—a deceptive bondage that is all too common in romantic partnerships.

With each short chapter, Machado dares readers to continue exploring every inexplicable contradiction and dark crevice of the hellish relationship that dominates her life. Machado forces the reader into the protagonist’s mind and body with the 2nd person narration throughout the book and a detour into a downward spiraling “choose your own adventure” scenario. The memoir is sprinkled with references to the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature—frequent reminders that while her experience is unique and devastating, elements of her story are also universal and timeless.

As she unearths years of emotional trauma, Machado also explains how gendered perceptions of abusers and victims excludes narratives of the non-binary and queer, leaving a historical, legal, and canonical void where stories of countless people have been invalidated by mainstream culture. Machado’s domestic fantasy turned to extreme dysfunction claims a space in literature that has long been silenced. In the collective bits of her broken self and story, Machado’s insight illustrates why it’s important to value the stories not only of the obvious perpetrators of violence, but also the terrors taking place all the time beyond white picket fences and the façade of the dream house.

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“I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”

Hermosa by Yesika Salgado

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In the poetry collection “Hermosa”, Yesika Salgado brings forth a life in multitudes as she writes about her home of Los Angeles, lingering love, the healing power of friendship, childhood memories brought into the stark light of adulthood, complicated deaths of people who were difficult to love, the cultured gender norms in her Salvadoran family, and more. Salgado both grieves for the LA she recognizes as being deformed by gentrification while honoring her deep love for it, reveling in the anonymity of city life and her Polaroid-picture-nostalgia for its nooks and quirks.

With bright, crisp language, Salgado’s poetry is a fiery heart laid open. Each verse thrums with energy as Salgado gives space for every emotion and every detail—from heartbreak to soil tracked into the house, from long, running verses, to just a line or two that needed to be written all on their own. Salgado is a natural storyteller whose pride in all of her brilliant, flawed, and tender self truly shines through in the collection.

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…those were my favorite stories. women doing what women don’t do. I imagined all the beer I’d drink when I got older. I’d chug it down like a cold soda and burp loudly on purpose. I’d cackle big and booming. wouldn’t care when the mujeres say ¡esa nina es tremenda! instead I’d lift another beer and say ¡asi es! ¡salud!

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

9780593108178After coming out as a lesbian to her religious, Puerto Rican family, Juliet leaves the Bronx for the first time to take on an internship with a celebrity-status, feminist author in Portland. She arrives in this alien city characterized by a subculture of “hippie white” both elated by the prospect of living and learning with her feminist hero and wounded by the rift her identity has created between her and her mother.

The summer continues to be an era of firsts for Juliet as she navigates heartbreak, intersectional feminism, and a queer community where notions of relationships and gender are an infinite spectrum. She experiences the pain of racism when it comes from a trusted loved one and the joy of finding women-of-color mentors and confidants.  While she spends much of her time researching the lives of bold women whose stories have been nearly erased by history, she also takes on the challenge of redefining what womanhood means to her.

In this novel, Gabby Rivera beautifully renders the earnestness of Juliet’s heart—a young woman eager to love and live authentically.  Outside of the confines of the women’s studies classes and feminist book that first inspired her, Juliet comes face-to-face with the hurtful reality that even the feminist community is full of well-intended individuals who are oblivious to their own privilege and supremacist outlook. Rivera explores nuanced themes of accountability and forgiveness, highlighting the importance of respecting one’s instincts and staying true to oneself above all else.

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We could set out words on these sun-drenched branches and let the breeze guide us to resolution. For a split second, I wondered if there was a price to pay for this type of peace.

 

“Weird is the only way to live,” she said, her faith solid.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

9780062413505_p0_v4_s1200x630Roxane Gay began this anthology in an attempt to unravel the nebulous concept of “rape culture”– to engage with the question, “What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence?” Ultimately, this piece became a place where diverse individuals across the gender spectrum could reclaim their own stories, free from expectations about what it means to carry the burden of trauma.

Gay and the contributing authors created a space where it’s okay to say, “It WAS that bad. It still is.” This anthology does not offer simple truths about sexual violence or a literary tonic for those scarred by it, but it does provide insight into why these kinds of stories are silenced and why every one of them matters. The authors, so far beyond vulnerable, offer readers the broken bits of themselves so that their experiences might become something more than a car crash everyone likes to observe in a most unhelpful way.

“I’m writing this so it can be a part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these, because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

These stories are brimming with emotional chaos and contradictions, but together, the voices ring true in a kind of perverse harmony of pain and healing. Together, the survivors scream unapologetically that each of us matter, and this can’t continue. Every time someone musters the courage to speak up, every time we refuse to diminish our own pain for the sake of others, the Movement is that much closer to holding people accountable for the suffering they’ve inflicted and a little bit closer to a cultural revolution.

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“It’s time to pull out the scalpel and turn it around. Slash vents in the paper walls of this master’s house of heteropatriarchal colonialist mass hallucination that claims to be our reality. Give vent to our rage. Be bad. Dare to survive.” –So Mayer