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.”

 

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.

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 

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

A1a-mCOkXRLFrom an outsider’s view, Wang’s identity stands apart from the common conception of someone with schizoaffective disorder—she is ivy-league educated, exceedingly well-dressed, and “high-functioning” when she is not in the grips of psychosis. After being kicked out of her university for her mental health status, Wang begins a never ending journey into a health system whose diagnoses, treatments, and policies are often at odds with her autonomy and humanity.

As her schizoaffective disorder is compounded by PTSD and chronic Lyme disease, Wang strives to embrace the liminal spaces she has no choice but to inhabit. She learns how she might be able to keep herself tethered to reality just enough to find peace and engage with the insights that her psychotic episodes may have to offer. Her essays both illuminate the outer workings of her mental illness while documenting the terrifying ways that her sense of self is swept away time and again.

“When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” At the core of this essay collection is this simple question. In it, Wang asks us whether it is really an act of generosity when we make a distinction between a person and the illness that makes up their reality (e.g. calling someone a schizophrenic versus a person suffering from schizoaffective disorder). In whose service do we define this boundary, and what is it that we value in other people that makes them worthy of love and respect?

The Collected Schizophrenias offers so much of Wang–her most vulnerable uncertainties and darkest delusions, alongside a wealth of information about the diseases known as the schizophrenias. She presents all of this with a humility and eloquent clarity that make her story unforgettable.

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Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli_TellMeHow_9781566894951_1024x1024An essay in 40 questions, beginning with “Why did you come to the US? Where are your parents?”

In Tell Me How it Ends, Valeria Luiselli shares her experience as an interpreter for refugee children from Central America arriving in the United States. As she fills out the intake questionnaire with each child, she attempts the impossible task of reducing the traumas of their life into a few blank lines.

The maddeningly concise questions minimize the underlying tragedy—the fact that thousands of children with the right to political asylum, the right to a dignified life free of violence and persecution, are quickly filtered through the US legal system. Often, they are deported as “illegals” before receiving legal support or due process to obtain refugee status.

Luiselli’s work is a testament to her commitment to making these stories known and heard. Many of the questions she asks the children are unanswerable, beyond comprehension, or too sad to muster a coherent response, but the call to action for the rest of us is much clearer:

 “And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

This book gives readers the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of others, understand why families and children will continue to flee oppressive conditions, and hopefully inspire readers to take action against dehumanizing policies.

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“And once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the greater theater of belonging.”

Cocoa by Kristy Leissle

“But because cocoa is manufactured into a luxury so dear to so many, so accessible as an everyday moment of bliss, it comes with a different kind of emotional power than, say, oil or grains. The implicit call to action here is challenging: it is a request that everyone who uses cocoa ask how they personally benefit from it, and how that benefit derives from their relative power. There are many calls for justice in this industry. To succeed, they will require the hard work of interrogating personal privilege when it comes to cocoa.”

41WzrovBCaL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_How did cocoa go from being a highly masculinized beverage for Mesoamerican warriors, to a status symbol for European sociopolitical elite, to its current position as a highly accessible global luxury? How is it magically transformed from an alien-like tropical tree fruit to the glossy little packages on grocery store shelves? What does it mean to be an ethical consumer of chocolate?

In a relatively short read, Kristy Leissle covers everything from flavor profiles to gender inequality as she addresses these questions and offers the most up to date and nuanced picture of the historical, social, environmental, and economic factors that make up the global landscape of cocoa today.

This is an amazing resource for people hoping to better understand where chocolate comes from and the complexities of promoting sustainable production and trade justice for farmers.

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Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

9780520291812Originally published on Latinobookreview.com

As Mexican food is being globally ‘elevated’ and reinterpreted/appropriated by the foodie elite, Mexico has seen a simultaneous rise in obesity and diabetes as access to traditional food is drastically hindered as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Eating NAFTA is an investigation of the rise of industrial food systems in Mexico and the ways that governments have decentered the state’s responsibility to protect public health, while deflecting the blame and responsibility for health problems onto individuals, especially women and marginalized populations.

Gálvez switches between personal interviews and macro-level policies as she discusses everything from migration, the role of nostalgia in food consumption patterns, the burden of labor for women, and why the public health crisis in Mexico is not just an unintended consequence of NAFTA.

Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, diabetes has become the leading cause of death in Mexico, with a prevalence of almost 16% of the population. 42% of its food is imported, and poverty (55.1%) and inequality have increased. Gálvez calls out diabetes and diet-related illness as an example of structural violence enabled by continued state-led manipulation.

“Colonialism’s extraction of raw materials and resources provided the fodder for the machines of industrialization. In the post- or neocolonial world, parasitic relationships between former colonial powers and territories continue to organize global trade and economic relationships. Only because of the relationship of economic and political dependence between center and periphery could the center become wealthy enough to dominate the global economy.”

 

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

“The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities—who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing?

 

9780553447439Eviction exposes the cataclysmic effect of unstable housing as Desmond follows the lives of eight families facing eviction and substandard living conditions in Milwaukee. By embedding himself in a trailer park on the South side and a rooming house on the North side, Desmond learns about how housing policies often punish victims of domestic violence, why the presence of children nearly triples the likelihood of a tenant receiving an eviction judgment, and how government housing subsidies ultimately line the pockets of upper class Americans while access to affordable housing remains unattainable for many.

My biggest issue with this book is Desmond’s descriptions of his subjects, which sometimes felt like caricatures of real people. Nevertheless, his in-depth investigation presents a more holistic understanding of the relationship between landlords and tenants and how exploitative policies contribute to persistent economic and social devastation in poor communities, disproportionately so for black and Hispanic Americans.

This is an important read that highlights why it’s crucial for people to keep researching in a more nuanced way. We need to listen to individuals in order to empathize with peoples’ lived realities, as well as recognize that housing problems are not just about the poor. Evicted helps us begin to understand the complexities that link every one of us in a flawed economic system.

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