There are no children’s books in your house growing up. No dictionaries. No encyclopedias. Not even a Bible to skim through. Your main reading material consists of Catholic leaflets given out at Sunday Mass. You fight your siblings for Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs; it’s not the sugary cereals you want but the writing on the back of the colorful boxes. Words are scarce, and you’re starving.
Instead of books, your immigrant parents feed you ghost stories about El Cucuy, who lives in dark places and eats bratty children, and La Llorona, who drowned her children in the river and is now a weeping water spirit. These are your Mexican classics — hairy fanged monsters and blue transparent women.
In first grade you start the school year late on account of a move. On your first day the teacher hands you a book and says, “Have your parents read this with you.” You want to crack up; your parents can’t read English. But when the teacher asks if you understand, you simply nod yes.
The next day the teacher calls on you to read aloud. Your throat tightens, and you stare at the page as if into a deep well. “Go ahead,” she says as she walks to where you are sitting. She crouches over you and points to the beginning of a sentence. You notice her nails are painted bright red and so long they curve at the ends. When you don’t respond, she taps her nail on the page and says, “Here.” You hold your breath and dive in, rushing wildly through the sentences, skipping all the words you do not know and mangling the ones you think you do.
The next day you get transferred to a “special” classroom.
You don’t read your first complete book until junior high, when an English teacher sends you home with Old Yeller. You decide to give it a try, but when the dog gets rabies and has to be shot, you yawn. You’re thirteen, and your only experience of literature is the tale of a dead dog you care nothing about.
Your junior-high teachers don’t help. One calls you lazy. Another tells you that if you don’t shape up, you’ll end up pregnant, like all the other Mexican girls.
Your English teacher, Mr. H., is crazy. When nobody does the assigned book report, he waves his hands in the air and calls you all “yahoos” and “scoundrels.” You laugh at his antics. “You’re going to grow up illiterate,” he yells. “Actually, you are illiterate, and the sad thing is you don’t even know it.” He doesn’t call you savages, but he makes you feel like wild monkeys in the classroom.
He tries to civilize you with poetry. You read a poem about a raven who keeps quoting, “Nevermore.” You read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and you wonder what the big deal is about these guys who keep getting lost in the woods. You consider ditching English for the whole semester, but one day the only white girl in the class recites a poem, and Mr. H. practically weeps with joy. “You see,” he says to the rest of you. “That is how you recite a poem. Did you hear how lovely her voice was?”
Lovely. The word makes your face grow hot. You want to show Mr. H. that a savage like you can recite a poem, too. You go home and practice Frost with an illiterate vengeance.
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; . . . My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near . . .
For the rest of your life, you will remember those lines. But the day you go in front of the class, you stand frozen like a Neanderthal trapped inside a block of ice. “Go on,” Mr. H. tells you. When you fail to move or speak, he sighs and orders you to sit back down with the other yahoos.
Somehow you make it to high school. You’re fifteen and have a Bottomless Unnamable Hunger in your soul. Your pen becomes your secret friend. You’ve never heard of Federico García Lorca, but you are full of what he called “duende,” the mysterious force of artistic creation.
When the bell rings in your English class and everyone else scatters, you linger at the teacher’s desk. “I . . . I wrote some poems,” you mutter, passing him your pages as if they were classified documents. Before he has a chance to say anything, you disappear.
As the bell rings for your English class the next day, you pretend to tie your shoe. When you look up, your teacher is standing there with your poems. “These are great,” he says. “Thank you for sharing them.” You think he means it, so you go home and write more horrible, duende-driven poems. You pass them to him the next day. This goes on for months. “I think you should be in Honors English,” he says. “I’m going to see if we can transfer you.” You don’t take him seriously until the day he escorts you to your new class.
You feel like a quivering leaf entering the honors classroom. You don’t know a single person, and you fear that when they find out you’re only semiliterate, they’re going to make machaca out of you. But you’re here now. That’s what you get for writing stupid poems and giving them to the teacher.
You take a seat near a girl named Sandra. She’s big and brown and bold. She rolls her eyes at the boys and schools them on sports. When they try to intimidate or outsmart her, she says, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Suck my dick.” You can’t believe your ears. A girl who says she has a dick? In Honors English? Later, after you’ve proven yourself in class, Sandra asks you for your number, calls you, and says, “You know, you’re one of the only girls in school who’s pretty and smart.” Maybe you’re not as illiterate as you thought. You keep reading and writing.
The literature you read for class begins to stir something in you. The poet who stuck her head in the oven strikes a chord. You’re moved by the character of Hester, walking around seventeenth-century Boston with a scarlet letter on her chest. The story of the unhappy salesman who wakes to find that he’s turned into a roach is a total trip. All your life you’ve seen roaches scurrying across the kitchen floor, but you hadn’t expected to find one in a book, gigantic and lying on its back, frantically wiggling its skinny legs in the air. Thanks to Kafka you will never look at household vermin the same way.
You start staying up late with books. Your mother knocks on the bathroom door or comes into the kitchen rubbing her eyes and scolding, “Go to sleep already. You’re going to ruin your eyesight.” You keep reading.
In your senior year you stumble through college applications. You have no idea what you’re doing, yet you get accepted. It should be cause for celebration, but your mom mopes around the house as if some grave injustice had been committed against her. “Why would you ever want to leave home?” she asks.
Your father protests. The idea of your leaving home before getting married is ludicrous. He has never even allowed you to sleep over at a friend’s house. Girls are not to be trusted. When given too much freedom, they come home “panzonas” — his code word for pregnant. For days he stomps around the house like Godzilla, clawing at the air, whipping his heavy tail, knocking objects off surfaces. When that doesn’t work, he threatens to disown you. “If you leave this house, you are dead to me,” he roars. “You understand? Dead!”
You want to laugh. What does he think this is — seventeenth-century Boston? You stare straight into his dark, reptilian eyes. They are muddy mirrors full of fear and love. “I’m going,” you say gently, and you do.