I quit. Following seventeen years as a military officer and operations leader, I closed my eyes, held my breath, and plunged into the bottomless, inky-black waters of a writing career with no life raft, no dingy, not even a doughnut-shaped water-wheely to wrap around my chest and float to safety.
And what a literary journey it has been so far, beginning with the warm reception of a Latinx movement across the commercial book industry.
The literary caldo is simmering. The potatoes of tradition are softening, the spices of expressions are penetrating, and the toughness of a meat basted in accents and colloquialisms is tenderizing.
Once it’s done cooking and ready to be served, readers will relish in the warmth of words and depictions as they spread from the inside—satiated by a delectable storytelling experience. With their bold, robust flavor, these stories are precisely what Latinos create in abundance.
Before I knew better, my dreams of writing meant a world beckoning me within the walls of a library styled utopia, tobacco-filled pipes, lyrical waxing of nineteenth-century revolutionary novels, and tweed. Sure, becoming a successful writer meant compromising my blood-born culture of Puerto Rican Spanglish and Cuban expressions like no jodé, chica—but no problem— if that’s what it took, I was willing. How about the adopted Chicano environmental influences permeating my psyche after spending twenty-one years in a border city?
Yes, that, too, had to go.
Ultimately, I considered it all worth the sacrifice if I could chisel a crack into the affluent, white- dominated environment of literary greatness.
I wanted to write books. Big, important, page-turning stories that entertained but said something more profound than and they all lived happily ever after. And for most of my life, I believed that meant I had to write and sound and speak in a way that belied my background and culture. This was my American mindset as a young girl growing up on the Mexican border and reading books by Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, and Mark Twain.
Success meant sounding like Frances Hodgen Burnett (granted, I should be so blessed). However, the point is, I maintained a deeply ingrained misbelief that to succeed as a writer, I couldn’t reveal any inkling of my Hispanic heritage. God forbid, my identity as a Latina flowed through my prose; it would mean my writings would automatically fall in a secondary category of ‘nice try, we will shelve those in the far back corner of the bookstore.’
As far as I knew, Chicano literature, South American classics, and other Latino authors with great works of literary art were all housed in obscurity for only those curious enough to go exploring into the dark realms of those different categories. Those stories stayed in their buckets, never making it to the mainstream, and if they did, they would never be evaluated at the same level as more Anglo-sounding publications. It was my experience, that those stories were often painted in violence, drugs and gangs and perpetuated a stigma of who I was and what my culture was all about. The realities of poverty in a Latino community were already within my walls and continued outside my front door. I didn’t need a sensationalized view of desperation in our culture. I needed a beacon of hope thoughtfully offered in the pages of a readily available book; proof that amidst my community there were progressive thinkers, intellectuals, and people with heavy Spanish accents who believed in the power of big thoughts framed by thought-provoking words.
As a Latina author, I told myself ‘You will never write a Don Quixote or 100 Years of Solitude—so mind your place, fake the funk, and do your best to quietly enter into the more mainstream environment where you hide your cultural influences and create stories with vanilla-flavored words, and Barbie doll characters. This was the only way to give it your best shot.
How good it feels to be wrong. Okay, at least in this instance it felt good; being wrong usually sucks.
Not this time.
I was thrilled to see the novels penetrating multiple best-seller lists were coming in all flavors and assorted toppings. Isabel Allende, Ruben Degollado, Isabel Cañas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Isabella Maldonado, and Cleyvis Natera are just a handful of authors with authentic stories and settings revolving around the Latino experience. This small example of representation includes experienced and well-known names, those gaining ground, and those on the cusp of notoriety with a debut novel. Still, in all cases, they are coloring the literary world with shades of bright tropical pinks and greens or more muted desert reds, creams, and browns.
We are a better world for it.
The exposure is increasing. The authenticity is brewing. Flavors from Latin America temper the content, and I couldn’t be more excited to take my first foothold into this new ecosystem.
I get to write under new rules. The literary environment is welcoming a different type of story. Latino influenced stories are given an equal opportunity and judged commensurately on content, character, description, and the ability to take the reader on a journey into the lives of others; into bold, bright new worlds rich with history—worlds, a traditional reader may never have known existed.
The literary caldo is simmering.
Now, it’s my turn. It’s my chance to enter into this new world of colors, sights, and sounds, not only in pursuit of a dream but traveling through it in a medium of cultural authenticity and discovery.
C.I. Jerez © 2022