By Manuel Aragon
Growing up, there weren’t many complex characters in fiction who resembled me or my family. You couldn’t find any stories like ours in literary fiction. Instead, when we were presented, we were noble-savaged into lit, relegated to the role of tour guide, brownsplaining the nuances of our world to a white character, with our impeccably clear English — how did we learn to speak like that? Or, better yet, we were presented as caricatures, struggling to pronounce English words through our thick Mexican(ish) accents, a literatured Speedy Gonzalez. We are more than the gross stereotypes that great writers helped perpetuate; more than just narcos y mojados.
Earlier this year I read The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli. Luiselli tells the story of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an absurd, comical, and sad tale of how Highway became a world famous auctioneer with an infamous collection of teeth, all while sacrificing his relationship with his wife and son. The book is more than magical realism; it is magically real, creating complex Mexican characters that, in so many ways, mirror the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of my world.
My grandparents, along with my great-aunts, uncles and cousins, were masterful storytellers, weaving tall tales about the Mexican experience in America, what it meant to be a stranger in a land that was made strange because it was no longer “yours.” Multiple times a year we’d come together to celebrate— birthdays, quinceañeras, and deaths— and share our communal love of story. I never knew my great-grandfather Pablo — he had passed four years before I was born — but his stories, infused with laughter, horror, and sadness, were handed down from my mom, dad, aunts, and uncles to me and my brothers.
These stories shaped my childhood—an uncle who had managed to dodge gunshots from a Texas Ranger at point-blank range by simply raising his hands at the moment, an aunt who had encountered some mythical creature in a field while visiting a friend’s house when she wasn’t supposed to. Stories so outlandish and nonsensical, that, much like our lives, they defied reason.
Our folklore, the supernatural and magical come to life, this is what captured my attention. On nights when the rain was pouring, the wind howling, the yowls of the foxes and raccoons attacking the neighborhood cats and dog, all I could think of was her, La Llorona. You knew that she was out there, weeping for her kids. We lived close to a lake, so there was no doubt that La Llorona could find a way to navigate a series of complex puddles and make her way to our house. When I told my parents of this fear, my dad shared his own encounter with La Llorona, in a cemetery in New Mexico. My mom also compiled a list of other family members, along with their sagas as they encountered her. And you know what my mom said? La Llorona, she wasn’t all that bad, other than the constant weeping and desperately searching for her kids. I knew then that ours was a world pieced together with equal parts of the mundane and the mystical. There is no way to provide the logical connective tissue between “Your cousin Laura went to a party at the Regency” and “El Diablo showed up at the party, danced the night away, and, during the last dance, he lost his boots, revealing hooves, and, obviously, his identity.”
The tales we weave around the dinner table, much like Highway’s, are filled with great humor and sadness, the cornerstones of Latino existence. For those of us from marginalized backgrounds, we must be given the opportunity to present our peoples with clarity and authenticity. Right now, our stories are important; they can help us build an empathetic bridge that we weren’t aware we were lacking.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Manuel Aragon is a filmmaker, writer, and operations manager at Lighthouse.