Diana López is managing editor of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature and the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.
A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.
To read an exercise about portraying relationships with a single, specific detail based on Michele Serros’ essay “A Bedtime Story” that appeared in Huizache, click here.
In this interview, López and Ortega discuss the mechanics of putting together an issue of a literary journal, why “Honda CRX” is better than “sports car,” and what it means to be publishing Latino literature.
One of the challenges of running a literary journal is identifying good submissions from okay ones. Obviously, Michele Serros was a known writer, and this essay may have been solicited. That said, it’s easy to read the opening passage that introduces the situation and see how this essay could have leaped out of a slush pile. How soon into reading this essay did you know, yep, this one’s going in the journal?
The first issue of Huizache was entirely solicited. We were a new magazine, so it was important to establish our character. In a way, it served as a thematic and stylistic template for the issues to come. Michele’s piece is in our second issue, the first open to unsolicited submissions, and we received some good stories through the slush pile. Dagoberto Gilb, our Executive Director, reached out to Michele to solicit her work for two reasons. One, we were feeling a little panicked because we hadn’t received enough submissions from women, and two, we want our magazine to feature both new and established voices. Including Michele in our sophomore issue helped establish a sense of balance.
She sent Dagoberto two stories, and both were great fits for Huizache. We really deliberated about which to include, but ultimately “A Bedtime Story” felt like a stronger complement to the other works. This was an angry year for readers and writers of Chicano literature because of the Tucson ISD book ban. In many ways the second issue of Huizache is a reaction to that event. It opens with a defiant grito from Lorna Dee Cervantes in “A Chicano Poem,” and it also includes a narrative by El Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, about the caravan that toured the Southwest to establish underground libraries of the banned books. Immediately preceding Michele’s story is a poem about a minuteman tracking immigrants the way a hunter tracks prey. So you have this dark poem followed by something funny. That’s why Michele’s story is centrally located in the magazine, to provide an emotional counterpoint. One of Michele’s greatest gifts is that she reminds us that we need to laugh, too.
Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all the same and unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but I’ve read enough essays and stories about unhappy marriages to know that the same sort of trouble dooms a lot of relationships. As a result, my eyes tend to glaze at the average divorce/affair story. What about this essay made it stand out from the unhappy crowd?
The second issues of Huizache included Michele Serros’ essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.
Most stories when looked at from a birds-eye view can’t be entirely new or unique in terms of the general premise. But when you zero in, it is the minutia, the little details, that separates it from the pack. While on the surface, Michele’s piece is a breakup/divorce story, it stands out because of Serros’ voice and the specificity in the concrete details. Details like the narrator listening to Howard Stern or the chocolate donuts and goat’s milk at the end make this something more than another breakup story.
My favorite details are in the opening. We are introduced to two older couples: Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years. They aren’t named. They aren’t described. They are purposely unspecific and vague. But, do you see what is described on that first page? The car. The focus on the car, the Honda CRX, is what makes this story charming, funny, real. The whole punchline is about having sex at the beginning of a relationship, in a car. Readers know the “sex in the car” bit. In fact, it’s overdone. But, in this story, Michele makes sure to specify that she is referring to the front seat of the car. I think you lose something in the story if you say “sports car” or “two-seater” instead of Honda CRX. On top of this, being precise about the make and model places this story in the early 90s. Then you get to the mention of Howard Stern, who has been around forever but was never as polarizing as he was in the early 90s. All of the details, what we get to zoom in on, are deliberate and calculated in this piece.
Michele’s charm as a writer is that she is quite funny. This particular story doesn’t attack the issue of the breakup of a relationship in a sad or overly sentimental way. Instead, the break up is enveloped in humor. Just like readers are familiar with the idea, the act, the ritual of having sex in a car, we also know the ritual of the break up. It’s awful, it hurts, it’s sad, your cry, they cry, you love them, you hate them, they hate you, and on and on and on, and then time passes and it becomes a story, a chapter of your own life.
What’s great in “A Bedtime Story” is that we don’t see the nastiness of the couple at their worst nor do we see their subsequent sadness. What for? Most of us have lived it. In this piece, we don’t see a big blow up of an argument or fight, complete with the crying and snot and dry heaving. Instead we get the mattress-rotating scene. Even if the scene plays out like a comedy routine, I bought it, and I know other readers did too. They aren’t fighting about the mattress. They are fighting about everything else in their relationship, whatever that may be. We never see that on the page, but, the way the story is crafted, it’s there. Sometimes the “real” story is revealed in the ellipses or line breaks.
Huizache bills itself as “The Magazine of Latino Literature,” and so I’m curious how you view that word, Latino. I live in Austin, and so my sense of the word is Texas-centric, but, of course, if you go to New Mexico or Arizona or California, it’s not really referring to the same group of people, or not exactly, anyway. (As an example, I just heard a story on NPR about the need for translators of indigenous Mexican languages in California because so many of the farm workers don’t speak English or Spanish.) When you focus on Latino literature, what do you mean? Is it a focus on culture? Language? Geography? Some combination of all three?
Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.
Way to ask the tough questions, Michael. Our magazine focuses on Latinos, those of us from Latin America, or with ancestors from Latin America. I will say, though, that language doesn’t always have to do with identifying as Latino. There are Latinos in the U.S. that speak little or no Spanish. And, as you pointed out, some speak indigenous dialects. You know, I read one of those Pew Research Center things recently that made claim that more Latinos are proficient in English than before. Obviously! At this point, most of us are from here, American. Most of us speak English, and proficiently. This is why a magazine like Huizache has to exist. A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t aware of these issues. I don’t know how many people are unaware, except that it’s a lot. Enough to warrant a magazine centered on giving Latinos a voice in the world of literature. Huizache aims to focus on Mexican American writing, mostly from the West and Southwest, as that subset makes up 60%-70% of the Latino population, but we are open to all Latinos, and everyone else.
As our country evolves, there are more and more Latinos all over the country. Our numbers are many but our voices, sadly, limited. Sometimes I think the obsession with labels used to describe different authors might be solely to figure out what shelf to put their books. But, it is all more complex than that. People need to understand that when navigating these labels, and how they apply to each individual, they will not be perfect at it. Even I’m confused. Labels are tough. Figuring out who you are is tough. That’s one thing a lot of Latinos have in common. Some of them grow out of one label and into another. Others are headstrong and stick to one. I, for example, don’t like the label Hispanic. The word refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. However, the label was adopted by the U.S. government, specifically the Nixon administration, in order to count the Spanish-speaking population in the Census. And, as you and I both pointed out, some Hispanics don’t actually speak Spanish. Going further, some people feel that Hispanic also has echoes of the Spanish conquest and colonization in it, since that is how we got to speaking Spanish in the first place. (It also has the word “panic” in it, which is a little irrational but makes me feel weird anyway…especially when you hear it on the news.) I use Latino mostly, but when I can be more specific I prefer to do that. I say I’m Mexican American. The only way I can resolve my own identity, and subsequent identity issues, is by including the two things that have me confused in the first place – having cultural roots from Mexico, with Mexican family, parents, but being born in Houston, growing up in Texas and appreciating that I’m American. But, I’ve also known people who, for some reason, recoil at the uttering of “Mexican” like it is a bad word, and use Hispanic instead because it sounds softer.
I do like the word Latino because it seems to have been sprung from the community itself, rather than imposed by the government like I explained above. As a population of people who have different cultures, with different versions of Spanish, from different places, we at least share some struggles. One of these is the lack of exposure of our brilliant writers. Huizache aims to fill that gap.
I’m interested in the meaning of Latino especially in terms of Michele Serros. The words Chicana and Chica appear in three of her book titles, and she grew up in California. But she also married a well-known rock musician, and her work inspired both at least three mega-famous bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine). This latter part isn’t the standard Latino biography that we see on TV—and not just with ignorant statements by people like Donald Trump. Latinos don’t seem to appear in the news unless it’s a story about migration. All of this is to ask this: How important was Michele Serros, not just in carving out space for Latino writers but also in broadening a national sense for who Latinos are?
Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song “Somos Más Americanos” for a MTV Unplugged special. The New Yorker wrote a long feature about the norteño band here.
True that the latter part is not part of image of Latinos that we see on TV…but Latinos know otherwise, especially when it comes to the rockstar part. Mexicans and Mexican Americans love Rage Against the Machine. Zach de la Rocha, the lead singer, is a Chicano and the band was/is a huge success in Mexico. If you check out their Battle of Mexico City concert, you’ll see what I mean. Zach de la Rocha even joined the Los Tigres Del Norte, a norteño group, during their MTV Unplugged rendition of “Somos Mas Americanos,” a song that addresses the complexities of immigration and Mexican heritage. This is exactly the point of a lot of the conversation we’re having.
So, that’s a good segue into discussing how Michele Serros has been a tremendous influence on her own community of Latinos, women, writers, and even rock stars like Zach de la Rocha, Billy Corgan and Flea. I think what we can take away from the impression she had on people like these superstars is that she was able to transcend the label. I heard in an interview that she was once called a “Chicana falsa,” that is, she wasn’t the stereotypical Chicana according to her peers during her adolescence. She made it clear that the label isn’t her entire identity, but only part of it. Her upbringing in SoCal, with the beaches and malls, was part of her identity, thus the skateboarding and surfing. She was a lot of things, not just one. I think that’s a normal pressure that Latino writers have on their shoulders, wondering how you will be viewed, how you will be labeled, and how you will represent your community. Once your work is out there, it’s out there and people will think what they want. Michele, by putting certain words in her titles, took a certain amount of control over that, and that is something to admire. She had agency of her own identity as a Chicana, and even plays with it, challenges it, flips it on its head.
She reminds us that Latinos are a diverse group of people. The more people who realize this the better. Some Latinos are women and they call themselves Latinas. Some Latinas prefer to be called Chicanas. Some Chicanas are skaters. Some Latinos are brown. We also have white Latinos and black Latinos. A lot of Latinos speak English. Some, like me, speak Spanish but with an American accent. Others can’t speak a lick of Spanish. Some Latinos are teachers and some are rockstars. Some Latinos drink at bars, others are bartenders, and some even own the bar. And still, some are writers.
As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole. Michele may be gone from this world, but her work and contribution to the literary arts keeps us moving forward.
Thanks for the questions, Michael. Wish you could have communicated with her directly. Your readers can get over to huizachemag.org and order Huizache, including issue two which includes Michele Serros’ work, for their collections. We have five issues now with a long list of award-winning authors, established and new, with attractive covers from Latino artists that’ll look great on their bookshelves. Read them, and enjoy them.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.