By Claire Jimenez
We used to call our great-grandmother Fat Grandma to her face, and she never corrected or punished us for it. We called her Fat Grandma to distinguish her from our other grandmother who was skinny and lived in Pennsylvania. Fat Grandma would babysit me and my four sisters, while my parents worked – my mom as a teacher and my dad as a cop. She was young for a great-grandmother. She had her first child when she was fifteen, in Puerto Rico. Her daughter had my mother young, as well. And when Mom gave birth to me, at a hospital in Brooklyn, she was just eighteen.
Fat Grandma’s makeup was tattooed on her face: a set of golden eyebrows, pink blush, an arthritic line of black on her lower lids. This terrified me, thinking about a needle dragging ink along the bottom lid of her eye. She used to own a bar in Brooklyn, she told us. And I didn’t know if this was true or made up. But even now I like to imagine Fat Grandma sitting on a stool, with a bright blue martini, acting as the bar’s unofficial bouncer.
The best thing about Fat Grandma was that she had a sarcastic, raunchy type of humor that had the quality of both intimidating us as girls and making us laugh. I remember standing inside of a parking lot and my mother bending down into the trunk of a car, in Bay Ridge, looking…for what? Some groceries? Maybe she was pulling out a baby carriage – I can’t remember. As she bent into the trunk all you could see was my mother’s ass, which had grown slowly in size throughout the years after each of her five kids.
A man took his time passing us by, arching his neck for a better view, and Fat Grandma pinched me with her acrylic nails. Here, I’m picturing her dressed perfectly. A black, pink and golden scarf folded into to the collar of her coat. Was she actually dressed that way? I’m not sure. I can’t tell. But for the purpose of this story, let’s say she wore that scarf, because it communicates something true about Fat Grandma that I would like you to know, which is that besides being funny, she was absolutely lovely.
“That man,” Fat Grandma said loudly as she pointed at him, “is looking at your mother’s culo.”
As the man passed, all of us girls laughed loud enough so that he could hear. And we watched his surprise, as all of a sudden, he realized that my grandmother had reversed his gaze. We scrambled to be the first one to tell Fat Grandma’s joke to Mom, and then we argued over who told the story better. We imitated her ragged, crinkled voice. Her accent. Her chuckle.
Twenty years later I find myself still imitating her, wishing that all my stories could be like Fat Grandma. Big and funny. Elegant and bold.
Similarly, in the nineties, as a girl scanning the shelves in libraries and bookstores, I looked for the voices and laughter of other Latinas in books. In television shows, music videos, and magazines, the representations of Latinas largely did not reflect the women I knew in my own life: the mothers and grandmothers and cousins and Titis who daily kicked ass. Who were these shy and sad women, on TV, flipping tortillas and platanos, cowering in the kitchen or bending over in short skirts with vocabularies limited to ay and papi? I’m not saying that we have to write stories about perfect Latina role models, but, damn, at least make them human.
In high school, I was lucky enough to find Judith Ortiz Coffer’s Silent Dancing. Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek. In an anthology of Puerto Rican literature, Julia de Burgos’s poem to herself:
Already the people murmur that I am your enemy
because they say that in verse I give the world, you’re me.
They lie, Julia de Burgos. They lie, Julia de Burgos.
Who rises in my verses is not your voice. It is my voice.
In college, I took a Latino lit class with Emma Garcia, a young professor not that much older than her students, smart and funny, who introduced me to Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Meztiza, a book that I’m still learning from more than a decade later, every time I read it. These books were so important for me as a girl and a young woman. They articulated and validated my own experiences growing up, and because I could see myself inside their pages, they deepened my love for words and good stories.
You would think that within the last ten years things have changed for Latina writers, that there is an abundance of them on the shelves of your local bookstore, but I’m not sure that’s true. And not for lack of talent either, probably for much more insidious reasons that have to do with gender, race and class. I’m thirty years old, now, and I still find myself searching for these voices.
For a while now, I’ve been wanting to make a list of Latina authors, poets, critics and playwrights. When Del kindly invited me to submit to this blog, immediately, I knew that this would be the perfect place to do it: an early Valentine for those women who are killing it on the page. Below is just the beginning of a list (by no means comprehensive) of Latina writers, newbies and the classics, who I’ve read and loved or am hoping to read soon this summer.
Again, this is just a small selection. Go to your local bookstores, search online for Latino lit, add
BUT FOR STARTERS….
- Gloria Anzaldua: Borderlands: La Frontera, A New Mestiza Identity
- Julia de Burgos: Try Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos
- Joy Castro: Island of Bones
- Sandra Cisneros: Anything will do, but, for starters: Loose Woman, A House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek
- Jeanine Capo Crucet: Did an amazing reading at AWP. Looking forward to Magic City Relic
- Patricia Engel: Vida
- Lorraine Lopez: Lots to choose from, but you can start with Homicide Survivor’s Picnic which was a Pen/Faulkner Award Finalist
- Maria Lugones: Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Oppression Against Multiple Oppressions
- Quiara Alegira Hudes Water by the Spoonful: Won the Pulitzer in 2012
- Cristina Henriquez: The Book of Unknown Americans
- Esmeralda Santiago: When I was Puerto Rican: Classic Latina Lit 101
- Sandra Maria Estevez: Classic Nuyorican Poet
- Julia Alvarez: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent: Is also on the syllabus
- Lucha Corpi: for mystery lovers
- Natalie Diaz: When My Brother Was an Aztec
- Helena Maria Viramontes: Their Dogs Came With Them
AND SOME RECOMMENDED READING FOR THE LITTLE LATINAS
- Meg Medina: Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass
- Isabel Quintero: Gabi, A Gordita, A Fat Girl, A Girl In Pieces
Claire Jimenez is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program in Fiction. She lives and writes in New York.