by OSCAR MANCINAS
BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.
HAPPY, almost ready to fight Biff: Don’t say that!
BIFF: He never knew who he was.
CHARLEY, stopping, Happy’s movement and reply. To Biff: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
BIFF: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.Arthur Miller, Death of Salesman
I remember reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in high school. I remember it becoming one of, like, six things I was assigned to read that I actually liked—and like still, mostly. And I remember how frustrating I found our class discussions of it.
Probably his most taught play, Miller’s Death of a Salesman inevitably gets packaged into a unit meant to inform students, however vaguely, about “America.” The other typical texts found alongside Miller’s work are: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” and, if you had/have an especially edgy high school English teacher, either something by Langston Hughes or Ralph Ellison. If a teacher were to genuflect towards discussions of “gender roles,”—in the most abstract, superficial way—they might also include writings by Dickinson or, and I’m sorry for those whose painful memories I’m about to trigger, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. (Everyone ok? Word, let’s keep going.)
Because of this framing, at the behest of policy makers or other administrative bodies, teachers contort texts to get students to answer or to complicate the question “What is America?” And, as far as I know, the answer to this question in these classrooms is never: America is a colonially imposed name for many lands encompassing much of the western hemisphere and not just the name of one nation in that hemisphere more commonly called the United States. Instead this framing and subsequent class conversations reduce texts like Death of a Salesman to commentary about destiny and hope/lessness—failing to comment both on its literary merits and the basic human fear I believe to be at the heart of the play. Instead, in our class, we talked a lot about “the American Dream” and what role it had in Willy Loman’s death. Spoiler: it had a MAJOR role and maybe, just maybe, the “dream” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried not to begrudge high school English teachers for these types of things. Like most of us with bosses, high school teachers are pushed to meet certain expectations and objectives outside of their control, and so many of them do the best they can to turn dry-ass standardized test questions into engaging activities. (NOTE: not all high school teachers do their best with what they have, and some are all too happy to blame students for classroom shortcomings, but that’s a different essay for a different day.)
For the past five years, though, I’ve worked with enough students, who’re either in or just out of high school, to know these discussions do an injustice to them, their curiosity, and to the authors they’re asked to engage. This on top of the disservice done, by way of omission, to so many authors of color, queer authors from all backgrounds, and more contemporary authors in general. You think anyone writing now, or within the past fifteen years, might have something meaningful to say about what “America” is and is not? Personally, as a writer coming from a marginalized community, I can’t help but wonder what types of readings would be imposed upon my writing, should it ever find its way into U.S. high school curricula. Can you imagine?
Don’t get me wrong—and lest you believe this is just another article in the genre of “everything is terrible now and will probably remain terrible for always”—I keep coming back to Death of Salesman because of how that text haunted me as a kid, and haunts me still. As evident in the excerpt I used to open this essay—taken from the play’s “Requiem”—Willy Loman’s ultimate misstep as a tragic figure, and the fear I thought was at the center of Miller’s work, was not knowing who he was. Or, maybe better said, he knew who he was and rejected it, leaving his self-destruction as the only possible path left for him to take.
How scary is that? To dedicate yourself to cultivating a specific life/purpose and self-understanding only to realize you’d done it all wrong and couldn’t possibly live with yourself for another day? Even as a teenager—or maybe because I was a teenager—this type of revelation terrified the hell out of me. As someone raised by Mexican immigrant parents in a working-class hood, I’d been taught to always look forward, no matter what. Looking back was reserved for drunken nights with others. On these occasions, everyone would reflect on fleeing similar circumstances—surviving multiple border crossings or the loss of an Indigenous homeland—and they’d indulge escapist fantasies about “going back” as triumphant heroes, because life at the present felt especially oppressive and unrelenting.
As a kid, I’d listen to my parents, tíos, tías, and cousins reminisce about the paradise they’d left behind in México—“a kingdom where nobody dies” to borrow Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words on childhood. But in their more sober moments, the adults also acknowledged their México, through forces foreign and domestic, through obstacles inherited, imposed, or self-constructed, had made survival for them nearly impossible. So, they left. They left and probably realized fairly quickly, there’d be no going back.
What if they’d made a mistake?
As I’ve written about before (on this here website as a matter of fact) I left home at eighteen. I left partially because I thought I was fulfilling my end of a deal made by my parents; they left their homes to give us a chance to leave ours, essentially, and I was all too determined to make both of our decisions feel correct. In my time away, though, I struggled. Whether it was the world changing around me, the odd places in which I’ve lived and studied, or my own trepidation at making the wrong choice(s) and being unable to live with myself after, I struggled. And I struggled to admit I was struggling, and I struggled to figure out what to do about it.
Thankfully, I eventually realized I cared about few things more than: 1) communities like the one(s) I’d come from and 2) writing. And, lucky for me, I found people who helped me turn the things I care about into opportunities to teach, to study, and to write. I try not to take this for granted, especially since I still remember a time not too long ago where I thought I had chosen the wrong things to dedicate myself to, and all I had left was to reach the end of my life and sigh.
Still, even when I decided to come home two years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder: had I made the wrong decision to leave in the first place? What if coming back turns out to be the same as giving up on a dream? What if I settled for less because my fear of more overtook me? These are all good and terrifying questions. Questions I suspect many people confront daily, and I’ll probably never be able to answer them—something that also scares me. Instead, for now, I’ll try to retrace some of my steps, hoping to discern some pattern, something that’ll make me react the way my former professor and author of Womanish Kim McLarin says, a reader ought to react at the end of a good book: *gasp* of course!
So, back to frustrated teenage me in my high school English class and another one of those six things I was assigned to read but still enjoyed. Even though I had already read the book—shoutout Mrs. Valenzuela’s seventh grade English class, I was a shitty little thirteen-year-old huerco to you, and I’ll regret it ‘til the day I die—when my junior English class read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street as part of our “What is America?” unit, I remember the novel hitting me differently. Maybe it was because I already knew the text, so revisiting it was like seeing an old friend; maybe it was because, as the sole Mexican kid in my “advanced” English class, I was the only one who could reflect autobiographically on Cisneros’s words; or maybe it was because I was starting to look at colleges and colleges were looking back at me, so that leaving home felt less abstract and more inevitable. Regardless, I came back, again and again, to the novel for guidance during my wandering. And, gratefully, the novel never failed to tell me something useful:
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away. Friends and neighbors…will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.– Sandra Cisneros, House on Mango Street
No matter how hard they tried, teachers never convinced me House on Mango Street was about “America” or its dream. It was about us, nosotrxs, the readers Cisneros knew were out here looking for guidance, navigating forces telling us how to be and where to go. She saw us.
Originally, Cisneros published her breakthrough novel with the legendary Arte Público Press, one of the oldest and continuously running publishing houses for Latinx literature in the U.S. Although they later had their disagreements—another topic for yet another essay—the collaboration between Cisneros and APP, years before I was born, created a path for me to stumble onto and find my way. Their partnership helped me combat things this country tried to tell me: I wasn’t lost all along; I wasn’t alone; my uncertainty and fear wouldn’t always be in charge; it was possible to tell my stories without having them distorted; and, maybe most importantly, it was okay to come back home. It took a coalition of writers, publishers, teachers, artists, scholars, and activists to keep these lessons alive, and I hope my efforts prove their decisions to fight to be correct in the long run.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to say thank you. I wanted to write this essay to remind myself—and hopefully you, too—that we protect and promote our stories because we care about them and the people they impact. Ultimately, these stories and the sacrifices that go into writing and sharing them don’t amount to much without people receiving them and using them to survive. Despite the fact that I’ve been guilty of adding to the online chorus of writers who proclaim ourselves to be walking wounds, motivated by an inescapable obsession to write but never being able to find joy in what we do, I wanted to take a moment to say I appreciate the energy and work of past writers and teachers. Oh, and I also wanted to let y’all know that I’ve signed a contract to publish my debut book of fiction with Arte Público Press.
As I learn more about my book-to-be, I’ll do my best to share the details. Wherever you are, hopefully we’ll see each other sometime soon at readings or talks or any other excuse we can concoct to kick it. Until then, mucho cariño y gratitud. Hasta pronto. Peace!