A Woman Composed Of Borderlands: An Interview With Daisy Hernández
The conundrum of the immigrant child — at one point summarized by a friend of Daisy Hernández as failing one’s parents by becoming too much like them and on the other hand failing them by becoming too different from them — is rendered discursively yet accessibly in her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed. Hernández looks back on her childhood growing up in an immigrant Latino family, where the expectation was that she would uphold the traditions and values of her Cuban/Colombian parents, while assimilating and thriving in the straight, white, middle-class culture that surrounded her. She reflects on her struggle to make sense of the competing expectations of her family, her community, and her own personal desires while navigating her queer identity and her professional drive to be a writer.
A Cup of Water describes her complicated relationship with the New York Times during her internship there. The harmful attitude of neo-liberal ignorance she endured from her mostly white, male colleagues as a woman of color is all too relevant to us now; it’s a story about a woman’s attempt to act without compromising.
This penetrating memoir by Daisy Hernández was a relief to read. Like bell hooks, Hernández shows us a feminism that is lived as much as it is theorized. It is not feminist politics we see, but a Latin American woman’s life held up as a clear organizing principle for feminism. Because, of course, we are as contradictory and complicit as we are revolutionary.
Hernández is the co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and former executive editor of ColorLines magazine. She is also a sought-after speaker on issues of feminism, race, and media justice. Her activism and writing are inextricable. She is a woman composed of borderlands. From this in-between space she draws her power, encouraging women like myself to see intersections less as sites of conflict and more as a meeting points for crucial subaltern experiences that, when combined, are a multi-pronged assault on oppression.
Your knowledge of feminist theory and postcolonial studies is so integrated into your rendering of your personal narrative. I was reminded of what Gloria Steinem in conversation with bell hooks at The New School said recently, “The smartest people are the easiest to understand.” I want to thank you for making scholarship so accessible and so felt. When you were planning your memoir, were there specific political points you wanted to make, or did your knowledge just naturally assert itself at the right junctures?
I’m so happy to hear this! I wrote A Cup of Water Under My Bed to answer questions about my childhood, my family and my community. I did want to make political points — a lot of them! But it was more about piecing together my political knowledge with the questions that I had. So I wanted to understand how immigrant women negotiate with large institutions by turning to santeras and bontanicas. I wanted to see on paper how my father’s alcoholism tied in with his faith and his factory jobs and the government’s anti-labor practices. I wanted to figure out how all that tied in with the opportunities I have had to work as a writer.
In the memoir, the intrigue you created around the a story about a candy dish in the boiler room was magnificent. The discovery of your father’s religion through that candy dish plays such an important role in your overall spiritual development, but it happens slowly through shadowy clues and fragments. You are not employing the literary devices of fiction; rather you give us the pieces as they came to you. The rooster, the candy dish, the small weapons, San Lazaro — I don’t guess what they are because they are out of context. Like you point out in your book, these Afro-Cuban religions went underground, transformed, and reappeared in more Christian iterations. Do you think if your family had been just a little less traditional (more assimilated), you would have missed the discovery altogether? For example, I remember my mother saying that my grandfather didn’t go to church, because as a child he had been taught to meditate by a tree instead of praying in a church. This was clearly a reference to some sort of indigenous religion, but I never discovered what it was.
That’s the funny thing about growing up. When I was a child, I so wished that my parents were assimilated. I wanted us to be like the gringos on TV. And then I grew up and realized: I’m so happy my parents only speak Spanish and treat the botanica like an extension of church. I see this happen to a lot of people who grew up in immigrant homes. Because we’re growing up with so many negative images about immigrants, it takes us time to realize how incredible our families and communities are. I suspect as the Latino/a community grows in the U.S., you’re going to have a lot of folks who are going to become curious about their cultural histories. They’re going to be like: “hey, who the hell taught my abuelo to pray under a tree? What’s that about?” I see more of us going back and trying to reconstruct our communal histories.
Do you think San Lazaro created a harmony between your mother’s Catholicism and your father’s Santeria, (‘The saint in public and the orisha in secret’), and do you suppose there was ever any religious conflict between them before you were born? I know your aunt blamed his drinking problems on his lack of Christian faith, but what about your mother?
The best part of my childhood home was probably the acceptance of different religious traditions, and that was all my mother. She insisted that everyone’s beliefs be respected. Of course, I knew that meant my dad’s Afro Cuban religion. Overall though, Mami is just this super accepting person. It’s part of the reason I was able to come out as bisexual to her. I knew she’d still accept me.
I was very struck by your characterizations of the white teachers in your town. I, too, felt a touch of sympathy for them as women who had lost their sense of origin and, as you seem to imply, replaced trips to motherlands with vacations. It made me think about recent writing like this essay by Kartina Richardson that addresses the pain (I know, bear with me) of whiteness. In many cases, it’s a self-inflicted pain that comes from considering whiteness a default and thus a blank void. In others, I think, it’s an unconscious awareness of this cultural-economic dyad created by replacing culture with the pursuit of wealth. Culture can’t be replaced by class. They both need each other. Do you think whiteness is the absence of culture and the overdetermined presence of money?
I actually believe that whiteness, in this context, is how people explain their family’s experience with race and colonization. There’s a reason the Polish, Irish, French and Dutch “went white,” right? It bought them a place in a power structure. But those aren’t the stories they told their grandkids and great-great grandkids. So, now instead of saying, “My great grandparents made a decision to come here and pass as white to get land and schools and jobs,” people say: “Oh, I’m just white” or “I’m American.”
On the other hand, I felt bitter towards the white teachers who spoke with authority and without listening — who even went so far as to dream dreams for you — and I wonder if you can talk more about some of your encounters with “White Saviors” for better or worse.
Yeah, whenever I meet young white people who want to work in the Latino community, I encourage them to think about working in their own communities. As crazy as it sounds, I think white people need each other. They need their own folks to be invested in social justice. It’s like this: I can call my father’s cousin out on her racism in a way no white woman can, because I’m part of that family and that community. I’m not saying that we can’t work across communities, but it’s more powerful when you’ve already done your work at home.
We have to be careful with the “white savior” issue. It can become too much like calling people out for being “racist.” That’s important and necessary, but just as critical are the white savior POLICIES, like the idea that charter schools will save kids of color after we’ve defunded public education. I can tell you that because of white women I could dream of leaving New Jersey, and because of white women I also felt a deep sense of shame about where I came from. But what truly impacted the shape of my growing-up years was that Washington went after labor unions and it encouraged corporations to exploit workers in Mexico and Asia — and it financially devastated our community here. My high school was not set up with resources to help immigrant children navigate college applications or anything else like that. So I think the white savior issue is helpful when we think about what policies are getting pushed to convince us that we’re saving a family of color.
In the memoir, you mentioned a book on indigenous Mexican religions you gave your Aunt Dora; what do you think it really was that she rejected in it? I know it’s not simply that she was rejecting your olive branch. Perhaps it was, as you point out, that she was rejecting the book as a symbol of your non-conforming lifestyle. Considering all that, I wonder if you think there was a third element to her rejection? Maybe the book was imbued with feminine power that threatened the hetero-patriarchal values to which she was clinging. Not actually, of course. But I think of the goddesses I learned about from Gloria Anzaldua and how I instinctively saw traces of them in La llorona and La Virgen de Guadalupe before I knew their names. Back then, I got the sense that my female relatives were somewhat familiar with powerful female deities. Like bringing up Lilith to a woman who thinks women should be submissive to their husbands, you see their personal Liliths flicker in their eyes before they shut down. Letting the Santas council and cleanse and battle bad spirits was ok, but letting a woman choose who to love was not.
You’re making excellent points. The book was The Four Agreements, or Los Cuatro Acuerdos. I’m sure the subtitle — A Guide to Personal Freedom — made her think of sexual freedom…and the pairing of sexual freedom with femininity, I’m sure, was too much for her. My tía grew up in the ’60s in Colombia. She was the youngest of 12 children and she really honored where she came from (a poor, humilde family) and at the same time she longed to leave that world behind. Sexual conformity was an important part of that desire to live as a “proper” lady.
Do you think the strong bond and private world that your mothers and aunts shared helped them understand your love for women eventually, or did it further equivocate it since in patriarchy strengthens separate gender spheres?
I don’t think I would say it helped them but it made it easier. Here’s a story. A year or two ago, my father’s cousin was telling me how disgusting it is that Ricky Martin is gay and has children. I cleared my throat and said, “I have two women friends who are married and they’re raising a child together.” My dad’s cousin, who is in her seventies, waved me away. “That’s different. Two women, you can understand. But two men?!” She saw women as being nurturers, even if they were lesbian or bisexual. But gay men raising children? That was a deeper violation for her.
I am very interested in the idea of Marianismo, which is the idea that your children are your North Star. Does this apply equally to girl and boy children in Columbian and / or Cuban culture?
Well, Marianismo means a whole bunch of things. Your child is the North Star. You’re a pure, good woman. You go to church. You sacrifice, etc. I do think Marianismo runs across Latin American communities. And it does apply differently with girl and boy children in the sense that girls are still generally thought of as property that needs to be protected and boys are not. Gwen Araujo, who I write about in the memoir, was a transgirl, so her case was straddled that gender divide.
I really connected to the part in the book when your consumer urges completely take over. We can’t escape our commercial desires, can we? A part of me thinks it’s especially pronounced in people who spend all their lives passing. Children of immigrants, mixed race people, poor white people, etc. Do you think there is a connection between an obsession with upward mobility and clothes, makeup and other lifestyle enhancing products?
Yes, definitely, that’s why I wanted to include that story about going into crazy debt. So many of us who grew up with just enough and are transitioning in terms of class find ourselves in a position where we want to think that we can buy the class experience we long for. bell hooks takes this up in her book Where We Stand: Class Matters, which I talk about in my memoir because it helped me to see that what I was really trying to do with credit cards was to negotiate the media messaging about young people of color.
Have you been active lately in the trans-community? I know you did a lot to bring awareness to Gwen Araujo’s tragic story..You penetrated Gwen’s story in a way that only a person whose been made to feel deeply wrong in her own home can. I thought back to the Santa who blamed your father’s violent outburst on you. In both cases, a woman protected or enabled the male violence. I was the woman in my family who battled (sometimes physically) my volatile father. I was accused of being unfeminine, which I liked. To return to bell hooks again (and for always), she expressed concerns about feminism becoming violent as a response, obviously, to male violence. Do you think that’s a risk? Is it better than the walking on eggshells we’ve been doing since girlhood?
This past year, I wrote the afterword for the wonderful book Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves, which really impressed me with the fact that we are having a whole generation of children raised by trans men who are out and proud. I’m excited to see the stories these children are going to grow up and write about the men raising them today.
I think saying that feminism is becoming violent in reaction to male violence is a bit like saying that brown people are becoming racist in reaction to white supremacy. As racist as brown and black folks might be, and despite who our president is and despite the fact that we do have women studies departments, the fact remains that black and brown people grounded in social justice and feminism are NOT running our government or schools or economic systems. They’re just not.
That said, I do not advocate for violence outside of physical self-defense. We have a powerful history of civil disobedience, and as a writer, I have seen over and over again that the written word is one of the most powerful forms of protest available to us. There are the things we had to do as little girls to survive but we’re not there anymore. And each time we turn to the page, we have the chance to create the world we long to live in.
Monica McClure’s debut poetry collection, Tender Data, will be published by Birds, LLC in spring 2015. She is the author of the chapbooks, Mood Swing, from Snacks Press and Mala, published by Poor Claudia. Her poems and prose have appeared in Tin House, Jubilat, Fence, The Los Angeles Review, The Lit Review, Lambda Literary Review’s Spotlight Series, The Awl, Spork, Intercourse, CultureStrike and elsewhere. With Brenda Shaughnessy, she is editing an anthology of multiracial American writers.