That one time I read a book and it changed my life and the author spoke Spanglish and made me want to do the same thing.
I’ve always had body issues. When I was in fourth grade, it was pointed out to me that I was getting as bad as a pregnant woman. When I wanted to dance ballet folklorico, I felt too fat to be able to keep up with the rest of the girls and instead stayed home and dreamt of colorful dresses, bright red lipstick, and beautiful braids. Throughout high school, I was scared to speak with boys, especially once I realized there was a possibility that they would like me, because I really (and I mean really) thought that it was all some big joke they were playing on me and in the end I would end up getting hurt.
And so, whenever a boy got too close my defenses would go up; I’d tease him, make fun of him, or even run and hide in the bathroom red faced and on the verge of tears (yes, that actually happened). That scene in Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, where Gabi almost gets kissed by Eric, well something like it really happened, except I didn’t have the ovaries Gabi did and never kissed the boy. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to feel like I owned my body. Like it really belonged to me. Like it didn’t matter that I was fat or that I was a white ass Mexican. Heck, I even accepted that I had small boobs and stopped wearing a bra — that’s how liberated I felt, that first quarter at Cal State San Bernardino.
I really don’t know what changed. It may have been that I began writing more. Or that I made friends that were the same level of different that I felt. Or that I was taking women’s studies classes, and Chican@ studies classes, and that I began seeing myself as belonging somewhere. I think that was it — seeing myself in the readings that constructed the world I wanted to be a part of: literature and academia.
I mean, think about it: before I entered college, all I read (all that built that academic world that I loved so much) were stories written by dead white guys and a few women. I was completely absent. There were no overweight white-skinned Latinas in my textbooks. Heck, there were no skinny dark-skinned Latinas or Latinos to be found in any of my textbooks. But during my first year of college all that changed.
I was in a Chicano lit class and we were assigned Michele Serros’s Chicana Falsa. (If you have never read this book, you need to take a break from reading this blog post, open a new window and order it. Then, please finish reading.) As an English person (that is the technical term for someone who teaches English) and as a writer and lover of words, we often construct a timeline of our life in terms of books read. Chicana Falsa: And Other Stories of Death, Identity, and Oxnard marks the moment on my timeline when I discovered that I had a voice, and that that voice was bilingual and it was just as valid as any other voice. It was truly an awakening. Bilingual people wrote stories, poems, and books that were taught in colleges? And even used SPANGLISH?! WTF? And then I read Sandra Cisneros, Cherie Moraga, Pat Mora, and eventually Gloria Anzaldua, and it was like, Holy shit, why wasn’t I taught these texts in high school? And the frightening answer to that question is exactly why I write.
I write because I can, and throughout my early education by simply omitting the writing of people like me, I was taught that Mexicans/Chican@s/Latin@s or people of color in general didn’t write anything worthy of teaching or discussing. We were absent because we weren’t taught that we have a voice. And this is what happens when there is a lack of diversity in literature for young people — they are denied the right to see themselves as significant members of the world in which they reside in.
Was it on purpose, the omission of people of color in literature for young people? Maybe. How else are people oppressed and kept in line if not by making them invisible even to themselves? When I became aware of this I knew I wanted to help change that narrative. I wanted to do for others what Michele Serros had done for me — make my self visible to myself.
I know, now, after talking with so many others and working in education for the last 15 years of my life, that I am not the only person who grew up feeling that she was too fat and her body wasn’t her own, or was made to feel different, and that she didn’t belong because of her culture, or the only one who grew up around addiction. I wrote this book because if we don’t see ourselves — fat, thin, white/dark skinned, bilingual, bicultural, LGBTQ, disabled — in the words we read, in the worlds that are created in those pages, how do we know we exist and matter? How do we know we have a voice, if the only literature we are taught that is important is written by dead white men and women who only speak English? Or by living white men and women who only speak English? How do we become visible and real to ourselves?
Ultimately, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is a story of a young girl trying to figure out who the Hell she is and is going to become, and how writing, her body, culture, and identity (whatever that is) fit into that world; you know, like every other American girl.
Isabel Quintero is a writer and adjunct faculty instructor who resides in Southern California’s Inland Empire with her husband. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who made that journey for a better life many, many years ago. She got her love of words from her mother and her love of chorizo asado from her father. She has one brother with whom she likes to exchange cute and funny animal pictures. In addition to writing fiction, Isabel also writes poetry, and is on the board for a non-profit literary arts organization, PoetrIE. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces from Cinco Puntos Press, is her first novel. She is very excited about that.
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is now available.