Episodes

Creative Nonfiction: Pyramid of the Sun by Aubrey Lozano-Cofield

Pyramid of The Sun 

By Aubrey Lozano-Cofield

It’s the summer of 2005, two years before Natalie’s death, when we travel south from Texas to our father’s home country of Mexico. This memory, for me, is important. It marks the last of many things. 

The only other family trips we’d taken up till then were to the Texas coast, about two hours from where we lived in San Antonio. We always stayed in a Red Roof Inn Motel, usually just for the weekend. If you know anything about Texas beaches, you know the water is burnt umber, and in the summer there’s no real relief when your feet go from scorching hot sand to water because the water is likely only slightly cooler than the sand and air. But still, in reflection, it sits fondly with me.  

This time we’re preparing for a 15-hour drive across the border, stopping along the way to stay with friends and family. Domanick, our brother, is the oldest, then it’s me, Natalie, and Sophia, the baby. Dad and mom sit in the front of our blue dodge van, a box television on the floor between them. Natalie and I aren’t even two years apart and we fight like it. We’re both debating who gets middle row because there’s more legroom and better access to the VHS player. “My knee hurts!” Natalie insists and so I digress, making my way to the back of the van with Domanick. I pull out my CD player and slide in Jewel’s new album Pieces of You. The same 8 songs play on repeat for hours as I zone in and out of daydreams, constructing my future through the optimistic lens of innocence.  

When Natalie was 2 my mom was swinging her in our backyard when the sun caught her eye just right, illuminating a faint grey dot on Natalie’s cornea. Natalie was diagnosed at 2 years old with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. That was 9 years before the trip. A prosthetic eye, routine checkups, and no cancer. Once cancer is a tangible reality, not just a St. Judes commercial, it doesn’t matter how far you are from it, every bump, every ache is unsettling. Especially for a mother. Natalie’s knee pain got progressively worse in the weeks leading up to the trip and I could sense my mom at war in her mind. 

There’s a clear shift when you cross the border from the US into Mexico. The country is alive, the streets crowded with people on foot, dogs without leashes, merchants selling Talavera pottery, and sarapes next to shoes you’d see in the states. We buy Canal chewing gum from the kid at the stoplight while his older brother washes our windshield. I can’t stop staring at all the people that look like me but also look nothing like me. A few kids tried hopping on the van and dad laughed at our initial shock. Dad is speaking his native language and it sounds like music the way he doesn’t get stuck on a word, the way he does when he speaks English. His Spanish is so smooth it rolls. Some buildings could use a good power wash, but the street food smells so good, like grilled onions and homemade corn tortillas. Mom is watching us from the rearview mirror, this isn’t where she was born but it’s part of us, and it’s part of her. 

We made our way to a town called Tula, Hidalgo in central Mexico, where my father grew up. Tula is a small town with a river and scattered springs where my dad played as a kid. We came to explore the backdrop of my dad’s childhood stories and to see the Toltec ruins. 

A few days after arriving in Tula we drove an hour south to San Juan Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city about 30 miles from Mexico City that houses one of the largest pyramids in the Western Hemisphere. 

My dad’s friend Mario came as a sort of guide. Mario is a wealthy hotel owner and met my dad when they both led similar lives. Now my dad has a small cottage home in Texas that his wife pays the mortgage on, and Mario has hotels and many homes throughout two countries, but they grew up together and their bond is like family. 

Our backyard was double the size of our small two-bedroom home where the six of us lived. The grass was green in our patch of South Texas, except for under the second-hand swing set missing a trapeze bar and one swing. Who cares though, we used the whole thing like monkey bars. 

My dad liked watering the grass, but only at night when the heat somewhat let down and you could inhale the air without suffocating. It was the thing he complained about the most, the darn South Texas heat. He missed Tula, where the temperatures stayed about 70 degrees year-round. 

When we first moved in, mom planted two rose bushes against the backyard porch. I remember my mom’s messy bun and the way she handled the plants carefully while Natalie and I ran around with gloves and plastic shovels. After years of renting houses and apartments (including the rat-infested one in Mexico that single-handedly sparked mom’s phobia of rats), she finally owned a home. It was small but in a good neighborhood. She liked the idea that we’d grow up in one house, in the same city as she did. 

Mom started working long hours shortly after she planted the roses and didn’t have time to maintain them anymore. The rose bushes eventually grew much taller than us, towering and resting wild against the small porch. We didn’t mind. They were the best hiding spots because no one wanted to search through the thorny stems. 

Our eternal backyard is useless without an imagination. 

That’s how we ran around. Imagining forests and secret passageways. Building tree houses from old boogie boards, and sticks from the neighbor’s tree that hung over our fence. The fence with a few pieces of board missing, where Bo, the next-door neighbor’s dog digs, and we play with his paws. 

In the same yard, we took mud baths, where the grass never grew again. On windy days we’d sway from one end of the yard to the other yelling “we’re back, we’re back on Windy Island!” Rain was the most magical. Rain was for playing, not for staying in. We’d lift our faces upward to catch the water in our mouths and the water became a part of us, something connecting us to the clouds, a cycle, something endless. 

We walked through the grounds passing first The Pyramid of The Moon. Mario pointed out the areas where bodies were buried. He told us that this is where our ancestors roamed. Behind my daydreams of what this city must have looked like, Natalie complained about her swelling knee. My mom’s eyes watered, and she looked at my dad, maybe we should stop. 

No, it’ll be ok, my dad said, I’ll carry her

The next day mom would convince dad to take her to a local doctor. The X-rays revealed a mass, and the mass would be confirmed malignant when we got back to the states. Cancer again. At the Teotihuacan ruins, we exist unaware, an innocence preserved, and I can’t get it out of my head, one side of a major shift. 

We reached the bottom of The Pyramid of The Sun, 248 uneven steps to the top. My dad insisted we make the trip up. He put Natalie on his back and the seven of us ascended. 

The incline was steep. The higher the steps the more narrow and uneven they became. About halfway up we had to crawl, using our hands and knees to grip each jagged corner. It’s so steep you were forced to submit to it, bowing as you humbly make your way up. Dad and Natalie reached the top last. Natalie hung on to my dad’s back like a little monkey, her eyes open and searching, but not scared. 

The wind blew harder at the top, 216 feet up. We looked out and below us. We all stood there. The six of us looked out at a city still standing, its inhabitants long gone, the blood of our ancestors within us. We existed on a pyramid that rose and stood through so much death, long before Natalie was born. Had we known this would be our last family trip with the complete crew of six, maybe we would’ve done something in reverence to the power of who were then, who we’d never be again. But that’s also the power of “lasts”, they’re better appreciated as a feeling you’ll never quite get back, when remembering is the only way there. 

Pairings, Part 3: So Funny It Hurts

 

Thanks for tuning in to Latinx Lit Audio Mag; I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And Welcome to the third part of our three-part Perfect Pairings Episodes; these episodes are my way of pulling back the curtain, if you will, so you can hear these pieces the way I do—in groups that play off of each other.

This week’s theme is So Funny It hurts. Carlos Greaves’ 10 Types of Vicks Vapo Rub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House is straight comedy. Also, it’s a little healing because I thought my Abuela was the only one who put Vicks on you if she thought you looked a little off.

Abram Valdez’s piece, The Facilities are for Mourners Only, mixes humor with sadness to tell an ultimately hopeful story of a family healing while grieving.

The Latinx diaspora encompasses a multitude of cultures and histories, but we are united in the way we use joy and humor to dance our way through the many phases of life. These pieces are great examples of this. Enjoy!

 

This story originally appeared in Flexx Mag

10 Types of Vicks VapoRub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House

by Carlos Greaves

Vicks VapoRub is a staple of any Latin American household. Made by Procter and Gamble, it’s been around for 115 years, and your abuela has been using it for at least 90 of those years. Here are the 10 varieties of Vicks your abuela definitely keeps somewhere around the house.

  1. Regular Vicks

    This is your standard Vicks VapoRub. It cures most upper respiratory illnesses, and probably the lower respiratory illnesses too. Your abuela definitely has a jar of this variety. Probably two.

  2. Nose Vicks

    In addition to regular Vicks, your abuela has an extra jar of Vicks specifically for rubbing all up under your nose whenever you have a really bad cold even though the label clearly says not to do this. Your nostrils will feel like they’re on fire, and you’ll smell nothing but menthol for 4 days, but sure enough, your cold will disappear. Could it have just been your immune system doing its job? Maybe. Your abuela is convinced it was the Nose Vicks.

  3. “Por si acaso” Vicks

    This is the Vicks that your abuela rubs on you because, even though you’re not sick, you are looking a little pale, so it’s best to just rub some on for good measure. She will then tell you that you also need to get some sun. Or bathe in salt water. Probably both.

  4. “Sana sana colita de rana” Vicks

    This is the jar of Vicks your abuela keeps specifically for applying to bumps, bruises, and scrapes. You have no idea whether it’s safe to apply Vicks to an open wound, but it’s your abuela, so you don’t question it. And hey, you’ve survived up to this point, so it can’t be bad, right?

  5. Scented Candles Vicks

    Your abuela rubs this jar of Vicks on candles to make her entire house smell like Vicks. If you can barely survive in a house reeking of menthol, then the germs definitely won’t be able to, so the thinking goes. You don’t dare question this flawless logic. By the way, remember the open wound she put Vicks on earlier? It’s not looking too great.

  6. “Ese gato maldito” Vicks

    This is the Vicks your abuela uses to try to keep the cat from scratching the furniture. It is the only Vicks that doesn’t work, because even your abuela can’t stop a cat from doing what a cat wants to do.

  7. “Ese perro maldito” Vicks

    Unlike the Gato Maldito Vicks, this Vicks was highly effective in getting the dog to stop misbehaving. You don’t know what she did, or where she put that Vicks. All you know is that your dog does not misbehave around your abuela anymore. In fact, your dog looks like it’s seen some shit. Your abuela can be very scary sometimes.

  8. “Mal de ojo” Vicks

    This is the Vicks that protects you from mal de ojo. Duh.

  9. Curandera Vicks

    Statistically speaking, your abuela is the neighborhood curandera, or healer, so she keeps a jar of Vicks that’s specially suited for curing your neighbors’ various maladies. She infuses this Vicks with witch hazel aka agua maravilla, and it cures all manner of afflictions from hemorrhoids to a broken heart.

  10. Holy Vicks

    The Rolls-Royce of Vicks. This is the Vicks that your abuela somehow convinced the Pope to bless when she went to the Vatican, and It. Cures. Everything. But you better have cash on hand because your abuela isn’t about to give away her Holy Vicks for free. Also, your open wound got severely infected. Better pony up the dough.

 

The Facilities Are for Mourners Only

by Abram Valdez

Gloria marvelled at her mother Teresa’s courage at the precession of mourners but girded herself as Jesse Reina recalled a story of a recent bout with diarrhea. Two days after Gloria’s father Roberto passed, every tangled branch of the family tree and even the rotten pieces of family bark visited Teresa and Gloria. Many brought cards or flowers, and almost everyone paying their respects brought food with their condolences because grieving is easier when you don’t have to cook. But in the visits and plates—the tamales, the papas, the molé, the fried chicken—none of the bereaved brought a dish with a side-story about the runs.

“It was that diner in Hobbs,” Jesse said to his wife Victoria. “‘Fins & Hens.’ I think that was the name. I had this chicken fried steak meal, and I was doing good for a while, but then, oh baby, I had to get to a commode in Albuquerque. I sat on the toilet so long, my legs fell asleep.”

For Jesse, to go from “I was surprised to learn about Roberto’s stroke” to “I got familiar with the all the toilets and some bushes between New Mexico and Arizona” was paint by numbers, and he was in mid-masterpiece—a real Boboso Ross.

“I don’t mean to get gross, but I just couldn’t keep anything down inside.”

Gloria tried to find a break in Jesse’s bathroom chronicles to aid Teresa. Her sainted mother who 48 hours removed from losing her husband of thirty years was trying to entertain someone she hadn’t talked to in 10 years. Jesse wasn’t familia familia, but he grew up in the same church that Teresa and Roberto attended for twenty years. They had known Jesse when he was messing his papers, so he was family, even if he was still having trouble with his bathroom business.

“I thought I was going to get dehydrated. I didn’t know where all that soupy stuff was coming from. So I would eat some crackers and drink Gatorade, and nombre! Back to the potty.”

“You okay, a’ma?” Gloria asked.

“Yes, mija,” Teresa replied and slightly rolled her eyes at Gloria before Jesse jumped right back into his story, certain everyone was on the edge of every toilet seat with him.

“It got so bad, I had to see a doctor in Colorado. He wanted to put me on an IV, but I didn’t want to ruin the trip, so I toughed it out. Just kinda squeezed, you know.”

Jesse came to this story by way of asking, “Did Roberto ever get a second opinion?”

Gloria relayed to him about a doctor in New Mexico that Roberto had been in contact with, and Jesse was off to the cuartito.

Outside of that, that brief mention about her dad and New Mexico, Gloria hadn’t had time to think about her father in any other way. She was at the hospital. Then, she was making arrangements. Then, the calls and the visitors. Insurance. Bereavement paperwork. What else was there after all of it? But every time she felt the walls squeezing in, her mother seemed to do something that she didn’t expect of a widow. The day after Roberto passed, Teresa took in a movie by herself—The Incredibles Part 2—and didn’t invite Gloria. Teresa skipped out on choosing a casket to try ramen for the first time with her prima Sandy. If Teresa was in mourning, Gloria couldn’t tell from the pair of Jordans she bought for herself. It wasn’t that there was an avoidance of grief as much as there was also grief. Still, Gloria could only marvel at Teresa’s ability to nod and smile at this ridiculous man.

“Twelve pounds! I lost twelve pounds! Had to buy new clothes for the trip back. Partly because of all the weight I lost, but also… I didn’t quite make it to the little boy’s room in Winslow, Arizona, if you get me. New shoes, too.”

The little boys room was the phrase that did it. Gloria was ready to lay into Jesse. She went over it in her head: What the hell is wrong with you? No one wants to hear about your leaky butthole. We’re in mourning, pendejo! Say ‘sorry for your loss’ and be on your way, guey.    

That’s when she saw Teresa digging her pinky fingernail into her thumb. At first, it looked like she was trying to stay awake, but Teresa drew blood. A small red spot started to reveal itself as if it was unraveling more than gushing. Jesse was elbows deep into a description about emptying the contents of his guts into four different states until the only thing he had left inside was a whistle, when Teresa put her bloody thumb to her nose.

“Oh, my,” she said, feigning an ache. “My nose! Mija, can you help me?”  She rubbed her thumb against her nose.

“Excuse me, Jesse, I…,” Teresa said. “Con permiso.”

Jesse and Victoria both stood. Teresa tilted her head back, waved Gloria over, and headed for her bedroom. She put her hands out like she was lost and relying on the walls to guide her away.

At the door to her room, she was quick to the cut. “Get that cochino out of the house.” She took a tissue to wipe her thumb clean. “And don’t let him use the bathroom.”

When Gloria returned to the living room, Victoria was still standing.

“Is your mom okay?” Victoria asked.

“Just a long day. I’m gonna let her rest.”

“Jesse had to excuse himself. Sorry about him. He talks too much. I think he’s nervous. He’s never had anyone he knows pass.”

Gloria and Victoria stood, looking for something to say to each other. What else was there to talk about? His foot fungus or hair plugs? As a part of Teresa’s church family, Gloria was certain they would see each other again at the service, but what to say in the now? That led her down the path of she could share with them in a few days. And that led to what would she share with everyone else at the service?

Then, Jesse appeared from the guest bathroom, and she was almost relieved to see him.

“We’ll be on our way. We want to let Teresa rest,” he said. “You, too. We just wanted to say we’re really sorry about your dad. He was such a sweet guy to us. Please, call us if you or your mom need anything.”

Jesse nodded and Victoria joined him by the door. As they exited, Jesse cupped Gloria’s hands between his. “Dios la bendiga.”

As Jesse and Victoria walked to their car, Gloria stood in the screen door and adjusted the door’s mourning wreath. For the past three days, the house felt like it was shaking, rumbling, like it was echoing the feeling of Gloria’s stomach jumping to her chest. But now it all seemed to be leaving with Jesse and Victoria. All Gloria could feel was a settling as she waved them away. She thought about going for a walk. Maybe buying a pair of Jordans, too. Gloria could feel her breath finally leaving her body like a promise freed from beneath a paperweight. So many things to do next, but the most important? She would rush to the bathroom to wash her hands. Of Jesse. Of her dad. Of all of it.

Pairings Part 2: Celestial Bodies, Celestial Motherhood

 

Welcome to Latinx Lit audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. Today is the second of our 3 story pairings episodes, where you get the opportunity to listen to two pieces that share commonalities. Last week’s episode was all about hidden history.

This week’s theme is celestial motherhood. Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s poem Starry Starry Light is an Ode to his mother’s love of Van Gough’s famous painting. Nancy Zigler’s fictional story Museums in the Sky tackles space, grief, and healing from the loss of a mother.

These two stories were the ones, if I’m being perfectly honest, that sparked the idea of story pairings, because you get to listen to them the way I do. And it’s a little different experience listening to two pieces playing off of each other. I know you’re going to love them.

(Transition music)

 

Starry, Starry Light

by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

“Every star may be a sun to someone.”

― Carl Sagan

 

Every time you would take

us to el mueso when mis

hermanos and I would run

off, muchas horas despues

we would find you with

headphone Walkman in

your ears escuchando

your favorite Don McLean

cancion, on repeat, standing

in front of the one piece

you would gaze, mirandolo

contemplating the palates

parado frente a la obra de

arte, in love con la noche

en el lienzo, the peaks

curling above el pueblo,

imaginando todos en la

cuidad dormiendo while

sus ojos focus amazed

at the glowing estrellas

amarillas beaming circulos

so many waves of azules

swimming en el cielo sky.

I wish haberte preguntado

what made this Van Gogh

piece su pintura favorita.

I imagine the colors like

Vincent’s brushstrokes

would instantly reflect

like olas in the sky and

ripple your secreto sadness

in waves. Instead of kneeling

in church, the museum became

one of your most devoted

sacred espacios, sus ojos

no longer watching Dios,

the only hymn you live

to oir, concentrating on

this starry night, with your

eyes gleaming, los colores

would sing to you— no

longer trieste listening

always picturing paradise,

focusing on your favorite masterpiece

seeing you, Don McLean

in your ears siempre serenading…

Mami’s eyes always resounding

with the brightest of blues

glimmering vida colors of delight.

 

(transition music)

 

Museums in the Sky

by Nancy Zigler

            My name is Cielo Salas, and I am writing to say that I am not sorry. You were a twenty-one-year-old philosophy major, and I was a twenty-seven-year-old grad school dropout. The professor had fallen ill, and the English department had let me sub in exchange for $3,333 dollars.

First day of teaching, you jotted down your phone number next to your name on my seating chart. The number also contained a series of threes. The letters were angular, confident. The mark of your pen almost ripped through the thin sheet before you.

I didn’t call right away, but I did begin to take each comma personally. You wrote about a town where it rained each day for six years. You wrote about a couple who existed in different dimensions of outer space. They kept falling in love over and over again until they woke up as each other. You wrote about how the universe was a hologram, and that we were all just shitty reflections of our invisible selves.

In Spanish, the word for deep space is espacio profundo. Isn’t that lovely?

My mom, Alma, named me Cielo so that I could feel limitless. Personally, I would have preferred she named me Black Hole or Aurora Borealis because I’ve always been drawn to the blankness of the night. She’s the one that liked space, not me, but since she’s been gone, all I’ve been looking for are signs and symbols that she did walk this earth alongside me.

**

It snowed winter to spring. I spent a lot of time not grading. Or not doing much of anything, if I’m being honest. Online, I found recordings of you from high school, back when you were a junior tennis all-star. I tried to decode the interviews, imagine what you ate for lunch that day. Repeating the words in my head: drop shot, tuna sandwich, number two fade. If we had been high school classmates, you would have been the hot guy who didn’t give me a second thought. I had flowered in later adulthood—like the universe had given us a chance to meet in the middle.

Boy, you could write the shit out of a sentence. Many of your pieces took place inside the same Moscow kitchen. Your characters smoked too much and never spoke in dialogue, then, the twist—how in the dusk, the velvet curtains painted the tile floors pink and it made you want to cry. I’d close my eyes to imagine the satiny wallpaper patterned with ostriches cracking out of gray shells.

By the time the snow had melted, I finally dialed your number. We went ice-skating in Schenley Park, and you made lazy figure eights as if you were born to do it.

“My parents were ice skaters,” you explained simply.

My mother is dead, I wanted to say. Instead, I cupped your hand in mine and we listened to the softness of snow falling off of cedars.

**

By the time the frost had melted off of crocuses, we finally had our movie moment in the laundry room of my apartment. Wedged in between two machines, I felt a darkness in me slowly spreading, rising and falling like a sine wave. A blurry phone number was written on the palm of your hand, the one you used to pull my hair back before it slipped through your fingers.

The dryer beeped. Wrapped in a hot fleece blanket, we exited the laundry room like two children on Christmas Eve. As we made it to the third floor, the lights flickered on: one, two, three, four. My door was unlocked, the windows wide open to let in the mystery and magic of Pittsburgh at midnight.

You took in my studio apartment thoughtfully, green eyes darting corner to corner, where I had color-coded all my things into artful nests on the floor with gaping holes in between.

“What, you moved in like, yesterday?”

“I’m still figuring out the feng shui.”

“It feels so temporary.”

You tilted my chin towards your face and counted my freckles. My curandera told me I got them from staring too hard at the moon after my mother died. Your hands on my face were the most intimate I had ever known. They traced over the grease burns on my wrists, which I got from working the fryer at Taco Bell in high school.

“Hey, have you eaten?” you asked.

“I haven’t gone grocery shopping. Since I moved in.”

You slid next to me on the floor, in a nest where everything was purple. “Well, tonight you are very lucky,” you said. “You’re having one perfect plum.”

You held the invisible fruit up to the naked bulb of my living room. We both admired it and you whispered stories of its deliciousness into my ear. I drifted off to sleep against the black nest, mostly made up of the contents of my heart.

Before you left, you looked out the window and into the empty parking lot across the street. There was a single star in the sky. I remembered that my mom had once said that the space station belonged in a museum of dreams that should not exist. I wondered if you had a beyond place too.

**

I’m on a train to Pittsburgh. Tree shadows carve rivets in my mother’s face, one with wide and familiar green eyes. An old ache consumes me.

We talk about what heaven looks like. She tells me that she doesn’t know. I’m alarmed until she says that it’s better not to know everything. She sounds wise, and I marvel at what I do not know. We talk about surrealism, space-time, the stargazing gene in corn snakes.

As the sky fades to black, I realize that we are the only ones here, the sky a mess of red planets.

This phantasm ages with me. In sleep, it’s the only place I don’t feel suspended in time.

**

In my class, we repeated the word rhododendron over and over, as if we could glimpse the word before it took off, like a swan in flight. After, we tried a few more: strumpet, sunchoke, synesthesia. I had forty more minutes to fill. So, we took turns reading Andre Breton’s poems out loud.

“Madam.” You paused to look at me hard. “A pair of silk stockings.”

I didn’t hear the tail end of the poem.

Did you know that Venetia Burney, an eleven-year old, gave Pluto its name? After the Roman god of the underworld, with the peculiar talent of making himself invisible.

I ended class early and my students filed out of the classroom. You didn’t wait for them to leave as you stood over me, gripping the sides of my podium in a way that felt familiar. Rogue planets are not attached to any star.

“You teach us about writing,” you said, opening the door as if to leave. “What about living your truth?”

My truth was that I was actually a reluctant astrophysicist moonlighting as a writing teacher. My mother had died the year I was supposed to defend my thesis, so I said no thanks and dropped out of school. Then I crawled into myself and never came out.

You gave me your stories. I gave you your grades. You gave me your coat. I gave you my hand. Gemini. Pisces. Moscow. Texas.

I’ve beat my brains out over it: how did our stars align? What did we have to offer each other other than refuge? We were two meteors shining past each other, lighting the other’s path.

**

A renowned physicist once told me that most life events are due to chance. People thread the stories of their lives together because life is not nothing.

Once, when I was about your age, I tried to understand string theory by holding my pen up to the light. A dot, a line, a cube. I reached this nirvana—dimensions begged to be understood. I knew the fourth dimension would bite me in the ass one day, the spin that becomes more than a sum of its parts.

**

My last week of teaching, I got drunk with a saxophone player with kind eyes. After I grasped his collar and told him about your intonations in the words silk stockings, I ended up alone in a jazz club downtown. Gathering my purse, I began to head east, towards a bench that was not a bus stop. Murphy’s law, I stumbled headfirst into you.

You snapped my keys out of my hand and said a quick goodbye to the redhead from our class. After I got into your car, you sped down the icy freeway with animal grace. I could make out your fine lines drawn against the night. We drove through a tunnel carved through a mountain. Your car was littered with gym socks, beef jerky, and R&B cassette tapes. The music blasted through the speakers.

“I’m from Philly,” you said.

“I can tell.”

“Everybody knows about us.”

“Yes.” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Their stories have a lot of May-Decembers.”

“Are we in trouble?”

“I’ll deal with the dean later,” I said, not mentioning that I had put in my notice of resignation that morning. I wouldn’t get the last $333 dollars, we had agreed.

“Did you like my story?” You smiled, the lights of the tunnel whirring past, making your pupils seem deeper.

“I liked the scene with the herring in a fur coat,” I said. “What, in Russia all you ate were little salads?”

“If you live in Russia you better like mayonnaise,” you said. “And never-ending winter.”

“Like Narnia,” I said.

We came out the other end holding our breaths. If you know Pittsburgh, you’ll know the tunnel—when you’re submerged in the belly of the beast and then the skyline knocks you out cold. That night, it was one for the books.

You felt indestructible to me in that moment, among your mess and faded R&B.

Beyond the skyline and city limits was your home. I had imagined you above something ordinary like living in an apartment. I was dying to see your kitchen. Once you unlocked the door and we went inside, I was sobered by the mattress on the floor, a grease-speckled window, peeling red walls.

“You look about 1000 years old,” you said.

You looked so young.

“And you’re a Halley’s comet,” I said, leaning into your chest. You came into my life like a prayer. A blip later, and you’d be gone.

In that dim apartment, it dawned on me that my life was unspectacular. In my museum of dreams, the ghost of my mother followed me close. That black hole October when she died blew me right open like a kite and ended with a lifetime of me waiting for the train to come.

**

I ran into you many many years later, beneath a bridge with a highway rattling above us. The story that we told ourselves about each other a bold blot on the horizon. What came to me at that moment was the last story of yours that I ever read. You said to the woman with no food at her apartment: “inevitably, your skin was my autobiography.”

You were older now. Perhaps you never knew me, yet you traced the grease mark on my wrist before saying goodbye, and I felt a pang in my heart. The ice had melted, and spring had arrived.

“Godammit,” I said into the wind, thumbing my mittens against the railing. “We never could see each other clearly.”

The train passed overhead, and you were already gone. I have a fourth dimension, I wanted to shout after you. It’s pure as light, as sound, as song. Maybe I’ll write that on my gravestone. Grief, love, relative spacetime—it’s not linear. Back then, I had nothing to offer you except my sadness.

And maybe I am sorry. We write so that we can be seen, and because life is not nothing. That morning, the sun rose before a brilliant purple sky. I noticed when you turned away that your eyes were blue. I went to put flowers on my mother’s grave and buy a couch, a telescope, a tiny salad.

When I finally made it home, I frantically looked for my book on Andre Breton. Page 3.

“Madam,” I whispered. “A pair of silk stockings.”

I turned the page.

“Is not a leap into the void.”

 

 

 

Pairings, Part 1: Hidden Histories

Welcome to Latinx lit Audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today, we’re going to do something a little bit different. Normally on the mag we feature one story per episode. But I discovered in the course of producing these episodes that certain themes started recurring. Love, Death. Family. Grandparents.

It sounds like the Latinx version of The Princess Bride. Chases! Escapes! True Love! But the only way for you, dear listener, to really hear these themes is if you get to listen to these stories the way I do—in groups. Or pairings, if you will. So for the next three episodes I will bring you two pieces that share commonalities.

This week we’re going to listen to two stories that share the theme of hidden history. In Julieta Corpus’ otherworldly poem The Midwife, we travel back to Mexico in the 60’s, when midwives were an integral part of village life. In Camila Santos’ fictional short story It’s Just Dancing, we enter the world of the Taxi Dancer, a person paid to dance with you at a club.

Ready? Let’s begin.

Poetry: ‘Identity Height Chart’ by Angela Acosta

Identity Height Chart

By Anglea Acosta

She didn’t know there were words

for all the peoples she descended from,

always took care to fill out the scantron sheet

to select the right (white) demographic bubbles,

not like when she accidentally picked “multiracial”,

facing an examination not of numbers

but of the teacher’s questions.

 

She just wants to be herself,

to look like herself and her ancestors

in the mirror: dark hair and light skin,

practicing the Spanish pronunciation

of her apellido, a name brought over countries

and generations that she said in English

for the first twenty years of her life.

 

Everyone has names for

everything that she is not.

Cuban, South Asian, Pakistani,

Middle Eastern, Jewish, half-Japanese,

dissecting her features, her identity because her presence

makes them feel confused.

 

She didn’t grow tall,

she grew into herself,

no longer stating percentages like a venn diagram

when they just want her to say the word “Mexican”.

She doesn’t want a hyphen, she wants multitudes,

she doesn’t want to waver between spaces

in ways all the questioners don’t have to.

 

She just wants to create a home

miles from the places her family came from,

to stop answering questions from people

believing in single stories and American myths.

She just wants to finally know,

she’s reached the top of the height chart,

a proud Latina woman.

Behind the Scenes: Angela Acosta Discusses ‘Identity Height Chart’

The transcript of the episode is below

 

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes of Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re going to be talking with Angela Acosta. Angela is an emerging bilingual Mexican-American poet and scholar. She won the 2015 Rhina P. Espaillat Award from Westchester University and her work has appeared in Panochazine, Pluma, MacroMicroCosm, and Eye to the Telescope. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Iberian Studies at The Ohio State University and resides in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome, Angela.

Angela Acosta 0:52
Hello, hola, I’m really glad to be here.

Teresa Douglas 0:55
I’m glad to have you. And I will tell you we start this podcast not talking about your work, which is very important, but asking about another very important topic around food. And I would love to hear since you are in my metaphorical house, we are sitting at my metaphorical table. And I would of course, love to offer you something to eat that you enjoy. And I would love to know what is your favorite comfort food?

Angela Acosta 1:23
That’s a great question. I don’t think I would ask this of you if I were actually at your house. But I do enjoy a nice warm bowl of udon noodle soup. I’ve been in the cold weather for so many years. It’s a nice treat.

Teresa Douglas 1:36
I love that. We had another guest who also loved ramen soup. And it’s just these noodle dishes. They’re so comforting. I don’t understand why it is. It’s just wonderful. We would definitely eat Udon because I keep that in my pantry. So you’d be sitting there, you’d probably help me cook it, it would be all very cozy. So thank you for sharing that. Food is such a nice way to to get to know people.

Angela Acosta 2:05
For sure.

Teresa Douglas 2:07
I just I loved this poem. Listeners, I know you enjoyed this as much as me. And if you didn’t, it’s because you haven’t listened to it. So please pause and go listen to that right now. Because the rest of this is going to make a lot more sense if you’ve done that. I love the way this poem sort of grows, especially since we’re talking about a height chart. I cannot wait to talk about it. But before we do, I would like to talk about you a bit and find out how long you’ve been writing?

Angela Acosta 2:50
I have been writing poetry, at least actively considering myself a poet, since I was around 14 or 15. But I’ve done a little bit of poetry writing before that. I wrote a lot in high school at that time, and found it a really important way of expressing myself and figuring out certain, you know, language use and identity. And I didn’t write too much during the later years of college and early years of graduate school, and I really only gotten back to writing poetry earnestly in the past year.

Teresa Douglas 3:22
Mm hmm. It’s amazing. It just feels like this is in your bones when I read this. I loved all of the things you packed in here. And I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s talk a little bit more about you. It sounds like poetry is one of your first loves. Is it your only writing love? Or do you have other mediums other things that you like to write in?

Angela Acosta 3:57
Yeah, I think poetry is my favorite in the sense that it’s something that I can just kind of pick up and do and don’t feel like I’m fussing over it too much, or that I’m really working with the writing. I’m able to just take an idea that I have and turn it into a poem relatively quickly. Most of the other writing I’m doing now is academic writing. So I’m working on my dissertation. I’m writing academic articles, presenting things to the public. But in terms of creative writing, I’ve also done a little bit of flash fiction and then creative nonfiction related to my research.

Teresa Douglas 4:29
So flash fiction does feel like it’s almost at that crossroads of fiction and poetry, or prose and poetry, I should say because it’s flash, just very lyrical, a lot of image, a lot of things that crossover. My husband finished his PhD just about six months ago and those papers are a whole nother level of writing that’s kind of crazy to me–to see the density that comes in there. So yes, I can see how this is quite different from that. Can we walk through your process of writing Identity Height Chart? Did you come up with the idea first? Was there a central image? Walk me through that process.

Angela Acosta 5:22
Yeah, that’s a really great question because it’s something you can think about with every poem. But for this one in particular, it actually is very different than how I usually write because what I did was, I had found some old poems that I’d sort of started and kind of meandered a little bit from early years of college when I was writing a lot and involved a little bit in a spoken word poetry group on campus. So I had some ideas in the air already from a few years ago. But since that time my sense of self has changed. I’ve matured over the years, and the way that I write has changed as well. So I kind of took those bare bones ideas, and turned them into the stanzas. And the identity height chart, the main metaphor of the piece, kind of came to me because in the house that my parents are now living, there was a height chart that somebody left, and I thought it was quite funny, because the children were a lot taller than I am. I’m five feet with shoes on, I like to say, so that the children were a lot taller than me. And I think that image popped in my mind, in thinking about growth, and how we see ourselves and physically, you know, not growing too tall, but thinking about how I’m growing in other ways.

Teresa Douglas 6:37
Yeah, and that central image is, to me, a fabulous one for thinking about, at the end, being a proud Latina woman. And whatever physical height we may or might not have, just reaching that point, when you feel settled in your sense of self, because it feels like in so many places, as you say, in your poem here, where “she just wants to be herself. And everyone has names for things that she’s not.” And she, you know, does that it says “no longer stating percentages, like a Venn diagram, when they just want to hear her say the word Mexican.” So this idea all the way through that there are these forces that are trying to get us to take up less space, to justify our existence. One of the things I thought about in that first stanza where you say, “facing an examination, not of numbers, but other teachers questions.” And this question of why do we have to justify the space that we take up, and that ambivalence that we see in so many places. If you’re not completely white looking, blond hair, blue eyes, like the stereotype, and you’re not stereotypically dark skinned, or identify as black, then you’re in this place where it seems like everybody wants you to justify the fact that you’re a member of the bipoc community, or justify what [identity] you write down. And I thought that was so well done, to talk about that, and put in this idea of having to scatter yourself almost and again, take up less space. So that was so well done in this.

Angela Acosta 8:36
Thank you. Yeah, I will say that, when you said the idea of the forces that shape us, I think that’s really poignant. And thinking about childhood and how these, you know, certain anecdotes came about in my own thinking of the poem, because a lot of times as a child, you don’t always know how to best identify yourself. And I remember when I was little, I always made sure to, like, memorize all the countries that my ancestors came from, as if anyone would ask me that, but in reality, they just kind of want to size you up and see what’s different about you. And then the tension when you might not say the word that they’re thinking or what they’re expecting.

Teresa Douglas 9:16
And it’s a crazy thing, where you think, okay, how much of an answer are you really looking for here? And the idea that in so many places, the people who are Mexican also have, of course, other things. We have indigenous ancestors, we have ancestors from all over. And this idea that even some of those indigenous peoples, we may not know the names of those folks because of colonialism. And the idea that you could, in some ways could feel less than because you don’t have names for what you are you only have names for what you aren’t. And that is such a powerful thing to talk about, this idea of, of trying to take up the space that is yours that comes to you from your people, from your own living in the world. And, I love that again, at the end, she’s reached the top of the height chart, a proud Latina woman. And that is such a mic drop moment, right there. I almost just put my fist in the air is like, yeah. Because it’s what we want, right? We want to be able to grow into ourselves.

Angela Acosta 10:38
And do it on our own terms.

Teresa Douglas 10:40
Exactly. And not have that moment where someone says, here’s the height that you should reach. And that’s where you need to be. One of the things I wanted to ask you too, is often we don’t get to tell people what impression we want our piece to have, what impression we want them to be left with. And it’s fine that people bring their own history and their own ideas, as they’re reading this and come to their own conclusions. But this is your moment, right now. If you could talk to listeners and tell them how you want them to think about this piece and impression that you want them to leave with? What would that be?

Angela Acosta 11:30
Yeah, I don’t think there was anything in particular as I was writing that I really wanted to, like have as a central message in terms of what people think or process with this piece. But I think what I was looking for was that question of labels and how they really shaped my own upbringing, understanding of my identity, especially during those college years, at a time when you’re in a very diverse environment. Oftentimes, even if you’re at a predominantly white institution, and you get a lot of questions asked about your background, or when you meet new people. And these labels really shape us over time, whether or not we really believe in them. And I think what’s been helpful for me is just to kind of understand myself, like I said, on my own terms, and see where I fit and really feeling like I can take charge of that. So I think that’s the idea of growth, and in growing into one’s identity, which isn’t always growing into a particular label, or cultural identity, but just like feeling like you, you are yourself without all of this outside intervention was what I was going for.

Teresa Douglas 12:33
And it’s so wonderful, because there are so many places that make people feel, in some ways not enough. And this poem really empowers the reader to say you are enough. Whatever you are, and as you say, whatever space you inhabit, whatever names you may put on, that’s for you to put those names on, and not a label that you need to fit in like a piece of clothing that just isn’t quite right. So thank you for that. It was a shot of, good feeling. I know that there’ll be other people who want to read the things that you write, do you have social media handles, or a website or anywhere where someone could read your pieces as they come out?

Angela Acosta 13:27
Yeah, I do use Instagram. I’m at aaperiquito. But I don’t have an author website yet, just because I’m focused on my academic work and just have the academic website which I may have sent you. But my work is out and floating around the internet and other creative publications in a variety of forms. So I’ve published in the journals you mentioned in my bio, and a lot of those are available online.

Teresa Douglas 13:57
Wonderful. And could you spell again, the Instagram handle ?

Angela Acosta 14:06
Yeah, it’s and it’s all lowercase. It’s a a p e r i q u i to

Teresa Douglas 14:15
So listeners if you didn’t catch that, or you share my inability to listen very well, I will have that in the show notes. So you could just go ahead and click over, and follow what Angele’s doing. Well, thank you so much for coming to the podcast, and sharing your work.

Angela Acosta 14:38
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to be in this space with you and to share my work

 

Poetry: Sonnet of the South American Sphinx by Katherine Quevedo

Sonnet of the South American Sphinx

by Katherine Quevedo

She spreads her condor wings and never blinks

her talismanic, liquid copper eyes.

Her jaguar body stretches as she lies

beside the mighty Amazon and thinks

about her unmet thirst. She never drinks.

She hunts whatever traveler she spies,

then sinks her silver fangs into her prize

—unless they solve the riddle of the sphinx.

Her riddle lives in quipus, in the knots

the Inca tied, their secret language some

have spent a lifetime trying to understand.

They say the answer hides among the spots

upon her fur, a mottled, rippling crumb

of thought, unlocking every knotted strand.

Behind the Scenes with Katherine Quevedo, author of Sonnet of the South American Sphinx

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome, listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latinx Lit Audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today we’re interviewing Katherine Quevedo, who was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Fireside magazine, Coffin Bell, Triangulation: Habitats, Factor Four magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Best Indie speculative fiction, Volumes three and four. And elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching movies, singing, playing old school video games, belly dancing and making spreadsheets. Find her at Katherine Quevedo.com. Welcome, Katherine.

Katherine Quevedo 0:59
Thank you so much for having me.

Teresa Douglas 1:01
It’s so nice to have you here. And I have to say, before we jump into the nitty-gritty of talking about your sonnet, I have to ask you a very important question. Because this podcast is like you are sitting at my kitchen table. And of course, if you were at my house, I would want to offer you something that you would like to eat. And so I would love to know, what is your favorite comfort food?

Katherine Quevedo 1:30
I am picturing it now and salivating. That would be chocolate chip cookies. Especially my mom’s. I have a very, very strong sweet tooth.

Teresa Douglas 1:40
Well, I would hope that we could eat those and still remain friends because I love chocolate chip cookies. And I might have to arm wrestle you for them.

Katherine Quevedo 1:49
Oh, no, we need to have enough for everyone. One big cookie, and we can split it.

Teresa Douglas 1:54
I love that idea. All right, then I would definitely do that. Because we shouldn’t have bloodshed from having the cookies. That’s lovely. And another thing that’s lovely, of course, is this beautiful sonnet that you sent in. I would just I want to say one thing. That’s my favorite thing. And then I’m going to not talk so much and ask you some questions about you. When this came in, I was intrigued by the title, and I knew it had to be sort of speculative-y if that’s a word. But if I’m wrong and there are actually historical sphinxes, or sphinx-i, I would love to be corrected about that. But the thing I loved about this was just the tight imagery, just this idea of ‘talismanic liquid copper eyes.’ I just saw that image bloom in my brain when I read that. A Jaguar body. And just this thirst. It was just so lovely to see that put all together. And so thank you for sending this in so that I can read it.

Katherine Quevedo 3:11
Thank you. I had so much fun writing it. And yeah, just putting the creature together and trying to find the right words and putting it in the right beats. It just was a really fun project for me.

Teresa Douglas 3:26
And this piece seems to be pretty popular. I knew when we were talking a little bit on email, you were nominated for an award. But what award was that?

Katherine Quevedo 3:34
Yeah I received notice that it was nominated for the Rising Award for Best Short Poem. So that’s offered through the science fiction and fantasy poetry association. So that was just a huge, pleasant surprise. And I’m really honored. I’ve never been nominated for that before. And there’s really talented poets in that group. So I’m just really honored.

Teresa Douglas 3:57
Well, congratulations on that. And so listeners, if you haven’t yet listened to this sonnet, first of all, I don’t know why you’re here, but you should know this is now also an award-nominated sonnet. And I think you will see, once you listen, why this was nominated for that award. Well, the one thing I always ask people is whether or not the format that they send to me so if it’s a poem, or a piece of fiction is their first love. I know you write a couple of things, at least from your bio. So would you say that poetry is your first love? Do you love poetry and fiction or nonfiction equally? What’s your deal?

Katherine Quevedo 4:39
Oh, I hope you’re not trying to make me choose favorites.

Teresa Douglas 4:41
We love all our children.

Katherine Quevedo 4:43
Exactly. I really do love both. I can’t pick but you know if you want to get really technical, I started with short stories. From childhood I mean, from the first time I could hold a pencil I was putting little looks together. And then in grade school, that’s where I started learning about poetry and just really enjoyed the wordplay and the rhyming. So I’ve been writing both in tandem for most of my life. I do focus on fantasy, horror and science fiction for my short stories. And then for my poems, it was really, I started off writing more non-speculative, and I’ve more recently gotten into speculative. I wanted to share one quick story speaking of sphinx poems, because so the one I’ve read here is my second sphinx poem. The first one I ever wrote, because I really love sphinxes, I wrote back in high school. That’s how much I love sphinxes. And it actually won a contest where I got to go attend the Willamette writers annual conference here in Portland. And that opened my eyes to the world of writing, where suddenly I learned that there was this whole industry behind it, this community of writers, and I was completely hooked. So it was a poem that was my gateway into making writing a really serious life goal for me.

Teresa Douglas 6:10
So sphinx poems are your gateway drug is what you’re telling me. I also think this means you should write another sphinx poem, because so far in the whole awards department, you’re two for two.

Katherine Quevedo 6:25
Maybe there’s a chapbook in here somewhere.

Teresa Douglas 6:28
I mean, who doesn’t love Sphinx? They’re just so–there’s the mystique of them. And the silent things that were created or built long, long ago. Everything about it is fascinating. So it sounds like you were writing poetry first. And then came to fiction? What do you think that does for your writing? Just out of curiosity do you feel like they inform each other, or give you some some added benefit, because you do both.

Katherine Quevedo 7:06
I do think that they sort of talk to each other, if you will. And the order is an interesting one. Because I I started off kind of fiddling around with both through school, grade school, high school, middle school, high school. And then when I was in the university, I decided to, I was getting an English degree and wanted to get a creative writing emphasis. And I was considering, should I do the fiction track or the poetry track. I did end up on the poetry track at that time, due to a variety of reasons. And once I graduated, I thought, you know, I really want to up my game in fiction, and felt like I needed to really focus there. So I spent years just studying short stories, especially fantasy, science fiction, horror, I basically put poetry on hold for years. And then once I finally was having some success with the speculative fiction, it was one of my two sisters who actually reached out to me and just reminded me how much I had also enjoyed writing poems, and how much she had loved reading them. And so that rekindled that interest again. And now, I’m trying to find a balance between the two, because I really do love both. And then, on top of that, a lot of my poetry had been non-speculative. So now I’m trying to bring the speculative into it, because I just love those genres. And I think really looking at the level of language that I use in my stories, and trying to think and sometimes pause and say, if I were writing this as my poet self, what language would I be using for these key parts that I really want to highlight? And then my poems similarly, sometimes thinking, can I put a bit of a narrative arc into some of this?

Teresa Douglas 8:53
Well, that’s, that’s fascinating. It makes you wonder why there aren’t a lot of places where you can say, Can I do a bit of both fiction and poetry, just, you know, attend a few classes here and there. But if those decision-makers on university courses and degrees are listening, it would be nice if we could have a dual degree without spending 100 years getting it.

Katherine Quevedo 9:26
It would be nice.

Teresa Douglas 9:29
It would be nice. I would definitely have taken that. I when I did my MFA it was for fiction. But I was around so many poets. I was joking that I was being led into bad habits, looking at more poetry and it just, it’s a fascinating thing. It’s just a fascinating thing to do, the way you have to describe things so efficiently for the maximum punch. And there are a lot of other things obviously I have not studied poetry to the degree that you have. So I’m like, my vocabulary is limited. And I’m talking too much now, why don’t we back up and talk about you and your piece. Can you walk us through the process? You talked a little bit that it took you a while, but can you just walk us through the process of how you came up with the idea. Did it just organically bloom in your mind? How did that happen?

Katherine Quevedo 10:32
Sure. The first step that led to the creation of this poem was I saw a call for submissions from Honeyguide literary magazine. And they were putting together an issue themed around mythical creatures. And I thought, well, that’s a cool theme. And on top of that, I saw that they support animal shelters. And to me that was just a win win. So I put a couple poems together that appeared in that issue. But when I was trying to come up with what to send to them, I had recently written a story that’s called Song of the Balsa wood bird. And that actually came out earlier this year in Fireside magazine. And that was where I had combined some of my favorite Ecuadorian animals because I’m half Ecuadorian, and so I’d taken these different animals and combined them into a mythical creature for that story. And that was so much fun that I thought I want to do that again. So this time, I thought, well, what would a sphinx from South America be like, and that’s where I took the lion and the eagle parts and replaced them with a Jaguar and a condor, and just started going from there. And I do like writing sonnets. And so when I was trying to think of what kind of Title I might put to this, what popped into my head was sonnet of the South American Sphinx. I thought, oh, there’s some alliteration there. And so it started taking shape. And when it came time to write that volta, you know, that final turn that comes in the last stanza, I was thinking, Well, okay, I’ve introduced this creature of riddles. So what kind of riddle can I propose in the poem? And I was thinking about, I’m really fascinated by the ancient Inca culture. And I was thinking, they didn’t really have this established system of writing, they used this elaborate, complex system of tying knots into string called Kiku. And I thought, well, here’s my riddle, it’s right there, people still don’t know how to decipher it fully.

Teresa Douglas 12:31
That’s amazing. And you’re right, we have that lasting mystery of language in knots. And what is a riddle, but its own kind of a mental knot? And that’s a wonderful thing to sort of put together and get in that turn because I hadn’t even thought of the Incas string language, until this poem for I don’t know, like years. I mean, we learn about it in school. But yeah, it’s a fascinating thing, thinking of someone who came up with a language that you can do in knots. I just, I love your poem. I fan girl sigh every time I look at. Pick me for the dance! I want to go. When we send our work into the world, it stands alone–as it should–on its own two feet. But we’re never often able to tell people what impressions we would like them to leave with when they they read it or listen to it. Is there a specific impression you would like the reader to come away with after reading this piece?

Katherine Quevedo 12:48
That is a great question. I think that anytime that you’re dealing with a Sphinx, it’s all about the wonderment and mystery and perplexity. So in that sense, hopefully, this isn’t a total cop-out answer. But I think different readers will come away with different things. And that’s a good thing like that, in of itself plays into the poem. But if I have to try to pick something, maybe a sense of connection to, to multiple things to the natural environment, because there’s aspects of that in the poem, to this ancient part of civilization, and ultimately, for any poem, and this one included, for me, it’s really about connection to each other. And in this case, we’re all experiencing a world where there’s always something that is unknown to us in some way. And that just builds into that whole mystery aspect. And then frankly, I do really like casting a spotlight on a part of the world that I have a direct and you know, a connection to that’s very near and dear to my heart and it is part of the world I would love to see represented more in speculative fiction and poetry.

Teresa Douglas 15:06
Yes, because we’ve definitely done the Western European sword and sorcery to death. We don’t need more JRR Tolkien, although really, it’s fun to read that. But it would be nice to go to a different part of the world and look at stories and read things from there. So I heartily agree.

Katherine Quevedo 15:30
Exactly. Variety.

Teresa Douglas 15:32
Yes, variety. And what better image of that then the Sphinx.

Katherine Quevedo 15:38
Right? Exactly. Yeah, it’s a mix of things. It’s an amalgamation. And the result is really pretty stunning. More so than just you know, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Teresa Douglas 15:50
Exactly. Well, this has been lovely. And you obviously write many things and are in other places. I’m sure there are many people who are going to want to follow what you do. And I know we said this at the beginning, but would you mind giving listeners again, your website or any social media handles where you post about your writing so that they can follow you?

Katherine Quevedo 16:16
Sure. So not to disappoint anyone, I don’t really do a lot of social media. Pretty much just my website. It’s at Katherine Quevedo.com. If people like they can subscribe there, get updates to my blog. And that happens very sporadically. But that really is the best way to see what I’m up to.

Teresa Douglas 16:36
So in other words, instead of being on social media you write.

Katherine Quevedo 16:41
It’s true. I work a full-time job. Besides, you know, besides the writing, I have a day job. I have two school-aged kids. And I want to create new content for folks. So yeah, you got to make some trade-offs, right.

Teresa Douglas 16:59
Yes, and we only have a certain amount of minutes every day. So thank you for using them for writing. It’s been lovely having you on the show. Thank you so much for coming. This has been wonderful.

Unknown Speaker 17:11
Thank you so much.

 

Poem: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra

Frijoles de la olla 


Ceramic pot, the color of terracotta 
neatly placed on the counter 
Your workspace, like an artist’s studio
The kitchen where you find refuge from a long day’s work 
where your hands follow a sort of intuition 
No recipe to follow
But generations of love and friendship 


They say food brings people together 
Family, both by blood and chosen 
Gathered ‘round your table 
on a random Tuesday, with no special significance at all 


You start to sort through the beans
Somehow you can tell which are bruised 
and which will go in the pot
Like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket 
What foresight 


The water runs as you rinse the beans
With tenderness, I hear you begin to hum to the tune of “si nos dejan”
The sound of the gas stove, like the strings coming in for the first time in a symphony
Soft, steady, gentle 


Beans go in
Water, broth
Onions
A fragrant blend of spices with no labels 
Watching your hands, dance-like movements 
A choreography you know so well
You lean over and tell me “Mija, el secreto to any delicious recipe is love.”

Behind the Scenes: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra

Lightly edited transcript is below

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. In today’s behind the scenes, we’re going to be talking to Melody Rose Serra, who is the author of the poem Frijoles De La Olla. Melody’s passion is teaching and empowering others by sharing what she has learned. She helped launch an arts and crafts program at a children’s hospital, and also taught at San Quentin State Prison. Melody hopes to inspire youth to explore and expand their creativity through web development, writing, and art. Welcome, Melody.

Melody Rose Serra 0:48
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Teresa Douglas 0:52
I’m just so happy to have you here and to talk about your poem and talk about you because I just loved this poem when it came through. But before I get distracted and launch into that, we have to answer one of the most important questions. If you were sitting at my table, metaphorically here, and you came to visit, I would of course, offer you something to eat. And I would love to know what your favorite comfort food is.

Melody Rose Serra 1:22
That’s a great question. So I am a huge fan of food. So it’s really hard to choose. But if I had to choose I’d say either my Abuelas Frijoles or Lentejas. I think they’re just so comforting. We’ve had them at every get together every holiday or just during a random visit. And it’s just something that I really love. And I think I would be remiss to not mention my other Abuelas empanadas. So also another huge favorite.

Teresa Douglas 2:06
Oh, we can’t have abuela wars because that will never do. Can I ask about the empanadas? Were they savory, sweet or both?

Melody Rose Serra 2:17
So she would make both kinds savory and sweet. And every once in a while she would take a savory empanada and like put in some raisins in there. And I always loved that. And that’s something I still really enjoy, when you kind of blend those two flavors.

Teresa Douglas 2:36
Yeah, I don’t know what it is about raisins that remind me of Lent. But they really do. And I would get those special things from my Abuela too and honestly, I think the biggest ingredients and we’re gonna hint a little bit at your poem here, which talks about the secret ingredient is love. But I also think there’s magic in there somewhere. Because well, Abuela food is just like in a class all by itself.

Melody Rose Serra 3:04
Absolutely, I agree.

Teresa Douglas 3:07
So that’s wonderful. I would definitely have you over and try to find some empanadas, though unless we invited your Abuela or your other Abuela who makes frijoles, then of course, it wouldn’t taste quite the same. But I share a deep connection to food. It’s one of my chief distractions. Moving on a little bit to your poem, and to you. Can we start with you telling us just a little bit about when you started writing?

Melody Rose Serra 3:40
Of course. So I don’t really think I knew that I was writing poetry or stories when I was really little. But as I was learning English, around like five, six, I learned a lot of my English with my grandfather and my grandmother. And they, my grandfather loved to write words down, poems or songs or like silly little, love letters to my grandma and read them out loud in English. And that kind of inspired me to do the same. So I was just like, I was writing poetry in hindsight. I didn’t know it then but I was just writing like little observations or feelings. So it definitely started really young. And I’ve carried it with me until today and I’ve recently learned I also really love art. So I recently kind of started playing with bringing those two mediums together and creating like visual poems and I’m really enjoying that and exploring that right now.

Teresa Douglas 4:50
I have to say I wish you’re Abuelo put that tactic about leaving little love notes for his wife around the house. I think there’ll be a lot of marriages that can benefit from that. So any of you men listening or people listening who are married, maybe try that, that would be a great idea. Leave these notes and read them out loud to your beloved. So it seems like it worked well for him. Would you then call poetry your first love? Or do you say it’s more writing in general because you weren’t focused on just the definition between fiction or poetry?

Melody Rose Serra 5:34
Yeah, I would say it definitely was just writing in general and like playing with words and learning the language by writing and then reading out loud what you wrote. And so I definitely think there were some various genres that I was playing with. But poetry is the one that really stuck.

Teresa Douglas 5:58
And it’s such a lovely form. And I’d love to transition now into talking about the specific poem, because it’s hard to not talk about it, while we’re talking about what it is you enjoy about the form. So when we’re looking here at Frijoles de la Olla and some of the things that I really loved about this piece, in particular, is how, in just a few sort of strokes–I talk about this, like it’s painting, but even though it’s words, you’re painting with words. And, I see so many of these images, in just a minimum amount of words, but so vividly. Even the beginning, the color of terracotta, and that springs into your mind, and, talking about the artist’s studio and, talking here about finding with the fingers, those beans that are bruised. Which go to the pod and, considering your Abuela, as an artist, where she followed her intuition, so much so it was like watching somebody, I’m just gonna read this line, like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket.” And I thought what a lovely description of something that is, like the sublime and the every day. There’s nothing, I would say, more basic than beans and cooking, and feeding somebody. It’s a basic need that we all have. And yet in this piece, just the way that you write it, and talk about it, and this person who is a master in this sphere, that is also a refuge for her and for others, because people don’t come on a random Tuesday, if they don’t want to be there when there’s no special significance. So I just loved that, about this piece, it felt sort of like a hug, especially by the end. We have the idea that she’s a master at these things. And yet, it’s also driven by love so I, would love to hear from you. The idea that maybe sparked this piece, and how you went about writing it down.

Melody Rose Serra 8:17
A few weeks ago, I was really craving my abuela’s frijoles. And I called her and told her I was going to make it based on what I remember her doing and just like asked her for some tips and was really excited. And then that very same day before I even started the process of making them I was already like thinking about this, like super vivid and intimate moment where I observed my Abuela and it wasn’t even just one moment. I saw her do this so many times. But for some reason, there was like a very specific vision that I was kind of playing in my head and I I sat down at my computer. Sometimes I write with pen and paper but in this case, it was on my computer and I just started writing this and it’s funny, it sounds a bit like a story like but I wrote it the day that I talked to my grandma and was planning to make the frijoles de la olla. I was just inspired by the, the things I was imagining and bringing myself back to those moments. And I really was also inspired by–there was a poet that I went to a reading for and he was talking about how poetry can really take on the role of a time capsule, and I found that language to really stick with me. I was like, Wow, that’s so powerful. And I felt like that was this poem for me. I wanted to capture a memory, a real story in my life and the feelings that came with it. And also, as you said, like all this love that was put into this, this what might seem simple moment, and how, because of that love, it’s transcended into something more that stays with me.

Teresa Douglas 10:43
And I really feel like one of the strengths of this piece is that you are as the child or the person in this moment, you’re both so very much present, in the fact that your feeling comes through. It’s that love, it’s that closeness and that intimacy, and yet you don’t really refer to yourself at all, on this page. It’s a wonderful example, I would say, of having that feeling there without coming out and saying, I really love to watch my Abuela do this, I really enjoyed the happy memory of being there. You show it through all these little, little details. And just again, coming back to this idea that family, both blood and chosen is gathered around the table, the idea that just hearing your Abuela, sort of hum a tune. And it’s this wonderfully, I don’t want to say vulnerable, but it’s like a trusted moment where somebody who is totally comfortable in her environment, she has the people that she wants in her home, and she’s allowing the family the privilege, in some ways, I’ll use that word, to just be there and see her in her refuge in this place where she is happy doing this thing. And it’s like even the idea here, toward the end, where you list the things as they go in: beans go in water, broth, onions, it’s just a very domestic in the best possible way, sort of description of what can be a loving moment. And I feel like we get to be close to your Abuela just in that moment. Even though we don’t necessarily know her name. We don’t know you and how you grew up, but we get to see that. And I love that idea of the time capsule. It’s like, we could all look at this poem again and 20 years and see that again, like almost as if we’re there. It’s just beautiful.

Melody Rose Serra 12:59
Thank you so much. That means a lot for you to say that.

Teresa Douglas 13:03
I gush, I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to talk on this podcast. It’s just gonna be me telling you about you and how wonderful you are. So this is lovely. And I love to hear that you just sort of sat down and wrote it. Did you feel once you did that, like did you start editing right away? Did you not edit at all? Because it came out whole? Did you let it sleep a little? How did that all work?

Melody Rose Serra 13:33
With this particular piece, I didn’t edit very much. Even the tune that I mentioned that my abuela was humming, and even that it just came naturally. I was like I can remember her singing to that tune Si nos de han, and that continues to be like a really important song in my family. Because it was a song that my grandparents used to sing to each other. So it just kind of all came and that’s definitely not the norm for me. I often like edit and get hung up on like words and pauses but with this I think it’s because I had this like really vivid image in my head. I was able to get it down and didn’t have to do too much. And, yeah, and I really enjoyed just putting it together. It was it’s, I think one of my favorite poems that I’ve written so far.

Teresa Douglas 14:47
It’s lovely when you get that gift from the universe where it all sort of pulls together in your mind and you can just write it down. That’s not going to happen every time. But it’s lovely when it does, and it comes out whole. It’s interesting to see real life coming together to help you write this, you had this thing you wanted to make you were talking to your Abuela and it just sort of all came together. Wow. Well, I love this. And I would say that you’re Abuela and Abuelo sound like amazing people to each other. I mean, they’re singing to each other and he’s writing notes. And it’s nice to get that intimate feel like, I feel like I would really like them had I ever met them. And that’s great, because I’m a stranger, but it’s one of the best sort of legacies that I think we can leave is to have these pieces about good moments or significant moments with our family that people can read and enjoy no matter when they see it now or 15 years from now or whatever it is. Wow, this is lovely. I do wonder because this poem is so nice. If there are other places where people can read about your work, if you have things that are going to come out, is there is there a website or social where people might keep tabs and see what else you come up with?

Melody Rose Serra 16:25
I do have a website and it’s Melody Serra.com. And on that site, I’ve started putting up the pieces that get published, the poems that get published. And then I’m also over at Twitter at Mel R Sarah. And I actually just started submitting work late last year, I was inspired by the young people I volunteer with to put my work out there and see what that feels like. And I’ve really enjoyed that. So I have some poetry that’s been published at a few places like wine cellar press and Gulf Stream magazine, and a few others and I also have some upcoming work that will be published later this year.

Teresa Douglas 17:22
Wonderful. And I think I can speak for everybody listening that we all look forward to reading those pieces and seeing what else you do. So thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us sort of the behind the scenes of this lovely piece and telling us more about your work.

Melody Rose Serra 17:42
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.