I often bring my children to Quinta Mazatlán—a private property turned birding center in McAllen, not far from our home. Within what the birding center has coined a Tamaulipan thorn forest, there are cacti everywhere you look. Just as one would expect in a subtropical climate, the plains that would be desert. An easy reminder to stay on the marked trails. At one time, cacti were an important source of nourishment for animals and humans alike. Native peoples like the Coahuiltecans pilgrimaged to harvest the newly sprouted flesh and summer fruit. They were found in abundance before the urbanization of South Texas, but you can still find them in some neighborhoods and gardens, growing most freely in local nature preserves like this one.
Standing sentry along the entrance to the park are prime examples of my favorite and the most prominent—the Texas prickly pear. The nopal. Rising from the earth in clustered paddles, at times lopsided and toppling, others almost regal. Animals such as the jack rabbit and opossum, even the coyote, consume body, fruit, or both. As we make our way through the park, we find a dried-out pad, vascular tissue exposed and intact, which resembles a tan, paddle shaped honeycomb. Or maybe more spongy bone. It brings to mind an exhibit I visited years ago of the human body dissected and exposed in myriad forms and fashions. Stripped to just the network of veins and arteries, the branches of the nervous system, in a human-shaped shell.
My grandmother used to eat nopal as a child; her aunt would cook with it frequently—when it was more common to find them in the monte near your home than in the supermarket. My grandmother continued the tradition, albeit less often. She would scrape the spines from the thick skin, trim the edges, and dice it, sauté it in combination with carne picada, the only meat they could afford, or eggs. Sometimes on their own. My mother didn’t really care for nopalitos and so she never fed them to me. I was disinherited of this ancient ingredient, along with much of the art of Mexican cooking. Comida casera, something we ate at church potlucks and restaurants. In the same way, the flow of the Spanish language was also absent from my tongue. It was my mother’s first language, but she was of the generation that had the Spanish scared out of her. Abandoned to the shame and silence of her elementary classroom. Forced to exchange the rolling r for the round sound of hesitancy, the hissy h for the incorrect hard stop of the English g of her own last name. Rangel.
I first tried it as a tea, savila con nopal. It produced a viscous liquid that tasted both floral and medicinal, which maybe was the point. Then as a candy, dried out in strips and coated in sugar and spice, chile y tamarindo. I finally decided to try them in purer form and purchased them from a local restaurant. They were the muted green of canned jalapeños or cooked bell pepper. They were presented in a corn tortilla, soft and mild, flavored of the red salsa they were cooked in. When I added refried beans to the second taco, I knew for sure. I would be eating more.
There are many other varieties of cacti marked along the trails. The smaller ones low and dangerous. The horse crippler looks little more than an exposed head. Spines so thick they can pierce through shoe soles and hooves of domesticated animals. The twisted rib, resembling a barrel with rows of whiskered needles shifting incrementally clockwise over time. Then there are the larger ones that we sometimes must consciously avoid as they encroach on designated paths. The night-blooming cereus that is aptly nicknamed the barbed wire cactus. It wraps and weaves its slender frame among the trunks of trees, resembling discarded curls of metal when dried out. The Mexican organ or fence post cactus, deceptively smooth as a rind amid the rigid rows of thick white spines, which can be used as a living barrier.
Amid all the danger, beauty beckons. I am, like the bees, lured to the resplendent costuming of spring. The yellow and orange blossoms of the nopal call to my nose and fingers, petals soft but inflexible, cradling the soapy smell of unripe melon. Red blooms of the same variety carrying a fresh floral scent. Musky purple petals perched on the short and slender fingers of the pitaya. Despite my warnings to my children to exercise caution, I get prickled along my abdomen by a spread of hair-like spines in my quest to discern each scent. Necessitating the removal of each irritating glochid with my fingers before being able to move comfortably.
When my daughter was five years old, I transferred her from her traditional ballet class to ballet folklórico. When I was in high school, I was always mesmerized by the performances of our bailarinas. The dancers weren’t popular. Not like the athletes or the cheerleaders. They didn’t have the numbers or the prestige of band. But they were beautiful in their billowing bandera movements. They were shining sonrisas on heads held high. A beauty and pride I had never felt in my skin, in my bones.
My daughter didn’t know the language. I have not found it easy to raise bilingual children when I am not fluent in Spanish myself. Speaking in stops and starts, pausing to look up words before fading back to English in frustration. She wasn’t raised with the music, with its steady strumming strings and insistent brass. The sound of celebration I associate with quinceañeras and bodas. She didn’t know she was dancing to a song about a woman in a pink dress who had stolen a man’s heart. Who was beautiful like a flower, a butterfly. Caprichosa. A word that even after looking up evaded clean translation. Connotation can be more complex than cognates.
But she took to the outfit with ease. Brandishing her skirt with flourish. Sweeping the floor and the air with its folds. Her white-heeled feet quickly adopting the tapping rhythm. For performances her ruffled white shirt was tucked into the floor-length red skirt ribbon-edged with green. Designed to always dust the ground at the center and yet follow her hands out to shoulder height. More than semi-circle, a wide smile, luna creciente. Her hair was slicked back into a dancer’s bun and accented with a headband styled as a thick braided crown worn just past her hairline. The dark woven yarn was accented with three large lemon-lime flowers. The blooms of the barrel cactus at her right temple.
We move out of the shadows of the anacua and mesquite, the canopy of prickly ash and granjeno, arms arching over the gravel walkway and weaving together, to a more open trail. Here I find a plant that looks like a cross between flowering bush and cactus. Its green leaves, lobed and sharply pointed, jut out from all sides of the main stem which has small spikes to match. They lead up to cucumber-shaped seed pods that are covered in thorns, resemble the body of a cactus in miniature. The flowers are a brilliant yellow, and delicate. Share the shape of the nopal blossoms, but are more pliable, with petals like tissue paper. Their scent is delicious. Like sipping from an agua fresca de piña y melón. At first, I believe it to be the Mexican poppy. But upon consulting my plant guide, I find it is the golden prickly poppy. Distinguishable by the darker center of the flower. The two are very easily confused if not for the perception of a few degrees of intensity.
Behind the Scenes with Melissa Nunez, Author of Nopales
Teresa Douglas 0:10 Welcome listeners to another episode of Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re behind the scenes with Melissa Nunez. Melissa Nunez is a Latin@ writer and homeschooling mother of three from the Rio Grande Valley. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Sledgehammer Lit, Yellow Arrow Journal, Susurrus, and others. She is also a staff writer for Alebrijes Review. Her writing is inspired by observation of the natural world, the dynamics of relationships, and the question of belonging. You can follow her on Twitter @MelissaKNunez or visit her website www.melissknunez.com.
Melissa Nunez 0:59 Hi, Teresa. Thank you so much for having me.
Teresa Douglas 1:02 Well, it’s lovely to have you here. And as I tell folks when they are on my podcast, I would like you to picture yourself sitting at my kitchen table. And of course, I’m going to offer you some food to be polite. And I would love to know before we get started talking about your peace Nopales, what is your favourite comfort food?
Melissa Nunez 1:27 That’s a really good question. And I had fun thinking over all my favourites but I would have to say that it would be Menudo that’s been a recent favourite of mine especially like for weekend breakfasts. Then if I can I like to cheat and follow it up with like a dessert like pan dulces, some conchas, that to me is like perfect.
Teresa Douglas 1:49 That it’s one I feel you almost have to qualify as a health food because I’ve been told Menudo is the cure for hangovers and the common cold.
Melissa Nunez 2:00 Yes, it’s super hardy. It’s good for you. We can all qualify it that way.
Teresa Douglas 2:05 There you go. People who have not had it don’t know what they’re missing. You just have to eat it. It’s a special breakfast because you can’t always get it.
Melissa Nunez 2:15 I think that’s part of the appeal for me too. I’m like when I see it on a menu–I mean there are places I know have it and I go there for it. But a new place, if I see they have it. I’m like ooh, I wonder what their Menudo tastes like here. I have to order it.
Teresa Douglas 2:27 Yes, and people will do it a little bit differently. But okay, so do you put stuff in your Menudo? I’m vegetarian now and I don’t eat it but when I did, I had a lot of lemon in it. And I needed the onions and the cilantro.
Melissa Nunez 2:42 Yes I put a little bit of everything. I put just enough lemon or lime to lighten it up a little bit. I do the onion, I do a little bit of the serrano peppers or jalapenos that they’ll put on the side. And yes, I love cilantro. So yes, that’s going in as well.
Teresa Douglas 2:58 All right, well, I think we would enjoy eating this food together. Really it’s like the one thing I miss as a vegetarian. You just can’t have it like–hominy soup is good. But…
Melissa Nunez 3:10 Yeah, I’ve seen online and a couple of places I never got to try because when I saw it then the pandemic hit and I was like I’m not trying new places right now. But I saw a small place that was doing vegan Menudo for a while so that could be an option to try. We’ll have to look into that.
Teresa Douglas 3:26 So maybe the magic of Google will find me a recipe so I can do something. You’ve given me hope. That’s it, we can end this podcast people I have hope for a vegetarian Menudo. Seriously though, maybe we should stop talking about food (because I get so distracted by food) and talk about your piece, Nopales. And as we’re talking about it, I would actually love to say one of the things that I really loved–well, there are several things I really loved about this piece. But one of the things that I really loved was just the very, I would say meditative quality of it. It’s like a dream. Because there you are and you’re looking at all the cacti in this place. And you have these meditations of things that are happening and eating Nopales as a child or not eating it in your case. And reclaiming that history. And then helping like do that with your daughter and putting her in Ballet Folklorico. I love the image especially because I could see those dresses where you pick up the sides and yet it’s still brushing the ground and it was a lovely piece that just ended on such a nice note with these two poppies, and having that confusion of identity. And just the way you said, “the two are very easily confused, if not for the perception of a few degrees of intensity.” And I thought, Wow, what a lovely, sort of pictured ending that you’re left with, at the end of this piece. So it just was so deftly done.
Teresa Douglas 4:25 Thank you so much.
Teresa Douglas 5:27 I’m gushing, I’m sorry, I’m not even letting you talk. I’m sorry, you can’t talk on this podcast. (laughing)
Melissa Nunez 5:32 It’s great hearing you explain it that way, as I love what you picked up from it. I mean, lately, especially with the nature writing that I’ve been doing, I love those, strong images, using that imagery and giving it kind of like a, like a lyrical quality to it. That’s what I’m aiming for. So that’s perfect.
Teresa Douglas 5:52 Well I think you I think you hit it. There was there just so many lovely images in this. And I would love to hear you talk about the genesis of this piece and that first spark, and how you went about writing it?
Melissa Nunez 6:10 Okay, yeah, well, one thing that I really love doing with my family with my children is visiting, our local nature preserves our nature parks, and you know, getting some exercise time outside, looking around. And especially like, during these past couple years, when so many places were closed, that was something that we could still do, you know, a little more safely being outside. And this past spring, we were out at the parks, and I was able to see the Nopales that were in bloom. And it was just so beautiful. And it was something that kind of took me by surprise because I had never been really in an area where there were so many Nopales in the springtime before. So I was taking pictures, we ended up going to more nature parks and seeing the way they looked there. And just that image of those prickly pads and those bright blossoms, it just stayed with me. And that’s when I know, when they make such an impact. I’m like, Okay, I’m working on something, my brain has an idea. And then, at the same time, just perfect timing. It was Easter, and a local taqueria had a Lent menu. And they were featuring that taco de Nopalitos. And I was like, ‘What!’ this is a sign. I was like, I must try this taco. And it just led to, you know, conversations with my family, talking about the Nopales, cooking with them. And, you know, all of it just started coming together for me on the page. And yeah, I ended up with what we have here with the essay. And I love you know, writing that way when those things happen to make those connections.
Teresa Douglas 7:42 Yeah, and I feel like, especially for those of us who have had that experience of Nopal, whether you’ve eaten it or your family’s growing it, it, I have always experienced that as sort of a utilitarian thing. Like you get an apple from a grocery store. You don’t sit there and smell it and just think about it. And I kind of missed the fact that I’ve never reached in to smell the flowers. I mean, we hear about smelling the roses. We should smell the flowers on the cacti.
Melissa Nunez 8:15 Yes, definitely. And I did it you know, I wrote it there, down to getting the little spines in my stomach and everything. I was smelling all the flowers like yeah, just sometimes you do have to stop and smell the Nopales, right? Get a new experience out of it. I was like if I’m gonna write this, I want to know everything about this. I want to eat it. And I cooked it myself. I don’t know if I was super successful. I was the only one in the house that ended up eating it. But I was like, Hey, this is pretty good. I can try again. They didn’t come out as good as at the taqueria. But I was like, this is edible. I can do this. And yeah, so smelling it, tasting, cutting it and just looking at it, experiencing it.
Teresa Douglas 8:54 Yeah. And the dried-out pad. I love that because I could see that in my mind. And how it really does look like a honeycomb. So, so many good memories. And you know, what I did is I was so excited to talk about this piece I didn’t ask about you. So before we talk more about this piece, let’s ask about you. And how long have you been writing?
Melissa Nunez 9:16 Okay, thanks. I’ve loved reading since I was a child. And in school, I was kind of like the go-to person for helping friends and classmates with essays, papers, anything writing. And I remember my senior English teacher telling me ‘you are a writer.’ And I was like, Well, okay, yeah, I’m good at writing. I get good grades, but I didn’t really think much of it. And in college, I got my degree in English, and I started teaching but, I don’t know I kept coming back to her words. I started feeling like I wanted to go back to school. To explore the idea of being a writer. I decided to get an MFA. But even after graduating with that, I didn’t have full confidence in myself as a writer, I submitted to a few places. And when nothing came of that I kind of felt discouraged. And then I had my kids and they became like my main focus for a good while. And honestly, they still are, you know, a main focus of my life. But just these past several years again, I really felt that call, to write and have been making some time for myself to plan and organize. And just this past year, I started submitting more and got my first acceptance, my first publication. So I’ve just continued working from there. So I feel like I’ve always been a writer, but it’s been this past, couple of years that I became really serious and dedicated to doing something with it.
Teresa Douglas 10:43 So, is nonfiction, your first love? Or do you write other things?
Melissa Nunez 10:48 I actually started off the MFA program, thinking that I was going to be a fiction writer. Even though most of my writing was based on my personal life experiences, I thought, well, you know, a lot of writers do that, right? You get inspired by your real life, and you make it fiction. But I found that my experience in the workshops, I ended up spending most of my time defending the believability of characters and their actions and not discussing the actual craft of my work. I was nervous about labelling my writing nonfiction, about putting my life out there without that buffer of calling it fiction. But once I embraced that, I really never looked back. I love creative nonfiction. I love the freedom that it brought to my writing. And to myself as a person, I felt like I really grew in confidence and being able to put my work and myself out there. And then just this last year, I also started writing poetry. I have a few poems published, and I’m still actively writing poetry when that inspiration hits. But I would say my main thing, the core of my work is nonfiction essays, like Nopales.
Teresa Douglas 12:01 Yeah, it’s funny to me, that you can write about something that really happened and tried to lightly fictionalize it. And then people said, no way that could happen.
Melissa Nunez 12:13 It was so crazy to me. And I would be like, but wait, it really happened. And it’s like, well, you have to make us believe it. And I was like, Well, I don’t know. I mean, if I told you this, just face to face in person, not writing it on paper, I don’t know that you would doubt me. But I think it just was the push I needed to just get over the nerves I had, the fear of just owning all these words as mine. And I think it turned out for the best. I really love creative nonfiction, the essays, and so far, it’s gone really well. So I’ll call it a good thing.
Teresa Douglas 12:53 Yeah, because I read this piece, and I don’t see somebody who struggled with making things believable. I believe the entire thing. And not just because it came in as nonfiction. And I wonder, I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s hard for people to get out of what their particular experience is, and if their experience isn’t going into a thorn forest and seeing things. I’m not saying anybody accused this if not sounded realistic.
Melissa Nunez 13:27 Just as an example.
Teresa Douglas 13:30 As an example. Truth is stranger than fiction, and a lot messier, often. Well, this is gorgeous, and I’m trying to think of the other thing that I was going to ask you about. I love again, just going back to these images, and this idea of reclaiming history, that you didn’t get a vote on whether or not you had [this knowledge] in your home. So just this idea of how fragile sometimes culture is for people, because if someone’s mother didn’t like Nopalitos, and so you don’t get them, then you are disinherited, as you say, of this thing. And, and coming back to it, coming again to Ballet Folklorico for your daughter. That to me was such a hopeful part of this piece. That even though you beautifully convey the idea of trying to figure out identity and even your daughter not having the language and trying to convey it when you’re not fluent in Spanish, which I feel that so hard right now, as someone who is in a similar situation, but how hopeful it is that you find other ways to convey the culture, convey the feeling of what it is to be Latina, or Latin X or whatever the identifier someone might have. And it’s, it’s amazing. And even using, like, I’m going to say this wrong, I’m going to try to edit it out if it doesn’t work. Caprichosa. Was that right?
Melissa Nunez 15:23 Caprichosa with an ‘i’, but yeah, that’s good.
Teresa Douglas 15:28 It’s a beautiful image. And word. And I don’t know, just something about this beautifully conveys the struggle and the hope and the connections, despite perhaps not feeling all of those connections in our past. So I thought that was wonderful. And I wonder, how much of that did you explicitly include in your piece? And how much do you feel just sort of showed up on the page?
Melissa Nunez 16:03 That’s a really good question. I would have to say that. I feel like when I write a lot of it, it starts off intuitive, like maybe subconscious. And then as I’m going through, I’m like, Oh, I see why that ended up there. You know, sometimes something will trigger a memory or a connection. And you might not fully understand until you go back and look at it again. So I feel like some of it was intentional. And then some of it, I went back and found, you know, the connection that I was like, Okay, nice. That’s why I liked that. So yes, I love all the comments that you had about identity. I mean, that’s the biggest fuel for this piece. I feel is that, in history, it’s a very strong theme for all Latinx Latino people. A lot of us went through experiences our parents did, or our ancestors did, right, that maybe erased part of our culture. And then, you know, moving forward, each generation has to deal with it in their own way. And I know I remember being so surprised hearing my mom’s experience with Spanish because she does speak Spanish, but it’s not the same. My grandparents as well, did speak Spanish, but they spoke English to us, we spoke mostly English and hearing the why made me sad. I did feel left out not having that Spanish, not being fluent, but they were like, we didn’t want you to have the problems we had in school, right? Like, we didn’t want you to struggle academically or feel left out. And they didn’t know what was going to come later that it was going to actually be the opposite for me. And I felt left out for not knowing Spanish and so here for my kids now, the choices that I’m making, they’re gonna end up having to hash those out however that comes. But I’m hoping to find that balance where they know who I am, they know what I have and don’t have and the Spanish I have I share with them. And we’re working from there. I know it’s not perfect, but yes, as much as I can try to connect them to the things that I wish that I had that I wish I was connected to, like the ballet Folklorico. My kids like Menudo, so two out of three, so I feel like that’s pretty good. And then yeah, it’s just such a beautiful thing, culture tying into your culture, finding those connections, however strong they are, I mean, we can always make them stronger. And then like the ending the poppies. Yes, I actually found them at a nature park. And they were not too far from the Nopales and seeing the flower. Like I took the pictures and they’re like, almost identical flowers there are just those small differences. And I was like, Wow, that’s so interesting. This plant looks like a cactus, but it’s not. And then, when I couldn’t identify, yeah, it was just a perfect metaphor. I thought, right? Like I’m like, I always have trouble like, am I Mexican American am I white, am I just American like, what? How do I present myself to the world because I’m always struggling with it, right? And feeling like that inauthenticity sometimes of one side or the other. And I felt like man, that flower is just, it’s the perfect ending, you know? So it just worked out there on the page like that.
Teresa Douglas 19:17 It’s so poignant because you’re right, so many of us, because the generations that came before had to work so hard to be seen if you’re in the United States as American or if you’re in Canada is Canadian, that there was almost no room to let people also be Mexican or Salvadorian or Brazilian or whatever it is. And because that’s also in my family, like my late grandfather would tell you that he was American. He was born in California. He just happened to speak Spanish at home. And in my day, I think “You’re Mexican, right? Your family. Your heritage is from there.” And really, in the end, it feels like what we do is just give the next generation the tools so that they can choose what they identify with. Almost. I mean, you can’t learn to like something if it’s not presented to you.
Melissa Nunez 20:18 Yeah, I like that.
Teresa Douglas 20:20 So I didn’t know what we would have therapy here.
Melissa Nunez 20:23 I like that language giving them the tools because yes, I felt like generations before we didn’t have it, right? And some of it was survival and different things like that. And now it’s like you said, like, here’s everything that we have. And you can use it to help, like, build your identity, the tools to do that. That’s great.
Teresa Douglas 20:42 There you go. I mean, I feel like in my own case, if my kids can at least like spicy foods. That’s one thing because I mean, come on, salsa, man.
Melissa Nunez 20:52 That’s another one that you can look up. I looked up some salsa recipes, and my kids helped me make it and we’re, we’re working on that, to that spice. You have to you have to have some.
Teresa Douglas 21:04 Yeah, I felt I felt like I made it when my son likes spicier food than me, like okay. All right, we passed that down, I can move on to the next thing. Well, this has been so nice. I know that you say you write many things. Oh, I was gonna ask you one other thing, because you are a staff writer at Alebrijes. Do you feel that having that position and being there has helped you in your writing?
Melissa Nunez 21:31 I feel like when I found Alebrijes Review, it was just you know, perfect timing. I was like midway through my super productive submitting year getting some acceptances and becoming involved with that magazine. It’s a newer indie lit mag for Latino writers Latin X writers. And the editor is just so supportive. And he’s creating a community with our staff writers to support each other and promote our writing and our culture. And so I do think it’s been an inspiration, just when I was accepted to be a staff writer, it inspired two pieces, one of them has already been published at the magazine. And so yes, I think that it was just a great opportunity. And I’m so appreciative that I was able to have it and to watch Alebrijes grow because we’re going to continue growing. So yes, that’s another lit mag to check out there on Twitter, Alebrijes review, and also, Alebrijesreview.com.
Teresa Douglas 22:32 So listeners, if you like writing from Latinx, folks, and I don’t know why you would be here if you don’t, you should check them out. Because there are some pretty awesome writers there. You know, this has been wonderful. And speaking of writers and wonderful work, if folks want to follow you and see what you publish and what’s coming out next. I know we said the beginning but do you want to go ahead and say again, where folks can follow you on social media and on your website?
Melissa Nunez 23:05 Sure, yes. Thanks. I’m on Twitter. And you can follow me at Melissa K Nunez. And I also have my website that I’m working on Melissa K Nunez dot com And both of those places I share and post my publications.
Teresa Douglas 23:22 A wonderful thank you again for coming. It was so nice to have you on the show.
Melissa Nunez 23:26 Thank you so much. Yes, this was super fun.
Behind the Scenes with Ruth Hernandez, author of Camila and the Freckled Boy
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 going to be behind the scenes with Ruth Hernandez who wrote Camilla and the Freckled Boy. Ruth Hernandez is an Emmy winning sound editor for film and television, a screenwriting instructor and an avid soccer fan. She wrote this story after she returned from the World Cup in Brazil. Her parents are Colombian. Welcome, Ruth.
Ruth Hernandez 0:40 Thanks. Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you, Teresa.
Teresa Douglas 0:43 I have a confession. I liked Camila so much in this story, that from the point after I read it, I’ve had to stop myself from calling you Camila. I’ve tried to write emails to Camilla and somehow her name didn’t come up. And I was like, yeah, that’s not the name of the person I’m interviewing. So you wrote a great character. Because I think she’s alive. Though. I should not be writing to almost 11 year old children. That would be a problem. But before before we talk about Camilla, I have to ask you a very, very important question. Because we are metaphorically speaking, sitting at my kitchen table. I’ve invited you in for this chat. Of course, I would serve you some food. And I need to know what is your favorite comfort food.
Ruth Hernandez 1:35 It’s got to be my mom’s arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. And it’s something that I’ve tried to make many times, but it never tastes the same. It’s possible that it’s because she makes it in a pressure cooker. And I am completely petrified of that thing. I always think it’s gonna blow up. But definitely it has to be her arroz con pollo.
Teresa Douglas 1:58 I am glad you’re not the only person who’s been intimidated about setting off pressure cookers, because I was convinced that I would just explode them in my house.
Ruth Hernandez 2:11 Once that whistle starts going, man, it’s dangerous there.
Teresa Douglas 2:15 It’s gonna get real and you’re gonna forget about it and boom.
Ruth Hernandez 2:18 Right, exactly.
Teresa Douglas 2:19 This is why we’re writers because we think of these things. And of course, no food is like what our family makes, because they make it one part real ingredients in one part magic. We would have to then invite your mother over, I see, if we are going to serve that. So that’s good to know. Well, we’ll have her over next time.
Ruth Hernandez 2:42 Oh, can I give a little shout out to her? She turns 90 today. Paulina.
Teresa Douglas 2:46 Yay Paulina!
Ruth Hernandez 2:49 Paulina is 90 today.
Teresa Douglas 2:51 Amazing. Paulina, I hear that I should ask you for food. So make a note for that. Anyway. So now I’ve invited her over and invited her to cook for us. I’m sure that would that goes over well. I get distracted by food. Let’s let’s move away from food. And let’s let’s talk a little bit about Camilla and about you and your process for writing. So let’s let’s just start, actually, from the beginning. How long have you been writing?
Ruth Hernandez 3:23 I’ve been writing since I was little since I learned to write. I liked doing little stories. I’m a screenwriter by training. I went to film school. So that’s really, that was my first outlet. But I started writing prose probably a good 10 years ago. I became very serious about writing prose. I have an anthology of short stories unpublished. And I have a novel in me that is slowly rearing its head. But yeah, fiction is definitely one of my first loves. For sure.
Teresa Douglas 4:02 Well, let me ask you because I took a short film editing course at one point. And it was interesting to see the differences in telling the story because there’s so much of that visual element that’s right there in front of you that you don’t have to describe. Would you say that coming from a screenwriting background change the way or or affect the way you approach writing stories?
Ruth Hernandez 4:40 Absolutely, absolutely. Screenwriting is basically shorthand for prose writing. You don’t have the real estate to dive in, you don’t have the chance to to describe what someone’s thinking. Everything’s visual. You can only really write what you see. So Initially, when I was writing prose, that was one of my problems, everything was just a visual description, but I wouldn’t get into my characters minds. And that’s what I love so much about prose, you can just go in there and tell the reader exactly what a character’s thinking and it’s expected and the possibilities are infinite. And you can really create real characters that way. Versus screenwriting, it’s very difficult to do that in an hour and a half of just visual scenes. When it happens. It’s magic. But it’s difficult, it’s difficult to get the depth that you do in prose.
Teresa Douglas 5:45 I think, though, all of us as writers we have different things that we do well, and other things we have to work on. Because writing is hard. Otherwise, everybody would do it. And there’d be all kinds of things out there. But I feel that with that screenwriting background, and having that firm sort of foundation of what’s going on in the real world, is also a strength because there are some folks who will be so deep in what their character is thinking that the character doesn’t do anything.
Ruth Hernandez 6:18 Yeah. It’s action versus interior conflict. Absolutely. Yeah. So if you can find the balance between the two, I think you’re you’re doing really well.
Teresa Douglas 6:32 Yeah, that’s the secret sauce. And I have to say, just with that information, it’s amazing to me how well you nailed Camila’s voice. Because I have a son that just turned 11 and a daughter that’s halfway to 13. And I heard this kid’s voice. I’m like, yep. Yep. That’s, that’s the age right there. I can tell it’s something you’ve worked on. I feel like you really nailed that voice. And sometimes, I shouldn’t say sometimes, often, if we had to work on something, and we focus on it, that becomes a strength because it isn’t just something you’re doing, unintentionally. You put that effort, that energy to learn it and then you shine. So I loved that about this piece. Let’s talk about this too, because you say that you started this piece after attending the World Cup. Can you just walk us through your process? Like how did you come up with the idea and how did you go about writing it?
Ruth Hernandez 7:49 Well, basically, luckily I did get to go in 2014 with my cousin, Catalina. Both avid avid fans. And our games all took place in Rififi in the town where the story takes place. And it’s in the northeast of Brazil. It’s a small town with a lot of history, but very small compared to the huge cities that we know in Brazil, Rio and Sao Paulo. And the government had built this beautiful stadium specifically for the World Cup. But you had to take a train from Rififi to the middle of nowhere to Pernambuco. And these trains went through several towns. And in one of our games that previous night they had torrential rains, and these little towns were flooded. And I remember seeing a little boy walking while treading through the street completely flooded. The water came up to his chest. He was clutching a paper box above his head. And he was just walking. I don’t know where he was walking to, just trying to save the contents of the box. And of course, the train zoomed by. But that image stayed with me. To this day, it’s such a powerful image. So we get to the game. Everyone in the train is just joyous. Everybody’s wearing their national colours, everybody’s singing, taking photos. And we get to the train station and we see these kids and there are gates separating kids from the people that are coming in and out of the train station. And these kids were just reaching through the gates for anything we were willing to give them for flags or bandanas or shirts or anything and it was all in fun. They were all yelling and laughing. And I would look at these kids and wonder my God what is their life like? Are they gonna go back to the flooded town? Is that what lay for them after, you know, leaving this train station, and something, something hit me. I came back and I wanted to write a travel essay, I thought this is such a serious subject. People should know what’s going on over there. Here’s this, beautiful festival of color, sports and money. And we have these people really struggling in the middle of all this. So I really thought I could do a travel essay. But then, you know, I thought what the hell do I know about Brazil and its people and its history and the struggles they’re going through. So I thought, you know, coming up with Camilla, with a child who’s going through this would be a good compromise. And I could sort of impose what I would think her life was like, in her character. And her thoughts and her dreams.
Teresa Douglas 11:00 Yeah, and I feel like you did that really well. I have the piece open on my computer here. Camila has a boyfriend who is a secret boyfriend, it isn’t until she turns 11 that she gets to say, and then it’s just that kid voice. They’re gonna get married, they’re gonna move to the city. They’re gonna have one kid, of course, because kids are hard. And she just has this unrolling idea of what her life is going to be like, which is very fantastical. And also, she has that deeper understanding of the difference between her and Mattheus, who has a better life. And that, to me, was was a poignant moment without really wallowing in it. Because we’ve all gone through experiences, however small, that really mattered to us and were very serious. But you don’t generally think that your whole life is terrible. This person is just thinking about her worries. And the things that she has to think about which are different from a child from a more affluent place or affluent neighborhood. And she’s wrestling with that idea of class consciousness and her pride, in who she is and what she’s willing to accept. And that was the thing that really caught my eye on this piece.
Ruth Hernandez 12:36 Yeah, I think you nailed the heart of Camilla, I think her pride is really what sets her apart and gives her her point of view. She’s willing to go along with this game with, you know, the fun, but she’s hurting. And she knows that there are those who have in the form of the tourists or even her boyfriend and the have nots. And she considers herself a have not, and yet she wishes she weren’t. She knows maybe out there, there’s something better for her. And she’s just, she’s so young. She just doesn’t know yet. How to get past that point.
Teresa Douglas 13:21 But she knows she doesn’t want a handout.
Ruth Hernandez 13:24 Exactly. Yeah.
Teresa Douglas 13:26 It’s interesting to me, I like that she can’t articulate what the problem is here. Because I don’t feel like all 11-year-olds are going to be able to give you a nice rounded discussion about capitalism.
Ruth Hernandez 13:48 Right. Exactly. Yeah.
Teresa Douglas 13:50 And that’s just the way it is. And it’s nice to see, to catch her in this moment of time. She’s almost there. She knows that some adults mind where she’s from.
Ruth Hernandez 14:03 Yeah, yeah. And that’s a really hard realization to learn. When you’re a child, you don’t you feel like those prejudices exist, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough not to feel them. But there comes a time when you’re a teenager. I think that’s when you start to realize what your place is, and what the rules are. And I think that’s where she finds herself at this point. She’s learning what the world is really like.
Teresa Douglas 14:37 Yeah. And she’s she’s trying to figure it out. Like she hasn’t given up. There are some issues like her dad and her mom don’t really get on. They’re not the world’s best couple. And it doesn’t seem like she’s trying to have a perfect life or anything. She just wants something better.
Ruth Hernandez 15:02 Yes, she has dreams. And she’s holding on to them. Whatever it takes she’s holding on to them. Yeah.
Teresa Douglas 15:11 So I think I think we’ve covered this. But I need to ask this question because maybe there’s more. Is there a specific impression then that you want a reader to come away with after reading this piece?
Ruth Hernandez 15:27 Well, I know the impression that I got after my trip was I really didn’t know how much poverty there was in surrounding areas of Pernambuco. I mean, this is dire, dire poverty. These are little towns made of shacks. I know they’re in this country, too, in the US. And somehow we become isolated from that, especially, you know, I live in New York, where I don’t see that. I am fortunate enough that I live in a town where we do see homelessness, but not in that magnitude. And a piece like this perhaps can remind some of us that, yeah, this is out there. And we need to have compassion and be generous to those who have less.
Teresa Douglas 16:24 Yeah. And I feel like you hit on that because it’s not every day that we have our places flooded, and we have to relocate. And there are dead bloated dogs hanging out. It helps your sense of proportion to know there are those issues happening. And if we’re having a bad day, because our latte wasn’t warm enough?
Ruth Hernandez 16:45 Yeah, you’re right. It’s all relative. It’s all relative. Can I share an anecdote with you, it just happened recently. To me. I was in the hospital three weeks ago with a kidney stone. And yeah, that is a silly little thing, but painful. But I was in the emergency room waiting for hours and hours on end, because of COVID. I went to a very large hospital. They’re understaffed. I mean, it was a disaster. So I waited nine hours for a CAT scan. So of course, I’m feeling sorry for myself. And I’m walking around trying to stretch my legs. And I walked by, and this is the emergency room where they had these little cubby holes. They’re not rooms, they’re just, they’re separated by curtains. And here I am feeling sorry for myself. And I walked by, and this little boy is on a bed, he’s propped up. 1000 cables are coming out of him like these chains. And his family’s by him, of course, in tears, very quiet. And I realized, Oh, my goodness, what in the world am I complaining about you know, here’s this kid. He’s fighting for his life. His family is in terrible pain watching him. And so, you know, it’s all relative if we just keep our eyes open. That’s really what I try to do with my stories, just show what’s out there and perhaps open somebody’s eyes and say, Hey, things can be bad. I have had a pretty good run. Maybe I can do something about someone.
Teresa Douglas 18:24 Yeah, you’re not living in a slum. You’re not dying.
Ruth Hernandez 18:27 Exactly. Exactly.
Teresa Douglas 18:29 And we all need those reminders here and there. I thought this was a great way to bring that out. And I do love this voice. I love that slice of life. Because I have never been to a World Cup. I didn’t even–I’m going to go ahead and admit that I didn’t even pay attention to soccer until I moved out of the US and into Canada. It’s a little more on the news. It’s a lovely, lovely sport to watch. I get tired just watching people run across the field. But it was nice to get to delve more deeply into this.
Ruth Hernandez 19:17 Yeah, the games definitely are gorgeous. I mean, you see people from all over the world and their country colors and they’re just all having a grand old time. The sad part is, that some people have sold their houses. But when you don’t think about that, everything’s good.
Teresa Douglas 19:38 Nobody, nobody put a gun to their head and said sell your house.
Ruth Hernandez 19:42 Exactly. Exactly. It was all volunteer. Yeah.
Teresa Douglas 19:46 Maybe they’re gonna simplify their life and live somewhere they want.
Ruth Hernandez 19:50 On the beach.
Teresa Douglas 19:51 Exactly. Now I want to go to the beach. This has been lovely. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing Camila with us and I promise if I email you I will definitely not call you by her name.
Ruth Hernandez 20:08 Well, thank you so much for your interest in this story I hope it reaches people and they like it.
Teresa Douglas 20:15 Absolutely. Listeners, if you haven’t read the piece yet I don’t know why you’re listening to this right now but please, please go listen to the piece. It’s a lovely, lovely story and you’re really going to enjoy it. So once again, thank you so much for coming on the show, Ruth.
Ruth Hernandez 20:33 Thank you, Teresa. It was a pleasure.
Fiction: Camila and the Freckled Boy by Ruth Hernandez
Camila and the Freckled Boy
by Ruth Hernandez
Camila laughed as she watched the reaction of the unsuspecting tourists to the fanatical screams of her friends.
They had gathered at the hallway pass of the Estação Cosme e Damião, the holy twins Train station, where the World Cup Visitors wearing proudly their country colors, would go through a turnstile to get to the train that would take them back to their fancy hotels in Recife. Some of her friends shouted “lenço! lenço!” (Scarf! Scarf!) Camila could hear her twin sister Vitoria’s loud shouts at the other end screaming “bandeira” (Flag!) and could see her long and thin brown arms stretching to the foreigners in hopes of a gift. Camila felt a tinge of embarrassment for her sister but wasn’t she there too to see if she could get anything? Something different to do, she reconciled.
Germany had just beaten the United States in the first round at Arena Pernambuco, but according to her boyfriend Matheus, the Americans had managed to move on to the second round only thanks to the Portuguese. He was only repeating comments he had heard at his father’s bar, but she thought he was the smartest boy in their school, Escola Santa Monica, and believed everything he said was right. They hadn’t told anyone they were boyfriend and girlfriend yet. They would when she turned eleven in a few days.
Matheus was at the train station too, screaming, reaching, laughing. Camila watched him with pride. He was the best-looking boy she knew and had the smile of a movie star. He’d already managed to get six bandanas: four American and two German. He would later wash them and sell them for four Reais each. Most mothers stayed in the back rows, making sure no adult would try anything funny with one of their kids, but some adult women elbowed their way to the front row, pushing against the gates in hopes of catching the eye of someone who could possibly get them out of Caramagibe. Much to Camila’s shame, her mother Sabine was against the gate, waving shamelessly at the good-looking men who donned their country’s colors. She’d been a beautiful woman once but her drinking and smoking had aged her. She whistled at a group of young Americans who could have been College students. One gave her his American Flag bandana and placed it around her neck. Camila cringed as Sabine reached out to kiss him, but his friends pulled him away, their train was arriving.
Camila looked up to the sky. It was a menacing grey. If this rain persisted, fairly soon her part of town would be flooded again. They’d have to move in with their Aunt Thais in Fortaleza and miss school until the water subsided. Last year they were away for two months. She almost had to repeat the third grade. She did not want to be left behind this year. There were many cute girls in their class and Matheus was a big flirt. He said she was the only girl for him but she knew how boys were.
She watched her friends reaching towards the tourists but wondered, for what? What good is a bandana or a flag when the water reaches your waist? When all your clothes are ruined? When your father’s motorcycle is flooded? When the town becomes a ghost town and the dogs die of starvation? Her mother would never let her feed any of the town dogs but she would sneak out now and then and give them a little bit of her dinner. In the last flood she found many of their bloated bodies half-buried in the mud. She remembered shedding tears for them and for herself. Why can’t these tourists give them anything practical?
Matheus did not live in the low part of town. He never had these problems and told her again and again that it did not matter to him where she lived. But she often wondered about that. Adults mind very much. Perhaps when he grew up he would also mind. She would have to wait and see.
In three minutes the next batch of train riders would come around the turnstiles, with more bandanas and flags and scarves. Most would smile at the Brazilian welcoming party. Camila heard one man say, “I feel like a Beatle!” She knew he was referring to the British musical group that Matheus liked so much. Someday she and Matheus would leave this town and go to London where they would attend the university, get married, work together in an office wearing nice clothes, buy a car and an apartment and have children, well, maybe only one since it was so expensive to raise children. At least that’s what her mother complained of every day.
A family of Americans approached the turnstile, a father, a mother, a boy, and a girl. They all wore the same clothes, the U.S. futbol team red, white and blue jersey, khaki shorts, and muddy white sneakers. The girl looked to be about Camila’s age. Her hair was the color of wheat, rod straight, shiny, and beautiful. The boy had crazy carrot red hair and was covered in freckles just like his mom. The dad had a huge beer belly that protruded underneath his jersey. Camila giggled at their matching outfits and would rather die than be seen with her own family like that, not that they would ever attend an event together. Her father could not stand her mother for more than the ten minutes he sat at the dinner table, after which he would go to Matheus’ father’s bar and not return home until the early hours of the morning. Camila let her mind wander as flashes of color and chants passed by when she realized that the freckled boy, the one with the crazy red hair stood in front of her. He held out something.
His mother stood a few feet behind her precious son. Her nonexistent brows gave her an alien air but the frowning lines in her forehead told Camila all she needed to know. This made her feel cheap and ashamed. The mother shouted something to her son. All she understood was his name, John, like the Beatle. He was holding out his Nintendo DS. Some of the richer kids in school had them. She knew they were worth a lot of money. Everyone around Camila began to shout “Dar-me! Dar-me!” (Give it to me!) and reached out to grab it but the boy pulled back far enough so that no one could.
His sister rolled her eyes and sighed with impatience as she pulled on his arm but the freckled boy stood in front of Camila, motionless. Matheus pushed his way to Camila’s side and reached out for the DS too, even though he already had one at home. She saw Matheus with new, disappointed eyes. She knew he was there for fun but still…
The freckled boy pulled back again waiting for Camila’s response. Now, all eyes were on her. She felt her cheeks flush. She heard her own mother shout “Levá-lo, estúpida!” (Take it, stupid!) but her arms would not move, her body would not respond. Every cell in her body wanted her to run, to run as far as her long thin legs would take her, to Recife, to Rio, to London, to the moon. But she was stuck, frozen, glued to the now wet and slippery sidewalk surrounded by her friends. The rain felt good on her warm skin. The freckled boy and his family ran onto their platform to seek shelter.
“Why didn’t you take it?” Asked Matheus while he opened his umbrella.
“I don’t know,” Camila said wondering the same thing.
Teresa Douglas 0:11 Welcome, listeners the next behind the scenes from Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. And today we’re going to be interviewing Adrian Ernesto who is the author of Flashes and Versus…Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press, Between the Spine from Picture Show Press and La Belle Ajar, and We Are the Ones Possessed from Clash books and Speaking con su Sombra at Alegria Publishing. Adrian is a Colombian-American poet who lives with his wife in Los Angeles, and their adorably spoiled cat, Woody Gold. Welcome, Adrian.
Adrian Ernesto 0:51 Hi, how you doing?
Teresa Douglas 0:53 I’m really happy to have you here.
Adrian Ernesto 0:54 Hey, thank you for having me here. Because it’s an honor. And this is like my first podcast interview. So I’m kind of excited.
Teresa Douglas 1:04 And I love that I got to snag you before all the other podcasts people come calling. I have to start by telling listeners one of the things that I loved about your poem. And so let’s start with that. And then I’ll get into the questions that I normally ask our guests. But listeners first if you haven’t listened to the poem, well, I hope you have, but listen right after this, if you haven’t. One of the lovely things about this poem that really stood out to me is the way that this sort of seamlessly drifts dreamily between Spanish and English, which I really thought was a great representation in words of what’s happening in Van Gogh’s peace, Starry Starry Night. Because you look at that painting. And just the way the brushstrokes sort of swirl around, I felt like this poem did the same thing, where the words were just very dreamy, just swirling around the reader, as you’re reading them, and listening to them. And it was just gorgeous. But we’ll get into that more later on an interview. But as you know, Adrian, I start these things by telling people that we’re sitting at my kitchen table, metaphorically speaking. And it’s as if I’ve invited you over. And of course, I’m going to want to serve something to you, just to be polite. And if I were going to serve you your favorite comfort food, what would that be?
Adrian Ernesto 2:38 I love cheeseburgers. I love them. My wife and I actually go to this little cafe it’s in Seal Beach because we’d like to go by the ocean and especially being a poet and being by the water. It’s such an inspiration. We actually go away every year for Thanksgiving, we have a tradition of going to La Jolla and so whenever I’m near the water, I get waves of inspiration and it inspires so many poems. And over there at Seal Beach, they make the best burgers and my wife and I go and walk along the pier. And it’s the best lunch I ever I get. Burgers with my baby at the beach. So I love myself a good cheeseburger.
Teresa Douglas 3:36 I have to ask, are you like one of those quarter pounder, big slab of meat burger people or are you like tiny burgers with gourmet things on it or something between?
Adrian Ernesto 3:49 Well, I used to be like the quarter pounder but I’m older now. I love it when it’s charbroiled with either cheddar American cheese and oh my god some french fries. That’s like, that’s ideal. I don’t have the burgers as often as I used to. I eat more healthy stuff. But last time we had I had a cheeseburger was we’re flying back from San Antonio because we went to go visit my parents and we landed in, in Las Vegas, and there’s this place we went to and they had Oh my gosh. It was like seven the morning and I was like I’m having a burger because I need to have my burger fix!
Teresa Douglas 4:37 Yeah, sometimes you just need it. That is the classic comfort food. I think. I mean fries. It’s like those dirty little secrets. You don’t really need fries. Nobody really needs fries. But we sometimes we just need fries to you know, just the whole package. See now I’m hungry. Thank you for sharing that I would definitely want to serve you cheeseburgers if you were sitting at my kitchen table with fries that we would probably have to arm for. Well, let’s switch from talking about food, which is always important, but to something more important. And talk a little bit about you because again, you sent this lovely poem in. And can you just tell our listeners how long you’ve been writing? Is this been a long-term thing? Let’s just jump into it. What’s, what’s your story?
Adrian Ernesto 5:27 Well, when I was seven years old, mi pappi gave me his antique typewriter. That’s when I started writing like Star Trek fan fiction and sports newsletters. But it wasn’t until I was in elementary school that I discovered poetry. My teacher, Mr. Babcock had us memorize poems, and then we would have to memorize them and recite them to the class. And the first poem that I loved was Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken. But it wasn’t until like later on all that seeped into my DNA. It wasn’t until my bachelor undergrad years at the University of Texas at San Antonio when I first rediscovered my love of the verse, and, the Beats were an introduction and then I just started. I had an old woman in my class that told me if you want to seduce a woman, you should use the poems or be inspired by the poems of Pablo Neruda. So, I took her advice, and I seduced her.
Teresa Douglas 6:52 I think that must be advice that gets out to a lot of places. I remember going into one of my MFA classes, and strangely not in that class, but in the Spanish class I was in after that, and someone said, Yes if you are trying to seduce somebody, you need to read Neruda because this is how you do it. And they were not wrong. They’re not wrong. Those are wonderful poems. And it’s interesting because I talk to different people. And we need to give props to our teachers, because you were not the first person who said that they were turned on to poetry, because of something a teacher did in school quite early, that maybe built that foundation. So thank you, to all you teachers out there.
Adrian Ernesto 7:47 You don’t know how, how important it is. Because at the time, I was like, Why do I have to memorize these poems? And now I’m like, if I hadn’t memorized those poems. I wouldn’t be a poet right now.
Teresa Douglas 7:58 Yeah. And so to all the teachers out there, thank you, you matter, and we appreciate you. So that’s how you started and it sounds like then the poetry has been. Maybe not the first thing you wrote, but definitely your most enduring love. Because you’ve been doing poetry for some time now. Is that true?
Adrian Ernesto 8:21 Absolutely. La poesea es mi amor, it’s my love, and even my wife knows how much I love poetry because she inspires and I give her the most intimate pieces that she hangs on the wall over our bed. She gets the best ones. Like there was a poem that I submitted, that I wrote to her as a gift. And I actually had to, like, edit out a lot of the more risque parts, which she loves. But you know, I had to send it in. A couple years ago, I was all about yeah, let’s get all the carnal images. But now I’m kind of like, let’s try to imply more. When you imply more, it gives a river reader a chance to bring in their own experiences to the poem. So that’s one of the things that I’ve learned throughout the years. Poetry is my calling. I sometimes write some cina pieces that usually center around my love of the verse. I would love to move up to writing prose. But right now poetry is still my passion, and the poems that I write, they’re me amor, and they actually give me meaning and enjoy to my life on and off the page. Whenever I’m having any kind of struggle or sadness. I write a poem, and it brings everything into focus. Like the poem that I wrote Starry Starry Light is actually a combination of two kinds of images because my mother loved Van Gogh, but she also loved the song by McLean. So when I first wrote it, it seemed like it was, I was trying to weave these two things in together. It’s kind of like a dance between the song, the painting and my memory of my mother because she inspired the book, which we’ll be talking about.
Teresa Douglas 10:40 Let’s go ahead and talk about that. That was a lovely introduction. So it sounds then that if we’re going to walk through how you wrote this piece, you started with just honoring the memory of your mother. Is that how it began?
Adrian Ernesto 10:54 Yes.
Teresa Douglas 10:56 Yeah, and because I’m not familiar with Don McLean, and for those that may not have heard, what type of music does he do?
Adrian Ernesto 11:06 Oh, he’s like a folk guy. And he wrote the song that goes, Starry Starry Night. Actually, the song is so beautiful that Roberta Flack wrote the song, Killing Me Softly with his song. It’s actually inspired by that song.
Teresa Douglas 11:24 What! I love that song.
Adrian Ernesto 11:28 My mother loved that song too, and I realized later on it’s because she loved Van Gogh, and she would replay it. And I remember, just the feeling on her face. And so it was basically the memory of her, standing in front of the painting, hearing her favorite song. It’s amazing, because I published the book, and the book is basically poems that were inspired by her, and I’ve written for her, because five, seven years ago, when I first started this career, we were broke. So the only thing I could do is give my mother poems. So I would send her these poems. And right after she passed away, my father gave me an envelope of all the poems that I had written her. And it took, like, a while for me to open those, even though I wrote those poems. So basically, I I finally opened them up. And then that’s when I started collecting, putting the poems together. And you mentioned that you like the bilingual aspect. Right before my mother’s memorial service, a lot of family and friends came out of town and one of our friends, Marianna, who knew my mother for a long time, she told me that she loved the way that I blended Spanish and English. She was the first person ever to tell me and I, at the time, I didn’t think that was much of anything. And she actually left something embedded in my mind. And so then when I first started putting these poems together, that’s an aspect that a lot of readers connect with. I was talking to a poet friend of mine, who’s a fantastic poet from Costa Rica. He’s also published with Alegria and his name is Juan Pierre Rueda. His wife is reading my book, and Juan Pierre mostly writes in Spanish these beautiful poems. To me, he’s like the modern-day Lorca, he’s such a great poet. He’s younger, and he’s such an inspiration. So he was talking to his wife and his wife told him, why don’t you write more like Adrian. And I was like, Dude, I’m sorry. Because I love the way you write. And so that was kind of interesting how something that I thought was nothing really is actually a style that I’m embracing. And now I’m working on a sequel to Sombra, which is basically all my bilingual poems and it goes further. Just because I finished the book doesn’t mean that poems for mother stopped. I keep writing more and more because she’s in my life more. I think I’m connecting with her more and there are poems for my dad. So I’m slowly working on that but right now I’m promoting the Sombra book. I also have another book coming out in April. It’s a horror death book called We’re the Ones Possessed, that I actually had to write before I could do the book of my mom’s poems. And my book before these two was La Belle Ajar, which which are poems inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Adrian Ernesto 15:19 After my mom passed away, after the memorial service I came home, really depressed and very sick. And I was in my office, I turned to the bookshelf, and The Bell Jar was there and I opened it up. And I just started taking words from each of the chapters and creating these poems. So what I try to do is each chapter was one poem. So after 20 days, I had this group of poems. And I kind of felt like at the time, you know, I was missing my mother and Plath somehow became a mother figure to me and I had this poem. And so I got published, and then this horror subscription service, Night Worms selected it as one of their titles for the month, even though it wasn’t really a horror book, they just liked it. So then, after that happened, I was like, I’m dealing with, issues with death, I want to write a horror book of death poems that Night Worms will be proud of. So I challenged myself. And so I wrote, you know, these poems, and then they got picked up. And by writing that book, it actually gave me the courage to write the book for my mother. Being a Beatles fan, I actually equated to the Beatles recording, Let it Be during the dark times, and then them doing Abbey Road. So We are the Ones Possessed is my ‘Let it Be’ and Sombra is my ‘Abbey Road.’ If you’re a Beatles fan, that’s like an analogy that I like to use. But I’m really proud of both. It’s the darkness and light that is with me being Gemini. I’m proud that this book ‘We Are the Ones Possesed’ had to be published before I could write Sombra because you can actually deal with a lot of your issues if you just face them up on the page. And that’s something that I did, I’m really proud of it. And I’ve just started receiving blurbs from the horror book, and people are really loving it. So now I’m a bit busy promoting two books now. But this is what I’ve always dreamed of. So I’m really enjoying it. I’m planning a book launch at the Sims Poetry library in April. And I’m meeting a lot of poets and it’s just been a dream, you know, They say you should do what you love. And I when I wake up every morning I’m excited, okay, what am I doing today? So I’m really blessed to be able to be a poet and to write poems and send them in and be able to talk to you about my poem. Yeah, that’s amazing.
Teresa Douglas 18:19 You almost buried the lede there. I’m going to stop you . Where is this poetry reading happening? So if people are in the area, and want to attend, where do they go?
Adrian Ernesto 18:31 The poetry reading for my next book? It’s the same as poetry library in Los Angeles–
Teresa Douglas 18:43 –in Los Angeles. So folks, if you’re in Los Angeles, and after reading, or listening to Starry Starry Light, you would like more, [check that out].
Adrian Ernesto 18:55 I’m also doing some readings for Speaking Coastal Sound before that, and I’ll be doing like dual readings. But if they follow me, at the PoetNotARockstar on Instagram, you’ll see what I’m doing. Next week I’m doing a reading with two other grant poets where I’m reading poems from Sombra, it’s a Saturday afternoon poetry thing that’s usually in Pasadena, but since of the pandemic, they’re doing it online, so I’ll be reading poems from that. There are a couple things coming up. But, the book launch for the horror death is in April. And then before that, I’ll be doing an Instagram live on the day of the release, which is March 22 with some poets I absolutely adore and inspire me that live out of state. I live in LA.I wanted to invite them and they can read some of their work. And then I’ll read some of the poems from the horror. And then we’ll see where it goes from there. So I’m doing a lot of promotion, and interviews. And it’s a very busy but wonderful time in my career.
Teresa Douglas 20:24 Nobody wants this pandemic, we’d all like to see it go away as soon as possible. But it is nice, on the one hand, that if you’re doing something online, then people who are not necessarily in the area can also enjoy it. Like, I could go and I’m in Canada, right? It’s not like I’m gonna get on a plane and fly down. But it is nice to have that extra exposure and to be there with other poets who are not in your same area.
Adrian Ernesto 20:51 Absolutely.
Teresa Douglas 20:52 So I want to get back to something you were talking about earlier, how moving between Spanish and English is something you’re pushing. Because especially for people who can understand both of these languages, there are nuances that you get when you’re switching between the two, you talk about how you were trying to weave in the songs from Don McLean. And this poem is a dance, because you’re dancing between the two languages, and getting the benefit of both. For example, sus ojos focus amazed at the glowing estrellas, amarillas beaming circulos. So many waves of Azulas swimming in el cielo sky. And I just love the way that sort of comes out. This, this increases for me anyway, just the dreaminess of this piece, because it’s so very organic. And I don’t know why I love in this cielo sky so much. But even just that repeat, brings this idea of this person, this woman who was looking at this painting and having her almost out of body moment. And just the idea that this is like her church, that she comes here, all the rest of you are wandering off and doing whatever is a beautiful moment in this piece that I don’t think would have been as beautiful if it had only been in one language. It’s just so definitely done. And it sounds like you decided to push that because of the specific things about your mother. And I really think that listeners will look forward to reading more of your work just because of that extra little boost of emotionality that I think you were probably going for, because you’re writing about someone who you love who’s no longer there.
Adrian Ernesto 22:41 Yeah, and when she was alive, she would speak to me in Spanish and I would speak to her in English so when I write bilingually, it’s like I’m merging the way we talked–
Teresa Douglas 22:52 That’s gorgeous
Adrian Ernesto 22:54 -together. So I’m kind of honoring the way that I was raised, you know, speaking bilingually. When I do it, I’m honoring my voice and my culture. It’s something that I’m really, really proud of. I was in La Jolla and a friend of mine who runs the Subterranean Blue magazine contacted me saying they wanted me to be the featured poet for their Beat poetry issue. They want me to write a poem. And I was like, What am I gonna write, so we went to eat and walk on the beach. And I told you that it’s inspirational, walking on the beach, and the lines are coming to me. And then the poem, I’m writing about how the Beats actually inspired me to embrace my own language to be who I am. And so I was kind of, like thanking them for doing that. And that’s kind of like where I’m at right now. I want people to read my poems if they speak like me and they’re bilingual. I want them to write their own poems and their own experiences on the page, because we need more people from our community, from our culture to write, and in our language, so it’s very important. That’s something that Allegria Publishing is doing, in Los Angeles. They’re publishing a lot of Latinx poets and writers. They just published the first two biographies and the writers are incredible. Not only are they incredible writers, but they’re incredible people. There’s a movement starting there, and sometimes we get together during some of the readings and I’m just amazed at the writers and the people that they have. It’s a privilege and honor to be involved with the Alegria family and then with Clash books for right next, it’s a different beast because they’re outcasts and their poems are beautiful and weird and strange and memorable. And it’s so nice being involved. It’s kind of like my being Gemini because Clash books is from the East Coast. Being involved with both publishers feeds my inner Gemini, the darkness and light.
Teresa Douglas 25:29 Doing it at the same time is probably pretty satisfying.
Adrian Ernesto 25:34 Yes. Because I mean, I was going through a hard time during the pandemic, and I was avoiding facing a lot of the issues of my mom’s passing, even though she passed away in 2017. And when I finally sought help, my therapist encouraged me to write letters to my mother. And that’s basically how, after I wrote the horror-death poetry collection, I realized that’s writing to her that we could write, speak Su Sombra together, and that’s the idea to help me get over the all the anxiety and stuff. And so I kind of felt like we rise together. So it makes it even more special now that it’s actually out into the world. And even from then, all the poems in there to now me writing in the bilingual voice has improved. You can see the growth from the beginning to the end of the book. And now I’ve gone further. And I feel like I’m really, really embracing it more. You can see with this poem, how it’s worse earlier in the book, it isn’t as smooth. It’s more about that dichotomy, that the words aren’t really connecting. But the further on and later in the book, you see I was basically training myself to get better and better. And I feel like this poem is one of the peaks. I’m really proud of it because it honors her and honors a memory that’s really strong in my heart.
Teresa Douglas 27:23 And I feel like, we need some of that now, because reading this, it can also be, I will go ahead and just say healing, for others who may be separated from family, where they’re not hearing Spanish in their own homes, especially if they’re separated because of the pandemic, or perhaps they’ve had a loss in their family. It’s a healing thing to hear those bilingual words, again, because so many of us and I’m one of them, have been away from family this whole time. And having that opportunity to hear this gives you that feeling, in some ways, a little bit of being home, even when you’re not home. And it’s such an important part of what literature does for people who are perhaps, in that same moment of grieving, or coming to peace with wherever they are in time. And it’s a real gift, this thing that helps you that can also help so many other people. So thank you.
Adrian Ernesto 28:22 Yeah, and I actually realized after, as Speaking Con Su Sombra was about to get published, I realized that the book was a lot bigger than me. People in the universality of grief and who want mourning can actually read the book and maybe sometimes heal themselves. The book is, it’s a very slow read because if you’ve lost somebody you’re gonna feel it. So it takes people maybe a little longer to get through it. But you feel a connection on the page, if you lost somebody because you know how it feels. And poems like Sorry, Starry Light, and then my book, hopefully will help people find some peace and [know] that they’re not alone. And their grief and the loss and the hurt that we can find some kind of healing soon put through the gift of the poem.
Teresa Douglas 29:37 Grief can be terrible, but even though it’s sad, there’s still beauty in the world. And I believe that profoundly. Well, this has been so good to have you here, Adrian and to talk through your work and the things that you’re doing and the things that are upcoming. I have no doubt that there are many who are going to want to hear you speak at the different readings you’re doing and to read your work. and see when things are coming out. And I’ll type in the show notes all of your social handles. But if you want to just say what they are one more time, so that folks can have them that would be wonderful.
Adrian Ernesto 30:11 Sure, I can go to my website, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda dot com. My Twitter handle is poet not Rockstar. My Instagram is the poet, not a rock star and my Facebook is poet, not a rock star. And also, you can purchase a signed copy of my latest book, from my website, there’s gonna be a link and there’s a coupon for your listeners. If they go to my website, they can type in Sombra Amiga and they’ll get a discount at checkout.
Teresa Douglas 30:49 Oh, I feel very special. Did you hear that listeners? You have a discount. That’s very awesome. Well, thank you again so much for coming, Adrienne and for being on the show.
Adrian Ernesto 30:59 Thank you so much for having me and for selecting my poem so I can honor my mother and my language in my poems. I really appreciate it.