Behind the Scenes with Melissa Nunez, Author of Nopales

Full transcript below, lightly edited for clarity. And also, Otter can’t spell Nopales. Come on now.

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.

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