Teresa Douglas 0:10 Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes of Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re going to be talking with Angela Acosta. Angela is an emerging bilingual Mexican-American poet and scholar. She won the 2015 Rhina P. Espaillat Award from Westchester University and her work has appeared in Panochazine, Pluma, MacroMicroCosm, and Eye to the Telescope. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Iberian Studies at The Ohio State University and resides in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome, Angela.
Angela Acosta 0:52 Hello, hola, I’m really glad to be here.
Teresa Douglas 0:55 I’m glad to have you. And I will tell you we start this podcast not talking about your work, which is very important, but asking about another very important topic around food. And I would love to hear since you are in my metaphorical house, we are sitting at my metaphorical table. And I would of course, love to offer you something to eat that you enjoy. And I would love to know what is your favorite comfort food?
Angela Acosta 1:23 That’s a great question. I don’t think I would ask this of you if I were actually at your house. But I do enjoy a nice warm bowl of udon noodle soup. I’ve been in the cold weather for so many years. It’s a nice treat.
Teresa Douglas 1:36 I love that. We had another guest who also loved ramen soup. And it’s just these noodle dishes. They’re so comforting. I don’t understand why it is. It’s just wonderful. We would definitely eat Udon because I keep that in my pantry. So you’d be sitting there, you’d probably help me cook it, it would be all very cozy. So thank you for sharing that. Food is such a nice way to to get to know people.
Angela Acosta 2:05 For sure.
Teresa Douglas 2:07 I just I loved this poem. Listeners, I know you enjoyed this as much as me. And if you didn’t, it’s because you haven’t listened to it. So please pause and go listen to that right now. Because the rest of this is going to make a lot more sense if you’ve done that. I love the way this poem sort of grows, especially since we’re talking about a height chart. I cannot wait to talk about it. But before we do, I would like to talk about you a bit and find out how long you’ve been writing?
Angela Acosta 2:50 I have been writing poetry, at least actively considering myself a poet, since I was around 14 or 15. But I’ve done a little bit of poetry writing before that. I wrote a lot in high school at that time, and found it a really important way of expressing myself and figuring out certain, you know, language use and identity. And I didn’t write too much during the later years of college and early years of graduate school, and I really only gotten back to writing poetry earnestly in the past year.
Teresa Douglas 3:22 Mm hmm. It’s amazing. It just feels like this is in your bones when I read this. I loved all of the things you packed in here. And I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s talk a little bit more about you. It sounds like poetry is one of your first loves. Is it your only writing love? Or do you have other mediums other things that you like to write in?
Angela Acosta 3:57 Yeah, I think poetry is my favorite in the sense that it’s something that I can just kind of pick up and do and don’t feel like I’m fussing over it too much, or that I’m really working with the writing. I’m able to just take an idea that I have and turn it into a poem relatively quickly. Most of the other writing I’m doing now is academic writing. So I’m working on my dissertation. I’m writing academic articles, presenting things to the public. But in terms of creative writing, I’ve also done a little bit of flash fiction and then creative nonfiction related to my research.
Teresa Douglas 4:29 So flash fiction does feel like it’s almost at that crossroads of fiction and poetry, or prose and poetry, I should say because it’s flash, just very lyrical, a lot of image, a lot of things that crossover. My husband finished his PhD just about six months ago and those papers are a whole nother level of writing that’s kind of crazy to me–to see the density that comes in there. So yes, I can see how this is quite different from that. Can we walk through your process of writing Identity Height Chart? Did you come up with the idea first? Was there a central image? Walk me through that process.
Angela Acosta 5:22 Yeah, that’s a really great question because it’s something you can think about with every poem. But for this one in particular, it actually is very different than how I usually write because what I did was, I had found some old poems that I’d sort of started and kind of meandered a little bit from early years of college when I was writing a lot and involved a little bit in a spoken word poetry group on campus. So I had some ideas in the air already from a few years ago. But since that time my sense of self has changed. I’ve matured over the years, and the way that I write has changed as well. So I kind of took those bare bones ideas, and turned them into the stanzas. And the identity height chart, the main metaphor of the piece, kind of came to me because in the house that my parents are now living, there was a height chart that somebody left, and I thought it was quite funny, because the children were a lot taller than I am. I’m five feet with shoes on, I like to say, so that the children were a lot taller than me. And I think that image popped in my mind, in thinking about growth, and how we see ourselves and physically, you know, not growing too tall, but thinking about how I’m growing in other ways.
Teresa Douglas 6:37 Yeah, and that central image is, to me, a fabulous one for thinking about, at the end, being a proud Latina woman. And whatever physical height we may or might not have, just reaching that point, when you feel settled in your sense of self, because it feels like in so many places, as you say, in your poem here, where “she just wants to be herself. And everyone has names for things that she’s not.” And she, you know, does that it says “no longer stating percentages, like a Venn diagram, when they just want to hear her say the word Mexican.” So this idea all the way through that there are these forces that are trying to get us to take up less space, to justify our existence. One of the things I thought about in that first stanza where you say, “facing an examination, not of numbers, but other teachers questions.” And this question of why do we have to justify the space that we take up, and that ambivalence that we see in so many places. If you’re not completely white looking, blond hair, blue eyes, like the stereotype, and you’re not stereotypically dark skinned, or identify as black, then you’re in this place where it seems like everybody wants you to justify the fact that you’re a member of the bipoc community, or justify what [identity] you write down. And I thought that was so well done, to talk about that, and put in this idea of having to scatter yourself almost and again, take up less space. So that was so well done in this.
Angela Acosta 8:36 Thank you. Yeah, I will say that, when you said the idea of the forces that shape us, I think that’s really poignant. And thinking about childhood and how these, you know, certain anecdotes came about in my own thinking of the poem, because a lot of times as a child, you don’t always know how to best identify yourself. And I remember when I was little, I always made sure to, like, memorize all the countries that my ancestors came from, as if anyone would ask me that, but in reality, they just kind of want to size you up and see what’s different about you. And then the tension when you might not say the word that they’re thinking or what they’re expecting.
Teresa Douglas 9:16 And it’s a crazy thing, where you think, okay, how much of an answer are you really looking for here? And the idea that in so many places, the people who are Mexican also have, of course, other things. We have indigenous ancestors, we have ancestors from all over. And this idea that even some of those indigenous peoples, we may not know the names of those folks because of colonialism. And the idea that you could, in some ways could feel less than because you don’t have names for what you are you only have names for what you aren’t. And that is such a powerful thing to talk about, this idea of, of trying to take up the space that is yours that comes to you from your people, from your own living in the world. And, I love that again, at the end, she’s reached the top of the height chart, a proud Latina woman. And that is such a mic drop moment, right there. I almost just put my fist in the air is like, yeah. Because it’s what we want, right? We want to be able to grow into ourselves.
Angela Acosta 10:38 And do it on our own terms.
Teresa Douglas 10:40 Exactly. And not have that moment where someone says, here’s the height that you should reach. And that’s where you need to be. One of the things I wanted to ask you too, is often we don’t get to tell people what impression we want our piece to have, what impression we want them to be left with. And it’s fine that people bring their own history and their own ideas, as they’re reading this and come to their own conclusions. But this is your moment, right now. If you could talk to listeners and tell them how you want them to think about this piece and impression that you want them to leave with? What would that be?
Angela Acosta 11:30 Yeah, I don’t think there was anything in particular as I was writing that I really wanted to, like have as a central message in terms of what people think or process with this piece. But I think what I was looking for was that question of labels and how they really shaped my own upbringing, understanding of my identity, especially during those college years, at a time when you’re in a very diverse environment. Oftentimes, even if you’re at a predominantly white institution, and you get a lot of questions asked about your background, or when you meet new people. And these labels really shape us over time, whether or not we really believe in them. And I think what’s been helpful for me is just to kind of understand myself, like I said, on my own terms, and see where I fit and really feeling like I can take charge of that. So I think that’s the idea of growth, and in growing into one’s identity, which isn’t always growing into a particular label, or cultural identity, but just like feeling like you, you are yourself without all of this outside intervention was what I was going for.
Teresa Douglas 12:33 And it’s so wonderful, because there are so many places that make people feel, in some ways not enough. And this poem really empowers the reader to say you are enough. Whatever you are, and as you say, whatever space you inhabit, whatever names you may put on, that’s for you to put those names on, and not a label that you need to fit in like a piece of clothing that just isn’t quite right. So thank you for that. It was a shot of, good feeling. I know that there’ll be other people who want to read the things that you write, do you have social media handles, or a website or anywhere where someone could read your pieces as they come out?
Angela Acosta 13:27 Yeah, I do use Instagram. I’m at aaperiquito. But I don’t have an author website yet, just because I’m focused on my academic work and just have the academic website which I may have sent you. But my work is out and floating around the internet and other creative publications in a variety of forms. So I’ve published in the journals you mentioned in my bio, and a lot of those are available online.
Teresa Douglas 13:57 Wonderful. And could you spell again, the Instagram handle ?
Angela Acosta 14:06 Yeah, it’s and it’s all lowercase. It’s a a p e r i q u i to
Teresa Douglas 14:15 So listeners if you didn’t catch that, or you share my inability to listen very well, I will have that in the show notes. So you could just go ahead and click over, and follow what Angele’s doing. Well, thank you so much for coming to the podcast, and sharing your work.
Angela Acosta 14:38 Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to be in this space with you and to share my work
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Teresa Douglas 0:10 Welcome, listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latinx Lit Audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today we’re interviewing Katherine Quevedo, who was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Fireside magazine, Coffin Bell, Triangulation: Habitats, Factor Four magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Best Indie speculative fiction, Volumes three and four. And elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching movies, singing, playing old school video games, belly dancing and making spreadsheets. Find her at Katherine Quevedo.com. Welcome, Katherine.
Katherine Quevedo 0:59 Thank you so much for having me.
Teresa Douglas 1:01 It’s so nice to have you here. And I have to say, before we jump into the nitty-gritty of talking about your sonnet, I have to ask you a very important question. Because this podcast is like you are sitting at my kitchen table. And of course, if you were at my house, I would want to offer you something that you would like to eat. And so I would love to know, what is your favorite comfort food?
Katherine Quevedo 1:30 I am picturing it now and salivating. That would be chocolate chip cookies. Especially my mom’s. I have a very, very strong sweet tooth.
Teresa Douglas 1:40 Well, I would hope that we could eat those and still remain friends because I love chocolate chip cookies. And I might have to arm wrestle you for them.
Katherine Quevedo 1:49 Oh, no, we need to have enough for everyone. One big cookie, and we can split it.
Teresa Douglas 1:54 I love that idea. All right, then I would definitely do that. Because we shouldn’t have bloodshed from having the cookies. That’s lovely. And another thing that’s lovely, of course, is this beautiful sonnet that you sent in. I would just I want to say one thing. That’s my favorite thing. And then I’m going to not talk so much and ask you some questions about you. When this came in, I was intrigued by the title, and I knew it had to be sort of speculative-y if that’s a word. But if I’m wrong and there are actually historical sphinxes, or sphinx-i, I would love to be corrected about that. But the thing I loved about this was just the tight imagery, just this idea of ‘talismanic liquid copper eyes.’ I just saw that image bloom in my brain when I read that. A Jaguar body. And just this thirst. It was just so lovely to see that put all together. And so thank you for sending this in so that I can read it.
Katherine Quevedo 3:11 Thank you. I had so much fun writing it. And yeah, just putting the creature together and trying to find the right words and putting it in the right beats. It just was a really fun project for me.
Teresa Douglas 3:26 And this piece seems to be pretty popular. I knew when we were talking a little bit on email, you were nominated for an award. But what award was that?
Katherine Quevedo 3:34 Yeah I received notice that it was nominated for the Rising Award for Best Short Poem. So that’s offered through the science fiction and fantasy poetry association. So that was just a huge, pleasant surprise. And I’m really honored. I’ve never been nominated for that before. And there’s really talented poets in that group. So I’m just really honored.
Teresa Douglas 3:57 Well, congratulations on that. And so listeners, if you haven’t yet listened to this sonnet, first of all, I don’t know why you’re here, but you should know this is now also an award-nominated sonnet. And I think you will see, once you listen, why this was nominated for that award. Well, the one thing I always ask people is whether or not the format that they send to me so if it’s a poem, or a piece of fiction is their first love. I know you write a couple of things, at least from your bio. So would you say that poetry is your first love? Do you love poetry and fiction or nonfiction equally? What’s your deal?
Katherine Quevedo 4:39 Oh, I hope you’re not trying to make me choose favorites.
Teresa Douglas 4:41 We love all our children.
Katherine Quevedo 4:43 Exactly. I really do love both. I can’t pick but you know if you want to get really technical, I started with short stories. From childhood I mean, from the first time I could hold a pencil I was putting little looks together. And then in grade school, that’s where I started learning about poetry and just really enjoyed the wordplay and the rhyming. So I’ve been writing both in tandem for most of my life. I do focus on fantasy, horror and science fiction for my short stories. And then for my poems, it was really, I started off writing more non-speculative, and I’ve more recently gotten into speculative. I wanted to share one quick story speaking of sphinx poems, because so the one I’ve read here is my second sphinx poem. The first one I ever wrote, because I really love sphinxes, I wrote back in high school. That’s how much I love sphinxes. And it actually won a contest where I got to go attend the Willamette writers annual conference here in Portland. And that opened my eyes to the world of writing, where suddenly I learned that there was this whole industry behind it, this community of writers, and I was completely hooked. So it was a poem that was my gateway into making writing a really serious life goal for me.
Teresa Douglas 6:10 So sphinx poems are your gateway drug is what you’re telling me. I also think this means you should write another sphinx poem, because so far in the whole awards department, you’re two for two.
Katherine Quevedo 6:25 Maybe there’s a chapbook in here somewhere.
Teresa Douglas 6:28 I mean, who doesn’t love Sphinx? They’re just so–there’s the mystique of them. And the silent things that were created or built long, long ago. Everything about it is fascinating. So it sounds like you were writing poetry first. And then came to fiction? What do you think that does for your writing? Just out of curiosity do you feel like they inform each other, or give you some some added benefit, because you do both.
Katherine Quevedo 7:06 I do think that they sort of talk to each other, if you will. And the order is an interesting one. Because I I started off kind of fiddling around with both through school, grade school, high school, middle school, high school. And then when I was in the university, I decided to, I was getting an English degree and wanted to get a creative writing emphasis. And I was considering, should I do the fiction track or the poetry track. I did end up on the poetry track at that time, due to a variety of reasons. And once I graduated, I thought, you know, I really want to up my game in fiction, and felt like I needed to really focus there. So I spent years just studying short stories, especially fantasy, science fiction, horror, I basically put poetry on hold for years. And then once I finally was having some success with the speculative fiction, it was one of my two sisters who actually reached out to me and just reminded me how much I had also enjoyed writing poems, and how much she had loved reading them. And so that rekindled that interest again. And now, I’m trying to find a balance between the two, because I really do love both. And then, on top of that, a lot of my poetry had been non-speculative. So now I’m trying to bring the speculative into it, because I just love those genres. And I think really looking at the level of language that I use in my stories, and trying to think and sometimes pause and say, if I were writing this as my poet self, what language would I be using for these key parts that I really want to highlight? And then my poems similarly, sometimes thinking, can I put a bit of a narrative arc into some of this?
Teresa Douglas 8:53 Well, that’s, that’s fascinating. It makes you wonder why there aren’t a lot of places where you can say, Can I do a bit of both fiction and poetry, just, you know, attend a few classes here and there. But if those decision-makers on university courses and degrees are listening, it would be nice if we could have a dual degree without spending 100 years getting it.
Katherine Quevedo 9:26 It would be nice.
Teresa Douglas 9:29 It would be nice. I would definitely have taken that. I when I did my MFA it was for fiction. But I was around so many poets. I was joking that I was being led into bad habits, looking at more poetry and it just, it’s a fascinating thing. It’s just a fascinating thing to do, the way you have to describe things so efficiently for the maximum punch. And there are a lot of other things obviously I have not studied poetry to the degree that you have. So I’m like, my vocabulary is limited. And I’m talking too much now, why don’t we back up and talk about you and your piece. Can you walk us through the process? You talked a little bit that it took you a while, but can you just walk us through the process of how you came up with the idea. Did it just organically bloom in your mind? How did that happen?
Katherine Quevedo 10:32 Sure. The first step that led to the creation of this poem was I saw a call for submissions from Honeyguide literary magazine. And they were putting together an issue themed around mythical creatures. And I thought, well, that’s a cool theme. And on top of that, I saw that they support animal shelters. And to me that was just a win win. So I put a couple poems together that appeared in that issue. But when I was trying to come up with what to send to them, I had recently written a story that’s called Song of the Balsa wood bird. And that actually came out earlier this year in Fireside magazine. And that was where I had combined some of my favorite Ecuadorian animals because I’m half Ecuadorian, and so I’d taken these different animals and combined them into a mythical creature for that story. And that was so much fun that I thought I want to do that again. So this time, I thought, well, what would a sphinx from South America be like, and that’s where I took the lion and the eagle parts and replaced them with a Jaguar and a condor, and just started going from there. And I do like writing sonnets. And so when I was trying to think of what kind of Title I might put to this, what popped into my head was sonnet of the South American Sphinx. I thought, oh, there’s some alliteration there. And so it started taking shape. And when it came time to write that volta, you know, that final turn that comes in the last stanza, I was thinking, Well, okay, I’ve introduced this creature of riddles. So what kind of riddle can I propose in the poem? And I was thinking about, I’m really fascinated by the ancient Inca culture. And I was thinking, they didn’t really have this established system of writing, they used this elaborate, complex system of tying knots into string called Kiku. And I thought, well, here’s my riddle, it’s right there, people still don’t know how to decipher it fully.
Teresa Douglas 12:31 That’s amazing. And you’re right, we have that lasting mystery of language in knots. And what is a riddle, but its own kind of a mental knot? And that’s a wonderful thing to sort of put together and get in that turn because I hadn’t even thought of the Incas string language, until this poem for I don’t know, like years. I mean, we learn about it in school. But yeah, it’s a fascinating thing, thinking of someone who came up with a language that you can do in knots. I just, I love your poem. I fan girl sigh every time I look at. Pick me for the dance! I want to go. When we send our work into the world, it stands alone–as it should–on its own two feet. But we’re never often able to tell people what impressions we would like them to leave with when they they read it or listen to it. Is there a specific impression you would like the reader to come away with after reading this piece?
Katherine Quevedo 12:48 That is a great question. I think that anytime that you’re dealing with a Sphinx, it’s all about the wonderment and mystery and perplexity. So in that sense, hopefully, this isn’t a total cop-out answer. But I think different readers will come away with different things. And that’s a good thing like that, in of itself plays into the poem. But if I have to try to pick something, maybe a sense of connection to, to multiple things to the natural environment, because there’s aspects of that in the poem, to this ancient part of civilization, and ultimately, for any poem, and this one included, for me, it’s really about connection to each other. And in this case, we’re all experiencing a world where there’s always something that is unknown to us in some way. And that just builds into that whole mystery aspect. And then frankly, I do really like casting a spotlight on a part of the world that I have a direct and you know, a connection to that’s very near and dear to my heart and it is part of the world I would love to see represented more in speculative fiction and poetry.
Teresa Douglas 15:06 Yes, because we’ve definitely done the Western European sword and sorcery to death. We don’t need more JRR Tolkien, although really, it’s fun to read that. But it would be nice to go to a different part of the world and look at stories and read things from there. So I heartily agree.
Katherine Quevedo 15:30 Exactly. Variety.
Teresa Douglas 15:32 Yes, variety. And what better image of that then the Sphinx.
Katherine Quevedo 15:38 Right? Exactly. Yeah, it’s a mix of things. It’s an amalgamation. And the result is really pretty stunning. More so than just you know, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Teresa Douglas 15:50 Exactly. Well, this has been lovely. And you obviously write many things and are in other places. I’m sure there are many people who are going to want to follow what you do. And I know we said this at the beginning, but would you mind giving listeners again, your website or any social media handles where you post about your writing so that they can follow you?
Katherine Quevedo 16:16 Sure. So not to disappoint anyone, I don’t really do a lot of social media. Pretty much just my website. It’s at Katherine Quevedo.com. If people like they can subscribe there, get updates to my blog. And that happens very sporadically. But that really is the best way to see what I’m up to.
Teresa Douglas 16:36 So in other words, instead of being on social media you write.
Katherine Quevedo 16:41 It’s true. I work a full-time job. Besides, you know, besides the writing, I have a day job. I have two school-aged kids. And I want to create new content for folks. So yeah, you got to make some trade-offs, right.
Teresa Douglas 16:59 Yes, and we only have a certain amount of minutes every day. So thank you for using them for writing. It’s been lovely having you on the show. Thank you so much for coming. This has been wonderful.
Ceramic pot, the color of terracotta neatly placed on the counter Your workspace, like an artist’s studio The kitchen where you find refuge from a long day’s work where your hands follow a sort of intuition No recipe to follow But generations of love and friendship
They say food brings people together Family, both by blood and chosen Gathered ‘round your table on a random Tuesday, with no special significance at all
You start to sort through the beans Somehow you can tell which are bruised and which will go in the pot Like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket What foresight
The water runs as you rinse the beans With tenderness, I hear you begin to hum to the tune of “si nos dejan” The sound of the gas stove, like the strings coming in for the first time in a symphony Soft, steady, gentle
Beans go in Water, broth Onions A fragrant blend of spices with no labels Watching your hands, dance-like movements A choreography you know so well You lean over and tell me “Mija, el secreto to any delicious recipe is love.”
Behind the Scenes: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra
Teresa Douglas 0:10 Welcome listeners to Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. In today’s behind the scenes, we’re going to be talking to Melody Rose Serra, who is the author of the poem Frijoles De La Olla. Melody’s passion is teaching and empowering others by sharing what she has learned. She helped launch an arts and crafts program at a children’s hospital, and also taught at San Quentin State Prison. Melody hopes to inspire youth to explore and expand their creativity through web development, writing, and art. Welcome, Melody.
Melody Rose Serra 0:48 Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Teresa Douglas 0:52 I’m just so happy to have you here and to talk about your poem and talk about you because I just loved this poem when it came through. But before I get distracted and launch into that, we have to answer one of the most important questions. If you were sitting at my table, metaphorically here, and you came to visit, I would of course, offer you something to eat. And I would love to know what your favorite comfort food is.
Melody Rose Serra 1:22 That’s a great question. So I am a huge fan of food. So it’s really hard to choose. But if I had to choose I’d say either my Abuelas Frijoles or Lentejas. I think they’re just so comforting. We’ve had them at every get together every holiday or just during a random visit. And it’s just something that I really love. And I think I would be remiss to not mention my other Abuelas empanadas. So also another huge favorite.
Teresa Douglas 2:06 Oh, we can’t have abuela wars because that will never do. Can I ask about the empanadas? Were they savory, sweet or both?
Melody Rose Serra 2:17 So she would make both kinds savory and sweet. And every once in a while she would take a savory empanada and like put in some raisins in there. And I always loved that. And that’s something I still really enjoy, when you kind of blend those two flavors.
Teresa Douglas 2:36 Yeah, I don’t know what it is about raisins that remind me of Lent. But they really do. And I would get those special things from my Abuela too and honestly, I think the biggest ingredients and we’re gonna hint a little bit at your poem here, which talks about the secret ingredient is love. But I also think there’s magic in there somewhere. Because well, Abuela food is just like in a class all by itself.
Melody Rose Serra 3:04 Absolutely, I agree.
Teresa Douglas 3:07 So that’s wonderful. I would definitely have you over and try to find some empanadas, though unless we invited your Abuela or your other Abuela who makes frijoles, then of course, it wouldn’t taste quite the same. But I share a deep connection to food. It’s one of my chief distractions. Moving on a little bit to your poem, and to you. Can we start with you telling us just a little bit about when you started writing?
Melody Rose Serra 3:40 Of course. So I don’t really think I knew that I was writing poetry or stories when I was really little. But as I was learning English, around like five, six, I learned a lot of my English with my grandfather and my grandmother. And they, my grandfather loved to write words down, poems or songs or like silly little, love letters to my grandma and read them out loud in English. And that kind of inspired me to do the same. So I was just like, I was writing poetry in hindsight. I didn’t know it then but I was just writing like little observations or feelings. So it definitely started really young. And I’ve carried it with me until today and I’ve recently learned I also really love art. So I recently kind of started playing with bringing those two mediums together and creating like visual poems and I’m really enjoying that and exploring that right now.
Teresa Douglas 4:50 I have to say I wish you’re Abuelo put that tactic about leaving little love notes for his wife around the house. I think there’ll be a lot of marriages that can benefit from that. So any of you men listening or people listening who are married, maybe try that, that would be a great idea. Leave these notes and read them out loud to your beloved. So it seems like it worked well for him. Would you then call poetry your first love? Or do you say it’s more writing in general because you weren’t focused on just the definition between fiction or poetry?
Melody Rose Serra 5:34 Yeah, I would say it definitely was just writing in general and like playing with words and learning the language by writing and then reading out loud what you wrote. And so I definitely think there were some various genres that I was playing with. But poetry is the one that really stuck.
Teresa Douglas 5:58 And it’s such a lovely form. And I’d love to transition now into talking about the specific poem, because it’s hard to not talk about it, while we’re talking about what it is you enjoy about the form. So when we’re looking here at Frijoles de la Olla and some of the things that I really loved about this piece, in particular, is how, in just a few sort of strokes–I talk about this, like it’s painting, but even though it’s words, you’re painting with words. And, I see so many of these images, in just a minimum amount of words, but so vividly. Even the beginning, the color of terracotta, and that springs into your mind, and, talking about the artist’s studio and, talking here about finding with the fingers, those beans that are bruised. Which go to the pod and, considering your Abuela, as an artist, where she followed her intuition, so much so it was like watching somebody, I’m just gonna read this line, like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket.” And I thought what a lovely description of something that is, like the sublime and the every day. There’s nothing, I would say, more basic than beans and cooking, and feeding somebody. It’s a basic need that we all have. And yet in this piece, just the way that you write it, and talk about it, and this person who is a master in this sphere, that is also a refuge for her and for others, because people don’t come on a random Tuesday, if they don’t want to be there when there’s no special significance. So I just loved that, about this piece, it felt sort of like a hug, especially by the end. We have the idea that she’s a master at these things. And yet, it’s also driven by love so I, would love to hear from you. The idea that maybe sparked this piece, and how you went about writing it down.
Melody Rose Serra 8:17 A few weeks ago, I was really craving my abuela’s frijoles. And I called her and told her I was going to make it based on what I remember her doing and just like asked her for some tips and was really excited. And then that very same day before I even started the process of making them I was already like thinking about this, like super vivid and intimate moment where I observed my Abuela and it wasn’t even just one moment. I saw her do this so many times. But for some reason, there was like a very specific vision that I was kind of playing in my head and I I sat down at my computer. Sometimes I write with pen and paper but in this case, it was on my computer and I just started writing this and it’s funny, it sounds a bit like a story like but I wrote it the day that I talked to my grandma and was planning to make the frijoles de la olla. I was just inspired by the, the things I was imagining and bringing myself back to those moments. And I really was also inspired by–there was a poet that I went to a reading for and he was talking about how poetry can really take on the role of a time capsule, and I found that language to really stick with me. I was like, Wow, that’s so powerful. And I felt like that was this poem for me. I wanted to capture a memory, a real story in my life and the feelings that came with it. And also, as you said, like all this love that was put into this, this what might seem simple moment, and how, because of that love, it’s transcended into something more that stays with me.
Teresa Douglas 10:43 And I really feel like one of the strengths of this piece is that you are as the child or the person in this moment, you’re both so very much present, in the fact that your feeling comes through. It’s that love, it’s that closeness and that intimacy, and yet you don’t really refer to yourself at all, on this page. It’s a wonderful example, I would say, of having that feeling there without coming out and saying, I really love to watch my Abuela do this, I really enjoyed the happy memory of being there. You show it through all these little, little details. And just again, coming back to this idea that family, both blood and chosen is gathered around the table, the idea that just hearing your Abuela, sort of hum a tune. And it’s this wonderfully, I don’t want to say vulnerable, but it’s like a trusted moment where somebody who is totally comfortable in her environment, she has the people that she wants in her home, and she’s allowing the family the privilege, in some ways, I’ll use that word, to just be there and see her in her refuge in this place where she is happy doing this thing. And it’s like even the idea here, toward the end, where you list the things as they go in: beans go in water, broth, onions, it’s just a very domestic in the best possible way, sort of description of what can be a loving moment. And I feel like we get to be close to your Abuela just in that moment. Even though we don’t necessarily know her name. We don’t know you and how you grew up, but we get to see that. And I love that idea of the time capsule. It’s like, we could all look at this poem again and 20 years and see that again, like almost as if we’re there. It’s just beautiful.
Melody Rose Serra 12:59 Thank you so much. That means a lot for you to say that.
Teresa Douglas 13:03 I gush, I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to talk on this podcast. It’s just gonna be me telling you about you and how wonderful you are. So this is lovely. And I love to hear that you just sort of sat down and wrote it. Did you feel once you did that, like did you start editing right away? Did you not edit at all? Because it came out whole? Did you let it sleep a little? How did that all work?
Melody Rose Serra 13:33 With this particular piece, I didn’t edit very much. Even the tune that I mentioned that my abuela was humming, and even that it just came naturally. I was like I can remember her singing to that tune Si nos de han, and that continues to be like a really important song in my family. Because it was a song that my grandparents used to sing to each other. So it just kind of all came and that’s definitely not the norm for me. I often like edit and get hung up on like words and pauses but with this I think it’s because I had this like really vivid image in my head. I was able to get it down and didn’t have to do too much. And, yeah, and I really enjoyed just putting it together. It was it’s, I think one of my favorite poems that I’ve written so far.
Teresa Douglas 14:47 It’s lovely when you get that gift from the universe where it all sort of pulls together in your mind and you can just write it down. That’s not going to happen every time. But it’s lovely when it does, and it comes out whole. It’s interesting to see real life coming together to help you write this, you had this thing you wanted to make you were talking to your Abuela and it just sort of all came together. Wow. Well, I love this. And I would say that you’re Abuela and Abuelo sound like amazing people to each other. I mean, they’re singing to each other and he’s writing notes. And it’s nice to get that intimate feel like, I feel like I would really like them had I ever met them. And that’s great, because I’m a stranger, but it’s one of the best sort of legacies that I think we can leave is to have these pieces about good moments or significant moments with our family that people can read and enjoy no matter when they see it now or 15 years from now or whatever it is. Wow, this is lovely. I do wonder because this poem is so nice. If there are other places where people can read about your work, if you have things that are going to come out, is there is there a website or social where people might keep tabs and see what else you come up with?
Melody Rose Serra 16:25 I do have a website and it’s Melody Serra.com. And on that site, I’ve started putting up the pieces that get published, the poems that get published. And then I’m also over at Twitter at Mel R Sarah. And I actually just started submitting work late last year, I was inspired by the young people I volunteer with to put my work out there and see what that feels like. And I’ve really enjoyed that. So I have some poetry that’s been published at a few places like wine cellar press and Gulf Stream magazine, and a few others and I also have some upcoming work that will be published later this year.
Teresa Douglas 17:22 Wonderful. And I think I can speak for everybody listening that we all look forward to reading those pieces and seeing what else you do. So thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us sort of the behind the scenes of this lovely piece and telling us more about your work.
Melody Rose Serra 17:42 Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Behind the Scenes with Constance Mello, Author of Mouth Guard
Teresa Douglas 0:10 Welcome listeners to the next behind the scenes episode with Latin X lit audio mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today we’re interviewing Constance Mello she her. She’s a Brazilian scholar, writer and teacher. She graduated with a degree in cultural studies and Gender Studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in English and creative writing. Her writing has been published in the Illinois Art Review, Fearless, She Wrote, and The Ascent, and was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books literary awards. Welcome, Constance.
Constance Mello 0:48 Hi, Teresa. Thank you for having me today.
Teresa Douglas 0:51 Oh, it’s very nice to have you here. I’m going to ask you a very important question. Because you’re here in my metaphorical house. I would love to serve you your favorite comfort food, but I don’t know what that is. So I’m going to ask you what is your favorite comfort food?
Constance Mello 1:13 I am very excited about this question because I too center my life around food. And I thought a lot about this question. And because there are several different ways of answering it right, like is it a food for the winter? Is it the sort of thing you eat when you’re sad? But I thought about the like, overarching thing. And this is gonna sound like I planned this out because it’s for a Latinx lit mag kind of thing. But it’s rice and beans.
Teresa Douglas 1:51 The staples!
Constance Mello 1:52 Yeah, just like, like a nice plate of rice and beans. And in Brazil, they make it different. I mean, every country in Latin America makes their own version of rice and beans, I guess. But our rice and beans are just like, it’s very simple. Lots of onions, lots of garlic, a little bit of pepper. And we eat it with sauteed greens on the side like a collard greens type thing. And orange slices, which are said to help with digestion. I don’t really know how true that is. But it does kind of like add acidity to the dish. So yeah, that’s my comfort food.
Teresa Douglas 2:30 That sounds delicious. And I have actually heard that about citrus if it’s paired with spinach? Probably all greens. It helps bring out I forget what vitamin.
Constance Mello 2:40 Iron right?
Teresa Douglas 2:41 I think so. It’s one of those things I read a long time ago. So now listeners not only is this a literary podcast, we’re now a health podcast for you. Yes, make sure you put that citrus with your greens, and then your food is healthy, even if it’s you know, boiled in a lot of pork fat. You know the oranges just make it all go away. That’s our educated opinion. You’ve heard it here first. Well I would love to share rice and beans with you in your way. Because you’re right. There are lots of different ways that I mean, Mexicans, we have the red rice, other people have the yellow and the white. And it’s fun to try it all. I will say to anybody who wants to make me food. I will take whatever colored rice you have. So just just bring it, Constance and I are waiting.
Constance Mello 3:39 Yes.
Teresa Douglas 3:40 So thank you for sharing that. And now that we’ve done the most important thing, we’ll get to the second most important thing, which is you and your piece. I would like to start just by talking a little bit of why I liked it. Then we’ll get into some questions about you. I love the duality of this mouthguard like the title and the jaw locking, and just this whole idea of these things are so well connected, that when I read it, I thought Oh man, that interlocks in such a lovely way. And the piece is very, it has lots of images, but it’s so incredibly tightly written around that theme of guarding the mouth and what comes out of the mouth. The mother who calls the grandmother and what may be coming out of her mouth or not. I just I loved it. So that’s why I was so happy to see it in my email. And I’m glad that we get to talk about it today.
Constance Mello 4:47 Thank you so much. This was a very very personal piece for me to write. So finding a home for it, especially in this magazine specifically has been really special.
Teresa Douglas 4:57 I can’t wait to talk about this. So before we do because I have some definite questions about how you wrote it. Let’s start with you as a writer, how, how long have you been writing?
Constance Mello 5:09 Um, I think I’ve, it sounds so cheesy to say, but I think I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, really. I was always very, like competitive in school. And so when they had us do little essays or creative writing exercises, I used to be very competitive, but like, I want to be the best at this, I wanted to have the best rhymes. And I was always very aware of myself when I was doing any kind of writing. And then, when I was about eight years old, I think I got into a big phase of writing my own songs, especially because I used to watch like High School Musical religiously. And I got into the phase of writing my own songs and my godmother who lives in Argentina, she was visiting me, and I showed her some of the songs and she was so inspired that she later sent me, by post this beautiful blue box that she made, that had like a little inscription on top, saying, Constance’s writings.
Teresa Douglas 6:15 Oh, yeah, that’s nice.
Constance Mello 6:18 Yeah. And she was like, please keep writing, I really want to support this about you. And then ever since then, that’s where I’ve kept journals, any kind of writing that I did, in there. And then when I got to my undergrad, I went a very, academic route. And so I forgot my creative writer side for a little bit. And rekindled with it a few years ago, which has led me to then pursue my MFA in creative writing. I’m very happy that I was able to rekindle this, this connection that I have to writing, not just in an academic way, but also in a creative way.
Teresa Douglas 7:02 Yeah, it seems like you went all in with the dual master’s degree, because that’s pretty intense to attempt two at once. And you’re getting sort of both sides of that with the English and the creative writing. Yeah, I don’t know when you sleep, but
Constance Mello 7:17 it’s, uh, yeah, I ended up like, I’m going to be studying for a lot longer than people usually do in their master’s. So it’s a three year program, which is why I’m able to do two degrees.
Teresa Douglas 7:30 That’s how you’re sleeping.
Unknown Speaker 7:31 Yeah. It can be really intense, especially because I obviously work at the same time. So yeah, it is intense. But I’m happy that I found a way to explore both my passions, both a more academic sense of the written word. And also the creative side of it.
Teresa Douglas 7:52 And, I didn’t say it earlier, but it’s just so lovely that some member of your family took you seriously enough, when you were eight, to give you that validation of your identity as a writer and, and it sounds like clearly, it’s something that you still carry with you. There’s this beautiful blue box that she made. And, having that is such a special thing, just to have someone who, who may not have mentored you, as in, write things this way, but mentored you in the way of saying, Yes, you are this writer, and you should continue with it. It’s such a beautiful thing.
Constance Mello 8:30 Yeah, it’s also like a great privilege, you know, to be heard, and to be taken seriously, even as an eight year old. I’m sure that whatever songs I was writing weren’t like high art or anything like that, but being encouraged and being considered a writer even so early, has been the main way in which I’ve maintained this connection with the creative side of me.
Teresa Douglas 8:53 So you sent in a poem, and you’re talking a little bit about how you write academically. Do you have a first love, is that poetry fiction nonfiction what? Or do you consider yourself a writer who does all of these things equally?
Constance Mello 9:07 Um, I wouldn’t say I do them all equally. I would say I’ve tried to do all of them equally, to varying degrees of success. I actually started off, like I said, writing songs, which I think are a variation on poetry. And for people who know me, like in real life, I tend to be like a very grounded, very practical person. And so when I say that I like to write poetry, a lot of people in my life tend to be surprised if they don’t know about that side of me. But I think it is one of the ways in which I can actually access that emotional side of myself without having to keep to constraints of form as much as with fiction or nonfiction.
Teresa Douglas 9:56 Yeah, and you do it so well. I mean, that leads sort of beautifully into talking about the piece that you sent in, Mouth Guard. I would love to hear a little bit of–you say this is very personal. Did you start with wanting to articulate the idea? Or? Actually I’m not going to constrain you. Tell me the process you used to write this piece?
Constance Mello 10:20 Yeah, um, I am always afraid of this question a little bit, because I feel like a lot of poets, they have a very, very structured process where they start with an idea. And then they work on these different sentences for a really long time. Whereas I’m a lot more of like, put everything down that I think about. Structure it some sort of way. And then I leave it for a couple of weeks, come back to it and make the adjustments that I see fit. Um, and in this case, it was actually because I was in one of my creative writing classes. It wasn’t even poetry. Actually, we were just talking about language in general. And I don’t know if I told you, I was born and grew up in Brazil. And I didn’t start learning English until I was 10 in school, and I didn’t move to the US until 2018. So it’s relatively recent, but most people that know me, they always say, Oh, you have like an American accent, like, I can’t really hear that you’re from somewhere else. And I describe to them how even as a young child like around 12, or 13, I used to watch these American television shows, especially sitcoms, like on reruns on television. And I used to practice this accent out loud, or I used to like, I used to read the Harry Potter books out loud to myself to try to get like a grasp on the language. And I don’t know exactly where this fixation of mine came from, of like nailing the accent. But it became quite an obsessive practice. To the point where now I look back, and I’m like, I kind of regret that I ground this accent out of myself.
Teresa Douglas 12:20 It’s an interesting thing to hear. Because I was actually just talking to somebody–a different writer earlier yesterday, about this idea of how when you move to a new country, and whether that’s the US or Canada or some other English speaking place, and that urge to fit in with either comes from you, or maybe the culture squashes you, or some other Interplay there. And just that, that idea of how American are you? Or how Canadian are you? Or how whatever you are? So it’s interesting to see that play out in somebody who was so young.
Constance Mello 13:05 I honestly, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you, if it came from within myself, or if it came from, like, outside pressures, like you’re describing. It was probably a mixture of both right? I go through this thing, and in the United States, where I’m very, like white passing, so no one would ever think I’m not from here because of that. And it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. You know, I get to be invisible, in my ethnicity, I guess, which is helpful in a lot of situations, but can also be difficult from like a personal point of view of like, my connection with my identity and my connection with my nationality.
Teresa Douglas 13:51 I feel ya on that one.
Constance Mello 13:54 And, yeah, and I was thinking about, like, all these situations where I meet new people, and they treat me one way. And because I’m white passing, because I don’t really have an accent. They can tell that I’m not from California, specifically, which is where I live right now. But they think I’m just from somewhere else in the United States, which is what I allude to in the poem. But then, when the reveal comes that I’m Brazilian, and that my native language is actually a different language, it kind of changes the way that people see me. And not always in a positive way.
Teresa Douglas 14:35 Yeah, and that can be tiring. It’s like okay, yeah, here we go again. And I say that as a Mexican whose last name is Douglas. Because I’m also very white passing and I’m in Canada. And there’s that idea where someone will sort of look at you and there’s that minute of ‘Wait a minute.’
Constance Mello 14:57 Yeah,
Teresa Douglas 14:58 -and where the question sometimes [comes] “What are you?” It’s like I’m human. That’s what I am. Anyway. So yes, it’s an interesting and very, because again, on one hand, we’re least likely to be the people that get targeted for police brutality.
Constance Mello 15:19 Yeah. That something that whenever I try to explain this situation, I really want to acknowledge that being white passing is a great privilege in the United States.
Teresa Douglas 15:34 Yep. It’s also a privilege in Canada. It’s something not to forget. It’s also hard. If you’re in the middle of a group that suddenly starts talking racist. And you’re like, Oh, this is the part I get to tell you I’m not white. And now we all have to deal with this. So all that aside, I thought you did a great job of putting that in this piece. This idea of, of not having the accent, and always from somewhere else, from wherever it is you happen to be in that moment, like the East Coast or Kansas. Sure, wherever, Yeah. And that, the idea of not, well, hiding, because you say your brother accuses you of running away, “and I did. I ran to the United States”. So there’s that running away. But you’re also always sort of, in this piece, alluding to the fact that you’re not quite from there, you’re from somewhere else and people can’t tell you where you’re from. And sort of glossing over it, because it is tiring, darn it, to do that all the time. And I love that that came out in three words. “Sure. I say, sure.”
Constance Mello 17:00 Yeah, that’s it.
Teresa Douglas 17:01 That was so well done. And, even this idea of, again, of running away and having run away, but not really escaping at the same time, like the mouth is guarded, it’s almost like being jailed in its own way. The mouth not rolling those Rs. And locked into place. Guards. So just hearing that feeling of captivity while also having run away, but not because you’re still connected to your family, which obviously, is something that’s there. We all have that connection, whether or not we’re in a position where we talk to the people we’re related to anymore, that connection is still there. And it’s just very, very lovely. To see this kind of a serious topic, also put together in a way where it’s in the larger context of, of being in a family and being away from family and in a country, but also being from nowhere, and I thought that was really well done.
Constance Mello 17:02 Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Yeah, I have a super complicated relationship with my family as most people do. Because of living abroad. And, yeah, you really said it all in the sense of like, I belong here, I belong there, and in between and nowhere at the same time. And so, I think this poem was just kind of like a little Ode to myself almost. And this journey of belonging and not belonging, I guess. And, just to address something you were asking earlier about the process of writing this. When I was sitting in that class, and I said that I ground the accent out of myself, I thought about the fact that I wear like a mouthguard to sleep every night because I have TMJ. So like a problem with my jaw. And because I grind my teeth, I was thinking about, like, this motion of like, grinding something. It destroys, but it also makes something else out of it. So yeah, that’s kind of where that concept came from.
Teresa Douglas 19:38 And it’s such a vivid one, especially this grinding and unrolling. It’s like you said, it’s an act of destruction, also an act of creation. And it’s something that’s smoother once its ground, right, even smaller, so that ambivalence I thought was again, just such a superb choice to make whether or not it was intentional or unintentional at the time that you first wrote it. And I have to say, incidentally, I sometimes think that when we are asked about process that all of us are the ones that say, “I don’t know, man, I just made it up,” right? And then we have to come up with a better answer, because nobody wants to hear that. Wait a minute. You just made that up. I literally just made that up. That’s the definition of fiction? We made that up. But even when it’s nonfiction, in some ways, like that first draft, is something that just comes out of you. And I know that there are people that plan what they write. I just don’t believe that they don’t meticulously make stuff up. They just make their stuff up methodically. So you people that have a very practiced process that you can talk about, we’re on to you. Just so you know, and it’s okay.
Constance Mello 21:05 You’re just making it up like the rest of us.
Teresa Douglas 21:07 Yes! Well, this has been so so nice to have you here talking about this piece, because I feel like I am not going to be the only one that identifies personally, with this idea. Because even people that may be in the country that they were born in, speaking the language that they’ve always spoken, who are connected in a simple way to their family can also have that in between feeling in other ways. Especially in different countries where you’re trying to find your place, as a person of Latinx descent. I feel like it’s even in the specificity of this is something that a lot of people will identify with. So thank you for sharing that.
Constance Mello 22:00 Thank you for giving me the space to do so it’s really nice to be able to actually talk about the work that I’m putting out there.
Teresa Douglas 22:07 Well, you know, I’m sure other people are also going to want to see the other things you do because you’ve had writing in other places. Do you have a website or social media where folks can follow you and see what other work that you put out?
Constance Mello 22:21 Yeah, I think the best place to do that would be on Twitter at Constance underscore s e r.
Teresa Douglas 22:28 And listeners if you don’t have a pencil or you can’t remember that will be in the show notes. If your brain is like mine, where something goes in one ear and out the other. We’ll put that in. Thank you for coming and I’m so happy to have your work on the podcast.
Constance Mello 22:49 I am thrilled to have my work in this in this medium. Thank you so so much
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.