After reading Drown by Junot Díaz, I had an existential crisis. In my overexposure to white literature, I had never seen the high lyrical style applied to the “insignificant” lives of third-world children, urban high school drop outs, barrio drug dealers and deadbeat dads. The high lyrical style seemed always reserved for white fictional characters (think The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald). Díaz elevated his character’s broken Spanish, their Spanglish grinded together by necessity and their inner-city slang to art. He did it mercilessly, consistently, in an in-your-face, get-out-of the-fucken-way manera. If he were a musical composer, it would be the equivalent of smashing rap and classical music together. I, hidden in my small corner of the universe, raise my hand tentatively with a question: How the fuck did he do that?
The point of this blog is not to praise Díaz (God knows he has enough of that). The point is that he forced me to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And worse, he forced me to question: Who am I as a person? I've spent all my life not being Mexican enough or American enough. Having never studied it, my Spanish is choppy, and I speak English with an accent. Neither language fits me. Don’t we all dream of a language that fits us like a tailor-made suit? How can we really love ourselves completely if we do not accept how we speak?
I was raised and taught Spanish by a single undocumented mom with a second-grade education. My first day of school my kindergarten teacher asked me in Spanish, “Aren’t you ashamed that the other children speak more English than you?” (The little English I spoke I had learned watching Speed Racer cartoons.) This started my elementary school career, an epoch where teachers stuck gold stars on my forehead to reward me for forgetting my native tongue, where I hid my Spanish like a pair of stinky socks. In Junior high school, it was cool to pretend you weren’t Mexican, even though we all had the nopal en la frente.
Then, as destiny would have it, I won a scholarship to a private, all-white, all-boy, ultra rich high school in an affluent white neighborhood. (Toto, we’re not in East LA anymore.) To say that my life was about to flip on its head is an understatement. Why does the first day of school always suck? Something happened that first day that for the next three years was going to shake my life like an earthquake. In fact, 32 years later, the fault line of that crisis still zigzags across my heart.
Everyone congratulated me, told me that going to that all-white, rich, prestigious high school was the best thing for me. I was 15 and stupid, so I believed them. Hey, I was all gung ho, thinking, “I’m gonna go up there and show them what a real Mexican can do.” Like I said, I was stupid.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived at their school was, Man, these gringos have a much bluer sky than us. They really did. In East LA, the sky was grey, smoggy, as if someone had tried to erase it with an eraser. The school was encrusted into the side of a tall hill, surrounded by lush greenery, and the lucid blue sky that peeked between the flickering leaves fascinated me like something alien. I never knew that money could buy you bluer sky, fresher air.
The blonde students with their expensive backpacks marched up and down the steps of that resort-like campus. My first class started in half an hour and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt in my pocket and found a little red card. Since I was broke-ass, the little red card allowed me to get a limited amount of free food in the cafeteria (one of the benefits of the scholarship I had won). You could say it was my EBT card. With my EBT I got a BLT sandwich and sat down alone in an outdoor patio that traumatized me with its beauty. When I tasted the sandwich I melted. These cabrones ate well. I had a small orgasm in the part of my brain that processes taste. But at the same time my legs trembled nervously, because my little “EBT” card did not have enough credit to eat all the meals necessary to give my body energy, and I knew that for the next three years there were going to be many days in which I suffered hunger. Or maybe it was the nerves and excitement of being in a totally new environment that made me tremble.
Three gringo students sat down two tables down from me. As I daydreamed about how great the next three years were going to be, I heard something emanating from the table of the gringos. It sounded unclear, jumbled, like words spoken under water. I cocked my ear. Were the white boys talking to me? In case they were not addressing me, I didn’t want to stare at them directly, fearing I would appear rude. So I tilted my head a little towards them to see if they were talking to me. Suddenly the boy in the middle stood up belligerently, saying, “What the fuck’s wrong with you? I’m trying to compliment your shirt and you’re ignoring me. Why are you holding your head like a retard?” He tilted his head like me and laughed. No way, I thought, is this really happening to me? His rant continued, “Fucking strange beaner. Don’t you know that when someone talks to you, you have look them in the eye?” His two companions giggled. “Dude,” he chastised me, “I was trying to be nice to you, but I can see now that you’re just a weirdo.” Then he addressed his friends, “Look at him, he won’t even look at me.” The three busted up laughing.
I was in shock. I had never been exposed to such unprovoked nastiness. The three boys stood up, mumbling additional insults. When they bumped into a fourth companion, the boy who had verbally assaulted me pointed at me, and the desire to flee filled me. I picked up my books, and ran up some nearby steps.
I knew that what I thought next was irrational, but I imagined each blue-eyed face I saw was thinking the same thing that the mean boy was thinking: I was a weirdo. I knew that that boy did not have powers of telepathy to inform all the other boys in school that I was a Looney Tune. But I feared, What if they all hate Mexicans? I couldn’t hide my dark hair, my eyes the color of deep brown, and for this reason, my face screamed to the people that I was strange.
I started acting strange, reserved, afraid of rich people as if I were allergic to them. I wouldn’t look them in the eye. Instead I ignored them even if I had heard them clearly and knew they were talking to me. Because now I was acting strange on purpose, a second boy that same day called me “strange.” This started a vicious circle and confirmed my fears: everyone at this school thought I was a freak. I had stepped into a nightmare as into a coil of shit. I was too young to know how to extricate myself from it.
The next three years I purposely acted strange, both to distance myself from these gringos whom I did not trust and to rebel, like telling the gringos, “Fuck you, I am going to behave strangely before you tell me I’m strange.” I wanted to be in charge of my destiny. I did not like that, out of the blue, a mean white boy had cast me as “strange.” I wanted to create myself, even if that character was a ridicule, a fool, a joke. If I was going to be a joke, I was going to elevate it to the level of mystery.
And I did. With time I got the nickname “The Phantom.” Part of me was shocked when an acquaintance confessed to me what fellows in school called me, part of me was proud. I thought of The Phantom of the Opera. I knew that the boys were fascinated by me, speculating what was behind my mask. They did not know that I only had my heart broken by an American idiot. I didn’t want them to know. For three years I haunted that campus. With my silence. With my distance. With my taciturn rebellion. I made the students uncomfortable with my strangeness. In a way, I was their conscience. I would not give them peace.
But I also did not know peace. On lunch breaks I spoke to no one. Instead I walked alone through the abandoned forests surrounding the school, and if by coincidence I ran into a group of gringo boys walking the same path, they feared me and the group would break apart to let me pass through them. You could say that, finally, I had gotten respect.
But my studies suffered. More and more I started missing classes, and now I really had turned into a true phantom, creating an empty space in my chair in the classroom. The other students, professors and administrators started to speculate, “Why does the Phantom miss so many classes?” During the final AP Art History exam I caused a drama. The first part of the exam consisted of a slide show in which photos of art pieces were demonstrated to the large class of students, and the students had to respond describing the art in a short paragraph. I walked into the immense classroom late, just as that first part of the exam had finished and the lights were being turned back on. The silence of the students and the professor was deafening. I pulled out a chair and sat down to take the rest of the exam. A few chairs down from me, overcome by his awe and respect for me, a tall white boy said, “Only the Phantom would dare skip the only AP exam in the school that can’t be retaken.” He meant that all the other AP exams could have been re-administered to me, except AP Art History because it involved an elaborate production with the slide projector. I smiled because he was right. Only me.
But at the same time that I was haunting those prestigious hallways, something else was haunting me. And that was the power of literature. Many times, to escape human contact, I would go to the library where, thank God, silence was prized. It gave me the perfect excuse of not having to talk to anyone. The gringo boys would lift their eyes from their books in momentary wonder to see the Phantom glide by. I would pull a novel from the shelf and sit down on the floor and allow the images that the author described to rise from the pages and sail away like little boats. I wanted to climb into one of those boats and escape my reality.
At the time I did not realize it, but in the library and in all my English classes, I was being indoctrinated into white literature. While in my daily life I wore the armor of the Phantom to protect myself against the gringos, I did not know that a white literature was invading my soul like an army without resistance. In other words, I didn’t know that someone like Junot Díaz could exist.
For this reason, years ago when I first read the book Drown, it caused such an earthquake in my being that the shards of who I was went flying with a violence that did not tolerate witnesses. I wish this blog had a happy ending, but it does not. Once Díaz shattered me, I didn’t know who I was. I was a blank. Do I dare say that I was a phantom again?
One day I talked to a writer-friend of mine who blends Spanish and English together seamlessly, and I told him, “I don’t know how to be Chicano. I don’t know how to be Latino in my writing.” He told me that I didn’t have to try, that it would come out of me naturally in the way that I speak Spanish and English, in my experiences, in my memories. I knew he was right, but I did not believe him. When I was 15, I knew that the whole world did not think badly of me, but I could not believe that either. Díaz was the beginning of an awaking for me. He opened the door to other writers of color who made me question my identity, my language, my writing. Prior to this exposure, I used to think myself so wise, but suddenly I saw that I was still just an overwhelmed 15-year-old boy.
Since then I have been patient with myself, and little by little I have been able to express a tiny part of what is to be Chicano in fleeting stories and brief poems. Like splinters of a shattered mirror, those small victories help me to recognize and see the different persons that I am and have become. Those Chicano characters rise out of my writing and visit me at my desk.
Jose Enrique Medina received his BA in English from Cornell University. When he is not writing for fun, he is playing with his chickens, bunnies and piglets on his farm. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories.