Most vacations feel short, but the very end of summer is when they seem most wispy and diaphanous, like they maybe never happened at all.
My annual vacation occurred in early August—just a few weeks ago, somehow—but I got on a plane to Mexico the day that a young, dumb white supremacist from a small town in Texas decided to drive several hours west to El Paso for the explicit purpose of murdering “Hispanics,” for the explicit reason that he believes, thanks in part to rhetoric proliferated by the president, that “Hispanics”—not the Mexican nation as implied, but really the idea of brownness—have some boogeyman interest in “invading” Texas, and therefore supplanting whites of European ancestry in present-day America.
“We are a nation of immigrants” is the logline politicians and pundits are always doling out, a callback to John F. Kennedy’s 1958 immigration reform tome A Nation of Immigrants. It is a fact about the United States in its 20th century iteration, but as a line in a stump speech it is precipitously limp, and usually deployed in a way that neutralizes and defangs the politics of an inherently political, moral predicament. In politicians’ parlance, the phrase refers to America’s recent past, and vaunted by its own nostalgia: the heroic “huddled masses” are an abstraction, almost never the determined, desperate refugees of the present. “We are a nation of immigrants” as a stump speech erases the fact that we are primarily a nation built on chattel slavery, and yet the phrase itself has now been literally erased from the mission of the government agency tasked with issuing green cards. “Go back to where they came from,” said the president of this “nation of immigrants,” to “shithole countries” that the shithead couldn’t point out on a map. Since I’ve been politically cognizant—maybe since ’90 (Desert Storm), but definitely since ’91 (Anita Hill)—the perceived breaks from these warped political strictures feel like a nice reprieve, but as vacations go, they don’t really happen at all.
So for my last few travels, I’ve been “going back to where I came from,” loosely—the land where my abuela, abuelo, tías, tíos, and mom came from—and reorienting my familial compass with books that can speak to generational transience. Last summer I spent a week in Cuidád de Mexico, the greatest city I’ve visited, where I wandered the streets and immersed myself in Octavio Paz’s The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid, a long, scathing essay about the fabrication of the Mexican nation-state—the way it absorbed pre-Colombian indigenous cultures as a proud national identity while erasing and subjugating indigenous peoples, who continue on despite it.
My most recent trip to Mexico was on Cozumel, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatán Peninsula where Hernán Cortés landed his stupid-ass imperialist gold-hunting/Christian missionary project right after attempting to finesse Cuba. Centuries later, a small part of Cozumel’s eastern coast is occupied by commercial cruise ship docks, where tourists are unloaded and reloaded ad infinitum, throwing U.S. dollars at sweatshirts and trinkets. Inland was different. Most people I spoke with had been there forever, never wanted to leave.
I didn’t want to leave, either, but barring that, I wanted only to read. My first day in the tiny courtyard pool at the casita where I stayed, I read Myriam Gurba’s memoir Mean, which my colleague and author Anna Merlan loaned me about a year and a half ago but got buried in a ceiling-high book pile. (Sorry, Anna, but thanks!) I devoured Mean in the pool, finished it three hours later after my toes pruned, and was mildly depressed there wasn’t more to shrivel up to. Gurba is a beautifully lyrical writer but doesn’t get lost in her prose, and the “meanness” she ascribes to herself in the title is a shorthand meridian connecting her sharp intellect, charisma, and resolve.
In Mean, Gurba explores the vagaries of her teen and college years as a Mexican-Polish-American in the mid-1990s with a memory and attention to detail I found astonishing as someone around her same age (did you keep really detailed journals, chica?!). She slowly metes out a suspenseful arc as she navigates Southern California and her identities—brown, queer, artistic, extremely intelligent—in a seemingly perpetual era when whiteness and/or vacuousness are heralded as the “holy grail,” as she puts it. Gurba writes of being sexually assaulted in junior high and raped at 19 by a stranger, and her way of coping is a resolute, painful recounting—of the rape, of the man who did it, of the trial, its aftermath in both her life and his. The way Gurba constructed Mean is lush, also generous—it is a prose-poem, a novelistic snapshot, a mystery, a liberation narrative—and reading it was a way to situate myself, too. Here’s a tiny sample of her style and breezy sense of detail, so lush and cool that reading it is an indulgence:
We tore out of her bedroom and sped into town. We got a cheeseburger and fries, split them between us, and gobbled them up before parking under a magnolia tree. We headed to the buildings behind the church. Back there, the hallways felt schoolish. A brick propped open a door. We walked into youth group.
Three boys looked at us from their chairs. Their eyes moved up and down. I couldn’t believe Ida didn’t understand this. She went to youth group because she was in love with Jesus. Everyone else went for sex.
I finished Mean too soon. The next day, en route to Playa Palancar, I unearthed a copy of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Confidential from the discarded books kiosk of the casita, intrigued by the idea of the melodramatic teen characters I remembered from junior high. (This found copy was, based on its penciled inscription, a gift to someone who stayed at la casita before I did; Tracy, if you’re reading this, I don’t know if Forrest is on your wavelength.) The 2011 adult epilogue to Pascal’s prolific Sweet Valley High series—perhaps conjured in the wake of the explosive popularity of Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series—follows twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in their late 20s, navigating their relationship after Elizabeth’s husband Todd Wilkins, former high school basketball mensch, cheats on her with Jessica. While the first section was (unintentionally?) funny—Elizabeth’s a staff writer for a free print circular about theater on Broadway, a 2011 conceit if I’ve ever heard it—I had to stop reading Sweet Valley Confidential after about 23 pages on account of it being insufferable, though the worshipful reverence for the Wakefields’ whiteness and thinness really illuminated something about how much I hated myself and my body as a teenager! I can’t believe my mom let me read this shit; this livejournal recap was entertaining, however. I brought it back from the beach instead of burning it, and it will live another day in the casita’s library of discarded books.
Another big vacation reading mistake I made was Twitter, which was on my personal list of banned social media for the week—but I was emotionally and psychically compelled to know what was happening in the States after the El Paso terrorist attack. The cavalcade of tweets and pieces about the epidemic of mass shooters, nearly all of them operating with some warped configuration of racism and sexism, were important if nothing we haven’t heard endlessly before; I was more comforted talking via text and WhatsApp to my family and Latinx friend networks and reading pieces by Latinxs, while also noting, as ever, the endlessly disappointing paucity of Latinx reporters at major newspapers. (If you read just one of these pieces, I recommend Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s “The Media Erased Latinos from the Story,” at The Atlantic.) I found home in Angie Jaime’s Vice piece “True Self Care Is Not About You,” and at Remezcla, former El Pasoan Eduardo Cepeda’s post about a new corrido, which reminded us of the importance of music in channeling and processing our sorrows, and his on-the-ground report from the city he loves.
As my next dive into solace and resolve, I reread Julia Alvarez’s 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies, once more almost entirely in the pool, digits shriveling. Her novelization of how the Mirabal sisters—Las Mariposas, as they are known—combated the Trujillo regime, Alvarez lovingly dramatized how they became Dominican heroes and, like tens of thousands of others, martyrs for the cause of revolution against a brutal dictatorship. This year marked the 25th year of its publication, and its timeliness was centering, the way four women risked their lives to rebel against a man so tiny he had to murder the masses in order to continue the illusion he was big.
Alvarez was my idol in the ’90s—along with Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, one of a handful of writers whose work convinced me that a young Latina had something worth saying—and part of the awe came from the way she wrote Butterflies like her life depended on it. “When I set out to write it, it was almost like a testimonial,” Alvarez told me earlier this summer. “Here were four sisters—I’m one of four sisters—three had gotten killed because of their activism, and my sisters and I had left the Dominican Republic in 1960, three months before they were murdered. I just felt like we were the sisters who made it, and it sort of obsessed me... as I started writing it I realized what I was most interested in was the characters, how they had gotten so politicized at at time in the ‘40s and ‘50s when women, especially women in the Dominican Republic, didn’t have a public voice,” she said. The way las Mariposas stood up for what was right, the way Alvarez wrote it, gave me strength in my disoriented sorrow and fear, too. And something else Alvarez told me, words to live by: “We’re too small a planet to think that you can hold yourself in and knock yourself down.”