I am drawn to immigrant stories because I grew up with them. The West Side Story-esque childhood my Puerto Rican grandfather lived through is unthinkable to my third-gen middle-class ears. That’s why hearing the stories is so important to me, especially as it devolves into mythos. My grandparents and titis loved to lie to me as a kid, to make our story more exciting, thinking it was funny. For years I believed my grandfather was smuggled to the US on a boat – only to find out he actually took a plane with the rest of his siblings. There’s so much bizarre (probably made up) mythos around mom’s family – Are we actually Colombian? Was our great-great a Moorish Muslim? Did we come over from Spain as a cabin boy during the 18th century? Will we ever know? Does it matter?
Latino immigrant experience stories are a particular favorite of mine because it is such a diverse mixture of adventures. All Hispanics and Latinos are a little bit of everything from square one, which is why I think our cultural identities are so important to us. You can’t really compare a Cuban immigrant experience with a Peruvian, but they share a common language. Stories written about the Latino/a experience in the US are some of the most beautifully written novels and stories by some of the most talented and ground-breaking authors out there. It’s a sub-genre to be sure, but big names like Junot Díaz and Sandra Cisneros have helped define it. These are my five favorite.
The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros
Told in a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street is a very intimate coming-of-age novel. It takes you alongside young Esperanza through a first-person present-tense narration of her preteen years in Chicago during the late 20st century. As Esperanza matures, she begins to see how suffocating her environment is, and eventually realizes needs to leave Mango Street and her community behind.
Cisneros is one of the most well known authors in the immigrant/Diaspora genre. One of the few writers who can pull off present tense narratives elegantly, she never romanticizes the lives of her characters and isn’t afraid to confront the sexism and danger that can grow out of an enclosed and impoverished environment. Cisneros is one of my titi’s favorite authors, and as a kid she would always tell me I could read House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek when I was “older.” I read them both at 18, but Cisneros has had a special place in my heart since titi gave my sister a copy of the short story “Eleven” on her 11th birthday, when I was 9.
“Everything is holding its breathe within me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz
Set in New Jersey, Díaz’s solo novel follows the Dominican narrator Yunior, as Yunior builds a tentative friendship with his Rutgers roommate, Oscar. The novel is really Oscar’s book, with Yunior working as the observer and witness to the story. Oscar is a depressed fantasy nerd who wants to write the Dominican Lord of the Ring. He believes he is cursed (to a life of obscurity and lovelessness), and his obsession with breaking the curse follows the characters from Jersey to Santo Domingo and back.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a very modern novel and tells more modern immigrant story. Although Yunior is first generation, his world is smaller than his mother’s – travel is more affordable, and assimilating is a little easier. Still, Oscar and Yunior’s lives are defined by muddled identifies and failed relationships that come with being torn between two communities. It’s an incredibly vivid novel drawn from personal experience. It’s hugely famous for a reason. It’s just that good. Although Díaz hasn’t written much in the past few years, he has not been idle. He gives talks at colleges, and does plenty of advocacy work to help Latin American authors get a voice in the world of literary fiction.
“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”
The Amado Women (2014) by Désirée Zamorano
This is a really special novel, set in Southern California. The Amado Woman is the story of three Latin American sisters and their mother, and their struggle with upward mobility. Celeste, the oldest, is a chronic overachiever and embarrassed of her sisters. Sylvia, the middle sister, made a bad marriage and is struggling with her two daughters. Nataly, the baby, is a textile artist by day and a waitress by night, without any concrete plans for the future.
The family is never explicitly called Mexican, but it is assumed that they are. Not recent immigrants, the novel is less about the struggle of migration but about the stress that comes with trying to be more than your parents, the fear of failing them, and the desire to give your own children more of that unquantifiable American “more.”
“She immersed herself in teaching: exploring the state’s missions, discussing why their city was named Santa Ana, assigning research on Spanish street names. Who or what did they represent?”
When I was Puerto Rican (1994) by Esmeralda Santiago
Santiago’s memoir begins in Puerto Rico in during her childhood and follows her and her family to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1960s. While trying to learn a new language and catch up at school, Esmeralda also has to help her Mami raise her ten younger siblings. She is constantly sacrificing her own freedom to support her family, while trying to find a new identity for herself in New York.
This memoir is a very personal one, especially for me. My own grandparents grew up in New York during this time, my grandmother also spend much of her life raising her siblings in East Williamsburg. It is a heartfelt and inspiring story, with a great first hand account of New York’s immigrant culture during the 20th century.
“For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created.”
How the García Girls Lost their Accent (1991) by Julia Alvarez
This novel is the story of four Dominican-American sisters and their lives split between the DR and New York. Written from multiple perspectives in a non-chronological timeline, Alvarez’s novel is more of a loosely connected collection of short stories. The lives of the García sisters is a little darker, as their idyllic childhood in the DR is slowly revealed to be not quite what memories would suggest.
Alvarez’s unreliable narrators and back-and-forth timelines can get a bit confusing, but her rich story and beautiful writing make it worth your while. It’s the type of novel that upon finishing, you immediately want to go back to the beginning to reread passages and tie it all together. It’s a Bildungsroman, with four girls all coming of age at different times, influencing each other, learning from each other, and slowly growing apart.
“We look at each other, and then, drop our gaze to hide our confusion. We are free at last, but here, just at the moment the gate swings open, and we can fly the coop, Tía Carmen’s love revives our old homesickness.”
What I love about these novels and short story collections is how beautiful they are, almost poetic. All of them, even the novels, are told in a very fluid and “vignettey” way. It’s a stylistic marker of Latin-American/Hispanic authors which makes the genre so distinct. But the immigrant genre doesn’t end with Latinos. There’s so many good books out there, from The Namesake to Brooklyn to The Kite Runner. It’s a really special genre because it is a uniquely American sort of story, but it brings with it all the language and culture and individuality of a second culture – be it Latin-American or Indian or Russian or Chinese. What are your favorite immigrant stories do you love?
Sarah V Diehl