No longer alone

Farmworker's Daughter: Rose Castillo's story of growing up in California is uncannily familiar.

I opened the e-mail even though it was the kind that normally gets an instant block from me: an e-marketing message. This one caught my eye because it was announcing a book to be released this summer, The Latina’s Guide to Success in the Workplace. Having recently been laid off, and so far going 0-for-4 in recent job applications, this title intrigued me. I’d never heard of the author, Rose Castillo Guilbault, but in looking her up, I came across a book she released in 2005, Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America.

Hijole. Now that’s something you don’t see everyday. Even though I’m trying to throttle my non-essential purchasing, I hit the “buy” button. This seemed essential.

There are a lot of Latina authors out there now, certainly many more than when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, In college, I was introduced to Chicana writers Cherie Moraga and Josefina Lopez, whose play Real Women Have Curves was performed on campus. (Thank you UCSB for having a kick-ass Chicano Studies program: Don’t Let Know One Get You Down.) I read Isabel Allende and started to learn about the broader Latin world, which was unknown territory for me. I  learned about the Caribbean experiences of women from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which was cool and all, but I didn’t really connect to those stories, those words. After college, I came across Michele Serros, (reading a terrific review of her spoken-word album in the Village Voice while I was living in New York). The Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which was supposed to have EVERYTHING, didn’t have the album, but I later found her book, How to Be a Chicana Role Model, and I was in love. She got my world. She spoke my language. Heck, she shared my name.

There have been some other women coming up since then, but I hadn’t found anyone who says it for me the way Michele Serros does. Then, I started to read Farmworker’s Daughter. Goodness, this woman lived my life – albeit nearly two decades before I did.

This memoir is a collection of essays about Castillo’s life growing up in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. Her mother works in the fields and later the packing houses. They clash over differences in the Mexican view of how girls should grow up compared to the American way. She feels completely alone – not truly Mexican and certainly not truly American. Her King City is so much like my Lindsay, with its mix – and separation – of growers’ families and Mexican farmworker families. Rose dreams of going to college, loves writing, and meets women who give her the encouragement she needs to become a journalist.

Reading it, made me feel less alone, and made me want to share it. I read the last chapters of it yesterday, while riding a bus in Queens, New York on my way to La Guardia Airport.

Michele Serros' book - a seminal discovery.

When I first moved to New York in 1990, I asked someone who’d been living there, “Where do the Mexicans live?” She was Latina, maybe Puerto Rican, and she said that as far as she knew, they didn’t. No Mexicans? It was impossible for me to imagine. Yet, when I got there, I discovered a city where being Latin meant being Puerto Rican, or maybe Dominican. There were no Mexican taquerias, no tortillas in the markets. That summer, I had to have my boyfriend send me care packages from California. The big box would arrive at my office at Time Magazine, and I’d shout with happiness to find it filled with tortillas, pinto beans and Pico Pica salsa.

Over the years, I’ve seen more Mexicans blossom in the Big Apple. At first, it was the flower guys I noticed, tending to the bright bouquets at the corner delis. Then, I saw the fair-skinned paisanos busing tables, passing for Italian in the Little Italy restaurants. A few years ago, I was in a Chinatown restaurant which was the sort of authentic place where a coworker had to make the order in Chinese. The entire staff was Chinese, but I had my eye on the silent bus boy, who tended to our water glasses and silverware without saying a word. I told my friend, “That one is Mexican.” She said, “No way.” We didn’t see him again until we had finished dinner and were outside waiting for our cab. He came out into the cold and began smoking a cigarette. I went up to him and said, “Eres de Mexico, no?” His face went pale. “Como sabias?” How did I know? I could tell, he was Chino Poblano, the “Chinese” Mexicans from Puebla state. He not only had the look, but I recognized his belt as one of the fancy decorated leather belts typical of the region.

Today, there are Mexican restaurants on nearly every block in Manhattan. The flower guys are now running the cash registers. Those are Mexican cooks at my favorite pizzeria. The chef at the nouveau-Italian restaurant I went to in Hell’s Kitchen is from Guerrero.

Yesterday, I got onto the E train, helping a young Mexican mom with an 11-month-old boy whose dark hair was outrageously long and thick, just as my own son’s was at that age. The Roosevelt Ave station is now busy with Mexican families and the rich smell of carnitas flows down from the taco stands outside. On the Q33, a young Mexican woman asked to slide by me, in English. Another girl helped her mother by translating the driver’s words and depositing the coins into the fare slot before slipping into the seat that her younger brother respectfully gave up for her – without having to be told to do so.

They’re not alone in the city. And though I felt adrift when I set off to become a writer two decades ago, discovering Michele Serros then made me realize I wasn’t alone. And reading Rose Castillo makes me see that I never really was. I may have felt so different from everyone else when I was growing up Mexican in my small California town, but there were, are and will be other women like me, those who don’t fit into any place with easy comfort. We’ve had to crack the molds a bit, make new molds, make way for molds that are being created right now.

But hey, they say that if you need something made right, call a Mexican.

I closed the pages of Farmworker’s Daughter yesterday and looked at the women around me there riding the Q33 through Queens. How different their world will be, I thought. How different it already is.

© 2012 Andale Chica

2 comments on “No longer alone

  1. Michele Serros is one of my favorite writers! One of her new works is featured in April’s Marie Claire Magazine. Have you read any of her YA novels – Honey Blonde Chica and Scandalosa?


    • I love her work. … I’m going to look for the Marie Claire piece tomorrow (I’ll be in airports tomorrow.). … I missed those two books, but my little guys are just hitting the ages where they’re able to entertain themselves for bits of time long enough to finally allow me to do some reading myself. … I’ll be sure to catch up on those. Thank you!


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