Author Q&A with Daisy Hernández: “I was confused why the American Dream didn’t get to include everyone”

By Michael Krumholtz April 13, 2018

Daisy Hernández’s memoirs – arranged into three parts of essays in the book “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” – show just how strongly Colombian and Latino cultures can manifest themselves abroad. The daughter of a Colombian mother and Cuban father, Hernández was raised in New Jersey in the U.S. and maintained a deep connection with her Latina roots in her narrative that weaves between the hilarious and the tragic.

From the book’s namesake superstition used to catch bad spirits to the sprinkled assortment of iconic dichos said by her mother and aunt throughout, the essays are quintessential of growing up as the child of immigrants in the U.S. where the image of the “American Dream” can often turn into a much tougher reality. Hernández, who also recalls her coming out as queer to her family in the text, uses “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” to beautifully remind us that nothing matters more in defining our own identities and the connections we make than the language and words we use.

“Us. My future is always plural. It is always about my mother and my father and my aunties and my sister. The pressure is enormous, and La Viejita is here to ease the sensation that comes over me whenever I think of the years ahead: the feeling of a fist squeezing my throat,” Hernández writes.

Currently serving as a professor at Miami (OH) University and working on a literary biography of the Chagas disease, Hernández spoke to the Bogotá Post via telephone recently. Excerpts follow.

Bogotá Post: I want to get to your book and I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I have to ask you about the time I think you were writing something for NPR and were using the word ‘gringo.‘ Fox News and (former host) Bill O’Reilly charged – which hilarious coming from Bill O’Reilly of all people – that you’re using racist vitriol. What was your response at first of those charges and has your response or view on the word changed at all since then?

Author Daisy Hernández

Daisy Hernández: Before it was on Bill O’Reilly show I was just noticing how the article was getting a lot of comments online. And so I tried to engage some of those readers online by explaining who you know in different communities. I would say that often in Colombian (communities), at least where I grew up it was a pretty neutral term. I didn’t think of it as derogatory. But all of my chicano friends called me to be like,’ I can’t believe NPR  let you get away with that.’ I did not seeing see it as being racist language on my part.

If anything it just pointed to the complexities of Spanish and different cultures. Because there was someone at NPR who checked the article for sensitivity reasons and he was Cuban and he didn’t think there was anything wrong with ‘gringo.’ My thoughts on it have not changed but I do more explanation when I’m talking and using the word at colleges.

BP: With the “Qué India” essay, there are definitely sayings like that which you hear in Colombia that are a little problematic like the phrase “trabajando como un negro.”

Do you think Spanish speakers could use a revolution with some of these phrases? And is it ultimately okay if it comes from people in the U.S. who speak the language or Latinos living there – Or isn’t there an inherent problem if these people come to Colombia and say you need to change the way you speak?

DH: I think communities in Latin America, as well as communities here in the U.S. share a lot in common in that racism is prevalent. And you see that in the language so the phrases of um, you know calling someone an Indian, or as you’re mentioning to describe the black community, I think they are just really incredible and powerful indicators of the racism in the community and a lot of times it gets it does get dismissed by saying: ‘Oh, that’s how we talk here. That’s cultural.’ Racism is not cultural. It’s just racist.

And I think you’re seeing you know a lot more organizing happening in Afro-communities across Latin America. We definitely have a different history in the U.S. to race relations than we have in Latin America, but it doesn’t mean that Latin America isn’t racist and that we’re not seeing that in the language. I do think Latin America needs to change around race. It’s happening slowly in the same way it’s happening slowly here and is a very unfinished product.

I think it would be problematic for white Americans to go to Latin America with an agenda of changing how people talk about race because that evokes so much of the colonial past. And not even the past, but the current political situation as well of the U.S. trying to run Latin America. I think those of us who are Latina in the U.S., even those of us like myself who are the daughters of immigrants from Latin America, I think we do have a right to call out people for their racism. Even if we didn’t grow up there or spend a lot of time there, that’s still part of our community. I don’t think it’s as powerful as when it’s someone from the outside. I don’t think me going to Bogotá and saying ‘You all need to change the way you talk about race’ (laughs) is super helpful. Even though I see the country as being a significant part of my world I recognize that I didn’t grow up there.

BP: In the essays, there’s a pretty common thread throughout the essays of hate and discrimination. I think it kind of crescendos with the murder of Gwen, but also the treatment throughout of your family and other immigrants. Were some of your stories meant to kind of turn that perception of the American Dream on its head?

DH: Oh definitely, I definitely wanted to interrogate the image of the American Dream because that’s what I had also been raised on culturally as well in the US. So I was very confused as I grew older why the American Dream didn’t get to include everyone. It didn’t seem to include my parents.

Sometimes I thought, ‘Well my parents got to buy their house and that’s a big part of the American Dream,’ but then NAFTA happened and it was sort of this precarious financial situation that we were in.

As I grew older, it became clear that the American Dream was like also a very isolating phenomenon or experience where it was like you focus on you and on getting yourself to some higher material level. But it didn’t always necessarily include people from the community and bringing others with you.

What does it mean that I’m dropping my dad off at the unemployment agency and I’m going to a class on economics in college? Just these stark contrasts of different parts of my life.

BP: Another thing I found really interesting was when you talk about coming out. Everything in that chapter seems to always kind of focus back on how everything centers around dialogue and language. I’m sure it can be a very confusing time. Did language, and specifically writing, give you a sense of what was real during that time? And maybe being bilingual, did that give you a sense of like an anchor to get you through an otherwise confusing time?

DH: Yeah, I actually started this book with that second part. You know, the book is organized into three sections: the first a lot about family and religion, the second about sexuality, and the third about work. I actually started the book with that Part 2 of sexuality because I didn’t understand what I was experiencing both with myself and with my parents and I didn’t know how to make sense of my attraction with women and with transgender men. I didn’t know how to fit my queer life into the expectations that my family and I had had of me and I started writing just to kind of make sense of it.

I didn’t go through a period of pain or confusion. I did go through a period of – as I write in the book – of like being scared of people finding out before I was ready to tell them. I remember being really afraid that my sister would find my journal. Luckily no one else in my family read English and my journal was in English.

The writing made a huge difference in understanding not so much my own sexuality but really to understand well how did that fit in this cultural context that I had grown up in?

BP: And I think you mentioned in one of the early essays that the Spanish sayings – the dichos – ultimately inspired you to be a writer. Whether it’s Colombian Spanish or Cuban Spanish, do you still find artistic inspiration from these sayings or is it more kind of a connection to your parents’ cultures?

DH: I definitely find that the dichos wake me up to language and culture. Because I’m usually hearing them in a context of migration, they just tend to be really fun.

Awhile ago when I was telling my tía, who’s there in Bogotá, but I was telling her something like some news about the family and it was the first time that she was hearing it. So she was like, “Hasta ahora me desayuno” like “I’m only finding out now.” I love that and so now every time I’m shocked about something I’m saying “I’m just eating breakfast now!”

At one point with this memoir, I actually considered organizing the whole book around the dichos. I still want to do a book of essays structured around dichos because they’re just so fun. They just make you pay attention and think about language and they come to be really rich in imagery.

BP: Your memoirs take the title of it and you mention it throughout of these kinds of superstitious or spiritual traditions like the cup of water under the bed. This, to me, just like the dichos is something like super Latino or even super Colombian.

Do you think that this embracing of cultures when you were a child allowed you to really feel these traditions serving as an identity marker between your Latina self and your American self?

DH: When I was a child, I wouldn’t have used that language. Now when I look back on it, of course. I think just the dichos themselves were forming identity. But when you’re growing up and I think of the common experience with children of immigrants, which is like everything about your parents annoys you.

I felt like I saw a Spanish as a barrier to improving and working on my English and I was often frustrated that my parents didn’t speak English. Now, of course, I’m so grateful that they didn’t because I think I would have lost the Spanish if they had spoken English to me at home.

I think that’s also part of why when I started writing about sexuality. I also came back to experiences with my family because I did have such a strong sense of an identity as being the child of Colombian and Cuban immigrants and queer sexuality was never, of women specifically, was never really discussed in that context. But you know I had these dichos and I had these rituals and it’s like how does being queer now fit into all of this?

BP: By virtue of being in the U.S. and living there your entire life, do you feel now that, especially in this current political climate where migrants are made to be terrified of going outside, do you think that’s America with a systemic response of trying to whitewash everything and drive out any differences?

DH: I think it’s definitely a reaction to the rise in immigration and it’s really not new. For a project that I’m working on now, I’ve been looking more at immigration that happened in the early 20th century and at the end of the 19th century. It was just vicious political reactions back then, too. And that was also with Mexicans and the Chinese. Also with Jewish and so forth. It’s almost these common and predictable reactions that Americans have for a rise in immigration from countries that they don’t want.

Even with Trump, he does want immigrants. He just wants them from Norway. He’s pro-white is what he is.

I think that’s part of the reason that Latinos of any country will never quite be at home in the United States because, as we have been historically, we will always be seen as being brown even when we’re not brown.

BP: Did you get to travel back to Colombia at all as a child?

DH: I came a few times before the age of seven. I was coming of age in the 80s and so the last time I was in Colombia as a child, it was 1982. And then after that with everything that was happening with both the war there and the narcos of the Pablo Escobar era, my father didn’t want us traveling to Colombia.

I grew up not going to Colombia at all, which is really sad and is one of my regrets of childhood. Not that I had anything to do with it, but I wish I would have been going back and forth as a child because I see with my friends who went to their home countries as children that it gives them a particular ownership over their language and over their own cultural identity.

It’s like I did grow up with Colombia, but Colombia was on the telephone and on the news and in letters and money that my mother would send back home. We would do tape cassette recordings back in the day so that my grandmother and my tías could hear my voice and my aunties voices.

Daisy Hernández will be in attendance at the International Book Fair of Bogotá for a series of talks and panels in Spanish from April 20th to the 22nd. Her memoir Un Vaso de Agua Bajo Mi Cama is available now in Spanish by Rey Naranjo.