Posted in Phyrian War Chronicles, Writing Life

My Characters Become Argentine: Coming to Terms With My Latinx Identity

Last December, I went back to Argentina, where I was born and spent most of my first twenty years of life, for the first time in two years. The weekend before I left, I didn’t want to pack.

“I’m not going to fit in anymore,” I told my boyfriend as I lay lethargically on my bedroom floor, my suitcase empty beside me. “I’m going to feel like an impostor.”

“It’s your country,” he said. “You have a right to be there.”

He’s half-Latinx, like me—it’s actually one of the things we bonded over before we started dating. There’s something disorienting about being adrift between two cultures, two languages, two ethnic identities. You can feel untethered, uncertain, and most distressingly, you can feel like a fraud for trying to claim either identity.

After two years without visiting the country I was increasingly reluctant to call home, I had started to become comfortable tamping down that part of my heritage. I was a writer, a college student and later graduate, a member of the LGBTQ+ community; I had a large extended family in the South—I even wrote and co-directed a musical about a Southern family as my capstone project for my Creative Writing degree. I engaged regularly with all those other identities and spent a lot of time and energy figuring out what they meant for me. I gave my Latinx identity short shrift; I rarely spoke Spanish, I didn’t read books in Spanish, and if my dad hadn’t kept me up to date, I wouldn’t have known much about what was going on in Argentina—the financial crisis, the political turmoil, the corruption scandals.

When it came time to pack for my trip home, I felt guilty for more or less putting my Argentine identity on hold for the past two years. Who was I to go back now and pretend like I belonged there? And if I didn’t belong there when I went back, what did that do to the first twenty years of my life when Argentina was my home? Did they just disappear, dissolve into all my other identities?

*

On the overnight plane from Charlotte to Buenos Aires, I made sure to speak Spanish when I told the Argentine flight attendant that I wanted the chicken option—”pollo, por favor,” with the Argentine double L that’s almost like a “sh.” I spoke Spanish to the people next to me, a family coming home from vacation, before they could assess my gringa appearance and try to speak English to me. My fears seemed unfounded: I’d slipped back into Spanish without any trouble.

I had started to settle down for some sleep when it happened—my blood pressure dropped, my breath started coming in gasps, and I felt like I would either throw up or lose consciousness. I buzzed for a flight attendant, trying to keep calm. While I waited, I tried to decide what language I would speak to them. If I switched back to English, I would prove myself an impostor, reveal my uncertain identity. But I wasn’t sure if I could explain what was going on in Spanish—I was panicking, and how did you say low blood pressure again?

Instinct must have kicked in when the flight attendant arrived, because I explained my problem to him in Spanish and he calmly took care of me. After my blood pressure stabilizied, I slipped off to sleep, feeling that I had passed some kind of test. If I could be Argentine in a crisis, when I wasn’t thinking clearly, that meant I wasn’t just performing that identity. It was rooted inside me. It was genuine.

*

The first time I went home after moving to the US for college, I had trouble rolling my Rs and thinking of the right words to tell my dad’s family about the things I’d experienced and seen in the year I’d been gone. This time, despite being gone for longer, I didn’t feel as awkward speaking to my family. Contrary to my introvert tendencies, I found I looked forward to talking to employees at stores and restaurants, if only to order food or say “cuánto cuesta?” or “gracias.” I loved hearing Spanish spoken on the bus and on the street; when my dad’s family argued and voiced loud opinions, it felt comfortable.

A lot had changed, of course. Argentina has gone through a lot of social shifts in the past few years, from the growth of a new feminist movement to the greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. My cousins and friends used a lot more gender-neutral language and objected to sexist or homophobic jokes, even if the people in my dad’s generation mocked or questioned them for it. As a recent graduate of an extremely liberal liberal arts college, I felt pretty comfortable with these new changes and excited to join the conversation, fraught as it got at times.

During my trip, I planned to take advantage of my time off from work to finish the first draft of the second novel in my YA fantasy series, The Phyrian War Chronicles, and dive into my third round of revisions on the first book in the series. As I slogged through edits that sought to deepen and expand my protagonist’s mother and her cultural identity, in addition to my hero’s own relationship with his culture and his family, I realized I was missing something. Why had I actively steered away from writing Argentine characters? My protagonist was bisexual, like me, and I was excited to provide representation for that part of my identity. But why hadn’t I made him Argentine, or even Latinx? Why was I trying to represent a minority I didn’t belong to when I hadn’t even attempted to represent my own? Was it because I didn’t understand my Latinx identity enough and preferred to explore an identity that didn’t force me to look inward?

On one of my last days in Argentina, I went on a hike with my dad. When my mom and brother are around, we speak in a mixture of Spanish, English, and our family’s own brand of Spanglish, but with just me and my dad, we stuck to Spanish. On the hour-long drive, we talked about Argentine politics and history. We talked about his family. About his childhood and how he had felt going to the US for the first time. About how I felt coming back.

Sometime during that car ride, I came to the resigned realization that I needed to make my protagonist’s mother Argentine. My protagonist, Orion, would be half-Latinx, like me. It was going to take a lot of extra work and revision. It was going to require me to reflect on my own identity and family. But I had to do it. First of all, for myself—because I was tired of cutting myself off from my identity, and fiction is the way I process and understand a lot of my thoughts and feelings. Second, for authenticity, because I wanted to explore Orion’s family and heritage in depth, and I didn’t feel prepared to do that if Orion’s mother belonged to a culture I didn’t have firsthand experience with. Third and perhaps most importantly, for the readers; I had never read a book, much less a young adult fantasy series, about an Argentine family in the US. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have had as much trouble coming to terms with my own identity or with representing it in my own fiction.

Orion’s family is very different from mine. For one, he was born in the US and has never even visited Argentina. For another, his father isn’t in the picture, his mother is chronically ill, and he’s left in the position of protecting and providing for his family from an early age. He’s also half Japanese on his father’s side, although since he hasn’t seen his father since he was four years old, he’s a lot less connected with that side of his identity; he will explore that more as the series goes on. But like me, he’s suspended between two identities. He feels like a bad Latino because he doesn’t know Spanish very well—even though I’m fluent, I can relate with the feeling of being detached from one of your parents’ languages and inadequate because of it. He loves Argentine food: empanadas, flan, medialunas, humita, guiso, Pascualina, dulce de leche. His house is loud and full of arguing, his mother’s expectations weigh on him and his siblings the way my aunts’ expectations weigh on my cousins, food is at the center of every social interaction, and personal space is unimportant.

When I told my critique partners about my plan to implement these revisions, they immediately encouraged me. I thought they might have reservations (probably because I did), but they had nothing but enthusiasm. Now I was committed—I had to go through with it, no matter how much more work it would be.

*

Leaving Argentina to come back to the US was hard. I knew it would be hard to stay connected to my Latinx identity and to my childhood on the other end of the continent. But as I ate a milanesa sandwich the airport with my grandparents, the last Argentine meal I would eat for a while, and thought about how I would have to speak English next time I ordered food, I knew I would return to the US with a stronger sense of belonging to the place I was leaving behind. I would live with my characters, who now shared part of my cultural identity. I had a few Spanish-language books on my suitcase and plans to translate my series into Spanish after publishing them in English. I had revised a few chapters of the first book and Orion’s mother and home life were coming alive for me like never before.

I was Argentine. I was a gringa. I was a writer. I had two different homes, which also meant I didn’t fully belong anywhere. And I was going to figure out how to be okay with that.

Chances are, I’ll be figuring that out my whole life. But at least I’ve taken a step forward, and hopefully my writing will reap the benefits.

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Author:

I’m a recent graduate of Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, with a major in Creative Writing. I believe that with great writing comes great responsibility: writing has the potential to empower, to foster empathy and openness, and to determine who we are as people and as a society. My favorite things include grammar, magic, futuristic science, and a good story.

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