Book Club with Mx.Hernandez
The moms walk into the teacher’s lounge where we have class carrying Tupperware bowls and aluminum covered dishes. They set everything down with their thick brown hands and unleash a cloud of spicy and savory aromas. They open the sour cream, take the repollo out, and I grin because I know it’s my favorite dish: cheese and bean enchiladas! Noise erupts from their mouths and hands. Everyone catches up from the long week of not seeing each other, kisses on the cheek, and hugs. It’s week four of our Family Literacy/Book Club. We hurry and eat steamy, chile drenched enchiladas before taking our books out and sitting at a round table to begin class.
The moms, immigrant women mostly from Mexico, but some from Honduras and El Salvador too, follow along while we take turns reading Brida by Paulo Coelho. Mom after mom, they take on the three to four page chapters. Everyone reads in a different accent, at a different speed, and has different attentions to punctuation and tone, but nevertheless they read and enjoy the book. The moms love the book so far, I hear them talking about it in the hallways when they drop their students off at school; some confess they’ve read ahead. They see themselves in Brida, the protagonist of the story seeking to be a witch — they too want to manifest the woman they’ve buried deep inside themselves, but they don’t know how. The chapter we’re on poses the question: will Brida be able to give up the love of her life for the attainment of spiritual evolution, wisdom, and transcendence?
The goofiest, loudest, and best-story-teller mom shares that she left her country with saved up money, crossed the border undocumented, and encountered mishap after mishap to meet up with her lover “on the other side.” He never showed up. The more reserved, keenly observant mom shares that she left her children behind, the loves of her life, to make it to safety in a new country. She eventually orchestrated her children’s travel and now they live together in Inglewood, but this was after years of distance. The stout and pious mom shares that she can’t give up her love, because what is she without her husband?
I sit around and listen to these immigrant moms and think of my own; she who left a whole world behind for fear of dying with me in her womb. My father bewitched two women. One was his angry wife with three children and another baby on the way, the other was my mother. When my father’s wife realized I was sprouting inside my mom’s womb she showed up with a shotgun at my mom’s job and wanted us dead. My half siblings stoned my mom’s car and grandmother’s house. They knew everything about us: where we lived, how we lived, where everyone worked. So my mom, the “other woman,” packed our bags, pulled me from my grandmother’s nurturing arms and fled to the United States.
Our Brida books are set in front of us, a hand or finger holding onto the page we’re reading. The discussion question I posed after the chapter has everyone digging deeply inside, scavenging wet earth — processing, and sharing their muddy findings. But after all the moms share their descriptive stories they look to me. It’s my turn. Am I willing to give up the love of my life for the attainment of spiritual evolution, wisdom, and transcendence? For starters, I have never, ever had to make any major decision that had my life or any other on the line like these women have. Although I am an immigrant, mom made that choice for us. She struggled, lived in the outskirts of society to avoid deportation, but I was a child nurtured in love and a veil of security. My mom took the trauma of displacement, of feeling lost and belittled in the face of a nation that hated her. She would fight it so it didn’t hate me. Today we are both citizens after 25 years of living in the United States.
These immigrant moms have migrated long distances and have exposed themselves to violence, heart-break, and a foreign land for the sake of survival, of a new beginning. They have outlived their ancestors, yet they are not residents or citizens, yet they struggle with domestic situations and their kids growing up in the hood. And here I am. A 25 year old full-time 8th grade creative writing and art teacher teaching their students. Bi-weekly pay, undergrad complete, fully clothed, and pescatarian. I have an apartment I share with my mom only a corner away from the school. I splurge on books and go on spiritual retreats. No me hace falta nada. I have my shares of oppressions because of my queer, trans non-binary identity, I grew up in the hood too, but I’m holding it down. I have a black Kia Soul, so mobility isn’t a problem. So what is it I’ve had to wager in life?
What major decision have I had to make to define myself in this world? I look to them with tears in my eyes, shake my head and shrug because I cannot speak yet. They tense and lean in, furrow their brows and their eyes well up with tears, because for them I’m their anchoring, strict and unmoving Prof, the teacher that holds space for them to share stories, who provides tareas and discussion questions, the person that helps them practice their literacy and reminds them how important their stories are for the world. The heart-strong teacher who gives advice and holds their tears, teaches them about mindful listening and speaking, not just chismes and gossips. They can’t believe I’m cracking before them. I can’t believe it either, but I surrender.
“I want to be as courageous as you all. I want to be an amazing teacher like the one you all have separately been for me. I want to have the courage to finally let the person I love know I love them. I want to make leaps and not live in fear, because I have for so long. I want to define my life and not be a product of my fear, environment, qualifications, certificates, and status in society. I am going to choose love, because with love I’ll discover the world.”
I didn’t quite answer the question, partially to save myself from the task, but we came out of class number four a certain family and powerful force. Family Literacy/Book Club is where we let literature lift our own voices up. It’s where we humble ourselves and meet intergenerationally. Every Tuesday from 4:30-6:00 pm is holy communion. Most of the moms preface their stories with: I’ve never shared this before, and this is where it all begins. This is what courage looks like and it reminds an existential 25 year old queer immigrant from Inglewood, California that life is rich, bursting in color, and there are no limits. None whatsoever.
ACCOMPANYING ARTWORK BY THE AUTHOR
banner compilation by Christina Roman