Rebuilding the Essay
April 16, 2020 § 1 Comment
I met writer/editor Amy Roost and immediately knew that I wanted to be part of any project she was putting together. We’d connected at the Southern California Writers Conference, where she told me about the idea for an anthology, which would become Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. She was also starting a podcast on the same subject, so I came to her studio to tell my story. We’d talked a little bit before about our shared experience of the five stages of grief, beginning on 11/9/16, but it became clear as we talked how much more we had in common; our conversation was wide-ranging, deep, and full of laughter. So I wrote a piece for the anthology, based on my podcast episode, about growing up a hippie kid in Venice in the 1960s with a peace activist mom, and how my own activism had sort of gone dormant in my adulthood, but had resurfaced once Trump was voted in.
Fast forward a few months to when the book, now called “Fury,” was sold to Regal House Publishing’s Pact Press imprint: we contributors were told that the editors felt too many of the pieces were, like mine, focused on the election and the immediate aftermath, rather than being put into a more universal context. Also, the editors wanted stories from a more diverse group of writers, including Latinx women. I was excited to take on that challenge—to write about what the current administration’s immigration policies looked like to me as a Mexican-American woman, and hopefully substitute that for my original essay. Amy couldn’t confirm that the editors would include it, so I had to simply write my truth and see what happened.
I began with a very short biography of growing up in California in a turbulent time, and how I had gotten away from my activist roots until Trump was elected and started demonizing migrants and (the final insult) separating families and putting kids in cages and all of that madness. I used the opening section from the previous essay but I changed it from being strictly about my nuclear family—my mom and my brothers—and brought in my Mexican grandmother. Nena came to Los Angeles from Mexico City as a small child, and her father, Cesar Ulysses Silva, was a philosopher, poet, writer and an activist of sorts; he wrote about being proud to be Mexican in Los Angeles, back when that was not a popular stance.
That cultural pride was passed down to my grandmother, who passed it down to us grandkids—she would say when anyone spoke of things that were Spanish, “We’re from Mexico, we’re not Spaniards, we’re Mexicans.” I focused my essay more on her and my forbears, shifting away from me as a hippie kid and more about me as a Latina. The more I looked back, writing about my feelings and experiences, the more I remembered. I even included the time, just a few years back, when a friend commented that I didn’t need to “bring up” my ethnicity, like it was something I would want to hide—I guess so I could pass for white.
I wrote quite a lot to start with, about 3000 words, then started cutting, keeping my eye on the new point of view. As an editor, I always tell my clients that with memoir (it is true of all writing, but memoir above all) the hard part is not deciding what to put in, but what to leave out. In “Viva La Raza,” a tangent about my grandmother’s name didn’t make the cut. She was named Edmee, but called Nena—“baby”—all her life. We grandkids called her Nena, not knowing the word’s meaning; it was basically the same as “Nana” to us. But the tangent wouldn’t mean much to anyone outside my family, so I cut it and just kept her name, Nena. I also went around in word-circles, trying to explain her wonderful immigrant family, with its songs and dances and parties and passion, before shortening to a “typical” immigrant family. Since every immigrant family is full of talents and brimming with love, one can be typical of them all.
I read the complete essay aloud again, listening for the through line, and trimmed some more, to about 1700 words. Once I’d reworked it to my own satisfaction, the editors at Pact had a couple of edits (including changing Nena to Nana, of course!) and they liked it. “Viva La Raza” made the cut for the final collection in Fury, which I’m extremely proud to be part of. I am particularly happy the book is coming out right now, as we turn to another national election, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it resonates with my “tribe” out there—especially women writers and activists of color. Viva!
From Viva La Raza!
Now I get that a lot of Americans are casually racist, in a mostly invisible and unacknowledged way. I’ve been told with a smile, “You don’t look Mexican, so why bring it up?” I even had one dear friend say to me, sincerely, that I wasn’t “really Mexican” so I couldn’t understand what real Mexicans are like. (To top that off, he told me, “California never belonged to Mexico.” I mean, Jesus Cristo, seriously?)
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and writing instructor. Formerly editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, she is on the staff of the Southern California Writers Conference, teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink. Editor of Sea of Cortez Review, she was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies and national magazines, including Latinos in Lotusland, Books & Buzz, Sail, Cruising World, Science of Mind, and A Year in Ink, Vol 11. She lives in California on a sailboat with her artist-writer-teacher husband, Russel, and their dog, Ready.
“Viva la Raza!” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.