A Review of Jennifer De Leon’s White Space

April 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

In the foreword to White Space: Essays on Race, Culture, and Writing, Jennifer De Leon tells of  a tragedy that changed her life. In eighth grade, she and her family traveled to California to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins whom she’d never met. As a way to introduce herself, she created the “Jenn Album,” a compilation of some of her favorite pictures. On the way home, however, the family was robbed, losing everything: suitcases, jewelry, camcorder, and the “Jenn Album.”

As I read this, my heart breaks. Old photos not only take me back in time and place, but also trigger sensory memories. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, recall that pungent first taste of  licorice, hear the waves from the Jersey Shore, feel the bake of sun on my face, taste the salt on my lips, feel the first wriggle of a newborn in my arms. Take away the photos and, for me, time travel stops.

“I would spend my life making up for the family fotos that had been ripped from me in a matter of minutes,” writes De Leon.

Journaling, creating a “photo album of words,” is her first step in writing White Space, a collection of twenty-one essays that would win the Juniper Prize for Creative Nonfiction offered by the University of Massachusetts Press.

As the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who fled their homeland amid genocide and civil war, De Leon contemplates not only what it means to be a Guatemalan-American woman, but to comprehend the struggles her parents endured—giving up their language, family, friends, and a world they once called home.  

In the opening essay, “Mapping Yolanda,” De Leon shows us a dark side of immigration. De Leon is twelve when she meets her uncle’s new wife, Yolanda. She’s a fourteen-year-old girl with a baby kicking in her belly.

Back in the seventies when De Leon’s parents immigrated to America, “their lives dramatically improved. They worked hard, saved money, and in the early eighties bought their first house.”

However, this is not Yolanda’s story. Back in Guatemala, she was living in poverty. She was raped in the brothel where her mother worked. Though De Leon’s uncle tries to save her, Yolanda is so traumatized, she’s mentally unstable and attacks him. The next time De Leon sees Yolanda, she’s living in poverty with a man who’s not her uncle, and she has two more children. 

Some Americans don’t feel much empathy or compassion towards immigrants, because they have not had this experience and don’t understand it. De Leon becomes aware of this at school:

Once, in World Politics, a student in the front row with a blond ponytail and high-pitched voice declared that it was unjust for ATMs in America to offer Spanish as a language option. “Why don’t people just learn to speak English?” The hardwood floors and ceiling-high windows closed in, and I could feel eighty eyes on me. What did I have to say? Me, the Spanish-speaking representative in our classroom. I raised a shaking hand and said, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the word Florida means ‘flowered’ in Spanish and that Colorado means ‘red’ or ‘colored.’ These are words in Spanish because the Spanish were actually here before the English. 

In the book’s title essay, “The White Space,” De Leon’s father decides, after surviving cancer, to go back to work. He asks De Leon to help him write his resume.

“My parents can speak English,” she writes. “They can write in English too.” Even so, her father needs help with the language’s nuances and idiosyncrasies.

When De Leon reviews her father’s history, she realizes an employer needs to know more than just the cold facts about him. In the space for “objective,” De Leon wants to write: “to obtain a position within society that values the work of an immigrant, a husband, a son, a brother, a cancer survivor, a father, a smart and humble man who only wants to do more on weekdays than watch The Price Is Right while simmering rice.”

She continues, “I reflect on what is not on my father’s résumé, what is in the white space outside the education, professional experience, skills categories, and how it is the richness of this white space that I want to explore.” 

To better know her father and herself, De Leon travels to Xela, Guatemala. She climbs up the highest volcano in Central America, becomes fluent in Spanish, and performs a skit in the Spanish version of “Vagina Monologues,” which not only liberates her, but bonds her to the village women.

It’s a far cry from what happens to her in “The White Ceiling.” As a student at Connecticut College, De Leon makes the biggest decision in her life (at least at this point). Because she’s Latinx and Catholic, contraception is a bigger taboo than pre-marital sex. Even so, she’s determined to go to a gynecologist to obtain birth control pills. At the front desk, she reminds the receptionist to send the bill to her—not  her parents. Yet, the receptionist pays little attention.

“This is why so many young Latinas don’t get birth control,” she writes. “It’s an altogether unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience. There are too many walls to break down. Making the appointment over the phone when your parents aren’t home (and not giving a return number for confirmation); driving to the clinic and feeling humiliated, ashamed, and doubtful in the waiting room; and then making it into the exam room where the staff continues to patronize you.”

She adds, “This is why so many of us find ourselves in the same position, under the same white ceiling, later—when it’s too late to get birth control. Yet, I wanted a different path. And so I chose it.”

De Leon’s essay might end with a victorious Latinx girl, obtaining birth control, defying her parents and cultural norms. Yet, as with most of De Leon’s stories, she rarely travels the predictable path, and this one offers a twist. It’s just one of the ways De Leon resonates with readers, opens their minds, and persuades them to see the human side of the immigrant story.  

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have been included in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.  

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