Juanita decided to write her life story and got pushback from her Mexican mom, who remembers their family life very differently. And memoirist and writing teacher Yasmín Ramírez shares strategies for reconciling different family accounts of the past, and offers advice for keeping ourselves honest when telling difficult stories.
Juanita E. Martinez is a lawyer, writer and performer. You can learn more about her work and her memoir Tales of an Inland Empire Girl here.
Yasmín Ramírez is a writer and writing teacher from El Paso, Texas. She is a 2021 Martha's Institute of Creative Writing Author Fellow as well as a 2020 recipient of the Woody and Gayle Hunt-Aspen Institute Fellowship Award. Her fiction/CNF works have appeared in Cream City Review and Huizache among others. She is an Assistant Professor of English, Creative Writing, and Chicanx Literature at El Paso Community College. She stays active in the Borderplex arts community and serves on the advisory board of BorderSenses, a literary non-profit. Her memoir ¡Ándale, Prieta!, by Lee and Low Books, is now available. Our expert this week is author and educator Yasmín Ramírez. Learn more about her work and her book ¡Ándale, Prieta! on her website here.
If you loved this episode, listen to Finding his Mom's Lost Father and She's Trying to Close the Emotional Gap with Papí .
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Hi everybody. Today we have Juanita on the show. When Juanita's father died, she decided to write a memoir. It was a really long process for her and a challenging one because Juanita and her Mexican American mom often have very different versions of what their family life was like. Let's get into it.
Juanita: I'm Juanita Estella Mantz, otherwise known as JEM. I'm a writer, a deputy public defender lawyer, and a podcaster and performer. I have two books, my memoir, Tales of an Inland Empire Girl and a chat book called Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender, or How I Became a Punk Rock Lawyer. And growing up I called my mom, mom, or Judy when I was a teenager, and I called my dad John, Big John, Daddy. I'm half white, half Latina. My mom is a 100% Mexican. Her parents were born in Mexico. My mom always loved cowboys, and my dad always loved fiery brown women. I started writing my memoir right after my father died. Writing the book became its own journey. There was a lot of chaos and violence and drinking in my household on my dad's part, and anger on my mom's part. As a child, I was scared of her and I thought my dad was this hero.
My mom was always angry. She worked two jobs. She worked as a waitress and at Circle K on the graveyard shift. My dad was a trucker turned bar owner, and we basically lost everything. So when I started writing about her, I had to reconcile who really my mom was. The memoir took me 15 years, and it was meant to take that long because the conversations I had to have with my mother especially, they were so difficult. At one point, about 12 years in, I did a live storytelling showcase where I couldn't have notes, and the story I told was about my mom kicking me out and I would go to the park at night and read my books. My mom would never let us spend the night ever. But in this story, when I had to tell it live without notes, you could make the implication that people might think I slept at the park.
My mom was so angry at me, and my sisters were so angry at me that I almost threw away the manuscript. And this was years and years of arguing about whose story was it to tell? Why do you have to tell that story? Why don't you tell the happy stories? We had a lot of good times. I mean, I really had, the whole book is reconciling my own history, my mother's history, my father's history, our shared history and memory. Trying to write about my mom and dad became an exercise in research. What happened to my own mother, that she had never told me these stories about how she met my father at a bar, the stress of my father and his addictions. And I didn't realize that as a kid. I took her for granted. I took the fact that she would give me her money from waitressing for books or for clothes.
I took it for granted. It's only when I had to start looking at it and then look at her history. My mom and I would have these conversations and I would say, Mom, I just really want to know what happened when you were young or how'd you meet dad? And she would tell me, Oh, he made me chicken in a can. Finding out those little details about my mom and dad and even their fights before we were born, that I was able to fully understand the complicated people my parents were. I think the conversations into my mother's history were hard because there was a lot of trauma. So to get my mom to dig deep, you can't rush something like that. You can't sit down with your mom like a journalist and just take notes. I think it was important for me to tell my story and my mother's story, and all of these stories, even though they were hard stories to tell, is that I really wanted to capture my family.
My mother was very concerned about me writing this book and publishing the book. My mom was afraid that I was going to somehow make her out to be evil or bad, that she was going to be a villain in it. And really she wasn't. There's no way I could have ever made my mom to be that way. But I think that when I first started writing, my stories were a little black and white. There was a lot of me idolizing my father. Right. My dad was gone and I missed him. But it was only when I was able to really find my mother's true character and how brave and strong and hardworking she was, that the book came together.
Everyone loves the mom character and they all say she's the shero dude. She kept that family together. Your dad, yeah he was the fun one, but he was also the drunk. My mom has read the book fully and she does go to some of my readings. She may not be happy with every story, but she accepts it and she's given the book out to her friends. Both her and my two sisters told me, You did a good job. So I mean, that's the best review I could ever get is from my family.
Lantigua: Woo. That was so relatable. As a writer and a storyteller, I recognize a lot of what's going on in Juanita's story from trying to get people to just open up and share things that are in their past to trying to balance your curiosity with respecting people who don't want to talk about things. But more importantly, her experience with her mom made me get almost philosophical thinking about big questions that are relevant to first gens and others, whether we're writing a memoir or not, like how do we come to terms with the different versions that our loved ones might have about how we grew up, about our family, about major events? Can any of us really be reliable narrators even in our own stories? And when our personal stories have so much to do with our family, are they really just our stories? Do we actually have the right to tell these stories? So many questions. So as usual, to help us figure it out, I called in an expert.
Ramírez: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here. My name is Yasmin Ramirez. I'm an educator and the author of Andale Prieta. It's a memoir about growing up on the El Paso border.
Lantigua: Same question I always ask. We heard Juanita's story, what did you hear as you listened?
Ramírez: I heard a very common struggle that I think a lot of writers go through, especially in the Latinx community of family just not really wanting to give the dirt, right? They don't want to spill the tea. There's so many hurdles in writing your memoir, but also you need the people around you to write it. There's a couple things she brought up of like that's not the way it happened. We don't remember it that way. So that's the first one. Right. And we have to remember that memory is subjective. And then two, if I sit down and I tell you or ask you, tell me about the most difficult moments in your life, the first thing you're going to do is just go back into your shell. Nobody wants to talk about those things.
Ramírez: And so it's hard because as a writer, when you're going through craft and you're thinking about memoir, you say, Okay, I'm going to write a memoir. Now what do I do? We think, let me interview people. But interviewing is one, being the interviewer you know this is a skill. And then I know I have to follow certain cues, but our mom or our abuelita, they don't know those things. They're just like, Why are you asking me? Why are you being nosy?
Lantigua: That's none of your business.
Ramírez: Exactly. And so I heard both of those things in the clip. I've always worked in positions where I have to make people talk. People love to talk about themselves, but you have to let them feel like they're leading the conversation.
Lantigua: 1000% correct. So actually that's a great place to ask you about something really insightful that you said, which is that you need people to tell the story. Please help us understand why that is a need, why it's necessary, but also how you can manage that in the process of writing.
Ramírez: There's a certain duality when you're writing a memoir in that it's moments that you lived or you were at least adjacent to living to. But then you have to sort of put on this writer hat and you have to take a step back and you have to think of your family or the people that you're including in your memoir as characters. You can't get emotional about it. That's the first thing, which is so odd because it's about your family, but you have to just listen and let things unfold. I had to interview my mother about my grandmother's marriages because she was married several times. She had this vicious kind of cycle of domestic abuse, which was not easy to hear,
Lantigua: Of course.
Ramírez: But I just had to let my mom keep talking. I had to let her keep telling me the story and I would just prompt her. And so then what happened? And then what did she do? Little questions like that. And I was just trying to take in all this information and not get emotional about it. It wasn't until after that she told me everything that I was like, Oh my God, I can't believe all of this happened. That distance helps you look at things. And so I think it's just reflecting on that duality of your role as this is about me and my family, but this is also about a story.
Lantigua: Right. This is the question that I've been dying to bring up with you, which is who gets to tell the story, right? Because this is very much about owning a version of it that could become the official version of it, or at least the version that's on the record. So that has a lot of real implications.
Ramírez: It does. And I think there's something interesting there, and I'll link it back to this idea of memory being subjective. And so I am the owner of my story, and it is my story and it is true. And you cannot tell me anything different.
Lantigua: And there it is.
Ramírez: And there it is. If someone else wants to tell their version of the story, they can go through the painstakingly long and sometimes tedious and difficult path of writing a memoir themselves and then sharing how they saw different things. But I think there's no way that you can say your memories are untrue. Obviously and that's where there's this idea of are we a reliable narrator? And the truth is, is none of us are because we have feelings. Just knowing that and trying to give the most honest portrayal is really important. Trying to stick to the truth, even when it makes you uncomfortable is important.
Lantigua: So you are I think, well placed in your intent. You don't appear to have any hidden agendas, but I think that people in the process of uncovering and rediscovering their stories can sometimes be tempted to write themselves in a better light, to omit things, to finesse things, to massage things. So Yasmin you teach this stuff. How do you help your student grapple with that gray area where maybe they're not coming off so great in this story?
Ramírez: So writing a memoir can be a very vulnerable place to be just because you do have to reflect and you do have to go to these kind of uncomfortable areas. So kind of as a rule of thumb, something I've done, and I don't know how I came up with this rule or where I learned it, but whenever I'm writing memoir with students, I'll share a piece of myself with them and it'll be a piece where I'm not maybe the best version of myself or I'm in an uncomfortable situation. And so that already opens up a conversation for us for them to be a little bit more real and acknowledge that we're all human, that we all make mistakes, that we're never our perfect selves. So that always encourages them to be just a little bit more open and a little bit more authentic. And I always encourage them to just follow the story. Instead of thinking, What are people going to think about me, I'm just like follow the story. Follow the story. Because it's those uncomfortable moments that are real and that's what readers connect with.
Lantigua: I accept that.
Lantigua: I think that that's a good practice, but I want to raise you a little bit,
Lantigua: Which is that often our parents and our stories are also intertwined with historical moments. Right. So many of our parents came seeking refuge from civil war. Many of our parents came during famine and other economic downturns. And so there are actual archival historical documents that can shed light on their personal stories. What do you see as the role of such resources when you are trying to write your story and therefore write your parents and your extended family story?
Ramírez: One thing that I did when I was writing my own memoir is I, so I'm from El Paso, I grew up here. I moved away for a while, but then I came back and I very much love living on the border, but I had to sort of navigate this space and finding how my family got here because I don't have an immediate immigration story in my family. And so I had a lot of help from my sister and we started looking back through census documents, and then I was researching just how El Paso became El Paso. And then we found like, oh, okay, so four generations ago, one of our grandfathers came here and then he settled here and my family just never moved. And so that was really beautiful for me to have this kind of skeleton form that I could go and fill in with information and historical information. And then the stories that my family had passed down from generation.
Lantigua: What type of judgment calls are involved when you find documentation that is more or less accurate and then maybe you're getting versions of events that defer?
Ramírez: That is going to depend on the author. What I would definitely say for me, one of the things that I did in narratively is I made it clear to the reader that I was making, not making this up, but thinking this is what happened. So my voice definitely changes slightly from when I'm writing about my childhood to where I'm going through this history. The narrative voice is really important here. And so that your reader realizes like, Oh, okay, wait, she doesn't know this for fact because one, she's giving a lot of description. And then two, she's letting us know, this is how I imagined. I actually wrote something very similar to that. This is how I imagined this happened. And so then the reader knows, okay, this is not completely factual, but it's based in as much fact as she could find.
Lantigua: All right. So it actually, that brings me to the last few questions, which are about context.
Lantigua: How much should a person who's telling a memoir version of their story on their family stories be concerned about the context in which the story will be released? So for example, being Latino right now is hot, right?
Lantigua: We are in Vogue. Everything Latino is selling off the shelves. And so there might be a temptation, there might be a motivation for people who do have interesting stories to come into, essentially a marketplace with a version of Latinidad that is related to who they are. Right. So that's one way in which I'm thinking about context.
Ramírez: Okay. If you haven't lived it, then I don't think you have a right to write about it. I just don't.
Lantigua: Okay. Wait,
Ramírez: I really don't think that. Oh and I,
Lantigua: Ladies and gentlemen, that's a bomb that just dropped. Take your time. Take your time finding your seats again.
Ramírez: Yes. Okay. This is why I think this. Okay, one in my memoir, I have two very best friends of mine who happen to be gay men and they're married and I love them so much. And I mentioned them in my memoir because they were a big part of my life. But I didn't go into explaining what it is like to be a gay man because I have no clue what that is. I would never write a memoir or a novel or anything fiction from the point of view of a person in the LGBTQ community because it's inauthentic. I could do all the research in the world and I would never truly understand it. One of the things that I struggled with, with writing my memoir was all the stuff I'd read had been very, they were immigration stories. They were first gen stories. And I don't have that story.
And so I struggled like, is this okay? Is my book going to fit in this space? Am I brown enough to write about this story? And then I realized, this is my truth, this is my truth because I lived it. And so that's where my big bomb comes from, because you can do all the research underneath the sky and you're still not going to completely understand what it feels like to be alienated for not being fluent in Spanish or being asked where you're from because you're from a darker complexion. And people will still say, no, but where are you really from? And that's why I dropped the bomb like that, because you just, you will never understand it.
Lantigua: Woo. Okay. Since the room is already on fire, please, please come back. Thank you so much.
Ramírez: Thank you so much for having me.
Lantigua: All right. Here's what Yasmin taught us today.
Get out of the way. When asking your relatives about their version of the past, let them talk, listen intently, ask questions, and don't let your emotional reactions interrupt the flow.
Stay real, even when you are not coming off in the best light, be honest with yourself and your audience. Your mistakes, flaws and your vulnerability make you human. As a bonus, they will also help you connect with your reader.
And remember, trust your version. Yes, we are all unreliable narrators. And yes, research, historical documentation and your relatives memories can be helpful, but your point of view tells a valid and authentic account of your experience that no one else can tell.
Thank you for listening and sharing us. How to Talk to Mami & Papi About Anything is an original production of LWC Studios. Virginia Lora is our show's producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Elizabeth Nakano mixed this episode. Manuela Bedoya is our marketing lead, and Juleyka Lantigua is the creator and host. I'm senior editor Monica Lopez. On Twitter and Instagram, we're @talktomamipapi. Bye everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “Writing a Memoir When Mamí Has a Different Version of the Story”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything,
LWC Studios., October 24, 2022. TalkToMamiPapi.com.