Sometimes it takes a cataclysmic event to unearth who we are. Even though I’ve been a bookseller of color for sixteen years, I didn’t fully realize until last year how great the need was for an inclusive bookstore curated and shaped by a majority of people of color. I started Duende District Bookstore this past January to celebrate the power of a diverse community expressed through the bookstore’s space for books, learning, and discussion for all voices.
But even this began somewhere. So I want to share how the cracks in my foundation formed nearly years prior, when I read a book by Daisy Hernández.
I can’t talk about building Duende District Bookstore without talking about Daisy’s memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed. Her book is the compass that led me to this road.
Working at Politics and Prose, one of the highlights is being able to host authors who you admire. As both a veteran host and often the only Latino on staff, I tried to claim as many of the few Latino-centric author events we had each year. It was important for me to welcome them into the bookstore because the space, like so many others around the country, was very white.
One of those events was for Daisy, so I took A Cup of Water home with me, intending to read just a few chapters the day before her event. I opened her book that Saturday afternoon and couldn’t stop reading until I reached the last page while crying.
I promptly called my mother to tell her I finally read a book by someone close to my age who shared my experience growing up trying to embrace two worlds—one white and the other Latinx—and how it shaped us as fragmented Americans.
Daisy’s book had dug up so many experiences and memories I hadn’t examined in years, memories that had continued to pile upon me. When I said, “I finally understand where I come from,” I could almost feel my mother’s smile on the end of the line, so far away from Washington, DC.
“That’s how I felt when I read When I Was Puerto Rican [by Esmeralda Santiago],” she said.
Daisy’s story has parallels with mine: The relationship of author and bookseller, the duality of our family’s origin countries, the in-between identities (hers from being queer, mine from being half white).
Daisy’s mother is from Colombia. My mother is from Panama. Daisy’s father is from Cuba. My grandfather is from Puerto Rico, so we hold island in us, too.
But sometimes our experiences are so divergent, it’s startling. My Panamanian family comes from an upper-middle class background in Central America. My great-grandfather was one of the Panama Canal engineers and much of the country’s original infrastructure had his hand in it. Education for his children was provided and paid for.
Such privilege led his children to make rash decisions and protected them too much from the world. When he was gone, my grandmother didn’t have a husband, but she had a child and couldn’t make enough money to support them both working for the canal. My grandmother, whose mental illness became apparent to us much later, felt so paranoid and alone without him that she took my mother to New York City without a word to anyone.
The shock for the nine-year-old girl my mother was must have been profound. She spoke no English, had her access to nearly her entire family cut off overnight, and then my grandmother promptly send her to a Catholic boarding school.
My mother was not allowed to speak Spanish or the nuns would strike her with a metal ruler. She learned from books. This story is an essential thread holding together my own origin story.
I can see so clearly how when my white father disapproved of my family speaking Spanish to me and my brothers, my mother still had that little girl inside of her that was forced to excise her language and culture takeover. We must exist in the white American space exactly as instructed—or else.
This is the fear that many of we people of color hold deep in our bones. My mother and I were separated from our family’s language, because that is the first step to being allowed to be “American.”
“White women dream for you,” Daisy writes. She mentions a teacher who tells her to visit Scotland if she goes to Europe. Most of our mothers have never been to Europe.
Latinos travel south, to visit family, take with them suitcases full of clothes and trinkets, then come back to the States with bottles of rum, packages of tamarindo or galletas. Mama once came back from Panama with iguana eggs, which horrified me and my brother and we demanded to know how she could ever eat such a thing.
My mother’s own children showing her how other she is! But mama could hit back, too. Sometimes I would say something to her in mangled Spanish and she would laugh. Then correct me. It’s too easy to shame the people you love most.
Like Daisy, I did have some white teachers through school who helped shape my dreams of being a writer, to reach for something very unpractical and more. But more importantly, so did my mother, who has her doctorate and walls of bookshelves. She may not have been to France yet, but those books took me everywhere I needed to go.
Mama always read my poems and took me to the bookstores each week. She also taught me how to live in the spaces that are not meant for us because I could slip into them more easily with my pale skin. It was her way of protecting me, of making sure I succeeded. And it’s not her fault that I bear the scars of living between two cultures and languages.
It is only recently that we’ve started hearing, “Decolonize your mind.”
But it’s time. It’s time to unlearn everything we people of color were taught. It’s time to make our own spaces like Duende District, a bookstore built by people of color with an open invitation for everyone to enter. Because I am the architect of that space and I finally found myself.
As Daisy puts it: “And in the end, you realize that it was you who had to wait. It was your own heart you couldn’t barge into.”
Angela Maria Light is running a Kickstarter campaign for Duende District Bookstore. Watch the video to learn more and make a pledge.
About the Author
Angela Maria Spring is originally from Albuquerque, NM and holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence. She has been a buyer and manager in indie bookstores in New Mexico, New York City, and Washington, DC. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including District Lines, Tar River Poetry, and Revolution House.