If you were to ask me why I write, I would say it's because I am bicultural, because I suffer from depression, because I felt alone for so long, because reading the vulnerable words so many authors have put into books taught me that I too belong to this world and to you and to myself. But mostly, I write because I need you and see you, and I write out of the desperate and fragile hope that you might see and need me too. I see writing as a way for me to create a path of connection to others, to this life, and to myself. It's not easy to forge a path through all the debris of self-doubt, fear, self-hatred, and outside messages of selfishness and expectations. This is why I write in the mornings, because that is when anything and everything feels possible—or at least enough to warrant an attempt.
I wanted to write since before I could read. I learned to read at a very old age; having two languages crammed into my head at once was hard for my kid brain to process, and it took several years for it all to finally make sense. I explain it this way: You know how some people are gifted in languages and can pick up a new language in two seconds flat? Well, if that is possible, then the opposite is possible as well—and that is the case with me and my mom.
I struggle a lot with both languages. And I still feel a lot of shame for my confused Spanish syntax and my terrible English grammar and spelling. Maybe five years back, my mother found a school journal that I had to keep for an English class. She laughed when she handed it to me and said something like, "It's so cute! I saved it for you, I think you were in the third grade when you wrote this!" When I read the journal, to my horror I realized that it was a journal from when I was in the seventh grade. My spelling, grammar, and handwriting were so bad that my mother confused thirteen-year-old me for a nine-year-old me. I felt such shame that I never corrected her and threw the notebook away. Now, as I write this, I wish I hadn't done that. Instead of shame, I wish I had felt pride for how much I have grown and learned.
If you were to ask me about my style of writing or use of language, I wouldn't be able to answer. I mean, I could answer, I am capable of it, but it wouldn't be truthful. I write out of a sense of vulnerability and do my best to write in whatever way I can so that the words can ring with a sense of honesty. I write to invite the reader in. Connection is what drives me as a person and as a writer. Last year, I had the honor of attending a Q&A session led by the poet Robin Coste Lewis, and she said something along these lines: "For a long time, I wrote clever poems, I must have written hundreds of clever poems, but then the thought came to me—who wants a clever poem when we are all about to die?" That shook me as a writer and a person. I had also written thousands upon thousands of scribbles of golden sentences—but what did they say about life? About humanity? About the human existence?
I wrote "American Dream," which is loosely based around my own life, right after hearing Robin Coste Lewis speak. Her words filled me with a sense of urgency to share with others what was most pressing to me: my own story of disconnection and displacement that had nearly killed me not so long ago. And the hope that sharing a story so painfully personal could help someone else. I took my own experience with my childish hope that place could transform me into someone else and gave it to my character La Nena. Like me, La Nena is a young girl who desperately wants to belong—to anywhere and anyone but to herself.
I wrote this story during a moment of political turmoil in Puerto Rico and the United States. Hurricane Maria had just devastated Puerto Rico, and I was struggling with how to process the guilt of having chosen to leave the island a year prior and cope with the anger, sadness, and helplessness that washes over a person when tragedy hits home. Around that time, I was thinking a lot about the American identity and who was allowed to claim it. From these questions on identity sprung this story about the American Dream. I wrote this story because I wanted to explore the different meanings the term holds, the cost of it, the people who have had to pay for that dream to be achievable for others, and what it was about the US that turned my mother and me into two arrows pointing in opposite directions: hers pointing away from the US and mine pointing toward the US.
It might sound overdone or oversensitive or maybe plain obvious—of course I write to connect, we are human beings, we live to connect. But it's exceptionally personal to me and important. There were many factors that contributed to the belief I had that I was incapable of connection, that I wasn't worthy or enough for it. Up until four years ago – also the time I started writing – I truly believed that I was in a crack in this big world and I could never belong to it.
I don't really know where to begin my story of how I chose this path. Do I start with the beginning? Of learning to read at way too late of an age? Of my mother handing me the school notebook that she thought was from when I was in the third grade? Or do I start earlier than that? With my parents? How I was born in Puerto Rico to an American mother and Puerto Rican father? And how I straddled these two identities never really believing I had a home in either one of them? And how I used to believe that if I had no home, then I had no voice anyone would want to hear?
Do I begin with my mental health? With depression? Do I begin with the moment I had to come to terms with the fact that I suffer from depression? Or the moment I was so painfully forced to realize that I deserved more? That I deserved a life of managed and controlled depression? Do I start here? At this moment of deep vulnerability and fear and hope and the Ralph Ellison quote tacked above my bed, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" The moment when I recognized the raw cry of hope and need for connection in Ellison's words? Is this the moment? The very Earthly small moment, yet internally a ginormous moment of peace and belonging and connection? This is the moment I started writing.
But I could very well begin with my mom and the way she has always pushed me to do everything that scares me. Teaching me again and again of my own resilience and how my hopes are precious and sacred. Do I begin with the people who tirelessly read my work before my stories were stories and just pages upon pages of dense description—because I needed the reader to see, to know, to understand the small movements of grace I saw everywhere?
Or do I start with this: I write for you and I write for me and I write for us. Because I belong to you and you belong to me. And nothing brings me more hope and more fear than that.