Telling our necessary truths: A Conversation with Janet Rodriguez

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Writing a family memoir would be daunting to any writer, but when Janet Rodriguez took on this challenge in her debut book, she brought together five generations of her family and compiled their collective story with a generous and enduring spirit. The result is Making An American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Publishing & Nopalli Press, 2022), a memoir that explores how one family endured economic challenges, social pressures, and a systematic stripping of culture and identity, yet still stayed together and held on. The book is filled with photographs and family recipes, the proofs and treasures of a family’s persistence, love, and protection of their Mexican American identity.

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world.

Rodriguez and I have attended writing seminars together, chatted about books and writing in our monthly book club, and have discussed my own poetry collection. When her memoir came out, I bought several copies during presales and have since given a copy to several writers who are stuck in the middle of their first memoir. I spoke with Rodriguez recently on Zoom to find out more about her process and how she navigated the deeply personal task of sharing intimate family histories, especially those shaped by national histories and prejudices. We talked about her reawakened identity, the power of family stories, and why her history resonates with most immigrant groups today.

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The Rumpus: You are one of the keepers of your family’s stories, and the writer in the family. I imagine writing this memoir was often a daunting task. I found your writing to be like the people you’ve written about: full of love, warmth, and generosity. How did you realize these stories would be a book?

Janet Rodriguez: I think the book really is about my mestiza identity, which I’ve always struggled to put into words. I took a class on mixed-race authors when I was doing undergraduate work, which was pretty recent, and our professor had us write a letter to classmates. In that letter, we were asked to uncover two of our false beliefs or assumptions about race. Instantly, almost as soon as she said it, two of mine came to the surface. In Chapter Two of this book, I share part of that letter, including the way I always described myself to others: “I’m half-Irish and half-Mexican.” It’s odd, because in this country, people are fine with that. US citizens are always describing their heritage in bits, because the only ones from here are Native Americans. When I moved away, I lived in South Africa. Over there, people would ask us about our last name or ethnic heritage. “Where did you come from originally? Where did your people come from?” I would explain my heritage the way I did here, but they looked confused. They would say, “Oh . . . and here we thought you were American.” I think it was only then that I realized that was my nationality, especially if I were outside of this country. People always called me American, unless I was in South America, then they’d say I was from “the States,” because they identify as Americans as well. It was a rude awakening. 

Rumpus: The undergraduate class about mixed-race authors seems to have been a watershed moment for you as a writer, and helped awaken a desire to uncover something.

Rodriguez: Yes! That class introduced new vocabulary to me: erasure, internalized racism, and imposter syndrome. All these were terms that I had not grown up with, vocabulary that had never crossed my radar. When I think about it now, it was a very painful time. It brought up a lot of childhood pain, and even familial pain, when we talked about them. So this process, writing the memoir, was not only cathartic, it was healing. I could see that there was a systematic stripping of our culture, one that began when my grandparents came into the country.

Rumpus: At one point in the memoir, you identify that your family was forever trying to avoid the crosshairs of power-hungry men.

Rodriguez: During the Mexican Revolution, my grandparents were trapped because they were sustenance farmers who worked the land. They were poor and had no deed to the land, so they were seen as disposable by the warring entities on all sides. They came into this country with the Bracero Program, only to face the impossibilities of the naturalization process. One of the hardest things about being undocumented—and my grandparents were undocumented for many years—was their desire to blend in and not stand out. As a result, the next generation, their children, my mom and her siblings, received a lot of mixed messages. My grandparents wanted their kids to do well, but not too well; to be successful, but not so successful that they called attention to their family’s undocumented status. My mother said when my grandfather took them places, they had to be very, very clean, so no one would be calling them “dirty Mexicans.” God forbid they get in trouble! My mom and her siblings knew if they messed up they would call attention to their family, which could mean deportation.

Rumpus: You write about your grandparents coming into the country with the Bracero Program.

Rodriguez: The US invited the Braceros, a Mexican workforce, into the United States during World War I, to work the harvests while our citizens were fighting overseas. This was when the Mexican Revolution was in full swing. Only after people came back from the War, and the Great Depression hit, many Braceros were deported without ceremony. My grandparents stayed, and flying under the radar was a challenge. They had to keep their heads down, work hard, be irreplaceable, not make trouble. If any Bracero mouthed off or said anything to anybody who had any kind of power, they would be in danger of getting their whole family deported. That hasn’t changed, you know. It still is like this for undocumented families.

I look at kids from migrant families here, now. Most are quiet, well-behaved, and do everything possible to succeed. There’s always a part of them that knows that’s expected of them. That advantage—they still call it the immigrant advantage—serves them well when it comes to citizenship, but it’s necessary if their parents want to get naturalized. We benefit from that child coming up in this system, this mindset, because this human being has truly survived everything this country has: good, bad, ugly. They know what’s wrong with it and they know how to change it. That’s why it’s very good to have immigrant representation in government, because they can see the good and bad of our policies firsthand. 

Rumpus: After surviving so much to get to the United States, to then have to endure this constant threat and also this continual removal of pieces of their identity and culture…these conditions could easily lead to anger, resentment, etc. to say the least. How did your family talk about that time in their lives? 

Rodriguez: With my mom’s generation, all of them, there’s no bitterness. I can’t believe how little bitterness there is among them. They were raised with a lot of expectations, and so much was riding on their doing well. If they ever spoke Spanish in school, they would get in trouble, but they never got in trouble: “We just knew we didn’t speak Spanish in school.” When I asked questions about this, my mother and her siblings wondered why I would ask such a silly question. To them, it was a non-sequitur—“We would speak Spanish at home, but no Spanish at school, because kids at school spoke English . . . Why are you asking this question?”

Rumpus: Was this a surprise to you, or did you already know this before starting to interview them for this memoir?

Rodriguez: I think their reaction was a surprise. There’s a lot that I don’t understand now, because I grew up in a different time. I never understood why my grandparents would allow all their children’s name changes to happen. Why would these beautiful names, that meant so much to my grandmother, be changed in one day by one teacher? How could this be okay with my grandma? She never complained, and neither did any of the kids. It always felt strange. I realize now, after I compiled this family memoir, how a lot of people can look at my grandparents and say that they were complicit in their own erasure, but they really were not. There was a reason for their compliance, because they were still in survival mode. Instead of being in the crosshairs of the warring factions in the Mexican Revolution, they were trying to stay out of the crosshairs of white supremacy in the United States. They didn’t want to be deported; they knew what was back there, which was nothing. The Mexico they knew was destroyed and they would be going back to a war-torn land. My grandmother was one of the most docile feminists that I ever knew—she didn’t want to have anything to do with that patriarchy.

Rumpus: Some family stories go into personal details that could be uncomfortable to share. Your grandma’s ghost is often an empowering guide to you, our narrator, on the page, but she also had her own hesitations. How did you and your grandma’s ghost navigate these concerns?

Rodriguez: Grandma always worried about what people thought, and maybe she passed that down to me! I’ve had a quote from Kafka on my computer for a long time. It says, “Everyone is the necessary hero of their own narrative.” I think the key word here is necessary. We are the necessary heroes of our own narrative, our own imagination, depending on how you translate Kafka. In other words, to survive our life we have to give ourselves winnable outcomes, and achieve those outcomes. We have reasons for the choices we’ve made, and we need sometimes to make people understand those choices. One thing I’ve learned about memory, or family story, is how everyone has different stories. We all had to have a different story to be the hero. I have one aunt who remembers her childhood with such horror, with such violence, it’s a wonder she ever survived her childhood. Her sister, who is only four years younger, doesn’t remember any violence, mainly because she can’t. She cannot remember it. They are both cheerful and wonderful and life-giving, affirming women, but their memories are different. Their memories are theirs, and they are valid.

Rumpus: How did you navigate family members remembering things differently?

Rodriguez: You can’t say things like, “Are you sure things happened like that? I mean I read history about it. What about this?” After all, people remember their life from their eyes, their specific lens.

One day, after I compiled the family draft, one of my aunts called me in a panic. She was almost out of breath when she said, “Janet, since nobody else is telling you the real story, I have to tell you . . . ” Oh my word! As she’s telling me her story, I’m just listening, knowing this is something I’ve heard before. At the end of her story, I told this auntie that I knew the “real story” as she called it, but when I put it all in writing, my other aunt—she’s the one who was involved in this story—asked me not to include it in the book. She said, “Mija, I don’t know if I want anyone else to know this part of my life because it will take away from something more important, something I share only with my husband.” This was the key for me. EVERY story in this book was approved by the people who told it. I didn’t want a shoplifted history, a tell-all “gotcha!” memoir. I let every participant strike out anything they didn’t want in the book. Some people withheld juicy details I wished they left in; others were brutally honest. Some who read the book said, “What’s wrong with our family? Why can’t we just tell the truth?” Only after this memoir was I able to see the Kafka truth: We are telling our necessary truths. We are the necessary heroes of our own narratives. Somewhere inside all of it, there is a collective truth, one we can safely tell. 

Rumpus: It sounds like everyone in the family is the keeper of stories, but you had to decide how, as a writer, to put this work out into the world. How did you bring the family together on the page, even as the sense of truth and what’s okay to tell varies?

Rodriguez: I could see how everyone had different memories but I wanted to make sure this was a family project, which meant everybody had to consent to what’s in the book. I wasn’t going to be that person who says, “I don’t care what people say, I’m just going to write the whole truth and if they don’t like it? Tough!” This was all consensual. Every word that’s in here, people have signed their names to. I wanted to do that because our family story is hard enough. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit too cleaned up, but I can live with that. No one in the family is upset, and no one can say their story was taken from them without consent. I had to do it that way.

Rumpus: The photographs included in the book are a treasure for the reader. How do they contribute to upholding your grandparents’ final words to keep the family together? 

Rodriguez: I hope they keep the family together in a small way, because that was the main goal of my grandparents: Keep the family together. Don’t let it fall apart. That’s a hard task! How I defined myself at the beginning, a mixed-race author who never really felt like I had a distinct cultural identity, helped me to return to photographs. I began this journey by looking through pictures, which really do say a thousand words. I always liked books with pictures, especially memoirs. I really appreciate the pictures, even in the memoir essays. Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel has a picture of him on the front. That picture invites the reader into a personal reading experience, a soulish kind of exchange. The more pictures I could have in here, the better. The pictures I included, most from the twentieth century, were considered proof that a person existed. This says something: This is us and we were here, right alongside you. They were proof that you existed.

Rumpus: Each family member’s story is so rich in your telling. Each person’s story could have been the entirety of this book. How did you decide to tell multiple stories?

Rodriguez: It’s hard to look at the whole picture without having a chorus of voices. Looking at a family story through generations is much easier. Here’s what was sold to this generation, here’s what was sold to this one, here’s what was sold to this one, and then finally, what is being sold to me? What lies and societal products is my daughter buying? What are my grandchildren going to be asked to purchase?

Rumpus: You write that one of your children, Vince, makes menudo better than you do, and that it satisfies your soul. How does food reflect deliberate choices to pass things on? 

Rodriguez: At the end of the day, food became the great equalizer. It was the part of our cultural identity we were allowed to keep. The recipes included in this book are genuine family recipes that survived assimilation and Americanization. Even so, they are not 100 percent Mexican—most are Mexican American. These recipes are from this country, and that is because WE are from this country. Things like menudo, the Mexican soup so many people can’t stand, is the stuff we took pride in and passed on to our children without question. When I think of it now, I know my daughter, Alicia, also makes menudo, and she makes it better than I do as well. Making the time to cook food for your family, from family recipes that are passed down like a story, is a celebration of culture and identity. That’s why food plays such a big part in this book. These are the things we were allowed to keep without question.

Rumpus: Was there any discussion about whether or not these recipes should be shared outside the family?

Rodriguez: I’m glad you asked this question, because the book is published by Prickly Pear, run by Odilia Galván Rodríguez, a woman that I greatly admire. When she saw the first draft of this book, she wrote back to me, and said, “These recipes make the book! Why not put a recipe at the beginning of each section? Because of her guidance, I was able to see what she was seeing. Just like the stories, I got my family’s permission to share the family recipes. Menudo is not in there!

Rumpus: Your grandma’s ghost guides you and the reader as you bring together all these stories. As a reader, she stepped vividly into her own life story, especially during the scenes of her cooking and giving you tortillas.

Rodriguez: I’m so grateful to hear this! It is because of Grandma’s memories—like her recipes, none of which were written down—that made me write this book. My cousin Doreen plays big in the book because she’s the one that recorded my grandmother on cassette tapes. I was so happy to have these! Before I listened to them, all I had were my own memories of her stories, and her methods of cooking. Doreen even measured the ingredients before my grandmother mixed up batches of tortillas, or cookies. Without my Uncle Smiley’s daughters, our family wouldn’t have measured recipes—we would just have what Grandma told us! The last recipe in the book, the rosquillas, is a recipe from Grandpa’s Spanish boss, and his family gave me permission to share that recipe. So all of these original recipes carry the flavors of childhood and my growing up, especially the tortillas. It gives me pleasure to share these recipes, because (like our history) I know they’re going to survive.

 

 

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Jeri Frederickson is the author of You Are Not Lost, available from Finishing Line Press. She is the Creative Director of a nonprofit arts organization in Chicago whose mission centers survivors of sexual violence. She graduated from Antioch University Los Angeles with an MFA in Writing and from Hope College with a BA in Theater and English. More from this author →