Image credit: PEN America World Voices Festival

How are we shaped by the histories, cultures, and landscapes that surround us—and how does this inform the ways we engage, love, and hurt others? In the New York Times bestselling memoir Solito, acclaimed writer Javier Zamora takes readers on a 3,000-mile trek from a small town in El Salvador across the U.S. border. Throughout the treacherous journey, Zamora discovers the miraculous kindness and love delivered at the most unexpected moments. Poet José Olivarez, the son of Mexican immigrants, asks, “For those of us who are hyphenated Americans, where do we belong?” Olivarez’s newest collection, Promises of Gold, examines a nation’s colonial legacy and how the illusory promise of the “American Dream” has played out for Mexican descendants. María Fernanda Ampuero’s short story collection, Human Sacrifices, wrestles with exploitation and brutality against those in the margins of capitalism and patriarchy, and sheds light on the lives society consumes for its own ends. In “How We Became/Become: Latinidad, Identity, and Love,” a conversation moderated by PEN World Voices Festival Curator and poet Eloisa Amezcua, Zamora, Olivarez, and Ampuero explore how writing, in all genres, can help us grasp how we became the people we are, how giving words to our corrosive sociopolitical contexts can provoke deeper conversations about how we come to understand ourselves, and how, despite all the obstacles, we come to love. This conversation was presented by the PEN America World Voices Festival in partnership with the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Public Engagement on May 10, 2023. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Eloisa Amezcua: I’m especially pleased to welcome María Fernanda Ampuero, José Olivarez, and Javier Zamora. I wanted to bring these writers together, because I love their writing and because we’re friends, and also because I think something that I found in all of these books, is that—despite all of these obstacles that the writers themselves have faced, that their characters have faced in the stories, that the speaker faces in the poems—they’ve all come to some sort of understanding of love or hope for love, and they’re all books of radical resistance against the sociopolitical context that we find ourselves in globally and personally: patriarchy, capitalism, and violence. They’re all powerful counterweights to narratives of white supremacy and hate. 

I’ll start with you, Javier. What tools did you use in your book to shed light on the history’s culture and landscape that you’re writing from or within? 

Javier Zamora: I think the primary tool is voice. I wanted to show, in a subtle way, how we all learn the fucked-upness that is also part of being Latino or Latinidad. Using the voice of a kid, I included some passages about the “i” word, indio: we learn terms like that when we’re young and they become normal. And I included them as a way to self-critique, because we are taught these things from a very young age—hate speech and patriarchy and sexism. All the fucked-upness that we all learned from a very small age we carry into adulthood. Writing as a very naive kid, I wanted to show how easy it is to believe the norm, since we all aren’t born cognizant. We all don’t take ethnic studies or gender studies—sadly, it’d be great if we did—and we have to unlearn what we learn from a very small age. That became the tool that I wanted to showcase. 

Amezcua: And José, so much of your book has a self-awareness of what has been learned while also reaching towards an unlearning. How did you balance those two? 

José Olivarez: For me, it’s important to have a self-awareness and to kind of understand all the different ways that our political realities are pressing on us at any given moment. In writing the poems, I was drawn to these small, intimate moments, particularly between family members, where all these different nuances would reveal themselves, whether they were power dynamics or gender roles or things like that. You know, they don’t announce themselves necessarily, but in the way that someone speaks to someone, it’s there, right? It’s present in the texture of the language. 

I think part of that is from my work as someone who visits a lot of high schools and colleges and interacts with young people. What those young people want to talk to me more than anything usually is about, like, their relationships with their dads. They’re like, Yeah, we have questions about ethnicity and race and language, but you know, we have history to help us understand that a little bit, but why won’t my dad talk to me? And I’ll be like, yo, I wish I had an answer. Then I would stop writing, probably. [Laughs.] Those conversations made me wonder about what it might look like to start reaching towards more emotional language that I didn’t always get a chance to see when I was growing up. 

Amezcua: It reminds me of one of your poems, in which you say, “The most Mexican thing about me is I drink with men who don’t say anything about how they’re feeling until we’re drunk and almost crying.”

Olivarez: It’s unfortunate, but it’s one of my core memories. My dad is a very stoic person 90 percent of the time, but then when we would have house parties, towards the end of the night when we were sent up to our room to go to sleep—we couldn’t go to sleep because the party kept going—it’d be like three or four in the morning and these dudes would still be downstairs . . .

Amezcua: Never run out of cheap beer. [Laughs.]

Olivarez: Yeah. They would still be downstairs drinking and like holding each other, hugging each other, and crying and confessing to all this love that they had for each other. And I was like, I would do anything to be hugged by my dad on a given Friday, you know what I mean? I’ll never forget the difference between what they were like in the basement when they were having that moment together and what they were like on any given day after work. 

Amezcua: That reminds me of a passage from your book, Javier. “When we crossed the street, I hold his hand, something we didn’t do in La Herradura when he walked me to school or when he walked me to church. I was afraid of him, of his curt manner with Abuelita or his daughters. I was afraid of his deep, almost harsh voice, but I’ve heard other tones here. Seen him laugh a lot. He’s more patient than I thought.” 

Zamora: Yeah, fucking patriarchy, you know, machismo. It really fucks everything up. [Laughs.] I don’t know any other way to put it: both of my grandfathers were career alcoholics, and my dad went the complete opposite route. My dad never drank, but he did gamble. And so there are different ways that everybody learns to cope with what’s unspoken. And I think that’s what we’re talking about here. Silence is a huge part of patriarchy because you’re not allowed to voice what you actually feel unless you have an excuse. And that excuse for a lot of men—and I think people in general—is a vice. It doesn’t have to be drinking. It could be anything, it could be gambling, et cetera. It’s good to talk about it as men to unlearn and to unpack and to say that it’s not okay, and that we need to dream up different, healthier ways to cope and to talk to each other. 

Amezcua: You said it’s like silence—and one thing I loved about your book, María Fernanda, Human Sacrifices, and your first collection, Cockfight, is that they’re loud. They wrestle with exploitation and the brutality against people in the margins of capitalism and patriarchy. The protagonists of these stories are faced with cruelty and greed and loneliness, while trying to escape different kinds of violence. Can you talk about the tension between good and evil that you explore?

María Fernanda Ampuero: My books deal with the idea of good and evil, and that in turn revolves around perpetrators and victims—those who squash and those who end up being squashed. In terms of my literature, what’s most important is the victim. 

Amezcua: And what keeps the victim in your story moving forward? 

Ampuero: I think what moves us forward is this impulse to live and to love. And if you’ve read my work, you know that I’m not corny. But there’s this love, this impulse for life. It’s Eros versus Thanatos, which is death. And the fact that your parents want you to have a better life than you did. It may not be better, but they trust that it will be. 

Amezcua: For all three of you: How—despite all the obstacles—do we come to love? Because I think all your books come to love, whether fiction or memoir or poetry.

Olivarez: How do we traverse the obstacles placed in front of us and, and land at love? For me, it’s important to recognize, to try and imagine different possibilities, because so much of what we are told is impossible to tear down is, in fact, constructed. Right? And if it was constructed, then it’s something that was imagined. And if it was imagined, that means there are other possibilities. Just because we organize our lives in a manner that places capital above the working circumstances of us and our loved ones doesn’t mean our lives have to be organized that way. Right? For me, writing poetry is an attempt to imagine what those other possibilities might be, and at least make the attempt to reach towards those other possibilities, even if some of those attempts will fail. 

Zamora: I think for me, how you arrive at love, in my own personal journey, is trauma. My dad left and fled the country when I was one year old. To me, his absence wasn’t really that big a deal. I had my grandpa, a complicated father figure as well, but I had my grandma. I had my mom, even though my mom had what in this country we would call postpartum depression. Even though we lived across the street from a clinic, we didn’t have that language. And in our countries, we still don’t have that fucking language, which would be very crucial if we did. But because we didn’t have that language, you know, violence is very normalized. 

But even in that violence, as a little kid, I knew that I loved my mom. When she left, I missed her, even though it was complicated. And when you remember things, you usually remember the good things first. I didn’t remember her beating the shit out of me, I remembered her hugs, I remembered her kisses. And I yearned for that, and it is that love that gave me hope. Hope is very crucial when you’re in a life and death situation, like crossing three borders. 

I truly believe that no one is completely bad, you know? And if you understand that, then we can begin to really understand why we—as individuals and the humans around us—do things. I think love is the engine that propels you forward. 

Ampuero: I have a rather complicated relationship with the term love because I would say for girls of my generation, the main objective of our lives was to grow up and find a Prince Charming, who would wake us up from a state where we were half dead. The narrative was one of romantic love. In addition to Disney, there was TV Azteca with the soap operas, and we learned growing up that love meant suffering, suffering badly. When the main characters in the soap operas would pour out their souls to their friends, the friends would say, Pardon him, follow him, keep after him. [Laughs.] Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? Well, these soap operas wouldn’t pass it. 

There are many problems with this, but one of the main issues was the concept of beauty. And these actresses who played these roles—maybe you’ve heard of Thalía? So Thalía was the typical poor girl who was coming out of the slums with her face stained with dirt. And suddenly she became a striking, dazzling beauty, a blonde with green eyes. She was like Cinderella. And the message to people like me was that that was not for us: nobody would look for anyone like me, nobody would love anybody like me, and nobody would pursue anyone like me. People like me were the evil people, the malignant ones, and we were the people who destroyed everything that was good. 

I believe that love is really revolution, and that revolution is feminism. The type of revolution I’m talking about is an anti-colonialist revolution that comes from the bottom and doesn’t come from the whites. It’s a revolution that comes from Indigenous people, from the immigrants, from the queer community, from the trans community. And from love. I think that type of revolution will bring us to the goal of living happily ever after. And that living happily ever after can take many forms. It might be just you with your friends. It might be you and your cats or dogs, as is my situation. [Laughs.] It could be your relationship as a couple, whether or not it’s a binary couple. But for there to be true love, you have to love yourself. And you can’t get to that without an authentic revolution—the feminist revolution we all are aspiring to.

Poet Eloisa Amezcua is the PEN World Voices Festival Curator.

Poet and fiction writer María Fernanda Ampuero’s latest book is the short story collection Human Sacrifices.

Poet José Olivarez’s latest collection is Promises of Gold.

Poet and nonfiction writer Javier Zamora’s latest book is the memoir Solito