Richard Yañez, associate professor of English at El Paso Community College, was born and raised on the U.S.-Mexico border. He is also the author of a collection of stories, El Paso del Norte: Stories on the Border, published by the University of Nevada Press. He lives in El Paso with his wife, Chicana poet Carolina Monsiváis, and their son.
Cross Over Watertraces the first two decades or so of Ruly’s life. Readers follow him from home to school to college, watching him “wake up” to a series of discoveries about himself and the world outside of his home. He has a number of important guides, including his mother, whose wisdom he keeps stored in his memory banks for easy access. I was curious about why Ruly’s mother (and father, for that matter) don’t appear much in the book–a stark departure from what one would expect from a family that doesn’t display the kind of conflict that would alienate a child from his parents. Why was it important to keep him somewhat distant from his family on his journey into adulthood?
From the very first moment we meet Ruly at age 12, he is uprooted from the cultural spaces of a traditional Mexican-American family by his parents’ decision to move to a more affluent neighborhood. While his parents and older brother are busy and he is home alone, he begins a series of “drowning moments” (in the pool, in relationships) that pivotal summer. He is forced to find solace in watching TV sitcom families, private viewings of home movies, and in the memories of old photos. So, while he does live in a nice neighborhood, has more than enough to eat, and has medication for his allergies, he is not “at home” at the onset of his adolescent life.
When his older cousin, Laura, who is considered the family “orphan,” moves in, she is the force that truly displaces him beyond the comforts of his family’s upward mobility. It was important to show Ruly’s growing distance from his Mexican ancestors’ traditions and values even if he didn’t have the full awareness to understand this. Each time I chose to not show a direct family member (grandmother, father, brother) in scenes, I felt closer to the emotional detachment that Ruly wrestles with throughout the book.&nnbsp; He hungers to return to “the house he was born into,” and he spends almost many years as he was old when they moved learning how to fill this void.
Body image was an interesting thread in the book, rarely explored in terms of the heterosexual male. But you made Ruly so self-aware of his misfit “gordo-boy” body. This body is his affliction in other ways–his many allergies, for example, but also his salvation–his habit of holding his breath in the tub, and calling each time he doesn’t drown a survival. Thereafter, anything he survives becomes “a lesson in drowning.” How does body image reflect a self-consciousness particular to the borderlands? Is the body another way to examine the complicated nature of perception: what others see (and assume or confirm) versus what the self knows (and disguises or reveals)?
Whether as an adolescent boy horsing around with his female cousin or as a teen trying to lose his virginity with girlfriends, Raul Luis “Ruly” Cruz follows the rhythms of his “birth-map,” what he calls his naked body. Although he continually works to explore new settings outside of home, such as, canal roads, house parties, make-out spots, what he really longs for is to feel the familiar warmth of loved ones (a mother who is too busy and aging grandparents). Generally, perception based on popular media is that families of Mexican backgrounds are a tight-knit group. In my experience, this is much more complicated than what is portrayed by commercial enterprises wanting to capitalize on the growing Latino market.
The emotional blue prints of homes built on Mexican and “American” values helped drive the intimacy of my characters. As a writer from the U.S.-México border, I am not interested in simply perpetuating the differences, which are many, between the two sides. Rather, I create from the liminal space(s) between memory/forgetting, risks/rituals, and myth/story. I do think that the most exciting literature from the Borderlands explores the physical boundaries of its people more than the politics sensationalized in headlines.
I must mention that The Rain God: A Desert Tale by Arturo Islas helped shape the body politics of my characters. My hope is that the Cruz Family in my book, like the Angel Family in Islas’s classic American novel, contributes to a growing understanding of the many masks worn in border communities. While it isn’t my goal to explain my culture to outsiders, it is part of my work as a writer to explore and exploit expectations of readers from all backgrounds.
Elena, the Filipina-Chicana feminist from California, is a critical part of Ruly’s becoming an activist in El Paso. She’s one more woman in a group of women (his mother, his cousin Laura, previous girlfriends) that have shaped Ruly’s sensitivity and empathy as a man. The message is clear: without these strong women, there would be no strong Ruly. How important was it to present such a portrayal of women situated in a border that has been the subject of such reports as the exploitation of women for sweatshop and domestic labor and the Juárez femicides?
With the publication of my first book, I was often asked why there was an absence of women in my stories. Over time, I admitted to myself that the main reason was that my grandmother who helped raise me had spent 15 months in a coma as a result of a stroke. Her limbo state affected both my emotional development and creative output as a younger man. It is also worth mentioning that I moved five times in eight years to three different states while I pursued the vocation of writer, leaving no real opportunity to develop any significant relationships with women. When I finally put all this together with the help of talk therapy, I felt better able to write about women. From my grandmother’s silence, I learned how to be a witness to the voices of other women.
I am proud that several readers, particularly women, have also shared their appreciation for Laura and Elena as fully drawn characters. I do hope that they serve as positive representations of mestiza women, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the profitable machinery of patriarchy leaves many victims. It is also significant to note that teaching the work of Chicana writers influenced the roles of women in my novel. Stella Pope Duarte’s Let Their Spirits Dance, Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood: Juárez Murders, Carolina Monsiváis’s Elena’s Hunger, and Demetria Martínez’s Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana are staples in my courses. Each author has also visited El Paso Community College, where women from both sides of the border survive and thrive in a harsh landscape. And I am lucky to call these important writers my amigas and allies.
You come from a long literary lineage of writers who have struggled with the negatives and positives of El Paso. Many of these luminaries have gone on to pursue careers and lives in other places, but you, like Ruly, have stayed to contribute to the well-being of the community. In Cross Over Water, Ruly’s decision is informed by his need to continue learning and growing, and he’s young enough that leaving sometime in the future is not entirely out of the question. What has been your own trajectory? Are leaving and staying not the same emotional commitment? And will your next project leave or stay in El Paso?
For the last eight years, I have taught at a campus that is four miles from the hospital where I was born. However, my journey from the Lower Valley of “El Chuco” (a Chicano moniker for El Paso) to a tenured professor has not been a direct one. Prior to returning to teach at EPCC, my time away from my hometown included completing three college degrees, earning two prestigious fellowships, teaching at five colleges/universities, and publishing two books. The migration to different academic settings was necessary to accomplish my scholarly goals. The fact that I was able to (re-)connect with stories from birth place was a blessing. Now that I have returned, married, and am raising a son here, the stakes for the activism and advocacy work I do is much higher. Over time, I am realizing that the reasons that I stay in El Paso are the same as why I often want to leave my hometown.
I consider myself privileged to be part of a long continuum of writers from El Chuco. From those who have passed away (Dr. Ricardo Sánchez and Estella Portillo Trambley) to those I consider mentors (Dagoberto Gilb and Benjamin Alire Sáenz) to contemporaries (Sergio Troncoso and Christine Granados), the voice and vision of El Paso authors are as resilient and vast as the Chihuahuan Desert. One must be willing to adapt and change, as well as accept this challenge, if one is to survive the unforgiving landscape.
I am currently working on a manuscript titled Beyond Italics: The Work and Witness of a Chicano Writer. While much of what I have so far is non-fiction, I am not restricting myself to any one genre. I am as much influenced by epistolary forms as I am by hybrid texts. What I am most invested in is re-tracing the experiences, events, and emotions that have empowered me as a Chicano Writer. More than simply writing a memoir of my personal life, I want to document both the struggles and triumphs of my literary journey. When complete, I trust it will be a book I sought before I understood the full meaning of “Chicano” and the importance of “Writer” to that understanding.
If staying in El Paso continues to give me the opportunity to place my work in the hands of young readers and would-be authors, then maybe I will have a deeper appreciation for my origin being my present destination.