As I read Trenzas I began reflecting about literacy in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the effective ability to read and write was, and continues to be, available to a privileged few. During Iberian colonial times the marginalized residents of what was then dubbed the New World were excluded from the vernacular of the dominant personas de calidad, that is, from the language of the lettered elite. The Europeans who controlled the means of production and presided over the colonial social order primarily wanted the labor of the Amerindians, enslaved African captives and all the other lower-class nonwhite castas. Generally deprived of access to formal reading and writing skills, the exploited workers preserved much of their experiences orally in songs, legends, rituals, rumors, jokes, gossip, innuendo, doublespeak, metaphors, and other forms of popular expression. In a word, they created, nurtured and sustained novel ways to validate their world-views amidst a Eurocentric and classist environment intent on silencing, ostracizing, negating and erasing their agency.
After the former colonies became the modern-day states of the region, a restructured oligarchy of landowners, merchants, creditors and self-serving caudillos (strongmen) seized power over the liberated territories. As a result, new groups of materially impoverished people emerged to fill the changing laboring needs of the rural and urban enclaves, such as llaneros, gauchos, peasants, artisans and domestic workers. Not unlike their predecessors in the colonial era, they too received few of the social rewards available in the modernizing nations in which they lived. When their ability to eke out a living reached a breaking point, they reluctantly picked up whatever worldly possessions they had and migrated in search of better opportunities, both internally within the region and externally, primarily to the industrializing metropoles of Europe and the United States. Although the new American and European patronos (bosses) welcomed their hands—thus the term braceros or manual workers given to many of them—the new-comers sought to preserve their full humanity by passing on their personal stories of uprootedness, displacement, resettlement, and survival to friends and relatives, in a continual process “de generación a generación” (from one generation to another).
In fact, we owe some of the more iconic works of LatinX literature to pioneering emplumados and emplumadas who transformed these oral traditions into written narratives. As Ethnic and Cultural Studies scholars have rightfully observed, much of their literary production can be read as autobiography or as cultural ethnographies. By poring over such classic poems, short stories and novels as Yo Soy Joaquín, Bless Me Última, Down these Mean Streets, Working in the Dark, House on Mango Street, El Bronx Remembered, Dominoes and other Stories, Y No Se lo Tragó la Tierra and Barrio Boy, to name a few, the reader is immersed in the authors’ personal journey. Conceptually, Trenzas falls squarely within this artistic genre. Methodologically, however, the work significantly enhances this body of literature by creatively contextualizing the sub-texts expressed by working-class Mexican immigrants that are often missed, minimized, ignored or lost in translation.
Hernández Prósperi re-examines their interviews, which were initially designed to elicit information on the barriers driving the systemic miseducation of their children, to delve deeper into the expressive symbols, imagery and other cues that shed light on the class, ethnic and racial discrimination they faced almost daily in their adopted new homes. For many parents who had not yet mastered English, the language hurdles prevented them from being properly heard, and hence from conveying their feelings and from seeking remedies to their victimization. The author rescues their muted voices and allows them to speak on their own terms, revealing a wealth of new information, glimpses of their inner world that seldom make it to the mainstream literary canon.
In addition, he places these revelations in perspective by re-examining his family’s own transplantation from Argentina to the United States, a journey that was not devoid of many of the same challenges that other newcomers also confront. By doing so, the author does not explicitly seek to draw parallels and contrasts between the Mexican and Argentinean migratory and resettlement experiences in el Norte. Rather, he stresses the larger human picture by accentuating the role played by Latin American values in cushioning their transition to North American life. These values, of course, are contoured by the uniqueness of culture as it evolved in Mesoamerica and the Southern Cone, respectively. However, amidst this diversity Hernández Prósperi finds commonalities, including self-respect, determination, love, familism, parenthood, resiliency and an unrepressed desire for self-improvement (ganas). But he also uncovers, and lays bare, the painful legacy of colonialism in shaping notions of race and class that mutated into today’s cultural wars, white privilege, ethnic separatism, and exploitative laboring conditions.
In short, Trenzas weaves the quotidian struggles of “las otras vidas,” of those other lives often left out of the canonical narratives, into an engaging, bilingual work of poetic justice. By using trenzas (braids) as a mnemonic devise, Hernández Prósperi interlaces his interlocutors’ responses, which become testimonials, in order to knit a collective portrait of the interviewees and the world around them. The result is a literary quilt that reveals threads of self-reliance, of not giving up, of standing tall and of starting anew in a sometimes foreign land in spite of chronic poverty and the persistence of ethnic, racial and class-based exclusion, discrimination and oppression.