By Lee Anna Sherman
Kayla García was 16 the first time she conversed with a native Spanish speaker. Riding in the front seat of a taxi in Mexico City, the high school girl from La Crosse, Wisconsin, found herself chatting comfortably with the cabbie just minutes after deplaning. Traveling with her younger sister and her feisty 80-year-old great aunt, Helen Jefferson (Aunt Jeffie), and equipped with five years of secondary-school Spanish lessons, this descendent of Daniel Boone was about to discover her other self — or maybe her truer self — at the Instituto Allende, a language school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There, she spent the summer immersed in a second language that would become as familiar as her first, and would shape every aspect of her identity and profession.
A professor of Spanish in OSU’s School of Language, Culture & Society, García has just launched her newest book, Latino and Latina Leaders of the 21st Century, which celebrates the “Latino spirit” she embraced fully as a young girl and then internalized deeply over the decades. “Latino issues are everybody’s issues,” García writes in the introduction. “In a story by Sandra Cisneros, a character called River merges with all the waterways, lakes, and oceans of the world, ‘washing away the dead … bringing new life, the salty and the sweet, mixing with everything, everything, everything, everything.’ Issues of concern to Latinos are like this river,” García continues, “since they are intertwined with every aspect of our society, and the advances made by Latinos have had multiple effects on our nation.”
In a recent conversation with Terra’s Lee Sherman, García shares insights into her life and work.
Terra: What happened after that first trip to Mexico?
García: I totally fell in love with Spanish and Mexico. It was as if Mexico had gotten into my blood. I had to go back. To earn enough money for our plane ticket, room and board, and summer school, we babysat and sold chocolate candy door-to-door. I lived in a studio apartment that was a converted chicken coop.
Terra: Were there other Americans at the school?
García: Yes. There were Europeans and Canadians, too. It was really interesting to get perspectives from all around the world on subjects like the Vietnam War. The professor in my conversation class was so respectful of everybody’s opinion. Even though I was so young and so naïve and my opinions were so limited, he was very respectful. Throughout the summer, I opened up my mind, little-by-little, about issues like the Vietnam War. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, there was only one perspective: pro-war. That conversation class was my first exposure to opposition to the war. Later, when I went to college, I became part of the antiwar movement.
Terra: Did you return to Mexico after that summer?
García: After college, I went back with a one-way ticket and $200 in my pocket. I found a job, got married and ended up staying for many years. The Mexicans were so welcoming toward me, so inclusive. They would say to me, “You’re not American — you’re a Mexican with a pale skin.” I kept my married name even after my husband and I divorced. I did my Ph.D. while single-parenting my two kids.
Terra: Your first name changed, as well.
García: My legal name is Kay. But when I lived in Mexico, everybody would add syllables to it because they don’t usually have one-syllable names. And so they called me Kayecita or Kati or Katita or Catalina. I decided I should invent my own second syllable — something that I liked.
Q: It seems as if you had a natural affinity for Spanish.
García: When I first started learning Spanish, I felt like it was a language that I was remembering — not something I was learning for the first time. Things would just fall into place; they would just make sense. I don’t know if language is part of the human collective memory, but there was an obvious affinity.
Terra: How did you get started as a writer?
García: The first book that I wrote was Broken Bars. It profiles four Latina writers whose stories portray positive female protagonists. So many of the women in Mexican literature are portrayed negatively — they go crazy, or they get killed, or they get shut up in prison, or they die and they never achieve what they want to in life. I went to Mexico City and interviewed all four writers, who received me with open arms. Their work reflects upon the female experience, what it means to be a woman, the pros and cons, the difficulties, the obstacles of living in a machista society. Two of them identify themselves as feminists. The other two are obviously concerned about women, but they are reluctant to identify themselves as feminists. That label in Mexico sometimes turns people away, which is really unfortunate. It’s sometimes lonely for Mexican feminists. However, there’s a lot of sisterhood, a lot of solidarity among the women themselves.
Terra: Your first translation was an offshoot of that book, right?
García: Yes, my next book, Eleven Days, was a translation of a novel by one of the authors from the first book, Brianda Domecq. In real life, she was kidnapped and held prisoner for 11 days. Afterward, she wrote a novelized version of the experience. She changed all the names, but she wrote in the first person and in the present tense, so the reader feels captured by the narrative, which is the extraordinarily powerful story of how she survived, of the tactics she used to win over the kidnappers, one by one, while blindfolded. She managed to reach out and connect on a human basis with each one of the characters. She shared recipes with one, played dominoes with another. She did calisthenics with a third. She competed in who could think up the best banquet with the cook. Since that translation was published in 1994, I’ve translated four more books.
Terra: As a translator, you have to move back and forth not only between languages but also between cultural identities.
García: I feel like I’m two people. I’m one person when I’m speaking English, and I’m another person when I’m speaking Spanish. That’s my double identity, or desdoblamiento. Sometimes it can be confusing, but mainly it’s enriching.
Terra: Where does the confusion come in?
García: Well, sometimes when I’m speaking English there’s something I could say more easily in Spanish, so I struggle. I might be talking to you in English but I’m thinking in Spanish. Sometimes things don’t quite translate exactly.
Terra: Who are the subjects featured in your new book, Latino and Latina Leaders of the 21st Century: Ordinary Beginnings, Extraordinary Outcomes?
García: There are 18 voices in the book, all of them currently active in their field, all serving as role models, all having overcome adversity, set precedents, and stayed connected to the Latino community. They include Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court; news anchor and advocate Jorge Ramos; author and activist Sandra Cisneros; and Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson and his wife, activist María Chavez-Haroldson, among many others.
Terra: What uniquely Latino traits have helped these leaders thrive?
García: Love for one’s family, a sense of humor — the ability to laugh at oneself, and not take oneself too seriously — an appreciation for life, a very open attitude toward people of all kinds. Latino families are very united and strong. Latinos are survivors. They’ve managed to make the best of really difficult situations. Several of the people I interviewed mentioned their “Latino spirit.”
Terra: What about religion?
García: Religion is a source of strength for some. Others expressed an important spiritual life, but not necessarily connected to organized religion. The Catholic Church has some aspects that are oppressive of women. So while the feminists have not rejected religion and spirituality altogether, they have transformed it to fit their own needs. Sandra Cisneros, for instance, has invented Buddha-Lupe, who is a combination of Buddha and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Sandra has a tattoo on her arm of the Virgin of Guadalupe sitting like a Buddha statue.
Terra: Most European immigrants strived to become Americanized as fast as possible. The Latino experience is quite different — maintaining one’s first cultural identity at the same time that you take on a second.
García: Yes. This is the immigrant group that has held onto their own culture and language the most. Yet at the same time they have assimilated into our society as they occupy positions at every level of our society, all the way up to the Supreme Court. There are even two possible Latino presidential candidates for the next election — Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, and Julian Castro, the Democratic mayor of San Antonio, who gave the keynote address at the last Democratic convention. Most of them do consider themselves American, eventually, but maybe not immediately. And it has become much more in vogue to not have to choose. The Mexican government, for example, changed its laws to permit dual citizenship. So legally people don’t have to choose. But also intellectually and emotionally, they can be both and have both, quite effectively because Mexico, and to a lesser degree the rest of Latin America, is close, and they can go back and forth fairly easily and maintain contact with their homeland. And there are new people from their community coming north all the time, speaking their language, and that helps maintain the language continuity.
See the summary and introduction from Latino and Latina Leaders of the 21st Century.