"Thank you," she said as I signed the book.
"You're very welcome," I responded without looking up.
"No, really," she said.
"Thank you for introducing me to a whole new world that I didn't know existed," she explained.
The middle-aged woman, who did not appear to be Latina, smiled broadly and walked away. As I continued to sign my book for the other customers, I remained puzzled by the exchange.
I've written six books of fiction, one of nonfiction, so far. My fiction tends to center on the lives of Chicanos and other Latinos. I usually pepper my stories with a little Spanish to reflect the way my characters speak, though it's at a fairly basic level and easily understood by context. In any event, when people decide to attend one of my readings, they usually know what they're going to get.
What confused me about the woman's comment was that my stories, though reflecting my cultural experiences, nonetheless focus on universal themes such as love, family dynamics and life's struggles. In other words, I use fiction to confront the vagaries of the human condition. But here was a woman who thought that I had introduced her to a world she never knew existed.
More than anything else I do, my book appearances remind me that to many people, the "Chicano experience" is still quite exotic and unfamiliar, even in a city such as Los Angeles.
Perhaps I should be surprised or even angry about this. But I can't get upset with people who make the effort to learn something new. In fact, I give them credit for taking a step many might consider difficult or even unpleasant.
But this doesn't answer my basic question: how can Chicano characters in fiction be so unfamiliar to some? Are we still so segregated as a society that even in Los Angeles, there are adults who, when exposed to Chicano culture, feel as though they're watching a National Geographic special on a newly-discovered tribe?
Perhaps I should approach this from a different angle. During the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, I attended a Roman Catholic elementary school in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. Thus, my primary exposure to the "dominant" white culture came from four sources.
First, most of the nuns and lay teachers were white. Second, virtually all of the literature we studied was written by people with names such as Hemingway, O'Connor and Kipling. Third, my family's favorite TV programs included Bewitched, The Ed Sullivan Show and Batman. Finally, the magazines and newspapers that came into the house were the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and Time.
I then attended a Jesuit high school that was predominantly white. Did I suddenly feel as though I had entered a foreign country? No, not really. I joined the football team and made plenty of friends, regardless of ethnicity. And my formal education and pop culture immersion remained decidedly mainstream.
Though print and electronic media don't necessarily reflect reality, they do convey a sense of their creators' culture. Thus, the fact that I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood did not prevent me from being immersed in the dominant society. It happened so naturally and constantly that I never even noticed.
But what will it take for the opposite to occur? Chicano culture certainly can be presented by the media more widely than it is today. But we need honest representations that are free of ugly and deceitful stereotypes. How can this be done?
First, Chicanos can take the financial risk and start magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, production companies and the like.
Second, the mainstream media must start figuring out that it makes good business sense to rely on Chicano talent as news anchors, authors, artists, actors and film directors. Again, by going to the source, I assume the representation of Chicano culture would be more honest and accurate than what we often see.
All of these things are already happening, though much more needs to be done. But I do hold out the hope that eventually the common non-Chicano response to my fiction will be: "Thank you for telling it like it is!"
That would make my day.
[A slightly different version of this essay first appeared in Tu Ciudad magazine and is featured in Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press).]