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Letters About Literature National Winners 2009

Honorable Mentions, Level 3: Xio Torres

Mrs. Randa Abdel-Fattah,

Last summer I read your book Does my Head Look Big in This? I can’t be sure, but I think it was a Saturday afternoon. I remember being encircled by a plethora of snacks that I had abducted from the kitchen cabinets, swathed in a cocoon I had created out of my Harry Potter fleece blanket. I sat down that day anticipating all the cliché elements of a YA fiction:

1)The ever-popular cafeteria scene

2)The introduction of the various cliques

3)The heroine’s first kiss with the dreamy boy she had stalked since 3rd grade but never really thought she had a chance with

4)The big misunderstanding that would lose her a friend

               And, above all,

5) The cheerily fake conclusion of it all where everyone went home happy

What I expected was your standard, stereotypical teen novel; a watered down Gossip Girl. What I got was a wakeup call. Amal Abdel-Hakim was my wakeup call. Amal was that little voice in the back of my head that I had battled my whole life. Amal was me: a teenage girl trying to survive in a racially imbalanced world while striving to hold on to her identity. Amal was me, with one exception: I had been trying to forget.

A year ago, if you had asked me about my race, I would have begrudgingly admitted that I was Puerto Rican and then swiftly changed the subject. The truth is, I was ashamed of my nationality. I did not want to be Hispanic. I resented the fact that I had been born into my big Latino family, so I attempted to conceal it. I did everything in my power to separate myself from the stereotypes circulating the Puerto Rican race. I paraded my obsession with rock music and my obviously punk style in clothing. I made sure everyone knew that my best friend was white and that I thought shaggy haired skaters were adorable. I straightened my overabundance of tightly curled haired whenever I had the chance. Instead of Xiomara or even my usual nickname, Xio, I demanded that everyone call me Mara because it sounded more at home among the mass of Rachel’s, Ali’s and Courtney’s at my high school. And my unbreakable golden rule . . . NEVER EVER SPEAK SPANISH. EVER.

I was embarrassed by myself and by so many aspects of my life. I hated my small, poor intercity school because it swarmed with Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cubans like myself. I constantly and publicly put down “ghetto” kids in hopes of deflecting any notions that I myself was one. Reggaeton, rap, hip-hop and salsa were, to me, nonexistent genres of music. Although I never bragged, I prided myself on the fact that I was number one in my class because I felt that it somehow made up for my “sin” of being Hispanic. When I was nagged once about learning to speak Spanish, I remember yelling, “We are in America! Before Spanish even crosses our minds, we should learn to speak proper English!” I was always paranoid that behind my back, someone would be judging me, stereotyping me, making jokes about me, counting me out because of my race.

What I never realized was that the judgmental, racist, hateful monster I feared was myself.

Your character Amal helped me to see that. When I finished your book, I realized that my entire life had been consumed by an endless, un-winnable race I had created. I was running from myself, from something I could never stop. I realized that my actions and attitude towards myself and towards my people as well as my entire outlook on life had been hypocritical, wrong and ignorant. I realized who I was. I acknowledged the fact that I am and always will be intrinsically, unavoidably, undeniably and wonderfully Hispanic. Spanish coursed through my veins and I had been blocking its path, cutting off my blood supply, slowly killing who I was.

I am Puerto Rican, and I can say that now easily, contentedly even proudly thanks to you and your book. Like Amal made the decision to wear the hijab in public full time, I now also don my own hijab of sorts. I have decided to embrace my heritage and allow it to flower inside of me as well as manifest itself on the outside, for everyone to see. I have learned, with the help of your book, that my race does not define who I am but it will always be a part of me. To become who I truly want to be, I have to embrace who I already am: a tan-skinned, curly haired, rock music loving, SPANISH SPEAKING, puertorriqueña. Thank you for the wakeup call.


Xio Torres