Jaquira Díaz Ordinary Girls
Photo by Maria Esquinca
Culture

Afro-Boricua Author Jaquira Díaz Talks Queerness, Pride and Representation

It’s been a busy couple of years for Puerto Rican author Jaquira Díaz since publishing her critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Girls in 2019. She’s gotten married, lived through a pandemic, continued work on her first novel and embarked on several new and promising projects. Ordinary Girls was praised for its raw honesty and the queer perspective that it offers readers, an especially important one considering the lack of books centered on the LGBTQ experience through the lens of a person of color.

The memoir dives deep into Jaquira’s upbringing and coming-of-age story, which begin in Humacao, Puerto Rico, where she spent her early years with her brilliant, but drug-dealing father, increasingly mentally unstable mother and her powerful and beloved Afro-Latina abuela, and eventually ends up in Miami during her tumultuous teen years and early adulthood. To many, the turmoil, violence and poverty that Jaquira describes, might seem like fiction, but to Puerto Ricans living in America, the story is not an unfamiliar one.

ordinary girls jaquira diaz hiplatina
Photo: Algonquin Books

“We spent most afternoons that way, in the park, smoking my mother’s cigarettes, drinking her beer. Sometimes we paid the neighborhood tecatos to get us bottles of strawberry Cisco, or Mad Dog 20/20, or St. Ides Special Brew. Occasionally Kilo, my boyfriend, and his cousin Papo, would show up with a bag of Krypto and smoke us out. We’d lie on the bunk beds, listen to DJ Laz’s power mix, and laugh our asses off. Until the effect wore off and we were ourselves again—reckless, and unafraid, and pissed off at our parents for not caring that we spent most of our time on the streets or drunk or high, for being deadbeats and scutterheads,” she writes in Ordinary Girls, describing her teen years in Miami after moving from Puerto Rico.

Though Jaquira is several years my senior, I saw my parents in her parents, and my older brother and myself in her, and many of my neighbors growing up too. The poverty, the drugs, the alcohol, being surrounded by crime and violence, struggling with identity, and navigating life as a young bicultural, biracial Boricua with a lot of promise but also a lot of trauma. Those are all things that so many Puerto Ricans who grew up between around the 1970s and 1990s can relate to.

In Ordinary Girls, which Jaquira tells HipLatina took twelve years to complete, she tells that story in a way that is so real and so excruciating it feels as if you’re living moments from your past all over again. For that alone, the book is a massive achievement.

“And it was after three children, after leaving Puerto Rico for Miami, after eleven years of marriage, after my father left her for the last time, that my mother started hearing voices, that she started snorting coke and smoking crack. But each time I write and rewrite this story, it’s not just my mother’s intense, all-consuming love for my father that destroys her. It’s also her own mother, Grandma Mercy. And her children—my older brother, my little sister, and me. Especially me,” she writes in the book, delving deep into her own mind to find the words to describe the kind of generational trauma so very many people experience.

“I wasn’t just trying to tell my personal story. I was also trying to connect my personal story to the larger world, to speak to something larger,” Jaquira says. “I kept returning to those moments, and interrogating the memories, asking myself what I was trying to say. The work was hard.”

Jaquira herself battled addiction and self-harming behaviors as she came into her own—both in light of her past and her own queer identity which she came into by the time she was 19.  “It comes on without warning, a crippling, major depression. The suicidal kind. It keeps getting worse, and suddenly I am self-destructing,” Jaquira who has said publicly that she’s struggled with mental health issues most of her life writes in Ordinary Girls.

She didn’t reveal to her family that she was queer until she was in a relationship with the non-binary, transmasculine person she eventually married in 2020, despite having been out publicly and professionally for most of her life. But despite sharing these personal anecdotes, she shares that she was not just writing for herself, she was writing for millions of people who’ve had similar life experiences. She knew it wasn’t just her, that her story wasn’t unique to her lived experience, but a story like hers isn’t one that’s often told, and that’s exactly why it’s made such an impact.

“For a long time, I just wrote from a place of resistance. When I started writing the short essays that would make it into the book, I didn’t see people like me in books. I could barely find books about queer Afro-Puerto Ricans who grew up in the Puerto Rican caseríos, or about people who looked like me and loved like me, about communities like mine, within Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. I wanted to write about the people I knew, to find a place for them in the literary landscape. And I wanted a book that was not just about us, but also for us.”

It has not gone unnoticed by Jaquira that the timing of Ordinary Girls, was exactly right. Though she couldn’t have planned it, the book was released late in 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit and a massive time of social and political awakening seemed to overtake the country. Within a year of its publication, ears and minds and hearts were open to hearing the experiences of Black and brown communities, as well as the LGBTQIA community, in a way that we could argue they never have been before.

The one thing Jaquira says she would change in light of the events that have occurred in society since she completed the book? She says she would have discussed her sexuality even more and shares that it’s likely to show up more in her future works.That said, she has some thoughts on the increased visibility of the LGBTQIA community and the commercialization of PRIDE.

“My spouse and I talk about this often, how being a queer kid right now is so different than when we were growing up, how closeted and afraid we were back then. We walk by queer teenagers holding hands or kissing in a public park, and everyone just goes on about their lives, and we feel a tiny bit of jealousy. At least I do. I wish I could’ve had that.”

She fears though that the message—the history and the significance of the PRIDE movement—may be getting lost. “Pride has become a brand, and that’s problematic because brands are about consumers. We have to think about what is being consumed, who gets to be the face of PRIDE and who gets erased, and how often movements have been hijacked by corporations in order to profit off of them, the history behind them deliberately erased,” she said.

In the authentic and honest way that she has, Jaquira reminds us: “The original PRIDE marches were protests led by Black and brown trans women and LGBTQ people who were vulnerable. They were protesting homophobia and transphobia and violence. PRIDE was resistance, a movement of people who risked it all, putting their lives on the line. Let us not forget that there are people today who still face violence and homophobia and transphobia. We have a government that is still debating their rights and humanity. There are people who are still fighting for liberation, and people who are still being killed,”

Society is advancing though and Jaquira like many others is inspired by it. “Visibility for me says that the world is changing, that even though it’s not yet perfect—I mean, there are currently hundreds of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation in the United States alone—but as an artist, I feel more moved to make work that’s about queer joy and queer love,” she said. “And I also think about what writers are working on right now, those books we still haven’t gotten to read…the future of writing is bright. As a reader, I’m more excited than ever.”