At 15 years old Verdad de la Reyna embarks on a journey toward wokeness after experiencing life as a marginalized woman of color, forcing her to address her internalized prejudices before she can heal from her trauma.
The layers that make up her identity are the center of The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos, a young adult novel released earlier this month featuring a queer, Puerto Rican protagonist with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This book is more than a story, it’s an amalgamation of Ramos’s own truths and those of the students she’s encountered working as an educator and literary activist for 15 years. She’s a queer Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx and is passionate about amplifying “marginalized voices and to reclaim the lost history, mythology, and poetry of the Latinx community,” she told HipLatina. Her debut novel The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary came out in February 2018 and she’s once again diving into the psyche of a traumatized teenager for her sophomore novel.
As a Latinx educator working in the Latinx community, she’s witnessed homophobia, transphobia, and anti-black racism. She wrote Verdad’s “intersectional identity to embody all of these threads: pride and prejudice, grief, loss, and reclamation,” Ramos said.
The story begins in the aftermath of a mass shooting where Verdad lost her best friend, Blanca, though she continues to save her a seat in class and one closest to the exit, just in case.
“Because it can happen anywhere. In a school, in a church, in a mall — anywhere. White dudes are pissed and packin. I mean a POC may kill you for your wallet. But at least they are not killing for your for existence,” Ramos writes.
This blunt look at white supremacy and the prevalence of mass shooters being white is completely intentional and a reaction to recent mass shootings including the El Paso shooting that affected the Latinx community. Writing Verdad as a queer Latinx was intentional to show how marginalized individuals are targeted by white supremacists and that it’s become “socially acceptable.”
This trauma forms the basis of Verdad’s journey as she begins to unravel to give way for her truths to present themselves so that she can confront them. Looking at her own internalized prejudices forces her to examine herself as she denounces the prejudices she faces as she comes into her queer identity, as well as her own anti-blackness.
Nelly, a Black student in her class, forces Verdad to realize her own anti-Blackness asking “donde esta tu abuela?” referring to a poem about race by Puerto Rican post-Fernando Fortunato Vizcarrondo.
“The poem has massive significance because it calls her out for anti-black racism and her ignorance about her own cultural identity and roots, specifically the blackness that blesses Puerto Rican DNA,” Ramos said.
This is meant to indicate how — in addition to her parents — the educational system has failed Verdad in informing her about the rich history as well as the oppression and colorism in Latinx culture. Early on in the book, Verdad describes how the only Latinx figure she’s learned about is Mexican social justice activist Cesar Chaves and yet there are more than a million Puerto Ricans in New York alone and no prominent leader is included in textbooks.
At one point, Nelly breaks down the literary curriculum as she sees it:
Objective 1: White people write literature about love, hate, war, peace, food, hunger, religion, magic, nature, humor.
Objective 2: Native Americans write about buffalo and eagles.
Objective 3: Brown people… migrant workers?
Objective 4: Black people write about race.
Exclusion in racist institutions and the lack of tolerance bred by ignorance permeate the entire novel as Verdad explores her queerness as a Latinx.
Ramos explains that part of the reason why she explored the complexities of Verdad’s Latinidad is because of the lack of representation in YA literature. Latinidad is often diminished to fit into a certain stereotype or limited view, hardly representing the multitude of cultures that make up Latin America.
Verdad is a non-Spanish speaking Puerto Rican who loves Puerto Rican food and grew up in a traditionally strict home so discovering her own queerness is at odds with everything she’s known.
“I wanted Verdad to embody the inner conflict and the evolution to true wokeness, which requires constant reexamination and reflection and carries with it the responsibility of advocacy and activism,” Ramos said.
Just like Nelly forces Verdad to face colorism, trans boy Danny is Verdad’s first encounter with her own queerness as she finds herself instantly attracted to him. Their relationship is part of her impetus for growth and she finds herself standing up to her traditional mom who doesn’t accept their relationship or Verdad’s queerness. Early on in the book, Ramos establishes a strong bond between them which also brings into question if that love is conditional. Like Verdad, Ramos’s father is not accepting of her sexuality, loving her “conditionally” thus sparking her desire to show how difficult acceptance is for LGBTQ youth of color in particular.
“Funny how homophobic people think being gay or transgender leads to misery but never consider that they’re the ones who cause it,” Verdad states.
Through her burgeoning relationship with Danny she meets “The Underdogs,” a motley crew of queer and trans kids who have also been rejected by their families. They are homeless and grateful for what Verdad takes for granted like a simple shower and home cooked meal. Portraying the harsh realities the LGBTQ+ community faces was intentional, especially since Ramos herself identifies as queer. She was also moved by the fact that LGBTQ youth comprise up to 40 percent of all homeless youth, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“I wanted to portray LGBTQIA+ youth as they deserve, as multifaceted, multi-dimensional human beings. I also wanted to show that allies do exist in our families, schools, and communities. While all of my characters suffer rejection, all of them find eventual refuge and solace. There is hope,” Ramos said.
Ramos presents religion as a source for the prejudice they face as she herself dealt with shame associated with her queerness around the age of 10. Ramos opened up about engaging in a ritual of psychic cleansing hoping her “sinfulness would be purged” and after decades she realized her depression stemmed from this shame. Her father, who raised her, refuses to read the book because it contains LGBTQIA+ content.
“Institutionalized religion is rife with the detrimental effects of colonization, institutionalized racism, and homophobia,” she said. “But too often for the LGBTQIA community, churches are a barrier to the grace of God, not a door.”
After having to go to confession with her father, the priest tells Verdad that she’s not alone and that she is loved.
“Love and acceptance are two different things,” she responds. “People think they know what love is. They confuse it with conformity.”
This statement is part of her developing wokeness as she realizes the limitations of her mother’s love while learning about self-love in the process.
Throughout the book, she finds her way back to Blanca, a ghostly presence that is a form of support and escapism for Verdad who is still dealing with the grief of her loss. Blanca is the adventurous, blunt, and worldly foil to Verdad’s more timid and apprehensive personality. Ramos introduces Blanca early on when Verdad brings her tostones when going to visit her gravestone and Blanca urges her to live in the moment and go after the boy she’s interested in, to live life fully.
According to Ramos, Blanca is also a manifestation of the last time Verdad felt “normal” and “human.” Throughout the book, her classmates refer to her as “Ex Machina” and she likens herself to a computer that needs to reboot when she’s having a rough time. This is a result of her untreated PTSD that has led to her closing herself off as a form of self-preservation and protection.
Ramos attributes Verdad’s ability to cope to Danny and the Underdogs since there’s a shortage of counselors in Verdad’s school.
“I wanted to shine a light on the problem of kids like Verdad not having the mental health services they need,” she said.”Every school needs a proportional level of mental health staff and programming to serve their students, especially high-risk students like Verdad.”
Altogether these experiences are the impetus for her growth as she learns to live without Blanca and grow comfortable in her sexuality and Latinidad. Reconnecting with her family, her roots, and embracing her sexuality as evolving help Verdad come out of the trauma to heal and become a woke and socially active woman.
“Verdad’s Latinidad is her study of the prologue of that story, her imperfect immersion in the chapters in which she resides, and the chapters she will write in homage to the past and as an author to her own future.”
Both the title and her name imply a search for truth, she’ll always seek out truths and have questions, Ramos explains it as “truth is a quest for flight.” With her newfound confidence and wisdom, Verdad believes love is the only thing worth fighting for.
“Verdad has learned wokeness is a journey not a destination,” Ramos explains. This is the takeaway Ramos hopes for anyone who reads the book, encouraging a journey toward wokeness for everyone, including herself.
“My book is not full of answers, but inquiry. I hope my readers will get comfortable getting uncomfortable in the safe spaces of their homes, their libraries, and their classrooms. I hope conversations are not just started, but sustained,” she said. “I hope readers, and this includes me, will learn to apologize when necessary, but not expect forgiveness. Finally, I hope readers will learn to develop self-reliance in their enlightenment.”