Stories connect us. We tell stories to create and share our commonalities, leading in many ways to the myths we tell ourselves as nations and communities. Along with these aspects, we tell stories to share with others information about ourselves: our likes, our dislikes, our identities. It is this latter aspect that I want to look at some today because both Lizet and her mother Lourdes in Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers construct stories to shape their identity and to shape the ways that others view them.
Throughout our lives, we continually go back into our past, delving into our memoires for clues about what shapes us today. Our exploration into our pasts changes each time we dive back in, and those changes reflect our ever-evolving selves as we move throughout the years. As such, we add or take away from the memoires, rearrange them, provide commentary, and construct them in ways that reflect ourselves in the moment in which we relay the memories to others. Sometimes this involves the bringing together of memories, some our own and some from others, to create a narrative that helps to mold the ways that others see us.
This melding of memories is what occurs in Make Your Home Among Strangers. At the protests for Ariel Hernandez, a Cuban boy whose mother died in the waters off of Florida and who made it to the United States and was taken in by his uncle, Lourdes constructs narratives about her past to get the other protestors to like her. After telling the media that her daughters’ situations were like Ariel’s, she began to craft narratives about her immigration to the states and the births of her daughters, even pulling aspects from her other daughter’s life.
Leidy tells Lizet, “[Lourdes] told that Caridaylis [Ariel’s relative] girl that she was a single mom. She straight-up stole my life story with Roly but made it hers and put it in Cuba twenty years ago! She tells people we all three came on a raft together. She tells people I almost fell out of the raft on the second day, and you were a baby she was breast-feeding until her milk turned to dust.” None of this was true. Instead, Lourdes and her husband left Cuba and started a life in the states, having their daughters here. As well, the couple raised their daughters and only recently separated, within the past year.
While Lourdes pulls threads from various narratives together to construct the story to, as Leidy puts it, “make those people like her,” she also does it to connect herself with her own past and the struggles of Ariel and Cuban-Americans in Miami. She uses it as part of her identity so that people will not question, as they do Lizet, her “Cuban-ness.” In this manner, she concocts the narrative not just to fit in with others but to also connect with herself and her past, even if the story she creates did not happen to her.
Lourdes, like Lizet, works to create a new identity for herself, one removed from the familial bonds that have constricted her all of these years. Lizet notices that at the protests “she was not my mom here. She was Lirdes who made T-shirts, Lourdes who had friends I’d never met.” She was, a new person, just like Lizet at college. Lourdes was “becoming her own person finally, trying to learn who that even was via a newfound passion,” and that searching involved the creation of a past that was not entirely hers.
Back at Rawlings College in the Northeast, Lizet feels like she is nothing more than the representative Cuban in discussions surrounding Ariel Hernandez, and as her and some dorm mates see the protests outside of Ariel’s house on the television, they see Lourdes on screen. Here, Lizet says she’s from Cuba, even though she has told her dormmates she was born in the states, and she begins to construct her own narrative. When Tracy asks, “Wait, you’re from Cuba?” Lizet responds by telling her a story similar to Lourdes’ story.
She says, “Yes, . . . I left when I was a baby. I still have family there and they all want out. And yeah, their news is fucking censored. You get arrested for speaking out against the government, or for being gay or trying to buy meat, so yeah, go smile at your fucking Che Guevara poster like you know some shit.” Lizet feels tired of having to explain to the other women in her dorm and at school about her identity. She feels like it didn’t matter anymore, and by constructing a story similar to her mother’s she becomes, in some ways, what her dormmates want to see.
On the screen, Lourdes tells a reporter, “What people have to understand . . . is that this is our story, too. I came here with my girls the same way that Ariel’s mother came with him. Ariel’s story is my story, the story of my daughters.” Again, this is a fabricated story, yet it has kernels of truth because Leidy and Lizet get treated as immigrants or refugees even though they are American citizens. At Rawlings, other students see Lizet as nothing more than a Latina student, one of a few at the college, and they see her, like classmates do Shirin in A Very Large Expanse of Sea, as outside of their expected perceptions. Lourdes and Lizet, then, play into those perceptions through the creation of their narratives.
What Lizet realizes, eventually, is the importance of the history that Lourdes crafts for herself because she does a similar thing at college. They used the constructed narratives to connect with their “Cuban-ness,” but they also use them to assuage the ways that others perceive them, playing into, to a certain extent, the perceptions that others carry with them inside their heads. Even as they do the latter, though, they create a new identity within themselves, bringing them in connection with not just their own past but with much more as well. As Lourdes’ says, “Ariel’s story is my story, the story of my daughters.” While not fact-for-fact a correlation, the sentiment is the same, especially if we think about the treatment of each.
At the end of the novel, a caravan of large trucks and SUVs with “big banners flying behind them, American flags, Confederate flags” rolls through Lizet’s neighborhood as white men scream obcenitites out the windows. One banner reads, “1 DOWN, 800,000 TO Go!!!” a sign in reference to Ariel’s deportation and the Cuban population. As they drive by, Lizet thinks, “I’m one of those 800,000. I thought: Fuck you, we fucking made this city.” Here, she is like Ariel, even though she is not like Ariel. All of this gets tied into national myths as well, things I’ve written about before.
The narratives we construct about ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation go into creating our identities. These constructed narratives may have a basis in reality, but they are not always factual. As such, reality becomes blurred, blending fact and fiction together in ways that it becomes difficult to disentangle. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.