Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month

Oct. 13, 2021, 10:34 p.m.

Every year, National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to honor the history and culture of Hispanic communities around the world. In order to uplift Hispanic and Latinx voices, The Daily asked our writers for their recommendations on texts that tell Hispanic and Latinx stories. We use both “Hispanic” and “Latinx” to honor the diverse identities celebrated this month. 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez (2017) — Recommended by Chloe Mendoza ’25

Oftentimes, the book characters we dislike most subconsciously remind us of ourselves. By exploring these figures we confront our own imperfections and become uniquely self-aware. “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” breathes life into multifaceted characters and presents its readers with a painfully authentic protagonist: Julia Reyes. 

Written by Erika L. Sánchez, the novel centers around fifteen-year-old Julia as she sets out to solve the mystery surrounding her older sister’s recent death. Julia is sarcastic, angry, volatile and sometimes downright nasty. Her late sister, Olga, was the polar opposite; she embodied the perfect Mexican daughter. At least everyone thought she did. When Julia begins to uncover Olga’s secrets, the facade of her sister’s infallibility is shattered, and her world begins to fall apart. 

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is not just a mystery, but also a look into Mexican culture, mental health and trauma. Coupled with introspective themes, Julia’s uninterrupted first-person narration provides an intimate look into the world that seems to constantly push her down. Don’t be fooled by this heaviness; Sánchez’s descriptions will also leave you smirking and giggling at small moments of joy. Deliciously evocative, wholly captivating and constantly surprising, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” dares to create a world in which people face their internal blemishes and don’t necessarily become stronger or better for it. Instead, they continue to fail, get frustrated and struggle. 

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is soon to be adapted into a film directed by America Ferrera. 

Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado (2017) — Recommended by Leyla Yilmaz ’25

A National Book Award Finalist of 2017, “Her Body and Other Parties” is Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, consisting of eight short stories centered around contemporary women’s lives. These narratives are written with twists of absurdity, magical realism and horror to reflect gender inequality in modern relationships and systemic sexism in a mythical fashion. 

Machado uses fantastical and exaggerated elements to create an abstract fictional world. Despite its fictitiousness, this alternate reality operates as a lens for Machado’s audience to see the very real modern injustices that define women’s everyday lives. For instance, in the collection’s eponymous story, Machado critiques the entitlement men feel to women’s bodies and their suppression of female sexuality through the retelling of the fantastical children’s story “The Green Ribbon.”

As Machado writes about body dysmorphia through a ghost story, sexual assault through psychological horror and queerness through an apocalypse tale, she envisions systemic discrimination as the monster of her short horror stories and puts forth often untold and repressed narratives. Machado told Tobin Low and Kathy Tu in their podcast “Nancy” in May 2020 that “archives have gaps and spaces that exist because we don’t value certain stories. We don’t record them.” Historically we have prioritized voices of white, cisgender males. We have documented and retold their stories of privilege, overlooking marginalized experiences. Machado brings forth often untold stories on women’s struggles, rewriting history from a different point of view. Her short story collection is a beautiful attempt to fill these “gaps.”

The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” by Jorge Luis Borges (1936) — Recommended by Fyza Parviz Jazra M.A. ’22

This short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is written as a faux literary critique of an imagined novel, also titled “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” by fictional writer Mir Bahadur Ali — a lawyer from Bombay. Originally titled “El Acercamiento a Almotásim,” it is one of Borges’s earlier works and showcases his mastery over writing complex and multi-layered stories that engage with historical and philosophical issues.

The critic summarizes the plot of the imagined novel as follows: young law student kills a man during a Hindu Muslim riot and escapes from the city in desperation. This student then peregrinates across Hindustan, where he intermingles with people from all walks of society. Through these encounters, he comes to a “mysterious conviction” that these vile creatures emanate “clarity,” mainly because they all had met a man named Al-Mu’tasim. Therefore, Mir makes it his life’s quest to find this man.

Borges’s story invites us to explore the instability of textual meaning and cyclical narrative structures. The critic mentions early on in the short story that the novel he is reviewing was published twice. In the second edition, the book’s title was changed to “The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu’tasim: A Game with Shifting Mirrors,” and Al-Mu’tasim was made into an “emblem of God.” The critic detests such over-blatant symbolism and would have preferred Al-Mu’tasim to maintain “idiosyncratic personal features.” It is not explained why the author, Mir Bahadur Ali, decided on these amendments, especially since the book’s first edition was a major success. It can be deduced that this “shift” in the novel is Borges’s deconstructionist interpretation of how change, though sometimes unsettling, is inevitable. Interpreting Borges’s story this way illustrates that texts are intrinsically unstable and makes him a precursor to later critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida, an avid reader of Borges.  

In addition, “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” shows us cyclical patterns — a theme that becomes significant in Borges’s later fiction. Circularity appears in the young lawyer’s geographical quest: he begins his journey from Bombay and ends in Bombay. The figure of Al-Mu’tasim also includes circular aspects. The critic suggests that Al-Mu’tasim may be the man the young lawyer murdered. It is also implied that Al-Mu’tasim, as the one sought, is also the one seeking; hence, Al-Mu’tasim is the lawyer seeking himself. The significance of cyclical ontology ultimately illuminates Borges’s illustration of philosophical concepts such as Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, making the tale intellectually stimulating.  

Remains” by Jesús Castillo (2016) — Recommended by Malia Mendez ’22

I first encountered Castillo’s 2016 poetry collection, “Remains,” while fumbling through my high school best friend’s bookcase. Perhaps I hold on to it so tightly because of this nostalgic association, but regardless, this book has been faithful to me; it has led me across the chasms between “back then” and “now” as any good friend might. Its post-impressionistic cover art first caught my attention, but its delicate lyricism compelled me to read on. 

“Remains” has been described most prominently as a “contemporary epic” that adopts the grandiose poetic voices of legends like Ovid and Sappho to narrate quotidian moments in the modern era — a drunken rendezvous, a train arrival, a street performance. Castillo is a hospitable poet, often lapsing into third-person plural discourse in order to accommodate his readers’ presence in the vignettes that constitute his collection. His poems have been said to translate ancient romance into our contemporary dialect, like a prophet well-acquainted with the rhythm of the modern metropolis. To me, Castillo’s poems do precisely what poems are supposed to do: invoke hyper-specific details to impart universal sentiment. 

A particularly intimate stanza in the sixth section of the book reads, “After all our violent failures to meet, the one thing we can fully share is this distance.” This line is spoken from one lover to another, grieving the death of their relationship that has no ceremony. Though it can be read in this romantic context, I interpret Castillo’s line instead as a general lamentation of the modern city-person’s “anonymity,” as Georg Simmel called it — our fundamental inability to truly know one another that has become tragic to us as we’ve seen the world virtually expand in our palms. Castillo recognizes that we are simultaneously more and less connected to those around us — and those who came before us — than we have ever been, and he ingeniously uses the epic poem to reckon with this fact. Explore “Remains” for more meditations on modernity, not-quite-love poems, and metaphysical questions about where we come from and where we’re going. 

Chloe Mendoza ʼ25 is the Managing Editor of Podcasts and an Arts and Life fashion/culture columnist. She hails from the raisin capital of the world, Selma, California and is passionate about the intersection of anthropology and social justice. She is a proponent of the em dash and her interests include plants, art, journaling, reading, indie pop and jazz, and fashion. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ Yilmaz '25 is the vol. 264 Reads desk editor for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ Parviz Jazra is a Master's Candidate in Liberal Arts and writes for the Arts & Life section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at'

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