Chuy Renteria and I met as teenagers because we both had public school teachers who believed we were good with words and we both attended a summer writing program at the University of Iowa—an institution where Chuy works today as part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion division.
The two of us have very different backgrounds: I’m white and the daughter of farmers, he’s Mexican American and the son of factory workers. We’re both from small-town Iowa, rural places that, with the presence of meat processing plants, evoke immigrant labor. Renteria deftly writes about the kind of racial nuances that occur within these communities in his debut memoir, We Heard It When We Were Young: Tales of Being Mexican American in Small-Town Iowa. It is at once heartfelt and a necessary perspective for our time.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with my friend Chuy to talk about his hometown of West Liberty (the first majority Hispanic town in Iowa), taco pizza at Casey’s General Store, and why the last sentence of his book is “I love you.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I believe people are still trying to figure out what Midwestern literature is—and maybe the struggle is because it covers so much territory. On one hand, you might read Black, urban stories centered in Chicago or Detroit, but then you get a lot of idyllic Garrison Keiller odes to tuna casserole.
I think Midwestern literature is such a fuzzy intersection of all of these things, and I believe that speaks to the communities which come through. Think about the Great Migration and people that ended up in Chicago. Then think about all of the stuff in my book—Latino and Southeast Asian communities coming to the Midwest because of factory work. We grew up with tuna noodle casserole and we grew up with walking tacos at football games. We had cousins on the coast, or Texas, that influenced us as well. It’s a weird patchwork of identity.
You can’t quite put your finger on who we are because people have ignored us for so long—the whole idea of the flyover states, right? It gets extra complicated because when you’re a person of color in the Midwest, you’ll often get ignored by people of color living on the coasts. A big pet peeve of mine is when I talk to people from New York City and they think it’s the center of the universe. They assume that Iowa is just white people, corn, and cows. I can show you pictures, like the pictures in the book, where there’s a token white kid. I can show you barbecues where there’s like 300 people: Black, brown, Asian people. Not a white person in sight. From Iowa.
I was originally going to name the subtitle of my book, “Tales of being the ‘Other’ in Iowa” and as I started to write it, it was like, “You know, it’s not like I felt like I was the ‘other’ growing up in West Liberty.” Statistically, West Liberty is the first majority Hispanic town in Iowa. It’s a more recent phenomenon now that I live in Iowa City and I work at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been feeling more like an “other.”
Do you consider yourself a renegade? Is there a community out there that is beginning to write truisms about where you specifically live?
Iowa City is this big city of literature with its famous writers workshop. Then you have all of these communities surrounding it that have thousands of people with stories to tell, and why aren’t their stories being told? What can we give those people? The tools and resources to tell those stories but also the confidence to know that those stories are worthy to tell.
The queering of racial boundaries is something that I find so fascinating in your work. The high school football team becomes the “Mexican” football team even though not everyone’s the same race. The white Joshes wanted to cast off their own whiteness—the way one would insult the other by calling him white. There’s just so much gray area there. Do you think that’s particular to West Liberty and of that time? Is it still the same?
Small towns across the country—a lot of them politically right-leaning—have immigrant populations. When you’re in a small town, you have to go to that grocery store because it’s the only grocery store. You have to interact with the Mexican cashier. It becomes integration by proxy. It’s forcing intimacy. Of course this isn’t the case for every American small town, because there are plenty that have just one type [of racial makeup], but I bet you could go to most states and be like, “Here’s this little town less than 4,000 population and they have immigrants because that’s the ketchup factory or that’s the refrigerator factory.”
I’d argue that the intersections of identity in West Liberty are even more complicated. West Liberty’s high school soccer team went to state competition this year and on the back of their jerseys they had the flags of every country that these kids are from. It’s silly for me to admit, but I didn’t know a couple of them. That’s part of the evolution.
The internet is this great equalizer; people are able to see themselves reflected back. But I would guarantee that there’s still white kids that identify more as being Black or being Mexican because all their friends are Mexicans. There are Mexicans that want to be white. You have classism and hierarchy within ethic groups which makes things socially messier. You might be trying to figure out if you’re a football player or a b-boy, but that also includes the football team looking a certain way and the b-boys looking a certain way. All these young kids are coming of age, trying to find themselves, but they’re also navigating a political minefield.
Speaking of dance. There are two instances of dance in your collection: a story about a quinceañera, and then a section about breakdancing. You do an attitudinal 180 between hating the quinceañera baile (something strictly choreographed) and then going, “Dance is actually my outlet” once you discover breaking (a format that is largely freestyle and intuitive). What do you think about that as an adult, looking back?
Bboying is independent. There’s a structure, but within that structure, there’s a lot of liberty. It works on a very different system than K-12 schooling. In Iowa we have the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), which is like the ACT or any other standardized testing system; you’re filling in multiple choice bubbles. I never liked those tests. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, which explains past challenges and tendencies—and maybe why I gravitated towards something like breakdancing to begin with. It’s a freeing artform, and it was the first thing I felt was my own.
It wasn’t identity based. It wasn’t my mom or tias saying the quinceañera is a tradition that is bigger than you. It felt like we were making it up as we went along. We were finding bboy videos online, but when it came down to it, we had two hours in the evenings to ourselves in my garage, and we were making it up. It was this feeling of, “This is actually who I am.”
From a craft perspective, I know a lot of thought went into the structure of each section. Were there strategies, anchors, things that you kept in the back of your mind while writing certain stories?
I always knew that I could build a story around an image. I knew I wanted to write about my family’s lowrider from the moment Ray came to his knees in front of it. The last story in the collection is anchored by Casey’s General Store—it can be a funny premise, this idea of a goofy general store that Iowans are weirdly proud of. What makes it important? Taco pizza. But then it rapidly shifts into what I consider a horrifying tale of my eating disorder. I was always looking for these anchors that could very quickly become very complicated.
To be very frank, I wanted to write about how twelve year old me and my male friends thought about quinceañeras. I wanted to focus on what my sister and her cousins—all who went through the pageantry—feel about it. Novelists outside of our culture have written about these ceremonies and metaphors but it’s so zoomed out. I’m thinking of American Dirt, but there are others. I mean, no. If we’re going to talk about quinceañeras, it can conjure a thousand variations of emotion. You can think about Casey’s, the gas station general store in the same way; it means so many different things to so many people. I’m really interested in nuance and in subverting expectations.
Hank, a police officer, is a stepdad of one of our friends and he makes an appearance in the book. As kids, our combative interactions with him represented our relationship with the police at large, especially when we were trying to hoodlumize and do things under the eye of the town. Hank’s also the one who comes and actually helps when my family’s garage gets tagged. He helps me. It would be very easy, especially in this climate, to be like, “Yeah, police are dicks. End of story.” No. It’s more interesting to me to make it complicated. I’m a liberal progressive, and it would have been easier for me to mold these stories in a way that would give me points to that side of the political spectrum. I could have us be saints and victimize us. But if I did that, it wouldn’t be real. So I had to put it in there: that we stole thousands of dollars from the department store.
It gives people in positions of power collateral. It gives them power to say, “These kids are bad.” Sometimes we were, sometimes we weren’t. This is life.
Tell me a little bit about the decision to include photographs of you, as well as friends and family, in this collection.
Sometimes my story is hard for people to fathom, especially if they’ve never heard of Iowa; the images are like proof. I had friends who always had their cameras at recess and they saved all the photos. My editors were just talking about how amazing that was, because I had dozens and dozens of these childhood images. The ones included in the book were chosen because they capture the spirit of us.
What gives you space to write about these memories now?
I’ve started going to therapy, and did therapy work throughout the process of writing this book. It’s what you think of when you typically think of therapy: revisiting memories and parsing through them, and trying to make sense of everything with a professional. The stories needed to come out in order for me to gain perspective about my life.
I don’t like to think of writing this book as a responsibility, but it kind of was. There was this experience that we went through—my friends and I, neighbors, families that came through West Liberty—that needed to be told. I think that if we can make our lives and our emotions a little more transparent, maybe other people will be more empathetic to us as a demographic.
In your book you talk about media and video games. You make a comparison to your childhood crew as being like the kids from Stranger Things. But while reading, I thought a more apt comparison could be Stand By Me. The kids are doing the normal boy bonding, coming-of-age things, but they’re cursing constantly, and there is a real looming threat that real people they know could hurt them.
I literally used that line in my pitch to the press: We are like the Stranger Things kids but instead of fighting demogorgons we’re fighting racism at recess. Very tongue-in-cheek. But I grew up with Stand by Me and feel connected to it. That was originally a short story by Stephen King called “The Body.” The whole idea is that King writes different shades of the same town in Maine (which serves as his literary backdrop). I feel the same way, in that it’s the same way I look at West Liberty. I think there’s one instance in the last story where I say, “Fair warning, this is a horror story.”
What audience did you have in mind when you were writing this book? If you want to complicate that question a little more, maybe explain what you wanted to communicate. You end the book by saying, “I love you.”
In a very logistical way, I wanted to write this for the mainstream market. My editors and I had a lot of conversations about what I should explain. For example, talking about the breakdance stuff: am I writing this for breakers or am I writing this to give people a glimpse into breaking? There’s phrases—like West Liberty slang or Mexican slang—where if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, you don’t. There are moments when I translate, too.
During the creation of When We Were Young, I was conscious of writing for West Liberty. I thought, “I’m writing this book for the friends that I grew up with, and I’m writing it for other people like us, who grew up the way we did—for people living in towns like ours right now.” What centered me was the thought, “They’re the ones whose opinions I will actually have to account for at the end of this.”
In the epilogue I change tense. It becomes direct, from me to you, because it’s the thesis of the whole thing. The book is from me to my community. I’m not speaking on behalf of them, or to say I know all the answers, but the book is about showing the lessons that I’ve learned that others can use too.
Is there anything on your mind you’d like to talk about? Maybe something you’re not quite sure people will ask you about directly, but something you’re kind of dying to talk about?
I think one of the big things that has become even more apparent as I look at the stories in my collection is that they’re variations on the theme of toxic masculinity—which lies at the intersection of Mexican American populations, small-town populations, and sporting populations.
I think about the rise of Trump and how it blindsided a lot of well-meaning people. All of these male Latinos around the country, their polling for Trump went up between 2016 and 2020. If you talk to any Mexican American person, that tracks. We’ve been seeing it our whole lives: this obsession with being the biggest, the strongest, the loudest. Those who are most dissociated with tenderness and empathy are revered. I intentionally ended the book with hope and vulnerability. I wanted to be very honest with things I have trouble talking about to this day.
I found myself through dance, but dance manifested this eating disorder. I hadn’t yet gotten to the root of my personal trauma, and that happens to a lot of people: you find something and you think it can be the answer to your problems, but if you don’t talk about your feelings, and if you don’t actually allow yourself to feel…I think the easiest thing that trauma can get replaced by is anger. If you’re angry and you bash this mailbox, people have to deal with that. If you’re angry and you have to cuss at your friend because you think he stepped on your pride, it’s a conflict. Saying, “Hey, you hurt my feelings when you did X” is still a taboo in our culture. It’s no wonder we had so much trouble (and still have) as males growing up in a small-town Midwest community, because we’re not getting all the tools and resources to sift through it with our families.
We Heard It When We Were Young
By Chuy Renteria
University of Iowa Press
Published November 1, 2021
Molly Gallentine's written work has appeared in New England Review, River Teeth, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize winner, has been listed four times as a notable essayist in The Best American Essays, and is a Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize recipient. Born in rural Iowa, she currently resides in Jersey City, NJ. Find more at www.mollygallentine.com.