Why I Write: To Be Tall

Héctor Tobar on writing to fight against Latinx erasure.

hector tobar
Dustin Snipes

Writing makes me taller. Or rather, it creates the illusion that I am a person of stature. I’m five foot eight, which is slightly below average for a United States–born male. And I am a Guatemalteco, one of California’s mestizo masses. The stereotype is that we are short and servile. Once, a child of about six mistook me for an immigrant ice cream vendor and handed me a dollar as I watched my son play soccer in a San Gabriel Valley park. Another time, a woman gave me her car keys as I stood outside a Silver Lake restaurant.

“I’m not the valet,” I said. “I’m a writer.”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

My mother raised me not to make waves, to lie low, to fade into the background. No te metas en lo que no te importa, she would say, which translates, roughly, as “keep your nose out of other people’s business.” When I became a writer, I threw that advice out the window. I wrote about other people, asked probing questions about their lives. Eventually, powerful men and women sought me out: mayors, millionaires, movie moguls. I wrote books and traveled the world. I was transformed from a quiet brown boy into a keynote speaker at book fairs and college commencements.

The weird, wondrous thing about writing your way into a public persona is this: the act itself is born of a solitary nature, a shy and introverted personality. I sit alone for hours, I daydream, I scribble notes. Then those words become a spotlight shining on me. I first noticed this power in the 11th grade, when jocks and other assorted bullies routinely made my life miserable. One of the football players in my high school read my account of his game in the Whittier Daily News and told me, in an awestruck tone, “It felt like you were there.”

When I visited Guatemala in my mid-20s, during the 1980s, word spread among my relatives that I wrote for the newspaper. Suddenly, I was no longer “Hectíor” (little Hector) but rather “Don Héctor,” bestowed for the first time with the honorific that graces the names of Spanish caballeros and lords of Mexican haciendas.

Writing became my addiction; the high it gave me was relevance. Like a gambler, I kept taking bigger risks. I aimed for the front page with every story, and when that wasn’t enough, I took on the grandest challenge a writer can tackle: a novel. Happily, this process ultimately served a greater good. I could make not only myself “taller” but my subjects, too, the members of my extended immigrant community. I told the tale of a Salvadoran day laborer who went to court to recover money from an unscrupulous employer; it ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. The day laborer got paid, and a larger injustice was exposed.

In The Barbarian Nurseries, my second novel, I created a character who is my female alter ego. Araceli is an intellectual trapped in the body of a servant. She is a live-in Orange County maid and undocumented immigrant who strives to be an artist. In Mexico, she briefly attended a public university to study art—until her class and gender forced her to give up her dreams. In reality, I meet people like Araceli again and again. My immigrant father was unable to study past the sixth grade in Guatemala, but in Los Angeles he pursued adult education, and as a boy I watched him. He listened to classical music and roamed the Getty Villa and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. My writing career is an extension of the boundless curiosity of my mother and father, the sense of wonder in which they indulged as newcomers to Los Angeles.

I can see now that we really are taller. All of us. I write now to enter into our grandness and our grandiosity, the human complexity of us. I am wrestling against the stereotyping and infantilization of Latino subjects in United States literature and, more than anything, against our erasure in the culture. Even the ethnic terms assigned to us—Latino, Latinx, Hispanic—are a poor fit for the richness of our experience. (The same can be said, by the way, for all the ethnic labels in the United States.) I believe that now, more than ever, our writing needs to untangle the lies of race and caste. We have been insulted and trivialized by ideas that detract from our humanity, and that make us into “lesser,” smaller people.•

Picador USA


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Héctor Tobar is the author of five books: The Last Great Road Bum; Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free; The Barbarian Nurseries; Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States; and The Tattooed Soldier.
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