BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.
HAPPY, almost ready to fight Biff: Don’t say that!
BIFF: He never knew who he was.
CHARLEY, stopping, Happy’s movement and reply. To Biff: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
BIFF: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.
-Arthur Miller, Death of Salesman
I remember reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in high school. I remember it becoming one of, like, six things I was assigned to read that I actually liked—and that I like still, mostly. And I remember how frustrating I found our class discussions of it.
Probably his most taught play, Miller’s Death of a Salesman inevitably gets packaged into a unit meant to inform students, however vaguely, about “America.” The other typical texts found alongside Miller’s work are: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” and, if you had, or have, an especially edgy high school English teacher, either something by Langston Hughes or Ralph Ellison. If a teacher were to genuflect towards discussions of “gender roles,”—in the most abstract, superficial way—they might also include writings by Dickinson or, and I’m sorry for those whose painful memories I’m about to trigger, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (Apologies for reviving memories of painful boredom, but let’s continue).
Because of this framing, at the behest of policy makers or other administrative bodies, teachers contort texts to get students to answer or to complicate the question “What is America?”And, as far as I know, the answer to this question in these classrooms is never: America is a colonial name for many lands, waters, and skies encompassing much of the western hemisphere—and not, contrary to popular use, just the name of one nation in that hemisphere more commonly called the United States. Instead, this framing and subsequent classroom conversations reduce texts like Death of a Salesman to commentary about destiny and hope/lessness—failing to comment both on its literary merits and the basic human fear I believe to be at the heart of the play. Instead, in our class, we talked a lot about “the American Dream” and what role it had in Willy Loman’s death. Spoiler: it had a MAJOR role and maybe the “dream” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried not to begrudge high school English teachers for these things. Like many of us, high school teachers are pushed to meet certain expectations and objectives outside of their control, and so many of them do the best they can to turn dry-ass, standardized test questions into engaging activities. (While I know not all teachers do their best with what they have, and some blame students for shortcomings, but that’s a different essay for a different day.)
For the past decade, though, I’ve worked with enough students, who’re either in or just out of high school, to know these discussions do injustice to them, their curiosity, and to the authors they’re asked to engage. This on top of the disservice done, by way of omission, to authors of color, queer authors from all backgrounds, and more contemporary authors in general. You think anyone writing now might have something meaningful to say about what “America” is and is not? Personally, as a writer coming from a marginalized community, I can’t help but wonder what types of readings would be imposed upon my writing, should it ever find its way into U.S. high school curricula. Can you imagine?
Don’t get me wrong—lest you believe this is just another article in the genre of “everything is terrible now and will probably remain terrible for always”—I keep coming back to Death of Salesman because of how it haunted me as a kid, and how it haunts me still. As evident in the excerpt opening this essay—taken from the play’s “Requiem”—Willy Loman’s ultimate misstep as a tragic figure, and the fear at the center of Miller’s work, was not knowing who he was. Or, better said, he knew who he was and rejected that version of himself, leaving his self-destruction as the only remaining path.
How scary is that? To dedicate yourself to cultivating a specific purpose or self-understanding only to realize you’re wrong and can’t possibly go on for another day? Even as a teenager—maybe because I was a teenager—this type of revelation terrified me. As someone raised by Mexican immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood, I’d been taught to always look forward, no matter what. Looking back was reserved for fleeting, drunken nights with like-wounded confidants. On these occasions, everyone would reflect on fleeing similar circumstances—surviving multiple border crossings or the loss of an Indigenous homeland—and they’d indulge escapist fantasies about “going back” as triumphant heroes. These fantasies were meant as relief to life at the moment, which felt especially oppressive and unrelenting.
As a kid, I’d listen to my parents, tíos, tías, and cousins reminisce about the paradise they’d left behind in México—“a kingdom where nobody dies” to borrow Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words on childhood. But in their more sober moments, the adults also acknowledged their México, through forces foreign and domestic, through obstacles inherited, imposed, or self-created, had made survival for them nearly impossible. So, they left. They left and probably realized quickly, there’d be no going back.
What if they’d made a mistake?
I left home at eighteen. I left partially because I thought I was fulfilling my end of a deal made by my parents; they left their homes to give us a chance to leave ours, essentially, and I was all too determined to make both of our decisions feel correct. In my time away, however, I struggled. Whether it was the world changing around me, or my own trepidation at making the wrong choice(s) and being unable to live with myself after, I struggled. And I struggled to admit I was struggling, and I struggled to figure out what to do about it.
Thankfully, I eventually realized I cared about few things more than: 1) communities like the ones I came from, and 2) writing. And, lucky for me, I found people who helped me turn the things I care about into opportunities to teach, to study, and to write. I try not to take this for granted, especially since I still remember a time not long ago where I thought I had chosen the wrong things to dedicate myself to, and all I had left was to reach the end of my life and sigh.
Still, even when I decided to come home a few years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder: had I made the wrong decision to leave in the first place? What if coming back turns out to be the same as giving up on a dream? What if I settled for less because my fear of more overtook me? These are all good and terrifying questions. Questions I suspect many people confront daily, and I’ll probably never be able to answer them—something that also scares me. Instead, for now, I’ll
try to retrace some of my steps, hoping to discern some pattern, something that’ll make me react the way my former professor, and author of Womanish, Kim McLarin says a reader ought to react at the end of a good book: *gasp* of course!
So, back to frustrated teenage me in my high school English class and another one of those six things I was assigned to read but still enjoyed. Even though I had already read The House on Mango Street, when my junior English class read Sandra Cisneros’s 1983 coming-of-age novel as part of our “What is America?” unit, I remember the story hitting me differently. Maybe it was because I already knew the text, so revisiting it was like seeing an old friend; maybe it was because, as the sole Mexican kid in my “advanced” English class, I was the only one who could reflect autobiographically on Cisneros’s words; or maybe it was because I was starting to look at colleges and colleges were looking back at me, so leaving home felt less abstract and more inevitable. Regardless, I came back, again and again, to the novel for guidance during my wandering. And, gratefully, the novel never failed to tell me something useful:
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away. Friends and neighbors… will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
No matter how hard they tried, teachers never convinced me The House on Mango Street was about “America” or its dream. It was about us, nosotros, the readers Cisneros knew were out here looking for guidance, navigating forces telling us how to be and where to go.
Originally, Cisneros published her breakthrough novel with the legendary Arte Público Press, one of the oldest and continuously running publishing houses for Latinx literature in the U.S. Although they later had their disagreements—another topic for another essay—the collaboration between Cisneros and APP, years before I was born, created a path for me to stumble onto and find my way. Their partnership helped me combat things this country tried to tell me: I wasn’t lost all along; I wasn’t alone; my uncertainty and fear wouldn’t always be in charge; it was possible to tell my stories without having them distorted; and, maybe most importantly, it was okay to come back home. It took a coalition of writers, publishers, teachers, artists, scholars, and activists to keep these lessons alive, and I hope my efforts vindicate their decisions to keep fighting.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to say thank you. I originally wrote this essay in August 2019 to announce that I had signed a contract to publish my debut collection of short fiction. Since that time, I wrote and published that collection, and To Live and Die in El Valle went on to win a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award.
So, like I originally intended in 2019, this essay still serves as a reminder to me—and hopefully to you—of how we protect and promote our stories because we care about them and the people they impact. Ultimately, our stories and the sacrifices that go into writing, editing, publishing, and sharing them don’t amount to much without people receiving them and using them to survive. Even though I’ve been guilty of adding to the online chorus of writers who proclaim ourselves to be walking wounds, motivated by an inescapable obsession to write but who are also unable to find joy in what we do, I wanted to acknowledge the community of writers, readers, and teachers—both past and contemporary—without whom, I can’t imagine where I’d be. Three years and a lifetime later, I’m still writing, still reading, and still teaching. I feel more grateful than ever to be able to share.
 Sidenote: shoutout to Mrs. Valenzuela’s seventh grade English class, I was a shitty thirteen-year-old huerco to you, and I’ll
regret it ‘til the day I die.
 Originally published in Latinxsbelike.com