Illustration by Mary Kuzmin
"My Broken Language: A Memoir"
By Quiara Alegría Hudes | 2021 | Random House | Hardcover | 320 pages | $28
Review by Mike Wold
Memoirs of growing up poor tend toward the depressing — about deprivation, dysfunctional families and tragedy. Often, the theme is escape.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir “My Broken Language,” in contrast, is a celebration of cultural and family survival and a redefinition of what life in the United States means for anyone not from the dominant white culture. There’s plenty of tragedy and dysfunction, but the underlying cause is not so much poverty as the workings of a broken system, and the underlying feeling is joy.
Hudes had a complicated childhood — with a Puerto Rican mother living in inner city Philadelphia and a white Jewish father living in a middle-class suburb, she moved between two worlds, unsure of whether she belonged to either. Her first language, learned when her parents lived together, was English; but the language of her heart was Spanish. Her mother, a radical and a feminist activist, also educated her from an early age about oppression.
Hudes describes herself as an observer — watching her mother perform Santería rituals, sitting on the stairs as her older cousins, aunts and grandmother laughed, danced, joked and played; visiting her father and wondering at the contrast between the lively Puerto Rican community and the sedate, well-behaved white world.
As she got older, she also noticed how many of her mother’s side of the family were dying, and how much silence there was about that. It was the 1980s, but AIDS was never mentioned, though sometimes alluded to, along with drug addiction and other disease. Behind the joy and love there was tragedy.
From an early age, Hudes loved reading, writing and music of all genres. Her family encouraged her. One of her stepfather’s earliest gifts to her was a piano he picked up on the cheap when he was remodeling a church. One of her aunts on her father’s side gave her classical piano lessons. She qualified for a citywide magnet high school — one of only a few Puerto Ricans in her class. Her music ability won a scholarship to Yale University.
But, as she says, this isn’t a story about a poor girl who proves herself. What drove her was not the prospect of success — it was her need to tell her story, in particular all the things that weren’t talked about in her childhood and her community — to “break the silence”, which included both the silence about tragedies like AIDS and poverty, and the silence about how different the world looked from a non-white perspective.
Hudes had already been accepted to Yale when, on one of her regular visits to her father and his new family in the suburbs, he and his wife started talking to her about the “culture of poverty” and how it was important for her to escape that. Hudes found herself unable to reply — to refute the simplistic explanations of the white middle class world for the tragedies that she’d seen and that blamed the people to whom those tragedies happened, a perspective that also took no account of the joy and love in her family and the solidarity in her community. That was the silence she eventually worked to overcome in her writing.
She went on to find some of that silence at Yale, too. At that time, the university library had only one shelf of non-Western music recordings and its music program barely recognized the validity of such compositions. Hudes compensated by transcribing piece after piece of Puerto Rican and other Latino music, and put together a play based in Santería ritual. Still, she felt that, as a musician, she’d just been marking time for four years while getting an undergraduate degree. Another, more successful musician suggested that she was limited by not knowing who she was; her mother added that she needed to write, as well as perform.
That pushed Hudes to decisively break the silence. She got a playwriting fellowship at Brown University, where she wrote play after play centered around events and stories from her childhood. Since her teenage years she had occasionally been seized by a kind of possession in which she spoke or wrote without knowing what she was saying, and afterward found that she had gone much deeper than she ever intended or expected. The emotionally overwhelming final chapter of this memoir, which describes the last of these possessions, could stand on its own as a poetic narrative centered around Puerto Rican women’s bodies, challenging mainstream cultural notions of beauty, of fat, of disability, and of sexuality.
While the memoir ends before Hudes’ graduation from Brown, she became a prolific playwright and screenwriter; she won a Pulitzer for her drama “Water by the Spoonful,” and co-wrote the musical “In the Heights,” which was also released as a movie last year.
What makes the book remarkable is the passion and poetry Hudes brings to every sentence — her writing is exciting and vivid, whether she’s talking about politics, culture, or even books that had an influence on her; she has obviously learned how to tell her story and the story of her community.