At times, authors avoid fully fleshing out their characters because less sympathy is offered to those who make mistakes. Two recent books by Latinx authors take a different tactic. In How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (2022), author Angie Cruz presents protagonist and narrator Cara Romero in her complete form: strong, perseverant, flawed, and problematic. From certain perspectives, such as her son’s for most of the story, Cara could have easily been presented as an irredeemable villain. However, through the interview style format of the novel, Cara’s mistakes are presented alongside the complete story of her life, amid the struggles and abuse she has endured, giving her an understanding and a high level of sympathy from the reader. Because the audience understands what has led her to make mistakes (some of which fatally damage others), an atmosphere of sympathy is created in which the reader is encouraged to express more understanding towards the flawed individuals in their own lives. In the book Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant by José Ángel N. (2014), the author writes his memoir with a determination to defy the stereotype of Mexican immigrant loyalty to culture over education. Therefore, the memoir asserts the narrator’s value based on both his distance from the culture he came from and his ability to adhere to Euro-American norms. From an outside lens, this is problematic, as a vital component to his motivation is assimilation, but the reader has sympathy for the narrator because of how the narrative shapes clarity surrounding the necessity with which he moves. So, through painting a full picture, Angie Cruz and José Ángel N. are able to cultivate an atmosphere of sympathy for the complexity of human error.
To begin with, the order of storytelling in How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water plays a large role in the reader’s sympathy for the errors that Cara has made with raising her son. Early on, Cara admits to lightly pushing her son, Fernando, by accident, and she proceeds to downplay the violence and get upset with him for crying and calling Child Services on her, although they found nothing and the incident was anti-climactic (Cruz 22). However, she justifies her parenting style as making sure Fernando was ready to survive in the rough, outside world, claiming that “in this life if we are not careful people take advantage of us [ and she] had to be strong because [she] didn’t want him to end up being… you know. Different” (Cruz 42). Objectively, at this earlier part of the story, it is evident that Cara was not soft on her children, but it is clear to the reader that she only acts out of love, and it is unclear and seems unjustified that Fernando abandoned her. Later, in describing her experience trying to find Fernando after he left home, she can’t find him at his supposed address, and says, “Did I return? Of course. I was very hurt, but a mother does not give up” (Cruz 46). Cara is established again as a caring mother who loves her son. Cara is sympathetic and seen as loving. It is not until near the end of the book that it is revealed that Fernando left home after they had a fight in which Cara threw an iron at his face, leaving a bleeding mark (Cruz 136). This is a clear act of violence and child abuse, and the reader would have seen Cara as an objective villain if the story had begun by revealing this information. However, the reader has already developed immense sympathy for Cara because she tries hard and has lots of love for the people in her life. Additionally, it’s established throughout that Cara herself had abusive parents, particularly emphasized at a point where her ex-husband and parents physically and verbally abuse her in front of her son (Cruz 148), establishing that she didn’t grow up with a positive parental model on which to base her own parenting. Establishing and explaining the context of Cara’s situation doesn’t make the reader excuse the abuse she inflicted upon her son, but it does make the reader more sympathetic and understanding towards her situation since there is an explanation as to how Cara became the way that she is.
Additionally, the fact that Cruz includes relevant document information throughout Cara’s interview sessions illustrates the piling stress in her life and demands the reader to reflect on the hardships and lack of support that immigrants in poverty experience. Cara speaks comfortably and nonchalantly about her money situation, as she says, early on, “My money situation? It’s OK right now because I get El Obama checks…” (Cruz 9). This is the manner in which she talks about her money situation, not expressing major problems or struggles with it. However, there are places throughout the novel in which objective documents are presented of her rent payments, indicating that she is failing to pay rent and cannot make enough money to keep up with it (Cruz 55, 100-101). By showing the reader the existence of bills she can’t pay, in addition to the verbal denial and continuous reassurance that she will be fine, the unaddressed contradiction makes the reader aware of problems in Cara’s life and her inability to address them, both financially and verbally. The reader feels sympathy for Cara’s situation and feels stress alongside her, while also being aware that her situation in society has rendered her unable to pay these rising bills.
Apart from the object of the narrative itself, reviews can indicate what experience is evoked from the reader, whether intentional or unintentional. The review by Richard Rodriguez of José Ángel N.’s memoir Illegal is very telling about the narrative the story follows. Rodriguez states that José Ángel N. “entered the United States under cover of darkness from his native Mexico. Now he addresses us in elegant American English…. [He] reads German philosophy; he is married to an American wife…” (José Ángel N.). This review addresses topics which are heavily emphasized in the memoir, generally focusing on how he was able to rise by appealing to Euro-American norms. Phrases such as “elegant American English,” “German philosophy,” and “American wife,” highlight means by which José Ángel N. writes about how his success is attributed to straying away from his native Mexican culture, without criticism of how this attitude does no service to the excellence within Mexican culture. In the book description itself, it is highlighted that the author “debunks the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders without access to education or opportunity for advancement” (José Ángel N.). Why are undocumented immigrants who are uneducated or otherwise following stereotypical expectations wrong? The only wrongness in these people is that which American society sees in them, seeing outsider culture as something that should be erased, replaced with Euro-American ideals. However, although Illegal is unsympathetic to immigrants who don’t conform to Euro-American standards, it is also clear that the reason these traits are praised and highlighted in the book are that they are prioritized by the mainstream society that he wishes to succeed in.
Cruz and José Ángel N. have their stories presented in ways which demonstrate flaws and explanations alongside each other, creating sympathetic, complete pictures. It is challenging to produce complex narratives like this, yet both Illegal and How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water are successful in doing so. It is crucial to read stories like these that illustrate how complicated real people are, rather than how many stories tend to present clear evil villain characters and good hero characters, because it will impress upon readers that they must view the people in their life with the perspective that everyone is complicated and has reasons for the way they are.