Diversify Your Shelves--"Summer of Discovery"
Various tables were lined up against the wall of the auditorium, divided into sections. Interested in the arts? You might want to work in a community-run theater. Lawyer? Perhaps, a summer job in a law firm. I was fourteen years old and I was about to select my first summer job. I was finally going to get out of my South Bronx apartment. I couldn’t wait.
One table caught my eye. The sign read Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital. It was the name of the hospital my father worked at. I could work with Papi! How awesome would that be? Visions of us commuting together came to mind. Maybe we can have lunch. I was at that age that my father was kind of everything to me.
Papi was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in the coastal town of Guayama. Always a runner, there are newspaper articles of him winning races barefoot. He lived with his mother and father in a small wooden home with seven siblings. Like many before him, he came to New York to avoid the excruciating hard labor on the island’s sugar plantations. Instead, what he found in New York was factory work. Papi knew enough that he needed a union job, something more stable. He found one in Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.
My father worked as a nurses’ aid. I didn’t actually know what that meant but I knew he wasn’t a nurse or a doctor. He was something under that, like a helper. The patients were children and young adults with profound neurological impairments.
On those first few days on the job, our schedules never did coincide. He had a later shift. But there would be a couple of hours when we would see each other. And when we did, I noticed something different. What is it like to see your father show affection to a stranger? Or, witness others order him to do things?
In my family, Papi was the man of the house. He made the final decisions. The first time you meet him, he probably wouldn’t smile or even meet your eye. What might be construed as standoffish is really shy. He is also a poet. Papi still recites poetry at church functions. Always impeccably dressed, he’s the type of man that everyone seeks out for advice. But at the hospital he was simply one of the many people of color tending to other people’s children.
Something about that summer shifted for me. Papi know longer was someone unattainable, almost god-like. I could admit this now that back then I was embarrassed about his job. Angry even, for those around him that didn’t realize what a big deal he was.
In my young adult novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, readers are introduced to Margot, a spoiled fifteen-year old Princesa who is forced to work at her father’s supermarket after stealing a credit card. She attends a prestigious prep school and will do anything to fit in—steal, lie, deny her own truth. During the course of a summer, Margot will not only pay off her debt but she will finally learn that she doesn’t need to hide behind pretty masks to be accepted. The novel also explores how the Bronx is being gentrified and the desperate acts found behind addiction.
There is a pivotal moment in the novel when Margot really sees her mother and father for the first time. They are no longer these one-dimensional people disciplining her but flawed humans with unrealized dreams and insecurities. She finally opens her eyes and discovers her family is messy, misguided, but still full of love.
Margot Sanchez is not about my life but the summer I spent with my father did inspire the novel. Like Margot, we both reconstructed what family meant to each other. That summer I saw the world through a more realist light. My relationship with my father continues to shift and changes as we both grow older.
*This post originally appeared at Diversity in YA, and has been
brought to you thanks to our partner, Cindy Pon!*
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Her most recent novel, Serpentine (Month9Books, 2015), is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. The sequel, Sacrifice, releases this September. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in summer 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art http://cindypon.com.