Rigoberto Gonzalez

Latest Memoir by Rigoberto González Explores Brotherly Bonds and the Burden of Latino Masculinity

Professor Rigoberto González, of the MFA Program in Creative Writing, is a remarkably prolific and versatile writer who has authored four books of poetry and 10 books of prose, including novels, memoirs, young-adult novels and bilingual children’s books.

He is the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA and USA Rolón fellowships, and winner of the numerous prizes, including the American Book Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award, and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He also has been honored with the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

If I don’t tell these personal stories about myself, my family, my experience as a gay immigrant from Mexico, who will? These writings are evidence of our journey from one country to the next, of our participation in the American dream, of our flaws and heartbreaks and triumphs.

In addition to teaching, González serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times and sits on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

The son and grandson of migrant farm workers, González was born in Bakersfield, California, in 1970 and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. He returned to California in 1980 and came of age there before seeing his extended family migrate back to Mexico in 1992 as he stayed on to complete two graduate degrees, in California and Arizona.

It’s no surprise, then, that González is part of a rich literary tradition deconstructing life in the borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. as a native and immigrant straddling cultures. In addition, his work looks with unflinching honesty at what it means to be a gay Chicano immigrant in the U.S., along with growing up poor, the hardships and resilience of migrant farm workers, religion, masculinity, and a host of other important issues.

Recently, González published his third memoir, titled, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood, a bittersweet chronicle of the bond between him and his brother, Alex, that sees them navigating family trauma, loss, desertion and the burden of a stifling masculinity imposed by Latino culture before finding hope by helping each other.

We sat down with González to talk about his new book, the “obligation” of writing memoirs, and what the future holds in store.

The title of your latest memoir, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, is quite cryptic. Without giving too much away, can you tell us what that title refers to?

The title comes from a line from Neruda’s poem “I’m Explaining a Few Things,” which he wrote at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a year after the execution of Federico García Lorca: “Federico, do you remember from under the ground/ where the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?/ Brother, my brother!” It was a cry of grief and sadness for the dead poet and the aggrieved country. I’ve always been moved by Neruda’s empathy, by his willingness to express vulnerability, which is not considered masculine in certain contexts. So, I wanted my title to gesture toward that willingness to voice vulnerability. My book is about those moments men do not give language to because of fear or machismo or an inability to confront the harsh realities of life—what remains unspoken, what is left unsaid, will cause damage.

What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth cover art This book focuses on your relationship with your brother Alex. We know a lot about you through your writing and interviews. Can you tell us a little about Alex, and what has made him so meaningful in your life?

We are only about two years apart in age, and he’s my only brother. (My father had other children with his second wife, but I never developed meaningful relationships with any of them.) We suffered the loss of our parents together, and then we followed very different paths: I went away to college and eventually became a professor; he dropped out of high school and currently works as a janitor. But we’re quite close. We speak on the phone once a week, no matter where in the world I am, and he enjoys reading whatever I recommend. We became isolated from the rest of our family members for a number of reasons. So, we have depended on each other for emotional support ever since, keeping memories alive together, just the two of us, throwing embers into a slowly fading fire.

You delve deeply into masculinity in this memoir, its meaning and evolution for you and Alex within Latino culture. What inspired you to go there?

Honestly, my nephew, Alex’s son. When I saw the level of tenderness and affection that my brother had for his son, I knew something had changed. That’s not at all how we were raised. My brother made no demands of his son that were made of us—we always had to prove we were masculine and macho, an unhealthy expectation that caused both of us plenty of distress. I realized Alex had redefined what it was to be a man, so I had to do the same with this book: Chapter by chapter, I question, critique and challenge the toxic masculinity that made me so afraid to be myself, that kept my sexuality hidden in shame and anxiety for so many years. My nephew has so much room to imagine and explore that it’s miraculous to observe. So, I wanted to map out that journey and progress, answering the question: How did we get here, and why did it take so long?

You’ve written in so many genres. What is it about the memoir form that you enjoy?

It’s more of an obligation. If I don’t tell these personal stories about myself, my family, my experience as a gay immigrant from Mexico, who will? If I don’t write it down, how will anyone know I existed, that my family existed, that we were here and did things and made mistakes. These writings are evidence of our journey from one country to the next, of our participation in the American dream, of our flaws and heartbreaks and triumphs. If I don’t speak up, then I surrender the narrative to the media and politics, which have a very unflattering and two-dimensional view of immigrants in the current climate. I can’t think of a more rewarding position as a writer than to be able to tell my story. I don’t need to depend on anyone else to know that I’m valuable, that I’m important, that I am loved, because the truth is, there in the history and memory of my family.    

This is your third memoir. I understand you’re already working on a fourth. Can you reveal the subject you’ll be tackling in that one?

I’m writing a book about my grandmother, Abuela María. She was a Purépecha, an indigenous woman from the state of Michoacán, and it was she who stepped in as a maternal figure after my mother died. But she was a very atypical grandmother: She didn’t cook, she loved to labor in the fields, she loved to watch boxing and soccer, and she even replaced me at a soccer match once, when it was clear I was a weak player. She was small but muscular with biceps she was extremely proud of, and she taught me how to sew so that she could leave the mending to me—she detested all domestic chores, except ironing. I asked her once, “Why do you like to iron?” and she said, “It makes me sweat. It reminds me of working out in the fields.”

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.

My pleasure.