My fourth writing prompt is to try writing a first-person narrative of a character completely different from yourself. I think it was Flannery O’Conner who said that your characters don’t have to be anything like you, as long as you know something about the kind of person you’re making them. Writing as a character that’s completely different from you or anyone you would normally write about is a good challenge for any writer. And after all, aren’t the things we really care about or fear – love, family, death – pretty universal?
For my response to the prompt, I’ll share part of one of the short stories I’m working on. The main character of this story is an 18 year old Hispanic male (three things I’m not, and I very rarely write male protagonists) who decides, to his family’s shock, that he wants to postpone college and hitch-hike from his Texas suburb to the neighborhood in Panama where his parents grew up. I decided to call the story “Raices,” the Spanish word for “roots,” because I see his journey as an attempt to discover his lost roots in Panama and the fading traditional ways of life in Central and South America. Yet Carlos, my protagonist, has roots in America too, and his journey into his family’s past may just be a way for him to discover his future.
My family lived in Texas, in Laredo, right on the border of Mexico and the Rio Grande, and we were the only Panameños in the neighborhood. The gang activity that Laredo was known for never quite reached our barrio, but my younger brother and sister still knew that if you played in the street, you stayed in front of the house, where you could be seen. Papa always talked about moving to a better neighborhood, a better city, or even a better state, if only the gringos at the factory would give him a promotion. I knew the real reason that this talk about moving was only just talk, though. Our todo familia, or all of it that had migrated from Panama, lived here.
There were six of us in our little pink ranch-style house, me, mama y papa, my little brother Miguel, my little sister Angela, and Abuelita Torres. My uncle Hernando and his wife and three boys lived next door, and Tía Consuelo and her daughter Benita lived further down the street. Tío Hernando’s sons were all about my age and muy fuertes, always in trouble. When they were young, they used to give Abuelita fits, coming over to play and breaking things or sneaking beers and pulling pranks.
“They are family, but they are bad boys, Carlos,” Abuelita used to say to me. “You stay a good boy, you stay in school.” I was the quiet one, the one who did his homework and tried to speak English even at home. That’s why it was such a surprise when I graduated from high school and announced that I wanted to hitchhike to Panama.
“Carlos has cajones the size of beach balls,” teased my cousins. “He is a real bad vaquero, in his big shiny belt buckle and his fancy boots. He is going to ride his horse by day and the putas by night, all the way to Panama.” Uncle Hernando had promised them boots when they graduated from high school too, but so far none of them had been able to manage it.
“What do you need to go to Panama for?” Abuelita Torres had cried, cradling my face in her wrinkled brown hands, forcing me to bend down so that I could look into her dark eyes. “You are a smart boy, Carlos, muy iteligente! You have such good English, much better than this old woman. You should be going to college!”
I don’t want to go to college, Abuelita. Not now. Not yet.
“But why Panama, Carlos? Why this hitchhiking? This is dangerous! What are you looking for?”
I didn’t know.
“You have roots here,” Abuelita had scowled at me. “Raíces. You were born here, in America. Your family is here. You have nothing in Panama. Nada.”
This was true. I couldn’t explain it, why I wanted to go so bad. I only knew that I had to do something for me, and me alone, something that hadn’t first been thought through and approved by every padre, abuelo, tío, and primo. Something that hadn’t been gossiped over and planned out by our entire barrio from the time I was running around in diapers.
I had read this book, an American book, called Into the Wild. This hombre in Into the Wild was kind of like me. He had no real reason to go; he just wanted to go. He wanted to know what it was like, to live each day on his wits alone, to wear holes through the soles of his fancy cowboy boots. He wanted to see the wild places we had come from – the rain forests and the dirt roads and the pack mules and the colorful mercados.
“It’s not even like that anymore,” my cousins had scoffed when I’d tried to explain it. “Everybody works for the gringos, for the canal.”
To my surprise, it was Benita, with her black lipstick and her earrings and her business cutting hair for the barrio, who took up for me. “Carlos dresses like an American cowboy, like John Wayne,” Benita had said, smoke trickling out of the side of her dark lips and from the end of the cigarette she held between two fingers. “Even worse, Carlos dresses like a Mexican.” After that, Abuelita had decided I could go.
(….)At home, a map of América Central was taped to the wall in the bedroom I shared with Miguel. Panama looked light years away, a little fish between Costa Rica and South America that would fit into the Texas coastline, if you lined Colon up with Houston. My goal was David, where Abuelita and Abuelo Torres, and Mama and Papa had all been born. I’d grown up hearing their stories about the city – about their old barrio of brightly-colored concrete houses, about the neighbor’s lime tree that Papa had been scolded for stealing from, and Abuelita’s tall cactus that Papa had once fallen onto, when he was learning to ride his tricycle in the courtyard. About the enormous stone church of San José, where Mama y Papa, and Abuelo and Abuelito Torres before them, had been married, and where a wooden pew, “three from the back en el lado izquierdo,” Abuelito always said proudly, had our name engraved on the bronze plate on the side.
Mama’s sisters Rosa and Ana still lived in the barrio where they’d all grown up, Ana and her husband and children, Rosa, and their mother all in houses sharing the same courtyard. Mama had written the address down for me in her spidery handwriting after I told her about my plans, and I kept the sheet of paper in the envelope in my sock drawer where my money had been. By now, I had the address memorized: 112 Avenida 8a Este, David, Chiriquí, Panama.
To get there, I’d have to walk through five countries – cross the border using one of Laredo’s international bridges, walk the entire length of Mexico, through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before making it to my destination: Panama.