APRIL 13, 2020
“I KNEW I WAS QUEER the moment my consciousness had evolved enough to formulate thoughts,” Lydia R. Otero writes in the introduction to the memoir In the Shadows of the Freeway: Growing Up Brown & Queer.
In this compelling examination, Otero draws upon decades of experience as a historian and associate professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona, as well as long-standing roots in Tucson. Elements of both the academic and the memoirist are visible in these explorations of ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, complemented by a trove of citations and an immersive sense of place. The result is an intersectional and deeply personal picture of the power dynamics that created today’s Tucson and serves as a more firsthand complement to Otero’s previous work, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City.
Otero was born in Tucson in 1955 and grew up witnessing the city’s explosive growth at the expense of its Latino population. With deep sensory details but not a lick of sentimentality, Otero recounts their neighborhood, the arrival of the freeway, and the adobe they called home. “When I call up my earliest memories, I think of dirt,” they write.
We lived in a house surrounded by a yard of dirt, and our house was built of adobe blocks that my mother and her sisters had constructed with their own hands. We lived at the intersection of unpaved roads, and when cars drove by, at whatever speed, they created clouds of dust that eventually found its way into the house and into my hair, skin, eyes, and sometimes teeth.
Heavy rain meant that torrents of floodwater would flow through Otero’s family adobe, so furniture was set on bricks. Their family’s quiet endurance was a counterpoint to the city’s pointed neglect.
City officials sent a “truck bypass” (which later became the full I-10 freeway) directly through their barrio. It was first built at ground level, which meant that neighborhood residents routinely crossed it as though it were a street. A greenbelt center strip, intended as a beautification measure, enticed local children who used it as a playground. “[P]lanners were oblivious to the dangers posed to children who lived near the new freeway,” Otero writes, building tension by stringing facts out one by one like landmines before reaching the final damning accounts of how the city’s actions affected their family and others.
For the Oteros and their neighbors, “the effects of environmental racism were lethal,” resulting in a family tree peppered with loss. Within two years of Otero’s birth, an older brother drowned in an unfenced gravel pit pond, resulting in a mistrial and a minuscule settlement with the pit’s owner, and a grandfather was struck and killed while crossing the new freeway. Otero learned from these early family traumas to bury any emotions and to seek escape elsewhere, pretending to be an orphaned child of John F. Kennedy. They also learned deep-seated fear.
Tucson’s 20th-century population boom resulted in institutionalized policies of environmental racism, with gentrification forcing many of Mexican and indigenous descent both physically and culturally into a new category of “Other,” despite their long-standing history in the region. White celebrities like Diane Keaton now pay a premium to move into historic adobes in their former neighborhoods, the author notes. “The lopsidedness between the past and the present becomes crystal clear every time I walk Meyer Avenue,” Otero writes. “[H]ardworking Chita [Otero’s mother] could once afford to live there, while today her offspring, a university professor, cannot.”
This change was symptomatic of a larger effort across the country. Federal funds allowed city planners across the Southwest, in cities like Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and San Antonio, to flatten neighborhoods and displace thousands in the 1960s. As in the case of Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights, city officials in Tucson blithely tackled what they saw as blight but rarely bothered to consult with long-time residents who usually possessed little economic and cultural capital. At the same time that Boyle Heights was being razed through eminent domain to make room for the intersection of seven freeways, including the I-10, Otero’s own neighborhood in Arizona was bisected to accommodate another stretch of the same freeway.
Because the family never had a car, Otero developed a keen sense of observation by walking to La Calle, Tucson’s thriving, 80-acre Mexican-American core of commerce, community, and culture. But this got bulldozed to make way for a concrete jungle including a convention center, mall, and concert hall, all under the banner of an ambitious policy of whitewashed “urban renewal.” By practicing benign neglect and allowing the historic neighborhood to fall into decline, Otero argues, the city was able to justify its “slum clearance.” City planners promoted what Otero has provocatively called an “Anglo fantasy heritage” of the Wild West, with its themes of Manifest Destiny and perseverance against nature. Although this transformation occurred just half a century ago, it escaped the notice of most scholars until Otero began autoethnographic work.
“Race influenced the world around me and how I saw myself fitting into the larger society,” Otero writes. Latino people were sent to “Americanization” classes for English learners due to the color of their skin, even if they were native English speakers, and some experienced abuse. “White people who did not know anything about me held the power to define me and to decide the opportunities made available to me,” Otero writes.
The author describes the everyday nuances of poverty using spare language tinged with grim humor. Their mother and other family members worked as domestics “to make white people’s intimate environments more comfortable.” Frugality was a way of life: smashed jack-o’-lanterns would be collected after Halloween, then cleaned and disemboweled to make empanadas. One uncle never dined in a restaurant until his retirement party at age 71; he opted to eat the buffet’s parsley garnishes because he was unfamiliar with the other foods being served.
Some of Otero’s family members were proud of their heritage, while others attempted to fit in. One of Otero’s grandmothers liked watching American cowboy movies. The young Otero attempted to translate and summarize but realized in hindsight that she didn’t need to be told the stories. “In her lifetime she had personally witnessed a small group of white people with guns arriving on horseback and in wagons, who managed to take over and dominate the region.”
In contrast, Otero’s mother chose to identify herself as “Spanish” rather than Mexican. She had never been to Mexico, the logic went, so why would she call herself Mexican? “But you have never been to Spain either,” Otero would counter. When Otero’s mother was treated like a second-class citizen at the store, the young Otero wondered if something was wrong with her. “It hurts my heart to realize that I sometimes felt ashamed of her.”
Otero’s mother’s experiences as a target of racism complicated the experience of a queer child trying to navigate the world. “Over the years, as my queerness unfolded before her, she tried to extinguish it before it took over because in her world and in that age, she wanted her child, who looked so much like her, to have a chance at a better life.” She “was a realist and could not imagine a world where queerness was not an additional stigma.”
Like Pinocchio, Otero wanted to be a “‘real’ boy.” An older brother had bestowed the nickname “La Butch” before first grade. Otero recalls tortuous annual birthday parties with glitter, poofy dresses, and piñatas, until turning away from them at age 10.
Otero’s blended memoir/nonfiction approach generally works, but the narrative can seem disjointed at times, as though the author is afraid to step fully into the role of memoirist. Personal stories are firmly grounded in the language and practices of the historian. The academic in Otero often seems keen to announce what’s going to happen before the scene unfolds, which can come at the expense of narrative tension in places — for example, the reader learns the fate of Otero’s brother in the book’s introduction.
Greater truths or insights sometimes seem to be hidden behind what is presented on the page, particularly in Otero’s discussions of early romantic relationships. The reason for the lack of details is clear; Otero notes the use of pseudonyms in these cases to avoid outing people without their permission. But particularly later in the book, Otero’s simple recitation of facts sometimes seems to take precedent over the present self’s critical evaluation. The dynamic between these past and present selves — and the attempt to resolve the gap between them — is what creates a memoirist’s true voice, writer David Mura says, and I would love to see it incorporated more in any future memoirs Otero writes.
This only detracts a little from what is otherwise an engrossing self-examination. Otero’s exploration of a personal story is an important and welcome contribution to the relatively unexplored conversation about queer Mexican history in the Southwest.
Candice Yacono is a journalist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in various publications including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Coast Magazine, Fodor’s, and U.S. Department of State magazines in India and Pakistan.