First Generation and Representation, Entering the Literary World
Interview with Jose Hernandez Diaz
by Olga Rosales Salinas
It is not often that you meet a writer as accomplished as Jose Hernandez Diaz and later find out that his story parallels your own. I met Hernandez Diaz when I joined the writing community on Twitter. His blurbs, stanzas, and commentary on prose were engaging and worthy of a follow, not just on Twitter but on all social media platforms. Within a few short months, I had read his books and attended his writing workshops. His work is essential to the Latinx youth that it often uses as subjects and to the larger community of young writers and thinkers.
Today, my sisters and I are happy to share this interview with you. Hernandez Diaz and I discuss his experience while growing up as a first-generation Mexican American living in Southeast Los Angeles. We talk about the obstacles that he faced getting to college and the representation of writers that influenced him into the literary world.
About the Author
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is originally from Northern Orange County, currently living in Southeast Los Angeles County. He holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from the University of California at Berkeley and Antioch University Los Angeles. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Colorado Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He has been a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Prize, Colorado Prize, The Akron Prize, The Ohio State Press Prize, Wisconsin Series, and The National Poetry Series. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier Poetry, and he teaches Creative Writing online for Litro Magazine (UK) and other venues.
Olga: First, my sisters and I want to thank you for your time. As a scholarship, our goal is to amplify voices like yours, first-generation, Mexican American speakers of truth, love, and light. Can you start by telling us about your experience growing up in Northern Orange County?
Jose: I grew up in a first-generation Mexican American household of six kids, two parents, so eight of us in a two-bedroom apartment. We were somewhat cramped, but we had plenty of love from our hard-working parents. My older sister, Letty, was the first to graduate college, CSUF, which influenced me to study English Literature because she was an English teacher. My youngest sister, Juana, also became an English major, and she went to UCLA and Harvard, and she currently works for UCLA as a program director. As a kid, I played basketball grew up in a diverse community, both racially and socio-economically.
My siblings and I have degrees from Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, CSULB, CSUF, Cerritos College, Antioch-Los Angeles, all because of my immigrant parents.
When I was 14, we moved to Southeast Los Angeles County, Norwalk, CA. Even though it was 20 minutes away, it was considerably different from Buena Park. Norwalk was mainly a Mexican, Chicano working-class neighborhood. It had/has several gangs in the area. Nothing has ever happened to me in terms of confrontations with gangs; however, I was scared about those possible scenarios when I first moved here. I've grown to like living in Southeast LA. Something is empowering about being surrounded by everyday Brown folks like me.
*Hernandez Diaz as a young child in Los Angeles, CA.
Olga: Can you describe your family history, i.e., your parents' migration to the United States.
Jose: My parents came to the states together in the '70s. My dad came here as a field worker/restaurant worker, etc. My parents initially lived in Los Angeles, but they settled in Northern Orange County, Placentia, CA, when they needed more space. In Mexico, my parents came from both the rancho and pueblo upbringing. When they came to the states, they didn't know English. My mom would eventually become a preschool teacher after working in fast food, a dietary aide at a hospital, etc. My siblings and I have degrees from Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, CSULB, CSUF, Cerritos College, Antioch-Los Angeles, all because of my immigrant parents.
My junior-year English teacher, Mrs. Weir, was why I became a writer.
Olga: Do you remember if any counselors or teachers supported you in unique ways? Who were the angels who helped you get to UC Berkeley?
Jose: My junior-year English teacher, Mrs. Weir, was why I became a writer. I was getting mediocre grades, playing football, and she noticed I scored high on the Language Arts portion of the Star test. She told me I should be getting better grades, and she said to try harder. She also read one of my in-class essays and encouraged me to write more. From then on, I got straight A's. I went to a community college, Cerritos College, and received nearly perfect grades for two years. Then I was accepted to Cal-Berkeley and moved to the Bay Area. My senior-year English teacher, Mrs. Howe-Ugale, was also influential. She told me I could write for Time Magazine one day and staple all of my essays and short stories on the wall as an example to the class. I consider them to be my first publications. It gave me confidence and made me proud of myself early, which is rare for brown young men.
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Olga: How did your parents' experience as immigrants affect you as a student?
Jose: My parent's experience as immigrants primarily motivated me to try hard and work hard. They took pride in everything they did, which taught me about equality; I learned that it depends on what's inside, how hard you try, and not superficial things like money or capitalist status. To this day, I always say if I win any literary award, I hope to make my parents proud.
*Mom and Dad.
I shined when my Professor, Prof. Langan, asked us to write a sonnet as a homework assignment. I wrote an anti-sonnet called "The Dichotomy of Dissent," and she said it was "some of the best she'd seen." I felt empowered as a poet and seen.
Olga: If you had to describe the specific obstacles you faced as a first-generation Mexican American student, what would they be?
Jose: I grew up with not a lot of money, but for the most part, my parents and their hard work shielded me from feeling poor. I had a happy childhood, had many friends, and played football. They kept me from harsh realities. My parents are also very religious, and even though I've strayed from the church as an adult, I think God guided them and gave them strength. I know it.
*Diaz playing high school football.
My senior-year English teacher, Mrs. Howe-Ugale, was also influential. She told me I could write for Time Magazine one day and staple all of my essays and short stories on the wall as an example to the class.
Olga: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Who did you look up to in the literary world? When was the first time you saw Latinx representation? Was that in high school?
Jose: No, I didn't always want to be a writer. When I was younger, I wanted to be an athlete. I played basketball and football. Then, I had the experience with my high school teacher, and I immediately wanted to be a writer. It sounded so exciting and honorable. At first looked up to Albert Camus, J.D. Salinger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then, I discovered Octavio Paz, Jose Emilo Pacheco, Rosario Castellanos, Vicente Huidobro, Luis J. Rodriguez, Francisco X. Alarcon, Alurista, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and other Latinx/Chicanx writers. That was when I started to gain even more confidence that I could do it myself. Others like me had done, and they had done it well.
Then, I discovered Octavio Paz, Jose Emilo Pacheco, Rosario Castellanos, Vicente Huidobro, Luis J. Rodriguez, Francisco X. Alarcon, Alurista, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and other Latinx/Chicanx writers at the library.
Olga: Can you describe your first semester at Berkeley? What obstacles did you face? Do you feel that they were directly related to being first-generation?
Jose: My first semester at Berkeley was good. I got good grades. After that, though, I was more focused on the social aspects of college life, and my grades suffered. I also had some mental health issues that I was managing. The experience was a big adjustment, and I was young and immature. At times, I felt I wasn't Chicano enough for the Mexican students and not American enough for the American students. I still write about the complicated identity of Latinx youth today. Like Earl Sweatshirt says, "too Black for the white kids and too white for the Blacks."
Being first generation affected me because I didn't have anyone to guide me on the college experience: submissions guidelines, personal statements, and FAFSA seemed so complicated. Also, I had never been to a college campus before. However, I shined when my Professor, Prof. Langan asked us to write a sonnet as a homework assignment. I wrote an anti-sonnet called "The Dichotomy of Dissent," and she said it was "some of the best she'd seen." I felt empowered as a poet and seen. It was probably my fondest memory at Cal.
*Diaz with siblings in Los Angeles.
Who would've thought a first-generation brown boy who qualified for the free-school lunch from K through 12 would be a published poet in places like The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and the Yale Review?
Olga: Do you feel that the obstacles you faced growing up as a first-generation Latinx person are the same ones facing Latinx youth today?
Jose: Most of my problems came from not having many professional Latino male role models. I never had any Latinx teachers growing up, much less Latino male English teachers. I was always talented at writing but intimidated by the teaching. Part of it was that I'm somewhat introverted, but I also never had any examples of men of color leading a classroom.
After landing so many publications in places that most Latinx folks never dream of, I started to gain confidence in myself, even in teaching. After all, why not me? Eventually, I was approached to teach online and learned trial and error on the spot. Now, I like to work with writers of color and underserved communities. I see myself in them. I want them to see that anything is possible. We can do anything we want with hard work, dedication, and opportunity. Who would've thought a first-generation brown boy who qualified for the free-school lunch from K through 12 would be a published poet in places like The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and the Yale Review?
*Diaz reading prose.
Olga: If you could address the first-generation or immigrant students currently attending high school, what would you say?
Jose: Respect your folks, study hard, seek out mentors. Learn from them and grow. Become a mentor in your community. Seek a healthy balance in life. Stay out of trouble. Minor mistakes can add up.
Olga: Do you have advice for Latinx-youth interested in writing?
Jose: Read Latinx authors. Read Black Authors. Read Native American Authors. Read everyone. You can learn something from anyone, whether craft, voice, pace, social context, etc.
Olga: Do you have advice for anyone reading who is considering donating to the Rosales Sisters' Scholarship?
Jose: Besides mentorship, as a first-gen student, the essential thing in a scholarship opportunity is money for school. If you have the means, pay it forward and help your community grow. If I didn't have my parents, teachers, mentors, I wouldn't have made it. Young people of color need inspiration and help; it's amazing what someone else's belief in us can do to our confidence.