Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: Lady Q: The Rise And Fall Of A Latin Queen

cross posted from my VivirLatino Review

***Trigger Warning***

When my homegirl Nilki asked me if I’d like to review the book Lady Q: The Rise And Fall Of A Latin Queen, I said “of course!” It’s rare when our stories are told in general, especially in book form, and specifically as testimonio. What is also a rarity is hearing from Latinas who are involved or associated with gangs in the US. Often there is this idea that we should not hear such stories because it gives “us a bad name.” Or such narratives focus on such a negative aspect of our community. My opinion is that there is positive, there is negative, there is struggle and redemption and all of those stories must be shared, heard, and valued.

I received a free copy of the book for review through the Condor Book Tour, and I must say as a disclaimer that the opinions expressed in this review are mine alone.

Before I begin this review I must state my bias: I do not see all gangs as negative aspects or parts of communities. I have worked with youth for over two decades and in that time have worked directly with youth involved or associated with various gangs. In that work I’ve learned a lot about my own social justice agenda, ways to mentor youth, and how to help young people learn about self-determination without lecturing, bullying or judging them.

Lady Q is written under the pseudonym Sonia Rodriguez and is based on the testimonio given to Reymundo Sanchez, author of My Bloody Life and Once A King, Always A King the narratives about his life as a Latin King. I have not read Reymundo Sanchez’s previous texts so this is my first introduction to his work around gang involvement and activity.

The book is depressing, filled with incest, assault, sexual violence, abuse, and neglect. I seriously thought I was rereading Oscar Lewis’ La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family In The Culture Of Poverty. If you are familiar with the vitae of Lewis, then I don’t need to tell you about how triflin’ his theories and ideologies are, yet continue to be used and applied to us. As I read Lady Q, I thought to myself: “now here is a novel of an experience that Lewis would say is proof that people of Color value poverty as a cultural artifact and production.” I know our Vivir Latino readers are intelligent, savvy readers and that I don’t have to deconstruct why Lewis’ work is problematic, so let’s just move on.

The text was written in an accessible way with limited terminology that was difficult to understand for readers at various levels. I think this is a great characteristic of the text as it is most likely that people interested in the book are youth or people who may not have had the opportunity to expand their reading abilities to a certain level. It was clear to me who the target audience was and that I was not in that scope. At the same time, as someone who works with youth, I do value such texts and appreciate how texts such as these exist for our youth who need them. I do no take it personally when a book isn’t written for me, or when code-switching is difficult for me to follow. Instead I focus on why it is that I’m having a difficult and challenging time interacting with the text.

We follow Sonia through her testimonio of adolescents, puberty, young adulthood, motherhood, and her current experiences as a grandmother. During this time we learn of how Sonia was sexually abused by several men in her family and physically and emotionally abused by her female family members to this day. We discover that Sonia never had any support or protection from anyone or anything in her family or community and it is from this space of vulnerability, rejection, depression, and desperation that Sonia chose to join the Latin Kings and become a Latin Queen. We follow her as she quickly becomes the Queen of All Kings.

As we learn more about Sonia, who while a Latin Queen went by the name Lady Q, we see her evolve into a drug abuser, drug dealer, homeless mother, domestic violence survivor, grandmother, and now author. There are several readers who may ask “what kind of mother would allow her daughter to be abused and neglected in such a way?” and I wonder why there is this huge assumption that her mother knew what to do in such instances. Why isn’t the question more of “what kind of community is created so that a young girl of Color can be abused and neglected by its members, not find support, and when she makes a decision for her own mental and spiritual health, is then seen as the criminal?”

Some critiques I have of the text is that there were times where I did not think I was hearing Sonia’s voice. I had the impression that there were aspects of her story that were forced, meaning she may not have been as comfortable or forthcoming as we are to believe from the introduction. At the same time I recognize that these are difficult testimonios to share and that I may be projecting some of my own biases onto the narrative. There were times in the story where I could clearly tell Sonia was not talking but Reymundo took it upon himself to add clarification on issues/topics/terminology. These aspects I did not mind, however I thought they could have fit more smoothly as a footnote versus changing/altering the voice of the story.

Yet, I can’t get past the idea of a man writing a woman’s testimony. This bothers me and I have yet to find the exact language that can help contextualize this perspective but I will try.

Men writing our stories is nothing new. In fact it is so tired I knew before reading the book that I would have an issue with this aspect of the text. There is something so innately paternalistic about this that it is enraging. I’m not clear why there is a desire to write our stories for us, versus creating a space where we have the opportunity to write our own stories without having a man claim some level of that ability or accomplishment. I should rephrase: I understand why there is a desire, because there is a level of stature, a “look a the wonderful gift I gave her,” the adoration and odd respect given to such men who do this work. What level of input did she have in the creation of the actual text? Was she a part of the creation or did she just get a final draft?

Then there was the ending, when we hear Reymundo’s voice again in first person, providing an update on Sonia and her situation. I found this part of the book most troubling and condescending. Not only is Reymundo discussing how Sonia’s living environment has not changed and she has not decided to leave her hometown, but he also judges her choices to stay near her daughter and grandchildren. He argues that the only way to get out of the life completely is to remove oneself from the community entirely. This means relocate to another state altogether.

My concern with this discussion and perspective is that it takes away Sonia’s self-determination by judging her choices. Hasn’t Sonia been judged her entire life? Why continue this under the guise of helping her? How is this any different from the abuse and neglect she endured and survived as a child? There are ways to be firm and honest with people without belittling them and harm reductionists have been working to master such approaches for decades.

What I know can result is a strong discussion with youth and those who have similar experiences to the ones presented in this text.

If you are interested in purchasing the book for yourself or the youth/community you work with, all commissions from sales of books brought through Condor Books (on Amazon affiliate) go to Latinitas’ Teen Reporter Intern Program.

We are offering ONE free copy of the book to the first person who responds with a valid email address and indicates their interest in receiving the free copy. This is a generous offer from Condor Books. (please leave a comment at VivirLatino for free copy)

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