It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home. But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home. I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.– A Cup of Water Under My Bed
Summary and Thoughts
In this lyrical, coming-of-age memoir, Daisy Hernández chronicles what the women in her Cuban-Colombian family taught her about love, money, and race. Her mother warns her about envidia and men who seduce you with pastries, while one tía bemoans that her niece is turning out to be “una india” instead of an American. Another auntie instructs that when two people are close, they are bound to become like uña y mugre, fingernails and dirt, and that no, Daisy’s father is not godless. He’s simply praying to a candy dish that can be traced back to Africa.
These lessons—rooted in women’s experiences of migration, colonization, y cariño—define in evocative detail what it means to grow up female in an immigrant home. In one story, Daisy sets out to defy the dictates of race and class that preoccupy her mother and tías, but dating women and transmen, and coming to identify as bisexual, leads her to unexpected questions. In another piece, NAFTA shuts local factories in her hometown on the outskirts of New York City, and she begins translating unemployment forms for her parents, moving between English and Spanish, as well as private and collective fears. In prose that is both memoir and commentary, Daisy reflects on reporting for the New York Times as the paper is rocked by the biggest plagiarism scandal in its history and plunged into debates about the role of race in the newsroom.
A heartfelt exploration of family, identity, and language, A Cup of Water Under My Bed is ultimately a daughter’s story of finding herself and her community, and of creating a new, queer life.
Daisy Hernandez creates a unique, artfully written memoir here, her writing accessible and distinct. Hernandez is able to construct complex stories about her past, showing empathy for all those in her life even as she also reveals their less accepting sides, her writing interspersed with beautiful insights so that each story carries resonance. The structure of this memoir is particularly laudable, for rather than providing a direct chronology of events, Hernandez writes her past through a series of essays organized by themes and lessons. She jumps across time throughout her pieces, but because her message is so cohesive and skillfully explained, I was rarely confused and often mystified by her clarity instead. Though I found myself struggling to get into the rhythm of the narrative at first, by the memoir’s end I truly felt absorbed by Hernandez’s voice and heartened by her vulnerability, honesty, and humility. This is a quick read, about 200 pages, and with this in mind in conjunction with Hernandez’s efficient writing, I have no problem recommending this piece.
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