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The Memoir 'Ordinary Girls' Takes Readers To Puerto Rico And Miami Beach In The 1980s

Courtesy of Jaquira Díaz
Graphic by Alejandra Martinez

Author Jaquira Díaz's life has been anything but ordinary.

From the early years growing up in el caserio (government housing in Puerto Rico), to struggling through the kind of poverty on Miami Beach she described as, "the kind of poor you felt in your bones, " Díaz felt torn by life. 

She had just left behind a rough life in Puerto Rico when she moved to Miami Beach and at the age of 8 learned her mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic. 

"I realized she started talking to herself and laughing by herself," Díaz says on Sundial. "It happened in short bursts of awareness rather than then all at once, I realized my mother is hearing voices."

She recounts these pivotal moments in her memoir "Ordinary Girls," this month's Sundial Book Club pick. The coming-of-age story that takes readers through Díaz's life growing up in Puerto Rico, living in Miami Beach during the 1980s and her mother’s severe mental illness. She joined the program to talk about how these life-changing moments helped shape her views of family, love and self-identity.

WLRN: One story that you highlighted was that of Lázaro Figueroa or 'Baby Lollipops.' Why did you want to touch on this crime?

DÍAZ: I found out about Baby Lollipops when I was a kid watching the news. They showed his picture on the news and they had found the body of this baby. At the time, I kind of already imagined myself a writer. I followed this story with the obsession of a journalist, but at the same time, it was really about what was happening with me personally. At around the same time, my mother took my sister and me from my father, who was the custodial parent. She [mother] was in the throes of schizophrenia and was often violent and sometimes unpredictable. I was very scared of her.

She once came in the middle of the night and took you from your house?

She took us and she did this. After that, she did it two more times. I was terrified of my mother. And then the news aired and we found out that it was his [Lázaro Figueroa] mother who killed him. So somehow in my mind, I connected those two things. I thought my mother could be this violence, even though she actually wasn't that violent. She had moments when she became abusive and when she was in the middle of a breakdown. I was terrified of my mother. 

They made it sound very much like being a lesbian or being gay was part of the crime. - Jaquira Díaz

But then there was also this other aspect to the case, which is how people in the neighborhood talked about his mother and how they referred to her as the lesbian mother. And they made it sound very much like being a lesbian or being gay was part of the crime. Like that was just as bad as torturing and killing your baby. And I was a closeted queer kid growing up in Miami Beach, which later became kind of like a gay mecca. But also, there were a lot of gay people in Miami Beach back then. There were so many gay people who were victims of violence. So it felt to me like I needed to hide who I was, that it was dangerous to be who I was.

When you were a child, at what point did you understand what was happening to your mother?

She was diagnosed after we came to Miami Beach after we moved from Puerto Rico. She started showing symptoms years before, talking about a man who was following her and someone who was stalking her and I didn't really understand what that meant. I thought there was a man stalking her. I really did. And I looked for him everywhere. And I was looking out for a stalker. My mother would say there's someone outside trying to get in the house. And I believed her. I thought there's a man outside trying to get in the house. And then after we moved to Miami Beach, I realized she started talking to herself and laughing by herself. It happened in short bursts of awareness rather than then all at once, I realized my mother is laughing by herself. My mother is hearing voices. I would kind of block that out and try not to think about it because it was terrifying. But I think I finally had a full understanding of it. And I kind of just had to accept it because I couldn't do anything about it.

So it was not easy to open up to the world and to be as transparent as you've been in this book. Why did you feel like you had to open up and tell this story?

It was important to me to reach out to girls who were like I was, who had never seen themselves in books. I wanted to write about people like me. And so I decided that when I became a writer, I would write about people like me, people who were Puerto Rican, people who were black and brown, who had grown up in poverty, who were from working-class families and who had grown up in Miami Beach because we never see ourselves in books.

Want to join the Sundial Book Club? Click here.

WATCH: Five questions with Puerto Rican author Jaquira Díaz. 

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