Alarcon Asks: What Kind of Latino Am I?

Over at Salon, Daniel Alarcon analyzes some of the reactions he’s been getting recently while on tour promoting his collection, War By Candlelight.

Last April I was invited to a literary fundraiser of sorts. It was a fancy affair, full of very wealthy people and well-dressed waiters carrying trays of wine and strange-looking appetizers. A couple of dozen writers had been invited, and we were plied with alcohol and dispersed into the party. I fell into a few pleasant conversations with some very kind people, all of them genuinely excited for me — You’re so young to have published a book! etc. — and then was seated at dinner next to a woman in her 60s, who spent her meal asking me about the exotic origins of my last name. I’m Peruvian, I told her. But that last name, it reminds me of a bug that bit me when I was living in Mexico! Oh, I said. Where does it come from? she asked. I explained to her at one point that most words in Spanish that begin in “Al” are Arabic in origin, that the Moorish influence transformed the language, so that my last name may have been Arcon or Arco. I’m not sure why I told her this. I’m neither Spanish nor Moorish, and certainly not a linguist, but I felt she needed something to keep her occupied for a bit.

She gave me this wide-eyed look: That is so topical, she said. Like al-Qaida.

Even in the dim light, I’m sure she sensed she had stunned me: not that I’m saying you’re one of those people.

Oh, no, I stammered. Because I’m not.

She patted me on the shoulder. I understand, she said in a conspiratorial whisper; my daughter married a Mexican.

It goes downhill from there, with Alarcon getting increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t fit the image that is expected of the Latino writer, which is to say that of the struggling immigrant who writes novels or stories that are merely thinly disguised versions of his autobiography, how it’s all heartbreaking and so, so real.

Oh and the answer to that question? Clearly, one who can write.