A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir by Daisy Hernandez, 181 pages, Beacon Press, hardcover, 2014, $24.95.
Review by Bonnie Losak
A Cup of Water Under My Bed, Daisy Hernandez’s compelling memoir, recounts the author’s struggles with the colliding facets of her identity. Hernandez, the daughter of a Cuban father and Colombian mother, was raised in northern New Jersey. Spanish was the language of her home, English the language of her school.
The language Hernandez speaks as a child, however, is not the Spanish that is contained in literature or textbooks; instead it is the Spanglish that was common to her neighborhood. Throughout her childhood, Hernandez says, Spanish was an oral language, not a written one, a language that was inherited, not studied. When Hernandez finally began reading in Spanish at age nineteen, it was, for her, like being, “in the embrace of someone who loves you and who is also something of a stranger.”
This image of a stranger’s embrace is one that echoes throughout Hernandez’s melodic memoir. Or perhaps it’s not the embrace at all, but its inverse–-its recurring absence, that fills the pages. In belonging to more than one country, more than one culture, Hernandez is consumed with the question of whether she belongs at all.
When she is fifteen and working the register at a local McDonald’s (Hernandez’s first job), rejection comes in the form of a customer who questions Hernandez’s ability to understand English. Years later, when Hernandez has landed an internship in the editorial department at the New York Times, rejection is more direct. Hernandez suggests an editorial that would urge then-President Bush to grant political asylum to Colombians. After all, Hernandez reasons, “the United States funds the war in Colombia and the people deserve relief.” Hernandez’s idea is rebuffed by an editor whom Hernandez later refers to as “Mr. Flaco the Racist.” He asks Hernandez, patronizingly, “Why Colombians and not another group of people?” From this encounter Hernandez discovers that there is a “hierarchy of pain” and unless the pain suffered by those in your homeland is at the top of this hierarchy, their suffering will largely be ignored by those in power.
But the Latin culture presents its own difficulties for Hernandez. When Hernandez comes out to her mother, Hernandez’s mother tells her that this sort of thing (women dating women) simply “doesn’t happen in Colombia.” As the news of Hernandez’s bisexuality travels to the rest of the family, one aunt accuses Hernandez of trying to kill her mother, another quits speaking to Hernandez for several years. So Hernandez survives as children of immigrants do, taking from each culture that which nourishes, rejecting that which alienates.
As Hernandez’s heritage is multi-cultural, so her writing is multi-layered, direct yet lyrical, forceful yet restrained. In describing her father’s drinking she says, “A man who drinks too much is an open secret….Everyone has a father or uncle or cousin like that. There is nothing to hide. But there is plenty to see.” Later, in observing a veteran Times reporter reflect on the suicide of one of his colleagues, Hernandez says, “I believed bad things didn’t happen to white people, not in places like this. But now here is the window, the man grieving, the light golden and punishing.”
A Cup of Water Under My Bed is, in the end, a probing exploration into the divergent forces that shaped Hernandez and from which she drew to become the stirring writer and activist she is today. But it is also a moving commentary on family, Hernandez’s family and the larger family of immigrants as a whole. In Hernandez’s words, “Writing is how I leave my family and how I take them with me.”