In THE EDUCATION OF MARGOT SANCHEZ, by Lilliam Rivera, a Puerto Rican-American family does everything it can to maintain a veneer of perfection for their teenage daughter, Margot. But when she’s caught stealing money, she winds up working in her father’s South Bronx grocery store, and that’s where her education truly begins. A riveting excerpt and Q&A between AFLW’s Fiction Editor Shilpa Agarwal and the author.
A cashierista with flaming orange-red hair invades my space the minute I step inside the supermarket. I search for Papi but he’s walked ahead into his office already.
“Look who’s here!” the cashierista announces while eating some sort of pastry. “La Princesa has arrived.”
I wince as she calls me by my childhood nickname and not my real name, Margot. The rest of the cashier girls give my preppy floral outfit the once-over.
“What are you doing here?” She ignores the pastel de guayaba crumbs that fall on her too-tight shirt, which reads MIRA PERO NO TOQUES, a warning to the masses to look but not touch her looming chest.
Before I can even respond, Oscar, the manager, comes up to me and places a protective hand on my shoulder.
“She’s helping us this summer,” Oscar says. “Verdad, Princesa?”
“Well, more like supervising.” I say this with just enough emphasis on the word “supervising” for the cashierista to shift her weight to her right hip. Oscar laughs at my work declaration/aspiration and offers me a pity pat on my shoulder.
I take a good look around. It’s been a while since I’ve been here. Sanchez & Sons Supermarket used to be bright and cheerful, a welcoming oasis in a sea of concrete buildings. Now the blue paint is peeling, the posters are the same from five years ago, and there’s some funky odor that I can’t place. I spot a large sign with a banana dressed in a ridiculous mambo costume. The banana smiles back at me as if she’s in on the joke. And she is. Everyone is. My year at Somerset Prep is being scrubbed away with every second I spend here and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“This is Melody and Annabel. Say hello, girls.” Oscar’s gained weight since I saw him last, at my parents’ annual Three Kings Day party. To combat his thinning hair, he keeps his head completely shaved. A Latino Mr. Clean. “Here’s Rosa, Brianne, and Taina . . .”
These girls are just a couple of years older than me but some of the other women have been working at my father’s supermarket for a while. Some even have kids my age. The ones with kids are a little bit friendlier but there’s no point in remembering their names. I have no intention of staying here.
“You look just like a Sanchez,” one of the older cashieristas says. “La misma cara of your father.”
“Thank you.” I’m not sure if it’s a compliment or if she’s saying I look like a middle-aged man. The cashier girl from earlier continues to eyeball me. I locate the exits and make a mental list of the possible escape routes. There’s not much else I can do.
“Buenos días, Señor Sanchez.”
A stock boy wearing a Yankees baseball hat tilted to the side and droopy, extra-large pants that fall off his hips greets Papi. Finally, Papi makes an appearance.
I adjust my skirt and pull down my matching short-sleeved top. The blouse barely covers my big butt. I might be overdressed but my stylish clothes are my only armor against perverted stock boys like this one, who now leers at me. Even with the hat I can still make out his Dragon Ball Z spiked hair, gelled so hard that it looks like a shellacked crown. I stare him down until he looks away.
It’s seven in the morning on a Monday. This is how I’m spending my first day of vacation. I blame my parents for this summer imprisonment.
I was this close to joining Serena and Camille on their vacation to the Hamptons. Two months of hanging with the only squad that matters by the beach. It took some serious scheming on my part to secure an invite from the girls, right down to me doing things I never thought I would. There was that time they dared me to make out with some nerd, Charles from English class. Serena and Camille were joking but I did it. When I pulled my lips away, Charles’s large eyes registered confusion, and then he turned bright red. What was truly messed up was that Charles didn’t miss a beat. He covered up the embarrassment by laughing along with Serena and Camille. There wasn’t much separating me from him. We were both outsiders in that school. Both didn’t know how to dress. Both surviving. Still, I ignored that awful pit of guilt growing in my stomach because taking that dare was worth it. There were other things I did—denied my natural curls by straightening out my hair, stole some expensive lipstick—anything to make Serena and Camille notice me.
My parents have no idea who I have to compete with at Somerset Prep. How far down I was in the social caste system until Serena and Camille took pity on me. If I was going to be the great brown hope for my family by attending this super-expensive high school, I knew I needed to make friends with the right girls. Papi said to me on my first day of school: “Don’t waste your time with idiots. Always look for the kids who stand out.” Camille and Serena stood out because they were popular, like straight-out-of-a-CW-TV-show-episode popular. Fashion girls. I thought I was stylish but I had no concept of what that meant, with my dated vintage dresses in too-loud tacky colors. I tried to explain this to my parents but they called off my summer plans to teach me a lesson. Now I’m stuck in their supermarket in the South Bronx, far away from the sun and the gorgeous Nick Greene. Grounded. Stuck personified.
Lilliam Rivera in Conversation With Shilpa Agarwal
Shilpa Agarwal: Your protagonist, Puerto Rican teenager Margot Sanchez, becomes “educated” in an environment that’s saturated with sexuality and sexual innuendo, both at her father’s South Bronx supermarket and in her interactions with her affluent, white Somerset friends. What is Margot’s sense of her own sexuality? Does Margot have any positive models of sexuality and womanhood, and where can she find them?
Lilliam Rivera: Margot Sanchez is a typical young Latina growing up in a very male-dominated environment. Her father is the head of the household while her older brother reaps the rewards of being the only male. It is a world saturated with sexuality but it is common for most teenagers to grow up with sexual imagery through music and social media. For Margot, I believe that she is just starting to get a sense of her role in this world. Her close friend, Elizabeth, and even Moises to an extent, show her different ways to be a teenager and the possibility of a sexual awakening that exists outside of what her family dictates.
SA: You speak to corrosive nature of secrets, and take us into Margot’s head as she keeps her own secrets: “I don’t say a word. I’m too much of coward. This mask I wear that conceals my true self, I will keep it on forever at the cost of Oscar, Moises and everyone.” There’s a cost, however, to silence, as you show us later. What is it?
LR: I’m always exploring the many different masks people wear when navigating social circles, especially when you are a woman of color. The things we choose to say or keep hidden fascinate me. This is so true to everyone in the Sanchez family. The cost for keeping hold of their mask is their inability to live in reality. Their aspirations are clouding their surroundings and they are unable to see what is really going on.
SA: Margot says, “I don’t want this family history. I have to believe I have a choice. But what if it’s in my blood?” She suffers from the choices her father, her mother and her brother have made, but she also sees how she’s acted no differently from them. Can children ever truly move out of the shadows of their family history without breaking with their families, especially within the close-knit nature of immigrant culture, and, if so, how?
LR: When I first thought of writing this novel, I kept coming back to the questions, “Are we destined to repeat our parents’ mistakes? Are we cursed with their past history?” To a certain extent, I might believe this but I also feel that harmful cycles can be broken. Nothing is ever as neat as a TV episode. Our first teachers are usually our parents and it takes that moment when you see them as flawed people that you can embark on a new path that’s more realistic and maybe healthier.
SA: Margot doesn’t quite fit in at her father’s market, or at home, or in the Hamptons. Where does she belong? How does she find her place of belonging?
LR: Margot eventually carves a space of her own. She reshapes her former relationships with her friends and will take a different approach to her prep school acquaintances. It’s a moment of being honest for the first time with herself and with others.
SA: Margot says of her mother, “Something I hadn’t noticed before: Mami is a silent partner just like me.” Later you show just how much power and voice Mami has in the grocery store when she shows up with a feast and soothes the tension among the workers. Were you foreshadowing her silent part in enabling her husband’s affair with a grocery worker? Can you speak to the role of power between the two women, Mami and Jasmine, who are powerful and powerless in their own ways?
LR: I see their similarities. They are both desperate to get out of their predicament, albeit they are on different levels. Jasmine feels she is stuck in the supermarket, her dream of being a singer unfulfilled. Mami hints at being stuck in Puerto Rico, the last one to get married, until she found her husband. In their own way, they are both using Victor to get out of their situations. There is power in that knowledge but they both fail to see that perhaps there may be other solutions that are not destructive.
SA: You’re not only an author but you seek to invest back into the literary community through engaging with other authors. Can you tell us a little bit about your monthly radio show, Literary Soundtrack? In interviewing authors about their work, what is it that you are most interested in discovering?
LR: Radio Sombra is a community-run radio station out of East Los Angeles. When the collective asked me to create a radio show, I immediately thought of what I wanted to hear. There are only a couple of radio shows that are dedicated to literature. I wanted to do a show that exclusively promoted authors of color, regardless of genre. It’s my way of celebrating their work and speaking to authors I respect about their craft and inspiration. It’s been really fun speaking to authors I admire!