Ordinary Girls

  • By Jaquira Díaz
  • Algonquin Books
  • 336 pp.

A scalding, extraordinary debut by a talented young author.

Ordinary Girls

In Mexican folklore, parents tell the story of La Llorona to make their children behave. The weeping woman is said to have drowned her children in rage and then herself in sorrow, and now goes in search of wayward kids to be her next victims.

Jaquira Díaz threads this legend through her debut memoir, along with the notorious stories of Casey Anthony, tried for the death of her young daughter, and of Ana María Cardona, who spent years on death row for the torture and death of her toddler son in Miami, when Díaz was a young girl. She tells the stories of monstrous mothers.

The marvel, for Díaz, is that right up until the moment these women become monsters, they are simply ordinary girls. But what does it mean to be an ordinary girl?

“Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.”

Given the episodes Díaz recounts, it feels as though her entire life is something she could never come back from, and yet here she is to shepherd us through her story, somehow having made it safely to the other side — though she did, in fact, throw herself off a ledge in one of her harrowing suicide attempts.

Arguably, what saves Díaz is her early experience in a still-stable family living in Puerto Rico, and a father who unwittingly instills in her a love of reading. He is a poet, a student, a supporter of the independence movement, and a voracious reader, and Díaz attempts to gain his attention and affection by teaching herself to read the same books he does.

In her earliest memories, though, her father is also a dope dealer.

Her mother, Jeanette, “small, but scared of nothing, a foulmouthed chain-smoker with a hot temper…eclipsed the sun with her confidence, took the world by the throat and shook it until it gave up what was hers.” This woman, who’d had all three of her children by age 22, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when Díaz is 8.

Díaz’s father’s mother, Abuela, is the steadiest influence in her early life, the one who teaches her to cook, the one who offers safety and comfort without any strings attached.

All the adults dote on her older brother, Anthony, who is allowed to be a brute to Díaz and their little sister, Alaina — perhaps because he is the eldest, or because he is a boy, or because he is white, with blond hair and blue-green eyes, just like his mother, while the two girls are dark like their father. Her maternal grandmother, Mercy, is the first person to ever call Díaz the N word.

Because her father isn’t up to battling her mother after they move to Miami and get divorced, he allows Jeanette — mentally ill, unstable, drug-addicted, and chronically bouncing from one squat to another — to take both girls to live with her, while Anthony lives with their father and Abuela.

The time with her mother is a nightmare. One of the most poignant passages in the book is a reference to times when her mother is having a good day, and Díaz is able to remember what her mother used to mean to her:

“What do they sound like? I asked once. The voices?
She took one long drag off her cigarette, thought about it a while, exhaled. They sound angry. There’s so many of them.
“On those good days, I’d have her to myself, almost like I had her back…how unfair it was that my mother had lost her mind, how unfair that I had lost my mother.”

In her teen years, Díaz is a bundle of contradictions: An honors student who is also a juvenile delinquent, forever getting suspended or arrested; the winner of a Miami Herald essay contest who drops out of high school; a book-lover who hangs with the gangs and homeless of Miami; a fiercely loyal friend who, without provocation or mercy, beats up a close friend, a girl she’s secretly been in love with. At one point, Díaz is arrested for stabbing Anthony in the gut after he tries to strangle her.

Some of the most violent and wrenching scenes — a rape described by its aftermath, the friend’s beating — are told in the second person to garner sufficient distance. Much later, Díaz and her girlhood friends are amazed they’ve survived — at least, most of them have — and become functioning adults, many with children of their own.

Elements of this memoir have been published previously as standalone stories. Weaving them together here eliminates much of the chronology while establishing a sense of blurred disorientation. Years bleed and blend into each other. Episodes start and stop, or fade in and out. For the reader attempting to follow Díaz’s tumultuous teens and early adulthood, it’s hard to track when any of these events occurred in relation to any others. That feeling of dislocation is fully appropriate to the story.

Another significant theme that Díaz explores is the brutal exploitation of Puerto Rico through half a millennia of colonization, the last century-plus at the hands of the U.S. She considers Lolita Lebrón, a Puerto Rican nationalist who, in 1954, fired upon the U.S. House of Representatives from the visitor’s gallery, wounding five people. To many, she is a monster. “I want to believe that she’s not the sum of the worst thing she did during her lifetime. I want to be the kind of person who believes in redemption.”  

She is, of course, speaking of and for herself here, and for the other women and girls around her: “The wild girls, and the party girls, the loudmouths and the troublemakers. For the girls who are angry and lost. For the girls who never saw themselves in books. For the girls who love other girls, sometimes in secret. For the girls who believe in monsters…For the ordinary girls.”

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny writes a bi-monthly column and reviews frequently for the Independent, and serves on its board of directors. She also writes a bimonthly column for Late Last Night Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle. Previously, she served as chair of the Washington Writers Conference and as president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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