¡Ay! A bio is tougher than it sounds. I’ll have to consider audience here and the ones who usually ask questions about where I come from and how I wound up on the East Coast are Chicano students, who often find themselves in the same circumstances I was in: first generation in their family to attend college, etc.
I was born in 1972 in Dinuba, California, a town of about 15,000 in California’s Central Valley. I was raised there by my mother, stepfather, and maternal grandmother. If you check your Odwalla juice bottle next time, you’ll see the name of my town on the label—we’re a light-industry town now, but still agricultural, and life in Dinuba remains just about the same as it did when I left for college in 1990. My entire family still lives there.
My relationship with the Valley is a complicated one. It’s a place of extraordinary paradox—after all, every crop imaginable is grown, picked, and packed there, yet it isn’t uncommon to see people go with need of food or work. The Valley continues to operate on a seasonal cycle: things are good when crops need tending to, but when they don’t, families have a difficult time making ends meet. That extreme disparity, sadly, hasn’t changed much.
My parents—my whole family—worked in the fields. Beginning in the fourth grade, I helped them in the grape harvest, laying down the paper trays and spreading the grapes around for drying into raisins. My sister and I were relatively lucky; we worked only a few summers with grapes, then a few winters tying vines in preparation for the next cycle. We didn’t have to work as frequently as our older siblings, who picked and packed everything from tomatoes to oranges. Though our family struggled, my siblings—once they were able to work on their own—were never expected to contribute all of their earnings into a pool. We were each as self-supporting as possible and were expected to begin working wherever we could as soon as we could. I worked in a school warehouse at age fourteen and from that money came school clothes and supplies.
I did well in school, and what it brought me—though I didn’t know its value at the time—was the attention of school counselors and administrators. Unfortunately, a school system with limited resources doesn’t always allocate them to the ones who need it most. I received more attention than I deserved; I was a very resourceful student, muy obediente, and a shy bookworm to boot. I absolutely loved books—I treasured library books like gold. I don’t know when it occurred to me that writers were special because of their imaginations, but there was a moment when I realized that my longing to escape my circumstances could be met by simply willing a new life to paper. I doodled silly little stories and I now see why I was so fascinated by two books in particular when I was young: L. Frank Baum’s terrifically illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in grade school and, in high school, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Both opened with departures.
I went in hook-line-sinker for every speech and sermon about the value of education from my grandmother, my parents, my teachers. That’s not to say I wasn’t naïve: when it came time to apply for a “reach” school, I applied to Harvard for no other reason than I knew the name. (I can honestly say that I had never heard of Princeton or Brown or Northwestern or just about any other big university outside of California.) This was in 1989, when the Ivies were beginning to do more serious recruiting in the Valley, rather than ignoring it as they had in the past. Still, at a college fair held in Visalia, a Harvard rep refused to give me an application because I told him I was interested in being a high-school teacher. The rep encouraged me to apply to Fresno State if I wanted to do that.
I tell that story about Harvard because it was the first step in learning to live with what the world outside of the Valley would expect of someone with my background. On the one hand, I was breaking out of the Valley and coming to terms with a change to its restrictions—from race to class to sexuality. On the other, I was stepping into years of my self-assurance and confidence being tested, and a gradual awakening of my consciousness and awareness: I knew something was amiss in my having access to higher education (however poorly I was prepared) while many of my classmates went lacking. I won’t say much about Harvard here, only that it began with me leaving the Fresno airport in tears, with a hundred dollars in cash (which was all my parents could spare at summer’s end) and no idea how I was going to buy books. I spent twenty dollars immediately for the cab ride to Harvard Yard, only to be met by a cadre of prep-school kids in identical Exeter sweatshirts. It was not my world.
That scene, though, is the long and short of it for the past fifteen years: how have I fit into the world at large? How did I manage? Many of those answers have their root in writing, which I began to take seriously in college because (why else?) it offered much-needed self-expression. I worked with two wonderful women at Harvard, the writers Susan Dodd and Jill McCorkle, who encouraged me to consider an MFA program. I wound up at Cornell and the third mentor in my life, the woman I now consider my literary godmother, stepped in and helped me shape what has become my work. Helena María Viramontes, above all others, has been the single most important person in my writing life and I count myself lucky that her presence at Cornell kept me confident and calm. She’s been extraordinarily patient with me and has always challenged me to become aware of the history and roots of Chicano/a letters, to keep my ears out for others who are speaking to the same experience, to speak up and insist a place for myself at the table of literature, and to honor the written word. You’ll have to come to a reading to hear how she phoned my mom (¡!) after I dragged on about accepting the offer to attend Cornell in the first place.
I have lived in New York City since July 2001 and have no immediate plans to return to California. The Valley, though, remains the foundation of my fiction. It took leaving (though I didn’t know it at the time) to realize that the Valley—how it shaped and reared me—has an undercurrent in every single thing I do, my entire way of being. It’s responsible for all of my emotions, both good and bad: the presence of that living geography has always been the key to how I create characters, how I know their lives and, most important, how I empathize with their choices, no matter what they are.
(N.B.: This bio was written and originally posted in 2006. Manuel has lived in Tucson, Arizona, since August 2008, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing.)