Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Oct. 21, 2021. Find that audio here.
Quiara Alegria Hudes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who's also known for her collaboration with Lin Manuel Miranda on the Tony-winning musical "In the Heights."
Now she's written a deeply personal memoir called “My Broken Language” about growing up in Philadelphia with her vibrant Puerto Rican mother and abuela — her grandmother — on whose steps she heard the stories that would inspire her art.
"My Broken Language” may seem like a surprising book title for a playwright, someone who holds great command of language.
But back when Hudes entered Brown University to become a playwright, her mentor Paula Vogel, a Pultizer prize winner “full of creativity and luminosity,” told Hudes “if your Spanish is broken, then write your broken Spanish,” she says.
For Hudes, this opened up the floodgates for her to write about being from a mixed family.
“That was the permission I needed to take my broken languages and build something new,” she says. “English, which is my first language and I'm most comfortable in, it's not the right language to describe all of me.”
The patchwork of languages in her childhood comes partly out of having a white father and Latina mother. Her family’s from Puerto Rico, and she writes how it was very common in her Philadelphia neighborhood to have friends who were also mixed-race children.
But later, when her parents split, Hudes was pulled increasingly between two completely separate worlds — an experience that shaped her.
“That's when the division in my life began and I started to experience my two cultures as separate family experiences, as separate social experiences,” she says. “And that separation was sobering and oftentimes, very upsetting to me.”
Oftentimes, mixed-race people are told to choose what side they identify with, she says. This time, Hudes made a clear choice to bring visibility to the untold stories on her mom’s side.
“I made a really conscious choice when I said I'm writing this,” she says. “This is the best book I have never read.”
On her dad’s remarriage and how it contributed to her feeling like an outsider
“During my dad's remarriage, I get upset and I run away and I run into the woods and I make a pact with the woods that I'm going to keep quiet and swallow my upsetness and try to find safe spaces where nothing can hurt me.
"Those spaces where nothing could hurt me would be like abuela's staircase. And I'd be sitting on the staircase kind of watching in awe at a safe distance as my cousins threw down, dancing merengue and bachata on the Fourth of July. I would always find a kind of safe remove and kind of numb myself. But at the same time, those safe spaces often let me kind of be an eavesdropper and observer of life, which came in handy when I decided to become a writer because I had really paid a lot of attention.”
On her mother’s personification of nature and spirituality
“She was a spiritual genius. I don't know another way to describe it. She understood the way spirits worked. For instance, she was an herbalist. I was kind of her assistant in making her herb garden. Later in my life, after my parents separated and I was a preadolescent, she goes even deeper into her spiritual gifts and becomes a priestess of Chango in the Lucumi Afro Caribbean tradition.”
On her mother’s work in the local community
“Her concern was, what we said Hispanic at that time, Hispanic women's health. And so she would take immigrant Latinas to the gynecologist for the first time. She would help women who were undocumented deliver babies safely in hospitals without fear of deportation. And so while my mother was kind of this amazing, looming spiritual genius to me, she was also [an] in the community, making stuff happen, trying to help people leader. To me, naturally, those things went hand in hand.”
On taking time away from playwriting
“I felt really at home writing this memoir, and I would like to keep writing prose if it's memoirs or essays. It was a really nice change for me. I had been playwriting for 15 years, writing off-Broadway, on Broadway, and I love the plays because it's collaborative and you're working with bodies in space and that's a sacred practice. I love it so much. But there is a quiet in writing a book that let me be so introspective. So I'm not ready to pivot back to stage quite yet. But I am working on some stage projects, also doing the film adaptation of my Broadway musical ‘In The Heights.’ So that's what's next.”
Book Excerpt: 'My Broken Language'
By Quiara Alegría Hudes
Malvern was only an hour outside Philly, but it was a whole different universe. The woods, donkeys, and horses didn’t account for the half of it. We had moved to a monolingual, pale world. Its language uniformity was so complete as to be creepy, zombie-esque. How the shopkeepers and mailmen spoke English confidently and pronounced all their vowels the same exact way. How within houses I visited, the kids, parents, and elders shared the same language and never paused for translation or to remember a word. Though Malvern folks didn’t pray to ancestors like mom did, I could tell that if they did, even their ghosts would speak English. My Ingles was as good as the next Malvernite’s but mom’s wasn’t, and I sensed trouble ahead.
At kindergarten roll call the teacher pronounced my Q the English way, so my name sounded like slime. After squinting at some error in the attendance book, she swapped the letters in my middle name. “Algeria?” All the kids screamed “Ewwwww!” because they’d heard of an African country like that. “Algeria? Algeria!” I told them it was Alegría and meant happiness in Spanish. “Then why’s it sound ugly?” a boy snorted. By the time the Pledge of Allegiance arrived, I had stopped correcting them. “Alegría” was amputated from my book reports and homework like a gangrenous toe. I had to contain the damage to “Quiara” and “Hudes.”
According to mom there had been a Ciara, a few Kiaras, and many Chiarras before me but never a Quiara. She invented a conjugation of “querer” to mean beloved. Whenever a classmate mocked my name, my
guts coiled hot as a stovetop. Still, beneath the burn of mockery, I harbored a superhero’s secret because I was a brand-new word.
Alegría was chosen not for its sunny meaning but to honor Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican anthropologist. Mom described the Taíno ceremonial grounds he uncovered and documented. Never having been to the island, I couldn’t really imagine petroglyphs or standing stones. Before El Profesor, mom explained, our island’s indigenous roots had been silenced. But then Alegría wrote his books on the Taínos. “A library shelf holds tremendous power, Quiara. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.” Though she had never attained college, she talked with reverence about books and scholarship. “El Profesor brought us into the light. He was a revolutionary, so your middle name, Alegría, is revolution masked as happiness.”
Hudes came from dad, of course. Dad rarely spoke about Jewish stuff, his surname being no exception. If it was rooted in some language or meant anything, it was news to me. All I knew was that the u was squishy, like in “beautiful” or “cute,” but strangers said it the double-o way like “moo” or “boot.” A silent u in Quiara and a spherical u in Hudes. A name that broke its own rules.
Three weeks into kindergarten mom brought a birthday cake to school, spongy yellow layers intercut with jam. She had jarred the stuff herself after picking wild raspberries on the farm. A shag carpet of icing covered the thing. Hundreds of florets had been piped individually, painstakingly, as she hummed boleros into the night.
The kids saw mom’s copper skin and loose bouncing afro and turned to me. “Are you adopted?” a boy asked. My guts stove- coiled and I shook my head no. “Then what are you?” he said, genuinely curious. Truth was, I hadn’t a clue. To me, Puerto Rico was a past-tense island. Jewish was murkier, no place at all, and dad shrugged any time the word was spoken. A group of classmates circled around, anticipating my answer. Their eyes buzzed with excitement. I resented that in this English-only town, mom’s skin tone and molasses vowels rendered her a headline. And that my difference from her now signified anything at all. “So? What are you?”
“I’m half English, half Spanish,” I ventured, as if made not of flesh and blood but language. And it felt okay. The kids seemed satisfied by my declaration.
Excerpted from My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Copyright © 2021 by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on April 2, 2021.