–Daisy Hernández, The Kissing Bug (Tin House, 2021)
In The Kissing Bug, author Daisy Hernández investigates Chagas, a neglected disease that disproportionately affects Latinxs, tackling issues with healthcare in the U.S. and her complex relationship with her Tía Dora, who passed as a result of the illness.
Like other works I’ve written about in this column, The Kissing Bug discusses maternal relationships and the role of women in Latinx families, in this case centering on the relationship between Hernández and her Tía Dora, whom she describes as a “domineering” or “micromanag[ing]” mother. Young Daisy behaved “like a boy,” something which her Tía Dora disapproved of: “…I said what was on my mind and I didn’t care what anyone thought,” she writes. Daisy’s sister, on the other hand, fit Dora’s vision of femininity and didn’t argue with her. For example, she answered “Señora?” whenever her name was called, a polite gesture that grated on Daisy’s nature. Daisy’s relationship with her aunt was further complicated when she came out as bisexual, to which Dora’s response was to cut off communication with her for years. In our Zoom interview, Hernández said that, while her aunt was striving “towards a traditional dream,” her own “more social justice based” ideas led to “different visions” for their futures. Their relationship was molded by cultural elements such as machismo which set certain expectations for women. “Machismo is not only the specific people we deal with,” Hernández told me, “but [also] the culture that we're in. And so I think a lot of us are not only watching our mothers, but also other women in our community.” Latinx women (and other women of color) raise daughters to be caregivers, teachers, and role models that “stay out of the way,” as Hernández’s mother and sister do in the book.
The responsibilities of women also extend into healthcare as a whole; “The women in my family decided to save Tía Dora,” writes Hernández. Daisy’s mother and aunts were the ones taking her to appointments and tending to her, as Hernández told me her health was considered a “women’s issue.” Indeed, two of the most prominent doctors that deal with Chagas are women. Hernández has observed such women-centric caregiving in other cultures: “The degree to which our healthcare system functions on the backs of…Black and Brown women is just astounding.” And this goes beyond Chagas; The Kissing Bug states that “we contain [infectious diseases] to communities of color, to the poor, to the homeless, to people in this Second America.” The “Second America” includes Hernández’s family, for whom healthcare depended on health fairs in church parking lots. However, the promise of better treatment brought Dora from Colombia. “My auntie [was] super blessed that she was in the U.S. in New York City in 1980,” said Hernández. “That is really different from today.” Her aunt’s initial improvements created a myth in young Daisy’s mind: "As long as my auntie stayed here with us, she would never die." However, like the American Dream, this did not apply to everyone. Hernández writes about Lucia, whose lack of insurance led to her avoidable death. As I read, I wondered why pregnant Latinxs aren’t being screened for the parasite that causes Chagas, which can be treated if caught early. “I don't feel that there is any other reason except racism,” Hernández told me. “[Chagas] is not going to spread beyond this Latinx community…so white America has the option of ignoring it.” Lucia’s story and the lack of testing exemplify the epidemiological divide between those who do and don’t have access to healthcare.
Although Dora benefited from the healthcare she received in the U.S., she ultimately succumbed to her illness. “I don’t know why I am grieving you,” Hernández writes. “You were awful to me, and yet here I am crying in public.” At the end of The Kissing Bug, Hernández confesses that she grieved because her Tía never accepted her “as her queer daughter-sobrina.” This brings into high contrast those rare moments of tenderness, as when Dora tells Daisy “me hicistes falta.” “It was the closest she ever came to saying, ‘I love you,’” she writes. “In that moment, she was not the auntie who had banished me from her life.” This shows the importance of Spanish to Hernández, who called it “a language of a particular kind of intimacy… it just touches something that's very hard to describe.” And this doesn’t only apply to Spanish; Dora’s first doctor in the U.S., a son of Jewish immigrants, also knew about “the need for the mother tongue.” To both Hernández and I, Spanish is weightier than English, especially when it comes to love and family. It’s clear, then, why so many diasporic writers write about the proverbial mother tongue. This was exemplified toward the end of the book, when Hernández has an epiphany over responding to her name with “Señora?”: “[M]aybe Tía Dora had not been trying to make me into a lady. Maybe she had only wanted me to be more Colombian.”
Reading The Kissing Bug, I learned that culture can greatly influence healthcare, not only in its availability, but also in the act of caring. I had inadvertently witnessed what Hernández describes within my family; my grandfather, who passed away six months ago today, was always cared for by my grandmother, mother, and aunts, and he suffered unnecessary complications due to failures by healthcare professionals in Puerto Rico. Much of Hernández’s discussions of family dynamics and the function of language complements that of other authors throughout this column, and I think recognizing these commonalities can help members of Latinx cultures and immigrants from other countries empathize with each other’s experiences in the diaspora.
Thank you to Daisy Hernández for the Zoom interview and to Tin House for the review copy!