In her debut novel, "Try to Remember," poet Iris Gomez explores the challenges young Latinas struggle with to stay loyal to their families, while becoming independent women in modern American society.
In crafting her story, Gomez drew on her own experiences growing up in Miami, Florida, and on her career as an immigration attorney.
"Try to Remember" is a bi-cultural coming of age story.
"Gabriella or Gabi is a teenager growing in Miami," says Gomez. "Her family feels that they have found the American Dream. They bought a house. They're working people. They're legal immigrants. They have the green cards. They are low-income people, but they feel like they've made it."
Caught between two worlds
Like Gabi, Gomez immigrated to Miami from Colombia as a child. She understands the contradiction many young immigrants have to contend with as they try balancing their family's traditional expectations for them with what they want for themselves.
"She's expected to stay home, not to go away to college or do anything that would betray the family's idea of what it is to be a good daughter," she explains. "But she does have aspirations and dreams that would take her outside of that world."
"Try to Remember" is set in Miami in the late 1960's, an era shaped by political and social changes, including new roles for women. But, Gomez says, many young Latina women are still not able to take advantage of those opportunities.
"As I've been going around the country talking about the book, I've been meeting young women who have approached me, other immigrant girls, who say, 'You know, we're still struggling with those same issues today," says Gomez. "We don't want to be rebels and betray our families, but we do want to leave home and do interesting and challenging things that maybe our families don't understand because they are still stuck in the old world a little bit.'"
Stigma of mental illness
In the novel, Gabi faces another dilemma.
Her father loses his job and starts to lose his mind. Her overwhelmed mother pretends everything is normal, and the family refuses to face the problem.
Gomez explains that many Latino immigrant families see mental illness as a moral failure, a problem to be hidden.
"There are reports from the surgeon general that only one in 11 Latinos with a mental illness seek a specialist," she says. "So it's still a big problem in the society. In my book, they are afraid of the father losing his green card. So they try to protect him by keeping him busy at home. So they're hiding themselves also from the authorities and agencies that might actually help them."
But Gomez ends "Try to Remember" on a positive note, as Gabi gains self-confidence, educates herself and finds the strength to become an independent young woman.
Gomez says that reflects her optimism about the future of the young immigrants who believe in the American dream.
"I'm coming in contact now with a lot of young immigrants and I find a lot of hope in their desire to continue to advocate for improvements and to not hide their issues or their concerns, but to participate in the society in a democratic way, whatever their legal status," she says. "I think that's a wonderful thing and it crosses all cultures. It shows me that there is something of the American dream that's still alive in these young people."
Iris Gomez says her goal as a poet - and now a novelist - is to help people overcome their fears and dream of a better future.
She says that's also what she has been working for more than 25 years to achieve, as an immigration advocate and attorney.