Book Review: ‘We Heard it When We Were Young’ by Chuy Renteria

We Heard It When We Were Young (University of Iowa Press) is a love letter to all of us who, like author Chuy Renteria, don’t know whether or not they had a happy childhood or whether or not they are good people. It is a love letter to those of us who feel guilty whichever way we answer. This book was written in a language native to those of us who didn’t quite fit.

Told like he’s sitting among friends, Renteria, a first generation American, uses Spanish and Spanglish throughout his narrative without othering the languages by using italics or translations. He makes clear that they are as much a part of his narrative as the English. This is one story, one identity, one language.

This autobiography is relentlessly honest, vulnerable and surprising. The prologue is among the best writing I’ve ever read. Without mincing words, without whitewashing or censoring, Renteria sets the stage for his difficult journey: “Even in this town. There are evil people.” I have seen Renteria’s work before, both performed live and in writing, and this was levels beyond — a bald-faced vulnerability rarely seen in private spaces, in ink for anyone to read.

Thankfully, the intensity turns down a bit in the bulk of the book (although the epilogue has that same penetrating openness). Beginning with Renteria as a young boy, the age of the narrator seems to change with the age he’s telling, on through teen years and into adulthood.

Anyone who has heard about this book before now knows it’s “tales of growing up Mexican American in small-town Iowa,” knows there’s discussion of lowrider culture, b-boying and otherness. But I hadn’t seen anything out there to warn me that it wouldn’t feel so much like reading a book as reading the words of the prophets written on the bathroom stalls of my middle school.

As Renteria writes, “We were the scrappy kids fighting against boredom and racists … But that’s not the whole truth, right? We were also fighting against innocence. We were fighting against ourselves.”

Through cultural and familial conflict, the traumas born of teenage boredom and the search for identity, Renteria folds his life into a narrative arc that feels at once fresh and unrelentingly real. Each moment begs to be read, forcing readers to recognize the cycles of violence and power dynamics that framed our own childhoods.

Dancer, arts organizer and author Chuy Renteria. — Jason Smith/Little Village

While themes of violence and shame are prevalent throughout We Heard It When We Were Young, they are not told so intensely as to make me squeamish. It was seeing parallels between Renteria’s regrets and my own that made me uncomfortable.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be read by people with no idea what it means to be other, who don’t know small-town life, for whom school or coping came easily.

And it needs to be read by those who know what it is to be other. Those who have struggled to make a space for themselves. Something painful but safe is happening here. If you see yourself in these pages you also see that you’re not alone.

Content warnings: violence, racism, disordered eating, death

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 301.