In White Space, Jennifer De Leon’s collection of essays, she cleverly uses the term “white space” to address a multiplicity of Latinx experiences. You might, as I did, assume that she would be referring mainly to spaces that are physically and culturally dominated by white Americans. While she does share the challenges that she experiences navigating such spaces, such as the predominantly white liberal arts college she attends as an undergraduate, where she endured listening to white classmates complain about ATM’s having a Spanish language option, this is not the only kind of “white space” she addresses.
Growing up, her family was one of a few families of color in her predominantly white neighborhood. In this white space, the dynamics she experienced weren’t just about race, but also about class, immigration, and belonging. The choice to move to this more isolating place by her parents, was made in order to provide a better, safer environment for their children. Sacrificing the comforts of being closer to family and Latinx communities, her parents focused on what they thought would result in better opportunities for their children, as most immigrant parents do.
An unexpected form of “white space” De Leon addresses are the blank spaces in her father’s resume and what these suggest about what is unknown or silenced about Latinx immigrants. Her father, who is searching for work after his years of battling cancer, asks her to help him draft a resume. She struggles to translate her father’s life experiences of surviving civil war in Guatemala, immigrating to a new country, and working blue-collar jobs to support his family, into transferable skills that an employer would recognize as assets. Reflecting on those white spaces in her father’s resume, she realizes that there is a richness in that space that she wants to explore, leading her to travel to Guatemala.
While in Guatemala she immerses herself in the mountainous rural region of Quezaltenango, where she heard stories from local ex-guerrilleros who fought in the civil war. After her time in Guatemala she gains some first-hand understanding of the country that shaped her father, but also realizes that her experience is unique from her father’s, as an American who has grown up with the privileges of living in the United States as an American citizen.
The final “white space” De Leon speaks of is the blank space of the page that stares at her as a writer trying to shape her personal experiences, and what she hears and witnesses in Guatemala, into stories that can be shared with an audience. When she returns to the U.S., she finds herself housesitting for a famous white author, where her white spaces collide. She sees the opportunity of a quiet week of housesitting as a chance to finally begin writing her novel. Yet, she spends the time contemplating the luxuries of the white author’s home, wondering if this kind of space is one that she could ever inhabit. Her struggles as a Latinx writer, therefore, illuminate how much more complex is the threat of the blank page for a writer like herself, who not only has to navigate the usual challenges that most writers endure, but must also deal with the self-doubts that are rooted in racial difference and the ever-present imposter syndrome.
In White Space, De Leon beautifully weaves together the nuanced complexities of race, class, immigration, and the writer’s life. In the end she has crafted a book where the “white spaces” of her world are filled with a richness of stories.