Try to Remember


By Iris Gomez

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An award-winning poet and expert in US immigration and asylum law delivers a powerful novel about a daughter's attempt to sustain her family as her father struggles with his mental health.

"Lyrical, poignant, and smart, as compassionate and hopeful as it is heartbreaking…a novel you will never forget." — Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us

If she tries, Gabriela can almost remember when her father went off to work . . . when her mother wasn't struggling to undo the damage he caused . . . when a short temper didn't lead to physical violence. But Gabi cannot live in the past, not when one more outburst could jeopardize her family's future. So she trades the life of a normal Miami teenager for a career of carefully managing her father's delusions and guarding her mother's secrets. As Gabi navigates her family's twisting path of lies and revelations, relationships and loss, she finds moments of happiness in unexpected places. Ultimately Gabi must discover the strength she needs to choose what's right for her: serving her parents or a future of her own.



The events and characters in this book are fictitious. Certain real locations and public figures are mentioned, but all other characters and events described in the book are totally imaginary.

Copyright © 2010 by Iris Gomez

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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ISBN: 978-0-446-56910-1

[ ONE ]

THE GREAT MIAMI HURRICANE OF 1971 took its time gathering. Only it wasn't the kind that rode in on distant winds, as if a fierce Caribbean cyclone were aiming its evil eye at us. No, the storm that would end up sweeping me away from my family stirred and blew its first breath right inside our pink Florida house.

My father had become absorbed in furious daily scribbling, his bedroom blinds shut against the piercing equatorial light. From time to time, the walls of our house shook slightly as planes flew overhead like giant robot seagulls. When he emerged from his abyss one afternoon, his black eyes grim, he lugged an old Royal typewriter in one hand and a smattering of Seminole Sentinel ads, Journal of Home Mechanics magazines, and loose leaf sheets of paper in the other. He tossed all that paper onto the Formica kitchen table in front of me. "¡Necesito estas cartas!"

"Sí, Papi." I shoved my worksheet aside for my father's task while repeating the fifth commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother, to myself. If he needed me to type his letters, that was surely what I would do.

The page at the top of his pile beamed whitely. His handwriting was dark with emphatic block letters, the ink trailing off as though the writing had been abandoned in an emergency.



Of course, the Spanish words didn't belong—and wasn't Bonifay advertising for a solderer? I checked the classified ad in my father's pile. I was right. But his letter said pump manager.

"What's that, Papi?" I underlined the words with my finger to figure out the mistranslation.

"The pump? That's how the oil is recovered."

"Oil?" I reread the ad—nothing about oil—then studied the rest of his letter dubiously while my father forced the typewriter out of its ancient charcoal gray box.


Apart from the problem that his Spanish didn't fit in, there was no connection between one sentence and the next. I flipped through the other equally peculiar letters with growing trepidation. Everything went downhill after the "DEAR SIR." Each letter offered his services and opinions to product advertisers in Home Mechanics, a peopleless glossy about equipment I'd never heard of—the subscription gift, I recalled, from a Hialeah repair shop where he'd been briefly employed after his airport job layoff. But what did all this have to do with the classifieds?

"Papi," I responded at last, "you have to write for jobs the companies want. In the newspaper ads."

My father blinked. "What?"

"You can't pick any job and just apply for that."

He jumped out of his chair and loomed over me. "Didn't I tell you to type? Type it, ¡carajo!"

As I crouched into my seat, my mother rushed in, sponge rollers askew. "Roberto," she cajoled, "I need Gabrielita for just one minute. She'll be right back." Hands on my shoulders, she marched me out of there toward my room and sat us both down on the bed.

"Do what your father asks, mi'jita," she implored, her voice weighted by the duty of love.

I shook my head. "But those letters don't make sense, Mami."

"Por favor, mi'ja." She brushed a wild brown curl from my forehead. "Can't you make them better?"

I searched Mami's eyes, gold flecks floating in the wells of our family ojeras. Fleetingly, I recalled better times when my father used to tease his pretty wife, Evangelina, about being the baby of her own family. But that was back in the olden days. Before the dark circles beneath her eyes underscored how tired she'd become. "All right," I sighed. "I'll try."

I didn't exactly know how to try with this, but helping my parents had often helped me, too, to feel less confused. Assisting with their translations, utility company calls, and similar tasks, I'd earned my middle name, Auxiliadora—the Helper. Bringing in income, however, had been one burden that they alone shouldered—at least, until the layoff.

Now, as I returned to the kitchen, I bravely resolved to set aside my lapse in confidence over this unusual form of job-hunting.

My father patted the chair in front of the typewriter. "Toma, mi'ja."

"Gracias, Papi," I said, cautiously dropping into the chair and leaning forward for a sheet of paper. I rolled it into the Royal. Mami had bought the typewriter at a garage sale during our first cheerful month in Miami. Though she had finer dreams for me, at the very least, she'd told me that day, she would equip me for a decent secretarial position.

I mustered the nerve to inform my father about one of the many grammatical mistakes in his English: not putting "to" in front of verbs that required it, making the sentences look toothless. "You want me to fix that, Papi?"

"Sí, claro, mi'jita." All jolly now, he smiled as I began to edit bits of sense into his odd paragraphs. How futile the letters seemed. Regardless of the corrections, the electric drill company would not appreciate my father's convoluted notions of oil drilling in Colombia. But the word "drill" seemed to have rung a bell in my father's head and he wanted to ring it alongside the bells already there.

He watched patiently as I plodded away. "Gracias, mi'jita," he said once, touching my shoulder in affection.

A father shouldn't have to depend on a kid to fix his letters, I thought sadly. Please, someone, take pity on him. Give him a job.

For several days in a row, my fingers hunted that forest of keys with my father's breath on my neck, and my mind circling around and around the turn of events that had gotten me and my family so lost in this situation.

I'd never known better than to love them. Whatever might happen, I'd believed in my parents' dream: that Miami would make up for the long lost warmth, balconies, stars, and fishermen of Cartagena de Indias—the small Caribbean port city where I'd been born.

In the beginning, we'd lived like exiles in the Northeast. But after four years, that bitter North Pole of New York fell behind us, skyscrapers tumbling backwards in the rearview mirror of our rented van. We approached the southern horizon again, and our sky grew large. Trees, undaunted by a suffocating heat that passed for air through our windows, held out scrappy limbs, and we were Welcomed To Florida. Across an endless flatness, we zoomed past clumps of orange trees too short to shade cars from the wicked sunlight. Men with baseball caps worked in orchards. We passed gas stations, trailer parks, miles of nothing but heat and grass.

Here at last was cheery Miami: tin motel signs for working people on vacation, houses painted ice cream flavors, swishing palms, and tropical weather that lulled us into forgetting seasons could change.

Change, however, they had. On a bright Father's Day in June 1968, only two months after we'd settled into our new home, my mother announced that my father had lost the job that rescued us—my parents, my brothers Manolo and Pablo, and me—from cold, bitter Queens and reunited us with our large Miami family at last.

That was when I, Gabriela the Helper, got assigned to the Seminole Sentinel classified ads. My job was to stalk each issue with a blue Magic Marker for the elusive GRINDER position that my father needed. And then, after I had circled any ads I could find, I began the sad, confusing Home Mechanics letters I pecked out of the tired Royal typewriter.

Every day during that week, my father yelled after our postman in angry, rapid-fire Spanish for bringing the mail late, for bringing standardized rejections, or for not bringing anything. My mother and I waited on pins and needles until the poor rattled American mailman had come and gone.

Even before the advent of the Home Mechanics letters, I'd believed the underlying reason for my father's difficulty finding work was the English language. Despite a tape he listened to religiously, when the time came to answer in public, such as with a stranger asking for directions, my father clammed up, leaving it to me or someone else to respond. I knew it was embarrassing for him to make mistakes in front of people the way my mother did, not minding. "Ees eesy walk al A&P," she'd say, mixing in Spanish prepositions but forcing the inquiring pedestrian to listen until he got the gist. My father was too proud to expose himself like that. He wanted the world to see the mettle he was made of. But strength, I'd learned, didn't count when it came to learning a language. You had to let yourself be weak.

The letters became my first clue that a greater force was testing my father's mettle, although I didn't fully understand what it was until the day his scribbling blitz halted and Tío Victor and Tío Lucho, my father's brothers, showed up to coach him. I was finishing my summer reading, a surprisingly moving nature book called The Everglades: River of Grass, when they arrived. Pretty soon, I'd drifted from the grassy banks of the Everglades toward the decidedly more interesting conversation taking place among the men in the living room. Instead of advising my father to speak up for jobs, my uncles were encouraging him to speak less.

"You don't have to tell the world everything," said Tío Victor, taking the lead as usual. The youngest brother, Tío Victor had done well in this country. He'd joined Tío Lucho, the eldest, already working in Miami at a tailor shop, and later started a private lawn care business on the side. With his kind, sloping eyes, my generous Tío Victor was the uncle who, according to my mother, "nunca sufrió"—he'd never suffered. He didn't drop out of high school to support the women in the family the way my father had to when my abuelo died back in The Village of the Swallows, Montería.

"And especially don't discuss things with el jefe," added mild-mannered Tío Lucho, as he nervously lit his cigarette. He was more than a decade older than my father and Tío Victor, and he smoked so much that his skin was nearly as gray as his hair. "It's better," he puffed, "to keep your ideas to yourself."

"Why should I act dishonestly?" my father complained. "I work hard. I don't have anything to hide."

"No, it's not that," Tío Lucho coughed out. "It's just, you know, people don't always see things the same. Jobs are tricky. Why disagree with el jefe and give him excuses to… prefer someone more tranquil?"

"Tranquil?" My father's voice rose.

"Roberto," Tío Victor intervened. "Don't you see we're trying to help you, hombre?"

"Of course I do," my father railed. "But I'm the one with the new house and debts to pay. This isn't helping. Tell me where to look. That will help me."

My uncles fell silent. Finally, Tío Victor agreed to see what he could do.

After they'd gone, Mami and I gathered clothes off the line my father had strung between our mango and the unusually crossed lime/grapefruit trees. Casually I asked, "Mami, why did the tíos want Papi to talk less at job places?" Leaves stirred slightly as I removed an undershirt and tossed the clothespins into a basket.

Mami frowned. "Because of that Hialeah jefe," she replied, shaking the wrinkles out of a pair of slacks and relating the story. An odd conversation had terminated my father's one brief job since the airport layoff. For some reason, he'd tried to convince his boss to buy a giant drill. He even brought in drawings of the ones used in Colombian oil fields, despite the fact that the shop repaired tiny parts that had nothing to do with petroleum. His boss became aggravated when my father wouldn't drop the drill talk, and my hot, offended father quit on the spot. "And that wasn't the first time your father didn't control his temperamento," she added, grimacing as she hoisted the basket of clothes onto her hip to carry inside.

I stayed outside to finish folding the rest. The story gelled together several troubling ways in which my father had been changing over the last few months. There were his new, weird ideas to contend with and his temper, which had undeniably gotten worse. Take the blowup the day before, when he'd pelted my younger brother Manolo's legs with a belt just for letting the hose run for too long. Though my father had always had a short fuse, these recent fits were more extreme, unpredictable. It bothered me, too, that other people like Tío Paco, Mami's brother, had lost a job without becoming so angry and difficult.

As I folded our washed brocade tablecloth under the mango tree, a sentimental longing for how my father used to be composed itself from bits of memory into the picture of faraway Queens. A great, grassy hill had connected our pedestrian bridge to Lucio Antonio Fiorini Highway, and I could see my father laughing at the bottom of that hill, with sunlight in his eyes and wearing a shirt like the sky, while Manolo and I rolled down, yelling at the top of our lungs with as much fear as excitement, until my father caught us and lifted us out of that wild gravity.

The picnic had been his idea; he'd carried the brocade tablecloth, our camera, and lunches in his straw mochila while squeezing each of us in turn through the gated opening he'd discovered walking home from his night job. The breeze was cool, and bright spring grass sloped down on three sides of us so that I imagined we'd climbed a mountain—the first time, maybe the only time, that something in that cold and colorless network of buildings, bridges, and highways that was New York became almost beautiful.

A few minutes later, I carried my folded laundry inside, and the father from the beautiful picnic promptly evaporated, leaving in his stead the black typewriter beside a large stack of papers on the table.

I cast a pained look at my mother, whose eyes flashed in momentary annoyance, but she continued cleaning as if all were right with the world.

Rifling through his papers, I heaved a deep sigh. "It's so much," I said feebly, more to myself than to her. But resigned to my duty, I sank into a chair and began the daunting task before me.

When the sounds of my brothers playing football with new-found friends trickled in from the yard an hour later, the disappointment over everything that Miami was supposed to offer us washed over me like a tsunami. My searching eyes found my mother, blithely tossing onion slices into the sizzling frying pan. Did she secretly believe that these mixed-up letters might help my father find work? My uncles' words of advice—don't tell the world everything—crackled ominously in my head. Perhaps my father shouldn't be broadcasting his thoughts on paper any more than in conversations. As I gazed at his inky black handwriting, another possibility darkened there too: Maybe neither of my parents knew what they were doing anymore.

[ TWO ]

I WAS RELIEVED when my father resumed his bus rides in pursuit of Sentinel job listings. More glad tidings arrived with my fat back-to-school packet in the mail. Eagerly carrying the manila envelope to my room, I hesitated in front of our hallway phone. I thought of the one friend I'd made here: Lydia. We'd met at the bus stop in front of her house, a shadowy place with thick brush and rubbery plants squeezing up against rough-textured walls—that was back in the spring after my family moved here. Most Miami houses were spread out wide, exposed to the sun, but hers seemed to belong to the insular "old Florida" era that our chatty neighbor Mr. Anderson often described.

Lydia wore lipstick. "Wanna try it?" she'd asked, as I watched her apply the shimmering white lip color over her mouth. She was busty and dark-skinned, with shiny black curls she greased into points at her temples.

I shook my head vigorously.

"¿Qué te pasa, chica?"

I told her what the problem was: "I'm not allowed." I explained that on my father's moral equivalency charts, waltzing in wearing lipstick rated right alongside prostitution.

"So what. Take it off before you get home," she suggested.

This girl wasn't too knowledgeable about the fifth commandment. She had very little notion, it seemed to me, of how a person earned points for Heaven. I felt obligated to fill her in.

"¡Ay chica! We don't go to church," she replied wanly, smiling as if she pitied me because I did. Then we grabbed seats together on the bus and began comparing families. I started off by listing the Miami relatives ahead of those left in Cartagena—saving for last my beloved grandfather Gabriel, who wrote me long, elegant verses praising the waves and light of the Caribbean on each of my birthdays.

"You're lucky," she commented. Lydia, her parents, and her brother Emilio had arrived from Camagüey "to escape Fidel Castro."

I'd heard about Fidel, so I nodded knowingly.

On the day school recessed for the year, Lydia gave me her phone number. All summer long, I couldn't get over my awkwardness about making the call. But some greater need propelled me to do so now.

"Hi, chica," she answered warmly.

"Hola, Lydia," I replied, losing my shyness. "Hey, did you get your assignment letter?"

"Yeah. I have that witch doctor, el brujo Silber."

I laughed and told her my teacher's name, then asked about meeting at the bus stop like before.

"Gabriela!" my mother called out. "Who are you talking to?"

"Just someone from school!" An uneasy twinge accompanied the recollection of Mami's admonishments against befriending anyone who didn't come from Una Familia Decente. But how was I supposed to know if Lydia's family was decent unless I did befriend her?

Quickly, I finished up my phone conversation and went to see what Mami wanted. I sent a flutter of prayers up toward the Holy Family in Heaven. Let Lydia stay my friend. Let her family turn out to be decent. Please.

The following day, after I'd typed another oddball letter, my father went to see about a real job and Mami took me to Little Havana to get my medical permission slip for gym class. No longer could a permission slip be accepted without a doctor certifying that he'd actually examined me. Last spring, after I'd turned my note in, I'd been assigned to the library with other excused Latinas whose families had ultraconservative views about female propriety. For the rest of the term, messengers periodically brought handouts, such as "The History of Women's Volleyball in Massachusetts" and "Female Reproduction," and marched The Excused into the auditorium for tests; but most of the time, I'd read novels galore from the library stacks.

For my doctor's appointment, Mami insisted I don a dress she'd made me with a rose cotton print and puffy shoulders that seemed way too juvenile. Stoically, however, I tied the sash around my back and uttered not one word of protest as I clipped my unruly hair into a ponytail. Chibcha hair, my father often teased Mami whenever the thick, dark locks defied her efforts to tame them. The reference was to the indígenas of Colombia who seemed to have left subtler traces in history than the Mayas and Aztecs, who were actually taught about in textbooks. The morning of my appointment, as I stood in front of the mirror without my mass of hair to hide behind, my eyes appeared bigger and blacker—as if I were growing up to be more my father's daughter than Mami's, despite the lonesome Arabic eyes I'd inherited from her side of the family.

Little Havana was an expanding Cuban neighborhood of stucco houses with Virgin Mary statues and Santería food offerings in the yards. Not only was the neighborhood larger in size than its name portended, it had no resemblance whatsoever to the Havana of postcards I'd seen pasted to Lydia's notebook. That Havana had breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, majestic Spanish buildings with romantic facades, and prettily coiffed women in dresses and pumps.

The doctor's office was not even in a hospital or clinic. It was in a stucco house with the typical Florida door—an aluminum frame that held rows of windowpanes you cranked open with a lever. Inside the house, the doctor sat behind a desk in a dark, paneled office. The dim illumination was a good thing, since Dr. Sanabria was so unattractive. It was hard to decide which feature—his extremely large size, the loose hair on his scalp, or the big stains on his hands—was the ugliest. The doctor seemed too tired to get out of his chair, and my examination consisted of questions directed exclusively to Mami about my general well-being and character as a person.

"Se diría que es nerviosa." This was stated more as an assertion than a question.

My mother reflected. "Yes, I would say she's a little nervous."

"Y la menstruación—¿padece de dolores?"

Mami looked down modestly, fiddling with her pocketbook. "Oh yes," she agreed. Her daughter suffered from menstrual cramps too.

For five more minutes, Dr. Sanabria continued to suggest symptoms of some malady that he seemed sure afflicted me. I felt grateful that there would be no actual physical examination, though its omission made me suspicious about whether the guy was a real doctor. In Latin America people with degrees, like lawyers, were customarily referred to as doctor, but that didn't mean the same thing here.

At the conclusion of the appointment Dr. Sanabria extracted a sheet of stationery from his drawer. Slowly and in large, terrible penmanship, he wrote out the permission slip that was to excuse me from the Flagler Junior High School Physical Education Curriculum.

When we returned home, Mami told me not to say anything to my father about the note because it would only upset him to hear about these immoral aspects of public education. Of course, I did as I was told.

Passing his silent bedroom cavern, I could only hope he'd found a more constructive way to use his time than the frantic writing that was becoming a burden to me.

In the living room, oblivious to anything else happening in our household, my brothers sat watching TV. As if I didn't have a care in the world either, I ambled in, joining my youngest brother, Pablo, who was comfortably ensconced on the two-seater couch with the orange cushions. Manolo was in a chair by himself. Shortly afterward, Mami came in and started flipping through the channels until she settled on a movie about gladiators and sat down. Sunlight jabbed us through the blinds as we became engrossed in the movie.

Then my father made his entrance. He stood off to the side at first. Mami patted a chair near her, but he continued to stand, and after a while we forgot about him altogether. That is, until the kissing started.

Hercules had untied his hands and managed to extricate himself from a primitive stone torture wheel. Male slaves turned the wheel, and one of the bad guys continually whipped them to turn faster. Earlier on, Hercules had won the slaves over, so they revolted and helped him escape. Now, quickly, he made his way up a winding stone stairway into the gloomy dungeon where his sexy girlfriend was being restrained. Valiantly, he broke in, and the lovebirds embraced with passionate kisses.

"¡Basura!" my father burst out in anger.

Caught up in the drama, we all ignored him. We wanted to see how Hercules would slip himself and his true love out of the dungeon without getting stabbed by the army of bad guys in the process. But just as Hercules and his lady love untangled from their embrace and the muscular hero unsheathed his knife, my father whacked the TV off with his palm and yelled at us again that it was garbage. As his attack continued, Pablo and I backed up to protect ourselves from his swinging arm.

Mami tried to object. "Pero Roberto—" She didn't finish the sentence, because when my father turned around his face was terrifying.

That was the moment I seized to creep away. With my heart racing, I escaped into the bathroom and pulled in the wall phone to call Lydia—just to hear a normal voice. Maybe I'll tell her about that questionable Dr. Sanabria


  • "Lyrical, poignant, and smart, as compassionate and hopeful as it is heartbreaking...a novel you will never forget."—New York Times bestselling author Jenna Blum
  • "This stunning debut offers a fresh and vibrant coming of age novel full of universal truths and dazzling particulars. Gabriela is a character you'll root for and grow to love. TRY TO REMEMBER is a book impossible to forget. I adored every single page."—National Bestselling Author Mameve Medwed
  • "Poet and immigration lawyer Gomez (When Comets Rained) mines her own experiences in her enthralling fiction debut, the story of a family of Colombian immigrants adjusting to life in '70s-era Florida. Gabriela De la Paz has earned the nickname Auxiliadora ('the Helper') for all her efforts translating and interpreting American culture for her parents. The frustrated daughter of Roberto and Evangelina, Gabi must act far older than her teen years when her Papi, schizophrenic and untreated, can't keep a job and gets into trouble with the police because of his violent behavior. Evangelina must hide her sewing and cleaning jobs to avoid Roberto's wrath (he disapproves of women working) while Gabi's brothers, Manolo and Pablo, fear his physical abuse. Gomez charts Gabi's challenges as she gains confidence, educates herself, and finds inspiration from Lara, a 'modern' woman for whom she babysits, in this intense and sensitive tale with crossover YA appeal. (May)"Publishers Weekly
  • "What holds the reader is the drama of each intense home scenario, scary and tender... The clash between traditional immigrant values and feminist

    independence is powerful... In her debut novel, Colombian immigrant poet Gomez dramatizes the universal dilemma of a loving family

    serving as 'both joy and prison.'"—Booklist
  • "Far from the stereotypical wisecracking rebel or clueless outsider, Gabi is an irresistible narrator-observant, compassionate, and utterly genuine-trying to balance family loyalty and a yearning to discover 'Who did I dare to be?'"—Karen Holt, O Magazine

On Sale
May 5, 2010
Page Count
368 pages

Iris Gomez

About the Author

Iris Gomez is an award-winning writer and nationally-recognized expert on the rights of immigrants in the United States. She is the author of two poetry collections, Housicwhissick Blue (Edwin Mellen Press, 2003) and When Comets Rained (CustomWords, 2005), which earned a prestigious national poetry prize from the University of California. Her work is widely published in a variety of literary and other periodicals. A respected public interest immigration lawyer and law school lecturer, she has represented civil rights groups and individuals in high impact cases and won professional awards for her accomplishments — including a Las Primeras award for Latina trailblazers in Massachusetts. She has frequently been called upon to write and speak on immigration-related topics and has appeared in the media, including on the nationally televised Cristina show and Boston’s celebrated bilingual late-night radio program ¡Con Salsa!

An immigrant from Cartagena, Colombia, she spent formative years in Miami, Florida and has also lived in New York City, Michigan, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. She and her family now make their home in the Boston area.

Learn more about this author