Teen Chicano writer Byron Lopez Ellington reflects on his experience reading They Call Me Güero after meeting author David Bowles in a writing class.
Photo by Emir Sadierna
If you’re the kind of person who reads publications like Alebrijes, you probably don’t need me to tell you who David Bowles is. But just in case, allow me to illuminate.
David O. Bowles is the author of many books, many of which focus on Latine culture. He is a Chicano who grew up as a border kid and has spoken at length about his life traveling often between southern Texas and northern Mexico. In 2018, Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, Texas — whom he has now separated from for reasons I won’t get into here — published They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems, a novel-in-verse which explores the life of a redheaded, pale-skinned Mexicano-Americano middle schooler, nicknamed “Güero” after his light features. Poetry is not only the form in which They Call Me Güero is told; it also makes up the contents of the tale. In the book, Güero has just been introduced to poetry by a Language Arts teacher, and it soon becomes his passion. Several of the book's poems, either explicitly or implicitly, center around poetry, and they all can be inferred to have been written by Güero himself in-universe.
I had the pleasure of meeting David Bowles through a multi-week writing class over videocall in late 2020. The class was about writing novels-in-verse, especially those with a touch of Latinidad, so They Call Me Güero was often used for demonstration. However, when I started the class, I had never even read a novel-in-verse, let alone seriously considered writing one. A “novel-in-verse” is a novel told through a series of poems. It is not an epic poem, which is a single novel-length poem, but rather a series of several pieces that tell an overarching story.
A couple weeks in, after David had shown us several excerpts, I bought and read Güero. It was an amazing experience. I wish I could say I finished it one sitting, but I started much too late in the night for that; in reality, I read most of it sitting back in our lounge chair with a lamp on, then finished it the following morning in bed. I am not a border kid, nor quite as güero as Güero is, nor nearly as involved in Mexican culture as I would like, but I related to the story immensely. I have almost always been the only beige-skinned Latino at school. I’ve always had a profound appreciation for poetry, starting with silly children’s poems by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. The culture in the book, too: though I am not very involved in it, I know it in my bones, for it has always been around me, even if more distantly than I would nowadays prefer.
Mi mamá found it even more relatable than I did. She was the light-skinned, light-eyed, light-haired kid, the güera, growing up (first in El Paso, then in California). She lived in the barrio alongside the cholos, sometimes saying she wanted to be a chola herself. Her family got stopped by border patrol at times. She is far more like Güero than I, but we both adored the book for what it brought us in different but similar ways.
All while I read and reflected on They Call Me Güero, my experience was sweetened by knowing firsthand of the author’s personality, morality, and greatness. I learned many things from David in those lessons that went beyond novels-in-verse. Furthermore, it was through his class that I met several other amazing people, such as #LatinxPitch co-founders Mariana Llanos and Sara Fajardo. The class is how I learned of other hit novels-in-verse like Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. It’s even how I got an awesome sneak preview of David’s planned sequel to Güero, titled They Call Her Fregona, which he has since publicly announced. They Call Me Güero is a wonderful expression of youth, Latino identity, and everything in between.
Byron López Ellington (byronlopezellington.com) is a 17-year-old writer and aspiring actor from Austin, Texas. He has poetry published or forthcoming in a number of magazines, including Grand Little Things, Juven, and Warning Lines. He also founded the radical anthology Rulerless (rulerless.org). You can find him on Instagram @byronymous.