Pedro's Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land

Pedro's Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land

by Marcos Gonsalez


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"A searching memoir . . . A subtle, expertly written repudiation of the American dream in favor of something more inclusive and more realistic."Kirkus, starred review

 There are many Pedros living in many Americas . . .

One Pedro goes to a school where they take away his language. Another disappears in the desert, leaving behind only a backpack. A cousin Pedro comes to visit, awakening feelings that others are afraid to make plain. A rumored Pedro goes missing so completely it's as if he were never there.

In Pedro's Theory Marcos Gonsalez explores the lives of these many Pedros, real and imagined. Several are the author himself, while others are strangers, lovers, archetypes, and the men he might have been in other circumstances. All are journeying to some sort of Promised Land, or hoping to discover an America of their own.

With sparkling prose and cutting insights, this brilliant literary debut closes the gap between who the world sees in us and who we see in ourselves. Deeply personal yet inspiringly political, it also brings to life those selves that never get the chance to be seen at all.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612198620
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 01/12/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 445,452
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

"In Pedro’s Theory, Marcos Gonsalez writes toward the multiplicities of who he is, who he was, and who he could be—and simultaneously offers an insightful and brilliant dismantling of the traditional American Dream. This book is a beautiful fusion of lived experience and cultural criticism. Gonsalez belongs on the same shelf as Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson." —Michele Filgate, editor of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About

"A white-knuckled journey through the most vulnerable parts of Marcos Gonsalez's life, love and family—an exploration of not only what it means to be brown, Indigenous, queer and mad, but what it means to be a human in a world that values not who you are, but what you can sacrifice with a smile. This book shows that strength and tenderness are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin—a coin that Gonsalez shows in all its many facets in this incredible book."—Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

"An impressive amalgam of autobiography, family portraiture, political diagnosis, cultural history, literary criticism, and novelistic aria, Pedro's Theory bodies forth a new form of literature—a variety of personal writing that treats "self" as a malleable substrate, capable of being reinvented, projected, performed, and multiplied.  Through mesmerizing tableaux, songful declarations, ekphrastic experiments, propulsive storytelling, and desire-laden speculations, Marcos Gonsalez reconstructs his world by composing a book lavish in its mastery of both fragmented and flowing modes of articulation. Generosity, fearlessness, vulnerability, and lyricism make up the magic formula that is Pedro's Theory, a stunning debut by a powerful writer."—Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Camp Marmalade

“A haunting, haunted memoir of a life felt keenly and a thousand others that were never allowed to be. We read as harsh, bright keepsakes are held up to light, turned this way and that, and then are slotted into a careful mosaic.  Not to be missed.”—Anthony Oliveira, award-winning author and cultural critic

Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist and professor of literature. His work has appeared in Literary Hub, Inside Higher Education, Ploughshares, Catapult, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Grow Up, Pedro

Sunlight. Treetops garlanded by a cotton candy–like mass of white, the sagging pouches of it skimming the heads of passersby. Little bodies wriggle in the white-webbed splendor, trying to break free, trying to plummet to the ground in order to feed. It's the season when a great migration settles in a backyard. A mass metamorphosis on the horizon.

A boy contemplates down below. A thought on the butterfly-to-be, then another on the voyage south, the journey through the Americas, these thoughts strung together concerned over the brief life of the butterfly. A net is in his hand. He wants to catch one to look closely at the features of it. Then, as quickly as he captures it, he will let it be free.

In the distance a woman's voice. Familiar to him. “Marcos, ven a comer! Marcosssss!” She is calling him home to eat. He walks and he will pass through his neighborhood. There down the street are his sister and brother playing basketball with their high school friends. There on the corner of the block is the old Puerto Rican couple who breed rabbits. There is his mother on the other road gossiping with the neighbor. There down the street men outside on lawn chairs drinking beers, mariachi music playing, men with field dust all over their clothes and hair crooning off-key. There’s his father in his brown truck driving a friend to his house in the trailer park nearby.

The boy gets home within a few minutes. His grandmother is at the front gate. “Que andariego tu eres . . .” she says to him, playful and stern. She thinks he wanders the street too much, thinking this boy is too bold, too in the world. She will say this to the boy even into the days when he becomes a man,

andariego andariego andariego andariego,

saying this word to him as he travels across the Americas, the Americas she has traveled herself, saying this word until the end of her days, until he must be an andariego all alone.

The setting sun shines upon her thick-lensed glasses. She smiles. A wrinkle there, a wrinkle here, she wears her age upon her face with resplendence. They go into the house together, and the screen door closes behind them.


There's no better storyteller than a child. Broke one of the fancy plates in the kitchen? Cousin Juan did that when he was running through the house dribbling a basketball and blah blah blah. What did you do at school today? I made a book and wrote a whole story about a mermaid princess who blah blah blah. Any situation becomes an opportunity to prove one’s skills at imagining a world a bit larger, a bit more magical.

I don’t know how to tell such stories as a kid. I am blamed for something and I just say no I didn’t do it, the waterworks ensuing. I come home from school and tell no one of my day. As a child, I don’t feel myself as having a language in which to tell these stories. Speaking both Spanish and English, I live in a dual world, a world divided, a dizzying world. Spanish is spoken with my grandmother and father, with my siblings it is English, with my mother English and Spanish, and in school it is only English. Words zigzag in my brain with no pattern to their movement. I speak and I don’t know exactly how these words are forming, how the meaning is coming across, if I am articulating myself at all.

As an adult I struggle to tell stories, to know what language I can tell these stories in. Who is the boy there in the photo smiling in front of his birthday cake? How can he smile with so much strife behind those brown eyes? I struggle to articulate childhood Marcos, the matter of his history, his being in a small town in the United States. His 1990s self is and is not a presence in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Awaiting the day his story, his many stories, can find a language in which to be told, in which to be communicated. Waiting . . . and waiting . . . waiting as he has been doing for a lifetime . . .


Colored blocks on the floor, the grind of the pencil sharpener, alphabet posters on the walls. Children’s voices rising and falling. The boy is stimulated by all this newness. These are not the children of his neighborhood. He marvels at a Rebecca’s platinum blonde hair, the blue of a David’s eyes, the pigmentation of an Abigail’s skin. They are foreigners to him.

He contemplates but soon enough there is an interruption. The teacher looks at him from the chalkboard. Her face is pinched, her teeth gritted, her eyes blue and sinister. The teacher descends upon him, a bony colossus. Everyone is watching. “Do not speak that language here. Am I making myself clear?” That language? Lang-uage. Lan-g-uage. He tries to say the word but trips over the syllables. He does not know what she means by that word. All he knows are the eyes upon his body, a shame and a guilt he cannot find the source of, the difference he feels himself to be.

He does not speak again until sometime in the first grade.


New Egypt, New Jersey, is the small place on the map I have the privilege of calling my hometown. Mostly a farming town, which is why my family came here to begin with, but now it’s a middle-class haven of housing developments. There are four schools, a primary, an elementary, a middle, and a high school, which are where I spend most of my time from the ages of five to eighteen. The center of the town is Main Street. The road well-paved, the mom and pop stores, the potted plants hanging from the lampposts. There’s a grocery store where the local people can buy their goods without having to leave the parameters of the town. There’s one Chinese restaurant, a little Mexican grocery store, and that’s about as far as cultural diversity goes. This town is its own self-contained universe because that’s what the people who live there want for themselves. Towns like this one all across the United States wanting something secure, something quaint, something all their own without the threat of difference entering. Why would you ever want to leave?

On the outskirts of the town is the neighborhood I grow up in. I am raised here by my parents, my grandmother, and my older brother and sister. My grandmother has her own house, which is where I spend most of my time, and my mother is the renter of various homes a minute walking distance away throughout the years. My father and mother argue frequently, which culminates in my father getting kicked out. Sometimes he’s gone for days, sometimes weeks, and other times months. My brother and sister are ten years older than me, where I’m the youngest, and they have a different father than mine. Their father was my mother’s first love, a Puerto Rican chulo from Florida. My brother is the jokester of the family, six-foot-something, charming, and the very definition of masculinity. He always has a big smile on his face, an affectionate smile, which does a great job of masking the hurt he carries with him over his father leaving him when he was little. My sister is the bossy oldest sibling, always wanting to be in charge.

The little boys and girls who are my classmates growing up call this neighborhood “the Mexican ghetto.” They call this place a ghetto because my neighborhood houses the new wave of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Honduran immigrants who are working the fields in the area. According to them, this ghetto is a place of lawlessness. Where children run the streets naked and dirty. Where we hang our wet laundry to dry because we cannot afford dryers. Where the people don’t take showers. Where drugs are sold and drunks spill out on the street. Where music-playing rancheras and mariachis blare out at all hours of the day. Where women give birth to children when and how they want. Where immigration authorities and cops stake out our houses on the regular and conduct violent raids every other week. A no-man’s-land of savages, the townsfolk say.

My father is one among this new population that lives here. Before his migration in the late eighties, there is another. Through the late sixties, seventies, and early eighties the neighborhood is a Puerto Rican neighborhood. This is the migration that includes my mother. My grandparents move into this neighborhood all the way from Brooklyn after having been told by another Puerto Rican friend how quiet and quaint this little area is. The houses small but cheap. The land spacious and not cramped like a New York City tenement. Opportunity for field work and domestic work.

There is possibility here whereas in Puerto Rico and New York City they do not see much possibility. In this small town, in this neighborhood tucked away on the edge of it, they think they have a better chance of attaining the American dream. My grandparents are gone now, the house they lived in condemned and overtaken by the flora and fauna of the adjacent woods, nature taking what is hers to take. I still wonder if my grandparents found what they were looking for all those years ago when they decided to come to this small town. I wonder if they ever found their American dream.

This neighborhood where my parents meet, where I am born and raised, is a spot of brown amongst a surrounding mass of white. We are a fascinating anomaly for the white population of the town. A place to gawk at, to joke about, to conduct violent fantasies in when they dare even step foot in our boundaries. A place where the border between the United States and Mexico materializes. A place where the ocean between the mainland United States and the island of Puerto Rico opens up. A place where all the nobodies of the Americas come to congregate in order to debauch and terrorize and infest the United States, according to them. I live for nearly twenty years in this place constructed by the white imagination. And through this white imagining is how I conceive an image of myself and my family for the decades to come. An image of myself I have had to fight against day in and day out.

My parents no longer live in this town but they live nearby. Fifteen minutes away or so. Anytime I return to visit them, I like to drive over to New Egypt and cut directly through Main Street. I go to see what’s new. A barbecue wing joint and a bagel shop are the newest additions. The video rental store long gone, the barbershop my grandmother’s uncle worked at no more, the gas station bulldozed over. I ride through to feel nostalgic over a place I called home. But was it ever really home? Can you really call a site of cruelty and violence your home? Can you call a place of fantasy your home?

Each time I drive through Main Street I feel a welled-up rage build inside of me. A rage at how surfaces can lie to you. At how easily white America can hide its cruelty behind a veneer of innocence that is really just blatant ignorance. A rage at wishing others could see through the façade of what I had to endure.

Each time I drive through Main Street and feel this welled-up rage, this chest tightening and loss of breath, I know it’s the little boy, the little Marcos, coming out, begging to be heard, begging to be seen, begging to get another chance at life, a life that does not have to be the one he had to live through for all those years.

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