Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez, MY SIDE OF THE RIVER

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez, MY SIDE OF THE RIVER

 Zibby speaks with debut author Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez about MY SIDE OF THE RIVER, a tender memoir about her experience as the daughter of Mexican immigrants and what happened when her parents were kicked out of the United States when she was just fifteen years old, leaving her to raise her little brother by herself. Elizabeth talks about her childhood in Southern Arizona and then delves into the heart of her story, touching on themes of separation, generational trauma, resilience, and the toll of the American dream. She also reflects on the memoir-writing process, the discomfort of re-sharing painful memories, her TED Talk experience, and her best advice for aspiring authors. 


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss My Side of the River: A Memoir. Congratulations.

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Zibby: Please tell listeners about My Side of the River.

Elizabeth: My Side of the River is a memoir about my upbringing in Southern Arizona, specifically in Tucson, which is an hour north of the US/Mexico border. It talks about being the child of immigrants in a very immigrant neighborhood south of the Rillito River here in Tucson and what that was like for me, especially during the height of laws like SB 1070 when we were worried about the "show me your papers" and what would happen to families because of that. The crux of the story really is about what happened when my parents eventually were forced to return to Mexico and I was left in the United States alone with my little brother for a little bit and how these events led me to basically become homeless and still try to pursue my education. That's the heart of the story. It's also a love story between a brother and sister and to my family and to the community that helped raise me.

Zibby: Is it hard to just hop on a podcast and start talking about the most painful moments or the scariest moments or your entire life story? Are you okay with that now? Is it routine now that you've been talking about the book?

Elizabeth: I think it'll always be a little bit uncomfortable regardless. It's super funny when people ask me -- they're like, oh, my god, you wrote a book. What is it about? I'm like, I just met you, do you really want to hear this? Do you want me to just trauma dump [indiscernible/crosstalk]? It's so hard to explain. With memoirs, you also kind of feel like a raging narcissist the entire time. At least, that's how I've felt and also how I felt writing it. I'd be like, oh, my god, this is so annoying. Why am I doing this?

Zibby: I know. I wrote a memoir too. People are like, oh, your whole life story? I thought you were supposed to be eighty years old to write your memoirs or something like that. I'm like, no, no, it's about a piece. Memoirs are about a chunk and a piece of your life.

Elizabeth: It's a chunk. They’ll ask, can I get a summary? I'm like, the book is the summary. 

Zibby: If you really want a summary, then just don't even bother. Let's go for coffee, and I'll just tell you about my life or something. I love that expression, trauma dump. I've never heard that before. Did you come up with that, or is that a thing that I didn't know about?

Elizabeth: I definitely didn't come up with it. It is very used among my friend group because we're all traumatized. [laughter] 

Zibby: I love it. We're all traumatized in different ways from different things at different points in our life. Who can get through life without, at one point, having to need to do a trauma dump? which now I feel like I'm using as a grandparent or something. Thank you for the expression. I might co-opt it.

Elizabeth: Use it. I think it captures it perfectly.

Zibby: It really does. It really does. When you were writing the story, which part of the dump, should we say -- now it sounds terrible -- was a part that you knew had to be out there, but you just didn't really want to go there again? Now you're like, okay, it's out there.

Elizabeth: Initially, you would think that it's the whole process of me getting the phone call from my mom being like, "Our visas were denied again. We can't come back to the United States," and me having to tell my little brother, who was eight at the time, that your mom and dad aren't coming back. Life as we know it is about to change. How do you explain that to a child when I'm a child? I was fifteen. Even though he didn't fully understand the extent, he knew that it was bad. That was heartbreaking to see. That was really, really hard. I also think that some of the things that I really struggled with while writing this was talking about my parents and some of the mistakes that they made. I talk about domestic violence. I was really worried that writing this book would end up villainizing my parents in some way. I know them. I know them as complete humans with all of their mistakes and all of the ways that they've tried to become better people. My hope while writing this was -- yes, these are really hard things that I think I need to write in this book because I know this is something that happens in a lot of families. We just kind of hide it because it's so shameful. I wished that I had known that it wasn't just my family that had issues. It was all the families. That's why I ended up putting that and including that. At the end of the day, my hope was that people would see my family as entire humans with mistakes, with things that make them amazing, and collectively not shame them for these bits of our past that are so hard to talk about.

Zibby: I think that's the beauty of writing the full story. You don't have to rely on a shortcut and make snap judgements about people. You have time to let people get to know. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has their things. Once you understand the whole scope of it, it's much easier to process, understand. Obviously, this sounds simplistic, but I really do think that's why books and stories like yours are so powerful, because it is complex. People are complex. I love what you said about shame. I'm starting to think there just aren't that many original experiences. I talk to so many people. I'm just like, everyone is convinced, like you said, we all have these things that couldn't possibly be happening to other people. You just don't know until you've read thousands of books that they really do happen to lots of other people.

Elizabeth: I can't imagine reading that many books and just being like, oh.

Zibby: For a while, I was getting a little down because I was like, oh, my gosh, everyone's parents are terrible. [laughs] My gosh, it's just so awful in everybody's home. It just felt so bleak. The greatest thing is the hope. It's the hope and the perseverance and overcoming and the stories that come from pain that lead to strength, this whole post-traumatic growth. Do you buy into that?

Elizabeth: I think that there's always going to be some growth and learning. I have taken the best parts of my parents and the worst parts as lessons to be the best version of myself possible. My mom is super confident and feisty irrespective of the people around her. She doesn't care about their level of education. She just shows up and argues if she thinks she's right. My dad is very logical and entrepreneurial. I love the way that he thinks and the way that he will solve a problem really fast. I can really rely on my dad to help me solve something. I think that both of those things are really important to who I am, to how I think, and how I try to express and show myself in the world. I'm twenty-eight, so I'm still quite junior at everything that I do in my role in my job. I try to bring that confidence, that way of thinking and logic and entrepreneurial mind that my dad would have or that my mom would have every day to what I do. I still struggle, but these lessons are so engrained to me just by virtue of being their daughter.

Zibby: So interesting. I watched your whole TED Talk. You were so confident. I'm like, oh, she's just hanging out in a sweatshirt today. You're just on fire and so self-assured and poised and articulate about all the things with immigration and your points of view and all of it. I know we all have both sides of ourselves when we're performing, essentially, and when we're just being us, deep us. Tell me more about the TED Talk and preparing for that and the way that has changed your life and having millions of people viewing your speech and listening to your jokes.

Elizabeth: It's so funny that you say that. I'm an introvert at heart. A lot of people will see the TED Talk or will see how I act in certain settings. I'm like, no, it's like I turn that version of myself on. As soon as it's off, I'm completely depleted. I just want to curl into a ball and not talk to anybody for a couple of days to regain that energy. Giving that TED Talk was so fun and was so exciting. It changed my life in a lot of ways. I was a very junior analyst at Wells Fargo. I hated my job. I felt like I was dipping my head in concrete every single day. I was like, the creative side of me is dying. My coworkers weren't amazing. They weren't great at all. I really always felt like I was at risk in that role. If there is a pile of people that need to go so that they can hire their best friend or a nepotism baby, I'm probably at the top just because of who I am, because they don't like me. Even if I do everything right, even if I get all of the analysts to like me and the work that I do, they will find a reason. I knew that to make myself safer, I needed to be loud. I needed to be present. I needed to make it really hard for them to fire me. 

There was, on our company website, this collaboration that Wells had with the TED Institute. Essentially, the TED Institute will go to different companies, and they will do the whole TED Talk -- that is done by TED; it's not TEDx -- with, usually, people from these companies. Out of 1,300 people, I got selected. I was really happy about it because I was like, I'd rather I speak because I have something to say versus one of my random white coworkers who have nothing to say, ever, that is valuable, at least from my perspective. That's how I got the TED Talk. Then I got a coach to help craft my story. I already had an idea of what I wanted to say. The coach was really cool because it helped me clean things up, emphasize what you need to. Then when you actually go up on stage, you don't have teleprompters. You don't have a speech. It's all memorized. You go up. You see a bunch of people. You just have to go for it. Then my mic cut out in between. Luckily, they were able to cut that out. I got right back into it. I wasn't forgetting things, which is amazing because I really only memorized it the day before. I'm just a terrible procrastinator. 

The TED Talk was amazing. It got a lot of virality, which was really cool. It was presented at the company website. It made my coworkers really mad. It was so fun for me because I was able to share my story in a way that was compact. I think that people could take something away from it. I really struggled, too, with the memoir because people are like, what do I take away from the memoir? I sometimes don't know because when I was writing it, it was up to date. I'm just like, I'm still lost. Every day, I'm trying to be as normal as possible and not let these circumstances of my background be the sole defining thing that I am. I think that the TED Talk was -- we have these super immigrants, and then we have these immigrants that people use as scapegoats. My whole thesis of it was that we're all on some spectrum. It doesn't matter where we are. We all deserve this baseline of human respect.

Zibby: Wow. I'm curious -- I don't know why. The coworkers and your relationship with them, what was that about? Was it just you? Was it a group of people, and they were mean to select people? What was that culture?

Elizabeth: One, I was the only Latina on the trading floor, except for another lady, who was amazing, and she was a secretary. There was this perception of the woman that worked on this team. It was a team primarily made up of women. At first, I thought, this is amazing. I'll have mentors. I'll have people that support me because women have been underrepresented in banking too. What I learned is that these women have been in the industry for quite a while, and their mentality was, only one of us can exist. It kind of felt like I was a threat because I didn't really go into the mold of who they were. I wasn't drinking the corporate Kool-Aid in the way that they wanted me to or had that "sense of urgency" that they felt that I lacked. I was twenty-three when I started this role. I was also coming in not just as a fresh analyst, but as the new guardian to my sixteen-year-old brother. I was working this entry-level role, which initially is, you take up the slack for everybody. You kind of do the grunt work, which takes a lot of time and a lot of presence. I was also calling my brother's school and being like, "You need to put him in AP classes. I don't like what you guys are doing. Can you support him? He needs English/Spanish learning assistance," and doing all of these things that nobody would expect a twenty-three-year-old to do. They weren't going to understand that, ever. They were just going to see that as a fault to my ability to perform. At the end of the day, I was performing. I was writing everything down that I did that I succeeded at in a document just for safety. At the end of the day, it didn't even matter because when they made up their mind, they made up their mind that I just wasn't cut out for that kind of position.

Zibby: That sounds terrible. 

Elizabeth: It wasn't great. It wasn't great. It's also super interesting because Wells Fargo specifically, they got their investment banking portion after the 2008 financial crisis. They bought out Wachovia. A lot of people that they hired were these very old-school bankers that essentially got fired from Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns and all these companies that dissolved. The environment there is very old-school in a way that I would walk into it, and I would be like, did I just go back a couple of decades as far as what's going on, or is this just how the banking world is in general?

Zibby: Do you ever feel -- have you seen the movie Bad Moms? This is such a random question. You probably haven't because you're not a mom.

Elizabeth: I haven't, but I think I've seen it on previews when I'm scrolling through trying to figure out what movie to watch.

Zibby: This is just an example. There was a group of alpha women in Bad Moms, particularly, the head of the PTA, who was just so awful and really wants the heroine of the Bad Moms movie to go away. She wants to rule her kingdom. She feels threatened. She lashes out. She's just terrible. Then we find out at the end of the movie that her whole life is actually falling apart. The act that she's putting on -- her husband has been accused of insider trading. Something bad was going on. Her life is falling apart. They had no money. Everything was awful. She just couldn't -- but you would never know, except for this last scene. I wonder -- not to defend, in any way, shape, or form, the people. I have no idea about their stories, but I just always wonder. When people are really mean, are they really just mean? Some people are. There are bad apples. What are you going to do? Are they hiding other things that they're ashamed of? Do they have shameful things that they've put up such a -- is that why they become narcissists or whatever? I don't know. I just sometimes wonder.

Elizabeth: I also wonder too. I was like, is this a cultural thing that I've just never been exposed to? Is this just how things are? I think when you're so young going into a position like this, you don't really realize right away that people are treating you bad. You're like, this is just how things are. It took a while to find mentors and to find allies in the company that told me from a bit of an outside perspective, no, this team is notoriously bad and has a reputation. When I saw that they put you on that team, I was worried about you, so I'm glad that we connected. I also tried to think, why would they be acting in this -- what I realized about that specific team in that role that I was in was that there was very difficult growth opportunity. Sure, you would eventually rise up the ranks and get paid more, but the role itself stayed pretty consistent. I don't remember if it was one of my coworkers who told me this, but they were like, you either marry one of the CEOs that you work with or you end up working as investor relations for one of these top five hundred companies. Both of those options -- I was twenty-three. I was like, really? I hate this so much. How do I get out of this? It was true because when I was looking for jobs trying to get out, these were the only things that I could basically apply to, besides the marrying a rich CEO. Now I realize maybe I should've done that. [laughter] 

Zibby: There's still time. 

Elizabeth: There's still time. I was twenty-three, twenty-four. I was like, this is terrible, archaic and just terrible thinking. There was no incentive to grow me as a person career-wise. I wondered if they felt some type of way to still be there after so many years and not really have growth.

Zibby: I wonder what happened to that whole division. It doesn't sound like it was really poised for success.

Elizabeth: I think they're still there. I think every bank has one. Who knows?

Zibby: Whatever. Now you work at Facebook or something. Did I get that wrong? Where are you working?

Elizabeth: I work at Meta. I can't talk a lot about what I work and actually do, but I am a product manager, which is super fun because I get to be a bit more entrepreneurial. I get a section of the company that I get to work on. I get to think about the product and the apps that we use. I'm like, hmm, this user experience kind of sucks. Then I can think about different ways to work with my team to improve that experience. I'm a junior product manager still. I still think of myself as that because I just feel like I have so much to learn. I love the fact that people at this company are willing to teach me. The environment is very different than what it was before in the sense that there are opportunities for mentorship and for growth. People want you to succeed because it keeps us moving. It keeps us innovating and iterating. I think that that kind of environment is just so much more well suited for my type of brain. I have ADHD. I need a constant change and challenge. It's super fun for me. I also like that I can get my parents and be like, this is what I'm working on, and they’ll actually understand. Sometimes they don't know what I'm doing. They didn't know what I was doing in banking. I would be like, basically, I'm babysitting rich people. They'd be like, oh, okay. With Facebook, I can open the app and show them. I'm like, I added this button. That was me.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: What advice do I have for aspiring authors? Look, I got into the writing world in a very weird way. I gave the TED Talk. I had some agents reach out to me. I somehow got agented and ended up with a book deal. It felt crazy. It felt super random. What I do think is important and that I wish maybe I would've done earlier is just to always be writing short things and putting your work out there. What I've seen of a lot of authors that are really successful is that they've started to build their brand in one way or another. They have written things on LinkedIn. They've put their word and their stories out there in some capacity. I think that that helps you become a bit more established so that when it comes to the point where you're like, okay, I think I want an agent or I want to self-publish, you kind of have a foundation already and a collection of work that can be used or that can be iterated on. Just putting it out there I think is super important. I really struggled, too, with writing because I wanted it to sound perfect. At some points, you just have to put things out there and see what sticks. You have to let it go. That's my advice for people that want to write. I also think that it's super romanticized. It's a super difficult area to be in. I don't know how authors do it full time. I really respect that because I think it's such a difficult process to write a book.

Zibby: I agree. Elizabeth, thank you so much. I have so much respect for all that you've been through and the fact that you could write about it so young and to even have the perspective on what's happened already, to reflect and trauma dump for all of us. I dressed for your cover. You're welcome. Anyway, have a great day. Thank you so much for coming on.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Best of luck.

Elizabeth: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez, MY SIDE OF THE RIVER

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