Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, as a second-generation immigrant. She graduated from high school at the top of her class and, in 2018, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. She worked as a banking analyst at Wells Fargo and is now a product manager at a big tech company, where she uses her background and knowledge to empower communities. She has been featured on NPR’s Latino USA and delivered a viral TED Talk on finding opportunity and stability in the United States while examining flaws in narratives that simplify and idealize the immigrant experience. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

“It’s OK to be Lost” an interview with Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Madelynn Paz. Of the process she said, “In her debut memoir, Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez gives voice to a generation of children in America affected by our broken immigration system. Her candid coming of age story reveals both the pain of family separation and the love that keeps her family together.” In this interview Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez discusses navigating immigrant stereotypes, validating the emotions of her younger self, and her authorial debut.

Superstition Review: My Side of the River starts with a description of the El Rillito, a river which physically divides the city of Tucson, and ends at the ocean where you learn to surf on the Oaxaca Coast. This water imagery and tie-back was very suggestive of freedom and renewal, of embracing your own identity and all of your future potential. What inspired you to both start and end the work with images of water?

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez: When water is scarce, it is precious, and that’s how I felt about it growing up in Southern Arizona. Rainfall felt like a blessing, bringing life and renewal and the sweet smell of wet dirt. The Rillito River was also always interesting to me. They say that all rivers lead to the ocean but we had this dry River affected by man-made dams and global warming whose water would likely never find its way back to open waters.

Ending the work at the ocean, particularly on the Oaxaca Coast where I learned to surf, carried immense significance. It represented the culmination of a physical journey from the desert to the sea, something the River couldn’t do - showing the ways in which I was able to grow despite my surroundings and personal circumstances. Reaching the ocean symbolized reclaiming agency and opportunities for both myself and my community.

SR: In several parts of My Side of the River, the reader witnesses the pressure placed on you as a first-generation immigrant child to “be the best,” essentially carrying the burden of hope for your family’s future. At times, this pressure both pushed you to succeed but also negatively affected your mental health. If you could speak to your younger self now, what advice would you give her, or to other young women like her?

ECG: If I could speak to my younger self now, I would emphasize the importance of self-validation and embracing the journey, even when it feels uncertain. It’s so important to lean into the uncertainty of the process because it’s okay to be lost at times. That’s when growth happens.

I would also validate my younger self’s emotions, particularly the anger I felt. I was so angry at the world, at the government and at the failures of my parents or what I perceived as failures at the time. And while I was often projecting that anger where it wasn’t warranted, it was how I pushed forward. It was only natural to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. I would reassure myself it’s okay to feel angry and that anger can be a powerful force for change when channeled constructively.

SR: One of the beauties of your storytelling is how this memoir is not only your story, but also that of your family, communicated to the reader with a heartfelt and candid voice. How did you decide what to include (or not include), regarding personal family details and relationships?

ECG: While writing it was important for me to portray each family member as a whole person, flaws and all, to provide a genuine reflection of who they really are. Tackling sensitive topics like domestic violence and machismo within Latino families, specifically within my family, was challenging but something I found necessary to break the silence and stigma surrounding these issues. Still, I wanted to be authentic while also respecting the privacy and dignity of each family member. I also credit my editors for helping me figure out what would resonate to readers.

SR: In Part Three, you describe a thought that occurs to you after seeing your mother, Eliza, at your college graduation from University of Pennsylvania: “I wasn’t going to change the world, but I was going to change their world.” Can you expand on how this shift in perspective influenced the choices you made moving forward?

ECG: When I first started college, I was full of big dreams—I thought I could change the world. But as I learned more, reality set in, and I realized how daunting and complex the world’s problems truly are. I wanted to do it all—save the environment, shake up politics, and land my dream job. But the pressure was overwhelming, and I started to feel stuck, unsure of how to make a real impact.

By the time that I graduated I had reset my expectations. I realized that maybe I couldn’t change the whole world, but I could change her world, and my family’s. I told myself that I was finding a purpose in making a difference where it mattered most. Which ultimately was in helping the people I loved.

SR: In your 2020 Ted talk and in your memoir, you highlight how immigrant stereotypes “…dehumanize us as monsters or marvel at us as exceptional.” How has your lived experience helped you negotiate and push back on these stereotypes, both in life and in your writing?

ECG: Navigating immigrant stereotypes has been a complex journey for me. While I’ve occasionally benefited from fitting into the ‘exceptional narrative,’ I’m acutely aware of the limitations and dangers of these stereotypes.

My lived experience has taught me to recognize the humanity in all immigrants, regardless of their perceived productivity or exceptionalism. It’s disheartening to witness how immigrants are often reduced to the value of their labor, rather than being respected for their inherent worth as human beings.

Recent events, such as the tragic deaths of the six men on the bridge in Baltimore, serve as stark reminders of this dehumanization. It’s only in their deaths that the media and society find ways to validate their existence by calling them ‘humble workers.’

SR: Your TED talk in 2020 also references George Borjas, a well-recognized immigration economist. How have other experts on immigration, and/or other writers, influenced the development of My Side of the River?

ECG: I read a lot of George Borjas’ work during my college years, and he was super smart but I didn’t always agree with him. Still, what resonated with me most was his ability to strip away the polarizing emotions often associated with immigration policy. That's the cool thing about economics, it's more of an analysis on numbers. It offered a more nuanced perspective that was particularly valuable for me to see in a climate where immigration has become a tool for partisan gain rather than a means to address real issues affecting people’s lives.

When writing my book, some of his learnings were in the back of my mind, but really I was just trying to focus on my own story. While I did read other books by immigrants and children of immigrants in America, each narrative offered a unique perspective because there is no singular immigrant experience. While I wrote, I wanted to focus on my story and its impact on me, so in the end it was as personal and true as possible.

SR: The introduction of two key pieces of legislation in Arizona during your childhood (SB 1070 and HB 2281) served both to galvanize you into political activism and highlight how intolerance can be weaponized with legislation. With the recent rise of US political extremism in the last decade, especially that which espouses anti-immigrant rhetoric, what actions can everyday people take to combat this narrative?

ECG: Registering to vote and understanding local politics is key. Getting young people to do this is imperative. I often think about the whole “children of immigrants label." A lot of those children are now voting age adults. Getting momentum going, getting them involved and mad at what’s going on is the energy we need. We need this because we have to put pressure on candidates and we need them to support candidates who value our humanity.

SR: Your memoir discusses some difficult and painful themes, including your family’s separation, housing insecurity, and your struggle with hunger. I noticed your use of humor and wry sarcasm to mitigate some of these tensions. Can you elaborate on how you balance humor with more emotionally difficult moments in your work?

ECG: Humor has always been my go-to coping mechanism. It’s a family thing—we have a knack for finding humor that is often unwarranted and unhinged. Injecting humor and wry sarcasm into my book was something I did because that’s how I talk. I’m dry and sarcastic and I’ve been told sometimes people can’t tell when I’m being serious. But humor is so fun and also so useful. It serves as a breather, giving me and readers a moment to smile amidst the weight of difficult themes like family separation, housing insecurity, and hunger. It’s not about dismissing the seriousness of these issues, but rather about finding moments of lightness to process and take action.

SR: I was moved and intrigued by the stylistic change in “Betty Crocker’s Recipe for Success” which is a deviation in how your narrative has been told up to this point. It illustrates your conflicting emotions at this time in a poignant way. Could you describe what inspired this form and approach?

ECG: If you look at things without emotion, you realize that people make decisions in the same way over and over. I picked up on this as early as the college application process. I knew colleges wanted something which was the all-American student so I broke down exactly what that was, like a formula. If everything added up, it would be a no brainer. I did the same thing for everything I applied to later whether it was jobs or scholarships. It’s a good practice to have to put yourself in the shoes of who is hiring or recruiting. What do they want? They want a specific person and once you figure it out you can hack the system by reverse engineering in a psychological way.

SR: My Side of the River is your debut memoir. As a first-time author, what reactions to the book surprised you, and what has been the most rewarding moment thus far?

ECG: Putting my debut memoir out there has been a rollercoaster. One of the most surprising reactions has been hearing from people who felt like they finally saw themselves reflected in my story, especially in how they’ve had to conform to certain expectations to get ahead. It's both heartbreaking and affirming to know we're not alone in that experience.

On the flip side, it's been surreal having friends and even coworkers read about aspects of my life that I hadn't necessarily shared before. Explaining the book in person can get a bit awkward, especially when folks ask for a summary and I'm like, "Well, it's basically my whole life story!"

And then there's the criticism. Some people have said I should've waited to write my memoir, or that I come off as entitled. But here's the thing: I embrace a bit of entitlement because sometimes you’ve got to project confidence even when you're feeling vulnerable. This memoir is raw and real, capturing the essence of my youth in its most authentic form. Waiting ten years to write it would've changed everything, possibly making it less relatable to the younger readers who see themselves in my story right now.