‘Big Familia’ explores Latinx culture through the eyes of a single dad raising a teenager in a gentrifying city.
Oakland author Tomas Moniz’s new novel, Big Familia, is a big-hearted love letter to his former home just over the border: Berkeley.
Set in South Berkeley, the book follows a year in the life of Juan Gutiérrez, a Latinx single father navigating a gentrifying city, parenting a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and struggling to keep up with the flux of human relationships.
Although he grew up in Hawaii and New Mexico, the East Bay is where Moniz found home.
“I love this area,” Moniz said. “I’ve been here since 1994. I feel like I’m from the Bay Area and I wanted that to be part of the book.”
The real-life South Berkeley bar Nick’s Lounge plays a big role in the novel. It’s the center of Juan’s social life and where he learns to accept who he is and to accept the support of his cobbled together “big familia” of fellow Berkeley residents who are all just trying to hold it together in a rapidly changing city.
Another theme of the novel is fatherhood, which has been central to Moniz’s writing for years. When he was about to become a father in his early 20s, his mother told him the truth about his own father. The man whom he thought of as his father was actually his adoptive father; his biological father had been sent to prison when Moniz was very young.
He was able to reconnect with his biological father. “I had a wonderful relationship with him till he passed away,” Moniz said. “I also had an adoptive father who was wonderful.”
This early awareness of the importance of fatherhood made Moniz start a zine in 2005 called Rad Dad, which eventually became a book, edited by Moniz and Jeremy Adam Smith.
“It’s always been something that’s come up in my creative writing and my nonfiction writing, familial intimacy and how to become better,” Moniz says. “Families are also sites of trauma. I didn’t want to be raised the way I was raised.”
“Though my father who raised me was wonderful, he was a silent, strong image of masculinity. I wanted to raise my children differently.”
He’s immensely proud of his three children, who range in age from 22 to 29. He split with their mother when the youngest was in grade school, but they maintain a good relationship with each other and their children, much like his novel’s protagonist.
Another source of community for Moniz has been the East Bay’s literary community: He’s long been a mainstay of the zine community and cofounded the East Bay reading series Lyrics and Dirges and Saturday Night Special as well as the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest.
He stepped away from some of those responsibilities in recent years to work on his own writing, but the writer’s group he’s been part of for five years has sustained him. He’s already working on his next novel, which is about what we do as we become older, or as Moniz puts it, “How do we live meaningful lives when we’re at the end, when we don’t have the connection to all the things that defined us beforehand.”
Connection, family, and the work itself are what keep Moniz engaged. “This book [Big Familia] could come out and not do anything, but I’m still enjoying the new book I’m working on. It’s reminded me it’s the process that keeps me going,” Moniz said.
Elise Proulx and Adam Smith are colleagues at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.