Skip to Main Content

Stories My Grandmother Told Me

A multicultural journey from Harlem to Tohono O'dham

Published by City Point Press
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

The illuminating and deeply personal debut from Gabriela Maya Bernadett, Stories My Grandmother Told Me explores culture, race, and chosen family, set against the backdrop of the twentieth-century American Southwest.

In a hilly Southern California suburb in the late twentieth century, Gabriela Maya Bernadett listens as her grandmother tells her a story.

It’s the true story of Esther Small, the great-granddaughter of slaves, who became one of the few Black students to graduate from NYU in the 1940s. Having grown up in Harlem, Esther couldn’t imagine a better place to live; especially not somewhere in the American Southwest.

But when she learns of a job teaching Native American children on a reservation, Esther decides to take a chance. She soon finds herself on a train to Fort Yuma, Arizona; unaware that each year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs kidnaps the native Tohono O’odham children from the reservation and forces them to be educated in the ‘ways of the White man.’ It doesn’t take long for Esther to notice how Fort Yuma parallels her own grandmother’s story as a slave in the South—the native children, constantly belittled by teachers and peers, are forced to perform manual labor for local farmers.

One of two Black people in Fort Yuma, Esther feels isolated, never sure where she belongs in a community deeply divided between the White people and the Tohono O’odhams. John, the school bus driver and Tohono O’odham tribe member, is one of the only people she connects with. Friendship slowly grows into love, and together, Esther and John navigate a changing America.

Seamlessly weaving in the present day with the past, Stories My Grandmother Told Me blends a woman’s memory of her life, and that woman’s granddaughter’s memories of how she heard these stories growing up. Bernadett’s captivating narrative explores themes of identity, tradition, and belonging, showing what it really means to exist in a multicultural America.



THERE IS PERHAPS NO scene more timeless than an elder telling

a group of precocious youngsters about life “back in the day.”

Sometime in the late 20th century, in a sprawling, one-story house

nestled in a hilly Southern California suburb, two youngsters gather

on a white couch in the living room. The room is arranged so that

the couch is facing a gigantic window, with an armchair next to the

couch and a table in front. The couch itself, upon closer inspection,

has flowers embroidered on it in colorless thread. There is a plant in

the corner of the room, and family pictures line the walls. The two

youngsters have just eaten dinner, and the sun is setting outside. It

is a summer evening, and the colors of the sunset cast a beautiful

shadow, almost as if the golds, reds, and pinks of the sun are in the

room itself.

An elder comes in, takes a seat in the armchair next to the

couch, and begins not with a story, but with silence. She’s in her

70s, though the absence of wrinkles and a cane suggests someone

much younger. She is about 5 feet 9, with a broad nose, deep-set eyes

behind fashionable

glasses, and short, curly hair graying at the edges.

One of the youngsters, Maya, waits in rapt attention for her grandmother

to tell her the same story she has heard since she could first

?understand words. She sits there, on one side of the couch, a mass of

dark brown curls cinched to the nape of her neck with a black hair

tie. Another girl, Tina, about five years younger, sits next to her. Her

straight black hair is pulled high on her head into a sleek ponytail.

At first glance, the two girls could not look more different; Maya

with her curly brown hair and cinnamon-tinted skin, Tina with her

straight black hair and skin three to four shades lighter. On closer

inspection, however, the similarities become more evident: the small,

slender noses, thin lips, and crescent-shaped eyes. Sisters, for sure.

Tina breaks the silence.

“Do you need anything, Grammy?” she asks, getting up off the

couch to go to the kitchen.

“Just some water,” the elder replies and again waits in silence until

Tina comes back. Tina returns, setting the glass of water on the table

in front of her grandmother. Esther brings the cup to her lips and

takes a sip.

“So how did you end up on the reservation again?” Tina inquires,

as if she hasn’t heard the story a hundred times before. Esther sets the

cup down and takes a deep breath.

“There was a flyer,” she says, and Maya and Tina snuggle together

on the couch to get ready for a long night. They love it when the

story starts here, from the beginning.

About The Author

Maya Bernadett grew up in California hearing the stories of her grandmother, Esther Pancho. She grew up in a multi-cultural household, as her father is Mexican American and White and her Mother is Tohono O'odham and Black. At the age of 18 she moved to New Haven, Connecticut to attend Yale University, from which she graduated in 2008 with a degree in the History of Science/History of Medicine. She lived in Tucson briefly, then moved to New York City, and finally returned to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. She graduated in 2015 with a Master's Degree in American Indian Studies with a focus on Education. She currently teaches GED classes at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

Product Details

  • Publisher: City Point Press (January 11, 2022)
  • Length: 128 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781947951433

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images