Maureen Egan Writers Exchange Award

Most agree that West Liberty is a special place. The first majority Hispanic town in Iowa, it has been covered by media giants such as Reuters, Telemundo, NBC, and ESPN. But Chuy Renteria and his friends grew up in the space between these news stories, where a more complicated West Liberty awaits. We Heard It When We Were Young tells the story of a young boy, first-generation Mexican American, who is torn between cultures: between immigrant parents trying to acclimate to midwestern life and a town that was, by turns, supportive and disturbingly antagonistic.

Renteria’s story looks past the public celebrations of diversity to dive into the private tensions of a community reflecting the changing American landscape. There are culture clashes, breakdancing battles, fistfights, quinceañeras, vandalism, adventures on bicycles, and souped-up lowriders, all set to an early 2000s soundtrack. Renteria and his friends struggle to find their identities and reckon with intergenerational trauma and racism in a town trying to do the same. A humorous and poignant reflection on coming of age, We Heard It When We Were Young puts its finger on a particular cultural moment at the turn of the millennium.

“Full of heart and humor, We Heard It When We Were Young reframes the American narrative in a way that feels urgent. Renteria’s nostalgia-wrapped traumas of growing up—the visceral violence, continuous reckonings, and complex friendships—shatter and mend your heart all at once. In this poignant debut, Chuy Renteria does not hold back, examining the past with an honesty that gives you chills from beginning to end. Above all, the love Renteria has for the unique Iowa town of West Liberty shines unapologetically through.”—Xochitl Gonzalez, author, Ogla Dies Dreaming

“Chuy Renteria writes what no one else can. He writes as a b-boy, a first-generation Mexican American, a small-town Iowan, a friend, a son, and a brother. The result is part bildungsroman and part unique socio-cultural exploration. His writing is fascinating, moving, and full of kinetic style.”—Jennifer Colville, author, Elegies for Uncanny Girls

“A heartfelt and vibrant debut, We Heard It When We Were Young chronicles an important Iowan narrative from a first-generation Mexican immigrant perspective. Chuy Renteria’s conversational storytelling is by turns funny and wrenching as he explores the cultural dissonance between neighbors and within families as one small Iowa town evolves.”—Rachel Yoder, author, Nightbitch

We Heard It . . . is an important move for midwestern studies. Renteria’s memoir not only challenges the pervading cultural framework of whiteness in the Midwest, it also simultaneously engages with a wide range of readers by appealing to the common small-town experience.”—Middle West Review

“The title We Heard It When We Were Young suggests that the memoir is primarily about racism and discrimination. Actually, it is about so much more. . . . The structure is not entirely chronological. There is some moving back and forth among Renteria’s childhood, adolescence, and adult years that is suggestive of how memories flow from one to another. The effect is natural and organic storytelling accompanied by the insights that develop after reflection and time and maturity.”—Austin American Statesman

Maureen Egan Writers Exchange Award

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Publication Details

Publication Date
Trim size
6 x 9
13 b&w photographs, 2 b&w illustrations