When I was in high school, I was assigned to read a short essay in the first week of Spanish class. I wasn’t too worried about it because my language skills were strong, and it was only a few pages. It shouldn’t take me more than twenty minutes to read through it, right? How hard could it be?
Turns out, that assignment would knock me off my feet — and begin a years-long fascination with a new way of seeing the world.
The essay was called El Otro by Julio Luis Borges. When I started to read it, I got stuck — not on the words, but on the deep concepts within it. El Otro tells the story of two versions of Borges meeting — one old, one young. It’s a haunting, beautiful look at getting older, dreams, and reality.
This essay was the first of many encounters I’d have over the following years with realismo mágico, or magical realism. Common in Latin American literature, magical realism is exactly what it sounds like: a blending of the magical and traditional worlds. Authors bring fantastical concepts into everyday stories, presenting them seamlessly as if they are part of the real world rather than something surprising or outside the norm. In El Otro, we see fantastical concepts accepted as reality by the elder narrator, who speaks with his younger self in what is simultaneously a dream for the young man and reality for the old.
Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, Isabelle Allende’s La Casa de los Espíritus, and Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate introduced me further to magical realism. I read stories of powers, creatures, and metaphysical anomalies folded into tales of families, intergenerational conflict, pain, love, joy, sadness, and more. These supernatural stories hold within them very real, down-to-earth emotions and lives.
A more modern example might be Encanto. The story itself includes elements of fantasy the viewer is expected to accept — it is a Disney movie, after all. A magical candle provides protection, a house comes alive, every member of the family has powers. And yet, these magical moments are simply accepted as part of the story. At its core, the story is about the power of family, intergenerational trauma, the history of Colombia, and more than I can give justice to in this short space.
As I devoured more magical realism and became comfortable in the language surrounding it, I grew in my own imagination and emotional maturity. Magical realism accompanied me on my journey through high school and college, where I gained perspective on myself, my loved ones, and my emotions.
Most importantly, magical realism taught me how to dream — and also how to see reality. It gave me a lens through which I could begin to see not only the stories I read, but everyday occurrences, as totally magical.
After all, is finding the love of my life at age 18 any less magical than a woman pouring her emotions into the food she cooks? And when it comes to my faith, magical realism helped me understand the ways the ordinary and the extraordinary converge — in the mass, in saints, in social justice work. In the same ways that magical realism blurs the line between mundane and magic, it helped me see the wonder in my own world.
Years later, I re-read El Otro — this time in English. It was still confusing, and deeply difficult to comprehend. But I like to think I understood it a little better — not because of a lifted language barrier, but because of how I’ve allowed myself to be open to the possibility that every single day, even the most boring, has just a little bit of magic in it.