The lessons I learned from Aristotle Mendoza and ‘his people’

Ellie McDowell

More stories from Ellie McDowell

I can’t write
March 2, 2023

Ellie McDowell

The cover of “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“You will have to make choices—and those choices will map out the shape and course of your life. We are all cartographers—all of us. We all want to write our names on the map of the world.”

I just read the last page of a book that I’m pretty sure changed my life. I lack the words to describe what this book made me feel. I can’t even begin to comprehend all of the emotions coursing through me right now, but I need to put it into words.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, author of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, doesn’t know he changed my life. When I picked up his book, I didn’t expect to love it this much. I almost feel as though I need to let it resonate before beginning to describe the masterpiece I just completed.

Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza, Dante Quintana, and Cassandra Ortega are only three of the characters that exist in Sáenz’s world, but they are the three that stuck out to me the most.

Ari Mendoza, the main character of Sáenz’s novel, is a Hispanic, Catholic, gay boy living during the AIDS epidemic—a time period that doesn’t exactly bode well for him. Ari insisted that he would be a cartographer of sorts. He saw the world that had been drawn out, and he wanted to change it.

A cartographer is someone who draws maps. The cartographers of our history didn’t leave room on their maps for a gay teenager to sign them; he had to make his own.

Ari wanted to be a cartographer; he wanted to draw his own map and leave room for anyone to sign it. I want to do that too. My whole life I have been one to stand for, but now it’s time for me to stand with.

In the 516 pages that contain only a fraction of Aristotle’s story, I have watched a boy I don’t even know grow up. I want to be Ari when I grow up. I want to love like Ari loved Dante. I want to grow like Ari did.

I watched this boy become someone who knew he deserved to be loved; I watched him become a man who knew what love meant and knew he was going to fight for it no matter what. I want to love like that. I want to fight for love because I know it’s real.

I don’t just want to be Ari when I grow up. I also want to be the type of girl that his best friend is. Cassandra Ortega is a force to be reckoned with. In a conversation between Ari and his boyfriend—Dante Quintana—Ari is asked if he thinks Cassandra became a woman too soon. In response, Ari said “What’s too soon, Dante? I think she decided not to be anybody’s victim.”

I want to be like that someday. I don’t want to be anybody’s victim, but instead a girl who knows what she believes and what she wants.

I want to be the girl who can confidently say she lived her life for herself and not anybody else.

I have never struggled to talk. There were moments when I was younger when I wouldn’t shut up. I had extra homework all through first grade because I couldn’t get my work done in class because all I did was run my mouth. Ari and Dante made me realize that I struggle with words.

I want to be the girl who can confidently say she lived her life for herself and not anybody else.”

Sáenz’s writing style is so uniquely eloquent. The way he wrote his characters made me wonder if they were real people. This is why I have realized I struggle with words. I want to be a person who can speak and have people listen. I want to have a sense of confidence that I just don’t have.

Dante knew his words had power. Like his namesake—Italian poet Dante Alighieri—Dante loved words and poetry. He loved to read it, write it, and paint it. He was an artist. I want to be like Dante when I grow up. I want to be an artist too—not with paints, but with my words.

I’m already slowly becoming an artist with the words I write. They mean something to people. But I want to be the artist Dante was. Ari and his friends teased him about sleeping with a dictionary instead of a teddy bear when he was a kid. Dante knew the word. I want to know the word too.

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World was a book I didn’t know I needed until I read it. Five hundred and sixteen pages is a lot to read, but it was so incredibly worth it. Every page brought a new lesson, a new emotion. I laughed, cried, and fell in love with each and every character.

I will forever recommend this book to my friends and family. I will forever be grateful that I read this book because it helped me to learn a little more about myself through Ari, Dante, Cassandra, and their friends.

Thank you, Aristotle Mendoza, for teaching me a little more about myself and the world that I want to create.