Monday, February 23, 2015

Living, Writing and Reading while Latina

The first book I read about a Latina living in the United States was Sandra Cisnero's House on Mango Street. I think I read it for a summer program right before I started high school, and I was so enamored. I loved that the main character was brown and lived in the same neighborhood where I was growing up. She named streets and places that I was familiar with. Her life mirrored those of my neighbors, family and friends, even though the character was Mexican, and living in a different decade. I remember wishing there were more books like that.

Sure there are fabulous writers from Latin America, like Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel. They write beautiful stories that have universal themes like love and loss, even though they take place in early turn of the century Chile and Mexico. I could relate to the character's loyalty to family and their love of country. I had fun imagining the landscape of places I had never been. But, it wasn't very different than reading a book that took place in Russia, China or the Middle East because, although the writers were of Latin origin, their stories were foreign to me. They didn't write about places I'd lived, or histories with which I was familiar. As much as I loved the prose and poetry in books by Latin American authors, I didn't feel a connection to them, even those like Rosario Ferré who wrote stories centered in Puerto Rico. 

What I was longing for was a book about a Latina who considered herself as American as she did Latina. I wanted to learn how others like me dealt with being bi-cultural, answering the ever-present question, "What are you?" when they didn't look black enough or white enough to fit neatly in someone's idea of what an American should look like. I wanted to read about brown girls from tough humble beginnings who were defeating the odds to be the first in their families to go to college. I wanted to read stories about women like me with expansive vocabularies and non-accented English. Where were those books? There were certainly plenty of Latinos who lived all their lives in the United States. We deserved to read about our lives, as much as the lives of those who were born and raised abroad.

I didn't read a book about a Latina living in the United States until I was in my early twenties. I can't recall the exact book I read, but once I found that Latinas were writing about experiences similar to my own, I was on the hunt. I scoured websites and bookstores for books and was ecstatic to find books by Sofia Quintero, Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, Lara Rios, Caridad Pinero, Berta Platas, Jackie Sandoval, Reyna Grande, Mary Castillo, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Barbara Caridad Ferrer, Michele Dominguez Green, Gaby Triana, Michele Serros, Marta Acosta, Kathy Cano Murillo, and Carolina Garcia Aguilera. These women, and those who have been published since them, reinvigorated my love of stories. Reading about lives that were so much like mine was like discovering the gift of reading all over again. To this day I cannot pass up buying a book by a Latina author who bases her books on the experience of living while brown and female in the U.S.

This discovery was pivotal because it sparked my interest in publishing. It made me question why it had taken so long (and so many books) to find these stories. Who was publishing them and why weren't they publishing more? How were these books marketed and why had it taken me so long to learn of their existence? Who were these writers and how could I meet them? The answer to that last question came in 2006 at the first-ever Chica Lit Conference put together by Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, author of Dirty Girl's Social Club and many subsequent books that all feature Latina protagonists. She brought Latina writers and readers together for a weekend in Miami to discuss all things Chica Lit and I was in my element.

Most attendees were writers and editors, but a few were like me - readers and admirers of their work. Learning that some of them were the only Latinas at their imprints was ridiculous to me and it set me on the path for learning all I could about publishing, to find out why more publishers weren't putting out books for this audience. I was a multicultural marketing manager at the time, so I knew that we were the fastest growing market in the country. It made no business sense not to cater to Latinos and I could not understand why the publishing industry wasn't working harder at producing books for this market.

Determined to learn more, I applied and was accepted to the University of Denver's Publishing Institute where I constantly posed that question to the visiting editors, publicists and publishers. I can tell you with confidence that I became somewhat unpopular among the faculty because I would not let up. I took every opportunity I could to educate them on the increasing numbers of Latinos and why it made sense to support their literacy. I grilled them for the names of Latinas in the publishing houses they worked for, and was discouraged by the low number.

After completing the program I set off to New York and met with the few Latinos I had heard about who were involved in various facets of publishing. I listened to story after story about the lack of publicity dollars and support for books featuring Latino main characters. I was told over and over again that the low purchasing numbers of those books did not warrant the time, attention and resources of mainstream books. They believed that Latinos didn't read, not even books featuring them as the main characters.

I came back home feeling defeated and wondering how and when that perception would change. I was a reader. My mother was a reader. My friends were readers. I had met other Latina readers at the conference. How could an entire industry think that an entire population did not read? It made no sense to me.

Fast forward to today. I see more and more books about and by Latinas on the market. While I primarily focus on children's books, I still keep my eye out for adult books. I buy books by Latinas in an effort to disprove the notion that Latinos don't read. Whenever I'm asked to recommend a good book, I think of a Latina/o author, no matter the ethnicity of the person asking. When it came time to write my critical thesis for graduate school, I turned to Latina authors and created a thesis and lecture about the importance of authentic Latina characters, and how to write one, no matter your ethnicity.

As I venture on the path towards publication, I feel even more strongly that I need to support fellow Latina writers by buying and recommending their books. I now see first-hand the work it takes to not only get your story out of your head, but to convince an industry that it is worth something. I feel a kinship with those who have blazed the trail that I am working to follow. I admire them and recognize that they made it possible for others to come after them. They helped change the publishing landscape by being brave enough to believe their stories held value, that our stories hold value. For the first time I feel like I am doing something about the lack of stories about women like me, and feel like I've found my place at being part of the solution. 

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