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#MakeLatinasVisible

Not Reading Elizabeth Acevedo? Here’s Why You Should

While the literary establishment generally ignores Latinas, last year we saw the door open (just a creak!), thanks to Elizabeth Acevedo. Her The Poet X won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and her second novel, With the Fire on High, is showing that lightning can indeed strike twice.

I picked up The Poet X knowing nothing except that the author is Afro Latina and it won a bunch of awards. So you can imagine my surprise when the whole book turned out to be in verse. Poetry is not my favorite, so I figured I was in for a long, difficult read. But The Poet X delighted me. The language was powerful, the plot driving, and the characters fascinating.

Going in, I thought, a book about a Latina who expresses herself through writing? I’m going to see myself here (like I do with Jane the Virgin). But The Poet X’s Xiomara is a curvy bombshell, navigating her age-appropriate sexual awakening in the context of a working-class, abusive, Catholic family. And that couldn’t be further from my experience. I was a privileged, fair-skinned, beanpole teenager, confronting what it was like being outside the “spicy/curvy” Latina stereotype. My parents were loving and accepting and there was no strict religious doctrine in our household. I’m not even baptized! That’s not to say we didn’t have awkward conversations about sex or our own problems but our relationship is nothing like Xiomara’s with her parents. Where Jane Villanueva’s nerdiness and loving family resonated with me, Xiomara’s street cred and homelife felt foreign. But different doesn’t mean bad or even unappealing. It’s just a reminder that being Latina is just one part of our identities — it doesn’t define our entire experiences and we certainly aren’t all the same.

The Poet X is one of the rare books by a Latina to get attention from the literary establishment

By the time I finished The Poet X, the cover art for Acevedo’s sophomore work was out and I pre-ordered it. A few pages into With the Fire on High, I was a bit worried. The premise was eerily similar, only this time our young heroine expresses herself through food rather than words. Was this just going to be a carbon copy of The Poet X? Luckily no.

For one, it turns out the difference between Xiomara-the-poet and Emoni-the-chef is substantial. Where The Poet X is all in poetry, With the Fire on High is in prose with each section starting with a recipe (like the canonical Like Water for Chocolate!). It’s a powerful device supported by descriptions of Emoni experimenting with spices, finding surprising combinations, and cooking up flavor metaphors galore.

Emoni is also on a totally different journey than Xiomara when it comes to sex and relationships. When With the Fire on High starts, Emoni may be a senior in high school but she already has a two-year-old daughter. There’s no question about her virginity, no fight for her “purity” a la Xiomara. Instead, Emoni’s backed away from dating altogether — the boys in her school generally mistake her motherhood as a sign that she’s “easy,” when, if anything, she’s learned to by hyper-cautious when it comes to sex and her heart. Plus she’s super busy — raising a toddler, trying to graduate high school, and working to help support her family — it’s a lot.

One of the joys of With the Fire on High is its portrayal of motherhood. At the time of reading it, my daughter is the same age as Emoni’s and I can attest that some of that experience is the same, no matter the circumstance. Yes, I became a mom when you’re “supposed” to — as a married grown up in a secure financial position — and yes, that makes it a lot easier. But we’re all still reading Runaway Bunny and dealing with tantrums and feeling our hearts ache when we go too long without smelling that perfect, baby smell.

Acevedo’s second book is delicious

So much of the conversation around motherhood — teen and Latina motherhood in particular — is about a distinct contraction. Becoming a mother is often equated with going from having the world open to you to suddenly needing to prioritize a tiny, demanding human above all else. And that is true. But there’s a beauty and joy to it that’s left out of the dialogue when the mom is young or brown. It was powerful seeing a character who many would write off as a cautionary tale — don’t become the pregnant freshman! — given the same humanity and joy and problems as the rest of us.

As a mom and a creative, Emoni is her own person. With the Fire on High succeeds because she is so real, so distinct, and yet, so relatable. Her love story (not with the baby daddy) was particularly compelling, as she tries to find happiness and enjoy some of that normal, teenage head-over-heels joy that she was denied in her first experience. As Emoni navigates dating-post-baby, you can’t help but root for her.

The same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo, the author behind both books. I’m excited to meet her next heroine and would like to put in a request — can we meet a Latina who falls in love (and even has sex!) without consequence? Boys get to do it all the time. Even white women are starting to do it (see An EducationGirls, even Sister Carrie.). I’d love for Latinas to have a turn!

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“Sabrina & Corina” Colors in Our Erased History

I’ve always thought of Colorado as a white place. Despite the Spanish-language name, the state has marketed itself as more like Kansas than New Mexico and it’s worked. I mean, my dad is a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies and I grew up steeped in Mexican American history, learning the ways we are erased and the consequences of that erasure. Having lived in all four border states (CA, AZ, NM, and TX), I’ve noted the differences between how Latinx culture is presented, perceived and lived. So if anyone should have questioned the white narrative of Colorado, it was me. But I didn’t — I fell for the whitewashed marketing of the state, never doubting my impression that Colorado is and has been gringolandia.

Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to.

That is until I read Sabrina & Corina. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut book is a collection of stories each centering a Latina protagonist from Denver. The stories span decades, revealing different facets of Colorado’s history with rich and beautiful writing. Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to. Each story keeps you turning pages as it breaks your heart with accounts of gender-based violence, bad-parents kept and good parents lost, and the psychological effect of your history, identity, and family being systematically erased.

Sabrina & Corina explores these pressing issues with nuance and compassion. Take the treatment of sexuality: in the title story, we see two cousins, one uncannily beautiful and “fast” and another responsible, conservative, and normal looking. The beautiful one trades on her looks for quick escapes, relying on men for her sense of self and her economic day-to-day. She ends up murdered by one of her partners. The other avoids men, relationships, and sex, living alone and isolated, even losing touch with her favorite cousin. Neither is a good choice.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Alicia in “All Her Names” use her sexuality to literally ensure her freedom, pretending to be mid-tryst to escape the cops after tagging a train car. And this serves as background for a character who has an abortion without telling her husband and spends the majority of her narrative with her sometimes-lover, reliving what it was to be young and reckless. Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Likewise, Farjado-Anstine’s debut captures what it feels like to be the object of gentrification. In “Galapago,” we see a middle-aged woman try to convince her grandmother to move out of the old neighborhood. She remembers the break-ins over her grandmother’s 60+ years in that house and the ways in which the family contorted themselves and their home to continue thriving despite the surrounding violence. That story ends and begins with the grandmother Pearla killing a nineteen-year-old intruder — it’s finally time to move out.

In the last story, “Ghost Sickness,” we see the gentrification of history, not just houses. Here our protagonist Ana is a college student in danger of flunking History of the American West. She just can’t merge what she knows of the area — what the events described in her textbook felt like from the indigenous perspective — to the White Man’s version of explorers, tamed wilderness, and manifest destiny. She’s also dealing with the disappearance and probable death of her live-in boyfriend. This story ends with a modicum of hope — Ana may just pass the class thanks to an extra credit question on the Navajo original story, something she knows in her bones thanks to that missing, Navajo lover.

Overall, Sabrina & Corina made me feel seen, silly, and sad. Seen because these women are women I know, women I’ve been, but women I so rarely get to see portrayed. The power of centering Latina’s perspectives cannot be overstated. I also feel silly for knowing so little about my sisters in Colorado — I mean, I didn’t even know they existed! This erasure isolates us, keeping us from knowing and working together. And lastly, I was sad. These stories are heartbreaking and make you feel for each heroine as she deals with the tragedy before her.

Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina.

I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine writes and publishes many more books. Her voice is powerful and her focus on women of color needed. But scrolling through reviews of Sabrina & Corina, I was uncomfortable by all the white women praising it, not understanding that to be Latina is not just to be in pain or doomed to tragic circumstances. Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina. And I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine uses her considerable talent and now thankfully-large platform to share the joy of our identity with the world too. With so much sadness, we need the moments of joy as well.

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We Are Changemakers: Attending My First #WeAllGrow Summit

Have you ever been in a room where every single person is impressive? Maybe when you started college or that fancy new job. Now imagine that room and instead of being intimidated, you feel welcomed, valued, and seen. Last week, I attended the #WeAllGrow Summit and found myself in exactly that situation.

Everywhere I went, I met amazing women. The poet I admired. The podcaster I can’t wait to start listening to. The journalist who is speaking truth to power. The artist whose work I’ve already started supporting. I’ve never been part of a community like that before and I have every intention of replicating it not just via my social media feed but also IRL with the chingonas in the Bay.

We came, we grew, we presented.

So would any of these amazing women be interested in hearing me speak? Spoiler: yes! Suited up in our #MakeLatinasVisible T’s, LatinaMedia.Co Co-Founder Nicola Schulze and I led a workshop called “What A Hashtag Becomes A Movement: A How-To on Online Organizing.” We drew on our combined twenty years of experience of social justice organizing and marketing to host a conversation about how to build a successful groundswell online. In the end, we all came out just that much more energized to do this work and do it in community.

As a media critic, the highlight of the event for me was the panel featuring the Vida team and of course, the Q&A with Yalitiza (we’re on a first name basis now). Vida showrunner Tanya Saracho was hilarious, strong, and smart, challenging us to support each other and laugh at ourselves. Meanwhile the cast — represented by Mishel Prada, Ser Anzoategui, and Chelsea Rendon — spoke about the transformational nature of the show, how it humanizes Latinx people in a time when we so desperately need it (see the news coming from the border if you need some background on what I’m talking about).

Dear Television Academy — The queer brown show “Vida” deserves an Emmy. Period.

The conversation with Roma’s Yalitiza Aparicio had me (and the whole audience) in tears — multiple times. Remember before Roma, she’d never acted before and didn’t have Hollywood aspirations. But today as the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and one of the rare Latinas to walk that red carpet, Yalitza’s an inspiration to so many of us. On stage, she spoke of her journey as an actress and dedicated her performance as domestic worker Cleo to her mother, who’d done that work in real life. I loved the story she told of her mother walking down the street at home and everyone congratulating her.

While Yalitza’s evident heart, sincerity, and insightfulness shone through, what really got me was when five women from the audience told Yalitza what seeing her on-screen meant to them. For Latinx people as a whole and more specifically, indigenous women, Yalitza’s success has meant so much. We’re talking about a woman who serves as the sole representation (and a positive one at that!) of a group that’s normally erased and when they do appear are usually stereotyped, othered, and/or demonized.

Yalitiza and the Changemakers, courtesy of Nicole Goldinez, @nicolegoldinezphoto

It’s an immense burden and one Yalitza shouldn’t have to carry alone. Yet she is alone for now and somehow manages this solemn responsibility with maturity and grace. As the women assembled spoke from the heart, we all cried — Yalitza, the speakers, the audience. To share this moment of being seen and appreciated, thanked and giving thanks, united and individually celebrated was so intense. I’m sure it reverberated out into the cosmos and I hope even the Hollywood moguls felt it.

The summit’s theme was “We Are Changemakers” and it rang so true. This is an amazing group of women who are changing the world and doing it together. It was a thing of beauty to be a part of and I left with the strengthened abilities, connections, and ganas to go make it happen!

Cover image courtesy of Maria Jose Govea, @thesupermaniak.

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