Julia Alvarez is the author of five books of fiction, a book of essays, five collections of poetry, and five books for children. She and her husband, Bill Eichner, founded Alta Gracía, a sustainable farm in the Dominican Republic that produces organic coffee and also serves as a literacy center. She lives in Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College. In her newest book, Once Upon A Quinceañera (Viking), Alvarez takes on this celebration that brings a girl into womanhood. In this finely-crafted and moving book, Alvarez expertly weaves the stories of several young women with musings of her own adolescent and young adult struggles to define herself. For Alvarez's book tour schedule which kicks off today, go here. Alvarez kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Why did you decide to write Once Upon a Quinceañera, a non-fiction book, rather than using the “coming of age” celebration as fodder for a novel or a series of short stories?
JULIA ALVAREZ: I was actually asked to write this book by an editor at a Penguin imprint, who was doing a series of books to be packaged with DVDs on cultural issues. He and his staff were intrigued by the quinceañera tradition in the Latino community. When they contacted me about writing a book about quinces, I thought, "No, no, no! First, I'm basically a fiction writer. Second, I'm not the girly-girl type, and these princessy parties are not my thing." But the editor was persistent and asked me to think about it. . .
One of the things I love about being a writer is that it offers me an opportunity to get an education and learn all kinds of new things! Even when I'm writing fiction, let's say I have a story set in 1803 about a doctor, I've got to learn all about medicine in the 19th century, so I can write credibly from his point of view. So as a writer, I love it that I'm always learning. The quinceañera book gave me the opportunity to learn new skills. That appealed to me. I got to be a journalist and travel around, get into scrapes, interview people, collect first hand information.
Also, I live in the "Latino-compromised" state of Vermont (though this is changing). I get a hit of my Latino culture when I travel down to the Dominican Republic four or so times a year to see my viejitos and visit Alta Gracia (a farm/literacy center my husband Bill and I started there--to learn more, write to firstname.lastname@example.org). Researching quinces throughout the USA allowed me to travel and connect with different Latino communities all around the country. That also appealed to me.
Finally, as I began to read the research on Latina youth and realized the crisis situation among our young people who were topping the charts for most at-risk behaviors (teen pregnancy, high school drop outs, poverty, drug use, gang membership, etc.), I grew curious about the disjunction between this "fantasy celebration" and the alarming, very real situation out there. What was going on? I wanted to find out.
OLIVAS: You talk about the “Malinche fear” in writing this book, i.e., the fear that you would be betraying your people if you didn’t “fall in line and praise this important tradition of nuestra cultura.” Have you felt this fear in writing your novels or is this something particular to Once Upon a Quinceañera?
ALVAREZ: I think the Malinche fear is pervasive among writers, no matter where they come from.
As storytellers we belong to the human family, but as individuals we belong to families, particular communities, we live in relationships, bound to individuals, and they often want us to tell stories that promote and affirm their point of view or their "take" on the world. But we fail in our mission as storytellers if we try to be spokespersons or apologists for any one point of view. Our task is to tell the truth, "manifold and one"--a quote by Joseph Conrad I've always loved! And this means that we often present not just the one truth, our tribe's truth, but the manifold truth, which includes the complexities, competing realities of any situation. That may feel like a betrayal of what we "owe" our families, communities, our particular tribe.
This is why I often tell young writers who have felt marginal in the dominant discourse, that theirs is the best angle from which to write about that mainstream world because they are not embedded in it, so they can see it as a whole and are not beholden to uphold it.
But that still leaves the issue of loyalty to one's own marginal communities that--because they are marginal--need our strength and support. But as storytellers our community has to be the whole human family, not just one tribe, even if it's your own. You write from and about that community--this is true. But with your vision and objective to make that specific story belong to all of us.
Maxine Hong Kingston has spoken about the negative response she got from her Chinese-American community after publishing THE WOMAN WARRIOR: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a wonderful book that really helped a lot of us minority women writers feel permission to tell our stories. That book begins, "My mother told me never ever to repeat this story"! I think every writer could begin his or her books in this way. Every story we tell we rescue from silence and segregation, from partisanship and privilege, from "us and them" mentality, and we give that story wings, we set it free. It now "belongs" to all of us, but none of us own it. As storytellers we are trying to knit us together as a human family with our stories, but that means that our loyalty is bigger than private alliances and allegiances and grievances. This is difficult for our little clans to understand. And often we ourselves feel pulled apart.
OLIVAS: In exploring the lives of young women who are preparing for their quinceañeras, you also explore your own personal history and choices. What did you learn as a person and writer while working on this book?
ALVAREZ: From the start, the editor asked me to write about my own experience as a Latina coming of age. I explained that I had never had a quinceañera as we were recent immigrants and money was scarce. Not only that, we weren't part of a Dominican or even a Latino community who could celebrate with us.
But my editor's request made me revisit those very difficult and painful years when really I began to feel torn between my parents' old world culture and this new American culture. My parents were trying very hard to control their four daughters, just at a time when the women's movement was encouraging us to be more assertive, more self-reliant, more liberated. In writing about that time from the standpoint now of an older woman, I could see oh so clearly the legacy that had come down to me from my mami and abuelas about being a good Latina. I felt a lot of understanding for these women, who, after all, had inherited this legacy themselves and were unquestioningly passing it on to the next generation. But I also understood in a very comprehensive way why it was a crazy time for me and my sisters. We were really torn in so many directions and with no models to help us navigate our way. . . It was either/or, and that tore us apart.
What surprised me in writing this book was how much those forces are still at play among the young Latinas who were coming of age and having their quinces today. Their mothers might not be as antiquated as my mami & tías had been but a lot in the culture is still telling these girls to be submissive, to sacrifice everything for la familia, not to wander far from the protective patriarchy of male authority. The message many are still getting is that their bodies are not really their own but some sort of showcase for the honor of the family. The tapes go on and on and on. As a community we need to look at how we might be hobbling our young girls. Writing about that time in my own life I hope will help with that larger conversation. It's definitely a conversation we need to have because we do, we have a crisis on our hands!
Check out, for example:
Rivera, Elaine. “Young Latinas and a Cry for Help.” The New York Times. 21 July 2006. (Link to article.)
Here's the opening paragraph:
"A recent series in the Spanish-language New York newspaper El Diario/La Prensa sheds some light on a mostly overlooked national phenomenon, the misunderstood and endangered young Latina, who represents one of the fastest-growing segments of the American population. Hispanic teenage girls attempt suicide more often than any other group. They become mothers at younger ages. They tend not to complete their education. They are plagued by rising drug use and other social problems."
García-Febo, Loida, FROM THE EDITOR: "Our Daughters--Young Latinas in Crisis" in Críticas. (Link to op-ed.)
Here's how this op-ed ends:
"We were all adolescents once. We know how intense and confusing that period is. Imagine adding to that mix two major forces, American culture and Latino traditions, and you might understand why growing up Latina in the United States is shocking and difficult.
. . . One in four women in the United States will be Hispanic by the middle of the century…. If we want our quinceañeras [adolescent girls] and mujeres [women] healthy and productive, ready to conquer the world, we have to take action now."
OLIVAS: You became very close and even protective of your interview subjects (“my girls” as you call them) and had to reassure them that you would not be using their real names, etc. What was the most moving experience you had in getting to know these young women?
ALVAREZ: My heart was constantly in my throat as I trailed these young girls. First off, it's such a tender age: they are just at that cusp of becoming women, which is what the quince tradition is meant to mark and ritualize and celebrate. Full of illusions and dreams. So impressionable, so easily a "target" as the market calls this new boom demographic group. But does this market really care what happens to them? So, I grew, yes, fiercely protective of them. As I mentioned in the book, every time one of them entered the ball room, her first entrance as a young woman, I--and many others in these ballrooms--were in tears.
One of those moments when my heart was in my throat? I was interviewing a young girl in Idaho whose parents are undocumented immigrants and who hardly had a formal education. This girl had gone through this wonderful program, the Stay at School Quinceañera program, which takes girls and boys in their fourteenth year through an intensive workshop for four months, meeting twice a week, culiminating in a group celebration. They are taught about their culture from the viejitos in the community; they go on field trips; they have projects. The program also brings in speakers, Latinos and Latinas who have made it professionally. The point is to give these young people both a sense of their history and culture but also a taste of the possibilities out there if they stay in school and get an education.
Anyhow, this young girl was one of the success stories. She was now in her first year in college! She was telling me how this program really opened her eyes. She realized that she had options and other choices she could make. Before the program, she explained, she was just "your typical Hispanic girl." I was curious as to what she meant by "your typical Hispanic girl"?
"Oh, you know, we don't go to college. We have kids, we work, we stay home and take care of our families."
We don't go to college? We don't have choices? That's who we are? Imagine if at fourteen, no matter what the grand party says that is what you see ahead as your future? We need to reach those girls, and the parents of those girls! Otherwise, no matter how much we spend on them for that night we are failing them for life!
OLIVAS: At times in your book, you sound like a detective or a cultural anthropologist as you track down the origins and various permutations of the quinceañera. What do you think readers from various cultural backgrounds will think of your descriptions and conclusions?
ALVAREZ: One of the things I found really intriguing was trying to track down where this quinceañera tradition had come from.
I started getting suspicious when I heard time and time again how the quinceañera was "an ancient Aztec tradition." I don't mean I heard it once! I heard it often! It's all over the Internet. It's in books about quinces. It falls from the mouths of many adults who are preparing the young people for the celebration. How can this tradition in which a young girl dresses up in a Victorian ball gown with a crown and has a "court" of fourteen couples called damas y chambelanes and dances a first waltz with her papi be "an ancient Aztec tradition"? I wanted to find out how and what was going on with this tradition.
Quinceañeras didn't really become "an ancient Aztec tradition" until about fifty or so years ago! As many working class people came north and were able to earn money and gain economic power as well as political and social empowerment through the civil rights movements of different countries, they began to claim their indigenous heritage as well as appropriate practices that really were reserved for the upper classes back home. Suddenly it became okay to "be Indio." Or, in our Caribbean countries, to claim our African heritage.
These courtly parties and presentation balls, straight from Europe, by which the rich showed off their Spanish credentials suddenly were being appropriated and democratized in "our image" even as they kept the trappings of royalty (tiaras, courts, waltzes)! I find it amazing and also a sign of how our traditions evolve and are resilient. Which, in turn, means that traditions can be changed to serve us better.
It's also interesting to ask ourselves from "a sociological point of view" why we feel a need to legitimize this tradition with an invented history? There is a very curious book, called, as a matter of fact, The Invention of Tradition in which sociologists talk about this interesting way in which societies and groups invent themselves, especially in America, and especially when a group is undergoing fast change and having to cope with many challenges--this certainly defines our Latino community at this point in time.
OLIVAS: What did your fellow Latina/o writers say when you let them know you were going to write a book on quinceañeras?
ALVAREZ: I think many of them did a doubletake! "You're writing about quinceañeras?!" As if suddenly I'd gone fluff-headed, a kind of Latina Paris Hilton, if that's even possible! But as I started talking about the book, I think the doubts faded away, because many of my Latina friends and fellow writers saw that this was an ideal lens through which to talk about our legacy as Latinas. In fact, in talking about quinceañeras, I had some of the best and most probing conversations with fellow Latinas of my generation about our legacy as women, what was valued, what were the messages encoded in our upbringing. The conflicting messages that we were virgins and would someday be mothers to be honored and respected. That we were also frail and sexual and had to be monitored and watched over by the men in the family. All those different threads of our Latina legacy are present in the quinceañera celebration which makes it a great starting point for rich conversations.
OLIVAS: My sisters didn’t have quinceañeras but I attended several when I was in high school and was even chosen by a friend to be his younger sister’s escort for her quinceañera (I was a “nice” guy, i.e., safe). I don’t have a daughter but our son had a bar mitzvah so “coming of age” ceremonies are clearly important to many cultures. Obviously, not all Latinas have quinceañeras and you note that you didn’t have one, either. Do you now wish you had one?
ALVAREZ: I didn't have a quinceañera. I did have a kind of group "quinceañera" when I was seventeen and returned for the summer to my parents' hometown in the D.R. And you know, I'm glad I did it. Because through the experience, I learned a lot about myself, including that I could no longer go "home" to stay. That is valuable information. In fact, as we grow up and become our own persons, we outgrow some of our cultural experiences, but they do form us, and we need them to go on to the next stage, to know, if nothing else what to leave behind.
That said: do I wish I had had a quinceañera? I can say this: I would have loved to have had--at that moment of my entering womanhood--a year of bonding with my mother and the women in my family, tías, madrinas, abuelitas. That's something I saw over and over that I found very moving in these celebrations. Sure the party and the ritual at the end were the crowning moment, but all along the way, for a year or six months, there was this transmission going on. All the women in the family making the recuerdos in the living room, going shopping together, sometimes returning to a home country, to have the dress made by a family or community seamstress more economically. Meanwhile, there was lots of talking, laughing, telling stories. The girls were often getting a kind of informal/invisible transmission of the lore and know-how by the women in the family. This would have been a wonderful and affirming and empowering way to be accompanied into adulthood.
Then, too, the bonding with twenty-nine other young people who are traditionally in the court (fourteen couples, plus your escort). Many of these court members are cousins, family friends. Again, what a great way to spend six months at that age, bonding with a close group of friends, off the streets, talking about life as you practice waltz and salsa and hip hop steps. One young quinceañera I spoke with who had a fabulous and expensive party told me that the best part of the whole experience was how you really forged close friendships with kids who would be her friends for life.
Where else do we create spaces like this for our young people to share culturally with each other?
OLIVAS: Did writing Once Upon a Quinceañera present many challenges or pleasures that you have not encountered while writing fiction?
ALVAREZ: Challenges, ay, Dios santo! "Challenges" is putting it mildly! Unlike fictional characters, who do present their own challenges and whom you have to coax and research and write into being, writing about real people means you have to convince them, first of all, to talk to you! What I found was that the people I wanted to talk to most were often the busiest because they were passionate and committed to what they were doing. That meant they were in demand. Talking to teenagers also was tough at times, because I had to really listen well and draw them out. Teens are often trying to figure themselves out so I had to be patient with their inarticulateness or their lack of answers. Earning their trust was important and then respecting their privacy. That is why I made the decision not to use real names. What you say when you are fourteen, fifteen shouldn't haunt you for life! Also, I didn't want them to in any way feel criticized or judged if I critiqued certain aspects of the tradition. A tricky balancing act.
One thing that I learned writing nonfiction was to be real prepared when I interviewed someone, do all my research first, because I often would not get a second chance to come back with a question I thought of later after I typed up my notes and realized that in the fluid and free-floating conversation I forgot to ask a crucial or burning question that now I wished I'd asked. Be prepared! the Boy Scouts had it right!
That said, I was often surprised and gratified by the generosity of our community in giving of their time, sharing their experiences and expertise. At the end, when I went to write down my thanks in the acknowledgements, I had pages and pages of names. It reminded me of the wonderful Mexican practice of having many madrinas and padrinos for the quinceañera, each one sponsoring a certain element of the ritual: la madrina del cake, el padrino del D.J., la madrina del vestido, and so on. It's a way to share the cost but also a symbol of how all these people are invested in this young woman flourishing as an adult. And so, at the end of my book, I have three or four pages with my own madrinas and padrinos, including, madrinas & padrinos of networking, who helped connect me with young girls and with key events providers in a community; madrinas & padrinos of autobiography, who helped me with their memories of our shared past as teenagers in this country!
One pleasure that stands out was the opportunity to interact with young Latinos and Latinas who are the new generation of coming up. I feel real proud of our young people! They are smart, strong, beautiful, talented, and many of them are trying to bring together all the different parts of their heritage under tremendous pressure. That was a pleasure, being with them, their friends and family. Also the opportunity to really reflect upon and study what is becoming of us as a Latino community in this country, made up of different countries of origin and heritages.
OLIVAS: Could you describe your writing process? For some writers, it’s a painful experience. For others, it’s a joy. Where do you fall in this continuum?
ALVAREZ: I think every writer has this whole continuum inside her! There are glorious, soaring days when you are riding the currents of a story and feeling totally free, a transformed, expansive, visionary being. And then there are the other kind of days that are awful enough without the benefit of describing them! To be a writer is to contain both and not to give up on the bad days and not get a big head on the great days. . . It's not about "me," after all, it's about the stories. We work at our craft in order to have the best words to give to the stories, as we receive them, and discover how to tell them. Maybe a few will be worthy to pass down the generations. And we never know which those will be. It doesn't matter because as storytellers, we have to give them all our talent, all our patience, all our craft, in order to pass them on. They are not ours to keep.
My writing "process" is to show up for work everyday! Yes, I tell my student writers that the best thing I can hope they will learn in my workshop is the "habit of writing"! It should not be something you have to decide on every day. If I ask myself on any given day, "Do I feel like writing today?" the answer is likely to be, No! So many other things to do and be in one short life! Every day brings its lovely temptations, its urgent distractions. . . But a habit is something you get up and do. You've built it into your life. You don't always have to be "making" the time and creating the space for it. It's a given.
If you practice your craft every day, you are bound to get better at it, like anything else. When a great story comes your way--via your imagination, inspiration, something you read or experience, you will be ready.
I love the prayer that Mayan weavers supposedly said before they began weaving: Grant me the patience and intelligence to find the true pattern.
OLIVAS: What are you currently working on? Are you interested in doing another non-fiction book similar to Once Upon a Quinceañera?
ALVAREZ: I'm currently revising and tightening a children's book about a mythical Dominican figure known as La Vieja Belén. She's an old woman who comes on Three King's Day, Epiphany, but her special devotion is to bring gifts to poor children, who might not have received anything from Santiclos or El Niño Jesús or los Tres Reyes Magos. I've always loved her sense of social justice! I've always wondered who she is, where she came from. . . And so I wrote this book to find out!
As for what next. . . Let's put it this way: I am open. Or as the Buddha described his religion, "I am awake."I don't like to predict or foretell because then I'm not staying open to whatever new story will take me somewhere new. That's why I don't like talking about new projects before they are done or almost done. I'm a believer in listening to the silence to find out. . . And if you start yakking about what it might be, well, you're often getting in the way, getting impatient. . . So, I'll just end by going back into that silence now to listen. . . It's how I keep my promise to my readers and earn the privilege of being one of the storytellers of the tribe.
OLIVAS: Gracias, Julia, for spending time with La Bloga. [Late-breaking news: Alvarez is interviewed this morning by Renee Montagne on NPR's Morning Edition.]
◙ COMING TO YOUR NEAREST BOOKSTORE SOON: For the last two-plus years, I’ve been working on a project that is near and dear to my heart: an anthology of Los Angeles fiction by Latina/o writers. Well, the dream is coming true, soon. We have a tentative release date of November for Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, that will be published by Bilingual Press. The anthology includes stories and novel excerpts by:
Kathleen Alcalá ◘ Frederick Luis Aldama ◘ Lisa Alvarez ◘ Victorio Barragán ◘ Daniel Chacón ◘ Kathleen de Azevedo ◘ Alex Espinoza ◘ Rudy Ch. Garcia ◘ Estella González ◘ Melanie González ◘ Rigoberto González ◘ Reyna Grande ◘ Stephen D. Gutiérrez ◘ Alvaro Huerta ◘ Michael Jaime-Becerra ◘ Manuel Luis Martínez ◘ Alejandro Morales ◘ Manuel Muñoz ◘ Daniel A. Olivas ◘ Melinda Palacio ◘ Salvador Plascencia ◘ Manuel Ramos ◘ Sandra Ramos O’Briant ◘ Wayne Rapp ◘ John Rechy ◘ Luis J. Rodríguez ◘ Danny Romero ◘ Conrad Romo ◘ Jorge Saralegui ◘ Jennifer Silva Redmond ◘ Mario Suárez ◘ Luis Alberto Urrea ◘ Richard Vásquez ◘ Helena María Viramontes
You will recognize many of the authors whose books are on high school and college reading lists throughout the country. Some of the names you might not recognize: these are the new writers, those voices that are just beginning to get into print. In any event, an ad will soon appear in several venues including two of our finer literary journals, the Santa Monica Review and EPOCH (check out the websites for these journals and consider subscribing…you will be happy you did). Unfortunately, the ad did not reproduce well on La Bloga but above is the cover art that has been chosen. It's "Heart Like a Boat" by Maya González (yes, Maya is from Northern California but I fell in love with this painting which perfectly captures the spirit of the anthology...so, I've made Maya an honorary citizen of Lotusland). More later.
◙ Bilingual Press has completed Corazón descalzo, the Spanish translation of Elva Treviño Hart's award-winning Barefoot Heart, a memoir about being raised in a family of migrant workers. If you’re a reviewer of Spanish-language books and would like to receive a review copy, please drop an e-mail to Adriana Brady, Associate Editor, Bilingual Press at: email@example.com.
◙ Kathleen Alcalá is racking up great reviews for her essay collection, The Desert Remembers My Name (University of Arizona Press). Here are what the critics are saying:
“Alcalá’s articulate and engaging collection is an important addition, and one that will enlighten and educate for years to come.” —El Paso Times
“Steeped in Mexican history and culture. . . . Her essay on the Opata peoples of Mexico is fascinating , and in another essay, she masterfully blends the harrowing experience of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children, with the mythic stories of Mexican folklore.” —Publishers Weekly
“The Desert Remembers My Name makes an important contribution to discussions of ethnicity, identity, and the literature of place.” —Bloomsbury Review
“Alcalá’s life work has been an ongoing act of translation—not only between languages, but also between cultures. She has been building prismatic bridges not just between the Mexican and American cultures, but also across divides of gender, generation, religion, and ethnicity.” —Seattle Times
“Seattle writer Kathleen Alcalá’s first nonfiction collection of personal essays explores her connection with her family, her heritage and what shapes her as a writer of fiction.” —Bellingham Herald
◙ Manuel Muñoz’s second collection of short stories, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin), received a wonderful review yesterday in the New York Times. Jeff Turrentine notes, in part: “Muñoz writes elegantly and sympathetically… His stories are far too rich to be classified under the limiting rubrics of ‘gay’ or ‘Chicano’ fiction; they have a softly glowing, melancholy beauty that transcends those categories and makes them universal.”
◙ In today’s Los Angeles Times, Elisabeth Vincentelli reviews Ana Castillo’s new novel, The Guardians (Random House). She says, in part: “This smart, passionate novel deserves a wide audience... This world and these people are anchored in a specific reality, but Castillo achieves what every novelist should aim for: Her characters feel as if they belong to all of us.”
◙ Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, since Al Martinez was brought back by the paper, he’s been in top form with his brand of humor and thoughtfulness. Here are the links to Martinez's pieces.
◙ Over at PopMatters, Kate Soto reviews Helena María Viramontes’ new novel, Their Dogs Came With Them (Atria Books). Soto says, in part: “The real strength in this novel is that endowed in the characters, and the way Viramontes attempts to understand the complicated relationship of the part to the whole.” We're delighted to see that in her review, Soto quotes from La Bloga's recent interview with the author. Viramontes will also be interviewed on the August 16th episode of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm on KCRW. Silverblatt's show is simply one of the best literary programs on the air.
◙ Adolfo Flores of the Ventura County Star recently profiled the artist Gronk in conjunction with an exhibition at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St., Oxnard, California. Gronk’s work will be part of the exhibit Regalos: Gifts of Latino Art, which will be running until August 19. As La Bloga readers might remember, I reviewed the mid-career book on Gronk by Max Benavidez and published earlier this year by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press. If you haven’t had a chance to see a Gronk in person, I strongly urge you to go to this exhibit.
◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas