By Carolina Valencia
Thank you so much to all the readers and participants who came through to la gran fiesta virtual con Jaquira Díaz, Melissa Rivero, Carolina De Robertis, Lilliam Rivera, Angie Cruz, Natalia Sylvester, y Lupita Aquino, in support of local bookstores during these times! We at Word Up are so grateful the event went so well and felt the love from all the readers.
As the brainchild of featured author Angie Cruz, El Gran Combo came together in a few days in support of Latinx authors and three independent bookstores across NYC—The Lit. Bar, Mil Mundos Books, and Word Up Community Bookshop Librería Comunitaria. Personally, I had the great opportunity of helping set up this event and designing the graphics for it. I had previously worked with Angie on Word Up’s program Uptown Reads, which featured Dominicana as its first pick back in the Fall of 2019 and knew this event would be great due to her involvement.
From the chat, we could tell you were all craving a recap of the many golden nuggets dropped by the authors, so here it is!
The night started off with a DJ set by our fellow Word Up founding volunteer and now staff member, DJ Emmanuel Abreu, who is also an amazing photographer capturing Uptown during the pandemic. Here's his playlist of the songs authors mentioned that embodied their books, plus music he played before and after the talk.
Angie Cruz’s Dominicana - “Besame Mucho” by Consuelo Vallasquez
“That song was written by Consuelo Vallasquez in the 40s and she had never been kissed. So the tension between writing this song about kiss me kiss me kiss me and being afraid to lose something I think does embody a lot of the themes in the book . . . of innocence, but also of loss, of desire.”
Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls - “Work It” by Missy Elliot and “Las caras lindas” by Ismael Rivera
Carolina De Rebertis’s Cantoras - “Latinoamerican” by Calle 13 y Toto La Mamposina
Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcons - “La rebelion” by Joe Arroyo
Natalia Sylvester’s Running - “Ella” by Bebe
“This song means a lot to me . . . I kind of tear up any time I hear it. . . . There’s this person in my life that I love very much who was going through a really rough time when they got divorced, and I think of it kind of as her anthem because it starts off like, “Ella esta cansado de tiara la tovalla,” and it’s all about ‘This is her day,’ you know? And I’m very protective of Mary in that same way. . . . And there’s this line in that song that says, “Hoy vas a ser la mujer que te de la gana de ser,” . . . so you get to be the woman that, like, whatever the fuck you want today—you get to be the person you want to be. And I love that; I love that that’s her journey and that’s what I hope for any person who reads this book to kind of embrace that.”
Angie Cruz started off the night talking about how her archival project and Instagram @dominicanasnyc helped her retrace the history of Dominican women in New York City from the ’50s and ’60s. Because of the enthusiasm of people who’d submitted images and stories, she has now expanded it into the ’90s—and has even found family through the account.
When the topic of writing during these times came up, she mentioned how therapeutic writing can be for trauma and anxiety, saying, “But when I’m writing I actually feel like it’s the freest, safest space I could possibly be in, right, because in that space no one is telling me what to do, no one is telling me how to do it. And I also feel empowered in some ways—like if I’m able to write, I’m in a space of power. The way I move through it is actually through the writing.”
El Gran Combo came about to show love and support for the things we care about—in this case, Latinx authors and POC-run independent bookstores. “This is the moment,” said Cruz. “What waits economically in this country . . . we’re going to have to be really careful how we spend our money—like, if we’re going to spend our money on books, we really should vote with our money, [for] what kind of books we want in the bookstore, and we can borrow the other books from the library or the free-lending libraries. But if we’re going to spend our money, I think we really need to start investing in Latinx literature. We want to see it out there because the numbers are really low.”
Jaquira Díaz talked about her memoir Ordinary Girls, and how much she changed from beginning to end of her story. She’s had an amazing year so far, including interviewing Julia Alvarez a couple of weeks ago, and being featured in an Electric Lit interview—which moderator Lupita mentioned was one of the best interviews she had read.
On the title of her memoir, Díaz said, “Something that happens to black and brown girls is that they’re often criminalized and hyper-sexualized and treated like they’re women even when they’re just girls. And the dominant culture, people in positions of power, tend to look at black and brown girls as women, and they’re arrested when they’re in elementary school, when they’re six years old. So my title was really meant to get people to think about this idea that being an ‘ordinary girl’ for some of us is just like getting you to see us as a girl when we’re six years old rather than seeing us as a woman.”
Carolina De Robertis started off by talking about the double meaning of her title Cantoras—in Spanish, a singer, but also code for lesbian . . . and then soon belted out Toto La Mamposina in “Latinoamerica,” which left everyone furiously typing into the chatbox in applause!
When the question came up of important books that motivated the authors to write about their own experiences, De Robertis mentioned Word Up favorite Cherríe Moraga. “The first queer Latina writer I ever read was Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years, and I was lucky enough that it was signed in college and it was the same year I came out—I was 19—and it just blew my mind and allowed me to be inside my skin in ways I hadn’t been able to before. And even though there are differences in her and my experiences, there was so much resonance. . . . It was an incredibly important book for me. It helped me exist on a level I didn’t know I could in the world as a person and as a writer.”
Lilliam Rivera, who has two young adult novels featured on the list, repped Puerto Rico from her love for Bad Bunny to her own choice of book that impacted her own writing. She talked about her upcoming YA novel Never Look Back, which retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice from the Bronx during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
As one of the two authors (in this group) that writes for young adult, Rivera said she channels her own angst and emotions. “When I write for young adults, I’m really just trying to channel and think about that age and what it was like. And although my characters are not like me at all but they’re all like it—I really do believe they’re all parts of me, you know, from the parents all the way to the monster. They’re all parts of me that I’m trying to tackle or excavate or what have you.”
Melissa Rivero captured many hearts with the realities of motherhood during these strange indoor times. Her novel The Affairs of the Falcóns, which Lupita described as “a unique and necessary story about the undocumented experience,” touched on the topic of citizenship and vulnerability in this country.
She also reminded us about how much we do miss our city of New York. “You have to understand that being here in New York right now . . . it is really hard to just be in your tiny apartment. For me with my two children, my husband. I love them but I really want to leave the house or the apartment, and be with New York cause I love New York. . . .” Rivero recalls how reading Lilliam Rivera’s Never Look Back during these times brought these feelings full circle, saying, “I started reading it and I was like, ‘ugh, missing [being] able to complain about the freaking train on the weekend and not running.’”
Natalia Sylvester talked about her young adult novel Running and how she got the idea for it after passively watching a presidential candidate’s daughter on stage back in 2016. She wanted to highlight how power dynamics can shift between parent and child and, on a larger scale, between community and individual. “When we talk a lot about, you know, writing representation in books that represent marginalized communities, we’re often talking about power. . . . I also wanted to talk about what happens when those who have power not only oppress the marginalized, but the people who are marginalized are also capable of further oppressing people in their own community.”
On the process of writing for young adults, Sylvester mentioned how she goes back and does research on her own self as a young person—using past notes and journals she has kept. “I’m also really obsessed with memory. For me I just love that YA for me is that active process to remember and honor and have space for that.”
A key moment that stayed with me and played back into the #DignidadLiteraria initiative was when Sylvester said, “My first book came out in 2014, and I remember—it’s set in Peru—and a comment I got so often from white readers was, ‘I love learning about other cultures.’ It just stayed with me so much because I was like, I didn’t write this for you. . . . I didn’t write this for my life and my family and, you know, my lived experience to be someone’s anthropology lesson—to be put under this lens as if we’re so exotic and interesting only by virtue of being ‘other,’ of being defined that way through their eyes.”
Books, people, or things that motivated the authors to write about their own experiences:
Carolina De Robertis: Toni Morrison, Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Paso por Sus Labios by Cherrie Moraga
The authors' most anticipated book of 2020:
Angie Cruz: Myriam Chancy’s upcoming book
Melissa Rivero: Lilliam’s Never Look Back
Natalia Sylvester: Lilliam’s Never Look Back