Another day at the Farm.

A: Growing up I refused to have a quince. The quinceañera, with all its fluff, was the epitome of everything I was against. It was gaudy, girlie, and way too Mexican for me. At fourteen I suffered from a major identity crisis. I hated the way I looked. My skin was too dark and my boobs were too small. All my friends wore designer outfits from the mall, while I had to wear my grandmother’s handmade clothes. I’d lie about where I lived, what my parents did for a living, and where I was from. Why? Because I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be like the girls on TV, in teen magazines, and the books I read at school. They were popular and always got the cute boys. I used to wonder if there was some top-secret rulebook for being cool. Deep down I wanted to be a blond cheerleader, with a red convertible, and a hot football player for a boyfriend.  I thought that would make me happy. What I really wanted was to be accepted.

Estrella’s Quinceañera is a book about self-love. I tried to create an entertaining journey for audiences of all backgrounds to experience one girl’s struggle into womanhood. Estrella at the beginning of the story is riddled with insecurities. She’s conflicted with her desire for peer acceptance while wanting to make her family happy.

Q: What did I learn by writing the book?

A: A lot. Here is a list…

  • I learned the word cha cha as in, “That girl’s hair is sooo cha cha.”
  • There’re like a hundred Taqueria’s 2000.
  • The city of San José is written with an accent.
  • Writing is rewriting.
  • Publishing is a business. It’s important to have a thick skin and be open to negotiation. For example, the cover of the book was very important to me. The first cover was totally culturally inappropriate. It was a very simple-looking vata. My family would have hunted me down and given me a couple of coscorones if I let that go without comment. So I sent my publisher pictures of my sister’s actual hand-me-down quince dress. I told them that it was the inspiration for the book (which it totally was). And then poof! My sister’s dress was on the cover.
  • Having written this book, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the quinceañera as a rite of passage. As Latinas and specifically Mexicanas/ Chicanas, we have a rich cultural legacy passed down from our indigenous ancestors through the Xilonen ceremony and the appropriated Catholic mass. Today many girls focus more on the party then on actual ceremony. However, one chooses to celebrate this day isn’t as important as the recognition and celebration all women deserve when they accept this rite of passage. The true value of the quinceañera is not in the party favors or the fancy dresses. It is the moment we recognize and are grateful to our family and community for nurturing our growth. The real gift comes when a young woman has the inner strength to raise her brown head high and shouts out at the world: “Oralé!”

Q: Please describe where you grew up and what your family was like.

A: I grew up in the eclectic Mission district of San Francisco: a historically immigrant community known for its rich Latino culture, colorful murals, and leftist politics. The Mission was much more ethnically diverse and full of artists while I was growing up in the eighties. It was the only place you could get a black bean tofu burrito with sprouts. Salsa music and carne asada spun in the air at all hours of the night. My parents were community activist, educators, and artists. As the oldest of four siblings, I was in charge of the activities or tricks we played in the neighborhood. Saturday mornings were filled with magical adventures and fun. We’d play Mexican wrestling, act out court cases, and put on our own community theater projects. It was easy because we were all very loud, highly dramatic, and passionate about life, love, and social causes.

 

Q: When did you first become interested in being a writer? What other professions, if any, have you had?

A: I’ve always been a storyteller. But then again, I had no choice. My father was very strict. He believed that TV rotted the brain. As a child I always felt deprived. I never got to watch enough Smurfs or Thundercats cartoons. I was very lucky that my parents were highly creative and resourceful. They taught me how to perceive the mundane cardboard box into a puppet theater or my very own TV show. Growing up I entertained my siblings by acting out stories with paper dolls, making my own comic strips, skits, or home movies. Storytelling was something I did for fun. It fed my spirit. It wasn’t until I took a creative writing course in college that I realized that I had to take my passion seriously. Yet, I still wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do as a career, so I went into education. I’ve been an educator for the past eight years. I love working with learners of all ages. Writing, storytelling, and drama have been central themes throughout my profession. The most gratifying thing is to inspire someone to find and share their own stories.

 

Q: What is your educational background like?

 A: My first teachers were of course my parents. They gave me an appreciation for the arts and a social responsibility to my community and the world. These ideals stayed with me while I traveled the world looking for teachers and enriching experiences. As a child I traveled to Cuba, Russia, throughout Mexico and the US. I went to SFSU for a year, dropped out, and moved to Mexico City to study Spanish. When I returned, I finished my BA in Chicano Studies & Anthropology and MA in Education at UCSB.

 

 Q: Are there any writers, teachers, or other individuals that have had a major influence on your writing or helped you further in your career?

 A: In addition to my parents, Rudolfo Anaya was a great inspiration to me as a Chicana author. He was the first Chicano author I read in high school. I remember thinking it was so cool to see someone who looked like me on the back of a book. However, what really stayed with me all these years is his bio. In it he revealed that it took him many drafts to complete the book “Bless me Ultima”. By that time I’d given up my dream of being a writer, because I wasn’t very good in English Lit. It was burning me, because I had all these stories clogged up inside me. But after reading his bio I realized that with persistence and hard work I too could become a writer. It was a totally transformative experience!

Ema Perez was my first creative writing teacher at UCSB. She’s still the bomb! Ema taught me the craft of writing a good story and encouraged me to follow my dreams. Alma Flora Ada was another amazing educator and author of children’s books who inspired me. I took a Teachers as Authors workshop with her when I first began my teaching career. She was such a powerhouse of love and encouragements that I decided to quit my job and move to NYC to pursue writing more seriously.

 

Q: Can you briefly describe the process you go through when writing a novel or book? Where do you get your inspiration?

A: I’m on a billion list serves. I’ve got everything from global eco movements, natural home remedies, and circus discussion groups to Washington politics and tabloid gossip. I save anything that attracts me. I also collect odd quirky things that strike me as funny in this little burgundy notebook.

Then I put these ideas in an old Mexican clay pot (used for making beans) for simmering. Usually an idea (or germ as I like to call it) will haunt me until I pick it up. I create a loose structure and outline the journey I want my character to take. Then I’ll throw in all kinds of crazy obstacles to make it interesting and see how my character reacts to it. I prefer to stray from my original outline and allow my characters to dictate scenes. It makes the story come alive when I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The first draft is the fun part. It’s where I get to play, take risks, and see how far I can take a scene. The hard work comes when it’s time to revise. Editing out scenes and brilliant lines is painful, but necessary. It’s definitely a traumatic experience for me like slicing off slivers of your own skin with a dull knife. Yikes!

 

Q: How would you describe your novel Estrella’s Quinceañera? Why might people want to read it?

A: Estrella’s Quince is a typical coming of age story with a refreshing Latina urban twist. It’s my “Big Fat Greek Wedding” meets “Bend it Like Bekham” loaded with tons of Tapatio hot sauce. I think people will love this book, because it’s hilarious, easy to read, and real.

 

Q: You’ve created some very interesting characters. What is the character development process like for you? Are there any elements of your characters based on anyone that you know?

A: Wow, that’s a hard one. Sometimes the character will speak to me and there’s really no work involved, like with Tía Lucky or Nana. I hear them in my head yelling or criticizing me. “You’re not going out in that?” I usually smell them before they speak. Their scent overpowers the room.

Other characters I need to comb out like a hair knot. They can be annoying and really frustrating. For whatever reason, I just can’t grasp them and all I want to do is grab them by the hair and shake real hard. After I get over that, I’ll take a deep breath and write out a character biography, draw a picture of them and post it on my wall. Sometimes I have to hang out with my characters. Take them for a walk and try to understand what makes them tick. Usually the story characters emerge out of friends, acquaintances, songs, family members etc. I have a tendency to like flamboyant eccentric people. Sometimes I take a funny personality quirk from a living person and multiply it by ten. It’s entertaining.

 

 Q: What writers/books do you enjoy or have influenced your work?

A: David Sedaris made me pee in my pants on the subway once. It was the most delightful experience. I ran home that day just to recite a passage from “Me Talk Pretty One Day” to a friend. He is a master. I admire his wit, keen sense of character, and fun attitude. Another amazing book that shaped me as a writer was Julie Cameron’s “The Artist Way”. The book changed my life. It helped me to develop a professional writing discipline and gave me permission to play.

 

Q: Are there any other books or projects that you are currently working on?

A: Currently I’m working on my second novel. It’s the story of Sofia Mendoza, a typical American girl growing up in Southern California, who goes down to TJ to chase the boy of her dreams and party. Upon returning, her entire world is ripped from her when she discovers that she’s illegal and thus not allowed to return to the United States with her friends. Scared and confused, Sofi’s forced to live with her estranged Mexican relatives on a small ranch with goats and pigs. It’s the story of a young girl who is pushed to face her fears, grow up, and find inner strength despite the conflicts and challenges of living and being identified by the US-Mexican border.

 

Q: Where do you currently reside?

A: I’m currently living in San Jose, CA

 

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?

A: I’ve been an Aztec dancer for the past eleven years. Culture and tradition are central parts of my identity and spirituality. I also do pottery, beadwork, and love to work with my mother in her herb garden. I love to dance salsa and sing cheesy 80’s classics at karaoke bars late at night and really off key.

 

 Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers today?

A: I am a testament that anyone can become a writer. If you have a dream, follow your heart wherever it may lead. People will call you crazy and tell you to get a real job. But you have to stay focused and develop a tough skin. Of course you should have a day job, but stay focused. It’s important to accept critiques and rejections gracefully. Discipline, persistence, and passion are the keys to your destiny.

 

Q: Is there anything you would like your readers to know that hasn’t already been covered? Do you have a web site fans can visit?

A: I would love to hear from readers. They’re free to write me .

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

Malin Alegria