Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is an award-winning journalist and author of many novels. Her journalism career includes former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe. She was named one of the “25 Most Influential Hispanics” by Time magazine and Woman of the Year by Latina magazine and a Breakout Literary Star by Entertainment Weekly. Her books have been published in eleven languages with over one million books in print.
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is one of the featured authors at this year's Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest for Teens and Adults will be streamed live on YouTube.
What does heritage mean to you? How do you identify and why?
Heritage has many faces, for me. I believe in genetic memories, to some extent, and I know that when I visit my father’s native Cuba I feel myself to be in a familiar place, though I did not grow up there. I feel myself having come home. I have the same visceral connection to the high desert mountains of New Mexico, the land where my mother’s family has lived for nine generations, including my son. Heritage is what we carry from those who came before, all the beauty and trauma, the way the spine responds to a clave or a bolero. Heritage can also be all those things we learn from our antecedents - ways of seeing the world, ways of showing up, the filter through which we put everything we are. If I were a tree, heritage would be not only my roots, but also the soil, the water, the air, and the code in my genes that tells me exactly what route to take in reaching my branches towards the light.
¿Do you regularly think in English or in Spanish? ¿Which language do you prefer?
I was born and raised in the United States, to an immigrant Cuban father and a US-born mother who spoke little to no Spanish. For this reason, we spoke English in my house growing up. My father is a sociology professor, in English, his second language, spoken better from his mouth than it is from most people who speak it as their only language. When I was in my 20s, I realized it was odd to have never spoken to my father in his native tongue, and I set out to teach myself Spanish. I knew some —it was impossible to grow up in New Mexico, which has a long history as part of Spain and Mexico both, without Spanish being a normal part of everyday life in how the mountains, rivers, streets, and foods are named. I now consider myself fluent in Spanish, but it still sits clumsily on my tongue. I mostly think in English, as it is the most natural, but I have noticed that my language of panic—like when I think the airplane is about to go down, say—is Spanish. I find that interesting. I must have learned that early in my childhood, from my father. His moments of strongest emotion were always spoken in Spanish. I carry that from him, and for that I am grateful. One amazing thing I realized when I learned Spanish well enough to converse with my father in that language is that his personality is slightly different in Spanish than it is in English. He’s far more colloquial and comedic in Spanish, and more cerebral and analytical in English. Whether that’s a facet of the way the languages themselves are structured in the brain or the environments in which he learned each one, I’m not sure. Now, as he’s getting older and starting to lose some of his short-term memory, I find he speaks Spanish more and English less, and I’m grateful that I took the time to learn to speak his first language. If I hadn’t, I’d be losing pieces of him faster than I already am.
The nature of nature is change, and everything is constantly incorporating new elements and evolving. Culture is like that. Language is like that. Human hearts are like that. I welcome all growth, change, and truth, with an open mind.
How does your heritage inspire your creativity?
I’m a person who, from the start, has had a very strong inclination towards justice. Maybe it came from watching the way the United States dominant culture marginalized my father because of his accent, or the way my mother, a brilliant woman born in the 1940s, was minimized in her genius as a writer because of her sex. All of my work is about social justice, sociology, identity. I cloak all those things in what I hope are relatable stories about friendship and love, with happy endings. I am deliberate about writing about a diversity of Latina experiences, and my desire to give my readers hope stems from a powerful understanding of all that we are up against. We need aspirational stories, roadmaps to remind us of our own greatness, and how we can get there.
How is your heritage portrayed in your work?
Because I began my career in journalism, I use a lot of real-life situations and places to inform my fiction. In that sense, my heritage drips from every page.
¿What's the biggest gift your heritage has given you?
Being a person with several different cultures in which I feel entirely at home is a gift. It allows me to see the world from more than one point of view, which cultivates a deep and real compassion and empathy. It has also allowed me to see that we are, all of us here on earth, far more alike than we are different.
As a writer, how do you help preserve your heritage?
I don’t think of heritage or culture as something to be preserved, and we run into trouble when we look at it like that. The nature of nature is change, and everything is constantly incorporating new elements and evolving. Culture is like that. Language is like that. Human hearts are like that. I welcome all growth, change, and truth, with an open mind.
Books by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez