Desiree Zamorano on Writing About Middle Class Latinas: It’s What’s on the Agenda

desiree-zamorano  amado-women

Desiree Zamorano is determined to shatter stereotypes about Mexican-Americans. Her first novel, Modern Cons, was a psychological thriller, while her second, Human Cargo, introduced Latina PI Inez Leon. Her latest novel, The Amado Women, is about four middle class Latinas who are linked by birth but separated by secrets of sex, money, and death. Mercedes Amado has watched her three daughters grow into women. Celeste, fiercely intelligent and proud, has fled her youth and family in Los Angeles to financial independence in San Jose. Sylvia has immersed herself in the world of her two young daughters. Nataly, the baby, waits tables in an upscale restaurant by night and works on her textile art by day. These four women struggle for their piece of the American Dream, but find it is in jeopardy when they are confronted with a family tragedy.

A Pushcart Prize nominee and award-winning short story writer, Zamorano has also co-authored with her sister two plays commissioned by Southern California’s Bilingual Foundation for the Arts. “Reina” and “Bell Gardens 90201” received Equity productions and toured for a total of eight years.

Zamorano teaches at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, sandwiched between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, and is the director of Occidental’s Community Literacy Center. 

At first, all I wanted was to be published.  In print, in a short story magazine, in the newspaper. Such a sweet, quaint, notion. When I looked at the dozens of rejection slips my short stories had received, and weighed them against the tiny amount they had earned, I thought to myself, “For this much grief and rejection, I may as well write a novel.”

At the time, it seemed mysteries were the reliable way in to the realm of published novelists. In fact a kind LA agent took me out to lunch, after reading my second mystery, and said, “I coulda sold this ten years ago.” The implication about the present being very loud, very clear.  I finished my lunch, anyway.

I kept writing mysteries, because I loved my PI, her perspective, the Pasadena world that had emerged around her, the way a story that’s told as a mystery can explore complex issues of social justice without appearing didactic. But I also knew the definition of insanity, and cast about for a different kind of story.

How to choose? There are writers who are clearly more prolific than I am; since a novel takes me at least two years I wanted to be able to live with these characters over a long period of time. Because I find the lives of women complex, overwhelming and entertaining, I knew I would write about them. Because the women in my life, my mother, my sister, my daughter, cause me the most joy and the most grief, it would be a family drama. And, because we are all mainstream Mexican Americans, that’s precisely what the Amado Women would be.

Writing that down for this post, for you, gentle reader, makes it seem so clear and apparent. But it wasn’t until after the book was sold, published and reviewed that I realized how political all of my decisions had been. I had wanted to explore the complexity of family life and sister relationships while granting visibility to the very population I embodied: the middle class Latina.

When my wonderful publisher, Cinco Puntos, asked me to write an article for Publishers Weekly, I looked around and recognized myself in the Latinas I knew: chiropractor, principal, teachers, college students, mayor, cleaning ladies, professors, and realized we all shared a superpower: invisibility.  I wrote about that. PW published it.

Last May I had the exhilarating experience of attending Book Expo of America at the Javits Convention Center. I was shocked to see women in line waiting for me to sign a copy of my novel. I was so stunned, I asked the first woman, “Why are you here?” She picked up a copy of the book and said, “I’m getting this for my mother in Dominica, because we need more stories about middle class Latinas.” My heart was set to burst.

Later that day at a happy hour I was introduced to a foreign rights agent. “What’s your novel about?” she asked.

“Four women, connected by birth, separated by secrets. Who, like me, happen to be Mexican American.”

She did a double take. “But you don’t look Mexican,” she said.

The content of what she said didn’t shock me, because I had heard that line plenty of times before. The context did. Here I was in New York City, the default pinnacle of wit, erudition and sophistication and I was getting the same line I had heard so many times as I waited tables in a coffee shop in a small town in southern California.

Such presumption to tell someone that you do not look like their preconception of what you should look like.  But if her experience with Latinas is based entirely on the media, then she is right. I do not look Mexican. Because the majority of the time we get two depictions: humble, hardworking, in constant fear of deportation, or Sofia Vergara. Now, my roots are humble and hardworking, and Sofia Vergara? In my dreams, kids! But the fact remains, I look like neither.

What did I say to the foreign rights agent?

I knew how to respond because I’ve said it plenty of times before. I turned to her, pointed to myself, and said, “This is what Mexican looks like.”

As I write there is a pot of chicken stock simmering; when I finish this post I will shape and boil the matzoh balls for tonight’s Passover seder at my mother-in-law’s. I mention this because ethnicity is just one facet of who we are, one piece of the complexity of being human. In The Amado Women I wanted to explore the challenging and emotionally fraught lives of one family. I realize now I write in order to broaden the mental landscape of people who aren’t quite yet ready to recognize us; I write in order to shred our shared cloak of invisibility.



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