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YA Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo is About Family, Food, and Embracing Big Dreams

When you turn the pages of Elizabeth Acevedo’s books you need to do so quickly cause the fire from the passion she puts into every word heats up the pages. The Dominican writer/poet’s third book, With the Fire on High, comes out May 7 about Afro-Boricua teenager Emoni as she embarks on her senior year of high school being a single mom with a big dream.

Her YA debut, The Poet X, follows  Xiomara Batista as she discovers slam poetry and uses it as a way of express herself when she has no other outlet. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that affirms the Latinx cultural experience, it quickly became a bestseller.

Acevedo began making a name for herself in the world of slam poetry, using language to paint a picture of her truths and triumphs. From “Afro-Latina,” where she dissects what this blended identity means while embracing its beauty, to “Hair” where she confronts the stigma of pelo malo and proudly exclaims “you can’t fix what was never broken.” She’s made it a point in her career to uplift the Latinx community and through her work carve a space where there aren’t many people of color telling these stories.

From the cover featuring a curly-haired Afro-Latina to Emoni’s exploration of her bi-cultural roots, With the Fire on High is a glimpse into the everyday existence of a young girl of color. Here Acevedo talks about exploring that feeling of living in-between two worlds, the bonds between women and its empowering effects, and why she wanted to address the complexities of Afro-Latinidad.

Q: The book is broken up into three parts and each part starts off with a recipe that includes casual instructions like cooking something for the duration of a music album, how did you decide which to use for each part?

@acevedowrites / Instagram

The sections and recipes were an attempt to flip common phrases “When life gives you lemons,” “Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk,” and “Breaking Bread”—Because Emoni is someone  who can’t follow a recipe to the letter I decided to remix the phrases and show how she takes what life gives her and makes the best of it based on what will work for her.

Q: Emoni is a mom but she’s also a high school senior and from the slang she uses to the pop culture references you can tell she’s a product of this day and age, how did you go about developing this character?

Emoni was one of those characters that showed up one day and began talking in my ear. I knew who she was, what music she listened to, what television shows she loved to watch, and her relationship with her family. I wanted her to feel fresh and current but also timeless.

Q: Emoni’s mixed ethnic background comes into play during an interaction where she’s faced with some ignorant remarks and she’s quick to educate those who say someone of a certain race or ethnicity should look a certain way, being that there is so much more awareness of Afro-Latinidad but still so much ignorance involved, why was this an important interaction to include for you?

I think it’s important to use fiction to speak to the current climate and I wanted to address the complexity behind Afro-Latinidad and the ways that manifests within my main character, Emoni; there are so many assumptions people make about her that aren’t based in fact but are a myth of their own making.  Emoni is a character that contemplates colorism, blackness, afro-latinidad and all that those pieces of her identity bring in ways I hope are nuanced.

Q: The romance between Emoni and Malachi touches on serious topics including the loss of a loved one and sex, how did you decide to develop their relationship and the character of Malachi?

I wanted Malachi to be a sweet love interest; a departure from the ways that black boys are often depicted in fictions. He’s kind, he’s smart, he loves his community and he cares about Emoni. He also has had his own share of violence and heartbreak and struggles with never really having a place to heal some of those wounds.  It was important for me to show a relationship that had clear boundaries and open conversation. I wish when I was a teen I had seen more examples of what young women could ask of their partners.  

Q: From her relationship with her abuela to her daughter to her best friend, the power of female relationships is evident throughout the book, can you talk more about that and what inspired you to create such strong female characters?

This book really is about the community of women that it takes to raise a child. I wanted to show the strong fem bonds that support us, free us, and launch us forward. Emoni cannot always see herself and her talents clearly but the women around her believe in her even when she doesn’t.

You take on serious topics including the loss of a loved one, street violence, economic burdens, colonialism, privilege, and race, what was the writing process like balancing such heavy content with the more light-hearted moments?

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I had to work really hard to make sure that I didn’t only depict moments of hardship and grief; even when we as real people are going through difficult moments we still laugh, and love, and hang out with our homegirls, and eat good meals with our families; I wanted my characters to be afforded this same bandwidth of humanity.  

Q: While her father’s love for Puerto Rico plays an important role in the story, Emoni also shows a love for her hometown of Philadelphia and sometimes struggles with her dual backgrounds in ways like not speaking Spanish well or not knowing as much about her African American roots and for young people of color this is very much a part of their reality. What was the inspiration behind you including this feeling like you live in between two worlds?

 I’m really into exploring what it means to be raised in an overlap of culture, ethnicities, expectations, etc. Emoni offered me an opportunity to dive into some of those dynamics. Especially teens I think feel stuck in the middle: they are not quite adults, but they also aren’t fully children either.  There’s a lot of fodder for literature in looking at the in between-ness that people occupy.

Q: You repeatedly make it a point to show how Emoni’s emotions come through in her food which is, of course, reminiscent of the classic Like Water for Chocolate, how did this book play a role in developing With the Fire on High and were there any other writers or stories that inspired you as you wrote this book?

I was definitely channeling Laura Esquivel when I wrote With the Fire on High, and also the author Sarah Addison Allen. They both write fiction that centers women and use food and magical realism as a way to show how the strengths and passions of their characters. I took what I loved about their books and brought it to a hood in Philadelphia and to a character with big dreams and talents she doesn’t know how to channel.

Q: As a prominent and award-winning writer and Dominicana, it’s clear from your works that you aim to uplift the voices of POC and highlight that experience, how much of it is inspired by your life and what other sources do you use for inspiration? 

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I definitely walk through the world with a sensitivity as to what would make an interesting story, or a personality quirk I might want to give to a character, or a with a watchful eye of a setting I think is unusual. So, consciously and subconsciously I am mindful of storytelling; many of my writings are inspired by people I know, students I’ve worked with, memories I have from my own childhood, and current events I see on the news.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from this book?

That young people of color deserve stories where they triumph, where they follow their dreams, where live and love and are allowed to be kids. They deserve to see themselves as chefs, and doctors, and artists and all their other wild imaginings.

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12 Latinas Who Absolutely Crushed It In 2020

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12 Latinas Who Absolutely Crushed It In 2020

Photos via Getty Images

2020 has been a helluva year. Not only did the entire globe suffer through the coronavirus pandemic, but Americans had to deal with an endless campaign, a nail-biting election, and its exasperating aftermath.

But throughout this grueling year, women (as usual) stepped up to the plate. In 2020, we were once again reminded how strong and resilient Latinas are. Despite its challenges, 2020 was a year of that Latinas proved they are innovators, activists, and artists.

Because of this, FIERCE by mitú has compiled a list of 12 Latinas who absolutely crushed 2020. Take a look at our picks below!

1. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Credit: Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez continued to crush the political game this year. Not only was she reelected to office, but she expertly fundraised for the Democratic party and started much-needed conversations. Ocasio-Cortez may be controversial, but she’s also powerful.

2. Vanessa Bryant

Credit: Getty Images

Vanessa Bryant went through a year that is many people’s worst nightmare. But throughout her personal tragedy, Bryant exhibited an endless amount of strength and grace. She truly is an inspiration to women everywhere.

3. Nanette Cocero

via LinkedIn

Nanette Cocero may not be a household name (yet), but she is shaping up to be one of the most powerful Latinas in the world. This Puerto-Rican-born jefa is the Global President of Pfizer Vaccines. That means she’s in charge of the development and delivery of vaccines throughout the world. Cocero had her work cut out for her in 2020, and sis delivered.

4. Jennifer Lopez

Credit: Getty Images

Jennifer Lopez is 51-years-old and she continues to turn everything she touches into gold. Not only did she perform at the Super Bowl’s halftime show this year (remember that?), but she also launched a much-anticipated skincare line.

5. Elizabeth Acevedo

Credit: acevedowrites/Instagram

Award-winning Dominicana author Elizabeth Acevedo published her first Young Adult novel, Clap When You Land, that tells the story of two half-sisters who discover they have the same father after he tragically dies in a plane crash. Recently, outlets reported that Clap When You Land will be adapted into a TV series. So it’s safe to say that Acevedo is having a good year.

6. Anya Taylor Joy

Credit: Getty Images

Even in the middle of a pandemic, when most movie stars have had a tough year, Argentinian actress Anya Taylor Joy managed to have a breakthrough year. Not only did she star in the streaming phenomenon of the year, The Queens Gambit, but she headlined a movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma in February.

7. Shakira

Credit: shakira/Instagram

2020 was a fantastic year for Shakira. The Colombian singer started off the year by headlining the Super Bowl with JLo and she ended it by being the most-Googled artist of the year. Oh, and she also took the time to slam the Trump Administration for its “unimaginably cruel immigration policies” of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

8. Cardi B

Credit: Getty Images

Love her or hate her, Cardi B undoubtedly had a good year. Not only did the Cardi released the multi-platinum hit single “W.A.P.”, but she used her platform to educate her fans about the 2020 presidential election. She was also voted Billboard’s Woman of the Year.

9. Annie Segarra

Credit: annieelainey/Instagram

For years accessibility activist Annie Segarra has used her large platform (20,000 YouTube subscribers and 25,000 Twitter followers) to advocate for rights for disabled people, and in 2020 she had her work cut out for her. This year, Segarra tirelessly spoke up on behalf of disabled people who are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

10. Victoria Volkova

Credit: vicovolkov/Instagram

Victoria Volkova made headlines this year when she became the first trans model on cover of Playboy Mexico. She is also an outspoken advocate for trans and queer rights. She wrote a lovely tribute on her Instagram page in which she expressed hope that her cover would spark a conversation about the “different ways of being a woman.”

11. Sara Mora

Credit: misssaramora/Instagram

Back in 2017, Sara Mora publicly shared that she was undocumented, and her life snowballed ever since. This year, the Costa-Rican born immigrants rights activist used her platform and her non-profit, Population Mic, to spotlight civil rights issues like voter suppression and the migrant crisis.

12. Julie Chávez Rodriguez

Photo: Public Domain

You may know Julie Chávez Rodriguez as the granddaughter of César Chávez, but she also has her own claim to fame. The Biden administration just named her director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. We can’t wait to see this powerful Latina in the White House.

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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s Book Captures The Anguish Of Living Undocumented And Makes Her The First Undocumented Immigrant Named A Finalist For The National Book Award

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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s Book Captures The Anguish Of Living Undocumented And Makes Her The First Undocumented Immigrant Named A Finalist For The National Book Award

Ecuadorian-born Karla Cornejo Villavicencio immigrated to the United States when she was about four years old. She was one of the first known undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard and is also a Yale Ph.D candidate. While at Harvard, she wrote the Daily Beast anonymous essay “Dream Act: I’m An Illegal Immigrant at Harvard,” which expresses the war Villavicencio faced as the Dream Act failed to pass. She wrote “It would hurt to be forced to leave, but it hurts to stay the way I’m staying now. I belong to this place but I also want it to belong to me.”

About a decade later, Villavicencio is the first undocumented finalist in history named for the National Book Award on her book The Undocumented Americans.

Villavicencio always had a knack for writing. As a teenager living in the Bronx, she started out writing by reviewing jazz albums for a monthly magazine in New York City.

For years, she would read different cliche caricatures of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the chasing of the “American Dream.”

She always felt that she could do much better to tell these raw stories but didn’t really know how. It wasn’t until Trump was elected to the presidency, that Villavicencio knew it was time to tell the story in her own words. “I just never felt like I had a fire in my belly until the night of the election.

As a DACA student herself, Villavicencio set out across the country to interview and tell the stories of undocumented immigrants like never before. To give names to the nameless laborers and tokenized pawns and rather report on the provocative heartbreak, love, insanity, and at times-vulgarity infused into the everyday plight of undocumented immigrants. She describes these accounts as complex, unscripted, and “don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts.” She goes on to say in the introduction of the book that “This book is for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration, the talking heads, the kids in graduation caps and gowns, and read about the people underground,” she writes. “Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.”

Mixed in with accounts that reflect her own biography and memoir also include Latino literature styles of writing such as magical realism, streams-of-consciousness, and testimonio.

The book is dedicated to Claudia Gomez Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant and nurse-hopeful killed by a border patrol agent in 2018. The Undocumented Americans takes the reader throughout the nation. To the undocumented workers recruited to clean up New York City after 9/11 and some of the undocumented people’s deaths from this community shortly after. To the curanderas and healers in Miami who create medicinal herbs since their citizenship status blocks them from healthcare. To the immigrants denied clean water in Flint, Michigan because they do not have a state ID. To the childless teenagers in Connecticut who’s parents are in sanctuary. To the Staten Island where undocumented day laborer Ubaldo Cruz Martinez drowned during Hurricane Sandy. To the startling amount of undocumented Black and Brown people dying from COVID-19 more than any other groups.

Throughout these interviews and stories, Villavicencio interweaves her own personal stories of the battles she faced mentally and externally in the face of her undocumented status and intergenerational trauma.

Villavicencio paints an incredibly raw and vulnerable picture of her mental anguish and Borderline Personality Disorder in complexities and nuances of her life as an undocumented immigrant chasing what society has deemed the “American Dream.” She grappled with this dream narrative for children of immigrants which she says is like “kid, you graduated, now you can pay your parents back—actually, you’re 21, and your parents are going to keep aging out of manual labor, and you might lose DACA, and you might not be able to pay them back.” After she graduated Harvard as a “good immigrant,” she said that instead, “I was on so many antipsychotics that I forgot how to go down stairs.”

Villavicencio now has a green card. Described as “captivating and evocative” by New York Times and the “book we’ve been waiting for,” by author Robert G. Gonzalez, Villavicencio hopes this book will give undocumented immigrants a voice they’ve never had before. She even said “I’ve had my DMs flooded with children of immigrants, DACA kids, kids who are not on DACA, older immigrants whose parents came here as adults, all these people saying, “I didn’t know I was allowed to feel this way.” Her book is available for purchase anywhere.

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