Gutsy, Funny, and Flawed: Angela Cervantes on Crafting Strong Latina Characters

Middle grade author Angela Cervantes talks about her inspirations, her research process, and how she crafts authentic—and very funny—Latina characters.
In the recently published middle grade books, Allie, First at last (2016), and Gaby, Lost and Found (2013), author Angela Cervantes focuses on two young Latinas growing up in the midst of very different personal challenges. Allie wants desperately to be the best at something so as to fit in with her talented, successful family members. Gabby misses her mother, recently deported to Honduras, and longs for a home different from that provided by her father—a place where she feels special, loved, and cared for. Themes in both of these books include the importance of family, feeling special and loved, recognizing and accepting one’s strengths, and making wise decisions. Cervantes spoke with SLJ about her inspirations, her childhood, and writing authentic Latina characters. Can you describe how you came to write about these strong Latinas with their different stories,Gaby Lost and Found but similar themes? Are Gaby and Allie based on people you know, or did they grow on you during the writing process? One of the many benefits of growing up in a culturally rich and proud Mexican American community, as I did, is it has provided me tons of stories and characters for the rest of my writing life. Gaby and Allie are not based on any particular people I know, but they’re gutsy, funny, and flawed, which makes them very much like most of the girls I grew up with. When I visit schools, I’m honored when students tell me that their favorite book character is Gaby from Gaby, Lost and Found.  They relate to the fact that she is a risk-taker, mistake-maker, but her actions and decisions are from a good place. She is 11 years old and simply trying to do the right thing for herself and the animal shelter where she volunteers. I think middle grade readers understand that struggle.   In other interviews, you mention the importance of your own family. Could you speak to whether this impacted these two books, as well as any other projects you are currently working on, and if so, how? My mom was a single parent with four kids. She had two jobs. She worked as a secretary during the day and a waitress at a Mexican restaurant in the evenings and weekends. Years later, once the four of us reached high school, she started college to become an elementary teacher. In both Gaby, Lost and Found and Allie, First At Last, there is a definite theme of how important the sacrifices and struggles made by our parents are to reaching our own dreams. For Gaby, it’s her mom who has traveled to the United States from Honduras for a better life. In Allie, First At Last, it’s Allie’s Great Gramps who fought in WWII. I’m currently working on a third middle grade novel that will also take place in what I call the “Gaby, Lost and Found universe,” but with a new Latina character.  It’s still in its early stage, so I don’t have a lot of specifics about my next project, but I’m really in love with the idea of continuing this Gaby universe where these girls live, but have never met (yet!). I like anything that builds upon the idea that we’re all connected. Allie and Gaby’s decisions have the power to impact each other’s lives.   Although these books are fiction, do you still have to complete research as part of your writing process? If so, what does this look like? Yes, absolutely. When I conduct author visits, a large part of my presentation to students is sharing the research I did for Gaby, Lost and Found. To capture the animal shelter experience for that book, I visited several shelters and spoke to staff and volunteers about their work. I also played with a bunch of dogs and cats. I wish all research could be that much fun. I think it’s funny when I ask the students about the different resources for researching a subject.  Google always comes up first. Then it’s followed by “the internet”, “the computer”, “go to a website.” It’s all tech-based! Eventually a student will raise his or her hand and suggest a library book. I always have to remind them that they can also talk to people who are experts on the subject. They forget that they can actually sit down and speak to someone. Ha! Love this young generation! 000 Allie First At LastI also researched the subject of deportation for Gaby, Lost at Found. In particular, I focused on how deportation separated families and impacted children.  I read articles and spoke to a few immigration attorneys and teachers who had firsthand knowledge of these types of cases and the impact it has on kids. Just like Gaby, they can’t sleep, they lose interest in school, and sometimes they’re bullied by classmates. Any sense of security they had in their life is completely stolen. Research was important because I felt a duty to be a voice for these kids who actually have to face what Gaby is going through. I wanted to be true to them as much as possible.  For Allie, First At Last, I met with a couple of WWII vets to write Allie’s Great Gramps character.  I also had lots of fun researching people who were first at things…folks like Sonia Sotomayor and Gwendolyn Brooks. The tough part of that was that I couldn’t fit all of them into Allie, First At Last, but I’m happy with who made the cut.   Could you describe yourself when you were a middle grade student? What was your experience as a Latina during these years? Did you have a favorite hobby, play sports, or play an instrument? Do you still participate in such activities as an adult? I attended a primarily Mexican American Catholic school until I was in eighth grade, and I was quite the budding feminist. I took up the snare drum in fifth grade; it was motivated by pure rebelliousness. Our band teacher pushed the girls toward playing the flute or clarinet. I wanted to show the boys and remind the girls that we could play whatever we wanted. My best friend, Michelle, chose to play the saxophone for the same reason. We were a nice little jazz duo. Anyway, I banged away on those drums all the way through eighth grade. It was also during my middle grade years that my teachers started reading my poetry, essays, and short stories out loud in class.  Even then, I was writing gutsy Latina characters. Of course, having my stories read in front of the entire class embarrassed me. Sometimes I was teased by my classmates for what I wrote, but it was my teachers’ way of encouraging me to continue with my writing. It worked.   How has your writing evolved over the years? What drew you to write books with Latin@ themes for middle grade students, and females in particular? I started writing around the age of eight or so.  My sister and I had found this old book of limericks in Author Angela Cervantes

Author Angela Cervantes

our house and we were glued to it because it was full of the most hilarious rhyming poems. So my earliest recollection of writing is my sister and I writing limerick poems back and forth to each other just to see who could make the other one drop to the floor laughing until her stomach hurt. My writing still involves a good dose of humor because I love to laugh. My love for humor has served me well with the middle grade audience. They appreciate a good LOL moment even when tackling themes as tough as sibling rivalries, volunteering at an animal shelter, and feeling accepted. As for what drew me to writing books with Latin@ themes…I’m not sure there’s any one thing in particular. I grew up in a strong Mexican American community where stories and interesting characters swirled around me every day. Later, while pursuing my English degree at the University of Kansas, my creative writing professors encouraged me to write what I knew and to write what I love, which, for me, means writing about my community and about kids whose last names are Garcia, Velasco, Ramirez, and so on.   What authors and book titles were your favorites when growing up? Were there any stories that spoke to you as a Latina living in the U.S.? Growing up, I read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and anything by Beverly Cleary. Lucy and Ramona are still my favorite book characters. I didn’t read any stories that spoke to me as a Latina living in the U.S. because I didn’t discover those books until I was well into college, which really is a shame. After reading Narnia, Little House on the Prairie books, and every Ramona book I could get my hands on, I remember asking my fifth grade teacher, Sister Judy, to help me find books about girls that were more like me. She came back to me a few days later with a copy of Anne of Green Gables and apologized that she couldn’t find a book with a Mexican American girl main character. She apologized to me every time she saw me reading alone, which was very sweet because I knew it bothered her too that she couldn’t find a book for me. It showed she cared. If she were alive today, I know that she’d be very proud of my books.   What do you like to read now and what types of books serve as mentor texts (if at all) for your own writing? When I’m not writing, I like to dive into biographies  (anything from rock stars to historical figures). I think it’s because I’m a character-driven writer, which is really a nice way of saying that I’m nosey about people’s lives. There you have it! I love to write because I’m super nosey about people, their motivations, what they eat for breakfast and what they dream about.    Ruth E. Quiroa is an associate professor in the Reading and Language program and the National College of Education at National Louis University in Chicago, IL.    

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