Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez: of life, boys and girls … Latino style

Wendy Pedrero

The dirty Girls Social Club hit bookstores and quickly became a hit. Since then, it has been compared to proven mainstream successes such as the TV show Sex and the City and to the work of literary icon Terry McMillan, whose portrayal of women as strong, independent characters has earned her a legendary reputation. From her home in New Mexico, Alisa spoke with LL about her life, her work and her upcoming projects.

Alisa was born in Albuquerque to a Cuban born-and-raised father and an Anglo mother. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she and her brother were raised by her father. Although she mentions that her mother was very cosmopolitan and diverse in her views, Alisa also remembers her maternal relatives to be less than enthusiastic about minorities. Of their gradual acceptance of Latinos in general, Valdes says: “They’ve learned a lot over the years, and I will say that my [maternal] grandmother does love me; she’s very proud of me, she comes to my readings and book signings … She’s grown a lot and it’s pretty amazing, but it’s still hard because, I’ll be there [visiting] with my son and my husband, who are both significantly darker than me–my husband is Mexican American–and she’ll say things like ‘Oh, we couldn’t move to that neighborhood; there’s too many Mexicans.’ So that’s been pretty weird.”

Although Alisa is most definitely proud of her Hispanic heritage, she prefers to be categorized as an American. Fully fluent in Spanish, Alisa comments on the broad and erroneous assumption that just because she is of Hispanic origin she was born speaking the language. When asked about a comment that she posted in her website regarding this, Alisa replies: “That was just me complaining about the assumption that I get from a lot of people, just by virtue of my name, that I can only read and write in Spanish, as if language was genetic … and that’s annoying to me.” She does, however, acknowledge that Spanish is a comforting language for her, having used it a lot with her father, and that she uses it often at her most emotional times. “When I’m in an airplane and I get panicky I start to panic in Spanish–Spanish is my language of pain and panic–because when my father would hurt himself or get scared he would go back to the first language he heard, and that was Spanish. And I got that from him.” She goes on to comment that the learning the language allowed her to see a much warmer, funnier side of her father, and she adds: “I’m really glad that I learned it, and I’m keeping myself fluent.”

Alisa knew she was a writer at the young age of 13. “I have journals where, when I’m 14 I’m saying that I’m going to be a novelist … People ask me ‘how do I become a writer?’ and I don’t know, because I feel like I was born a writer. It’s a certain kind of a brain that you have … some kind of madness, actually. I think that there is brain chemistry in writing.” Still, her passion for Music was stronger, and she decided to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston in order to play Saxophone. “I knew I loved writing, [but] I felt the writing was too easy and not challenging and it wouldn’t be a valid career, so I went into music because it was a little harder for me … I always wanted to do both and I’m still doing both.”

Not one to easily accept discrimination of any kind, Alisa quickly rebelled against the gender bias of the music industry and of Berklee s’ faculty and Staff. “[In the music industry] if you’re a female, there’s a lot of discrimination that goes on, and I found it appalling because I was raised by a very progressive man who always told me I could do whatever I wanted, who never told me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. So, I wrote about the experiences that I had at school with gender discrimination and I sent it to The Boston Globe and they published it two weeks before 1 graduated and the school had to change all these policies and fix all these problems. There were concrete changes that happened.” The event had such an impact in Alisa that it made her question her career choice. She decided to pursue writing instead and went to Columbia University to earn a master’s degree in journalism.

After she finished her master’s she went back to Boston and hired in as a staff writer at The Boston Globe. Five years later and having agreed with her husband to return to his home state, she moved to California and went to work at the L.A. Times. It was during this time that The Dirty Girls Social Club began to take shape. “I just got really intrigued with the diversity of Hispanic America. Growing in New Mexico, where they didn’t even use the word, and then going to Boston, which surprisingly is a very Hispanic city, but very different from New Mexico … and that’s when it finally dawned on me that ‘wait a minute, everybody is using the same label for something that’s not the same at all.’ There are some similarities, but also lots of differences. So the question of ‘what does Hispanic look like’ is what I tried to answer in my book.” Whatever the answer might be, she obviously bit a nerve. Her novels, which also deal with other controversial subjects as religion, homosexuality, etc., have established her as a genuine voice of the Latin American pulse this country.

Next in Alisa’s plans is the release of her new book, due out early next year. The paperback version of her second book, Playing with Boys, originally published in 2004, was released in June. No doubt this All-American dynamo with a Latino twist is bound to bit literary paydirt again.

* What Hispanic Heritage Means to Me:

“I don’t want to be categorized by perceived ethnicity. I’m a mainstream American writer who happens to have a Spanish surname, in the same way Los Angeles and San Antonio are American cities that just happen to have Spanish names. I’m a writer, period.”

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* What’s in a name?

Valdes: The last name Valdes originated in the province of Asturias in Spain, where it remains one of the most popular particularly in the town of the same name. It is believed that the name was a merging of two separate words, one being the Spanish word valle, or valley, and another unknown word, presumably from the pre-roman era.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.

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