Any avid Latina reader of the YA genre knows that it isn’t every day that the publishing world graces us with characters that mirror what we and our culture look like. For decades, the YA sphere has been occupied by sympathetic, tragic and heroic characters, ones who struggle with teen angst and alienation, battle dragons and daemons and ones who save entire countries and worlds. They’re admirable characters whose stories come packed with adventure and promise but, because most of their writers and publishers are white, often rarely speak to the experiences that our Latinidad has given us. Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a debut novel by Cuban author Nina Moreno that does just this. The book, which is being shipped as Gilmore Girls meets Practical Magic, follows a young Cuban-American girl in her senior year of college looking forward to her future as a college student while also hoping to uncover truths about her family’s past.
With cultural themes that dabble into the diaspora and generational trauma, Moreno weaves a story about a family curse, self-discovery, and love. For a better understanding of how she came up with her characters and came to be a published author FIERCE did a deep dive with a Q&A into YA lit’s most anticipated jefa.
Check it out below!
1. Fans of the YA genre don’t always get to see a lot of POC characters as the main subjects of books, but in your book Rosa is Cubana. Why did you decide to write a book about a Latina?
At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision so much as a continuation of always reimagining stories so they included us, front and center. I changed characters in my head and read between a lot of lines, but it was never enough. And it shouldn’t have been. When I started writing my own stuff it was this really exciting moment of realizing I had the power to put a Latina on the page in a story written for her.
2. How do you think Latinx representation in YA can affect young Latinas?
There’s power in being seen and having the space to engage with the things you love with your whole self. To get to be a teenager and Latina and a nerd and queer and whoever you’re still becoming. A lot of conversations about Latinx identity hinge on whether or not you count, especially for those of us in the states, or who are next-generation, because of language or race or distance or family issues and expectations, so having more and more Latinx representation everywhere helps expand the idea of everything you can be as a Latinx person.
3. Rosa Santos’ character has a Cuban grandmother who doesn’t like to talk about her life on the island. Why did you think this was an important element to include in your book?
Growing up after exile is complicated. That level of generational trauma buries itself deep. What does home mean when you can’t go back or share it with your children? How do you heal an inherited grief? Rosa desperately wants to connect with her family’s past, to better understand her place in the world, but her abuela sacrificed all of it—good and bad—to move forward. I wanted to explore that senior year moment of standing at the edge of everything and planning your future while feeling that insistent pull to look back and understand where your story began.
4. Did you feel as if you saw an accurate amount of Latinx representation in the books you read growing up? If so, how did this inspire you as a young reader? If not, how did this affect you as a young reader?
For a long time, it felt like I had to leave parts of myself outside the door to get a seat inside. I didn’t contain multitudes, I held warring parts. I was another young, clumsily bilingual, insecure English major who was losing her mother’s words in the name of keeping up. I wasn’t connecting with the so-called classics, I was mispronouncing everything, and it was yet another space where I didn’t quite fit. We have our literary canon of classics that felt like finding a shooting star once a semester, but I wanted more. I wanted to find us now, painted happy and smiling on bright covers, too.
5. What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I can’t remember whether my Backstreet Boys or Dawson’s Creek fan fiction was first, but I know that in both a plucky new Latina moves to town, ready to steal every heart. But my first original story was a southern gothic, high drama romance that was such a novela.
6. How long did it take to write your book and what was your process?
It took about two years from idea to where it is now. I put a lot of pressure on myself and questioned everything. Writing about Cuba wasn’t easy and I didn’t take it lightly. But I had to get out of my own way and learn to trust my place within my culture. That was a whole process I didn’t expect, but whenever I started to doubt, I slipped on my headphones, made another cafecito, and asked myself what Lin-Manuel Miranda would tell me. And then I got back to work.
7. What characteristics of Rosa Santos do you identify with the most?
Her nervous list-making and retro playlists. But I’ve never been able to commit to a bullet journal like Rosa’s and hers is actual art. Also, her instinct to heal, fix, and connect.
8. What books featuring Latinx characters are on your current reading list?
I’m currently reading Analee In Real Life by Janelle Milanes, who is also a Cuban-American author, The Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes, a Maya adventure from the super cool Rick Riordan Presents imprint and Pride by the amazing Ibi Zoboi. 2019 is packed with some fantastic upcoming Latinx stories from other debuts like Tehlor Kay Mejia, Claribel Ortega, and Michelle Ruiz Keil. It’s an exciting moment for our stories.
9. What were your favorite books growing up?
I was a big fan of The Babysitter’s Club and also Katherine Applegate’s Making Out series, which I think were later republished under a different name, but I used to beg my mom for every new release. But there were two books that helped me find my voice. Sandra Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street was the first time I heard the rhythm of home in a classroom while Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina Garcia felt like discovering family secrets. Finding us on the page emboldened me to take that seat and stop leaving so much of myself outside the door.
Nina Moreno is the Cuban-American writer of Dont Date Rosa Santos, it is her debut book and it comes out on shelves and online bookstores May 2019. Preorder it here.