Why I wrote The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez
After Homeboyz came out my career ascended to a whole new height. The popularity of the title mixed with the accolades mixed with the attention and awards moved me up “to the next level”. And then one day a group of girls, Latina students of mine, came up to me and asked…
“How come you don’t write a book about us?”
The Hoopster, Hip-Hop High School and Homeboyz all had African-American characters as their protagonist. Why? Because I aspired to get my students to read through writing books for them, books where they saw their own lives directly reflected on the page. But at Lynwood High, a growing portion of the student body was Hispanic – and my girls felt a little cheated.
When these Latina students hit me with this question, I immediately felt bad. As a teacher, you never want to play favorites between your kids and this was a group of really awesome girls, students I tremendously enjoyed having in class. Additionally, racial tension between brown and black kids on campus has been an issue for years and years (The race riot scenes in my book Hip-Hop High School and The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez are fictionalized accounts of race riots we have had on campus) so being fair and balanced in aspiring to write a book for all of my students, so that the Hispanics had the same feeling of “my English teacher wrote a book for us, too” instantly became a high priority for me.
And then I asked the question, the one which turned out to be the fuse that lit the dynamite.
“Well,” I said to this group of Hispanic teenager girls. “What should I write about?”
If you know anything about teens, you know that asking a teenage Latina to talk can be a dangerous thing because, once asked, they are going to talk and talk and talk and talk.
Lunchtime in my room. After school. They talked and talked and talked and I just listened and listened and listened. That’s when I saw a few incredibly common threads between so many of my Latina girls. (Note: These are simply my observations from our conversations – please don’t get all politically correct on me for being honest or go cuckoo with emails to me about matters of race, gender equality and so on. These are broad strokes here – case by case, of course it can be different)
- Boys were treated better than girls in their home/culture. (i.e. Machismo is still alive and kicking.)
- Girls were outperforming boys in school, really stepping into their own and coming on stronger than they ever had while the boys were lame.
- Girls were caught in the crosshairs between serving the family and getting an education as if the two were mutually exclusive… and mothers from the prior generation who had made the choice to value familia first and foremost were often applying the most pressure to follow in their footsteps and be homemakers as opposed to independent, well-educated women with professional careers.
- First generation immigrants (illegals and legal – I teach both at my school) often were the bridge to the English speaking world for their non-English speaking parents, of which there are millions in America. The daughters, even ones as young as 8 or 9 years old, were the official translators for parents who had never learned English – even if they had been in America for more than 10 years. They may have immigrated, but they did not assimilate.
- Sexual molestation was a HUGE problem… and it was incredibly under-reported to authorities, other family members and so on. Teen Latina girls were being sexually abused at a far greater rate than I had ever imagined. It was, tragic to say, “common”.
- Today’s young girls are smart as a whip, ferociously determined and a whole lotta fun to be around. They really do LOVE to laugh.
These notes – and others – are what inspired The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez, a book that has been exceptionally well-embraced by Hispanic readers, boys and girls alike. My own opinion as to why boys like this book so much is because of the cultural validation. In this novel I worked exceptionally hard to move beyond stereotypes and illuminate the beauty of the Hispanic culture. Latinas are a remarkable people, unique and distinguished, and the pride so many teens feel in seeing their culture portrayed in a positive light – despite it being “and warts and all” book – has really won over scores of young adults.
Last thing about The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez that I should mention is that I never in a million years would have been able to write this book without genuinely listening to my students. When you read the book, I take the reader deep into Mexico, a Mexico that a white guy like me could never really know firsthand. It truly took a latino to shine a light on this private, inside the culture world and I can’t tell you how many comments I have had from Hispanic readers who say, “how did you know this.”
It’s because real people illuminated it for me. From the code-switching language (my students proofed the Spanish that is peppered throughout the text) to the quirky little aspects of life as an American Latina who is caught between the two worlds, two cultures and two completely different sets of expectations (based on gender), without the real voice of my students, The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez would not have any real voice at all.