Wise Latinas Book Launch at La Casa Azul by Toni Margarita Plummer

It must be over two years ago now when Jennifer De Leon first mentioned to me that she was putting together an anthology of essays on the Latina experience in college. I had met Jennifer in 2009, when we attended the Macondo Workshop in San Antonio, Texas for the first time. For the ice breaker we had the pleasure of introducing each other to the group. That week I learned that the issue of Latinas in college was a very passionate one for Jennifer and so I wasn’t surprised to hear she was pursuing this project. A long time went by without any word, for it wasn’t easy finding a publisher. Jennifer’s passion and tenacity won out in the end though and finally, in March of this year, Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education was published by the University of Nebraska Press. On Friday, March 21st, Kweli put on a party at La Casa Azul Bookstore to celebrate!

In the downstairs space, before a mural of Frida Kahlo and that brilliant blue color that characterizes the store, owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda welcomed us to the East Harlem establishment she opened nearly 2 years ago. She pointed to the current art exhibit decorating the walls, beautiful children’s book illustrations by John Parra and Carla Torres. Ivelisse Rodriguez next spoke about Kweli and its founder Laura Pegram. Kweli had published work by Jennifer and me and we were all thrilled we could come together to celebrate Wise Latinas. Then Jennifer, editor of the collection, told us her reasons for wanting to create this anthology and the warm reception the book has received. Her excitement was contagious. She read from her introduction which includes a touching story about her and her mother. 

Latinos are still underrepresented in universities. The book’s introduction cites the 2010 U.S. Census, which showed that only 13 percent of Hispanics have received a B.A. degree. Also only 28 percent of college-aged Latinos are enrolled in universities. These numbers fall behind the rates for non-Hispanic whites, Asians, and blacks.

The audience at La Casa Azul that Friday night included family and friends, mothers and daughters, Macondistas, professors, and authors. We the readers were all emerging writers, though the book includes some well-known authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Lorraine M. López, and Jennine Capo Crucet. We were a good sample group of the anthology, which has essays from a diverse group of Latinas.

Jennifer De Leon, born of Guatemalan parents, grew up in Massachusetts and attended Connecticut College, the University of San Francisco, and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is a grade school teacher and teaches writing at Grub Street and UMASS Boston.

Gail Dottin, of Panamanian descent, grew up in New York and was a Dean’s Nonfiction Fellow at Columbia University. She got a Fulbright to study in Panama.

Yalitza Ferreras’s family hails from the Dominican Republic. She grew up in New York City, attended the University of Michigan, and is a graphic designer in San Francisco.

I, Toni Margarita Plummer, am a Mexican-American from Los Angeles who attended the University of Notre Dame and USC. I’m an editor in New York City.

Our pieces ranged in styles and content: Gail’s was an innovative conversation with herself in which she struggled with race and sexuality; Yalitza’s was a humorous and poignant story using the escalation of relatives’ TV’s as a clever device; mine was an account of my experience of my semester abroad in Chile trying to learn Spanish. Though very different, they all seemed to include feelings of not belonging, whether it be not belonging at school, at home, or in the culture. Thankfully, they also each solicited appreciative laughter from the audience. During the Q&A we got some great questions and discussed parent attitudes on bilingualism, the loneliness of being a black Latino on a university campus, and much more.

Afterwards upstairs, people were able to browse the delectable shelves, drink wine, and munch on delicious empanadas and plantain chips from Cucharamama of Hoboken (If you know Kweli founder Laura at all, you know this is her favorite restaurant in the tri-state area and Kweli’s unofficial caterer.).

We authors sat in the children’s section and happily signed books in assembly-line fashion, hunching over each one to personalize it with some hopefully encouraging and grateful words. The store sold out of copies.

I love events at La Casa Azul, and this one was particularly special. It was my first time meeting Yalitza and Gail and instantly I felt at ease with them and so admired their talent. It was an honor to read with them and Jennifer. The audience was engaged and supportive. Another fine event brought to us by Kweli!