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Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Columns & Features > BlogBeat > Malín Alegría: A Road Map for Bicultural Youth

Malín Alegría: A Road Map for Bicultural Youth

By Antonio Gonzalez
CBC Diversity

Elementary-school-teacher-turned-writer and California native, Malín Alegría (Estrella’s Quinceañera), answers a few questions about her new teen series Border Town (Scholastic/Point), her struggles with self-image, puffy Princess dresses, and growing-up bicultural.

(Photo (c) Dulce Barona)

Can you describe your high school years? Are there echoes of Fabiola’s experiences in your past?

In high school I was a rebel — a tame, respectful, nice rebel. I was a late bloomer and utterly uncomfortable with my developing body and relationships with boys.

In my junior and senior years, I was voted most creative and class clown. I was definitely on a mission to be different, to not suck up to the cool rich crowd, and to start my own trends. My hair color and identity changed every couple of months. I struggled with self-acceptance. There were no role models on TV or in magazines I could look up to and try to emulate. Many times I felt alone and misunderstood.

When developing Fabiola’s character, I reflected and used a lot of my own personal adolescent dreams, emotions, and experiences. Fabi and I are both older sisters. We both share the same outlook of taking care of and being responsible for our siblings. We both dream of leaving our communities, running off to the big city, and making our dreams come true. We are both dark skinned with fair skinned younger sisters. Fabi is uncomfortable with her body and hates her family’s intrusive comments. We both share a love/hate relationship with our big crazy families.

Did you know you wanted to become a writer when you were in high school?

In high school I loved to act. I enjoyed breaking down characters and figuring out what motivated and made them tick. I wanted to play roles and hear stories that reflected my culture. I knew that these stories didn’t exist so I decided soon after high school that I needed to write stories I wanted to see.

Did you have a quinceañera? Did you attend friends’ quinces growing up?

At fifteen I did not want a quinceañera. I was kind of a rocker at that point with purple hair, anarchists’ T-shirts, black nail polish, etc. There was no way I would be caught dead in a princess puffy dress. Fast-forward fifteen years and I wear froufrou dresses every chance I get — life is funny.

Growing up in San Francisco, I grew up with an ethnically diverse group of friends. None of them had quinces. However, I have cousins — lots of cousins — who had quinceañeras. It was a part of my culture I couldn’t deny or hide from. Fabiola’s extended family — especially her grandparents and cousins — play a large role in her life.

Did you grow up close to your extended family?

Yeah, but I wouldn’t refer to them as extended. The word “extended” connotes a sense of “in addition to” — which they are not. I grew up in a big, loud family with tons of aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. My dad and mom both came from big families (eight siblings on each side). My family lived next door, downstairs, or they were always dropping in unannounced. It’s a cultural thing, I guess. We were always in each other’s business, giving unsolicited advice, and arguing. As a child I felt like I was suffocating; now as an adult I love them dearly.

What are your fondest memories of high school? Were there experiences you’d rather forget?

All my memories were important in shaping me into the person I am today. I wouldn’t change or want to forget any of them. A painful memory that motivated me to go to college involved my English teacher. I remember the first time AP English was being offered at my school. All my friends were being “invited” to this college prep course, and I asked to be included. My English teacher told me that this course wasn’t for me because I wasn’t going to go to college anyway. Ha! I had to prove her wrong.

Another memorable moment came in my junior year when my drama teacher sparked a passion for performing in me. She exposed me to another way of living — an alternative to the traditional marriage-and-kids story. She was young and hip — a New York City Jewish actress who always had a packed suitcase by her door just in case she decided to take a last-minute trip around the world. My first acting role was an illegal Latina activist. For the first time in my life, I played the protagonist of a story and I didn’t have to change my hair, skin color, or accent. It was a liberating experience.

Your two previous novels, Estrella’s Quinceañera and Sofi Mendoza’s Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico, also feature strong Latinas and themes of discovery and identity. What did you learn from writing those books that led you to create the Border Town series?

I believe that in my first two novels I was trying to understand and heal from childhood wounds of not fitting in and being different. I was trying to present a road map for bi-cultural youth trying to navigate their identities while being true to their cultural history and present reality.

With the Border Town series, I feel much more comfortable in my storytelling craft. I am exploring new identities and realities. I am having a lot more fun and challenging myself to perceive different realities. It’s so much fun and liberating.

In what ways do you find writing series fiction liberating and restrictive?

Latinos have lived in the United States for over 500 years. However, mainstream literature rarely portrays strong brown characters as the protagonists. It’s liberating to have the opportunity to write a teen drama that teens across the world can relate to because they speak to typical experiences. Teen stories where the protagonists just so happen to be brown. As a fiction writer, I find the opportunities to branch out into other genres a bit restrictive — for now.

I find myself wanting to grow and dabble in mysteries, science fiction, and horror with a bicultural twist. That is my next challenge!

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