While any time of the year is a great time to get more educated on diverse trailblazers making positive influences on society, the start of a new year always manages to bring fresh energy to challenge us to find new perspectives. It’s important that the achievements of all women are recognized, but it’s all too common for Latinx women, in particular, to be under-recognized for their accomplishments. Here, we highlight three Latinx innovators who are contributing to the community’s advancements and making an impact on history.
Vanessa Garcia is a second-generation Cuban American, a novelist, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter. She is the author of White Light, which was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015, and last fall she released a podcast, Never the Empty Nest, which she hosts alongside her mother, Jackie Rivases, and sister, Nicole Garcia. The podcast covers the concept of ‘generational nesting’ wherein a family stays close throughout generations, even when separated by physical differences, as is often the case in refugee families.
Do you think the idea of “never the empty nest” is part of the general Cuban American experience — or is it specific to your family?
VG: I do think that the idea of “Never the Empty Nest” is part of being Cuban-American and part of being Cuban. My mom gets to the layers of it in the first episode when she harkens back all the way to Spain and some of our roots there. Our island also has African, Taino, and Chinese roots. All those things together, I believe, make us very close-knit as a people.
Our Cuban and Cuban-American families are tribes and very little can tear them apart. Something that has tried to tear all of us apart is the Castro brother’s dictatorship, which has run Cuba for over 62 years, and which the people of the island are turning against now.
The Cuban regime has constantly tried to split families apart — it’s a mode of operation that has always been to divide and conquer. Taking boys away to fight in wars they didn’t believe in, forcing migration waves and exiles, and separating families. This has been extremely painful for us.
So, in exile, we have made sure to stick together.
When did you realize you were a creative person?
VG: I don’t remember not being a creative person. As a kid, I was incredibly shy. I remember living most of my days out in a linen closet in our house (literally crouched at the bottom of it), drawing on the wall. Taking a flashlight in there to read. But soon, art became much more than an escape. It became a force, a tool — power. A weapon of peace. A way to change the world. I still believe that which I think also comes from being Cuban.
What was your experience writing your novel, White Light? How much of it was drawn from your own life?
VG: White Light was written between 2007 and 2009. Then I revised it once more the following year. The book didn’t get published until 2015, however.
Writing that book was an engine of grief. My father had just died, suddenly, at the age of fifty. I was in my twenties. And that part is very much in the book. The book is about a visual artist who gets her big break as she loses her father. She is forced to deal with the “art of losing” alongside success and creation.
When the other students at the MFA program I was in complained about how “hard” writing was, I thought to myself: “then stop doing it.” For me, it was a way of life, a grace — there was nothing else I thought I should be doing, and, honestly, compared to the rest of my life at the time, it wasn’t what was hard. It was much harder to sell than to write. When the book finally came out, even though it took forever to sell, it won awards. It got a Kirkus star immediately, was one of NPR’s Best Books of the year, and won an International Latino Book Award. Somehow, however, editors couldn’t see that for a long time.
In between White Light and the novel I’m writing now, there’s a book I wrote from 2016-2017. I think that book will take a minute for editors to buy. I think they will eventually buy it, but I honestly think the book I am writing now and will probably complete by the end of the year, will sell first.
Why do you think your newer book will be published first?
VG: Because I know what it means to “translate” something into the mainstream and I’m doing that with this current book because I think it’s important for it to sell quickly, but I don’t want to do that with the one I wrote in between.
I want the one in between, the manuscript that’s written and waiting, to be the real thing and I know how far behind the literary world is in accepting truly diverse bits of writing. Because there isn’t anyone at the top in the big houses in editor positions that’s actually Latinx. So writers are constantly having to “translate” their experience into the “form” that the top tier is going to purchase or stay unpublished. You learn to do that.
Do you have any advice for artists who are trying to capture their family experience?
VG: Be true. When it comes to family, be true. When it comes to anything and everything — be true. Even if it takes longer to get there, it’ll last longer once it’s there. The surface can be pierced through, but the truth is a rock.
(This interview has been edited & condensed)