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A Novel's Latinas Defy Clichés


April 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Don't call "The Dirty Girls Social Club," Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's new novel, hot or spicy. Those clichés are always applied to Hispanics, she says.

While you're at it, don't call the novel, about upscale young Hispanic women who meet as students at Boston University and come together regularly thereafter, a Hispanic novel.

Hispanics are not just one thing, Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez says. "They are black, white, mestizo and anything else. Alberto Fujimori, a former president of Peru, is about as Latino as you get, though he is of Japanese heritage."

Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez — half Cuban, part Irish-American, with American Indian thrown in — does not know Spanish well enough to write a novel in it.

Nonetheless some are calling Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, who received a $475,000 advance for "Dirty Girls," the "Latina Terry McMillan," saying that her book will be for Hispanics what Ms. McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" was for blacks, proof of a big audience for fiction among the 37 million Latinos in the United States. "Dirty Girls" (St. Martin's Press) has a first printing of 125,000 copies in English (10,000 in Spanish).

The title comes from the Spanish word sucia, or dirty girl, and is the irreverent name the characters give themselves. "I see it as a mainstream book that features Latino characters," Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said. She also hopes it explodes stereotypes.

Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, 34, has a soft voice, but she is tough. She once called The Boston Globe, where she was a reporter, "a racist institution" in an article that the newspaper published about itself. (The Globe is owned by The New York Times Company.)

In a parting letter to The Los Angeles Times, where she also worked, she criticized that paper for its "racialist view."

Columbia Pictures has optioned the book, with Jennifer Lopez and Laura Ziskin as producers. Ms. Lopez would be great as the main character, Lauren, a Boston newspaper columnist, Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said, adding, "She does festering anger really well."

The book's characters are a cross section of Hispanics. Lauren is half-Cuban, half-Anglo, or "white trash," as she puts it.

"She's 20 percent me," Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said. Lauren says she is hired to write a column so her newspaper can "connect to the Latina people or whatever." Her editor, Chuck, has "the intellect of a newborn hamster" and tells her to write " `hey girlfriend' kind of things.' "

"I was hired only to be a red-hot-'n'-spicy clichéd chili pepperish cross between Charo and Lois Lane," Lauren says. "They still haven't figured out what a fraud I am." Lauren doesn't speak Spanish.

The other women are Usnavys, vice president of the United Way, Dominican and Puerto Rican; Elizabeth, black Colombian, television newscaster; Sara, a wealthy, light-skinned, blue-eyed Cuban Jew; Rebecca, European and American Indian, editor of Ella, a Latina women's magazine; and Amber, Mexican-American rock singer who considers herself Aztec.

A major topic at their gatherings is romance. "There's no way a therapist can solve the crisis of chronic, mother-sanctioned infidelity among Latin men," says Lauren, who has an unfaithful boyfriend.

Like her characters, Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez has a complex ethnic background. She was born in Albuquerque. Her father, Nelson Valdes, was born in Cuba. He came to the United States in the early 1960's and is a sociology professor at Duke University.

Her mother, Maxine Conant, is descended from Puritan New England stock, with traces of Spanish, Portuguese-Jewish and Pueblo Indian and roots generations-deep in New Mexico. Her maternal grandmother is Irish-American.

When Alisa was 11, her mother left home. "She was a wild woman," Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said, "working for an escort service and living with a pimp."

But Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said her mother transformed her life, earned a master's degree in creative writing and became a writer. This year she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a story she published. "I really credit her with making me a writer," Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said.

Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez initially wanted to be a saxophone player. She attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but said that women were given second-class status there. In 1992 she wrote a piece for The Globe about the difficulties women faced at the school. It began sensitivity training for teachers and courses on the history of women in music.

"I saw the impact," Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said. "I thought, `Maybe there is a future for me in journalism.' "

After moving to New York and failing to make it as a sax player, she enrolled at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Then, she said, The Globe offered her "a minority-development job."

"I turned it down," she said. "I wanted to think I was good enough to get in on my own."

When The Globe offered her "a real job," she said, she accepted. She and other female reporters began meeting for Girls' Nights Out, the genesis of her novel.

Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, however, believed that The Globe's coverage of minorities was flawed. She wrote about a Dominican store owner who was killed in front of her daughter. That article ran inside the local-news section, but an article about a woman missing from Newton, Mass., a wealthy Boston suburb, ran on the front page.

"I started to talk about it," she said. "I was labeled a troublemaker."

Then, in 1998, came the ousting of Patricia Smith, a black columnist who was asked by The Globe to resign when she admitted fabricating characters and quotations.

Some staff members complained that a white columnist, Mike Barnicle, had fabricated, too, but was treated more gently. He was later asked to resign. That was when Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez was quoted in The Globe, calling it "a racist institution."

Nick King, one of her editors, remembers her as "talented and controversial."

"The Globe was always extremely conscientious about its coverage of minorities," he said. Still, "a lot of things she raised were really substantial."

In 1999 Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez married Patrick Rodriguez, a writer. She quit The Globe, and they moved to Los Angeles, where she covered the Spanish-language music industry for The Los Angeles Times. She became pregnant and left to do her own writing. In a parting letter to her supervisor she objected to the way Latino was used to describe brown-skinned Spanish-speakers: " `Latino' — as used in The Los Angeles Times — is the most recent attempt at genocide perpetrated against the native people of the Americas."

She moved to Albuquerque and in 2001 her son, Alexander, was born. She proposed a book about Latina singers to a New York agent. Publishers rejected it but asked if she had a novel. She had been writing novels for years, culled from them and came up with "Dirty Girls." Five publishers bid for it.

St. Martin's was not the highest bidder, Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez said, but "they saw it as a mainstream book." She added, "They looked at me as an American, not just Hispanic."

"It was just like at the beginning of The Globe," she said. "I wanted to be just like everyone else."

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