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Hispanic Heritage

Writer Elisabet Velasquez and the Worldview That Shaped Her Debut Novel

Elisabet Velasquez, Photos by Jonathan Rojas

Elisabet Velasquez is a Brooklyn-born Boricua poet, performer, and novelist. She has performed at numerous universities and legendary venues around the country.

Can you share a brief rundown of what your debut novel, “When We Make It,” is about? What does it mean to “make it”?

Ultimately, it’s about reimagining success. My main character, Sarai, is a first-generation Diasporican growing up in the 90s during the “war on drugs.” She, like so many of us, is growing up with differing ideas from society, her teachers, and parents about what kind of person makes it in the world.

This story was inspired by my own life as someone who was statistically viewed as a failure. As a Puerto Rican teen mom and high school drop-out, in many ways not aspiring to what other people viewed as success liberated me. I chose to believe that I was successful even as a “societal failure.” There is so much success to be had in the act of surviving.

When I was writing this book, I wanted to highlight the “making it” that often isn’t celebrated. The “making it” that doesn’t rely on external achievements. I wanted to celebrate the class clowns, the delinquents, the teen moms, the people struggling with housing insecurity, the non-English speakers, the high school dropouts, folks on government assistance, and anyone who “makes it” every day simply by staying alive.

What is the influence of your Puerto Rican culture on your career as a writer?

Growing up Puerto Rican in New York City, there was this subtle (but really not-so-subtle) messaging about the kind of people Puerto Ricans were that stemmed from racist stereotypes. There was always this feeling that we had to prove that we were not all of the terrible things the news said about us.

There was a lot of shame in those stories, mainly because we didn’t write them. No one wanted to be the Puerto Rican stereotype. So, we told each other to “speak properly” and warned each other not to end up like so and so, the family’s embarrassment.

As a writer whose life and experiences were devalued due to being named as one of these stereotypes, I think deeply about the messages I am giving readers who may not be living a life society considers stellar or outstanding. My aim is to highlight all of the ways our survival takes shape. Writers like Esmeralda Santiago and poets like Pedro Pietri taught me that we can highlight the beauty and intelligence and innovation so present in our culture while also addressing our struggles.

When we take ownership of our narrative, what we are really doing is taking ownership of our humanity. I want to keep writing stories that include all of who we are, the shiny parts and the dull parts where one does not negate the other.

Throughout your work, you’ve covered feminism, body positivity, education, mental illness, sexual assault, gentrification, and so much more. What is the overall message you want to capture for your young, first-generation readers?

Everything you have experienced in your life is unique to you. Usually when there is only one of something in the world it is considered priceless. Can you imagine? You are walking around with a story that no one else has. You are a gold mine of memories and culture and ideas and joys and struggles and experiences that no one else can ever take from you and no one else can replicate. These are your riches to share or keep. I share mine so that young readers can find hope in knowing that they are not alone in their fears or in their dreams. We are shaped by our experiences, but we are not defined by them.

What does Hispanic empowerment mean to you?

I’ve come to distance myself from group identifiers like the word “Hispanic” which tends to promote a monolithic idea or image of a group of people while excluding others. Specificity is important to me. As a Puerto Rican woman, I have felt the most empowered when I have found value in the parts of me society insisted that I find shame in. I have found power in my existence and have come to appreciate just how marvelous of a success story simply staying alive is.

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