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From Dirty Girls to Enlightened Ladies

Chica lit writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez challenges genre expectations with her novel <i>The Three Kings</i>.

En español | Chica lit. Before 2003, the genre — shorthand for women’s fiction featuring middle-class Latinas — didn’t exist. Then came Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez with her bestseller, The Dirty Girls Social Club, and Time magazine dubbed her “godmother of chica lit.” Valdes-Rodriguez was ambivalent about that title then, and now, five years later, as her seventh novel, The Three Kings: A Christmas Dating Story, arrives on holiday shelves, she finds the designation remains limiting. “These are marketing terms,” she says. “I don’t think this label fits exactly the type of writing that I do, and it never really has.”

But the book’s cover and plot meet chica lit’s expectations. Protagonist Christy de la Cruz, an interior decorator in Santa Fe, seems to have it all — until her handsome husband walks out. Cousin Maggie to the rescue: She arranges dates with three men who, like the wise men, come bearing gifts.

Beneath the book’s beribboned cover, however, is a story that often unravels genre expectations when Christy confronts questions of class and racial identity and learns that the meaning of giving extends far beyond the material gifts of the holiday season.

"The biggest driving force in my life has been justice." —Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

AARP VIVA was the first to interview Valdes-Rodriguez about her latest novel, on a radio station in Los Angeles.

Q. You attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and played the saxophone. How did you end up becoming a writer?

A. I interviewed Shakira once when I was a reporter and asked her how she became a musician, and she said, “I didn’t. I was born condemned to music.” To some extent, writing is the same for me. I feel like I’ve been a writer as long as I’ve been alive, even before I knew how to write. Alice Walker once said that writers have a certain curlicue in their brain that other people don’t have. I knew at an early age that writing was fun and easy for me. My teachers and parents thought it was something I should be doing but because it was easy for me, I ended up doing something else. I went into music and had mediocre musical talent, nothing like what I think I naturally have for writing, but I worked hard at it.

Q. Was there a specific moment that shifted your attention from music to writing?

A. The moment that changed things for me was when I wrote an essay about the experience I had at [Berklee], which in the late 1980s was still very backward regarding gender equality. I wrote about some of the difficulties my friends and I had faced at the school and, to my great surprise, The Boston Globe ran it. That one article changed policies at the school. For the first time in my life I had some degree of power to do good in the world, and it was through writing; that was the moment that I switched and I started to apply to graduate schools to study journalism.

Q. This sense of speaking out often runs through your work. Where does it come from?

A. The biggest driving force in my life has been justice — and by that I don’t mean revenge. I mean fairness for all kinds of people. I think it comes in part from being the daughter of an immigrant who was grossly underestimated for most of his career and life, and the sort of despair you feel watching that happen, the sense that things aren’t fair from a very early age. My father is an academic, a sociology professor specializing in Latin America, so he wrote books. My father speaks beautiful English, but he speaks it with an accent, so there was this sort of immediate dismissal of what he was saying from a certain segment of the population that couldn’t listen past the accent to hear the meaning of the words that were being said.

Q. When The Dirty Girls Social Club came out in 2003, it became a bestseller and many people credited you with establishing “chica lit,” a new genre of contemporary commercial women’s fiction featuring middle-class Latina characters. How has this new genre developed since then?

A. I never sat down and thought: “I’m going to create a new genre.” I just sat down and wrote a book that I wanted to read but couldn’t find. In retrospect, I don’t think it’s a new genre; it’s just a novel. There’s an unfortunate tendency in the publishing industry to view ethnicity as a genre and only for certain people. So if you are a minority, your race or ethnicity becomes your genre. Or if you are a woman, your sex becomes your genre. “Women’s fiction”: What does that even mean? Would we ever dare say “commercial men’s fiction”? I think these are marketing terms.

Q. What do you think of the “chick-lit” genre label?

A. There are writers in commercial women’s fiction who get really worked up, and they blog about [the label] and rail against the establishment. I can empathize and understand that frustration, but at the same time, it’s a waste of energy. I look at what the readers and writers of the romance genre have done in creating a parallel universe where they sell millions of books to readers who know these writers are good. They don’t need the stamp of approval. And what I love about my readers is that they are far more sophisticated, in my opinion, than most literary critics, and far less insecure. At the end of the day, people are reading my books and communicating directly with me, thanks to technology.

Q. Like social media?

A. Absolutely. Social media is terrifying to corporate media because you can make or break a movie with one tweet. You look at someone like Selena Gomez who has over four million followers on Twitter, and that’s more influence than the entire New York Times. If she sends out a tweet to millions of kids saying “Buy this book,” they will. So it’s uncharted territory, and it will be interesting to see what happens.

Q. Can you describe the premise of your seventh and latest novel, The Three Kings: A Christmas Dating Story?

A. I wanted to come up with an idea that was very identifiable to Hispanics. In a way, many of us, not all of us, grew up with the Three Kings. My father didn’t celebrate Christmas in Cuba the way we do here, but he celebrated El Día de los Tres Reyes — that’s when he got his gifts. So, I wanted to pay homage, but I also wanted to make the novel a contemporary chica lit book that modern women of all backgrounds could relate to. So, it’s about a woman going through some difficult times and trying to fix herself with self-help books about dating, like that very outdated book, The Rules. That book is still being read and suggests you should date three men at once, but none of them seriously. That got me thinking about The Three Kings, and what if a woman starts dating three cousins who are all named Reyes?

Q. Can you tell us more about The Rules? Do they have any value?

A. It’s a very old-fashioned approach, and I had sort of dismissed it for a long time. But after my own difficult divorce, which has a lot in common with Christy’s actually, and trying to start dating again in my late 30s and early 40s, I started to think, “Am I doing something wrong that I’m attracting this kind of bad people to me?” I started looking at these books again and, for all of their old-fashioned values that some people would dismiss as anti-feminist, there are some good points. The Rules to me represents the same thing that the Catholic church and traditional Hispanic culture represent in this book, and that is that there are lots of things we can dismiss about these time-honored traditions, but there is also wisdom in them.

Q. Do you have any advice for our readers who are recently divorced, 45-plus and dating again for the first time?

A. The best advice I can give someone on dating is to never follow my advice on dating. Look at me. Why would you do that to yourself? Terrible idea.

Q. How would you describe Christy de la Cruz, the narrator and main character of The Three Kings?

A. She is a talented, motivated and very successful person who has been through a difficult divorce. I see her as being like a lot of girls and women I knew growing up in New Mexico. She has a foot in the South Valley of Albuquerque, which is more the lower-middle-class Hispanic area, and then she has her other foot in the Northeast Heights, which is sort of the more well-to-do area. She is trying to figure out how to navigate her life and feel at home somewhere because there are things she loves about both places and these two places can rarely come together.

Q. This class tension seems to play out most dramatically in Christy’s relationship with her mother.

A. Christy grew up in a humble house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and her mother was very thrifty and always taking Christy to swap meets and thrift stores. They’d spend hours there, and her mother would be combing through all kinds of cheap junk looking for that one little gem, and she filled her house with knick-knacks. Part of Christy's impetus for wanting to be a designer was to not have this house of mismatched junk. But she is at a point in her life now of becoming an adult. How many of us dismiss everything about our parents as a process of separating psychologically only to realize we become, at a certain age, very much like them, and we start to respect them? Christy is realizing that her mother — within the constraints of her economic situation — had also been an interior designer, and that’s why they would spend hours and hours searching, otherwise Mom would just have picked up any old junk.

Q. What are you currently working on? Do you still have plans to start your own publishing company?

A. I’m currently working on this young adult series called The Kindred, and it’s coming out next year. I have no immediate plans to start my own publishing company, I think that’s a few years off. I want to wait and see what happens with The Dirty Girls TV show and these other projects that I’m taking on. I’m also trying to write a movie that is not based on a book at all.

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