By Amaris Castillo
When she's not at school, 13-year-old Maya and the three generations of Calderones can be found at Café Taza, their family-owned restaurant with its vibrant walls, sandwiches de pernil, and comida criolla. They all carry a familial duty to help at the beloved eatery. But while Maya works, her mind is sometimes elsewhere. She's had these vivid recurring dreams that usually begin by the seashore. In them appears a tiny woman with dark skin and piercing emerald eyes. She’s dressed in all white and dons multicolored beads around her neck.
“The vision of her is arresting,” Maya recounts, “but even more so: the feeling of her around me is intense.” Her strange dreams have become more frequent recently. And sometimes there’s another female voice calling her to the ocean. Maya can’t explain why, but she feels like this voice is distinct from the woman she sees in her sleep. Perhaps it’s more like a spirit, or a song.
Everything becomes clear once Maya’s Titi Yaya shows up unannounced one day at Café Taza. The curandera is Abuela Chacha's long-estranged sister, and she came all the way to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico. Most stunningly, she's also the same woman from Maya's dreams. Abuela Chacha wants to keep the Calderon kids away from Titi Yaya because she is a member of a part of the family known as “los locos.” But Maya feels this tremendous pull to get to know this mysterious great-aunt who she’d never met before. She has so many questions and sets out to not only answer them, but to try to repair this decades-long rift that has affected the entire family.
Out on Sept. 26 by Levine Querido, Salsa Magic is a beautiful and at-times humorous story about family, Santería, and the ways in which we honor and preserve our heritage. Maya, who juggles school, soccer, and her shifts at Café Taza, is a memorable protagonist. She is bright, hilarious, and a bit defiant. Throughout this book, she's able to bring readers on a journey with her as she learns about her own Yoruba heritage.
Author Letisha Marrero, who is of Puerto Rican and Black Dominican descent, spent years crafting and revising this story after becoming interested in learning more about Santería. She also did a ton of research into the diasporic religion. “I wanted to pay homage to that – and that part of our history,” she said.
Ahead of her book’s release, Marrero spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about the inspiration behind Salsa Magic, generational differences, and other themes in her debut middle grade novel.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on Salsa Magic! I read that this story was years in the making. What inspired you to write this novel?
It’s a story that’s been in my head for about 20 years now. I read a book from a Santería priestess, and I was so fascinated by it. I learned about all the Orishas and I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I know about this? Why is this the first I’m hearing about this?’ Because I used to love Greek and Roman mythology growing up. So I was like, ‘This would make a great story’ because I know kids are really into mythology, like I was as a kid.
I started doing some research on Santería and delved more and more into it. And I had had this idea about this character, Maya, for a long time, too. I was like, ‘Well, what if I mix them together?’ So I started to do that, and the story kind of came to me naturally. I’d written a book because I had a deal with a large publishing house and they wanted me to write something about a quinceañera. I told them I had never been to a quinceañera in my life, and so I couldn’t write what I don’t know. I said, ‘Let me come up with something different,’ and I gave them that. After some back-and-forth, they ended up rejecting it.
So I was sitting here on this novel, and I just didn’t know what to do with it. I thought maybe fiction wasn’t for me, so I left it behind and continued on my career as an entertainment journalist writing for The Source and other types of hip-hop magazines.
It wasn’t until maybe five or 10 years later that I picked it up again. I said, ‘You know what? There’s something here.’ I don’t know how many times I revised it. I had an agent who was interested in the story, and so I brought it to her. She really liked it. But again, more revisions… until we finally had something that was pitch-ready. Levine Querido saw its potential. After more revisions, we finally got to this final product, which is what Salsa Magic is today.
Your book centers around Maya, a 13-year-old Brooklyn girl who feels compelled to learn more about the Santería religion. Many people in our community know of Santería, but don’t really know about Santería. What fueled you to center this diasporic religion in your book?
The more I learned about it, the more respect I wanted to have for it. I wanted to tell something that was somewhat authentic. I am not a practicing person in the religion, so I had only just done my research. So I wanted to pay homage to that – and that part of our history. That’s part of why I made Papi be this historian that could tell Maya about her heritage and her background.
I wanted people to know about this, because it is usually kept in secret. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it. They call it brujería. I just kind of fell into this story with Titi Yaya – the mysterious great-aunt who kind of holds the secret – and Maya, who is so curious that she wants to defy all of her family just so she can be with this woman who has invaded her dreams.
There is a lot of information about Santería sprinkled throughout. Can you talk about your research process for this book?
It started with The Altar of My Soul that got me interested in it. And then another book – I think it’s called The Orishas… So I got a lot of information from those two books. Of course, I did a lot of Internet searches and looked for articles that were published in The New York Times back in 2015 or so. And there were several people blogging about it. So I just gleaned a lot of information and kind of wove it all together.
Before Maya begins to learn about her Yoruba heritage, she has recurring dreams, in which she hears the ocean calling her. Tell us about the importance of the ocean and water in your story.
I wanted to show that she was connected to Yemaya without her even knowing that she was connected to this orisha. Yemaya is the goddess of the seven seas. She’s often depicted as a mermaid and every drop of water – from the river to the raindrops – belongs to her. So I really wanted to show that Maya was connected to Santería in this way, and that she was predestined to do this. And by meeting Titi Taya, she was fulfilling her destiny.
What do you hope Salsa Magic does in our collective understanding of Santería?
Maya is a character that I always wanted to be. She’s smart and she’s sassy, and she’s athletic and she’s adventurous. And a little bit defiant. The defiant part I had down pat as a kid, but everything else was just kind of aspirational. I wanted to create a character that kids could look up to and admire, and could relate to, because that was something that I never had as a kid.
I want Latine kids, in particular, to know their history. And I also want to educate non-Latine people about our history beyond what they’ve seen portrayed on TV, which may be stereotypical or negative, even. And just show a loving family loving each other in a positive way.
Maya’s maternal side of the family are described as “los locos.” They’re treated as outcasts. Let’s talk about that. I have heard that term many times – someone will call someone a ‘loco’ to dismiss them. What message were you hoping to send about our culture by describing relatives in this way?
Yeah. I mean, I have that in my own family, so I was basically writing from experience on that. It is pervasive in our culture. If somebody is skinny, you call them ‘flaco.’ If somebody is chubby, you call them ‘gordita.’ So if they see that you’re a little bit off, they just call you ‘loco.’ It was something that I had experienced, and I knew that probably other Latine families had somebody in their family who they call ‘la loca’ or a ‘loco.’
There’s a storyline here about how different generations handle conflict with their loved ones. Maya’s Abuela Chacha and her sister, Titi Yaya, have been estranged for years. One can say Chacha is incredibly stubborn and cold. Tell us about the decision to highlight this kind of rigidness in a character and, more broadly, older generation?
Yeah, but she also has a tender side, too – so I wanted to show that duality. I’m sure we all have family members who are strict on one hand, but you know they love them. I wanted to make that duality as part of her character. Her character reminded me of the mother in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate – who was much more domineering and scary.
I just wanted to picture this little woman who had so much power. She was talented and led this glamorous life, but now she just wants to protect her family. And she thinks that by doing this, that she’s protecting her family.
On another personal note, Maya is experiencing her first major crush on her soccer teammate. What can you tell us about that?
This is an offshoot of the story that came to me naturally. I wasn’t intending on doing this. It was towards the end of my editing process that I decided to make her have a first crush-love story. And it’s not even a love story. It’s really a testimony to that time in your life where you’re just not sure about anything. You’re asking yourself questions, and you don’t know if you’re normal or not. Does this person like me or not? Am I too much? Too little? I wanted to try to capture that in those moments between the characters. Nothing is overt. It’s just kind of implied, and I did that by intention. I just wanted people to take away from that whatever they want to take away.
In Salsa Magic, Maya begins to learn about her ancestral religion. There’s something I found really beautiful about this passing of knowledge, in real time. What were you hoping to capture in those scenes?
I’ve always loved intergenerational stories. My abuela, who I never really knew very well, died when I was about 19. But growing up, my parents didn’t teach us Spanish, and she didn’t speak any English. So I really never got to know the person that she was. And that makes me sad now, because I know she had this rich, incredible history that I just couldn’t tap into.
So I wanted to show a relationship between the generations, to show how important our elders are and to not take them for granted. Because the relationship is so special. The story is about family bonds, and what ties them. Maya turns into the bridge that bridges the generations together.
What are you hoping readers take away from Salsa Magic?
I hope they laugh, for one. I tried to make it humorous and entertaining. I hope they really feel the characters and can see themselves in one of the characters, because there are so many to choose from. Including Araceli, the woman who runs the Dominican salon around the corner.
I want people to understand their history, or the Afro-Caribbean history that all of us in the Caribbean share. I’ve always been like a teacher, and I want to teach people through my writing. I had a psychic tell me that I was meant to write, and that I was meant to teach people through my writing. So I’ve always taken that to heart. I want people to just walk away with the feeling that maybe they’ll go and call their abuela. Maybe they will feel inspired to do something great, because we all have greatness within us.
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About the Author:
Letisha Marrero has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years across all media and genres. As a culture critic and entertainment journalist, she has written for Latina magazine, The Source, Vibe, NBC, Nickelodeon, and more. Of Puerto Rican and Black Dominican descent, Letisha hails from New York City by way of Southern California. Mom to a super dope human teenager and a majestic but moody blue-eyed dog, Letisha currently lives in Maryland. Salsa Magic is her first novel.
Amaris Castillo is an award-winning journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Aster(ix) Journal, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms Be Like… (part of the Dominican Writers Association’s #DWACuenticos chapbook series), and most recently Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology and Sana, Sana: Latinx Pain and Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Her short story, “El Don,” was a prize finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. She is a proud member of Latinx in Publishing’s Writers Mentorship Class of 2023 and lives in Florida with her family and dog, Brooklyn.