By Andreina Rodriguez
Lorraine Avila's debut YA novel, The Making of Yolanda La Bruja, draws from her own experiences as an educator. She’s taught in schools throughout New York and, when she taught in California, Avila recalled growing frustrated by the violent rhetoric she witnessed towards Black and brown students, as well as her fellow teachers. “I also started to see how discarded Black and Brown educators were, even though they were literally the backbone of the school I was working in,” she said. “As I was writing this book, I think I was dealing with all of that trauma as a teacher.”
The Bronx-born storyteller sought to capture the often-overlooked true relationships between teachers and students. The result is a powerful and emotional novel that sheds light on the realities of teaching in America today.
Out on April 11 from Levine Querido, The Making of Yolanda La Bruja follows the journey of Yolanda Alvarez, a 16-year-old girl who is confident about her initiation into her family's bruja tradition until a white boy appears at her South Bronx high school with troubling vibes. Yolanda's initiation begins with a series of visions that reveal the violence he threatens to bring into Julia De Burgos High and her community. As Yolanda struggles to protect those she loves, she draws upon the wisdom and love of her family, friends, and ancestors, the Brujas Diosas.
This story is a timely tale that explores the intersection of race, justice, education, and spirituality. And it's one that delivers a powerful message to both young adults and adults.
Avila spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about piecing together her novel, the heavy topic of school shootings and gun violence, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on The Making of Yolanda La Bruja. This is your debut YA novel and first traditionally published book. How did the process of writing Yolanda differ from your previous books, Malcriada & Other Stories and Celestial Summer? I think the process of The Making of Yolanda La Bruja was definitely more character-driven because it’s a YA novel. This was the first time that I really had to pay careful attention to an antagonist. At the beginning, part of the reason that it wasn't selling with anyone was because they were like, “It just can't be a bad white boy.” That's something we see in a lot of movies like Marvel, where the antagonist is really obvious. Even if we hate them, we do know why they're doing the thing they're doing. Even if it's a wrong reason for us, we understand them so much better by knowing their why. And so I had to get really deep into Ben. Maybe it's also because I've taught white kids throughout my career as a teacher, and because I know that part of the reason why so many white kids, specifically, are having some hard time with their identity is that adults aren't doing that work, either. Who was really helping them through that process? Black and Brown kids, as we know, it's been bad for us. There are so many stories right now about being a Black Dominican girl and growing up without knowing how to fix your hair, like Wash Day Diaries (by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith) and Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega. There are so many books that talk about the ways in which being Black or Brown or being some sort of racialized person, how your family's desire to be in proximity to whiteness complicates your life somehow. But for white kids, I don't think there's anyone holding their hand through this process of identity work.
I remember sometimes I would tell my mom, “Oh I feel ugly” because I had a white sister and I was racialized more than her. My mom would be like, “No, pero tu eres bella.” I had someone who was at least trying to hold my hand through this very specific process, versus someone like Ben who has these very liberal progressive parents, but no one is holding their hand through navigating what being white means in this country, what it means historically, and what it means for you to constantly be checking yourself out in the streets – in a world where white supremacy is uplifted.
School shootings and gun violence are always really heavy to talk about. We’re speaking on the heels of yet another shooting in Nashville. You portray it all in your book — the media, the politics of it all, etc. What inspired you to write The Making of Yolanda La Bruja with this plot? We know that it's not the norm for Black, Brown, and white kids to be in the same school together in New York City, which is the most diverse city in the world. And so I made it a point in my last few years of teaching to teach in desegregated schools, where folks were together. At first, it seemed like a beautiful look toward the future. But as I was getting my master's at NYU for teaching and doing research specifically on the voices of Black and brown girls inside the ELA classroom, I started realizing that there were these brilliant girls. And, the further we got into the school year, the less they were participating. In the beginning they were great, and then they started dwindling. When I started the research with them, what they told me was that they felt the bias in the classroom where they will say something. Maybe not with five-dollar words, but they will say that. And then a white kid will talk after them and say it in a more eloquent five-dollar word type of way, and they would get the credit versus when they (the Black and brown girls) were saying it. So little by little, they just stopped participating.
I started thinking about what this would look like in the worst-case scenario. The students were already feeling unsafe in expressing their voices, and they were already segregating themselves in the lunchroom. So that's where the school shooting idea came from. As a teacher in California, I had to do so many shooter drills with my students. I had to think about where to hide in the classroom. It got to a point where “school shooting” was so prevalent in my mind.
Yolanda as a character holds a lot of traits. She’s a 16-year-old Black Dominican American girl who is partially deaf and also a bruja-in-training, and we learn even more about her throughout the novel. Is there anyone in your life who inspired this character? I have a few friends who are partially deaf. My best friend had hearing aid devices growing up. I had to go through speech therapy because I had a speech impediment. I don't see a lot of Black or Brown girls in fiction or YA being shown as having a physical sensory disability. I wanted to include that because I think it’s important for us to see each other more. I've honestly never read a story about a girl who has a speech impediment, and so my whole life I grew up feeling like I had to learn how to speak. … That's something that still follows me to this day.
I was traveling with my best friends to Ghana when I got called by my editor. He asked if we should put cochlear implants on Yolanda on the cover. I asked my friend if she agreed and she thought it was a great idea. She said she would’ve been so happy had she seen this when she was growing up instead of feeling weird wearing hers, because kids were kids. Inclusivity wasn't pushed in the way that it has been now. There's been so much work around bullying and inclusivity that just didn't exist in the 90s or the early 2000s.
Throughout the book, Yolanda has difficulty processing her visions and the vibes she feels from Ben. But it also was interesting to see how her best friend, Victory, calls out Yolanda’s unintentional need to protect Ben, a white boy. Victory also calls out how things would look different if the new kid was Black or brown. Can you talk a bit about that?
I feel like we have so much bias, whether you're Black or brown. And some of us – based on that bias – give certain people the benefit of the doubt versus others, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. I don't think that Yolanda was doing it intentionally. In the beginning, she’s optimistic to a fault and Victory’s like, “Girl, what are you talking about?” I wanted to reflect on the actual realities of girl friendships at this age. You’re best friends, but a lot of friendships fall to the wayside at this age because you’re also forming your own opinions. I wanted them to have some tension, and I wanted them to both be able to deal with that tension and come out stronger because of it.
As you know, Dominicans have this thing around religion and spirituality that can be a bit contradictory. While the book is about Yolanda La Bruja, you still touch on religion, and even those who say they don’t believe in Brujeria still kind of believe. Can you walk us through your decision to write about these contradictions in our culture? I was actually laughing this morning because my best friend, who I went to Ghana with, sent me this meme of this mom thinking that there's a spirit in her daughter's car. But this is a dead-ass serious video. And she's like, “Ay baja la ventana, que las única gente que tienen que estar aquí es La Virgen y San Miguel.” And it sounded so funny because I thought, a Catholic will say Jesus, but he says San Miguel. That cracks me up because this is what I mean. I wanted to really give credit to Dominican voodoo, I’ll only say this here because it’s the Dominican Writers, but, for example, las 21 divisiones, I feel like it’s ingrained in all parts of our life and culture. And we hid it on purpose. That was part of the way the religion could survive to this day. I’m happy there aren’t any people out here that are not connected to the culture who practice the tradition all willy-nilly in the same way that we see other traditions and religious practices being performed by outsiders who don’t pay reverence to that religion or practice. I’m glad about the secrecy when it comes to the outer world, but when it comes to us, I want us to be more honest about how spiritual we actually are. Growing up, my biological father had an entire altar, and it became a fight between him and my mom. He died when I was young, but I still have memories of him with the saints and making a quick stop at the botanica, and him mentioning San Miguel. His name was Miguel, too.
Growing up, I started having dreams and asking more questions. I had a specific experience that led me to talk to my father's family for the first time. I spoke to one of my aunts, and it turns out that my grandfather was a really known priestess in San Pedro de Macorís for all of his life, essentially. It's not a unique experience for me and my family. I know this exists in most Dominican families, and so I just want us to be more honest about that. And to also stop calling everything demonic just because it's connected to literal ways that many of our African ancestors were able to keep their practices alive and also were able to bring their indigenous magic to another side of the world and infuse it with another religion in order to help it survive. What is more magical than that?
There’s so much about this book that I love because it goes into so much without it feeling like you were trying to cram everything in it. You touch on racial injustice, police brutality, white privilege, Dominican culture, and spirituality. You also incorporate the dynamics between Yolanda’s different relationships with: her bestie, Victory; her mother and Mama Teté, her father, and the romance between Yolanda and José. Tell us about what it was like crafting these unique relationships. Were you aiming for a greater message on how relationships shape us?
I made Yolanda’s chart very specific. She's essentially Cardi B because she’s a Libra sun, Aries moon, and Gemini rising. I wanted Yolanda to be someone who was introverted, but a social butterfly at the same time. I think Yolanda really wants to build community and sections of safety in the world, and so that means that she has to rely on relationships. At the same time, I wanted to be honest about how relationships look like in our specific communities. There are caring adults that somehow brought you into the world or chose to have you. I wanted to play on that because so many of us are raised partly or fully by grandparents. I wanted to give the relationships texture. Mama Teté and Yolanda have a very specific and strong spiritual connection, but they don't always see eye to eye.
Yolanda’s mom had her very young with someone who cheated on her, who was abandoned when she was only six years old and given to another family in DR. She was struggling. So it makes sense that someone like that would give their daughter to Mama Teté as their primary caregiver. Yolanda has some judgment and resentment towards her mother, but she’s also very understanding about the fact that her mom didn’t have her under the best conditions, and she’s trying the best she can.
Even though Yolanda loses her dad to the criminal justice system, she quickly bounces back from that because she can have honest conversations with him and he instantly takes accountability. With José, I am realizing that romantic relationships are places we just go to practice. You can use any relationship for that, but romantic relationships are a very specific type of practice. I wish I would have known that at Yolanda's age, because I started dating very young. We see that Yolanda accepts love to some degree, though she struggles to reciprocate it. When she does finally reciprocate, she also has this abandonment wound. It comes from this place of, “My mom abandoned me. My dad abandoned me. Yes, they’ve come back, but the abandonment still hurts.” I wanted to make Yolanda someone who can be really reflective of that but still mess up because she's only 16.
I wanted the relationships in the book to all have textures of imperfections and all the good parts, where we can really see the atom of a community of the people in the world around us. We say “community,” but Alejandro Heredia wrote about how we say “community” and what we mean is the different things that make us not feel alone, that make us feel like we're part of something. Maybe you don't talk to the bodeguero every day, but if you go a week without passing by there, he's gonna notice. And so I just wanted to make that really obvious in this book.
What do you hope that readers take away from The Making of Yolanda La Bruja?
I hope my readers take away to believe Black and Brown girls, period. To believe Black and Brown girls, to facilitate the world for Black and Brown girls, to believe in the magic within them, and to uplift them. To love us so much that you’re gonna uplift yourself to do that work.
When it comes to the spiritual practices in here, I would just love to see a day in which Caribbeans, Dominicans, and all people from Black diasporas stop believing that Indigenous practices are Satanic. That Indigenous practice literally connected to the earth, to the universe, to natural elements are not working against us. They're of us and we are of it, and so I would love to see each other more in practice with the natural elements around us. How can you incorporate that into your daily practice? And if you are a religious person, how can you open your mind around that? I think those would be good starters.
And for white folks, I would say do your identity work. Be so set on your identity work that you can hold the hand of a white child and guide them through their white identity work, and not leave that work to their Black teachers, Black friends, etc., That you as a parent or caring adult of this white child in the U.S. right now can guide this child through this process.
About the Author:
Lorraine Avila (she/they) is a Bronxite with Caribbean roots in the Dominican Republic. Her mission is to continue to rupture traditions of silence. She is the author of Malcriada and Other Stories (DWA ‘19), Celestial Summer (Spring 2022), and The Making of Yolanda La Bruja (forthcoming Spring 2023 from Levine Querido). Avila has a BA in English from Fordham University and an MAT in Secondary English education from NYU. She will receive an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh in Spring 2023, where she teaches Intro to Fiction and Composition.
Andreina Rodriguez is a journalist from Queens, New York. Her work appears on all 12 NBC local websites, Refinery29, CNBC, Latino Rebels, The Mujerista, #WeAllGrow Latina, and Modern Brown Girl.
You can follow her on Twitter @andreina_rodrgz and follow her work through andreinarodriguez.com.