Puerto Rican poet Elisabet Velasquez has penned her first novel and it’s a fast-paced roller coaster of a read that will hit home for many. Elisabet is a Brooklyn-born Nuyorican and mom-of-two who writes about what she knows best: her own experience and those of other women like her. When We Make It is a Young Adult novel-in-verse about an insightful first-generation 14-year-old Puerto Rican girl named Sarai. She dreams of one day escaping the poverty and hopelessness of her Bushwick neighborhood, without any solid idea on how to do so but a gut feeling that she can.
The book takes place in the ’90s when drugs and crime pervaded the now nearly gentrified neighborhood, and the book’s protagonist is a girl who inexplicably doesn’t let the fear and anger of her circumstances consume her. She accepts her life as the youngest child of a single, once-abused mother who can barely keep her children fed. She accepts the welfare checks that keep her family afloat and her mother’s deteriorating mental health. She accepts her family’s constant need to move from one ramshackle, neglected apartment to another and the fact that her life is different in a way that many people will never understand. But she’s not totally accepting of her place within those circumstances.
“I guess what I’m saying is that I think I’m talented,” Sarai explains matter of factly, early on in the book. She possesses a glimmer of hope that seems to have no basis in reality but thrives despite difficult circumstances. Sarai is very aware and stays up to date with the news. She picks up on the fact that the presence of her “cool white teacher,” is a sign of what’s to come. Sarai has never really seen hard work pay off, but she sort of thinks it can, and dares to think that maybe she’ll “make it” if she can figure out what to work hard at.
Using the inner workings of Sarai’s mind, Elisabet touches on a number of topics that feel authentic and almost too relatable to Puerto Ricans who grew up in the tri-state area during that time, and to some degree, many young people growing up today.
It’s the looming gentrification, it’s the way she discusses the mental health stigma that still exists in the Latinx community, the poverty, the drugs, the reliance on Medicaid, the colorism, and the pride. It’s the “feeling” of being Boricua—a “feeling” that so many of us born and raised in the United States years after our families made roots here have, but can scarcely explain.
“Can I be Puerto Rican? If the closest I’ve come to the beach is la pompa? If I can’t dance salsa? If all I got is a feeling? Can I be Puerto Rican,” Elisabet writes in her rhythmic style with words that so many of us who grew up like Sarai—and Elisabet herself—understand fully without having to give the words a second thought.
Like Sarai, we burst with pride in our culture, we love being Boricua, but we question whether we have the right to claim it. Sarai, knows she’s American, but everything she does is Puerto Rican. Like so many of us, she does not fit perfectly into either culture, but both inform how she sees herself and the world around her. Elisabet illustrates the complexity of our identities with such honesty and accuracy that there is no doubt she’s speaking from her own experience.
“I used to journal a lot of the things that were forbidden or I couldn’t say out loud as a kid,” Elisabet tols HipLatina just ahead of the When We Make It release. “My mother found my journals once and threw them all out. That’s when I started journaling in my brain. I would recount my day vividly, any questions I had about my life. If my story was memorized no one could ever take it from me again,” she explained. ” Going back to newspapers helped me recall memories about how I grew up and tie them into this novel.”
Although it falls into the YA genre, When We Make It is not teeny bopper fodder. Much like Dominican poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s first novel, The Poet X, When We Make It is raw and painful and sometimes difficult to read, the way that anything that reminds us of our own hurts can be. But, it’s beautiful in its ugliness. This is a book for teens yes, but it’s a book for teens who want to think and to be seen but it’s also a book for women.
When We Make It brings the lived experience of many Boricua women to the forefront. It is representation at its most real, and while it may make readers feel exposed, it does so in a wonderfully cathartic way. To read it feels almost as if you are sitting down with your bestie and a café con leche, and telling her all about how you grew up and what it took for you to “make it” too.
“My target audience is anyone who has a story but has a hard time telling it,” Elisabet told us. “Or those who believe literature is for not for us because for a long time that’s what the dominant narrative said. Our life experiences are worthy of being archived. So many of our stories are out there just hidden from us. We can make ourselves visible.”
When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez will be available online and from booksellers everywhere on September 21, 2021.