Afro-Latinx stories remain underrepresented and underappreciated in the Latinx community, the publishing industry, and beyond. Bronx-based Afro-Dominican writer Lorraine Avila might know this better than many. Not only is she unafraid to call out anti-Blackness in Latinidad, but also to place a Black girl front and center as she does in her debut young adult novel. Released April 11, The Making of Yolanda la Bruja follows Yolanda Alvarez, a bruja-in-training who, under the guidance of her grandmother Mamá Teté and spiritual guides the Brujas Diosas, does readings, interprets energy, and trusts in her family’s tradition to lead her to successful initiation. But when Ben, a white boy and the son of a politician, starts attending her Bronx high school and harassing BIPOC students, she begins experiencing visions of violence, guns, and fear. Suddenly everything she cares about—her best friend Victory, her crush José, her classmates, her family—is threatened, and only with the help of her community and ancestors can she save them all, and herself.
She began working on the book in 2016 during Donald Trump’s election while she was working as a teacher at a desegregated school with a diverse student body. Though she initially thought of it as a haven and an example of what schools should look like, she shares that she realized it wasn’t as idyllic once reality set in.
“At first, I thought it was a utopia, that this is what our country should be striving for. But I quickly learned that those environments are often unsafe for Black and brown students, specifically because white people have not sat with the repercussions of slavery in this country, immigrants being sent off to camps to work, immigration laws and what they do to children and families. It led to really violent experiences in the classroom where Black and brown students were scared about the future of their life and their families,” Avila tells HipLatina.
She shares that this led to a small group of white students embracing right-wing ideologies, notably without immediate repercussions from white teachers.The statistics of school shooters being young white men, not to mention the BIPOC folks who often end up becoming their victims, became “an elephant in the room” no one wanted to talk about, even if it could’ve prevented potential harm. When she lived and taught in both Brooklyn and in San Francisco, Avila faced this violence and trauma, which ultimately shaped what Yolanda goes through in the novel.
It was storytelling that helped her work through this. Growing up in a family of storytellers, she learned the importance of both oral and written storytelling traditions among her family and community. She would write letters to her family members in the Dominican Republic when her grandmother traveled to visit and listen to anecdotes of the people around her. In college, she tried to deny this connection at first, embarking on a pre-med track “and failing beautifully” before following her and her grandmother’s intuition and switching to English and creative writing with a minor in Middle East Studies. To make ends meet after graduation, she became a teacher and later quit in 2019 to become a full-time writer to embark on a project she always wanted to pursue: write a novel.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic began in 2020 that she felt emotionally ready to revisit these difficult settings and experiences, entering a writing and revision process that was both challenging and freeing. She continued to advocate for herself in the face of more than 30 rejections and industry feedback that told her to make her book more “appealing” even if it meant sacrificing the integrity of the story.
“Agents said no to me when I said I wouldn’t take the school shooting out or I wouldn’t translate. Or said, ‘This is going to be hard to sell this way’ or that it would be best for me and my book,” she shares. “But I do believe there’s space for us and for us to tell the full-picture of our lived experiences. There might be readers who don’t appreciate any of the moves I made and that’s okay. But writing clearly about the violence that serves as the background to many of our lives in the US was what was best for me. I always want to live in integrity to the truth of my culture, to my people, to the places I come from. I don’t want to flip for whiteness or publishing or money when it comes to my voice, my story, and what my soul and writing voice are telling me. Truly, this entire experience has made me as brave as Yolanda.”
One aspect of Yolanda that was absolutely crucial to the story and yet “unappealing” without obvious translations to some industry professionals was the use of Spanish, specifically a Black Dominican dialect. For Avila, this was non-negotiable and for a very good reason.
“Black people are probably the smartest people on the planet,” she says. “Because no matter where we are in the world, we’re always trying to communicate faster to get a point across. We cut every word. We make up our own words. We pull from Indigenous languages in Africa and the Caribbean that have been tried to be erased from us. We’ve literally merged these languages into our contemporary language to keep them alive. I love the shit out of Black Dominican Spanish. It’s my favorite way to speak, so I wanted to make sure that it was in the book, that it was respected and seen, and that it was as authentic as possible to the way in which I and the people in my community speak.”
Besides her personal experiences and language that she blends with Yolanda’s story, what makes the novel so powerful is also how much it reflects and complements Avila’s nonfiction work throughout the years. With bylines in outlets like Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Latino USA, and others, she explores themes of Black and brown girlhood, her experiences as an Afro-Caribbean, and how issues of colorism, racism, abuse, mental health, and machismo manifest in Afro-Latinx communities. These very real issues become fictionalized, and yet stay true, in her novel, where the titular character faces harassment from men within her community, panic attacks and anxiety, doubt from adults, and racist behavior from white Latinxs and larger societal systems.
“These themes are somehow always weaved in with what I truly care about out in the world and in our real lives in both my fiction and nonfiction work,” she explains. “So I have really appreciated that these platforms have allowed me the freedom to talk about this in a way that’s not a made-up story. I’m exploring these themes straight up, with facts and information. It’s not just for clicks because this is a constant struggle. My belief is that stories, in whatever genre of storytelling, can expose wounds and help us move towards a future in which we’re not all constantly hurting and constantly triggered. Where we’re moving towards freedom.”
Doing so has allowed her to create a character who jumps off the page with vivacity, boldness, and energy, giving rise to a new role model for young girls of color. Yolanda is strong, straight-forward, confident. She tells it like it is and doesn’t hide her true feelings about anything or anyone. But she is also given permission both from the story and the characters in the novel to be soft, to grieve, to not feel the pressure to save everyone as Black girls and women are often expected to do. She doesn’t just survive; she thrives under the light of love from her people.
“She’s surrounded by a community that allows her to be imperfect,” Avila says. “Our communities are always telling us that we have to be four times as best, as good as the person next to us, that we have to be on our best behavior, that we have to think about respectability politics if we want to have success in any area of our life. But Yolanda’s allowed to make mistakes. I also love that she is someone who deeply believes in herself, in her community, and in her powers as a person and as a bruja. She’s shaken by the things going on around her but she’s not really doubting herself. She questions things in certain moments but she doesn’t doubt that this is all leading to the best version of herself possible.”
Her next novel, which she has been working on 2011, will again explore Afro-Caribbean identity, specifically the repercussions of displacement, enslavement, and embodiment, and how ommunity members stick together through the highs and lows to preserve futures. For now, Yolanda is a masterclass in empowering the youth to reclaim what is theirs. She notes:
“I want young people of color, especially of African descent, to understand how to listen to the voice within them that speaks their truth and validates their existence and affirms their thought process. The world and the adults in their lives spend a lot of time indoctrinating kids with information that debilitates that natural ability to trust their guts, their intuition, who they are, that they’re making the right decisions,” she says.
“And for Black and brown girls, I want them to speak up against abusive practices of misogyny where boys or men have the power to disrespect you with nothing being done about it. Where we’re told that being submissive is how we are good girls or women. We all know that’s a lie. You don’t have to sit there and take it. In taking that space, I would love to see a world where Black and brown kids are free, living unapologetically and being who they want to be. I want that for all of our kids, but especially for Black and brown girls.”