In this episode, Karma Chávez talks with writer, Yasmín Ramírez about her new memoir, ¡Ándale, Prieta! A Love Letter to My Family, published by Lee and Low Books.
Writer Yasmín Ramírez discusses why she published her memoir, the importance of the women in her life and telling their stories, and she offers advice for those who are thinking about writing their stories.
Resources / Related Links:
- Yasmín RamírezAssociate Professor of English, Creative Writing, and Chicanx Literature at El Paso Community College.
- Karma R. ChávezAssociate Professor and Chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin | @queermigrations
[00:00:00] Intro: You’re listening to Latin Experts, a podcast of Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin Latin Experts features the voices of faculty, staff, and students, as well as friends and alumni of the Department of Mexican, American and Latino. Latino studies, the Latino Research Institute and the Center for Mexican American Studies, join us for this episode of Latinxperts.
[00:00:43] Karma Chavez: Thank you for listening to Latinxperts, and today we’re going to ask the question, how do we tell our family’s stories? Telling our stories and our own voices and on our own terms has been long a concern for Latinx artists, writers, and other creatives in media, artistic and publishing environments saturated by whiteness and white viewpoints.
[00:01:05] Karma Chavez: It can be challenging for Latinx creators to make their own space. This is why books like Yasmín, Ramirez’s new memoir. “Ándale, Prieta!, A love letter to my family” published by Lee & Low Books are so important. “Ándale, Prieta!” Is an honest and often gut wrenching story of Ramirez’s family in the borderlands between El Paso and Juarez.
[00:01:26] Karma Chavez: The book centers the lives and stories of the women in her family and depicts their relationships with each other, with the men who come in and out of their lives and with the politics of race, class, and gender. The book is already received, wide acclaim. Kirkus Reviews called the book a promising debut, gripping in its Honesty.
[00:01:46] Karma Chavez: And Marina Felix Kim wrote for Latinxs in Publishing, "I highly recommend this memoir if you’re looking for an incredible life story that is written beautifully." And so I’m excited that our guest today is Yasmín Ramirez. 2021 Martha’s Institute of Creative Writing Author Fellow, as well as a 2020 recipient of the Woody and Gale Hunt Aspen Institute Fellowship Award.
[00:02:10] Karma Chavez: Her fiction in creative nonfiction works have appeared Cream City Review and Huizache among others. She is an associate professor of English Creative Writing and Chicanx Literature at El Paso Community College. Yasmín, welcome to Latinxperts.
[00:02:27] Yasmin Ramirez: Hi Karma. Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to get to chat with you.
[00:02:32] Karma Chavez: I’m so pumped as well. And let me just start by saying your book is fantastic and I hope everybody gets out and reads it right away.
[00:02:39] Yasmin Ramirez: Thank you. Thank you so much.
[00:02:41] Karma Chavez: So what prompted you to publish a memoir?
[00:02:44] Yasmin Ramirez: The memoir started as a way of mourning the loss of my grandmother. And so initially if you asked me when I first first started it, and it was in its bits and chunks of just me trying to capture my memories with her, I wouldn’t have thought I was writing a memoir at all.
[00:03:00] Yasmin Ramirez: I just thought I was going to my home base, which is always when I don’t know what to do and when I’m feeling really emotionally overwhelmed, I write. And I just started writing. And then the more I wrote, the more and more I wanted to write. And then I just ended up here. And so as I was going, I, I guess midpoint when I definitely had, the bones of a manuscript.
[00:03:20] Yasmin Ramirez: Then I thought, no, I wanna do this and I wanna learn a little bit more about my family. I wanna follow my genealogy and learn more about my grandmother after the fact, which is sad. What a lot of us do, and I ended up like in this very crooked, up and down hilly road and that’s how I ended up here.
[00:03:42] Karma Chavez: Hmm. The first half of your book in particular is dedicated to the women in your life from your great-grandmother to your grandmother or your mother, your sister. And our life stories can be told in so many ways. So why did you choose this way?
[00:03:55] Yasmin Ramirez: Wow. That’s a good question. I think because it’s what I know best, like I’m naturally just a storyteller.
[00:04:01] Yasmin Ramirez: If I tried to ever just say like, oh, I’m gonna tell you something really quick. It takes me like 10 minutes . so when I was going through it, as I said, it was a way for me to mourn her. So part of me wanted to linger in some of these memories, especially early on in the first part of the book cuz they were some of my most cherished memories.
[00:04:18] Yasmin Ramirez: And then as an adult I saw them a little bit differently, through a different lens. And as I was going through, I just thought, okay, I want, I really want to tell these different stories because they all contributed. To who I am and where I am in my life, and it was really important for me to honor.
[00:04:37] Yasmin Ramirez: Initially, it was just honoring my Ita, my grandmother, and then it was also as I started pulling those threads, I thought, wait, I also have to honor my mom and my sister, and all of these people who, whether big or small actions, Were very important to me and very important to my path. And so then it just took on a bigger life than I initially intended.
[00:05:04] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm-hmm. .
[00:05:05] Karma Chavez: Yeah, it makes sense. It’s always interesting to hear about people’s processes and you mentioned your Ita, and that’s who the book is dedicated to as well. Tell us about her.
[00:05:15] Yasmin Ramirez: I don’t know if we have enough time. I don’t know. She was, One thing when I was writing the book is I, of course, I highlighted things that I felt were really important.
[00:05:23] Yasmin Ramirez: She was by no means a perfect woman. None of us are, but I always found it so admirable, even as a child, just how much care she took of me. And how cariñosa she was with me and even when we were in the most random places. As a book shows, I grew up in bars a lot of the time because she worked in the service industry.
[00:05:44] Yasmin Ramirez: And once you’re there, I think it’s hard to leave it cuz that’s your group of friends. And we would go to bars and we would do all these things, but I never felt unsafe. And I think considering the very hard life that she lived and that she was able to hang on to that softness I think was really beautiful and I don’t know. I wouldn’t be who I am without her for sure.
[00:06:05] Karma Chavez: Mm-hmm. . There’s this beautiful moment you write about when you’re quite little and you’re with her late at one of the bars and you’re falling asleep, and so they clean off the wooden bar top and wrap you up and you just fall asleep there on the bar top.
[00:06:20] Karma Chavez: Was that something that happened frequently?
[00:06:23] Yasmin Ramirez: It didn’t happen too, too frequently. I wanna say, maybe just a handful of times. Enough that there was a pillow for me, but not so much that it was frequent, that we were just always, always there. Cuz even sometimes when we were there, she was there, doing her side hustle of doing grief fu to make some extra money.
[00:06:39] Yasmin Ramirez: So it was interesting. Sometimes we would go for fun, like that day we went for fun and then other times we would go and she would tell me like, tengo que trabajar and it was like, okay, so we’re gonna go sit at the bar and, and work. So yeah, I don’t know. That is one of my favorite memories, which sounds really odd, but I just felt so cared for.
[00:06:57] Yasmin Ramirez: And it’s interesting cuz I, it’s weird, right? Odd dichotomy of being a child in a bar one, and then being with a bunch of adults that are drinking. But I was almost like the star of the show because anything I wanted, they would give it to me. And, I would get all the snacks and like play music and I would get to dance and then when I got tired, I went to sleep.
[00:07:18] Yasmin Ramirez: So what else could a child of that age ask for ? Right.
[00:07:22] Karma Chavez: I just think it’s beautiful that whole dynamic because it really gets the character of class and culture. I think so poignantly and it’s, you don’t read it with judgment because it is so obviously a caring, loving space and I think many working class kids can relate to being in similar situations.
[00:07:40] Karma Chavez: Is that what you were trying to capture there as well? You know
[00:07:43] Yasmin Ramirez: What’s interesting is when I was writing, I didn’t really think of anything other than trying to honor the story. And thinking of, I want to portray this as accurately as possible. And then after the fact, that’s when saw like, oh yeah, this is a little bit odd.
[00:07:57] Yasmin Ramirez: And I was, I did feel very vulnerable in those moments cuz I knew. Obviously there might be judgment from people, like, oh, there’s a child in a bar, she’s sleeping on a bar, she’s at a bar after hours. there’s so many things where we could, or I could be, subject to criticism. And, but it wasn’t until after I finished the story that I thought of those things.
[00:08:18] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm. Because for me, I saw it as one of my favorite memories, but for someone else, they might see it a different way. And so I don’t ever try to write with a theme in mind. I think for me it’s like, follow the story and the story’s gonna take me to where it wants to.
[00:08:34] Karma Chavez: Mm mm. Which is some interesting advice for, for students who might be listening and thinking about how to even get the writing process going so I appreciate that.
[00:08:42] Karma Chavez: So let’s talk about your title and particularly Ita’s nickname for you, Prieta. This is of course, common in Mexican American families. My dad was El Prieto and his family growing up. But what’s the significance of being prieta?
[00:08:56] Yasmin Ramirez: It’s definitely complicated in that, for most of my life growing up I was prieta and that was I, not that I thought that was my name, of course , but I just knew that that’s who I am.
[00:09:06] Yasmin Ramirez: I’m prieta and that’s it. And it was great. And we would play and we would do all these things. And it wasn’t until later that I. Learned the negative part of being prieta, the white gaze and then just colorism within the community was difficult to swallow. So it’s like I had this beautiful flower and then someone just crushed it.
[00:09:27] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm. Because I was like, wait, wait a minute. There’s so many things. There’s so many prietos and prietas who’ve actually messaged me and said, oh, this was negative in my family though. But seeing your title makes me think of it differently. Mm-hmm. . And so I was blessed that for me it was a positive, like I was never told to stay out of the sun.
[00:09:44] Yasmin Ramirez: I, I would play all the time. And my grandma seemed to celebrate my skin color, which now as an adult, I appreciate so much. And there’s a complication in that. It was very pretty and then it was shadowed. But now I’ve circled back to, I own it and I love it and I miss that I’m not called that anymore by her.
[00:10:09] Yasmin Ramirez: And I’m so glad that she gave me this foundation to where I can appreciate myself. Cause there’s moments of course, that I was not comfortable in my skin at all. And, but I had that foundation to go back to of, okay, no wait. This is okay. I’m okay. I’m a prieta that’s who I am and I’m gonna get more prieta in the sun and that’s great.
[00:10:30] Yasmin Ramirez: And then I start thinking about, lots of people go to tanning beds to look like me. Why? Why is this so complicated? Right. And so, yeah, I think the best way to say it is like a capirotada of good and bad, but I’ve chosen to hang onto the good cuz that’s where it started.
[00:10:46] Karma Chavez: And it seemed to me too, like you, in what you’ve just said now, it’s in the same way some of these words that once were negative, Or could be negative, but feel positive to us. Get reclaimed. And that can be empowering. And do you see it as empowering?
[00:11:00] Yasmin Ramirez: I do because it’s sort of me taking ownership of it and then people can’t take it away from me.
[00:11:05] Yasmin Ramirez: They can try, but now I have chosen not to allow them to take something from me that is not theirs. And to comment on my skin or to comment on my appearance. Cuz it’s just not acceptable and I don’t know. The other thing is when I see the cover, and this is gonna sound really naive, that wasn’t the original title of the book.
[00:11:26] Yasmin Ramirez: It was a different title, but when I was in the editorial process, They noticed that three different times that my grandma says it to me in the book in different context. And it seemed so beautiful to honor, not just myself and my nickname, but also how she spoke to me. So we’re both represented in the title and again this sounds so hilarious where I didn’t think of like, oh, the implications of what prieta is going to mean to everybody else.
[00:11:55] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm-hmm. Because I get so focused on I wanna honor my family, I wanna honor myself, I wanna honor my Ita then after the fact, as I mentioned, getting those messages was really beautiful cuz they’ve all been positive, thankfully. And seeing that there was other people who felt like me, who felt uncomfortable in their skin at different times and telling you they feel seen in the cover in just the title is really amazing. And a couple of their messages has brought me to tears because not only that, I feel this empathy for them, but also less lonely cause in that space you feel very lonely. Where you’re not comfortable in yourself and you think you’re the only one.
[00:12:34] Karma Chavez: Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm
[00:12:35] Karma Chavez: Yeah. I’m not surprised though. So many people have reached out. I just think it’s such a common experience in our community and I think it’s the kind of thing that in recent years, at least, like within a Latino studies context, maybe you see this with your work too. The really coming to terms with questions around color, questions around race that we haven’t necessarily done as a community until then. I don’t know if that resonates.
[00:12:59] Yasmin Ramirez: It does, absolutely. Yeah.
[00:13:01] Karma Chavez: So I wanted to transition a little bit to the sections about working at Nordstrom’s in Dallas. You got this juxtaposition between the long working hours and the long happy hours.
[00:13:13] Karma Chavez: And the estrangement, I think is one way I might put it from your family in El Paso. And I was reading this and I thought, oh gosh, what a interesting indictment of capitalism. And I was gonna ask you if you intended that, but I know for sure that you did not cuz you said you follow the story. But I’ll ask the question a different way, which is to say will you talk about what that period in your life gave to you?
[00:13:34] Yasmin Ramirez: Oh, that’s a complicated answer. They gave me a lot of good things, but also a lot of really negative things that they’re apparent in the book where I still carry some, like if I see a Nordstrom, I feel like I have a little bit like ptsd, to be honest. And, working in those spaces, I learned a lot about people.
[00:13:53] Yasmin Ramirez: I learned a lot about class and wealth and how they’re not synonymous at all. I learned a lot of humility. Mm-hmm. But then I learned, my work ethic came from those experiences as well of like just going and going and keep trying and you keep going. And so that, That’s something beneficial.
[00:14:15] Yasmin Ramirez: The times that I cherished the most there of course were, when I was helping the breast cancer survivors mm-hmm. I think that those were like the little nuggets that kept me there, even when I was still all in into the company. But it was definitely weird being so far away from home, right?
[00:14:33] Yasmin Ramirez: Cause Texas is huge , but so close at the same time. And that I couldn’t come home cause I couldn’t get time off. And I think just the fact that I lost my language was really a big symbol of where I was.
[00:14:49] Karma Chavez: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s a really poignant moment in the book when have that realization. You can’t think of the last time that you spoke Spanish. And that also because you couldn’t get time off work, I believe you said in the book that there was almost two years that she went without being back to El Paso, being with your family. What was that like?
[00:15:09] Yasmin Ramirez: Moments, it felt like no time to pass at all. Cause I could get little pockets of days off here and there and usually I would be so tired or honestly hungover that I, I was just resting at home and I didn’t have several days to, to come back to El Paso. So it was a little surreal in that, you’re just just living your life and then something, really tragic happens.
[00:15:34] Yasmin Ramirez: Like the loss of my grandmother. And that wakes you up like nothing else because you were just kind of like, whoa, wait a minute. I was just living my life, going to work, thinking about how, I have to work six days in a row and now I’m on a flight back home. It was very surreal and very odd and I had a lot of guilt from that.
[00:15:57] Yasmin Ramirez: So it’s complicated. And, and I learned, I think even in that writing process, I learned to forgive myself for that time period.
[00:16:06] Karma Chavez: Wow. Yeah. I just thought it was powerful to mention because I think so many young people have that same struggle. You’re trying to, build your career and live your life, but you don’t wanna let the sort of family relationships go south.
[00:16:19] Karma Chavez: But it’s very hard, these tensions and I think people in our community maybe feel it more profoundly than others. I’m not sure if that part is true, but I, I know people in our community do feel that tension. And you captured it really.
[00:16:28] Yasmin Ramirez: Thank you. I think you’re right. I’ll say cuz you think if there’s no such thing as five minute phone calls, mm-hmm.
[00:16:34] Yasmin Ramirez: right. To put that on a lighter note, like, I gonna call her really quick and that just never, it didn’t work. Yeah. And so I think it’s learning to embrace those five minute phone calls, even if they don’t go as long as you’d like them to go or as long as they want them to go. Incorporating those somehow.
[00:16:49] Karma Chavez: Yeah. Yeah. So you write at the end of the book that you come from a long line of people who pursued a better life, people at the intersection of the Mexican and American, Spanish and English. Tacos al pastor and Texas size steaks. And what do you hope people take away from reading your family’s story?
[00:17:10] Yasmin Ramirez: One, I hope there’s the part where I’m trying to honor everyone for sure. Honor the women, my grandmother, their hard work, and to some extent my hard work because I put everything together. I hope that they’ll connect with our story and I also hope. One thing I struggled with as I was writing this is I would second guess myself a little bit because when I would look at the landscape of Latinx literature, I didn’t see my story there. I self-identify as a pocha because I am.
[00:17:39] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm-hmm. my Spanish is good some days and bad other days, and I’ll just forget stuff and I intermingle. And I didn’t see a lot of that. And when I got to that last chapter where I’m going through my genealogy, it came. From this question I got the entire time I lived in Dallas of like, where are you from?
[00:17:58] Yasmin Ramirez: No, but where are you really from? Where are your parents from? Where’s your grandmother from? Mm-hmm. . And now I feel like as I even up saying those, I’m getting like a little twitch in my eye cuz it was just so incredibly frustrating. Because I don’t have an immigration story and I don’t have a first gen experience and I don’t even have the experience of going to visit family in Mexico.
[00:18:19] Yasmin Ramirez: I have no connection to Mexico other than I, my family decided to settle on the border. Mm-hmm. and I hope that people will see that there’s a broad spectrum in our Latinidad. that we’re not all, we didn’t all just arrive. A lot of us have been here for a really long time, and I feel like when you look at media, It appears like we like snapped fingers and suddenly all of these immigrants are here.
[00:18:44] Yasmin Ramirez: Mm-hmm. , and that’s not the case. And I find that incredibly frustrating. In my youth, I found that frustrating. And now I hope that changes a little bit.
[00:18:53] Karma Chavez: Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . Yeah, I think it totally captures that experience and is empowering probably for people who share something similar. We’re about outta time here, but I did wanna ask you if someone is listening today and they’re maybe a young Latinx person and maybe been told they’re good at writing or they wanna be a writer, but feeling self-conscious, not sure what to do. What advice would you give someone who wants to write their own story?
[00:19:19] Yasmin Ramirez: I think the best advice is to tune out the outside voices and even maybe self doubt, even though that has a tendency to rear its ugly head and to just write it.
[00:19:30] Yasmin Ramirez: Cuz I feel like so often we undervalue our stories because we don’t see them represented as often. and our stories are extremely valuable. And the one thing I’ve learned so far, with this first book is I’ve gotten so many responses and these moments where I felt so alone that I think of like younger Yasmín and little Yasmín, and I wanna go back and tell her like, look, you weren’t alone.
[00:19:56] Yasmin Ramirez: All of these people feel this way. And so if we give strength to our voices and we have faith in ourselves. Then you can write it and just keep going. It’s all about being stubborn and doing it and tuning things out.
[00:20:13] Karma Chavez: Mm. I love that. It’s all about being stubborn. That is amazing advice, and I think it’s gonna be the place we’re gonna end our conversation again.
[00:20:21] Karma Chavez: Our guest today is the writer, Yamín Ramirez talking about her book, "Ándale, Prieta." Yasmín, thank you so much for being here.
[00:20:29] Yasmin Ramirez: Thank you so much for having me, karma. I enjoyed our conversation.
[00:20:32] Karma Chavez: Me too. And thanks to all of you for listening. I’m Karma Chavez, and this is Latinxperts.
[00:20:40] Outro: Hi all. This is Ashley Nava-Monteros, the Communications Associate Latino Studies. Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. Make sure to check out the Latino Studies Instagram page. Follow us at Latino studies, UT to keep the conversation going.