Her mother used to tease her for not using drugs. She once lived near a cesspool of violence and crime. And her cousins are in prison for murder.
But somehow Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez said she was able to escape her family’s crime-riddled lifestyle and accomplish her dreams of becoming a best-selling writer.
“I shouldn’t be here! I really shouldn’t be here!” she told students at Eastern New Mexico University on Tuesday night.
Little did she know then she would be a New York Times best-selling author and have sold movie rights of her latest novel, “The Dirty Girls Social Club” to Columbia Pictures, with actress/singer Jennifer Lopez and “Spiderman” producer Laura Ziskin tapped as producers.
She has also sold a sitcom idea to NBC and is writing the script, and has been invited to national programs like the “Today” show and employs six agents.
“People with backgrounds like mine don’t do the things I’ve done,” said Valdes-Rodriguez, an Albuquerque native who has a master’s degree from Columbia University under her belt and stints with the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times on her resume.
“People with backgrounds like mine go on drugs, end up on welfare or in prison,” she said. “I don’t come from a pedigree family. I come from a New Mexico family.”
Valdes-Rodriguez motivated students with her successful journalist-turned-best-selling-novelist story, telling, in a humorous way, how her family lived in an Albuquerque housing project when she was a baby. She told the audience of about 50 people how her mother was neglectful, once laughing at her and calling her “square” when she refused drugs from her brother. She also said her cousins ended up in prison for murder.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘there’s got to be something better than this.’ I knew there was something bigger out there for me,” she said.
Valdes-Rodriguez was born to a Cuban father and Irish-American mother. Although her book centers around six Latinas who get together every six months after their college graduation to catch up, Valdes-Rodriguez said her book, which has been compared to “Waiting to Exhale” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is not a story about the fact that the characters are Latinas — it’s a story about Latinas as human beings.
She cringes when people try to label her a Hispanic or Latina writer and compare her to the likes of Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros, the latter whose books she said read like he was writing about Mexicans for the non-Mexican reader.
“Being a Latina writer can have its benefits, but it’s also a double-edged sword. There are a lot of expectations,” she said and quickly pointed out, “No one expects Stephen King to speak only to White men when he goes out and talks. I prefer to be treated equally.”
Many of the students attending her free talk inside the Campus Union Ballroom had not yet read Valdes-Rodriguez’s book, but were drawn out of curiosity.
“I saw her on the ‘Today’ show and came today because I’ve read books by other Hispanic female authors and am eager to read her’s,” Alicia Polaco, a graduate student at ENMU, said. “I try to support things that Hispanic women do.”
Another student, Theresa Bridges, said, “The title of her book is what got my attention. I don’t judge books and authors by their race. I read anybody that has something good to say.”