Today we celebrate the book birthday of Salsa Magic. We sat down with Musa Letisha Marrero to learn all about the inspiration behind her book.
But first, a little bit about this book:
This middle-grade novel tells the story of 13-year-old Maya Beatriz Calderon Montenegro, whose loud but loving family runs the bustling Cafe Taza in Brooklyn. Maya has vivid recurring dreams where she hears the ocean calling her and sees a strange woman. Chaos ensues when an estranged great aunt from Puerto Rico shows up on their doorstep–and she turns out to be the woman from Maya’s dreams! Titi Yaya is rumored to be a witch, and the children are forbidden to go near her. But Maya, out of curiosity and defiance, learns about her history and the ancient practice of santeria and its pantheon of gods and goddesses. Titi Yaya wants to pass her gift down to Maya. But what will her family say? And which path is Maya’s true destiny?
How would you describe your main character? Why did you create your character that way?
Maya Beatriz Calderon Montenegro is everything I wanted to be as a young teenager: sassy, cute, confident, and brave. (Well, I had the sassy part down.) I grew up reading Judy Blume, and always loved her main characters. As a child, I didn’t have the wherewithal to notice all of my favorite characters were white, because I grew up in a white neighborhood. But once I moved to NYC, I got back in touch with my Puerto Rican roots. Then, I became a mother and started looking for books for my own child–and I realized there were no people in books, real or fictional, who looked like me or my kid. So, I wanted to create a character to whom young Latinas could relate or aspire.
Where did you get the idea to write this particular story?
I’ve had the story of Salsa Magic in my mind for almost two decades. I’d always loved Greek and Roman mythology as a kid. Then, in my 20s, I read a book on santeria and learned that there was this entire pantheon of gods and goddesses that was tied to my heritage, and I thought, why have I never heard about this? But looking back, I wasn’t ready to be an author 20 years ago. I had to grow up. Back then, I had an initial deal with a big publishing house, but they wanted me to write about a quinceñeara. I told them I’d never been to a quinceñera in my life! (Still haven’t.) That’s where the idea of Salsa Magic germinated. But when that deal fell through, I sort of gave up on writing fiction for a while. I continued my career as an freelance, almost-famous entertainment journalist. Then, at 35, I became a mother and all my priorities shifted. Raising my kid and reading so many children’s books through the years taught me so much, which eventually helped me speak to a younger audience and create the zany characters in the Santos-Calderon-Montenegro family. So now, I finally get to share some of my favorite fictional people who’ve lived in my head for so long with all y’all.
What was the most challenging part of the publication process with this story?
All the revisions! Both to get the manuscript pitch-ready, and then, after selling it, to get it market-ready. Dios mio, I lost count of how many revisions there were. At least two dozen, if not more. At one point, I changed the entire book from third person past to first person present, so that was fun. (Do not recommend.) But suddenly after that, everything started clicking. I realized that the whole time, my agent and my editors were just pushing me to go farther and dig deeper–and the final product is that much better because of their persistence.
What is the most important lesson you have learned as a writer until now?
I have a t-shirt that says, “everything in time.” It took me 20 years to become a published author, and I went through a lot to get here. I was a single mom–and as if that wasn’t hard enough, I got laid off from what I thought was my dream job during the Great Recession. I was down, down bad. I moved from NYC to Maryland with $300 to my name. Once there, I went through bouts of un- or underemployment, and ended up on food stamps and my kid was on Medicaid. I couldn’t muster any energy to write, because I was so depressed and in survival mode for so long trying to take care of my child. But gradually, things got better. So, I’ve learned that perseverance eventually pays off. To quote the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, you have to “trust the process.”
What books are on your to-be-read list?
My TBR pile keeps getting taller, but I just found out that my 83-year-old uncle, Victor Marrero, a lawyer who’s been in public service his entire career, has been moonlighting as a poet. His book of poems, Atlas, Bound, was published in July. Two Marrero debut authors back to back, ¡imagínate! So yeah, I’m digging into that now. See kids? It’s never too late to follow your heart.
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