Today, we're celebrating the release of Undercover Latina, the debut middle grade novel from Musa Aya De León! Scroll on for a fascinating interview between Aya and Musa Terry Catasús Jennings — but first, here's a little bit more about Undercover Latina:
Latina teen spy goes undercover as a white girl to stop a white supremacist terrorist plot in a fast-paced middle-grade debut from a seasoned author of contemporary crime fiction.
In her debut for younger readers, Aya de León pits a teen spy against the ominous workings of a white nationalist. Fourteen-year-old Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín hails from a family of spies working for the Factory, an international organization dedicated to protecting people of color. For her first solo mission, Andréa straightens her hair and goes undercover as Andrea Burke, a white girl, to befriend the estranged son of a dangerous white supremacist. In addition to her Factory training, the assignment calls for a deep dive into the son's interests--comic books and gaming--all while taking care not to speak Spanish and blow her family's cover. But it's hard to hide who you really are, especially when you develop a crush on your target's Latino best friend. Can Andréa keep her head, her geek cred, and her code-switching on track to trap a terrorist?
Smart, entertaining, and politically astute, this is fast-paced upper-middle-grade fare from an established author of heist and espionage novels for adults.
TERRY CATASÚS JENNINGS: Aya, I am so happy to be here today to talk with you about your middle grade debut, Undercover Latina, a fun and insightful middle-grade story about spies and our unfortunate ability, as humans, to always be able to find someone to put down.
AYA DE LEON: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me! Yes, I did want to create a book that was fun, but also took on the issue of racism. I think actually the fun and the racism go together. Not that racism is fun, but that we can still have joy in a world where racism exists, even as we can decide to work to end racism.
TERRY: Yes, I love the idea that there can still be joy in the midst of racism. How else could we live, right? There were many surprises when I began working on this blog post. The book opens with Andréa stealing a briefcase, which gives the reader pause—theft by the protagonist of a middle grade novel—until we remember the name of the book. Undercover Latina—a fourteen-year-old who works for the International Alternative Intelligence Consortium, aka the Factory, an “association of several intelligence organizations of people of color.” They work with the FBI and CIA, but very quickly readers get the idea that those government agencies are pretty useless to their cause.
So the first surprise was the theft and realizing a young kid is part of a spy organization, and the other was that this is a debut novel, Aya, so I was blown away when I checked out your website. This is your debut MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL, but you are a multiply published adult writer of mysteries rooted in feminist activism. BRAVA!!! Why don’t we start out with you telling us about your journey to publication? I’d love to hear about your career, not only about your debut middle grade, but about your other work? How did we get here?
AYA: (laughs) It’s been a long journey. I began writing novels in the 90s, a couple of mysteries that will never see the light of day and a 900-page novel about a young woman in college. I was basically processing my trauma from college. I also started a spy thriller that would actually see the light of day. I worked on various books for decades, but I also got involved in spoken word and slam poetry. I developed a body of work in those forms and expanded to hip hop theater. I traveled around and made my living doing that for about a decade. Then I had a baby and returned to fiction. When I came back to the novels, it was 2009, and larger economic problems had impacted the publishing industry. It was really hard to sell a book. I had made an attempt to get an agent for my spy thriller, but had also begun a feminist heist story that I thought would be more commercial. I struggled for several years to get an agent. I queried over 100 agents! Then we struggled to sell the book. Finally, I got picked up by Kensington’s Dafina imprint. They wanted a book a year from me. So from 2016-2022, I’ve written seven books for them. My first two books came out ten months apart! So I learned to write fast. And in between deadlines for the books, I began to work on other things, as well. That included this “Factory” series of middle grade novels.
TERRY: Oh, you know? I think I know all about writing fast from doing a lot of non-fiction work-for-hire, but I think you’ve got me beat. A book a year, WOW! Really, my hat’s off to you. And to bring it back to Undercover Latina, did you write it fast? And how did you get the idea for your middle grade debut?
AYA: I did write it fast. But it had many revisions. And as for the idea, my mother is Puerto Rican, but light skinned and is often mistaken for white. She has always said that one of the difficult things about that is hearing what white people sometimes say about people of color when they think we’re not in the room—especially in her generation. So I grew up sort of thinking of my mom as a racial spy. And then as I was developing two of the books for this series, I thought of developing that concept in an actual spy organization.
TERRY: I love the idea of the organization! And Andréa is a young operative there. Actually, their whole family is devoted to the organization—people with families arouse less suspicion. But because Andréa and her mother are very light in skin color, they are chosen to impersonate a “white” mother and daughter pair and try to get information to stop a white supremacist with intentions of mass destruction. Andréa is supposed to find the father through the son. In this capacity, just like your mom, they have to put up with hearing “whites being white”—saying things like “The downside of having Mexican food is that you need real Mexicans to make it.” Or “Shouldn’t you be [working] at the taco truck?” “Freakin’ secret Mexicans!”
It is a very effective way to show non-Latines the hostility and hurtfulness that words like those can cause. I’m sure that was intentional and applaud you for it. Would you like to talk more about it?
AYA: In this historical era where families seeking asylum are having their children torn from them at the border and locked up, I really wanted to show the deep and abiding racism against our community.
TERRY: There are so many ways that you tackle race so well. There is an interesting situation in which Andréa is trying to figure out whether the son of the possible white supremacist is racist/supremacist himself. Are his actions racist or are they the actions of “an ordinary oblivious teenage guy? Then there is the idea that Andréa proposes “You don’t have to be a person of color to find racism offensive.” All of that was very effective. Can you expand on it?
AYA: One of the hardest things about racist microaggressions—I think—is that they are more subtle than really overt racism. So on the one hand, you can’t be 100% certain it’s racism operating. But on the other hand, you know intuitively that it is. So you’re left with this emotional certainty, but an inability to put your finger on the exact word or reason, because so much of the communication is non-verbal. It’s in the tone, or the tilt of the head, the facial expression, the way the person moved their eyes. Because sometimes even the person being racist is unaware of their bias, but it’s coming through loud and clear in these subtle and non-verbal ways. And that experience that a person of color has—that anxious moment of trying to parse the experience—is part of the stress of being targeted by racism. It’s a lot of emotional and intellectual energy.
TERRY: You said it! It is so disconcerting. And there was another form of racism you depicted in the book, how the light skinned Andréa is seen as a “pretty girl,” and pulled into a clique. I loved the idea of the First Class Girls. This is a snobby, skinny group of girls who are obsessed with their weight and would have never become Andréa’s friends if they knew she was Latina. They are the quintessential high school clique. And cruel. At first, Andréa hangs out with them, since she doesn’t have anyone else. But as she gets to know them, and their racist ways, I loved how she used some feminist vibe to put them in their place. “If First Class is so great, why do you need to recruit? You all seem bored. Bored and hungry. Maybe if you read a comic book, you could imagine women aspiring to something more than being a size zero, getting a boyfriend, and being homecoming queen. No offense.” All your adult work is about strong, issue driven women. Is Andréa following in their footsteps?
AYA: (laughs) Yes, definitely! The First Class Girls are such a high school trope, I couldn’t resist them. While she was trying to get in with the nerdy white boy, she would be swooped up by this group of girls who wanted to add her “pretty new girl” currency to their power clique.
TERRY: I loved the pretty new girl currency. The leader of the clique tries so hard to get her to join, but ANNdrea (that’s how she pronounces her name as a “white” girl), is her own person. And one of the things the First Class girls can’t stand is that the new girl is interested in superhero comics. The way that ANNdrea finally becomes friends with the son of the white supremacist so that she can get to his information and analyze it is through a fantasy tabletop superhero game called Triángulo. The game is described in detail, and you take the reader through several games in very vivid fashion. And then, of course, this game takes you to the climax of the story. One thing that I liked about it is that this game started outside of the United States and then came to the United States with and now it is becoming mainstream. It shows us that the United States doesn’t have a lock on innovation and creativity. Can you tell us how you came up with that wonderful game?
AYA: My husband is a Black Caribbean sci-fi/fantasy type, and he used to play Magic The Gathering. So I had a sense of that game. When I was writing the book, I was going with him and my kid to AfroComicCon in Oakland every year, so I was in this world of cosplay and comic books. When I thought about how she would befriend this reclusive boy, I realized that making him a tabletop gamer/comic book guy would really give her an entry point. And then the idea of this whole comic book universe just unfolded. Around the time I was writing, there had been a big shakeup in the sci-fi/fantasy world, because people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folks had really been gaining power and momentum in those communities, and there was a lot of backlash from people who wanted the community to go back to being dominated by straight, cis, white men. I loved the idea of creating a game that was a sort of Latinx invasion of the US gaming world. I was totally surprised when a recent review thought it was a real thing and was determined to go out and buy a deck of the cards!
TERRY: True confessions. I thought it was a real game too. I spent a good amount of time on the internet looking for it. You hit it out of the park with that one. And I love that it was a woman creator of the game. Now also, the spy craft is very believable. It’s absolutely something a teenage girl could comprehend and handle. Where did you get all your knowledge about spy craft?
AYA: I read a lot of spy books, watched a lot of spy movies, and frankly, all my work in heist really transfers. It’s the same skills: sneaking, breaking and entering, impersonating, fighting if you have to. It’s just that my heist squad is stealing money and my spies are stealing information or evidence.
TERRY: Yeah! Andréa has to fight her Latina mother’s protectiveness to be able to stand on her own and get the job done. Throughout, the mother is saying this is dangerous and you shouldn’t have to be doing this, but we could prevent hundreds of thousands of people from getting killed. Aya, you had to have the mother be protective and always explain her reasons, because, really, who would let a fourteen-year-old become a spy? But it all works out so well. Tell us about that.
AYA: First of all, I really need to acknowledge Robin Benway’s work. Her AKA series really had an effect on me. It was about a family of white spies. This particular family is culturally middle class and very settled in that. I really liked the idea of this spy family as actually being upwardly mobile in terms of class. So the mom grew up in NYC in the barrio, and came to spying as part of a certain reckless early life that came from her experiences of trauma and loss. But then she becomes more mature, had kids, and her attempts to keep her daughter out of the spy business fail—because the daughter is a natural and finds them out. So she is forced to bring the daughter in. And when she sees the daughter starting to take real risks, the mom is forced to confront her own past—the fact that she created this risky path in their family. There’s a way that she and her husband never quite thought it through. They imagined that they would be the ones taking the risks and that the kids would stay in the background. Or she thought she could control the amount of risk. I feel that way as a mom, myself. I teach my kid to stand up against injustice, but then I worry about the risks of doing just that. So I liked the idea that the daughter’s first solo mission would become more dangerous than expected and the mom had something to confront in herself.
TERRY: I really liked that part of the story. Now let’s talk about colorism. It is the theme of this book. That’s what you’re explaining and fighting against. That is very prevalent in the Latine community, but it is also a problem in the black community. Unfortunately, it just seems that everyone needs to have “somebody to look down on.” Talk to us about shades of racism.
AYA: I am an AfroBoricua who grew up in California, surrounded by what was a heavily Chicanx dominated community as a kid. The way the racism showed up was that people just couldn’t imagine that I was Latine. And I didn’t grow up with other AfroLatinx folks. But I have enough connection as an adult with Black/Latine folks to know that anti-Blackness is really strong in our communities, particularly in the Caribbean. So I wanted to show the mom as having grown up with that anti-Blackness in her own family—that it was something that she’d had to unlearn. That it had harmed her, but she had also participated in it, and the racial dynamics of this mission meant that she had to talk about it to her daughter for the first time.
TERRY: And she did a beautiful job explaining that to Andréa. I love at the “ComixCon” when the creator of Triangulo is speaking and she says, speaking of the Latine population. “We’re the majority in the world, and by far the majority in this hemisphere. We’re taking our rightful place. In comics. In games. In movies.” Those are very powerful words.
AYA: I see us working to do that in real life, and I wanted to reflect that in the book.
TERRY: Your author note was very pointed. Thank you very much for that. I’d like for us to share it here.
“But whatever your journey has been up till now, healing can be found. It’s worth it to struggle to find your place in the community. In the movement.
Within your lineage. Within yourself. It’s not always easy. But the battle to end racism needs all of us. Your community needs you to stand firm against rising white national- ism in all its disguises. Let this book be an invitation for all of us to come home to the fight for justice—together.”
Now, before we close, Aya, let us know what’s in the horizon for you.
AYA: I just turned in the prequel to UNDERCOVER LATINA, about her teen spy girl colleague called GOING DARK. After that, I have another adult thriller called THAT DANGEROUS ENERGY—about a young artist in a love triangle with a fossil fuel mogul and a climate activist who ends up spying for the movement. I have a work-for-hire for a major entertainment franchise that I’m working on. That’ll be announced next summer. But my biggest new project is that I’m launching a new publishing venture--Fighting Chance Books: Pulp Fiction to Save our Planet—an imprint of She Writes Press—which will publish contemporary realistic climate fiction for adults by writers of all genders. We want to provide an alternative to dystopian visions. Our goal is to put out books in these next critical years of the climate crisis that tell stories about how it’s actually not too late to save our species from climate disaster if we act now!
TERRY: Aya, I am so humbled by all your efforts. I wish you every success with that venture. It was a pleasure reading Undercover Latina and talking with you. I wish you the best in your career and I can’t wait till we can meet in person.
AYA: Same here! Thank you so much, Terry, and thank you, Las Musas!
Buy Undercover Latina today!
Aya de Leon is an acclaimed writer of prose and poetry. Kensington Books publishes her Justice Hustlers series: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018) and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), the first novel published about Hurricane Maria. Books in the series have won first place in both the Independent Publisher awards and the International Latino Book Awards. In 2020, Kensington will publish Aya’s first African American spy novel. n 2020 Kensington will publish Aya’s first spy novel, about FBI infiltration of an African American political organization. Aya is currently at work on a picture book to help talk to children about racism, as well as a black/Latina spy girl series for teens called GOING DARK. Aya is the Director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, teaching poetry and spoken word at UC Berkeley. Her work has received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, American Theatre Magazine, Jacobin and The Establishment, and has been featured on Def Poetry, in Essence Magazine, and various anthologies and journals. She was named best discovery in theater for 2004 by the SF Chronicle for “Thieves in the Temple : The Reclaiming of Hip Hop,” a solo show about fighting sexism and commercialism in hip hop. Also in 2004, she received a Goldie award from the SF Bay Guardian in spoken word for “Thieves…” and her subsequent show “Aya de Leon is Running for President.” In 2005 she was voted “Slamminest Poet” in the East Bay Express, and she also co-hosted the kickoff party for Current TV with Mos Def. Aya has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a slam poetry champion. She publicly married herself in the 90s and for over a decade she hosted an annual Valentine’s Day show that focused on self-love. She has released three spoken word CDs, several chapbooks, and a video of “Thieves…” After becoming a mom in 2009, she transitioned from being a touring performer into being a novelist. Aya began blogging in 2011, and since 2013 has been consistently blogging on race, gender and culture. Her recent freelance work has been featured in Guernica, xojane, Huffington Post, The Toast, The Root, Ebony, Womans Day, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Ploughshares and Quartz, and she’s an advice columnist for Mutha Magazine. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
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