Talk about your childhood in Colorado
I am the second eldest of seven children. My family has been in Denver since the 1920s. On my maternal line, my mother’s people came north from southern Colorado and the San Luis Valley in northern New Mexico. I have a great-grandfather who is from the Philippines. On my father’s side, we are white Americans from Nebraska to Poland. So I grew up with this incredibly multicultural and diverse family and we were very proud of our Latino/Latin Colorado heritage.
We were driving all over town to visit an aunt on the West Side, my great grandmother at Five Points and it was a very vibrant and wonderful life filled with storytelling.
Can you share your struggles with mental health and how it led you to become a writer?
I faced a lot of challenges in school. I went to Pomona High School, and I ended up dropping out of school. I struggled a lot with depression and mental health during those years of my life. It was through writing that I found an outlet and something that made me feel smart and in control of my own destiny.
I really started to struggle when I was in elementary school with the workload. I came from this very big family, I didn’t have much help with my homework, there were so many children. We lived in a small house so I didn’t have my own room or a quiet space where I could go to study. The only time I would have a moment to myself is when I was walking to the library, and I was kind of hiding in the library.
It was really in high school that I decided to become a writer because I started reading so many novels and there were safe spaces for me, and I could see myself in those stories. Even if few characters looked like me or came from the same background. It was also in high school where one of my teachers told me that I could only ever go to college with my grades and my absences and my depression, someone like me would never make it and so that pissed me off. led to giving up but that was not the end of my story.
How was your career as an author?
I ended up getting my GED right away. I went to Metropolitan State University in Denver where I studied English and Chicana and Chicano Studies and I had no idea yet that someone like me could end up getting a master’s degree in creative writing. I didn’t even know it existed until one of my professors saw that I had talent and said, “Hey, I think you should apply for those graduate programs. It was not an easy journey once I graduated from graduate school. I was the first in my family to leave the state. I went far to California; I was all alone.
Meanwhile, the family matriarch, my great aunt Lucy, passed away. And I remember again being so overcome with sadness and feeling like I was all alone, and I wasn’t smart enough to be in school. And so, I also quit that program.
I eventually graduated from the University of Wyoming with an MFA, but that was after I really committed myself and decided that what I had to say was important. And no matter how many people told me that they weren’t going to publish me, that no one was going to listen to my story because I had decided that it was something that I was doing for myself and for my family and no one was going to be able to tell me otherwise.
After graduating with my master’s degree, I continued to write. It will take me several years before I can publish my first book, Sabrina and Carina. Meanwhile, again, I was sure of my purpose that I was meant to be a writer. And no matter what, I carried on.
How is honoring your ancestors part of your job?
I grew up with this big, big family, and the best storytellers were my aunt Lucy and my godmother, her daughter. Her name is Joanna and my great-grandmother Esther, my great-grandfather Alfonso. And their lives were just amazing! They had come north from southern Colorado, they were very poor, they worked the fields, they picked beets. My great-grandfather from the Philippines worked as a waiter all his life, and they were so glamorous to me.
They were talking about going to dances and their nice clothes and makeup, but then I looked all over the movies and the books, and there were no characters like them. There were no families like us, and they weren’t settled in places like Denver. They took place in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.
In the beginning, I would say probably in my early teens, I remember being on Galapago Street on the West Side and my Aunt Lucy’s house and hearing her tell the stories of her upbringing and growing up in the city. And I just remember thinking, “This must be a novel. I’m going to write a novel about my family someday.”
And so I think in a lot of ways, Woman of Light is really my attempt to honor my family’s history, it’s to put us on the historical record, but also to make sure that people who come from backgrounds like mine, they have great epic stories and novels just as much as other people. I want to make sure they feel broadly integrated into the world of literature.
What would you say to your younger self?
A lot of students will come after I’ve given a talk or organized a book event and they’ll say, “How did you do? How did you keep going?” And I look at them and I can see the sadness. I can see the look on their faces that tells me they’ve been told they’re nothing, that they won’t make it, or that their home life can be just as chaotic. Maybe they don’t have a lot of money. Maybe they’re struggling with depression and anxiety or other mental health issues. And when I see students like that, I remember myself.
What I would say to myself as a young person, as a young Latina, is that it’s going to get better. I know it will get better because if you keep doing your best, the universe will conspire to support you. I really believe it.
One of the things that has helped me a lot on my journey of resilience, not giving up, is setting goals. I had my long term goal, I wanted to be a famous writer. How was I supposed to become a famous writer growing up in Denver with no connection to the publishing world in New York? Well, I didn’t know how I was going to do this, but I set myself a goal. I said, “I want to be a great writer one day. I want people to read my books.” So that was the very first step, is that I knew where I was aiming. The second stage was smaller goals, so I knew the big goal was really far away, but the smaller goals were going to help me get there.
So the most important thing I would say to students like me is to make sure that you have your long term goal, but also your short term goal and know that it will get better. As long as you continue to show up for your life and continue to value yourself, your community, and where you come from, we will help and support you. The world will support you; I believe him.
What is your best memory of sharing your book with your family?
One of my favorite memories is sharing my first book, Sabrina and Corina. I was living in this low-income housing estate behind Coors Field, and my mom drove up to us and I had just gotten the copies. And I run outside, it’s this big building in this alley. And I run and I run and I’m like, ‘Mommy, mommy, roll down the window!’ And she said, “What is this? What is this?” And I hold it and my mother starts crying. She grabs him and she hugs him and kisses him like a grandchild. And she said, “Oh my God, my baby’s baby.” She couldn’t stop crying. I’m crying right now as I share the story. But then I realized it was so much bigger than me. It’s about the whole community.
[My parents have] been through so much and it’s so generational. My mother wanted to be a writer and she is a writer in her own right. But she doesn’t publish internationally like me. So I’m like an extension of his accomplishments.
Sonia Gutierrez is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at [email protected]