Our Lady of Perpetual Protagonism

virgin mary boricua cropI have always loved the name Marisol. A Spanish name, it is short for Maria del Sol (Maria of the Sun) but also Maria de la Soledad, (Maria of Solitude). I didn’t know the name’s origin when I gave it to my protagonist, but both versions are perfect for her. She’s a brown-skinned Puerto Rican immigrant woman, and she’s also struggling with issues of solitude/isolation.

The heavily Catholic-influenced Latina/o community has dozens of Maria names. My great aunt was named Maria de los Angeles, but as a child, she couldn’t pronounce her own name, instead calling herself Chan-he-less. I grew up always hearing about my Tia Chan. It always sounded so odd. Aunt Chan? Like Jackie Chan? How did my Puerto Rican aunt end up with a Chinese surname for a first name? In the 1990s, I would finally go visit her in Puerto Rico, and hear the story.

Around that same time, I was writing a mystery with a female protagonist. The main character was African-American, but I gave the name Marisol to the love interest’s sister. That book is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere, all 2-300 pages of it, but it will never see the light of day. It’s a mediocre mystery that might make a decent book with a ton of revision. Unfortunately, however, I have definitely lost interest in the plot, the characters, the themes, the issues at stake. Not to mention the fact that a book from the 90s has to be completely changed to reflect current advances in technology. I’m sure they spent whole chapters tracking down information that you could just google today.

Part of the reason that it took 20 years for me to find a protagonist to go with this beloved name is that until 2008 when I started UPTOWN THIEF, I didn’t quite feel like I was Puerto Rican enough to write a Latina protagonist. I wrote Latinas into every book I worked on, but they were always secondary characters, and I was never quite certain if they rang true.

In the last two decades, however, I have traveled to Puerto Rico several times, and built deep connections in the Puerto Rican community. In 2008, I was flying back from presenting some of my spoken word work at the Puerto Rican Studies conference in San Juan when I started writing UPTOWN THIEF. Perhaps because I had just spent time on the island, I felt confident that I might be Puerto Rican enough to write a Latina protagonist.

As the book unfolded, I continued to worry that it wasn’t Puerto Rican enough, and that I wasn’t really qualified to write it. And the character isn’t just Puerto Rican, she’s from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, or Newyorican. One of the best compliments I had ever gotten was from an early freelance editor, a New Yorker. “You’ve never lived in New York?” she asked. She was surprised because she felt I had really nailed the New York setting. This was very reassuring. Still, I believe in getting consultation on anything that isn’t my lived experience. Just as I had a sex worker activist read the book to make sure the sex work/activism details were correct, I also had a New York Puerto Rican artist read an earlier version to make sure the cultural details were right. I got about 98% accuracy review. Not bad for a 2nd generation US-born Puerto Rican from California.

So Marisol Rivera, UPTOWN THIEF’s protagonist, is a real person to me. I couldn’t change her name now, even if I wanted to. She’s a fully-fleshed character, larger than life, a character on a journey, a heroine, a done deal.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Aya, I love how you wrote about the name Marisol, it is a beautiful name, and I am glad Marisol is you protagonist in UPTOWN THIEF. Now you can rest that Marisol is indeed out of your file cabinet from the 90’s into a book for 2016 and the main character! Also I love that the book is set in NYC’s lower East Side….I love Manhattan. I will look forward to reading your book.

  2. There is that brief window when you can change a character’s name — then you’re stuck. It’s much easier to change the name of the book.

    Oh, and in terms of your shelved mystery novel — it’s fine to put it away because of lost interest, but the 1990s thing doesn’t really matter. All books don’t have to be contemporary. The Kinsey Millhone mysteries were only contemporary when they started — and as a matter of fact that’s true of Sherlock Holmes, too. Holmes and Watson continued to live in the world of hansom cabs and gaslight and telegrams, long after their readers had moved to automobiles and electric light and telephones. The stories were pretty popular anyway. 🙂

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