An Interview with Yasmín Ramírez, Author of ¡Ándale, Prieta!

Let’s fly away from the DC area all the way to the border — El Paso, Texas, to be precise, where Mexican-American author Yasmín Ramírez resides. Last year, Yasmín delighted us with her debut memoir, ¡Ándale, Prieta! A Love Letter to My Family (Cinco Puntos Press) — a borderlands coming-of-age story that tackles grief and identity themes.

Threading memories entangled with pain, sorrow, and joy, Yasmín explores the power of her ancestors. The book starts by reminiscing about her Abuela, Ita, and her fight against breast cancer as she helps other women fit bras as a Nordstrom manager. The women’s mastectomy wounds take Yasmín back to her childhood, where she recounts Ita’s scars and makes an inventory of her abuela’s husbands.

Yasmín’s words seamlessly sway through languages (Spanish and English) while reminiscing scenes that marked her memories. My favorite is when Ita teaches her how to throw a punch.

During the interview, the author describes her writing style as a girl who likes to tell stories and tries to honor and highlight the people and communities that have inspired them as best as she can. Yasmín says, “writing always came naturally to me. It was my home base when I couldn’t find the right words to express myself. In some ways, writing chose me.”

The author is currently working on a YA manuscript — “I’m calling it Lola, Coca-Cola, for now. It’s about a girl growing up in El Paso who wants to be a rock star.” Her love for music is also a theme throughout the memoir. She often mentions songs mainly because of Ita’s love for music. And we are lucky enough because Yasmín has shared her playlist with us: ¡Ándale Prieta! Spotify playlist!

In this interview, she talks more about writing, her Ita (Abuela/grandma), terms of endearment, and Spanglish.

Yasmin Ramirez is a 2021 Martha’s Institute of Creative Writing Author Fellow as well as a 2020 recipient of the Woody and Gayle Hunt-Aspen Institute Fellowship Award. Her fiction/CNF works have appeared in Cream City Review and Huizache, among others. She is an Associate Professor of English, Creative Writing, and Chicanx Literature at El Paso Community College. You can learn more about her work here: www.yasminramirez.com

What do you wish you’d known as a beginning writer?

How many revisions you have to go through. I was guilty of believing the muse myth, where one gives you an idea, and you write a perfect piece in one sitting. Maybe they’re there to help you with an idea, but hard work and lots of revisions are the only things that get writing where it needs to be.

Besides memoir/nonfiction, what other type of writing do you do?

I am actually a fiction writer. That’s how I started out and where I am most comfortable. My Ita just had some other ideas.

What was your favorite part of getting your MFA?

Learning about writing. Up until that point, I was self-taught and just a huge reader. I wasn’t even an English major in college, so learning terminology and the bones of storytelling was interesting.

If you could share one or two writing tips, what would they be?

Writing is like cooking; you must go through several recipes until you find your recipe. So, read, read, and read more. Read everything. You’ll never know where you’ll get an idea.

Did you always know that you’ll start your book with Ita, your grandma/Abuela? I never meant to start a book. I initially wrote short stories about my Ita to mourn her loss. I was trying to hang on to her by writing my favorite memories.

You mentioned in your book how people gasp when you explain your nickname. What other experiences have you encountered during your book tour or when your book was released regarding your nickname and title of the book?

I’ve received many comments from fellow Prietas and Negras sharing their stories and saying they felt seen by the book title. Sadly some of their nicknames didn’t come from the same loving place mine did. Anyone who negatively comments on our skin, well, that’s their own internalized racism/colorism. I hope my story empowers others to see the beauty in being prietita or negrita.

My mom’s nickname is also a modified version of Prieta as a term of endearment. What do you think is the power of nicknames in our Latinx culture?

That’s a tricky question. I view receiving a nickname as acceptance. Once the new person in the family or friend group gets a nickname, they’re truly taken into the fold. But they’re often based on physical features, La Gorda, El Flaco, El Narizón, etc. They definitely have a deeper meaning because they aren’t all said con el mismo cariño.

Your memoir is so vivid; how do you recall all of these moments? What are your strategies to fill the gaps between your memories and what’s on the page?

Images have always stuck with me. That’s how I get a lot of story ideas. I’ll see something, and it becomes imprinted on me until I build a whole story around it. My memories with my Ita are vivid because they were some of my favorite moments. When I struggled with gaps, I went to my family for help.

I love the usage of Spanish, mainly in your abuela’s dialogue. It’s funny that I didn’t think about it too much until I read an Instagram post where you mentioned people were saying there was too much Spanish. Then, I noticed that code-switching had always been there, which I appreciate it. It was seamless for me. Could you share a bit about the process of writing in two languages? Did you get any pushback from your editor/publisher?

Ita’s voice had to be in Spanish because that’s who she was, and code-switching is how we communicated with one another. She could never have written in English. It wouldn’t have been Ita. My publisher was very supportive and only asked I provide context for those who might not speak Spanish/glish. If you notice, it’s there in simple ways. I repeat what she said in English or provide a quick summary.

Later on in your book, Spanglish fades on the page. Did you plan it, or did it naturally happen? That naturally happened. The story shows how easy it was to lose culture/language the longer I was away from home and my family.

Regarding the form: I noticed you use the inventory form when talking about Ita’s husbands and later on to list the items inside of Ita’s house after her death. What attracted you to this way of telling part of the story? (which it’s super compelling, and love it btw!)

I like to play with form while writing. When I was working on ¡Ándale Prieta!, I read Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and he played with form by having lists and interviews. I hadn’t seen that in a memoir before, and I loved the idea so much that I knew I wanted to use it in my own work.

Who are your favorite authors?

I read so much it’s tough just to pick a few. I get equally excited about a book that really connects with me. Some of the authors I’ve read this year that I loved are Dawnie Walton, Liz Huerta, Zoraida Córdova, Patricia Engel, Estella Gonzalez, Angeline Boulley….

Anything else you would like to add?

Today, while completing this interview, I received a picture from a professor teaching my book. One of his students made Ita’s Tacos! How beautiful is that? I’m grateful to readers (like you!) and love all the shares, comments, reviews, taco pics, etc. Thank you for reading and inviting my family into your homes.

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Ofelia Montelongo

A Mexican bilingual writer, has published her work in Latino Book Review, Los Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review. The 2019 Writer’s Center fellow.