Puerto Rico’s relationship with America is one that has been contentious for many decades. It is deeply rooted in political corruption, colonization, economic exploitation, neglected representation from political leaders, and restricted agency to chart their own future as a country. Subsequently, the Puerto Rican experience in American is heavily influenced by these factors.
Olga Dies Dreaming charts the Puerto Rican experience of Olga, an event planner, and her brother Prieto, a New York congressman and their extended family as they deal with the successes of their individual careers, but for both it has come with personal and cultural sacrifices. What does it mean to aspire to be a member of the elite sect but getting there requires that you trample on your own and break the shoulders you stand on?
Xochitl (pronounced So-cheel) Gonzalez is a novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and executive producer from Brooklyn, New York. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and has been published on Bustle, Vogue, and The Cut. She’s also a contributor to The Atlantic, writing on gentrification via her Brooklyn Everywhere newsletter.
Having Xochitl here is such a treat and I’m happy to get to speak with her about her new book. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Congratulations on the success of Olga Dies Dreaming and welcome to the In Conversation series. I’m intrigued by your book’s title. Can you explain how it was chosen and its overall significance?
Xochitl: A major question for me embarking on this project was what happened from my parents’ generation – the boomers who became Black and Brown Power Activists – to my generation – the X’ers who were more concerned with getting into Puffy’s White Party in the Hamptons and accumulating designer goods. I wasn’t sure, when I started writing this, if it was some sort of reaction to those rigid values of right and wrong or if it was a form of assimilation or just beguilement by the “American dream”, but I felt more than a little implicated. My parents, and many activists, often made mistakes in their personal lives, but they had a strong sense of wanting equity and I felt, certainly in my 20s and 30s, less that than a sense of wanting to win. And that felt very American, in a sad way, to me.
When researching my history for the book, I was looking for old Pa’lante papers from the Young Lords and I ended up on the Hurray for the Riff Raff song, Pa’Lante, which samples the Nuyorican spoken word poet Pedro Prieti’s poem, Puerto Rican Obituary. In it he laments the dying of values from Puerto Rico in exchange for chasing American “successes” and he does so through these fictitious characters who moved to New York from Puerto Rico. They are Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel and, of course, Olga. And all of them die dreaming of some ephemeral success: winning the lotto, getting a house in the suburbs. And it felt the perfect title, not only to convey the themes of the book, but to connect the lineage of our activist history in the United States and the lineage of writing by Puerto Ricans concerned with our role in America. I feel so proud of this title and even more delighted that of the many nuances I had to advocate for, no one ever asked me to change it.
Tricia: I found myself very drawn to Blanca, because she’s the source of the insecurity and anxiety that Olga and Prieto battle with, in your book. I was drawn to the fact that, though she abandoned her children, she did so for a cause that she felt she needed to pursue for self-fulfillment. And that’s a concept that women traditionally do not act on sometimes. How did you conceive of this major aspect of her character, and have you received any feedback about portraying a Puerto Rican mother this way?
Xochitl: None of us are purely bad or purely good, and I think with Blanca that is starkly true. She made choices and they are the extreme choices of a woman who thinks in absolutes. In many ways this is how truly revolutionary thinkers need to be, we just don’t see them in intimate settings too much, such as letters to their children. But the main point I wanted to make with Blanca is that even when she’s wrong, she’s always also a little bit right. Motherhood is SO, so fascinating. That bond, that knowing. Her actions beyond her insights are what’s problematic, but her ability to know – that felt very real to me and also important to show. This is a mirror of how Olga and Prieto feel about Puerto Rico itself. Some place they only sort of know, and yet it cuts through to something bigger than familiarity.
I’ve gotten all sorts of feedback about Blanca, and she totally functions as a Rorschach test. Some people really empathize with her cause, others are really triggered by her as a mother and think she’s “the worst.” At a book event at Hunter College back in March, I remember Dr. Yarimar Bonilla asked me something similar because her own Puerto Rican mother is totally the opposite, a coddler, but that just wasn’t my lived experience. El Nuevo Día, the biggest newspaper in Puerto Rico, recently wrote about Blanca through the lens of this Rosario Ferré’s essay “The kamikaze mothers” and that was also fascinating. So, it’s really been a surprising mix of reactions.
Tricia: I love the way you were able to make Blanca so overbearing yet largely absent. Her letters being the medium that the reader felt her presence and understood her ideals. Can you explain how you found the right balance to make Blanca visible even though she’s mostly absent in the book? (The response contains a spoiler).
Xochitl: Well, I think that some of that work is a psychological illusion of placing two objects next to one another that come with loaded meaning. Blanca is a very unvarnished character, and her letters are often very direct about her opinions about the actions in Olga’s life. And because of that, they lay out Blanca’s value systems and priorities very clearly. Like in the one where she celebrates Prieto being a champion on the mainland and suggests that he find a wife. And in the next chapter, we discover that he has actually been in the closet and being blackmailed. I wrote those two chapters, but it is aided by the reader having a preconceived idea of motherhood and the weight of the words of a mother to a child. The collective public understanding of the roles and importance of mothers – even bad ones – acts, in this way, as a megaphone for Blanca. So, she is reverberating into scenes even when she isn’t mentioned. We carry her words as her children do. So, in some way shape or form, we are able to then read and understand Prieto’s bind, his confinement, while also understanding that it is made heavier and more distressing because it would all be so utterly disappointing to his mother, and we know that he knows that.
Tricia: Someone mentioned to me recently that the Boricua resistance that you highlight and describe in your book, is very much real. Can you talk about your research on them and how you decided to include it in your book’s narrative?
Xochitl: My day job when I started this book was at Hunter College and so I would jet uptown from main campus to CENTRO: The Center for Puerto Rican Studies and research Hurricane Maria data, The Young Lords, eco-pollution in Latinx communities, waves of activism. Some stuff was ingrained in me. My parents were activists as I mentioned, and I don’t remember not knowing about sterilization on the island or the Nuyorican Poets. Fania and that era of Salsa and the cultural history of Freestyle are things I dork out on anyway. But generally speaking, I spent lots of time on the colonial history and the history of activism in the diaspora. I spent tons of time watching Maria footage, researching HIV and AIDS in the 90’s – another era I lived through but wanted to refresh. I talked to Puerto Ricans who had been on the island and displaced because of Maria. That was important. I tried to not get bogged down in it, writ large. I tried to absorb it, forget it, and then go back and write, because it all needed to come from character and story, not messaging. I just wanted to be sure I got it all correct, because I haven’t seen this larger history in fiction in a minute, and I felt it important to my community that it was correct.
But then also, when I was working on the book – this was still during the summer of 2019 – I saw that there were lots of people at the protests, dressed in all black, dressed with bandanas with the austerity flags covering their faces. I saw them on the news in Puerto Rico, but in real life at protests in New York and in photos from around the globe. And I realized that there were people around the globe, in real life, interested and invested and coordinating to fight against colonialism. And that, well, I didn’t want to research that too much, but it made me more confident in writing the “fiction” of my book’s political aspects because I knew that it wasn’t really that far fetched. It was grounded in what I knew was a reality being acted out underground, at least to some degree.
Tricia: It stood out to me the way that you addressed U.S. policies and politics that have crippled and exploited Puerto Rico for decades. What do you want readers to learn and take away after reading about this?
Xochitl: I had been for years extremely frustrated by the situation in Puerto Rico and that we have a colony in contemporary times. It was just a news story that never could break through, not even after Maria. One day I was reading this book Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein about disaster capitalism (and listening to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Pa’Lante again) while commuting and I realized that, if I borrowed just enough biography from myself I could weave a pretty entertaining, hopefully beautiful story that would personalize both one version of a contemporary Latinx experience, as well as the real world emotions and experiences of gentrification, colonialism and resilience. I want people to give a shit about the fact that the United States has a modern-day colony. And that whatever future Puerto Rico wants, Boricuas on the island will be the ones to decide.
Tricia: As an immigrant myself, I identified with the internal struggle to want to pursue the American dream of success while juggling being loyal to one’s heritage, that Olga and Prieto battle. But the Puerto Rican experience feels compounded by the fact that they are unable to exercise political and economic autonomy. What is your opinion on the difficulty in trying to be loyal to personal goals that conflict with honoring heritage, within the Puerto Rican context?
Xochitl: That’s a great question, and a little more on the title actually serves as a good answer. I sought a politically relevant name for the protagonist, and I settled on Olga Viscal Garriga, who was an activist for Puerto Rican Independence who was born in Brooklyn. That felt right. Very, very right. In the earliest phase of the book, which would have been a million pages long, I wanted to write more of Blanca and Johnny’s story and so, as I mentioned, I did lots of deep dives into the Young Lords and the Nuyorican Poets.
Puerto Rican Obituary chronicles the dangers of assimilation and losing culture through the lives of four Puerto Ricans in New York, and they lose their way by getting caught up in a mainland American notion of success. The characters repeatedly die, dreaming. Olga dies dreaming of a five dollar raise, of real jewelry, of hitting the lottery. And that felt very right too. But, more than anything, it felt like the right title because it connected this moment – where Puerto Ricans and diasporic people – to our intensely long lineage of using art to speak truth and truth to power. And in the end, without giving too much away, what I tried to do was blow up this notion of choosing a predefined path. Of choosing the same options that were laid out by other people and [instead] self-determining a new path forward.
Tricia: Gentrification plays a large role in the narrative of your book and I wondered, much like Olga and Prieto who watched their neighborhoods disappearing, did you have a similar experience, and if so what was it like seeing your neighborhood change?
Xochitl: I am a rooted Brooklynite, it’s in my soul. I bleed. So, I had to correct the record. I’ve been reading Brooklyn so much the last couple of decades, and I understood that New Brooklyn, because I’ve gentrified myself, right? I know that that exists. But I needed people to see my Brooklyn, the Brooklyn that’s being taken away by gentrification. I wanted to write it tenderly because I feel tender about it. I hadn’t been back home, because of the pandemic, for months, and when I came back, I was counting the places that had been torn down. There’s a sense of it fading away, and I felt angry, and I wanted to preserve it with love. I wanted people to see that place that is rooted in working-class families and the rhythms of that kind of life. I wanted to pay homage to that before it changes even more.
Tricia: Prieto has such a hard time accepting himself on so many levels. Was it a conscious decision for his character to be gay or did that development come about differently?
Xochitl: It was a conscious decision. I wanted his perspective voiced as a queer closeted Latino because I think it’s an important perspective in our community that we rarely talk about anymore. I also needed to have Prieto’s point of view because I felt it was important to see the different ways that people can experience their Latinidad and their Puerto Ricanness, and [how they] relate to a place that they are extended from. Within a family, I’m always so fascinated by the different ways that a trauma can be experienced by someone four years older, or younger.
Tricia: I have to ask about the cover. How much input did you have in its design and do you feel it accurately reflects the essence of your book’s story?
Xochitl: Lots! I made an extremely detailed deck with mood boards and inspiration photos and explanations of cultural symbols. For instance, Old vs. New Brooklyn snaps, the Brooklyn skyline, photography by Joseph Rodriguez, protest art like murals and graffiti and posters, and the different blues in the Puerto Rican flag and the island’s native hibiscus flower. I’m a recovered visual artist/wannabe art historian! My publisher was very receptive and the designer, Lauren Peters-Collaer, very responsive. In the end, it was nothing I expected and more than I could have ever imagined.
Tricia: I love Olga and Matteo! He was able to open her further up to the beauty that still existed in their neighborhood in the places they went together that represented Puerto Rican culture. Do you feel this way as well, that there is still beauty left in Puerto Rican neighborhoods?
Xochitl: Oh, so much. So much beauty and love and acceptance and family and resilience. When we are present, we make our presence known – aesthetically, sonically – and that aesthetic celebrates color, celebration, life – being alive. That’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
Tricia: Tricia: Thank you so very much for your time Xochitl! All the best to you and I look forward to your next book!
Please be sure to read my review of Olga Dies Dreaming. Also listen to her reading her book for the BCLF Cocoa Pod podcast. You can follow Xochitl Gonzalez on Instagram, Twitter, or find out more on her work from her website.
Photo courtesy Mayra Castillo.