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Lorraine Avila inspires me to be a more courageous storyteller.
The author's YA novel, "The Making of Yolanda La Bruja," debuted earlier this month.
Lorraine Avila’s The Making of Yolanda La Bruja arrives at what feels like the perfect time in my life.
Avila is a Dominican-American writer, author, and translator from the Bronx. Her works include Malcriada & Other Stories and Celestial Summer, and she has written for Refinery29, Teen Vogue, BITCH Media, and Latino USA.
It takes me weeks to read the novel, and I finish it late last night. I am also reading bell hooks’ All About Love this week, and it informs how I was thinking and writing through Avila’s work. hooks writes about love and how we learn to love or not love from our own families and caretakers, and how this in turn impacts how we relate to the world around us. I think about how this shows up in my family, in other Dominican and Caribbean families, and the role displacement and trauma play in how we love.
The YA novel debuted on April 11 and tells the story of Yolanda Nuelis Alvarez, a deaf Dominican girl from the Bronx. She, like other members of her family, namely Mamá Teté, her grandmother, is a Bruja, and she has visions and dreams and reads her cards every morning. She is in initiation, waiting for her Unknown to pick her. Mamá Teté, picked by Culebra, is her mentor.
We follow Yolanda as she navigates the rupture caused by a new white student who arrives at her Bronx high school, Julia De Burgos, during his senior year. She attempts to navigate interpreting her visions, a love life, her friendship with Victory, and the release of her father from prison. The novel highlights gun violence, how Black immigrants fear the NYPD, Haitian history, education in New York City, the power of the menstrual cycle and our complicated relations with our bodies.
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The author talks about Albanian immigrants in the Bronx, and the ways their language and working class struggles can be similar to ours; the tensions and pains of young people constantly seeing videos and images of Black death; the ways that young people create organizing and healing spaces, and the ways they struggle and thrive in them; the ways our communities are galvanized after tragedy.
Avila, throughout the novel, is detail-oriented, and thoughtful about Yolanda’s relationship to the world around her, the quiet before the processors are on, the acclimating to the noises and sounds around her once they are on. How Yolanda defends herself when classmates make fun of her.
Avila’s YA novel feels intimate and familiar, showing the ways Dominican children love and hurt and learn and exist. The ways we try to learn from elders while also finding our voices. The ways we are anxious or depressed or loving or angry or fun or galvanized.
I love how Avila describes Yolanda’s relationship with her mother, how they both love and (mis)understand one another from a distance. “I wish she tried better to understand that I cannot be my whole self while splitting myself in pieces for her to accept, but I also know it isn’t totally her fault,” Yolanda narrates in Chapter 5, “Bruja Ways.”
The Making of Yolanda La Bruja is spiritual, religious, and necessary reading for those of us attempting to analyze and understand Christianity, religion, outside of white supremacy.
Avila’s writing does not shy away from the syncretism of island religion and spirituality, focusing on the African faith traditions that exist on the island, and the ways these mixed with the colonizer’s Christianity.
Yolanda is extremely faithful, curious, and prayerful. Some of my favorite scenes in the novel are when the author describes Yolanda praying and caring for her altar. The teenager is methodical and patient and disciplined in her worship, committed to venerating her ancestors and their traditions.
In Chapter 4, “Clairvoyance,” the author writes:
People understand that while some are sprinkled with a little magic, others are born with the don, with the gift, with the full force. It it what it is. My people believe deeply even if they wear their Catholic cloak on a daily basis for safety. But when shit hits the fan—and shit always hits the fan—they turn to the soil, to the skies, and the leaders of the other side.
The Making of Yolanda La Bruja is also an instructive, abolitionist, and justice-oriented text, specifically with teenage organizers, “resistors,” in mind. Some of my favorite quotes from Avila’s book can be read, de-contextualized, as political education and succinct points on how to build with one’s community and how to deepen our consciousness: “process the social reality we are in”; “our communities would be different if justice was left to us, and not to all the systems that try to categorize us into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ from the moment we enter schools”; “humans weren’t always vessels of ego. That their natural state had been to aid the connection between the divine and the human.” “She teaches me to be patient and always be curious before jumping to conclusions.” “An apology without changed behavior is not an apology at all.”
Yolanda’s organizing in high school becomes deeply inspired by Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Her dad gives her a copy when he returns, and he tells her how the book saved him. Avila quotes Assata throughout the novel, grounding the book further in Black liberation.
Yolanda La Bruja is a fierce, formidable, and empowering character. At her most fearful, her character still extends love and grace to everyone around her, even when those she trusts advise her against this.
On TikTok last month, Avila shared a clip from the “Growing Up Latina” podcast in which she talks about her vocation as a storyteller. She describes her refusal to be silent, her refusal to ignore the harm that is caused and tolerated within our most intimate and allegedly loving spaces, and her refusal to protect men who harm. “If I’mma die, if I’mma suffer, I’m gonna scream about it. I’m not a tree in a forest that’s going to fall and no one’s gonna hear it. Y’all are gonna know about it,” she says.
I have returned to this clip often in the last few weeks.
I am working, still and always, it seems, on a sample chapter for my next book and I have struggled to write it for a month. I want to write about trauma and healing and learning to love and be intimate. I want to write about displacement and silence and physical and mental pain and the loneliness of healing. How we hold all of this and more as Dominican, Caribbean, Black women.
And I am also healing and surviving and existing and learning to love under empire. It is not easy to write through this. Even with the discipline of a weekly newsletter, even with readers who share and support this work, even when you know there is nothing you would rather do, writing makes you feel uncomfortable and exposed and silly and afraid and deregulated all at once.
The Making of Yolanda La Bruja feels like a gentle and loving challenge to more fully and authentically and fearlessly confront my family history and inner child work. Like Avila is naming our fears and anxieties and the ways we are harmed and used as Caribbean women. Like she is writing for every Dominican girl, and woman, struggling to feel safe in the world and our bodies, struggling to organize and love and build and be loved.
Avila makes me less afraid to write.