“I don’t comply with any of the Latino stereotypes”
Diana Rodriguez Wallach grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia in a home where Spanish was not spoken. She tries to reconnect with her Puerto Rican identity through her young adult novels.
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is not fluent in Spanish, but that doesn’t minimize the fact that a part of her still identifies as a Latina. Born in Ridley Township, Delaware County, in 1978, to a Puerto Rican father and Polish mother, Rodríguez Wallach is one of the best-known young adult (YA) novelists in the Philadelphia area. Her name became familiar in American bookstores after the publication of “Love and Summer Secrets” (Kensington Books, 2008), a novel starring a Philadelphian quinceañera of Puerto Rican origin that is sent to spend the summer on the island. There she will have her first contact with her roots and her family, in addition to living the occasional love story.
Since then, Rodriguez Wallach has specialized as a YA novel author and is currently in full promotion of “Lies that Bind” (Entangled Publishing, 2018), the second volume of the Anastasia Phoenix trilogy, a series of thrillers starring an adolescent named Anastasia who everyone thinks is strange, always traveling from one place to another with her scientist parents, and who speaks four languages.
“In my books for teenagers I want to convey an idea: to travel,” the author said in a phone interview with AL DÍA News. And when she talks about how enriching it is to travel, she speaks from experience.
After her peaceful childhood in Ridley, a residential community just outside of Philadelphia, Rodriguez Wallach went to study journalism at Boston University. “For me, I sought out a personal connection to my Latina roots as an adult,” she said, remembering that they spoke English at home, despite her father’s Puerto Rican origin. At the university, she minored in Spanish and later decided to do an academic exchange in Madrid, Spain, to practice the language she didn’t have the opportunity to learn as a child. “It was an incredible experience, although at the beginning I could understand better an American speaking in Spanish than a Madrileño,” she laughed.
Her Spanish has become quite rusty again, she admits, but Rodriguez Wallach was left with the rewarding experience of having lived abroad. “Someone from Spain is very different from someone from Latin America,” she said. “Like a Dominican or an Ecuadorian or a Puerto Rican.”
The author is not very supportive of labels or stereotypes to identify Latinos, but she does believe in the creation of much-needed citizen organizations that support and promote opportunities for the Latino community, such as the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where her brother, Louis Rodriguez, serves as chairman, or other nonprofit organizations that work with the vulnerable communities in North Philadelphia.
“Traveling helps to open your mind to other cultures,” said the author, who, since returning from Madrid, has made traveling to know other cultures one of her life’s priorities. Among the places she has been lucky enough to visit is Puerto Rico, where she has made numerous trips to visit her father’s family. Far away is the memory of her first trip to Utuado, a municipality in the interior of the island, a setting that served as inspiration for her novel “Amor and Summer Secrets,” in addition to establishing the foundations of her close relationship with her Puerto Rican relatives.
“Also, this year, my family in the states rallied together to raise funds and supplies for our relatives on the island deeply affected by Hurricane Maria,” Rodriguez Wallach explained proudly.
Upon returning from Madrid, Rodriguez Wallach graduated with a degree in journalism and moved to New York, where she worked as a reporter for a magazine covering the hotel business, and later as an editor for a real estate publication.
However, the work as a journalist was not entirely fulfilling for her. What Rodriguez Wallach wanted was to work for a non-profit organization, “something social, related to young people,” she said. The opportunity came in 2003 when she was offered a chance to work in the communications department for an NGO in Philadelphia dedicated to improving education in public schools. She and her husband didn’t think twice about it and soon they were packing to move to the City of Brotherly Love.
Since then, Rodriguez Wallach has been living in Philadelphia, the area where she grew up and now her two children are doing the same. It is also here that her career as a writer “seriously” began. After the publication of “Amor and Summer Secrets,” the author published two other YA novels: “Amigas and School Scandals” and “Adios to All The Drama” (Kensington Books); later she wrote a collection of short stories about the myth of Narcissus that was included in the anthology “Latina Authors and Their Muses” (Twilight Times Books, 2015). Then in 2017, she launched the first book of the Anastasia Phoenix trilogy, “Proof of Lies,” firmly establishing herself as a YA novel writer.
Unlike the protagonist of her first novel, however, Anastasia has no Hispanic roots, beyond the fact that her boyfriend is from Madrid. She could be any Philadelphia teenager, like the author herself:
“Growing up in a multicultural home, with a Puerto Rican father and a Polish mother, I was used to having Spanish rice on the same table as pierogies. I feel a lot of American teens can relate to this, which is why I try to bring a diverse cast of characters to all of my novels,” said Rodriguez Wallach.
The author admits that her looks are not Latino—she has red hair, which not even her father had. “I don’t comply with any of the Latin stereotypes,” she said. Rather than being pigeonholed by an identity, Rodriguez Wallach prefers to turn to the richness of diversity, to know other cultures, to emphasize the importance to education.
In line with her philosophy on life, the author visits Philadelphia’s public schools and participates in writing workshops for children in the city through nonprofit organizations such as Spells Writing Lab and Mighty Writers.
“Recently I taught a workshop about how students can pull inspiration from their real lives to start a short story,” she said. “I also love sharing my writing journey and answering their questions. Most have never met an author before, so it’s fun to see their enthusiasm”.
Often her philanthropic activities involve working with students of Hispanic origin from neighborhoods in the city with the most humble means.
“I’m impressed to see that there are more and more bilingual parents in Philadelphia,” the author said. “My parents’ generation was more focused on being Americanized and they tended to always speak in English.”
When she visits schools, apart from sharing her story as a writer, Rodriguez Wallace also tells the story of her father: how he emigrated from Puerto Rico to the U.S., struggled to learn English, and paid his way through college. “It took him eight years to get a bachelor’s degree and get himself out of the projects,” she said. “I hope by sharing this experience, these kids hear that they too can do this if they set their minds to it”.
Rodriguez Wallach believes that students in city schools deserve the same education and enriching activities as kids in wealthier suburban neighborhoods. “All kids should grow up believing they can do anything if they work hard enough”. Whether or not they are Latino, poor or rich, her advice is the same for everyone: listen to “that little voice in your brain—call it a gut instinct or divine intervention—it’s there for a reason and listening to it will lead you to your passion”.
“I initially went into journalism because I knew I was good at writing, and I thought it was a practical way to apply that talent,” she recalled. But she didn’t like being a reporter, and she always dragged around that feeling that there was “something else” she was supposed to be doing with her life. “Eventually, I dreamt I was a young adult author, and I woke up feeling like maybe I’d finally figured it out. So I wrote my first book.”
Through her books and writing workshops, the author also encourages teens to find inspiration to write short stories, “to create stories about their lives,” she said, convinced that this practice can help them overcome some of the insecurities of adolescence. And, if they can afford it, she also encourages them to travel, as Anastasia does. “Grab your backpack, travel through Europe, Asia ... the more you travel, the more open-minded you will be,” she said. “In six hours you can be in California, but also in Europe.”
Now, the writer is working on her next project, a YA contemporary romance featuring a highly gifted Latina student who is under immense pressure from her parents and by academics as she learns to figure out for herself what she really wants for her life. “It’s partly based on my experience teaching gifted students through Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, and I’m really excited to dive into this story,” she explained.
Before saying goodbye—in English—Rodriguez Wallach takes up the subject of language. “I don’t think that speaking Spanish is crucial to feeling Latino,” she said. For the author, learning languages should be a form of personal enrichment. She doesn’t agree with using the language for political purposes. “It’s like when you’re labeled for speaking Spanish with an accent,” she said. “Traveling helps to open minds and viewpoints, to see beyond the accents.”
Her words are an antidote to the speech of President Donald Trump, determined to marginalize and point the finger at Latino immigrants, whom he has labeled as criminals and rapists (among other insults).
With respect to the president of the United States, Rodriguez Wallach has little to say, beyond that when Hurricane Maria occurred, “I could confirm that his administration doesn’t treat the island as if it were part of the country,” she said. “There are no reasons for our people to run out of water or food.”
The author admits that one of the most embarrassing moments for her, as an American citizen, was when Trump won the presidential election in November 2016. “I was in London,” she said, and “it was very disappointing to see how the rest of the world saw Trump’s victory as something very sad.”