Spanglish, Queer and Worth Reading: Interview with Juli Delgado Lopera on “Fiebre Tropical”

todayMarch 2, 2021 163

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By Diamond Marie Pedroza
Web Content Contributor

Juli Delgado Lopera’s novel, “Fiebre Tropical,” is a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old girl named, Francisca, who has recently immigrated to Miami, Florida from Bogotá, Colombia with her family. Throughout the novel, Francisca explores her sexuality, while also dealing with her mother’s intense religious dependency on their church.

Lopera’s novel took “five or six years to write,” they said. The novel is progressive in that it introduces readers to language, culture, and the immigrant experience while maintaining a sense of humor and frankness.

I recently had the chance to interview Lopera on Zoom. They explained key concepts, storylines and other details from their novel, which you can read about below.

snapshot of July the author next to her novel’s back summary
Snapshot of Juli’s Author Summary. Image courtesy of The Feminist Press

Diamond Marie Pedroza [DMP]: The immigrant experience isn’t well known, and you described it so well. How close was your experience of immigrating to the U.S. to the novel?

Juli Delgado Lopera [JDL]: I think that, like a lot of writers, I pull in my fiction from some of my own life. I did come to the states when I was 15. I then moved in with my mother, and a lot of my family was already here. My family was incredibly evangelical Christian, so a lot of the layout is very true.

One of the things that I was thinking about when I was in the aftermath of revising the novel many times is that usually, the immigrant narrative that I had seen was reactionary to whiteness. My story just happens to be told by a bunch of immigrants. There are all of those immigrants that are there, but their experience as an immigrant comes through the challenge of being with each other and the space around them, not necessarily the white people. There are really no white people in the story.

In May 2020, Juli wrote an op-ed for Teen Vogue. In it, they pointed out how the legitimacy of Spanglish, a mix of English and Spanish, defies the rigidity that standard English carries. Since Spanglish isn’t taught in schools, it is passed down from one generation to the next, often by the use of storytelling. It is a language that allows for the constant creation of new words.

[DMP]: I love that Teen Vogue op-ed you did about Spanglish, and that was obviously a main part of the book. So, why did you choose to include Spanglish and make the novel multilingual?

[JDL]: When I arrived to the states, I was already speaking Spanish. My whole life was in Spanish. So, I had to learn a new language when I was already a teenager. The process of learning a new language, when you’re also in the midst of being a teenager and dealing with coming into terms with yourself and everything is very challenging. What that gave me is that I was able to look at English from the outside in as I was learning it.

I have been in the states already for 17 years, but when I started writing it I think that I got permission from a lot of writers that I’ve seen doing stuff like that. Not only Latinos, but a lot of black writers too. I re-read Toni Morrison a lot when I was writing this. Writers who were expressing their language in slang were really captivating me through their relationship between the text and oral forms of storytelling. I just love it.

My linguistic reality is this in-betweenness. Every single day I’m having to translate things from English, and so the only way that I can enter English is with Spanish with me. Like, gathering my Spanish grammar and gathering my Spanish roots to be able to make sense of it.

I also find that Spanglish is incredibly brilliant and that it’s usually looked down upon because it’s spoken by immigrants. Spanish is seen as a language that is inferior, because of how it’s tied politically to immigration. I didn’t grow up thinking I was inferior. I didn’t grow up thinking that my language was inferior, because I grew up around everybody speaking Spanish around me.

I remember the first time that I heard people speaking Spanglish in Miami, which were the Cubans. They just made up all this stuff and I was first shocked, but that was kind of like the way that I also learned how to speak English. What was available was this in-between space that a lot of immigrants had already been contributing to. We weren’t the first one’s here who did this. People have been doing this for so long.

[DMP]: Did you always intend on making Francisca [the main character] queer?

[JDL]: I don’t think that I did. The whole novel came out of a short story about the baptism of the dead baby. Then, the characters just started growing and growing to the point where they couldn’t be contained. Eventually, it just made sense that she was queer.

I think that her sexuality is both something that she is investigating, but it’s also something where she finds solace. She is able to connect with this youth leader and feel a little bit of a sense of belonging when she’s so disconnected from everything else because she just arrived at a place [where] she doesn’t know anything.

[DMP]: It is interesting, because you didn’t have her coming out or anything. You just had her doing normal things any teen does, like having a crush and spending time with that crush….

[JDL]: She never says the word, lesbian, gay, or anything. I was just trying to figure out what it is to write to the experience, and not necessarily the identity. What it’s like to be a teenager who doesn’t have that language and who doesn’t have that world around, but you still have the feeling, right? That was also very much how my world was. I didn’t have any queer references at all till way later, like till I was 18, but I had queer feelings.

Similarly, with the story of the grandmother when she has this moment of having feelings for the nun, I wanted to write into that space of what it feels like to be a girl in the 50s and have this huge desire. For her, it was worse, because she didn’t even have a relationship with her body in a way that is intimate. The whole thing with queerness is that I wanted to explore the desire in a way that was beyond the markers of identity.

[DMP]: Francisca’s mother is a single parent, who brought her family to the U.S. from Columbia. She struggles with finding a community to be a part of and becomes dependent on her church. She had to give up on many of the dreams she initially had when she first immigrated to the U.S. I saw Mami [Francisca’s mother] as someone who had to settle, and she used religion and telenovelas to escape. Do you think she settled?

[JDL]: I see the mom as trying really hard. I see her trying to keep up the appearance of what she used to have back in Columbia. There’s a lot of performance of class that happens in Columbia. You’re constantly showing that everything is okay. I think that she’s trying to hold onto that performance, but she’s just failing at everything. Everything that was promised to her is not coming through.

The promise of the American dream in this country, which is tied to immigration, is pretty horrible. She’s chasing this thing because they promised her a job in the states and promised all this. Once she arrived, the actual life is they’re living in this shitty townhouse where everything is nasty outside, and they’re surrounded by the same people that they left.

Her relationship to the church was actually something that I really wanted to explore, because I had so many people in my family be so incredibly Christian. There’s this own little society [the church] that provides a sense of community and provides a sense of belonging, which is so crucial to who we are.

At the end, the mom wants to be able to belong, find others, have a community, feel supported, and loved, and she doesn’t. I think the mom is constantly seeking. That’s why it’s so sad at the end when she’s kind of giving up on some of that seeking.

[DMP]: Talking about Tata [Francisca’s grandmother] and Mami [Francisca’s mother], I loved how you included a little bit of their stories. Did you always intend on having two separate stand-alone chapters?

[JDL]: Well, no. My writing process wasn’t that intentional. I felt the novel really needed an expansion of the understanding of who Mami and Tata were that was not only in relationship to Francisca. I have a first-person narrative. It’s a very limiting understanding of the mom and the grandmother because it’s all through Francisca’s eyes. I wanted to be able to have them exist, not only in relationship to her but as an entity of themselves.

I wanted to explore what it would have been like for Mami in the 70s to be a teenager and for Tata in the 50s to also be a teenager. I think it’s a way to expand on them, so that they feel like human beings not only there for the girl. I think it’s also a way of exploring lineage and all of things that are coming down in the hereditary line, because of what Tata does. Then, you see her own trauma kind of like informing how she behaves later.

[DMP]: Do you have a favorite character in your novel?

[JDL]: I have to say that I really love the grandmother, because she is very wise and she speaks a lot with gestures, which is kind of how old women or Latin women do. Sometimes, they just kind of like point with their mouths or they sigh really deeply. I love the performativity of sadness in old women. How wise their bodies are in communicating something that they don’t like without telling you anything.

She’s kind of fun because she’s drunk, but it’s sad. She’s also the one that connects the most with Francisca. She kind of knows what’s happening with Carmen, but she never outright says it. I also really love her backstory. It was one of my favorite things to write.

[DMP]: The novel showed Francisca finally coming to terms with her sexuality at the ending. However, readers are left questioning whether she stayed with her mother or left on her own. The ending felt very open to interpretation. Do you have any idea where Francisca ended up?

[JDL]: I have no idea what she’s doing. People ask me if I am going to write a sequel. Maybe in a few years. I am writing something else right now.

My whole point with the ending was that I wanted her to have somebody who saw her, and Andrea does that. For once she is being held by someone who sees her. She sees the queerness in Francisca. Francisca’s actually able to let go because she is crying. She had not been able to cry throughout the book.

[DMP]: So, you’re working on something else. Is it a novel?

[JDL]: Yeah. I’m working on two things. I have a novel that I am currently working on. It is all set in Columbia. It is very different from this one. It is a story about a dad, who is closeted and comes out of the closet when the mom dies. It [has] a lot of queer history in it. And I am working on a collection of essays centered around Spanglish.

[DMP]: Is there anything you’d like to add?

[JDL]: The only thing I’d like to add is that I do believe a lot of minority writers, like people of color or queer people, feel a lot of pressure to do art, but it’s got to perform our identity. I struggle with that a lot in the novel and just in general because I just wanted to write whatever I wanted to write.

What it meant for me to write a novel where I was moving away from the white gaze was in itself challenging, because I was in writing workshops where there was constantly a white gaze. A lot of the book was me having fun with it and being able to delve deep into the things that are obsessing me regardless of whether it was going to be likeable to anyone else. After I decided it was going to be Spanglish, I was like this is it.

I’ve been beautifully shocked and surprised by so many immigrants who have reached out to me that they feel seen by the book. Not only Latino immigrants, but like immigrants who speak other languages, who feel emboldened now to be able to mix their native language with English as well. It’s really beautiful to have so many people reach out to me that they feel recognized, maybe by the narrative, but a lot of them by the linguistic makeup of the book. That makes me feel seen. I didn’t know any of that was going to happen.

Fiebre Tropical is available for purchase at various stores, like BookWoman , The Feminist Press, Barnes and Noble and Half Price Books.

You can Find Juli here:

Featured Image courtesy of The Feminist Press

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