Latino Writers Address Publishing Challenges

Actress-turned-author Sonia Manzano, who played Maria for three decades on “Sesame Street,” at the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference in Brooklyn. (Photo by Sierra Leone Starks)

Actress Sonia Manzano, who spent over 30 years playing the role of Maria in the popular children’s television series “Sesame Street,” thought she would make a smooth transition into writing books for kids.

“You would think that since I’m from ‘Sesame Street’, everyone would’ve just opened their doors to my books,” Manzano said in a keynote address at this weekend’s inaugural Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference. “Well they didn’t. It was ‘Can I have your autograph?’ and ‘See you later.’”

But Manzano prevailed, bringing a distinct Latino voice to the world of mainstream publishing with her first children’s book, “No Dogs Allowed,” a warm and humorous story about a Puerto Rican extended family out on a day trip, released in 2004. She has since published two other books, including her first young adult novel out last month, “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” and is working on a memoir.

Various vendors at the conference showcased their books, including La Casa Azul Bookstore. (Photo by Sierra Leone Starks)

The purpose of the Oct. 6 all-day writers’ conference in Brooklyn was to highlight and confront the challenges Latino authors face in the publishing world.

Manzano attributed the progression in acceptance of new Latino voices to the expanding Hispanic population in the U.S. Of her experience transitioning from actress to author, Manzano said publishing companies had a one-Latino-author quota and weren’t interested in adding a second one.

The event, held at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, brought together dozens of renowned names and authors in the publishing landscape, including Michelle Herrera Mulligan, editor-in-chief of “Cosmo for Latinas,” and Stephanie Elizondo Griest, the award-winning author of “100 Places Every Woman Should Go, each with their own set of challenges in trying to introduce their works to mainstream audiences.

Though large publishing companies have begun to slowly embrace the Latino market, such as HarperCollins’ Spanish language Rayo division, it has mostly been the efforts of individuals and organizations committed to diversifying the mainstream writing sector.

“We really want authors of color represented in the commercial market,” Rhoda Belleza of Paper Lantern Lit, a boutique literary development company, said.

Belleza claims that there are a multitude of talented writers representing diverse backgrounds. But with commercial media centered around a specific appearance and lifestyle, her company feels it is important that children from other backgrounds feel that they are also represented in the media and in the books that they’re reading.

Speaking particularly to Latino culture, Belleza said she has found narrative threads that need to be explored further in literature, such as cultural struggles exclusive to Hispanics and familial commitment and loyalty.

Marcela Landres left her editor job at Simon and Schuster to venture into freelance in hopes that she could create a platform for Latino writers to gain exposure. Landres explained that after three years of asking her agents at the publishing giant to find Latino writers with no results, she found herself doing both jobs in order to acquire a diverse talent and expose them to the mainstream world.

The experience led her to create “Latinidad,” an award-winning online magazine designed to help Latino writers get published.

Michelle Herrera Mulligan, of “Cosmo for Latinas,” speaks about mistakes young writers make in approaching publications. (Photo by Sierra Leone Starks)

“There is a succinct and ever-present gap between Latino writers and the publishing industry,” Landres said.

She added that each person at the conference, whether serving as a speaker, volunteer or attendee, whether a poet, a writer of fiction or memoir, has no doubt been tirelessly working to build a bridge between that gap, “in his or her own way, brick by brick, nail by nail.”

With a little over a week left in Hispanic Heritage Month, the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference was organized by Las Comadres para las Americas, a national organization of Latinas that began as a monthly gathering in Austin, Texas, in 2000 and has grown to 20,000 members in over 90 cities. In conjunction with the Association of American Publishers, Las Comadres sponsors a book club to promote the work of Latino authors.


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