Lilliam Rivera, author of the YA novel The Education of Margot Sanchez, is excited about the strides publishing has made. She comes to life when talking about the Latina/Latino and other people of color who are authors or have just signed book deals. She does not want to be, as she has been in the past, the only one in the room.
The Education of Margot Sanchez tells the story of fifteen-year-old Margot Sanchez, who just wants one thing: to attend the party of the summer in the Hamptons. The only problem is, she’s grounded, must spend her summer working at Sanchez & Sons, her family’s supermarket. The Education of Margot Sanchez is a story about growing up and discovering who you are and what you do and don’t believe about the world that you are in. The book explores the awkwardness of teenaged years and the devastation of family secrets.
Recently, I spoke to Rivera about the world she has built, and the characters in it.
The Rumpus: What made you want to tell this story of Margot Sanchez and her family?
Lilliam Rivera: I wanted to write a young adult coming-of-age story set in the South Bronx, which is where I am from. I grew up reading all those books; Judy Blume was one of my favorites, and The Outsiders. I consumed all of those books, so I just knew I wanted to see if I could write that summer coming-of-age story.
I wanted to write about the Bronx, the beauty of it. There’s only, like, a handful of young adult authors that are published from the Bronx. So wanted to try my luck and be a part of that crew of writing about the Bronx, and writing about its beauty, and trying to capture that voice.
Rumpus: The feeling of restlessness is throughout this book, and not just with Margot but with her parents and brother. Her Mami is in a tough marriage; Junior, her brother, is at once trying to prove himself and harping on his past failures; and her Papi is resisting change. Was it intentional to have every character long for something more?
Rivera: They are all trying to capture that American dream—whatever that is. Even Jasmine, Jasmine, one of the cashiers at Margot’s father’s store, is trying to be the singer instead of a cashier. So, they are all struggling to get out of these roles that they are sort of meant to play.
Even Margot, who is like the princesa and the last hope of the family, she’s just young and trying to figure herself out and being messy about it. I love that. I love trying to write about those stories because my family is messy; everyone’s family is messy. When you’re young, you’re just seeing that mess for what it is. There’s that moment for every young adult when you finally see your parents as flawed characters or people who had their own dreams, which maybe were never fulfilled.
Rumpus: Talk a bit about the framing of colorism and gentrification? What was your process of shaping them in a conversational but poignant way?
Rivera: I know that if I have to write any kind of work, especially contemporary work, I have to write about race within family dynamics. Moses is afro-Latino and so is Margot’s brother, Junior. Her mom is also afro-Latina and the father is lighter skinned and so is she. So you can see the way things are shaped in this family, and the way people look at her brother, and the way her father treats her brother, and the way her father treats her. I had to talk about that because it’s something that always plays up in Latino culture. People want to deny the fact that they are racist but then they deny the fact that they have black people in our family, in our history.
With gentrification it was easy. I live in Los Angeles, and I have for fifteen years, but I go a lot to New York often and I see the change. It’s really drastic. The Bronx is the last frontier and it’s always been the last frontier; nobody wanted to come visit the Bronx, no one would ever visit the Bronx. But now it’s, Maybe we’ll get an apartment; it’s way cheaper than anything else. I see the changes and it’s really shocking. It is going to affect who are being pushed out who can no longer afford it.
With Margot, her family owns a supermarket and they believe that they’re safe. But no one is safe, unless you take a stand now. A lot of young people in the Bronx see it, too, and they’re vocal. It’s not like a quiet battle at all. I wanted to capture a little bit of it.
It’s not an easy conversation to have even when you’re living there and thinking it would be great to have a café. Yeah, it would be great to have Starbucks but then also what about the mom-and-pop store down the block?
Rumpus: As a black woman who went to a primarily white institution in high school and college, I understood Margot’s quest to fit in. if you could tell Margot one thing to help her see her worth, what would it be?
Rivera: This is something I wish I had told myself when I was young… There were moments when I was growing up where I thought I had to deny a lot of things that made me great. I was like, I’m not going to listen to salsa music. I’m going to listen to pop music, or whatever was on the radio at the time. i would tell Margot to loosen up, not everyone has the answer—not her parents, her close friends. She has to figure it out for herself.
Rumpus: I enjoyed the moments when the things the characters wanted weren’t what they were cracked up to be. As a young person, that disappointment can feel never-ending. Can you tell us how you think the disappointments in the book shape the characters?
Rivera: For Margot, she has this one goal: to be invited to this end-of-summer party. And she is going to get there, no matter what. She is going to steal and she is going to lie to show off this perfect picture. Her parents have been shoving this image of what she should be, and that image is Margot at this prep school with these people, at all costs. For young people, those things are so crucial. It’s like the first time meeting a boy; kissing a boy but also, the first time you feel shame and ways that you just downplay it. It’s so hurtful and I didn’t want to hold back on how far Margot would go because I felt that it was about how far her family was willing to go. It comes from above.
Rumpus: The focus on the minutiae was great. Something didn’t happen every single day. Instead, there were small things leading up to multiple climaxes.
Rivera: When you’re writing contemporary, it involves world-building. For Margot, this world of working in the supermarket in the South Bronx is a completely different world. It has its own rules, its own uniform. She’s coming in as if she’s trying to conquer a new world. That’s the way I see it. She’s been sheltered, in a way, and has not lived in it. I think about placing Margot in as many uncomfortable situations as possible, and upping the ante.
Rumpus: There are a lot of unexpected things in the book. Your characters didn’t conform to popular stereotypes. Was there a bigger message in your decision to write them this way?
Rivera: I wanted to show that Margot was walking around with this mask and this role that she really felt she had to fulfill. She wasn’t allowing anyone to see any of her trueness—the real person. That includes her friends as well. You don’t know how people are and why people react the way they do. You just assume, Oh, this person has a great house, money, and all of these clothes. Everything must be great. That’s not the case, for the most part. It’s never clean cut, when it comes to how a person lives. I wanted for Margot to see that as well, not have it fixed in any way. I wanted her to see that it isn’t all just black and white, when it comes to relationships you have when you’re young. It was important to me; my brother went away to boarding school. We were living in the housing projects in the South Bronx. He went to school in Connecticut. It was a great opportunity, obviously, but it was hard for him. He was living with people who had money, and he did not. When he came back, it changed him drastically, even though he was accepted to Cornell University, another great opportunity.
Rumpus: The ending of the book is different than most YA novels in the way that it tackles the experience of young love. What lead you to that choice? What do you hope the choice says to young readers?
Rivera: I love summer romances. I think its magical you’re in the city there’s hope out there. Everyone is outside and everyone’s sweaty. I think there is something magical about it. I definitely want to write about it, and with Moses. I love Moses because he’s past that moment where Margot needs to be. He is now way more certain about himself and sees a bit of that in Margot. They are both sort of battling. It’s just the possibility of friendship. What a friendship really means and that really goes even with her friendship with Elizabeth. She’s going to tackle them in a completely different way.
Rumpus: What do you hope readers take away from The Education of Margot Sanchez?
Rivera: I love writing young adult novels. I love trying to remember or recall those moments of firsts, those first times. I know this sounds silly, but I get really energized when I speak to young people. I’m just like, What are you doing? What are you reading? Young people are our hope.
Right now, I’m a teaching artist for the National Book Foundation, talking to grade school students about reading. Margot Sanchez is a little love letter to the Bronx, to my home. I hope that when people read about it, they see one Latina story of many in the Bronx.
I am a super big champion of all writers of color who are getting book deals. I want all of the bookshelves to be filled with fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, and more love stories from Latinas by Latinas and Latinos and people of color.
Author photograph © Julian Sambrano Jr.