A highlight from How Johanna Rojas Vann Wove the Truth Into Fiction

Latina to Latina


So many of us have been there, we hear our family's stories and think, that should be a book. Most of us stopped there, but Joanna Rojas -Van kept going. She took her mother's story of immigrating from Colombia to the United States, wove the world, and sold her first novel, An American Immigrant. Before she was a published author, Joanna and I worked together at Fusion, the ABC Univision cable channel based in Miami. So I wanted to talk with her both because I am so proud to watch her soar, and because in a time when platform often trumps actual talent, Joanna's success is a reminder that there is a path for those with grit and faith who are willing to do the work. Joanna. Hi. Hi. Oh my. The second I hear your voice, I am transported back in time. Joanna, I want to start with you growing up in suburban Maryland. And there were not a whole lot of other Latinos around you. And so I wonder how that changed your points of inquiry around your story, your acceptance of what it meant to be American, how living in a predominantly white suburb shaped your sense of identity. I think it shaped so much of me. And there were some Hispanic people where I lived because where I lived in suburban Maryland was where the poor people lived. We lived in an apartment complex, but we were just on the precipice of the high school that was for the wealthy people, right? So my high school was predominantly white, and a lot of my friends were white. And so that did shape a lot of who I am because my home life looked so different from the home life of my friends. And I knew that, and I saw it very clearly, and it was an insecurity that I lived with. I mean - How? Tell me. Paint me a picture. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I just remember visiting the homes of my friends and being like, what is it like to have this much space? You can go to a corner of your home and be alone and not have to hear people talking or share a room or your parents leave for the weekends and leave you home by yourself. Like, where are your parents even going? My parents don't go anywhere. Like what? I don't know. It was just mind -boggling to me to feel that insecurity all the time of like, these people are so different from me. I'm ashamed of where I live. I'm ashamed of the car that my parents drive. I don't want to be seen with them. And something I didn't write in the book, but that is such a core memory of my life, is being at the skating rink when I was probably in middle school, and my dad calling me on my phone. And when I hung up, when we were about to say goodbye, I said, okay, bye dad. And I didn't call him dad. I'd never in my life called him dad. I called him Papi. But I was so embarrassed to say Papi because nobody has a Papi. Everybody has a dad. And I remember hanging up and being like, ugh, that felt so weird. And when does that switch for you, that sense of trying to hide? Miami, 100%. The first year that I was there, I was like, whoa, this is weird. This is culture shock. Like, I've never been around so many Hispanic people. And I would go to Walmart, and the people would speak to me in Spanish. And I'd be like, I've never spoken Spanish to anyone but my parents. This is strange. And then as I got more acclimated and made so many friends, I was finally like, oh my gosh, these people get it. These people are children of immigrants. They grew up speaking Spanish at home. I felt like I could even hide, you know? Because everywhere I went before that, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone would say, where are you from? You look so exotic. And once I got to Miami, no one ever asked me that ever, ever, because I looked like everybody else.

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