5 Questions for Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

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She is known as the creator of Chica lit — chick lit with a Latin flair. Just as Terry McMillan put the spotlight on the African-American reading community, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's best-selling first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, focused attention on, and energized, the Hispanic literary scene in 2003. Now she's back with a lively new book, Make Him Look Good (St. Martin's Press), which plays up Miami's music, club and modeling scenes. She spoke with Andrea Sachs, TIME's publishing reporter, about the politics of immigration, Lou Dobbs and being labeled as Latina.

What was your reaction to the recent immigration rallies?

I was in Los Angeles, over on Wilshire, watching the whole thing. I was trembling, in a good way, because it was peaceful. I'm one of those crazy people who think that I'm a citizen of the world. I understand the need for political boundaries, but I certainly don't think humanity has boundaries. My father came from another country [Cuba], and I saw how he was underestimated, because of his accent or his stature — he's very short. It was the first time I'd seen a lot of people who reminded me of my father, coming together and saying, "We count. We're human beings." And that was pretty moving for me.

You just wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the immigration controversy that provoked some controversy of its own.

I think the media uses terms interchangeably that are not interchangeable. Like "immigrants" and "Hispanics." Not to use him as an example, but Michael Savage, the talk-show host, is always saying, "these Hispanics, these Hispanics," in talking about people in the illegal immigrant protests. You know, 60% of the Hispanics in U.S. were born here. Many people in the state that I am from, New Mexico, have Spanish surnames, but their families were there before the Pilgrims landed. So how is it that that person, whose family has been in New Mexico for 500 years, is now suddenly being thought of in the popular culture as an immigrant? It's very strange. It's very sloppy. Just because someone is of another ethnicity, it does not mean that they were born elsewhere.

What do you think of Lou Dobbs' commentary on CNN about illegal immigration?

I think Lou Dobbs is very confused. The tragedy of humanity is that we die. And when people die, history dies with them, unless people read, and unless people have an understanding of history that goes beyond one or two generations. So the entire debate about illegal immigration is completely laughable when you know the true history of the United States. The least legal and least assimilate-able immigrants were the Pilgrims. And if you look at it from a Native American perspective, which I try to — and there are several vibrant Native American nations that still function in New Mexico, where I live — it's obscene that you have someone like Lou Dobbs! It's estimated that 100 million Europeans over the history of this country came here without documentation. Are we going to send everyone descended from them back? To claim that one or another group of people have a lock on a country that was basically stolen, and many of the people it was stolen from are still alive, is actually kind of disturbing to me.

It's interesting to see you use chick lit as a political statement. It's not thought of as a political genre, is it?

I didn't write my first novel knowing it would be categorized as chick lit or anything like that. I try to write the books on a couple of levels. I want it to be, on the surface level, very fashionable and fun...and funny. Someone doesn't necessarily have to look at the other layers. But those are also present.

Do you feel comfortable acting as a Latina spokeswoman, or is that an ambivalent role for you?

It depends who puts that label on me and what their purposes are. It's like being called a "funny Jew" by Mel Brooks, or being called a "funny Jew" by Hitler. They're going to have very different goals in the label. So if a Latina magazine says that I'm a Latina writer, that's okay with me because I think they understand that that's a very diverse group of people. You can be of any race, any religion, any socio-economic background. It's almost a make-believe category. But there was a paper in New York that said something like, Valdes-Rodriguez is bringing the Third World just what it needs — chick lit. I thought, what about me is Third World? This person did not understand. And when she saw my last name, her perception of my ethnicity was of someone from the Third World. So my feelings on it change. I really think that 500 years from now, everyone will look back upon all of these labels, and they'll seem ridiculous.