Helping Young Latinx Writers Find Their Voice
Photo Credit: Fernanda_Reyes/Shutterstock
Today, Colombia is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Americans, with its beaches, cuisine, and festivals drawing adventurers and foodies from across North America. But when Davina Agudelo was raised in the city of Medellín in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a much different place in the midst of drug war-fueled violence.
As a girl, Agudelo turned to art to cope with the death and destruction around her. She took to her journal daily and composed poems, creating worlds that were far different than her own while unpacking her emotions and desires for her life.
“Writing became an oasis," said Agudelo. "It was a safe space where I could turn. I could go into my own notebook or I could turn to these great works of Spanish-language literature. Like so many others, it was a way to lift me up in dark times.”
When Agudelo moved to California at age 17, new avenues opened up for the self-proclaimed “artsy kid.” Arts programs were nascent in Colombia but in the U.S., she was able to major in theater and then journalism during college. Agudelo took any class she came across where she could express herself.
“What I quickly realized was that the stories we saw in the media about people like me — Latina and immigrants — were the same ones. It wasn’t positive. It wasn’t diverse,” Agudelo said.
To flip the script on the stories being told, the Los Angeles resident decided it would have to be her who told them and gave other writers the space to do the same through her own magazine, Alegría. The word means “joy,” a reflection of the uplifting stories on Latinas that Agudelo wanted to share.
For nine years, Alegría has profiled Latina writers, filmmakers, activists, educators, and thinkers. It has covered men, too, though women — who are less frequently the subjects of media coverage — are often the focus. The magazine is available via subscription and for purchase in bookstores around the U.S. Its articles are in Spanish and English.
More recently, the publication has expanded into broader community offerings. It now runs a free mobile library in a converted yellow van that parks itself at cultural events, women’s festivals, and women-run markets around Southern California. In the middle of the pandemic, Agudelo also embarked on another effort: creating her own publishing division to distribute the works of first-time writers.
“The library is bright yellow so people are drawn to posting it on Instagram. It has classic books many people already know, such as those by Gabriel García Márquez. But it also has titles that are lesser-known, like rare books from the 1900s that I have found in shops in Colombia,” says Agudelo.
The publishing division, Alegría Publishing, focuses largely on poetry.
“Most traditional publishers are looking for young adult novels. Poetry is so hard to get published and it’s mostly being done by indie presses like us,” Agudelo, 40, says. “Our writers are all women of color. They are people I’ve connected with on social media and through mutual networks. They’re women you don’t get to read in mainstream publishing.”
“It’s so hard if you go the more traditional or mainstream route with these books. You have to submit to journals and contests, you have to have a manuscript, you have to send in query letters — many of them — and getting an agent to represent you is so extremely competitive and leaves so many voices out. It’s a daunting process,” Agudelo says of the publishing project, which currently has more than 30 titles under its belt. “So there’s absolutely nothing like helping a woman achieve her dream of publishing her first book.”
She’s also mentoring the next generation, through regular meetings with new authors via the Alegría Writing Collective for Latinx writers. This fall, Alegría will also launch a new literary magazine that will focus more exclusively on nonfiction.
“It’s a huge privilege to be able to nurture, produce, and create these beautiful articles, magazine issues, and books,” Agudelo says. “I hope we are opening doors for more people to do the same. The more diverse voices out there, the better.”