The Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference Offers Great Panels & Intimate Setting

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago

Once, I attended a large conference for educators, and when I approached the keynote speaker to ask a question, handlers surrounded her and ushered her away. I bring this up because the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference was the opposite experience. The conference, held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on September 27, was an intimate affair, meaning the well-known agents, editors, and authors were *right there* and accessible. Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago posed for pictures. Meg Medina paused in the hallway to sign books. Conference-goers lunched at small tables with Stacy Whitman from Tu Books and Adriana Dominguez from Full Circle Literary. How cool, right?

The conference, in its third year, was developed by Dominguez, Marcela Landres, and Nora de Hoyos Comstock, the founder of Las Comadres para las Americas to “provide unpublished Latino writers with access to published Latino authors as well as agents and editors who have a proven track record of publishing Latino books.” The one-day event offered panels, one-on-one critiques, a pitch slam, and a lunch-time speech by keynote speaker Esmeralda Santiago, who told her own publishing story and emphasized the discipline needed to be a professional writer. Books of all the presenters were also available from La Casa Azul, a New York City bookstore that specializes in Latino Literature.

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Author Meg Medina

Here were some of the highlights:

Author Meg Medina, winner of the Pura Belpré Award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, emphasized the importance of diversity in children’s literature. “We’re looking at a diverse set of kids in the (school) seats, so we need a diverse set of books.” She added that Latin@ books are not only for Latin@s: “Our books matter to all kids of all cultures.”

In terms of craft, Medina told writers to put their efforts into creating great work, not a great platform. The writing comes first. She also said she is not a methodical planner. Instead, she follows her character–she lets the characters speak to her–as she is writing and often asks, “What are you really afraid of? What’s really the problem?” When creating an antagonist, writers should “create a worthy opponent, a layered opponent. Don’t create a stereotype, especially for the bad guy.”

Medina spoke at a later panel with our own Lila Quintero Weaver, author of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. During that session, moderated by Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor of School Library Journal’s reviews, Lila spoke about her non-traditional publishing route that led her to become an accidental author. Her graphic novel was originally a college project that eventually landed on the desk of the University of Alabama Press editors. Lila said she couldn’t think of a single disappointment in publishing so far and encouraged writers to see the process as an opportunity to grow, not just get published.

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Meg Medina, Lila Quintero Weaver, and Shelley Diaz

Here are Lila’s thoughts after the conference:

“One of the exceptional values of conferences like Comadres is what they offer over social media alone. You can share a table at lunch, laugh together, chat about life beyond writing, and listen to the same speaker in the same moment. It’s the magic of synergy, which in the case of Latin@s comes with extra simpatico in the sauce! I returned home with a pocketful of business cards, and my Twitter feed lit up with Latin@ conversations on multiple topics. Let’s not forget the opportunity to discover new writers. My Goodreads update will soon reflect that fact. I wasn’t seeking representation or editorial feedback, but those opportunities were present at the conference too, another BIG reason for attending. So yes, my experience boils down to making great connections with Latin@ writers, the kind that endure if you work on them.”

For those seeking representation and editorial feedback, we have good news. Agents and editors said they want more diverse titles, but they said they’ve seen too many memoirs and depressing stories cross their desks. They would, however, like to see more young adult manuscripts with Latin@ protagonists. Nancy Mercado, editorial director at Scholastic said she’d love a Latino Cheaper by the Dozen, and Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor at Atria/Simon & Schuster, said she’s hoping to see rich stories about immigrant children raised without their families in the U.S.

Organizers said attendance at this year’s conference doubled from last year, a great sign that the event will be around for years to come.

Click here for another report on the conference, and click here for more  information about Las Comadres.

Comadres y Compadres: A Guest Blogger Reports

By Yadhira Gonzalez-Taylor

An eclectic group of writers, editors, and publishers, most of Latino heritage, gathered at Las Comadres y Compadres 2nd Annual Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on Saturday, October 5, 2013.

I am fairly new to creative writing, having just published an illustrated children’s book, Martina Finds a Shiny Coin. I networked, made new friends, and was impressed with the panels, which offered a wealth of information for writers at any stage of their writing careers. Panels ranged from self-publishing to presenting quality proposals for agents and major publishing houses. They had great craft shops on creating literature of all genres and for all ages.

The conference focused on the need for Latin@ literature and how Latin@s are underrepresented as an ethnic group in this industry. We live in the most diverse nation in the world, yet we are underrepresented in the stories we read to ourselves and our children and grandchildren. Even more alarming is the fact that, in the age of diversity and equal opportunity employment, we are underrepresented in the editing, publishing, and promotional arms of the literary industry.

At the conference, representatives from Random House, editors, and small press publishers all seemed to have the same message for the aspiring and published authors—there is an open invitation to produce quality material that suits the beautiful blend that is the Latino culture. Latin@ writers of all genres are invited to produce quality fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and children’s literature geared toward a population that is thriving and growing more each day in the United States.

As a writer and attorney working with at risk-youth in New York City, I see it as my Martina Shiny Coinresponsibility to produce this literature.

As a mother of three children, I have felt frustrated at not finding literature that reflects them or me. By pure coincidence, what began as an afternoon project with my five-year-old became a retelling of my very favorite Caribbean folktale, La Cucarachita Martina y el Raton Perez. One day, my husband asked me if there were any Puerto Rican folktales I could share with her, and immediately la cucarachita Martina came to mind. I heard it a thousand times growing up and even participated in my kindergarten class’s rendition of the fable/folktale.

I frequently told my daughter the original version, or at least what I remembered of it, that my grandmother recited to me when I was growing up in rural Caguas, Puerto Rico. When we traveled to my grandmother’s funeral in 2011, my daughter, then three, asked me if a tiny house nestled in the mountains was Martina’s. Of course, I told her it was, but explained that Martina was very busy and could not have visitors.

After telling the story many times, we sat and rewrote it, adding all sorts of ideas that popped into our heads. We made Martina a cellist because my daughter is a cellist. We made her an avid reader, and a dancer, and a singer of bomba y plena. We sent Martina on a journey of self-discovery after she found the shiny coin. We based Martina’s world in my world, the place where I lived for many years, Parcelas Viejas, in El Barrio Borinquen, Caguas, PR.

The book carries the folktale’s original message of self-acceptance no matter what. The story also sends the message to appreciate all gifts, not just the ones that make you look good. Of course, this is not just a message for Latin@ children but for all children!

In addition to writing Latin@ children’s literature, I am also compelled to seek out and promote contemporary authors who are producing similar literature.

It is a fact that communities thrive economically when residents invest in local business. There are many ways to do this, including visiting small bookstores like La Casa Azul in El Barrio NYC, which caters to our cultural needs. Other ways include supporting and attending Latin@ author readings and signings, or donating to, or volunteering for literary organizations like Las Comadres or any other non-for-profit organization that furthers the mission of promoting Latin@ literature.

We must commit to investing in Latin@ literature for our own sake and the literacy of our children.

YadhiraYadhira Gonzalez-Taylor is a public service attorney working with at-risk youth in NYC. Before working with young people she worked as prosecutor for Bronx County.  Martina Finds a Shiny Coin is her first children’s book. It was illustrated by Alba Escayo, a Spanish Artist who has ancestral roots in Cuba. Yadhira lives with her family in New York.  Follow her on twitter at @ygonzaleztaylor or Martina the character on twitter at @martinascoin.