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Author Celia Pérez on challenging assumptions about what it means to grow up Latino

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What does it mean to grow up Latino in small-town New Mexico? Author Celia Perez says she writes to challenge assumptions about that. In her work, she creates multi-dimensional communities.

CELIA PEREZ: In media, I think we're typically represented as, you know, that were big and boisterous. And there is this extended family of abuelos and aunts and uncles and cousins. And that wasn't my experience growing up.

SUMMERS: And in her new book "Tumble," Celia Perez explores just that. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PEREZ: Thank you. I'm happy to be back.

SUMMERS: So in this book, when we first meet Adela Ramirez, who's the main character, she is having breakfast and bonding over luchadores and wrestling with her stepdad, Alex. Her mom is pregnant with a new baby, and Alex wants to officially adopt Addie. Tell us some more about Addie.

PEREZ: So Addie is a 12-year-old who lives in a small town in New Mexico. And she lives with her mom and her stepfather. Her stepfather and mom have recently married, and she has never really thought about her biological father before. Her stepfather makes this pretty life-changing proposal, and that prompts her to start thinking about who this person is. She has no memory of meeting him and doesn't know his identity. So that sort of kicks off this journey that we go on with this person who's trying to figure out who - you know, who she is in the context of who her father is, who this unknown figure in her life is. And so we follow her through her story as she discovers who he is and realizes that she comes from this background of Mexican American wrestlers, luchadores, and tries to make a connection with her father and with this extended family that she meets.

SUMMERS: And wrestling plays such a big part of this story. I got to ask you, were you a wrestling fan growing up?

PEREZ: I was a huge wrestling fan. I was, like, obsessive about wrestling. It's funny because writing this book, I looked back on one of my diaries from when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and it was pretty much all just recaps of weekend wrestling shows. So, yes, I just wanted to kind of revisit this thing that was such a big part of my childhood.

SUMMERS: Did you have a favorite wrestler growing up?

PEREZ: Oh, yeah. I had a lot of favorites. There was a family of wrestlers in Texas, the Von Erichs, and the oldest brother, Kevin, was my favorite. He wrestled barefoot, and I always thought that was pretty cool.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREZ: And he had brothers, and his father was a wrestler. And they were probably my very favorites.

SUMMERS: Now, I don't want to give away too many of the secrets in your book, but the other thing that came through really strongly in here was there's - this is also a story about women in wrestling, and I love that. What made you want to explore that?

PEREZ: Yeah. You know, when I start writing, I don't typically start with, you know, a list of things that I definitely want to hit on. I like to think that what happens throughout the story just kind of comes organically as I'm writing. And one of the people that Addie meets, her abuela, her grandmother, Rosie, who was a professional wrestler - you know, women have been involved in wrestling for, you know, forever, for as long as men. But as is usually the case, they don't typically get the press or the respect that men get. And so I thought it would be interesting to bring in these characters that are also very, very central to wrestling and give her, you know, a view of this thing that is so much a part of this family that she's never known.

SUMMERS: This is all happening at a moment in Addie's life - she's in middle school, in seventh grade. And that's a point where kids are really starting to come into their own and differentiate themselves from their parents. And she sees, throughout the course of this book, that the grown-ups in her life - they also have faults and fears, and they don't always have all the answers or not the right answers.

PEREZ: You know, it's funny. When I write, I always see myself as both the kid and the adult because I think I am both of those. I like to write adult characters that don't have all the answers, that admit that they are wrong because I think that is a realistic portrayal of adulthood. And I know as a parent, sometimes it's hard to admit those things to my child.

SUMMERS: Oh, yeah.

PEREZ: You know, I was wrong. You were right. And kids - you know, I think kids definitely pick up on that. I remember being a kid and picking up on those things. And so I try to write adult characters that I think are realistic and are flawed and reflect reality.

SUMMERS: The other thing that plays a really big role in this story is the library. And I know that you are a librarian. And Addie and her best friend kind of experience the magic of the library, the types of things you can uncover when you go. What made that such an important place in this book?

PEREZ: So in this story, they visit the historical society in their town, and they learn about what a historical society is and what special collections are and what archives are. And I think all of that - like, the exploration and the process of discovery for them - was fun to write. But it also served as, I think, kind of a lesson in learning more about what cultural centers like archives and museums - what they do in our society. And I think it's a way for me to kind of bring up questions about whose stories get told and what gets preserved. So one of the things that Addie does, not to give away too much of the story, is she adds something to her town's historical society that wasn't there before and that she thought was an important story to have included.

SUMMERS: When you thought about putting this book together, who were you keeping in mind that you would hope would pick it up one day and read it?

PEREZ: I'm always, I think, in part, writing to - for the kid that I was, who was always reading, reading, reading and not seeing characters that look like me in stories. And so when I write now, I think that is usually who I am thinking of as well today - is kids who are looking for stories that represent them, maybe culturally or racially. I don't know if normalize is the word, but when I write, I think I'm always kind of in the back of my head thinking about normalizing stories that include brown characters but that aren't necessarily about struggle or about identity specifically.

SUMMERS: We have been talking with Celia Perez. Her latest book is "Tumble." Thank you so much.

PEREZ: Thank you so very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Karen Zamora
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.

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