Latina author Alias Valdes-Rodriguez

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Journalist and Latina author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez talks about her New York Times best seller book The Dirty Girls Social Club which looks at the complexities of Latina American women and their heritage. She also shares her thoughts on her latest book, Playing With Boys, which explores the friendship of three Latina women conquering relationships, stereotypes, and their own insecurities.

>> José Cárdenas:
Good evening. I'm José Cárdenas. Welcome to "Horizonte." Meet the first Hispanic woman to hold the position of Presiding Judge of Maricopa County Superior Court. Hear her plans for the future of the county's judicial system. And Latina author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez talks about the personal and professional road that led her to a best selling novel all next on "Horizonte." Maricopa County Superior Court Barbara Rodriguez-Mundell was recently selected as the new presiding judge of the fifth largest Superior Court in the nation. Mundell will be Maricopa County's first female and first Hispanic presiding judge. Her experience brings a vision for the court system at all levels. Joining us tonight is Maricopa County Superior Court judge and presiding Judge-Designate Barbara Rodriguez-Mundell. Judge, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte."

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Thank you.

>>José Cárdenas:
By "designate," you actually take over this position in July, is that right?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
That's right.

>>José Cárdenas:
As I understand from the newspaper articles, the reason that you were asked to -- or that they made the announcement early was so that you could have a transition period for what is truly a major undertaking?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell: That's exactly right. I'm in training.

>>José Cárdenas: Well, as we mentioned, the fifth largest Superior Court, tell us what that means in concrete numbers.

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Well, actually, that means that we have 91 judges. We have about 40 commissioners. We also have about 2,000 staff, which includes our probation officers. We have over 125,000 filings per year in our court system. And the presiding judge also oversees the 23 municipal court judges and their courts as well as the 23 justices of the peace.

>>José Cárdenas:
And you got a budget that's how big?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
It's -- if you read the newspaper it says it's $198 million but when I talk to judge Campbell, he tells me it's $177 million.

>>José Cárdenas:
So your first job will be to find the missing 20 million or so there.

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
That's right.

>>José Cárdenas:
Before we talk about your vision for the Superior Court, let's talk a little bit about your background. One of those newspaper articles you referred to talked about learning the value of acknowledge education by picking onions. Can you explain that to us?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
It was only on one occasion. It was enough for me. I'm a quick study. My dad brought this idea to us that maybe we should go out and pick onions. My parents were migrant workers when they were growing up, and --

>>José Cárdenas:
You were born here in Maricopa County.

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
I am, I am a native as are my parents. I grew up in South Phoenix. My dad told me how much of a picnic it was going to be to pick onions, thought I would enjoy it and built it up. We go out that day, got up at 3:00 in the morning, go out to the fields at 4:00 in the morning, everybody has their car headlamps turned toward the field so we can see the field and we start. And I thought we could leave whenever we wanted, as soon as I learned the value of an education we could get up and leave. Well, no, we had committed to finishing maybe three or four rows, and when I learned that, I started to cry because the work was so hard, and we finished the rows, the whole family, the three kids and my two parents, and we finished all of that, and then we each got $5. That's what we earned. My dad didn't take a cut in this. I don't think my you mother did either. Each of the kids got $5 and he took us to a store to buy lunch, and it was all gone. And it really surprised me how quickly the money went and we had worked so hard.

>>José Cárdenas:
And this is what propelled you to get the high school education that -- as I understand your parents were not able to get?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
My parents didn't even get an elementary education diploma. They had to drop out of school so that they could help support their families, each of them are the oldest in their families, and they dropped out of school and started working in the fields to help support the rest of the family.

>>José Cárdenas:
You went on to ASU law school?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
I did.

>>José Cárdenas:
When did you graduate?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
1981.

>>José Cárdenas:
And what did you do after that?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Well, I started in corporate practice with Swanson's ice cream company a long time ago. I worked there for a couple years a. Then I went into private practice doing primarily workers compensation. And as I progressed, I then became an administrative law judge, bake became a commission inner juvenile court and then a judge in 1991.

>>José Cárdenas:
Now, you've been involved in a number of community activities, including president of Los be a raw God owes. Would you talk about that a little bit?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
That's a feather in my cap. I think that that that gave me tremendous experience in working with the community. It was a very collegial group, and we tried our best to help the underprivileged in our community, and it really opened my eyes to the bias that was out there.

>>José Cárdenas:
Los ABRIGADOS, the local Hispanic bar association?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Exactly.

>>José Cárdenas:
You are undoubtedly qualified as many of the articles said for this job just based on your experience and your credentials. But the fact is, you come to the court with a perspective that's different than other presiding judges have had simply by virtue of the fact you are female and Hispanic. How do you think that impacts what you will do as presiding judge?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Well, I hope that people focus on the fact that I have been on the bench for 15 years and that every presiding judge that has come before me as always tried to do their best. I don't have any doubt about that. But I do think that my background brings a different perspective and that maybe that will direct where our resources are going to be focused. For example, on the interpreters, that we need in our court system. I know judge Campbell has tried to do all he can to get the interpreters that we need because our growing population has changed dramatically in its demographics, and we need to provide those interpreters so that all people have access to our courts.

>>José Cárdenas:
Before being named as the next presiding judge, you've done a lot in this area of use of Spanish language in the courtroom. Can you elaborate on that n particular the DUI project you have?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Yes a couple years ago I was approached by one of of our probation officers. They had gotten a grant, a federal grant, to conduct a Spanish speaking DUI court so that everything would be conducted in Spanish, and it's a therapeutic court. It's not a court of record. And so as a result, we can conduct it in Spanish. And it really is very effective to let the litigants who come before you know that you have the same language, the same culture and the same traditions they have, and it's very important to let them know that I am able to communicate with them directly so that they can talk to me and let me know what it is that they find to be a hardship or why it is that they cannot comply, and I'm very proud to say that we have a very successful clientele. Most of the people who come before us are -- graduate from the program, and they are more successful than the English speaking court DUI.

>>José Cárdenas:
As I understand it, the constitution requires that the proceedings of a regular court proceeding be in English, is that right?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
That's right. As long as it's a proceeding that is being put on the record it needs to be conducted in English.

>>José Cárdenas:
Some of the other things that you've talked about doing during your tenure include the over hall of family court. As I understand, this was the result of an audit commissioned by the chief justice?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
That's right. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Jones issued a mandate to our current presiding judge, Colin Campbell, and asked him to implement a total extensive reorganization of our case management system in family court cases. In our current system there was a lot of delay and backlog built into the system. There was also an overuse of some of our ancillary services. So as a result, a lot of people were not getting the services that they needed and certainly not in a timely manner. So as a result, this audit was conducted, and it showed us a number of defects we had in our system and we're currently developing under our current presiding judge a family court, norm Davis, a plan whereby we are going to implement a judicial officer early on in the filing of a case of a family court case with a view towards permanently resolving these cases as soon as possible.

>>José Cárdenas:
And another part of your vision for the Superior Court is a mental health court. Can you tell us what you have in mind there?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Yes, because I just came off of the presiding judge probate and mental health assignment, that is one of my pet projects, and that is where I want to merge under one umbrella the mental health civil side of things with the criminal mental health side of things. We need to be able to monitor the court orders that have been implemented on the civil commitments so that these folks who are in need of medication and monitoring are monitored appropriately so that then they don't end up in our criminal justice system.

>>José Cárdenas:
And also in broader sense than what you have been doing with DUI, you've emphasized that community outreach is going to be a big part of your tenure as presiding judge.

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Yes, it is.

>>José Cárdenas:
In what way?

>> Barbara Rodriguez
Mundell: I want to engage our community in a continuous dialogue to tell me how well or how not so well the court is doing its job. I want to know if the court is delivering justice in a swift, meaningful manner, if we're not doing that, I want them to feel free to tell me about that I want to talk to focus groups. I want to talk to different people in the community, whether it's minorities, the elderly, the mentally ill, the business folks. I want to talk to all aspects of our community so that I get good, honest feedback about how well we are doing our job.

>>José Cárdenas:
How do you envision actually accomplishing this?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
There are a number of avenues that can be taken, and by hope that by educating the public about what we do and going out and talking to these folks that I could set some feedback that would help us improve our system.

>>José Cárdenas:
Judge, you are obviously concerned about questions of fairness in the courts.

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
I am.

>>José Cárdenas:
You've served on a gender bias task force a number of years ago, and I understand there's some fairness studies that are either under way or being contemplated. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

>> Barbara Rodriguez Mundell:
Yes, I can. Judge Campbell has enormous insight and a vision, and he has employed an attorney, Norene sharp, who used to work for the governor, to come in and do some justice studies. Hopefully we will be able to implement in different divisions of the court a study whereby we will know how the litigants and the consumers of that particular division, what their vision or their perspective of the court is, whether they were treated fairly, how did they get the information that they needed to access the courts. There are sufficient interpreters in the court system so that all people can access the court? It will be a survey type of justice study that will be used so that we can monitor and track whether we are -- whether we are delivering justice in a timely and efficient manner.

>>José Cárdenas:
Judge, you have a big task ahead much you. Best of luck. Hope you have to to have you back on the show to talk about progress you're making. The "New York Times" says Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez leads the way in fiction. Her newest book "Playing with Boys" is being sold in bookstores around the country. I had the opportunity to sit down with Alisa and talk about her success as an author. We're delighted to have you here. A lot of your writing has been influenced by your own experiences. So let's start with your background. Give us a brief overview.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Okay, sure. I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My dad is from Cuba, and he ended up there when he was 15 years old. He came with operation Peter pan when they sent all the kids by themselves. And my mother is, I don't know, fifth or sixth generation New Mexican. I went to college in Boston. So I studied music at Berkeley College of music there, studied jazz saxophone, started writing music reviews there and loved right writing. I have always loved writing. When I was 14 I new I wanted to be a novelist. I got a master's from Columbia University in journalism because I want to have a career writing for newspapers at that time.

>>José Cárdenas:
And they were you were going to go into writing novels?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
I have always been doing it on the side. When I would get home from work and just didn't think anybody would want to read it. But since I can remember, that's what was fun for me, was just sort of writing.

>>José Cárdenas:
You didn't think anybody would want to read it but your first book, dirty girls social club has been a runaway success.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
No one is more surprised about that than I am.

>>José Cárdenas:
Give us a brief summary of the theme of the book.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
It's a book about six women. They're all 28 years old when we meet them in the book, but they met as freshmen at Boston University. They were all journalism and communications students and they're all Latinas but they're very, very different. They come from -- varied different backgrounds as you possibly could but they all bonded over the fact the fact that they were Latinas in college. They've made a vow to get together twice a year every year for the rest of their lives and we're catching them during one of the times when they're getting together and seeing where they are lives have gone.

>>José Cárdenas:
You said you were surprised at how successful the book has been. Why is that?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Why was I surprised?

>>José Cárdenas:
Yes.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Oh, I don't know, probably just basic insecurity that any creative person has, but also I just -- what's been amazing, it's not surprise, but what's been really touching for me -- I wrote the book that I wanted to read but couldn't find, basically. I bought lots of Latina authors, but found experiences more or less that were more similar maybe to my grandmother's experience or my dad's experience but nothing that was sort of Bridget Jones Diary-ish. But as I go out on tour, and I'm on tour now, I'm meeting hundreds of women who are coming up to me and thanking me for writing about women like them. So there were a lot of people who wanted to read a book like this and couldn't find it.

>>José Cárdenas: And they're not all Latinas.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Not all Latinas but definitely a large percentage is Latinas. But not everybody. I think all good stories -- not that I'm saying that mine are good, but all stories much tend to touch people are universal and human beings in my opinion are not all that different when it comes to the issues that affect our live the most like love and career and all the sorts of things I'm writing about.

>>José Cárdenas:
In fact, you're talking about kind of the universal appeal that your books have. You're also very concerned about being pigeon hold or labeled. Let's talk about that a little bit. Labeled as just quote-unquote a Latina author.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Yeah. Some people misunderstand this. My feeling about that label changes depending on who is using it and why. If that makes sense. It would be like asking Jerry fine felled about how he feels about being called a Jew by Mel Brooks versus called a Jew by Hitler. It's going to be very different meanings of the same word. So when a program like yours calls me a Latina author, 'I am fine with it because I know you understand the diversity of people that can fall beneath that umbrella. But when I see it -- for example, the New York press newspaper last week, I was in New York, and they ran a blush saying, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is bringing Chiclet -- is bringing the third world exactly what it needs, Chiclet, and they said I would be reading in Spanish. I could read in Spanish, but it would be very, very painful for people to listen to. I don't write in Spanish. I don't know what connection she thought I had to the third world as someone born and raised in the United States who is writing in English and went to Columbia.

>>José Cárdenas: Your books have sold very well in Europe.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
My books have sold in 11 countries around the world, including Korea and China, and Iceland and Finland, and I'm writing about American women who happen to have Spanish surnames. So there is -- there's still that sort of instinctive stereotyping that happens on the parts of people who haven't read the book. She hadn't read the book. She didn't know. She took one look at this long hyphenated Spanish name and made assumptions. This is also fascinating to me that in the United States we're allowing our cities to be American with Spanish names. Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Francisco or our states, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, but somehow something's happening where we're not necessarily allowing our people to be fully American with a Spanish name yet.

>>José Cárdenas:
How so.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Just the assumption that -- well, you see it a lot in the press that Hispanic or Latina will often be used as a synonym for things that it might not be a synonym for, like Spanish speaking. I know lots of Latinas that don't speak Spanish. Or immigrant, I know lots of Latinos who are not immigrants. Those stories -- it will say AOL is reaching out to Latinos. What they mean is they have Spanish-language offerings. So there's some sloppiness in the reporting. And some of those immigrant stories are going to apply as well to people from non-Latin countries as they do -- like bilingual education or the stress on a child of having to translate for their parent in a hospital situation. I've seen that story presented as a Latino story. It's not -- language is not genetic. I'm the daughter of a sociologist so I'm thinking about these things all the time.

>>José Cárdenas:
At the same time, while you object to being labeled and limited in that way, you have focused some of your work, for example, at the Boston Globe, on what other people would say are Latino issues. Tell us about.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Okay. I would say not that -- if there's an undercurrent or a theme to my life, it's fairness, sort of honesty and fairness, and I worked at newspapers that -- at least at the Boston Globe at the time that was ignoring its Spanish speaking population and sort of its poor population, no matter what skin color they were or background they came from.

>>José Cárdenas:
more of a class issue.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Class issue. Boston is a very class-oriented town. There's the Globe and then there's the Herald, which is the working people's paper. But I did feel sort of compelled to be a bit of of an advocate for the Latino population there. Which was very different from the Latino population where I grew up. In New Mexico, very few Hispanics speak Spanish anymore, because it's by and large not an immigrant group. People have been there for 500 years. In Boston, it was first and second generation Puerto Rican and Dominican, almost completely, and I would sit in meetings where people would look at the census, the editors, and say we have to reach out to these people, look at this growing population and the solution they came up with was to run wire stories on Mexico. Less than 1% of the Hispanic population in Massachusetts was Mexican at the time. The conclusion they came to at the end of their experiment was those people don't read. You know, so to me it was sort of frustrating that there was a lack of understanding of the diversity and the issue and the complexity of who we are, and so I'm trying to address in that my fiction in a way that's fun for people, because I don't think it gets across very well if it's -- sound heavy handed or depressing or something. So -- and people react much better when they meet individuals. So I wanted to take a black Colombian and have someone meet her as a human being and learn about her life. I wanted to take a Cuban Jew and have someone meet her and learn about her life to show that we can be very diverse.

>>José Cárdenas:
And you had said earlier, in discussion we had before we did this interview here, that the book, the first book in particular, reflects your life's experiences. Tell us a little bit about that, and particularly the story is that you wrote the book in six days sitting in Starbucks. Is that true?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Mythology. No, it's not true. It was fast. I had 100 pages of the book done and didn't show anyone. I got a literary agent, who was trying to sell a music book, a non-fiction music book, and some editors read it, liked my writing style and said does she have a novel? She sounds like a novelist. So at that point when my agent said they don't want your non-fiction book, but they want to know if you have a novel, I was so excited somebody wanted to read my fiction because I just had been putting it away -- I went away -- I say I went away, because I had a baby at the house, a newborn baby, and I took my laptop and went to a Starbucks so that I could concentrate. I stayed there probably 12 or 13 hours a day. They thought I was crazy. There's that lady again with that laptop. Finished the book in about two weeks from that point.

>>José Cárdenas:
There was also an interesting story ho how you decided on St. Martin's Press. Tell us about that.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Yeah, I turned the book into my agent, she sent it out on Friday, and by Monday she had an offer from one publisher to make all the other publishers go away. As it turned out there were five that wanted the book and it was a three-day bidding war with these five publishers. I didn't go with the highest bidder. I went with the second highest bidder, because the highest bidder sort of saw me as an ethnic writer. St. Martin's press said you're a mainstream American writer who's writing about people anybody can relate to to and they happen to be Latino, and I loved that, because if if you look at "Sex in the City," Candice Bushnell is a mainstream writer who's writing about a group of non-Hispanic white women who everyone can relate to. So in the same way, nobody is saying Candice Bushnell white woman writing writing for white woman, St. Martins at that time was not saying Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Latina writer for Latinas. It's kind of an illness in our country that we like to do this to everybody. So I was very comfortable going with St. Martin's Press.

>>José Cárdenas:
Cultural issues, so to speak, continue to arise in your life in different ways. We were talking a little bit about a little about your husband's experiences with his family, which I thought was fascinating. Why don't you share that with us?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
My husband, Patrick Rodriguez, is a writer. He was a newspaper writer and magazine editor at the time I quit my job in newspapers to go write novels. And he very gamely quit his job, too, and said, "Great, let's go live in the mountains the way you want to. You're the best writer I know and we'll let you write a book." Which is amazing. And then the book sold, and Patrick kind of have had to take -- his career had to take a backseat to mine for the time being because I was on book tour and the book was out and I had to come up with another book. So he has been a stay-at-home dad to our 3-year-old son for three years. I mean, really, that's what he's done.

>>José Cárdenas:
How has his family reacted.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
He is from a very traditional Mexican-American family from Southern California. I say "traditional" in that they have certain ideas about what's appropriate for a man to do and what's appropriate for a woman to do.

>>José Cárdenas:
This they do not think appropriate --

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
They do not think appropriate. They've come around a little bit, but at first we would hear, Mijo, what are you doing washing her clothes? It was like this sadness. Why is he doing woman's work? They thought it was so degrading. Which was kind of hard for me, too, because you want your family, even your in-laws, to be proud of you when something like this happens, and there was this kind of sense of, Oh, poor Patrick, you know, you're so successful, poor Patrick. He has been fine with it. They're adjusting.

>>José Cárdenass:
There is so much to talk about. I do want to make sure we talk about your newest book, "Playing with Boys." Tell us about it.

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
"Playing with Boys" is another book about women and friendship, but I wanted to take a look at women who become friends in the workplace as adults, as opposed to in college where it's somewhat easier. I think the older we get, the old harder it gets to make new friends, and I also wanted to talk a little bit about the entertainment industry in L.A. because my first book was optioned for a movie so I got to inside studios and see how these meetings happen and -- So it takes place in Los Angeles. It's an actress looking for a movie. It's a screenwriter looking for an actress. And it's an artist manager looking for both. So they meet at the beginning of the book and sort of how they get a movie made.

>>José Cárdenas:
And you had mentioned before your writing style, can you tell us briefly how you define your own writing style?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Oh, dear. I think it's kind of quirky. I hope, funny. I like to think it's funny. But kind of light and easy to understand. Not that I can't write curly, complicated baroque sentences, I can, but newspapers taught me the value of writing clearly and concisely as far as reaching a lot of people. My goal as an author is not to have people showering me with praise for how smart I am. My goal is to reach people and touch their lives. So...

>>José Cárdenas:
Alisa, we're almost out of time. One last thing. Rumor has it that your first book, "Dirty Girls Social Club," may soon be a TV series? Is that true?

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Yes, in the next month I am going to be meeting with, gosh, probably six or seven networks and cable stations to find out who is the appropriate -- who has the appropriate home for "Dirty Girls." They all want it for a TV series.

>>José Cárdenas:
Well, best of luck to you and thank you for joining us on us on "Horizonte."

>> Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez:
Thanks for having me.

>>José Cárdenas:
Pleased to have you. If you want to see a transcript of tonight's show or see what's coming up on "Horizonte," visit our website, www.azpbs.org and click on "Horizonte." I'm José Cárdenas. Have a good evening. That's our show for tonight.

Alisa Vladez-Rodriguez: Author;

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